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Authors: Rob Preece

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BOOK: In the Werewolf's Den
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Conscious that his allies were falling around him, Arenesol stepped back, reached into his coat, and pulled out a stick of dynamite. “Not yet,” He muttered.

He stuck the dynamite back in his shirt and produced a pair of sai, the three-pronged fishing daggers that show up in tacky kung fu movies but that Danielle had never seen used in a real fight. Weapons in hand, he faced Carl calmly.

Almost absentmindedly, Danielle popped a hook kick to her troll's ribs then smashed a ridge hand to his temple. Rocky crashed to the ground in a satisfying avalanche and she turned her attention to an elf that had circled behind the two dwarves.

With Rocky gone, the elf decided he'd had enough of fighting, picked his teeth up from the ground, and ran. Danielle was free to watch Carl, to learn his moves and, if necessary, to step in and give him a hand. Third-degree black belt or not, he didn't have the warder training.

Arenesol blocked Carl's next strike, then launched an attack of his own.

The sai, Danielle noticed, gleamed the distinctive white of alloyed silver. Carl could be in trouble. She moved in to protect her herd.

Danielle watched for her opportunity knowing that Carl would need her help. She'd spent plenty of time at the Academy learning about elves—most dangerous of the impaired species after vampires—and she knew that no
Were
could stand against one. Especially not one with Arenesol's talents.

The elf didn't need the silver in his sai. It would simply make his job easier.

Carl arched a sloppy kick at one of the sai, overextending his balance.

The elf reacted to the opportunity Carl had given him, avoiding his kick and thrusting for the kill.

Against a human, Arenesol's move would have been fatal. But Carl wasn't exactly a human. He'd shifted to full wolf form just as the elf reacted. What would have been an insane, head-leading collapse in a human became a poised leap by a wolf.

Not that it mattered. Danielle's kick knocked the sai from the elf's hand leaving him unprotected to the attack.

Under two hundred pounds of wolf, the elf went down.

When Carl's teeth closed at the elf's throat, Arenesol smiled and went limp. “I take it there's something you'd like to discuss with me."

Carl loosened his jaws.

"Tie him up.” In his wolf form, Carl's words sounded like a cross between barking and coughing but Danielle knew what he wanted. She whipped her leash out and wrapped it around the elf's hands and neck.

"Why don't we step back to the bar and discuss our next steps with Mr. Arenesol?” Mike suggested. “Billy and Willie, there's some refuse lying on the street and blocking traffic. Just shove those critters into the gutters they came from."

While Carl managed the transition back to human appearance, Danielle and Mike dragged the bound elf back to the bar.

"Can we have coffee now?” asked Billy, or Willie—Danielle had a hard time telling the dwarves apart since they always wore identical jeans, t-shirts, and the hooded cloaks that the law required dwarfs to wear at all times.

"I don't think they want our business,” Danielle reminded the dwarf.

"They'll take our business,” the other dwarf grunted. “Or else we'll—"

"Beer when we get back to the lab,” Carl promised.

"Beer is good too,” Willie, or maybe Billy, offered.

Arenesol, to no one's surprise, was perfectly willing to talk. A normal had offered his gang, the Tigers, ten thousand dollars for the results of Carl's work. In the zone, ten thousand will buy a lot of secrets. What it won't buy is loyalty. Danielle quickly picked up the fact that Arenesol's loyalty was to his mob and to his family, which it turned out, were pretty much the same thing.

Danielle watched Carl as he handled the interrogation. From his reaction, he wasn't thinking simply about preventing another attack. She wasn't sure what the elf had said, but something had sent Carl's mind off in a new direction.

Which meant danger.

Danielle rubbed the hand that she'd almost broken when she'd slammed a fist into the troll and wondered if she'd done the right thing protecting Carl. Because Carl was too smart, always planning steps ahead.

Chapter 5

Danielle wasn't sure she liked Carl's expanded plans, but she couldn't bring herself to cancel the project and terminate him. Carl's work was important. She tried not to admit, even to herself, that she didn't want to terminate Carl. Even thinking about the possibility sent her into involuntary blur mode. Too often she woke up during the night, shaking with the realization that she might have to kill him.

After frustrating the attempted assault on Dean the Imp, it only made sense for Carl to buy the houses surrounding his lab and turn the entire block into a sort of campus where his workers could live and work: where the rules of the zone were suspended and the rules of Carl imposed.

Naturally, with the generous salaries Carl was paying his staff, that made the campus a highly attractive region for new restaurants, clubs, and even light manufacturing operations to spring up. With no zoning or regulation to worry about, they did, virtually overnight.

Bars willing to cater to all, even normals, offered beer and watered-down coffee for the dwarves. Carl funded creation of a bakery that soon made bread for the entire zone, a computer center, and a combined brewery and ethanol plant.

Danielle had objected, of course. Carl was supposed to be researching the causes of the return of magic, not undertaking the economic transformation of the zone.

Carl had simply laughed off her concerns. When he'd started his own company rather than take a prestige university research job, he had proved he was more than a science wonk. He liked business, liked money, and liked getting things done. As he told her, curing the magic infestation wouldn't take care of the country's problems all by itself. They needed economic renovation as well. And that might as well start here.

Still, plans for major new construction, the first she'd seen in since she'd been a child, profoundly disturbed Danielle. What would an economic miracle in the zone mean? Could it be good for normals? And what if Carl was ultimately unsuccessful with his research? In her nightmares, Danielle worried that economic growth might allow the zones to grow more important, to the point where they could make demands of the nation rather than the pathetic requests that had been common up until then.

Carl had met her objections with a dogged determination to move forward.

"Dogged is a good word for him,” Danielle muttered to herself. Despite her doubts, he'd even managed to talk her into participating in his economic miracle. She'd opened a dojo, training mostly young impaired in the martial arts.

She knew that the money behind all of the building and growth had to be coming from Carl's fortune, but she wondered how long it could last. Even with the low prices common in the zone, he'd been down to only fifteen million dollars after the legal expenses had drained most of the proceeds from the sale of his original company. Property was cheap in the zone, and impaired lives were even cheaper, but Danielle had seen the invoices for lab equipment, the salaries Carl insisted on paying his staff, and the basic supplies they all needed to keep the compound running. At this rate, his money wouldn't last a year—yet, instead of scrimping, Carl kept spending more.

Again, Carl shrugged his muscular shoulders and told her that money in circulation had a way of coming back. He was a businessman, he reminded her, not a philanthropist.

She reported her concerns to Joe, but he simply gave her blanket authority to support Carl or terminate him. There were times when she could have done with a little less trust and a little more authority.

She dismissed her last section of martial arts students, a fairly hopeless group of gnomes, imps, brownies, and fairies, together with a pair of trolls who could easily pick up an old-style gasoline powered car but who seemed barely manage to walk without tripping over their own huge feet.

Snori, the troll who had helped her and Carl rescue Dean, had joined along with one of his friends. Despite, or maybe because of their extreme clumsiness, these trolls were her favorite students. They were always eager for new assignments, spent countless hours committing even the easiest Kata to memory, and showed endless patience with the younger students. Even better, Danielle thought she'd seen a hint of gracefulness in their movement lately. The idea of a quick, talented, graceful troll was a little disconcerting to Danielle when she chose to think about it—so she tried not to.

Carl walked into her dojo just as the two trolls, glorying in their new green belts and sweating from the intricacies of basic Kata four, finally wandered out the door, squabbling like trolls, but also discussing the new Kata and, to Danielle's complete shock, analogizing the movements of the Kata to the current status of the relationship between humans and impaired. That was a direction Danielle wouldn't have taken her martial arts, and a direction she would have bet money no troll would consider. Could there be more to the impaired than the warders knew?

She forgot everything when she turned her attention to Carl. She hadn't been neglecting him, but he had been busy and so had she. The surge of pleasure at seeing him surprised her.
He's your herd,
she reminded herself.
Never develop a personal relationship with a herd
. Lesson twenty-three from the warder handbook.

"We've isolated the original virus,” Carl announced. “And we have at least some ideas about the initial vector. I think it's time for you and me to celebrate."

The last time she'd celebrated with Carl, it had led to a riot. She reminded him of that, together with the fact that he had a whole tribe of lab assistants and fellow scientists working on the project. They, not she, should be involved in the celebration.

"You're the one whose faith let us get started and keep moving,” he assured her. He winked, “Besides, you're a lot more fun than most of the scientists. I hate to stereotype, but what a bunch of nerds."

And there were more and more scientists. Carl kept hiring, adding anyone who had the experience and scientific background he was looking for. All of which meant more late-night work for Danielle as she bugged their computers, phones, and offices, then analyzed the results.

She kept waiting for warder scientists to request particular results or data points for replication, but so far, her reports to regional headquarters had dropped into a black hole. That, however, didn't keep her from doing her job. Aside from Carl himself, she doubted if anyone had a better idea how the project was coming than she did.

Still, getting an English language summary directly from Carl could help her get a handle on some of the more confusing bits of his research. She almost persuaded herself that she was accepting his invitation for that reason. Unfortunately, she'd received advanced training in detecting lies. Her pulse, steady even while running through the Kata with the trolls, had accelerated considerably when Carl had walked into the room and jumped again when he asked her for what she could reasonably consider a date.

She told herself that, as long as she was stuck here, she might as well enjoy it.

Not that she was really stuck here. She had to keep reminding herself of that. She could terminate the project any time she wanted. All she had to do was turn herself into an uncaring psychopath and murder Carl.

"Celebrating sounds fine,” she told him. “But first, you'll have to explain to me why isolating the virus is a good thing? I would have thought that would be dangerous. An opportunity for further spread of the infection.” It was, after all, one of the dangers that Joe Smealy had particularly warned her about.

If Carl laughed at her, got all smug and superior, it would make it a little easier to kill him. If he refused to tell, she could persuade herself it was her patriotic duty. Maybe.

Instead, he nodded. “I've wrestled with that question myself. Some of the researchers believe that there was a special set of circumstances that led to the infection and that, unless it is repeated, we are safe. The existence of late onset impaired seems to disprove that theory. That and my preliminary findings on the vector itself."

"So isolating the virus is dangerous, then.” She slipped out of her gi jacket only to see Carl's eyes tracking her every move. Well, it wasn't as if he hadn't seen her in a sports bra before.

"You're looking good, Danielle. I think you've got a real knack for teaching, especially for working with the children."

Oh, yeah. She'd be a great mom, too. If she didn't assassinate her children the way she suspected she'd eventually have to terminate Carl.

"Thanks. And they're not all children. But don't change the subject. I'm concerned about the virus.” The bio-wars two decades earlier had made everyone critically aware of what damage a virus outbreak could do. If a new return of magic infestation broke out among the normals, civilization itself might fail. That, more than anything, was the nightmare the warders had been set up to prevent. This was the kind of risk that Joe had warned her about. Exactly what she'd feared from the moment she'd left Joe's office and returned to the zone.

Carl shrugged. “It became pretty obvious that there was some sort of DNA shift in us magics. There are some interesting DNA segments in the human genome that have always been considered to be junk but, when zapped by the virus, translate themselves in a way that brings about the magical talents."

"Magical impairments,” she corrected. This was a critical distinction. If magic became seen as anything other than an infestation, there was no telling where the world would end up.

He paused and looked at her. “Magical impairments, if you insist."

"So the virus goes in and changes DNA and all of a sudden you're a werewolf or a zombie or a dwarf? How likely is that?"

Carl shrugged. “It's not impossible. There's pretty good evidence that it was a virus which led to the speech gene mutation a few hundred thousand years ago. In some ways, this is similar. And there aren't that many other ways to alter DNA once it's been formed. Using genetically altered viruses for gene therapy was one of the key discoveries of the twentieth century. So, I'd have to say it's pretty likely that it happened. I won't try to guess the likelihood that a naturally evolving virus just happened to release multiple latent magical, uh, impairments, though."

BOOK: In the Werewolf's Den
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