MK2K: The Muse

by Raven Blackmane

 

October 29, 1999 CR.

James William Kerenson walked down the busy streets of downtown Metamor with his jacket hood up, his hands in his pockets and entirely too much on his mind. While those around him moved in twos, threes and roving packs from one nightspot to another, or stood chatting outside the bars, nightclubs and coffee shops, he walked alone, his eyes darting this way and that to take in his surroundings. He studied each person who passed him with careful scrutiny, quickly taking in height, build, color, dress and attitude before moving on to his next subject. All the while the wheels in his head spun like high-speed propellers, far faster than anyone would have expected of a young college student out walking on a Friday night. He wasn't looking for anyone in particular, nor was he paranoid.

He was just thinking about how he would describe the scene in his Great Metamorian Novel.

*The chill October wind blew around and through me as I walked the streets of the city,* he thought. *It was eleven, or a little past that, and while in most places it would be a time for closing up shop, here the nightlife was just beginning to heat up. They say that Metamor is the city that never sleeps, but she does seem to catch the odd cat-nap from time to time. Tonight it felt like she'd nodded off in a corner for a few hours and awakened refreshed and ready to party.*

In truth, James William Kerenson didn't have a Great Metamorian Novel. He didn't really even have a Great Metamorian Short Story. But he was working on that. It was just a matter of time -- well, time, effort, and a lot of cups of coffee at late hours of the evening after his homework was done.

His family called him Jamie, to distinguish him from his father, who was also named James. When he came to Metamor City and started college, he had begun introducing himself to people as Will, a name he thought more appropriate for a famous novelist. "J. William Kerenson" was a name that could sell books, or at least he hoped so. In any event, it was a relief just to get rid of "Jamie", whatever the excuse.

Will was really a pretty normal kid in most ways. Medium height. Blue-gray eyes. Sandy-brown hair that had finally given up on being blonde about five years back. He was slim, with a genetic predisposition toward scrawny, and had facial features that were slowly maturing from cute to fairly handsome. He wore jeans and skyball shoes, though he rarely played; sweaters in winter and short-sleeve plaid button-downs in the summer; and a short, even and slightly spiky haircut that had been in style about two years ago. He was the sort of fellow you could sit two chairs away from in class for an entire semester and never remember seeing him before in your life. Will had learned this in his attempts to pick up girls on campus.

He had come to the city two years ago from his hometown of Haverfield in order to become a great writer. Officially, of course, he had come here to attend college, at Empire University's School of Communications, but that was just a cover story to keep the checks coming from mom and dad. It was a "legitimate" career path, in their eyes, but being a journalist was about as close to being a writer as being a commercial skyship captain was to being a fighter pilot. It wasn't what Will wanted. Journalists sat in crowded bullpens day after day churning out dreary, lifeless prose that would be read by the locals and then recycled the next morning. Writers had the potential to see their work read by millions and remembered for years, decades, even centuries. They could look back at the end of their careers and know that they had contributed something special, something meaningful, to the history of the world. A writer's job was to put his fingers to the wrist of his culture and record that pulse for posterity. That was Will's dream, his vision -- and, if he could be forgiven a little irrational enthusiasm, his destiny.

Unfortunately, one's destiny can often seem rather elusive. Will had discovered, even before coming to the City, that his muse was, like all muses, an incredibly finicky and temperamental mistress. He'd had several good short stories over the years, a few of them bordering on brilliant, and some of them had even been published; but these gifts from his imaginary goddess of inspiration were, in truth, frustratingly infrequent. She would hang around and whisper in his ears for hours, or days, or weeks, and then suddenly go off on an extended vacation without informing Will of her whereabouts or when she planned to return. It was very much a love/hate relationship, from Will's point of view, not to mention on-again/off-again. Right now it was off-again, so Will was walking the streets alone at night, composing scenes in his head in hopes of enticing her back to him. Failing that, maybe he could convince one of the real Muses to take him on as a pupil, out of pity if nothing else. It was hard to believe that the actual spirits of inspiration could be any crueler to him than the metaphorical one inside his head.

Will grinned at that thought, remembering a lesson from one of the many books he'd studied on how to be an author: *When writing fiction that incorporates the magical or the supernatural, never use metaphor. Your readers will either take your metaphors literally or take your spells and spirits as metaphorical. Either way you're in trouble.*

It was a good lesson, but mostly aimed at writers in more mundane communities than Metamor City. Magic was as real and alive in the world now as it had ever been, if not more so, but it wasn't distributed evenly. Growing up in Haverfield, in the remotest suburbs of Ellcaran, Will had never seen a wizard, a deva, a vampire, or anything of that sort. Here in Metamor they were in every club and alley.

Will was in the process of debating whether he would classify that last thought as literal or hyperbole when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

He stopped, turned, and abruptly found himself face to face with a woman. She was young, maybe a little older than him, and about his height. Her hair was a wild, matted poof of mousy brown with shocks of gold running through it; it fell to just above her shoulders and flew outward about the same distance in every direction except straight up, giving it the look of a lion's mane. Her tight black leather pants contrasted with her rather mundane walking shoes, and the forest green turtleneck she wore didn't really seem to go with either of them. He couldn't see her face very well in the dim light of the street-lamps, but from what he saw she looked quite pretty. She was wearing a big, bright smile that was cheerful, inviting, and carried a few undertones that Will had seen in movies but had no personal experience with.

"Hey, tiger!" she said, her voice a purr that nicely matched her expression. "You busy tonight?"

For a young man who had spent the entire evening thinking about writing, Will was surprisingly at a loss for words. "Ah -- um ... n-no, not really..." he stammered, still trying to figure out if that expression was really what he thought it was. He was a writer, so naturally he was quite familiar with terms like "enticing", "sensual" and "seductive". He just wasn't used to seeing them up close.

The woman wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned forward a little. "Wanna be?" she asked.

Behind her, a passerby tripped over his own feet and went sprawling to the pavement, much to the amusement of his companions. Will barely noticed, certain other things looming a bit larger in his field of vision.

"Um ... ah ... hoo..." he said.

"Great! Come on, then." Taking him by the arm, she turned and began walking in the same direction he'd been going. Will followed without really thinking about it. His mind was in the middle of a rather sudden reboot and hadn't gotten around to reestablishing much more than the basic motor functions yet.

"Thanks a bunch for doing this," the girl said, sounding genuinely grateful. "Just keep walking and don't look back. Do you mind if I borrow your jacket, too? It'll help keep them from spotting us."

Something about that last bit set off alarm bells in Will's head. As verbal skills finally came back online, he managed, "Spotting us? Who?"

"Long story. Jacket, please." She stretched out a hand. Obediently, and somewhat numbly, Will took it off and handed it over. She quickly put it on, raised the hood and zipped it up as far as it would go.

"Perfect!" she said. "Warm, too. I like that. Now, put your arm around me and try to look snuggly." She demonstrated, sliding a hand around to his opposite side and pulling him toward her in a kind of sideways hug.

Will responded to the sudden squeeze by nearly jumping out of his skin.

"Take it easy!" she hissed. Then, more gently, "Jumpy, aren't you?"

"S-sorry," Will said, ducking his head. "It tickled."

"Aww," the woman cooed, as if she found the fact that he was ticklish to be completely adorable. "Sorry about that, tiger. Here, I'll put my hand a little lower this time." She repeated the motion, this time letting her hand settle over his belt. Sheepishly, he did likewise, and after a few awkward seconds they were walking down the street in a fairly comfortable embrace.

"See, isn't this nice?" she said, resting her head against his shoulder. "No tickling involved."

"I -- can't really complain," Will said, reaching for and nearly recovering the wry sense of humor that he liked to consider his trademark. "So, um ... I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?"

"I didn't."

In spite of himself, Will chuckled once at that. "Well, no, I realize that, but I was trying to be polite."

"It's Callie. What's yours?"

"Will."

"There's a difference between polite and pompous, Will. I think you were starting to drift from one to the other."

"Thanks for the tip." Will swallowed once and tried to will away the sudden burning in his cheeks (taking note of the pun in passing and filing it away for future use). "So, Callie, why are we doing this?"

"There are some guys out here looking for me that I'd like to avoid," she said, turning her head a little in either direction to get a better look at their surroundings. "They're looking for a woman by herself, so they're less likely to notice me this way. I hope you don't mind."

"Well ... it wasn't like I was doing much of anything else," Will admitted. "You're not in trouble with the cops, are you?"

Callie chuckled. "No, not with the cops. These guys are from Street-side."

Will swallowed again, this time trying to get rid of the lump that had suddenly begun to rise in his throat. He'd never been down to the Street -- the district of factories, warehouses and slums that made up the ground level of the city -- but he'd heard plenty of stories. You had to be resilient, stubborn or just plain mean to survive on the Street. Lots of its residents were all three.

And they were only one level above the Street right now, on one of the wide elevated walkways that wrapped around Metamor's enormous skyscrapers and flowed together to form a network of "city blocks" and open plazas, suspended in midair by a combination of clever engineering and careful enchantments. A thirty-second ride in a lift could put them in contact with all sorts of colorful people, the kind that made great literary characters but lousy acquaintances. Suddenly the downtown district didn't seem as safe as it had a few minutes ago.

"What should we do?" Will asked. "Should we try to find a cop?"

"Normally not a bad idea, but we'd better give it a pass in this case," Callie said. "I'll explain later, after we get out of this. For now just keep walking -- I'll steer us where we need to go."

They walked two more blocks like that, just moving casually among the crowds of people. Will desperately wanted to look around for any sign of their pursuers, but Callie insisted that he keep his eyes straight ahead or focused on her. Anything more would just draw attention to them.

After the second block they turned right, crossed two lanes of slow-moving skimmer traffic and ducked inside a nightclub that didn't have a line waiting to get in. The bouncer, who had just spilled his drink as they approached, was a bit distracted and waved them inside without even bothering to check their ID. The place was plenty crowded inside, though, and they were swiftly greeted by both a wall of people and the heavy, thunderous beat of moderately fast, moderately hardcore music. They squeezed and shimmied their way through the traffic on the dance floor to settle into one of the booths in a dimly lit corner of the room. At Callie's instruction, they sat together on the same side of the booth, facing away from the door. She snuggled up close to him and rested her head on his chest.

"If there is somebody following you, how will you see them coming?" Will asked, speaking directly into her ear in order to keep his voice down.

Callie gestured at the bar, off to their right. There was a mirrored wall behind it that gave a nice view of the front entrance. To the left of the bar was the exit to the building's interior, which on this floor was probably a shopping center.

"Good thinking," Will said.

"Experience," Callie replied.

Will wasn't sure he liked the implications of that.

After a few minutes their mysterious pursuers turned up. There were only four of them, but Will was quite sure he wouldn't want to get mixed up with them. They were stocky and muscular, dressed in leather jackets and adorned with far too much heavy gold jewelry to qualify as nice guys. Probably swoopies, based on what Will knew of such things. The fact that they were lutins just helped to round out the image they were trying to convey -- not that Will had anything against lutins in principle, but their species did seem rather appropriate in this case. Stereotypes didn't come into existence without at least *some* justification, after all.

"There's our guys," Callie murmured, so soft that Will almost didn't hear her over the pounding music. "No, don't look at them, look at me."

Will did so, taking the opportunity to examine her face again. If anything, there was less light in here than there had been outside, but he also had more time to look. He could make out large, expressive eyes, unblemished skin, a pert nose and a chin that was pointed without being jutting. Her cheekbones were high and moderately defined, her eyebrows were high and thin, and her mouth had a slight upturn at the left corner that gave it a cute, perpetually quirky look. Will mentally upgraded her from "quite pretty" to "beautiful".

While he was studying her, Callie was studying the newcomers, sneaking little glances at them over Will's shoulders while pretending to be focused on him. She leaned in close to him, running a hand over his cheek and down to the back of his neck, then leaned in as if to whisper seductively in his ear, in actuality to get a better look at her pursuers. Will was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable. This was the most attention he had ever received from a member of the opposite sex -- at least, since he'd gotten out of diapers -- and neither his mind nor his body was quite sure how to handle it. The fact that he knew it was an act didn't help matters much.

"What are they doing?" he whispered, trying to get his mind focused back on the imminent danger and off of the woman who was practically sitting in his lap.

"They're checking the dance floor," Callie said, her breath tickling his ear as she placed her mouth right in front of it. "One of 'em's taking the high ground over by the entrance ... two are down on the floor now, looks like they're checking on girls who are dancing alone. The fourth one ... uh oh."

"What?"

"He's checking the booths and tables."

"Would he recognize you?"

"Don't know. He's seen me before, but it's not always easy to tell faces apart if they aren't your race or species. It really depends on how much contact he's had with humans, and that's something I couldn't tell you."

That answer was less reassuring than Will really would have liked. "So what do we do?"

"Stick with the plan. They obviously aren't expecting me to be with anybody, or they would be taking a closer look at the couples on the dance floor." She drew back and looked him in the eyes. "Whatever happens, don't panic. Think you can handle that, Will?"

Taking a deep breath, Will nodded. "Yeah. I think so."

Callie smiled. "Good." Then she took his head in her hands and kissed him.

To his credit, Will did not panic. He was, however, so thoroughly surprised that his jaw dropped open, to which Callie responded by thrusting her tongue into his mouth. Will had been kissed on only a few occasions before, despite his good looks, and no woman had ever kissed him like this. In spite of all that, however, Will adapted with remarkable speed and was soon returning the kiss with equal enthusiasm, albeit far less skill. He wrapped his arms around her and drew her closer to himself, and for several long and glorious minutes the world fell away and there was nothing but her lips, her scent, her touch.

At last they parted, slowly, Callie drawing out his bottom lip before finally releasing it from between her own. Will took another long, deep breath to restore oxygen to the higher portions of his brain. "Wow," he breathed. "That was..." He shook his head slightly in wonder.

Callie smiled. "You catch on pretty quick for a beginner."

Will grinned. "Thanks." The grin abruptly slid off his face. "You knew I was a beginner?"

Callie put a finger to his bottom lip and playfully stuck out her tongue between her teeth. "You pay attention. I like that." She slid out of the booth and extended a hand to him. "They're gone. I think I'm safe for the time being. Thanks, I owe you one."

"It was my pleasure," Will said. "I mean, really my pleasure."

Callie grinned. "Two choices, tiger: I give you back your coat and keep on walking, or you show me where a girl can get a decent cup of coffee around here."

"Where's here?" Will asked.

"Twelfth and Green. Ring any bells?"

He smiled, glad to be the one calling the shots for a change. "I think I know a little place about a block from here..."

~0~

It was a pretty typical little independent coffee bar, the kind frequented mainly by writers, poets, art students and other quietly anti-establishment types. Will sometimes came here to study or write in hopes of giving his mind a change of scenery. The walls were painted a warm, rich reddish-brown, with maple trim, and decorated with abstract art that Will suspected was meant to be profound. He and Callie nursed a couple of cups of coffee and gazed at each other across a small table.

The lighting here was a warm, mellow golden hue, but it was bright enough for Will to once again reevaluate the girl sitting before him. His writer's brain ran over its earlier description of her to see if there was anything that needed revising.

*She was the strangest combination of beautiful and disheveled I had ever seen,* he thought, his mind quickly and instinctively converting his observations to past-tense narrative. *On the one hand, her makeup was perfect -- well, I really didn't know much about makeup, but whatever she was doing was working great for her -- and her clothes were clean and carried the scent of perfume. On the other hand, her hair was a tangled mess and her outfit looked like it had been scavenged at random from the hampers of three different college girls. If she was trying to make a statement, I didn't have a clue what it was.*

What really caught his attention now, though, were her eyes. They were a deep green that roughly matched the color of her turtleneck, with little flecks of black and gold mixed in here and there. They sparkled with life and humor as she regarded him casually from across the table.

"So, Will," she said. "Tell me about yourself."

"Well, um ... all right." Will straightened a little bit in his chair and tried to turn his focus back toward the here and now. "My name is J. William Kerenson, and I'm a writer."

Any further exposition was cut off by a sudden shriek of delight from a woman behind him, who'd found a twenty-mark bill tucked into the pot of artificial flowers at her table.

"What's the J. stand for?" Callie asked, ignoring the other woman's cries of her good fortune.

"James. My father."

"Gotcha. So what do you write, Mr. J. William Kerenson?" She put a little imitation of an upper-class accent into the last bit. For maybe the first time, Will realized how pretentious it sounded.

He shrugged. "Fiction. I'm still experimenting with different genres. I've had a few short stories published, but nothing bigger yet. Still waiting for my big breakout concept."

"And in the meantime you're going to college to keep food on the table?"

Will grinned. "Pretty much. What about you? You said you'd explain what this was all about when we were safe. Who were those guys? Why were they after you?"

Callie smirked. "I have something they want back."

" 'Want back'?" Will frowned. "You stole something from them?"

"Stole back, really. It wasn't theirs to begin with." Will gave her a quizzical look. She rolled her eyes and let out a short little sigh. "Do you know what a runner is, Will?"

"You mean those pieces of carpeting you put down to keep people from tracking mud over the floors?"

She smirked again. "Not even. A runner is a person who does freelance missions for the underworld bosses and other people who don't want to draw attention to themselves -- mages' guilds, the Psi Collective, the Lothanasi, big corporations who don't want their hands dirty. Even the government hires them from time to time."

"Huh. So what do these runners do for them?"

Callie shrugged. "Lots of different things. Courier work. Espionage. Burglary. Computer cracking. Different runners have different specialties. We don't kill or threaten people, but just about anything else is fair game."

"Wow. Sounds like a very..." Will frowned as his brain caught up with her. "Did you say 'we'?"

Callie nodded. "I'm a runner. Like I said, those greenies were looking for me because I stole something from their boss -- something that he'd had stolen from my client."

Will leaned back in his chair and thought about that for a moment. "Who's their boss?" he asked.

"Street-level wolf," Callie said. Will recognized the slang term for an unlicensed mage who'd had his magic-inhibiting restraining band illegally removed. "A conjurer, goes by the name of Trajan. Runs a gang down in Sola. Bad customer, you wouldn't want to meet him."

Will didn't doubt that for a minute. "So what did he steal?"

"An icon from St. Merai's Cathedral. You do know what tomorrow night is, right?"

"Daedra'kema?" Will offered. "Costumes, wild parties, kids begging for candy?"

"And also a big night for the forces of darkness," Callie added. "Trajan needs to deface the icon in a ritual, tomorrow at midnight. He hopes to summon a balrog to wipe out an enemy gang horning in on his turf."

Will shivered at that. "A balrog? That's one of the really bad kinds of daedra, isn't it?"

Callie smiled humorlessly. "You got that right."

"Will he even be able to control something like that?"

"Not for more than a few minutes, if my experience with Trajan is anything to go on," Callie said. "It could tear its way through six city blocks before the Lothanasi find it and deal with it."

"And you can't call and give the Lothanasi the heads-up because--"

"I stole something from them a few weeks ago and they still aren't happy about it," Callie nodded. "We have to make sure to keep the icon away from Trajan until after midnight tomorrow."

"Where is it now?"

"I stashed it somewhere, but it won't be safe there for long. I'll have to go back for it." She smiled. "Whaddaya say, tiger? Want to help me save the city from the bad guys?"

A smile slowly spread over Will's face. *I paused to take in her offer,* he thought. *Like it or not, I'd stepped into something dangerous -- the dark and veiled underbelly of the city that most people either didn't know about or tried to forget. Now this beautiful stranger had walked into my life and given me a free pass to walk on the wild side.

*I was scared, of course. If I took this step I would enter a world that could swallow me whole, a world where the monsters walked in the open and the skeletons in people's closets sometimes came out to play. Helping this woman would be the most dangerous thing I'd ever done in my life -- but at the same time, it was a chance to do something that mattered. A chance to be a hero. A chance to step away from writing about adventures and start living one. A chance to--*

"Um, Will?" Callie waved her hand in front of his face. "You with me here or what?"

*I smiled grimly. If there would be danger, let it come. If it meant a chance to be a hero -- and another day or two in Callie's company -- it would all be worth it. I had my casting call from destiny, and it was time for my close-up.*

"Sure," he said. "It's not like I have anything better to do."

~0~

The seven blocks back to Callie's hiding spot passed without incident, as she and Will kept up their little charade of being the two lovebirds lost in each other's eyes. They approached the building from the side opposite where Callie had emerged, in case Trajan's thugs were expecting her to retrace her steps, and rode a lift up to the fourth street level. They emerged in the midst of a high-class, glitzy shopping district, full of the sorts of stores Will had barely heard of, much less bought anything from. The stores were all closed at this hour, but a few upscale nightclubs were still open here and there and a modest but steady trickle of pedestrians passed in all directions along the plazas and skyways.

Bypassing the street-front shops, they made their way into the building's interior. It was another shopping mall, but this one had high arched ceilings, crystal chandeliers and ornate fountains. Very few people were in here, mostly just maintenance staff and security guards. Two thirds of the lights were turned off, giving the whole place a quiet, watchful air.

"Why do they even let people in here after the stores close?" Will asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

"There are offices and apartments on the floors above us," Callie said. "These halls are the only way to get there from the skyway, unless you're one of the few people with a private entrance."

"Where's the icon?"

"I stashed it in one of these shops. We're almost there."

The shop in question was an exotic furnishings store, the sort of place where you could find five-thousand-mark coffee tables and statues to put on them that cost ten times that much. The front windows were filled with various odds and ends, from vases to chairs to exotic rugs, all of them decadently ornate, none of them bearing visible price tags. If you had to ask how much they cost, you couldn't afford them.

The entrance to the shop was blocked by a double gate of heavy metal bars with gold overlay, which were clearly designed to swing outward and frame the entrance when the store was open. Right now, however, they were securely held together by an impressive-looking lock.

Will whistled appreciatively. "That looks tough," he said quietly. "But hey, you got in once already, right?" He turned away from the lock and took a few steps toward the middle of the hallway, crossing his arms and looking this way and that. "Don't worry, Callie, I've got your back," he said confidently. "Just do what you need to do, and I'll keep watch for any badges heading this way. You can count--"

"Um, Will?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't actually need to pick the lock. I have the key."

"Oh." Will couldn't help feeling a little disappointed at that. He was just starting to get into the whole spy thing. Deflated by the sudden loss of dramatic tension, he watched as Callie fished a golden key out of her pocket and quickly opened the gate. She took the key with her, disappeared into the shadowed interior for about twenty seconds, and then returned carrying a small paper shopping bag with the store's logo printed on it. She shut the gate and it automatically locked itself behind her.

"Got it," she said. "Let's go."

As they walked away, Will shot her a sidelong glance. "So how did you get the key to that place, anyway?"

Callie shrugged. "I know Talbot, the owner," she said. "I've acquired some rare items for him in the past. He's almost a friend."

"And this ... almost-friend ... just gave you the key to his place?"

"No." Callie smirked, and her eyes danced with amusement. "But I've been around enough to know where he keeps his spare. I pocketed it earlier today so I wouldn't have to break in tonight after I got the icon. With Trajan after me I knew I couldn't afford to waste any time."

"Good thinking."

"Again, comes from experience. Now let's get this thing someplace safe."

Taking the lift back down to the second-level skyway, where their clothes were less out-of-place than on the wealthier fourth level, they caught a transit shuttle and rode it about three miles south, then disembarked and began walking east. They were in a residential zone now, a neighborhood of lower-income apartments that were (literally) one step above the slums and flophouses of the Street. Trees, shrubs and flowers grew in long planters between the road and the sidewalk, and parked skimmers lined the curb on both sides. It looked much like a typical city neighborhood anywhere in the western world, except that in this case the sky was largely blocked out by another layer of roads about twenty stories overhead.

The neighborhood was quiet at this hour, and the occasional lit window was the only sign of activity. After going about five blocks they came to another apartment that looked a lot like all the rest of them. This one had a sleek black swoop nestled between the skimmers in front of the entrance. Callie opened the door and led Will up the steps to the first door on the right.

"This is my flat," she said, fishing in her pocket for the key. "Well, one of them, anyway -- itís actually more of a safehouse. We should be--" Her eyes drifted down to the doorknob and her voice abruptly trailed off.

Will frowned, leaning forward for a closer look. The door was firmly shut, but he noticed a few scratches on the doorjamb next to the handle...

"Come on," Callie whispered, turning to go back down the steps. As she spoke, she tucked the shopping bag into the inside pocket of her borrowed jacket and zipped it up. "Now! Hurry!"

As quietly as they could, they hustled back down the steps and out to the street. Callie looked down the road in both directions and let out a loud curse.

Pulling out of a parking garage about half a block to the east were three swoops, and they were headed this way.

"Quick! Get on the swoop!" she said, practically leaping into the saddle and starting it up in the same instant. Will clambered on behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, and then they were off like a bolt of lightning, flying back down the street to the west. Callie gave them a little bit of altitude to make sure they wouldn't run into any street-bound traffic and opened up the throttle a bit wider. The swoop seemed to enjoy the exercise, its engine running at what Will's writer-brain labeled a "throaty purr".

Unfortunately, the swoops behind them didn't seem to be having any trouble handling the pace, either; if anything, they were gaining on them. Callie spared a quick glance back over her shoulder and cursed again. "Hold on tight!" she warned, shouting almost in his ear to be heard over the rush of wind. "This is gonna get ugly!"

"Why? Can't you lose them or something?" Will shouted back.

Callie shook her head in an exaggerated motion. "They're not the ones I'm worried about!" she said. She pointed in front of them. "They are!"

Will looked up and unconsciously squeezed Callie even tighter. Four more swoops were coming toward them from up ahead. They were flying in a box formation over the road, two high and two low. A streak of red fire shot toward them from the one on the upper left, passing about six feet to one side of their swoop, and Will's heart leapt into his throat: not only were they being chased, they were being shot at.

Callie had obviously seen the shot, as well, since she immediately threw the swoop into a series of sharp jinks and waggles to throw off any further shots. As they flew closer, Will could see that the thugs were using swoop-mounted machine guns -- highly illegal, but apparently easy enough to conceal when they weren't in firing mode. The fiery red dart Will had seen was a tracer round, packed with chemicals that were designed to burn brightly as it flew -- not very dangerous in itself, but it helped the pilot to aim more effectively at a moving target. And if those guns were anything like the ones in Air Force fighter craft, each tracer was accompanied by three to five solid metal bullets you couldn't see...

More tracers flew all around them, but Callie kept them out of harm's way. As they came within a few hundred feet she juked left, then right, then down, and finally on a diagonal to the upper left -- and then they were through the gauntlet, blasting right through the center of the box. Will's stomach joined his heart in the vicinity of his throat, and it was only with great effort that he managed to keep his coffee down.

The enemy swoops looped around and gave chase, but by now Callie and Will were passing out of the neighborhood and onto a major skyway. Unfortunately, even the major skyways had relatively little traffic right now, at least in this part of the city, and their pursuers merged into the road without difficulty. Will knew, or at least dearly hoped, that they wouldn't be crazy enough to take shots at them in front of a bunch of other vehicles, but Callie wouldn't be able to stay on this road forever -- if this were anything like the movies, Trajan would have his people set up some kind of rolling roadblock further down, probably a couple of heavy cargo trucks full of armed thugs...

"Where are we going?" Will asked, having to shout even louder this time.

"Daedra's Knot!" Callie yelled back. "I think we can lose 'em there!"

Will nodded and tried to settle in for the ride. The Daedra's Knot, as it was called by the traffic reporters, was a snarl of six major divided skyways that converged about two miles south of the Citadel. It was one of the relatively few places where you could pass from one level of the city to another without stopping and pulling into a skimmer-lift, and it was made all the more unusual by the fact that it connected three levels in this fashion -- the first two levels of skyways and the Street. With its three-dimensional clover-leaf intersections and winding spiral roads going upward and downward, it was easy for a driver to get confused. No doubt that was what Callie was counting on.

They rode in silence for a few minutes, weaving in and out of what little traffic there was in an effort to block the swoopies' view of them as much as possible, until at last they came to the Knot. The levitating skyways loomed out of the darkness ahead, the coiled loops of road reminding Will of the DNA double-helix on the cover of his biology textbook. Callie pulled into the lane that would take them along the upward spiral, toward the third level of the city. The other swoops saw her and copied the move.

Traffic was heavier here, and Callie zipped carefully between the lanes of upward-bound skimmer traffic. She was apparently better at it than the other swoopies, because she quickly gained a substantial lead on them. When she was a full turn of the helix ahead of them -- and thus directly above them, with the road beneath her blocking their view -- she jumped the swoop over the gap and merged on to the downward spiral. Ducking into the left lane beside a large truck, she matched pace with the vehicle as they rode back down, using it as a shield to block the view of the swoopies on the upward spiral. They rode the helix past the second level, where they'd just come from, and down to Street-level, then turned and sped off to the west.

They hadn't gone more than two blocks when a swoop pulled out of an alley in front of them and fired.

Callie cursed feelingly and stretched out a hand in front of her as streaks of fire erupted from the nose of the enemy swoop. Will winced and put his head against Callie's back, bracing for the bullets he was sure were about to tear through his flesh...

He was distracted by a flash of light that he felt even through his closed eyelids. Lifting his head to look, he saw that he, Callie and the swoop were all enveloped in a sphere of pinkish, shimmering light. Little motes of white energy danced here and there around his head, and Will saw some of them darting forward to meet the bullets streaking toward them. One by one, the tracers hit the tiny white sparks and went flying off at bizarre angles. Some went off in entirely the wrong direction, while others only missed the swoop by inches, but none of them hit Callie, Will or their vehicle.

Evidently the swoopie was so puzzled by this that he forgot he was in their way. Callie nudged her swoop upward a little, just enough to avoid hitting the other vehicle -- but not enough to avoid hitting the pilot. The long, slender nose of the swoop plowed into his helmet with a loud, awful crack, and he went flying bodily off his mount and hit the asphalt about forty feet down the road.

"My god! You killed him!" Will gasped.

"Maybe or maybe not, but I'm not stickin' around to find out," Callie said. They darted off down a side-street, made several more quick turns to throw off any other potential pursuers, and pulled out on to a lonely, quiet road between two rows of warehouses. Callie slowed down to a speed at which they could carry on a civil conversation.

"Trajan won't follow us here -- this is another gang's turf," she said. "But that means we'd better not stay here long, either. Unfortunately, Trajan found my safehouse, so I have to assume he can find the others, too. You know anywhere we can spend the night?"

Will shrugged, though he doubted Callie noticed the gesture. "Why don't we go back to my place? Trajan doesn't know me, so he shouldn't think to look there."

Callie grinned. "Sounds like a plan, tiger. Just show me where to go."

~0~

Will's place was a small studio apartment above an equally small rare book shop on the second level of the city, not far from Empire University's main campus. The owner of the bookstore had known Will since he'd walked in two years ago looking for a text for his Southlands Literature course, and he had been all too happy to rent the studio to Will when he himself found more spacious quarters in Glen Avery. It wasn't the best neighborhood on the second level, but it was quiet enough that Will was able to sleep or write or study in relative peace.

"Welcome to my humble abode," Will said as they stepped inside. "Let me give you the tour." He stepped to the center of the room and turned in a slow circle, gesturing at the kitchen nook, the table, the desk, the bookshelf, the dresser, the bed, the single large window behind the bed, and the door to the bathroom. "This concludes our tour," he said, smirking.

"It's nice," Callie said, smiling. "It suits you." She unzipped her borrowed jacket and pulled out the bag with the icon, setting it on the kitchen counter, then took off the jacket and handed it to Will. He hung it over the back of the chair in front of the table and turned back to take a look at their hard-won prize. Callie crossed paths with him on the way, heading for the bathroom.

"Ungh," she moaned softly. "I feel like I have dirt and sweat clinging all over me. How about a shower, Will?"

"Help yourself," he said absently, reaching into the bag and pulling out the icon. "There are towels and washcloths in the bathroom closet." It was a gold statue of Saint Merai, about a foot tall including the two-inch base. She was dressed in simple, unadorned robes, her feline tail wrapped around to the front of her body, her palms pressed together in front of her heart as if in prayer. Her long, flowing hair framed her ageless face, which carried a beatific, peaceful expression -- or, at least, so it seemed to Will. It was hard to get much detail on the face of a ten-inch-tall figure. The base of the statue was ornamented with flowers, doves and various abstract patterns.

He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, and turned to see Callie standing next to him. She had stripped down to her bra and panties, both of which were made of a satiny material -- the bra white, the panties red -- and she had one of Will's towels slung over her shoulder.

"Sure you don't want to join me?" she asked, smiling mischievously. "You could wash my back."

"Um..." Will had been thrown off his script again. He was just starting to get used to Callie, learning to accept the danger and the excitement that surrounded her -- and now here she was, standing in his apartment in her underwear, offering to let him bathe her.

His writer's sensibilities really took offense at the implausibility of the whole situation.

"N-no," he said at last. "Thank you, very much, but no. I-I'll wait until you're done."

"Hmph," Callie said, giving him a playful little pout. She walked over toward his dresser. Will admired her backside as she did so. "In that case, would you mind getting these clothes washed for me? I assume you have a laundry room somewhere in this building."

"It's down the hall," Will said, frowning. "But I don't think they'll be done by the time you get out."

"No problem," she said, fishing out a tee-shirt and a pair of boxers from Will's dresser and gesturing with them. "I'll make do."

She walked back to the bathroom and shut the door behind her. A moment later she stuck her head out again and tossed Will her clothes, bra and panties included. "Thanks again, Will! You're a sweetheart." The door shut again.

"Sure," Will said softly, still staring at the door. "No problem."

~0~

Will threw Callie's clothes in the washing machine and set it on Fast Cycle, hoping that none of her items required any special care. He sat there in front of the machine for a while, almost afraid to go back to the apartment.

There was no getting around it. Callie was gorgeous. Sure, her hair was a mess and her breasts weren't very big, but everything else...? He shook his head, disbelieving. Whatever else a runner's life might entail, it was keeping her in terrific shape.

And right now she was naked in his bathroom.

That thought sprang up unbidden again, making him want to bash his head against the washing machine in front of him. "You idiot!" he growled at himself. "This is all a big game to her, remember? She's the actress and you're the prop. For gods' sake, you just met her a few hours ago."

In the silence that followed, he analyzed his monologue to see if there was anything that needed revising. It had sounded good to him, and he was particularly pleased with the metaphor, so he gave it his approval and filed it away for future use.

To his credit, he was fully aware of how absurd it was. But then, his entire life had become one huge absurdity this evening. He'd been picked up by a beautiful woman who worked as a freelance spy and had volunteered to help keep a crazy Street-wizard from getting his hands on a holy statue. He'd ridden a swoop through a chase scene, been shot at by machine guns, and had the bullets deflected by a glowing pink ball of light with white sparkles.

What the hell was that about, anyway? He felt vaguely insulted again, having been saved by what felt like a deus ex machina. He'd have to ask Callie about that later.

*Callie. No, don't think about Callie, dammit. Callie. Callie. Callie wearing my boxers. Callie naked. Callie in my bathtub. Callie in my bed. Oh, Eli, help me!* He smacked himself, hard, across the cheek, hoping the stinging pain would bring him back to the real world. It didn't help much.

Will tried to be a good kid. He really did. He didn't get drunk or do drugs or go to the wild Street-level parties some of his friends went to. He went to service every Sunday and read his Canticle every morning. He was still a virgin and planned to stay that way until he was married. But if Callie offered herself to him, he wasn't sure he was going to be able to resist her. In fact, he was almost sure he wasn't. It had taken a heroic effort just to say no to taking a shower with her.

He straightened up in his chair and took a few long, deep breaths, offering up another silent prayer to Eli. *You brought her to me for help, and I'll help her,* he thought. *But you're going to have to give me a hand with this, okay? 'Cause I'm trying very hard to be the noble hero here and she's not making it any easier on me.*

The buzzer on the washer went off. Will pulled out Callie's clothes and tossed them in the dryer with a sheet of fabric softener, then turned and went back to his apartment.

~0~

Callie was dressed in his clothes and sitting at his desk when Will came back. Her hair didn't look all that different from the way it had before, except that now it was damp and clung a little closer to her head. She looked up at him and smiled.

"Is this one of your stories?" she asked, gesturing at a yellow legal pad sitting on the desk. She had it open to somewhere in the middle of the pad.

Will came over and looked at what she was reading. "Yes, it is," he said. "It's not finished, though. My muse is giving me trouble with it."

"Your muse?" Callie asked, giving him a look that was half-puzzled, half-amused.

"Yes, well -- not literally, but metaphorically," he said, sitting on the edge of the desk. "Most writers refer to their inner voice of inspiration as their muse. I think it helps the creative process to imagine that our ideas don't come from ourselves, but from some higher power handing them down to us." He chuckled. "It certainly makes it easier to explain why some days we can write something brilliant and other days we can't seem to do anything."

Callie smiled. "A goddess in your head. Sounds nice."

"Sometimes," Will agreed with a smile, gazing into her eyes. They were strikingly beautiful, a delicate amber color with little flecks of green--

His mind skidded abruptly to a halt. "What the--?" he said, frowning.

Callie mirrored his look. "What?"

Will leaned in a little closer to look at her face. "Do you wear colored contacts?"

"No, why?"

"Your eyes were green earlier. Now they're amber-colored. What's that about? And while we're on the subject of weird, what the heck was that pink ball of light that saved us earlier?"

Callie sighed and lowered her eyes. "Look, it's late. You'd better go take your shower. I'll explain later, I promise."

Will looked at her for a long moment, then nodded. "Okay. Fair enough," he said softly. "I'll go ... yeah."

Without another word, he went over to his dresser, picked out some clean boxers, and went into the bathroom. After a moment's thought, he locked the door behind him.

~0~

Will came out of the bathroom twenty minutes later and found Callie lying fast asleep on his bed. He was a little disappointed, since he'd really wanted to hear her explanation, but he didn't have the heart to wake her up just to satisfy his own curiosity. He took one of the pillows off the bed, pulled the extra blanket out of the bottom drawer of his dresser, and laid down on the floor between the bed and the wall. It wasn't the most comfortable place in the world to sleep, but it would do for tonight. He lay on his back, closed his eyes, and listened to the sound of Callie breathing, until at last he drifted off to sleep.

~0~

That night he dreamt of Callie. In his dream they were both runners, on a mission together. He wasn't too clear on the plot, this being a dream and all, but he was vaguely aware that it had something to do with a super-villain, a giant laser cannon and trying to save the world. It was all rather complicated, but eventually they blew up the villain's secret base and escaped from his giant killer hell-poodles by hang-gliding off a cliff into the jungle below. They landed in a clearing by a large, clear pool at the base of a waterfall, and then they took off their clothes and bathed together in the cool, refreshing water. After that they lay down on the grassy bank, Will on his back, Callie on her stomach with her head resting on his chest. She traced patterns around his left nipple with her finger, while he held her close with his right arm, running his hand along her back, her side, her buttocks, her thigh. She looked up at him, eyes full of love, and said...

"You gonna get up sometime today, tiger?"

Will opened his eyes and blinked, suddenly aware of his surroundings. He was still lying on the floor next to the bed, but so was Callie, nestled against him in the same position as she had been in his dream. Fortunately, she was fully dressed in her own clothes.

Unfortunately, he was still caressing her butt.

"Oh my god!" Will said, starting fully awake. "Oh my god, I'm sorry!" He quickly withdrew his hand and splayed it out against the floor as far from Callie as possible.

"No need to apologize," Callie said easily, still tracing patterns on his chest. "It was nice. And that must have been quite an interesting dream, from the sounds of it."

Will groaned, turning his face away from her. Her breath carried the scent of his mouthwash, but that only reminded him of the taste in his own mouth. "Let me up. I have morning breath," he said, struggling to sit up. Callie got up off of him and sat on the bed, watching him with those curious, sparkling eyes of hers. This morning they were a greenish blue.

"Your eyes have changed again," he said, as he walked over to the bathroom in search of the mouthwash. "You ready yet to tell me what that is?"

Callie sighed. "Sure. I guess I owe you that much." She got up and strolled over to the bathroom door, leaning one hand against the frame while she rested the other one on her hip. She looked up at the ceiling, took a deep breath, then turned back to look at him. "I've been keeping some things about myself secret from you, as you've probably figured out. Everything I told you before was true, but there's one thing in particular that I didn't mention." She paused and took another breath. "I'm not exactly completely human."

Will spit out his mouthwash in the sink and turned to look at her sharply. "Oh my god. Are you a succubus? Not that there's anything wrong with it if you are," he added hastily. "It's just, you know, here in the city and all, Mom warned me ... about..." His voice trailed off uncertainly.

Callie laughed and shook her head. "No, I'm not a succubus."

Will sighed in relief.

"But you know what you get when you cross a succubus with an eladrin?"

Will frowned. Eladrins were one of the two warrior-races of celestials. "Um, not really," he said.

"Neither did anyone else," Callie said. "But whatever it was, that was my father." She lowered her eyes. "Or so they tell me," she added softly.

"I'm sorry," Will said, not really sure what he was sorry for.

Callie waved off the words, then turned and wandered over toward the kitchen nook. Will followed her halfway, stopping at his closet to pull out some pants and a shirt.

"Anyway," she said, "you probably know that eladrins are instinctively aligned with good and succubae with evil, though of course there are exceptions on both sides. But what you may not know is that both eladrins and succubae are aligned with the forces of chaos, rather than order. So when my father was born, the predispositions toward good and evil canceled each other out, but the connection to chaos was still there." She picked up the icon of Saint Merai and ran her fingers idly over its surface.

"And that connection was passed on to you?" Will asked, as he pulled on his socks and began hunting for some shoes.

"Yep. The Lightbringers say I'm what they call a cansin -- a person with the blood of chaotic outsiders in my veins. I have this chaos aura, of sorts, that follows me around wherever I go ... which basically means that weird or unlikely things tend to happen more often when I'm around."

"And that explains the eyes and the hair?" Will suggested, grinning up at her.

She returned the expression. "Yeah. You've noticed that I can't do a thing with the hair." She brushed a mixed lock of red and gold out of her eyes. "And the eyes just seem to change when they feel like it. I can't control it, or if I can I haven't figured out how yet." She shrugged. "The aura affects other things, too, and I can't really control that either. Most of the time, for me, it just means I have good luck, which is a handy thing when you're a runner. For people around me--" she gave him a wry, lopsided smile "-- it can go either way."

Will put on his shoes and began lacing them up. "And that pink thing last night? What was that?"

"That's one of the few things I can control. The wizards who study this stuff call it an entropic shield -- there's a spell that does the same thing, but mine is natural, a part of my heritage. Unfortunately, after I use it my chaos aura is drained for a while, and I can't use it again until I've gotten a good night's sleep. I try to save it for emergencies for that reason."

"That makes sense." Will stood up and raised his eyebrows expectantly. "So, now what do we do?"

Callie smiled slyly. "Whatever we want," she purred, sauntering over to him. "Like you said, Trajan doesn't know where you live, so we should be in the clear for now. So, I suggest that we go get some breakfast, and then..." She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her forehead against his. "We'll see what happens," she added.

Will closed his eyes and took a deep breath, clenching his teeth together. "Would you please not do that?" he asked, his voice soft and very hoarse.

Callie drew back and looked at him, her expression changed to one of confusion and concern. "What's wrong, Will?" she asked.

Will turned his back on her, taking a few more slow, deep breaths before answering. "Callie, I like you, and I really want to help ... but you're driving me crazy."

"What? How?"

"By doing things like that!" he blurted, his voice sounding loud even in his own ears. The words came out in a rush. "You touch me and you kiss me and you hold me, and I'm trying so hard to do the right thing here, but you're so beautiful and all I want to do is tear your clothes off and..." He didn't say "screw your brains out", but he thought it. "...and I know it's all just pretend," he finished sadly, shaking his head. "You don't know me. I was just some guy you picked up on the street to help you get away. It could have been anybody. I was just there."

He could have said more, but he doubted it would make matters any better, so he just shut up and stood there, fighting back tears.

"Will..." Callie said gently. She put a hand on his shoulder, but it was different this time -- not a suggestive touch, but a comforting one. "Will, I'm sorry." She sighed in frustration. "I guess there's a little more succubus in me than I'd like to admit," she muttered. "I'm impressed, Will. Really I am. I don't meet many guys with your integrity in my line of work. Most of them are happy just to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts. They don't miss me when I'm gone, and I don't miss them."

She stepped around in front of him and looked him squarely in the face, her eyes radiating sincerity. "You're different," she said. "You've still got a warm heart beating in that chest of yours, a heart that still believes in things like romance and true love. I really respect that." She lowered her gaze. "You're right. We're still strangers. I don't really know you at all." She looked back up at him, and her lower lip trembled a little bit. "But I think I'd like to."

Will looked at her for a long moment, and then, scarcely even thinking about it, he reached out and hugged her. It was not an erotic or passionate gesture at all, just an act of comfort and friendship -- but it was the most sincere, genuine moment of bonding they'd had since they'd met.

"I'd like to know you, too, Callie," he said softly. "I really would."

Before either of them could say anything further, a knock sounded at the door.

"Mr. Kerenson?" a voice called. It sounded deep, gruff, and male.

Callie looked at Will questioningly. "You expecting anyone?" she whispered.

Will shook his head. Clenching the icon nervously in one hand, Callie walked over to the door and looked through the peephole.

She abruptly turned and came back, a frightened look on her face. "I know those guys! They work for Trajan!" she hissed.

The knocking came again, louder this time.

"Mr. Kerenson! Are you in there?" the voice asked, more insistent.

"Okay," Will said, taking a deep breath. "You go out the window, I'll talk to them and send them off in the wrong direction." He turned toward the door and shouted, "Just a minute! I'm in the bathroom!"

A second later there came a sudden, loud thud, and the door cracked visibly from the impact.

"I don't think they're here to ask questions," Callie said. Rushing over to the window, she quickly opened it and looked out. She looked back and waved to Will. "Looks okay. Come on!"

Will dashed for the window, as another loud crack sounded from the door. "You first," Callie said. "Let yourself down as far as you can and then fall on the awning below."

Will did as he was told. There wasn't much to hold on to on the brick wall of the building, so he just gripped the windowsill and let his arms fully extend before letting himself drop. The awning in front of the bookstore was only about three feet below him at that point, and he landed softly; unfortunately the awning tore loose under his weight, but he managed to land on his feet. Callie shut the window most of the way, leaving it slightly ajar as if to let in fresh air, and dropped down beside him a moment later, legs absorbing the fall like a cat's.

No sooner had she landed than they heard the sharp crack of the apartment door breaking loose under the blows from Trajan's men.

"Come on!" Callie shouted, racing for the nearby garage where her swoop was parked.

They got to the vehicle and had just climbed aboard when the back door to the garage burst open and three thugs with guns came racing out, less than twenty feet behind them. Callie cursed and raised another entropic shield a split second before they opened fire, then gunned the engine and rocketed out of the garage.

"I am not going through this again," she snarled. Spinning the swoop around, she pointed it straight at the gunmen, who were still trying to fire through her shield. Then, opening up the throttle again, she blasted forward.

Trajan's thugs were apparently not too clear on what the entropic shield did, because they kept firing at her instead of getting out of the way. By the time they realized that even their point-blank shots were going awry, it was too late. Callie spun the swoop around at the last second and hit them with the broad side of her mount, catching one of them in the face and the other two in the chest. All three went flying like rag dolls. She swung around in a wide loop, snatching up each of their guns as she passed, then stopped and pointed one of the weapons at her fallen attackers.

"Callie!" Will said, protesting.

Callie ignored him. Taking careful aim, she pumped one round into each of the men's kneecaps. Then she handed Will one of the guns, pocketed the other two, and raced off down the skyway.

"How did they find us?" Will asked, when it became evident that there were no others chasing them.

"Divination," Callie explained. "That bastard Trajan must have done a spell to locate the icon. Those spells are tricky -- I didn't think he'd be able to pull it off."

Will felt a cold pit of fear gnawing at his stomach. "If he can do that, he'll be able to find us anywhere."

"Not if we get someone to mask its aura for us," Callie said. "Fortunately, I know just the guy."

~0~

Will stood on the sidewalk and gazed up dubiously at the front of the store.

"Are you sure about this guy, Callie?"

"Totally," Callie said, without reservation. "He's one of the best wizards in the city, and his prices aren't bad, either. What's the matter, don't you trust me?"

"No, it's not that, but--" Will made a face. "It just looks so ... commercial."

Callie grinned. "Yeah, he has something for everybody. And this is one of his busiest days of the year."

Will believed it. The magic shop didn't open until ten o'clock, but there was already a substantial line forming in front of the door. Signs in the windows announced special last-minute bargains on costumes, candy, props, decorations and other essential Daedra'kema party supplies. A smaller, more elegantly-lettered sign stated NEED LAST-MINUTE REAGENTS FOR YOUR MIDNIGHT RITUALS? DON'T SETTLE FOR MASS MARKET "BARGAIN" SUPPLIES -- ASK ABOUT OUR PREMIUM COLLECTION. WHY RISK BACKFIRES?

Callie walked up to the front door and knocked. "Artax!" she called.

"Hey! Back of the line, lady!" someone protested.

"Artax!" Callie shouted, pounding on the door a bit harder. "Come on, buddy, it's an emergency!"

"All right, I'm coming!" an irritated voice shouted back from inside. "Just a minute..."

A moment later an old man appeared at the door. He could have been sixty, or twice that age -- it was difficult to tell. His hair was thick, white, and bushy, and his wooly beard hung down to the middle of his chest. He was dressed in a traditional wizard's robe, complete with the pointed hat that Will had always thought looked rather silly, but on closer inspection it appeared to be just a blue terrycloth bathrobe with white moons and stars printed on it. His feet peeked out beneath the hem of the robe, revealing that he was wearing fuzzy blue slippers.

"All right, come in, Callie," the man grumbled, pushing the door open so they could enter. "And for gods' sake, don't touch anything!"

"You know, Artax," Callie said, as they followed the wizard down aisles of knickknacks to the back of the store, "my aura doesn't actually get any stronger when I touch something than when I'm just standing next to it."

"I don't care what those so-called experts tell you," Artax said, not even looking back at her. "The last time you were in here, every piece of merchandise you handled backfired within a week!"

"Artax, you sell your merchandise to people who don't know a spell from a hole in the ground. How much stuff do you actually sell that doesn't backfire?"

"It's not my responsibility to judge the competence of the buyer," Artax sniffed. "If people refuse to follow simple directions, they deserve what's coming to them. Better that they have an accident with one of my products than blunder in the midst of a daedra summoning."

"Funny you should mention that," Will said.

"Yes, yes, you need something to mask the aura of that little trinket you're carrying," Artax said, waving his hand dismissively. "I am a wizard, you know. I have just the thing right here in the back."

A long wooden counter covered with alchemical equipment lined the back of the shop, behind which was a doorway to a storeroom. Artax went through it and reappeared a moment later carrying a jar of silvery powder. He gestured at the counter, and Callie placed the statue on it face-up.

"You may want to stand back a bit," Artax said, removing the lid of the jar and setting it aside.

"Why, is that stuff dangerous?" Will asked.

"Not really, but it will send your allergies into a screaming fit for a few days."

"How did you know I had allergies?"

Artax looked up at Will and shot him a baleful glare from beneath his bushy white eyebrows. He then glanced significantly to the left, then back at Will, then returned to his work.

Will turned in the direction indicated and saw a large wooden sign with the words BECAUSE I'M A WIZARD, THAT'S HOW.

"Oh. Right."

Slowly, carefully, Artax sprinkled the silver dust onto the statue. The tiny grains of powder stuck to the icon wherever they touched. The wizard completely coated one side, turned it over, and did the same on the other side.

Standing the icon on its base, Artax took out a small wand and struck it lightly on St. Merai's head. "Esgalo!" he commanded. The powder disappeared in a flash of light, leaving the statue unharmed.

He handed the icon back to Callie. "There you are. It should be safe from any form of magical detection for the next forty-eight hours, which is more than enough time to spoil Trajan's plans."

Callie gave him a warm, genuine-looking smile. "Thanks, Artax. How much do I owe you?"

"It's for a good cause, so I'll let it go at cost. Ten marks," the wizard said, coming out from behind the counter and walking back toward the front of the shop. "You can pay at the register."

The cash register was at the front of the store to the right of the entrance, atop a typical glass display case with some very atypical-looking jewelry inside it. Another wooden sign on the wall behind the counter stated ALWAYS FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. LET THE BUYER BEWARE.

Callie handed the old man a ten-mark bill and he quickly rang up the sale and handed her a receipt.

"Thanks again, Old Man," Callie said. "Sorry to make you open up early like this."

"Oh, that's quite all right, Ms. Callie," he said, face wrinkling in a surprisingly good-natured smile. It seemed that the process of money exchanging hands had brightened his mood. "Always happy to help a repeat customer, particularly when it involves spoiling the day for an upstart punk like Trajan. As for you, Master Will," he said, turning to face him, "I hope you'll come back sometime soon to try our goods and services for yourself. For now, here's my card and a bag of Daedra'kema candy, free of charge." He handed Will a business card and a small, sealed plastic bag of individually-wrapped chocolates. "I think you'll enjoy them greatly," he said, his sharp blue eyes twinkling.

"Oh! Thank you, sir." Will put the chocolates in his jacket pocket and shook the old man's hand. "Maybe I will be back."

"I'm sure you will," Artax agreed cheerfully.

"Ay," Callie muttered, rolling her eyes. "Come on, Will, we'd better get out of his way."

Outside, as they climbed back onto the swoop, Will looked down at the card Artax had given him. "Well, I have to admit, he obviously knew what he was doing," he said. "But what kind of name is 'SPELLS 4 U', anyway? It's so..."

"Lame?"

"Lame is good."

"Don't ask me," Callie said, shaking her head, as they pulled away from the shop. "I've never been able to figure out how his mind works."

~0~

They spent much of the day on the move, staying as far from Trajan's territory as possible. Though the icon was now theoretically invisible to scrying, Callie didn't want to give the rogue wizard any chance to find them some other way. Thus, they kept to the north end of the city, stayed on the higher levels, and did some window-shopping and sightseeing until the day waned and the sun crept low in the sky. Callie kept the icon and one handgun with her at all times, in case any of Trajan's thugs should make an unwelcome appearance. Will doubted that Callie had a permit to carry such a weapon, but in her profession he suspected that wasn't much of a concern. Anyone with skill enough to be a runner must have had some experience with concealing weapons.

As it began to grow dark, Callie took them down to Street level again. "We're going to have to find a place to spend the night," she said. "It's not safe to spend Daedra'kema outside."

Will shook his head. "Is all that talk about wraiths and monsters stalking the streets tonight really true? I never saw any daedra on Daedra'kema back in Haverfield."

"This isn't Haverfield, Will. Why do you think people started throwing parties on this night?"

"Because it's a good excuse?"

"Because they were afraid to sleep. This whole business with candy and costumes and parties is just whistling past the graveyard. It's something to occupy children's minds so they won't look out the windows. Don't worry, we'll find someplace to hole up and then put a ward around it so the daedra won't bother us. I have some holy water in my saddlebag."

They didn't go back to Will's apartment or any of Callie's safehouses, for obvious reasons. Instead, after cruising around a bit, Callie decided on a rather small, rather dilapidated warehouse nestled in the shadow of one of the city's trademark skyscrapers. About half a dozen nearly identical warehouses surrounded it on either side. Unlike most of them, this particular one was unlocked.

"This is good," she said, pulling open the large, heavy door a little more than halfway and peering inside. The door swung open the rest of the way of its own volition and slammed hard against the wall of the warehouse, sending a rather unsettling vibration through the whole building. "Go ahead and pull the swoop inside. I'll look for the light switch."

Will eased the swoop forward and set it down next to a large stack of crates. He was just shutting down the engine when a dozen dim yellow light bulbs flared to life in the ceiling above them.

The place looked even worse with the lights on. There were empty crates strewn haphazardly around the room, some of them visibly rotting, and even the crates that were still sealed looked like they'd suffered from years of abuse and neglect. A wooden balcony ran around the walls halfway up, providing space for more crates and barrels, but the wooden pilings it was resting on looked like they could give way at any moment.

"Don't you think we could find a place that's not falling apart?" Will asked.

"Most of the newer warehouses are guarded," Callie said, walking back toward the open door from the corner where she'd turned on the lights. "Besides, it's not as bad as it looks. If you can't afford to pay for a night watchman, it's in your best interest to let it look like you have nothing worth taking. You'd be surprised at what gets stored in old buildings like this. Hand me that bottle of holy water, will ya?"

Whatever her tastes in accommodations, Callie knew how to place a ward, and within ten minutes they were safely sealed inside the building. With a long night ahead of them and little to do with it, they put the icon in one of the swoop's saddlebags and settled down to try to sleep.

Some time later they were awakened by the sound of a mana bolt blasting the lock off of the warehouse door.

"Quick! Behind the crates!" Callie hissed.

Will did as he was told. Callie joined him a moment later, armed with the handguns from Trajan's men.

The door to the warehouse slammed open a second later, shaking the building again. Peeking over the tops of the crates, Will saw a tall man walk slowly into the room, followed by a dozen human and lutin henchmen. The thugs quickly shut the door behind them, probably to avoid being spotted by any casual observers passing by. Once the door was shut, they pulled out their guns, all of which looked fairly impressive.

The man in the middle was dressed head to toe in black leather -- boots, pants and jacket -- and carried a gnarled black staff in his left hand. His glossy black hair was swept back, his goatee was neatly trimmed, and his expression was hard and cruel. The only thing visible on him that wasn't black was the gold amulet he wore around his neck. Will didn't doubt for a second that this, indeed, was Trajan.

Callie raised her gun and shot the bastard.

Unfortunately, Trajan just seemed amused, as the bullet vanished in a shower of sparks bare inches from his body.

"Really, now, Callie," he said, his voice smooth and casual, "did you expect that to work? I knew you had my men's guns -- surely you expected that I would take certain precautions?"

"Anything's worth a try," Callie said, keeping her head down.

"Just the same, why don't you set those guns on top of the crate where I can see them and come out here? We need to have a little talk."

Behind the crates, Callie motioned to Will to stay out of sight. Then, obediently, she placed the guns on the crate and stepped out into the open, hands splayed outward.

"I'm impressed, Trajan," she said. "I didn't think you'd be able to find me so soon. How'd you manage it?"

Trajan looked pleased to be asked the question. "Really, Callie, you should study more magic," he said patronizingly. "I may not be able to sense the icon, but I do know where you live. Given a few stray hairs or a personal item to use as a focus, it's a rather simple matter for a man of my talents to find anyone."

"Shit," Callie said.

"Indeed. Now then, where is the icon?"

"Why should I tell you?"

Trajan sighed. "Because if you don't, then I will kill you and search your belongings. And if it isn't there, I'll hunt down your little friend and see if he knows where it is. Then you'll be dead and I shall be terribly inconvenienced, and neither of us will be happy."

Will let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Trajan didn't know he was there -- apparently, whatever divination spell he'd used to find Callie could only work on one person at a time. That might give them an advantage, if he could only think of some way to help Callie. The guns were still within easy reach, but they hadn't been very effective thus far and weren't likely to work now...

Callie was silent for a long moment. At last she let out a defeated sigh. "All right. If I tell you, do I have your word that you won't kill me or my friend?"

Trajan spread his hands out. "Why would I? You're a good runner -- I might have need of you in the future. All I want is my icon so I can go home and finish my ritual. The last thing I need is to have the police investigating a couple of murders." His voice hardened. "But don't think that means I won't do it if you force me."

"Don't worry, I won't," Callie said. She turned and began pacing in a large circle -- between Trajan and his men, then over to the pillars under the balcony. Trajan's goons tracked her with their guns wherever she went. "Here's the thing. You know that fancy nightclub on the north end of town? Station 53, or whatever it is?"

"All right..." Trajan said expectantly.

Callie ran her hand idly along each of the pillars as she passed, continuing her slow circle around the warehouse. "You know how they have those whirlpools in there, one on each corner of the dance floor? Well, each of those whirlpools is fed water from a central heating tank in the middle of the floor. The tank isn't accessible through the dance floor, but there's a hatch to a crawl-space behind the stage that you can use to get in there and open up the tank. On the right-hand side of that crawl-space, right by the hatch, there's a small cubbyhole where the maintenance guys keep the tools to work on the water tank. It's locked, but the key is in the janitor's closet -- you'll find it in an old filing cabinet, taped to the inside of the second drawer from the top." By this time Callie had walked halfway around the room and slowly circled back in front of the crates.

"And that's where you hid my icon?"

Callie grinned. "Nah, it's in my saddlebag. Just a second."

Trajan made an exasperated sound. "You try my patience, girl. Give me the icon, now!"

"All right, all right. Gods, Trajan, I was just messing with you a little."

"If you don't want to see me mess with that pretty head of yours, you won't waste any more of my time," Trajan snapped.

"No more time-wasting," Callie said, digging out the icon and tossing it to him. "Here you go. Have fun summoning your balrog. When he rips you open to play with your intestines, don't say I didn't warn you."

Trajan caught the icon easily with one hand and gave her a condescending look. "Thank you for your concern, Callie, but I have the matter well in hand. Do enjoy your evening."

The rogue wizard turned to go, joining his men beside the entrance. The one in front pushed open the door, it swung back and crashed into the side of the building--

And a dozen decaying wooden pillars suddenly cracked and collapsed.

All along the wall by the warehouse door, the balcony gave way and fell to pieces, raining heavy crates and barrels down on Trajan and his men. The mage may have planned for bullets in his protection spell, but heavy blunt objects apparently weren't included, as a large crate landed on his head and drove him to the floor. Several more containers of similar weight piled up on him and most of his men, leaving the rest to stare in horror at what had become of their master.

"Boss?" one of them said, uncertainly.

Trajan's body didn't move.

Will snatched up the guns on top of the crate and came out into the open, training one of them on the survivors from Trajan's gang. "Callie, catch!" he said, tossing her one of the other two.

Callie caught the pistol and pointed it at Trajan's men. They pointed their own guns back at her, unsure what to do.

"Go ahead, check him," Callie offered.

Two of the gang members did so, pushing the crates and barrels aside so they could reach Trajan. Will could see the bloodstain on the floor that was already large and growing larger. One of the gangers checked Trajan's pulse, then looked up and shook his head. The other one who had helped him turned on Callie, pointing an accusing finger.

"He's dead!" the lutin snarled. "You killed our boss, you bitch!"

"Cry me a river, greenie," Callie snapped. "Look, you've got nothing to gain by killing me. If you've talked to your buddies who tried to whack us at the garage, you already know your bullets probably aren't going to work anyway. Furthermore, even if you did kill me, I should remind you that you are standing in a decaying building. If it did that while I'm just standing here, how do you think it's going to react to my death?"

The thugs looked worried. They obviously hadn't considered that.

"Come on, guys," Callie said, looking and sounding more conciliatory. "I'm sorry about your boss, but we're all Street rats here, right? Let's just forget this whole thing. It's not worth it."

One of the thugs looked down at their dead leader. "Yeah, you're right," he said at last. "It's not worth it." Looking back up, he nodded at her. "See you around, runner." Slowly, he backed away until he was outside the building, then sidestepped until he was out of sight. After a moment, the other survivors did likewise.

Will and Callie lowered their guns. Will didn't know how to get the round out of the chamber so he just put the safety on and handed it back to Callie. He shook his head. "I can't believe they just let us go."

Callie shrugged. "That's politics on the Street for you," she said, walking over to Trajan's body and retrieving the icon. "Next week, next month, next year, we could be working for the same people. It doesn't pay to hold grudges down here, especially over a dead gang leader. All of them end up dead sooner or later."

Will nodded. "I take it we don't tell the police about this?"

"We were never here," Callie agreed. "I'll leave the guns by the bodies and wipe the place for fingerprints before we leave. They could still use an augury to find out who was here, but they probably won't bother. Trajan was a thief and a murderer, and he got what he deserved. These men who worked for him were no better. The MCPD has better things to do with its time than figure out what happened to these bastards. Come on, let's take this icon back to Saint Merai's."

"I thought you said it wasn't safe to be out on Daedra'kema."

"It isn't. But it also isn't safe to stay on the scene of something like this -- there's too great a chance that you'll leave evidence behind. Besides, our ward was shot from the moment they opened the door. Let's just clean this place up and get the hell out of here, and hope our luck holds long enough to get us to the cathedral."

Will smirked. "For you, I don't think luck is going to be a problem."

~0~

Much to their relief Will and Callie reached St. Merai's without further incident, though Will was at least half-sure that he'd spotted a few strange-looking creatures lurking in alleys as they drove by. Not surprisingly, the priests were awake and allowing the cathedral to be used as a refuge for those with no other safe place to go.

"How come opening the doors doesn't wreck their ward?" Will asked as they were let inside.

"It's not a ward, it's consecrated ground," Callie said. "Daedra just can't come in here."

The head priest of the cathedral, Father Jonathan, accepted the icon back gratefully, thanking Callie profusely for keeping it safe. After handing it over to one of the altar boys for cleaning, he took Callie into his office and handed her a check, which she folded in half and placed in her pocket without looking at it. She thanked him, bowed, and then came out to join Will in the hallway.

"I want you to have some of this," she said, patting the pocket where she'd placed the check. "You're going to need to get that door fixed, and you deserve some compensation for the stuff I've put you through in the last twenty-four hours."

"Well," Will said with a lopsided grin, "I'll definitely take the money, but it was my pleasure. In spite of all the danger and all the craziness ... it felt good. You know, to do something worthwhile, saving the city and all. Besides," he added, "this little adventure has given me some great story ideas."

"Oh, yeah?" Callie smiled.

Will nodded. "You know, it's funny. When you found me out on the street last night, I was looking for inspiration. Looking for my muse." He wrapped his arms around her and drew her close, then smiled again. "I think I found her," he said.

They kissed once -- lightly, sweetly and almost innocently -- and then drew apart and clasped each other's hands.

"So, J. William Kerenson," Callie said, eyes sparkling, "What do you want to do for the rest of the night?"

Will grinned. "I heard one of our fraternities is throwing a major party tonight..."

~0~

The next day Callie was awakened a little after noon by the sound of her telephone. After fumbling around for a few seconds she found the receiver and placed it against her ear.

"Hello?"

"Callie? Oh, thank Eli. Listen, I need your help."

She frowned. "Who is this?"

"What? Oh, it's me, Will."

Callie sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "Will? Geez, your voice sounds different. Are you sick?"

"Not exactly," the voice replied. "I got up a couple of hours ago to do some writing, and I ate some of those chocolates that Artax gave me..."

"Oh, no," Callie groaned. "What do you need?"

"That depends. How long is this going to last?"

"How many candies did you eat?" Callie asked.

There was a brief pause. "Twelve," Will said.

Callie went rigid. "Gods! Twelve?! You ate twelve of them?"

"Well, they were small," Will said, a little defensively. "And they tasted so good, I kept eating them without hardly thinking about it. It's not like they kicked in right away, you know."

Callie sighed. "Well, I hope you really enjoyed them, Will, because you're going to be stuck like that for twelve days."

There was a long pause.

"Will?" Callie asked.

"...uh, yeah. I'm still here." The voice sounded shaken.

"Okay, look. I'll come right over. What do you need?"

"I would have thought that was obvious."

Callie let out an exasperated sigh. "Size, Will! What size?"

"I don't know! I've never done this before!" Will sounded as frustrated as Callie felt, and maybe a little hysterical as well.

Callie gazed up at the ceiling. "Well, do you think you can use mine?"

On the other end of the line, Will looked down at the large, shapely breasts now hanging on her very female body. "I think I can wear some of them," she said, "but the bra's going to be a problem..."

 

FIN


Copyright 2003 by Raven Blackmane. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.