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Thrill of the Hunt

Written by Kristine Kathryn Rusch


She hid along the lowest ridge, feet sprawled, extended downhill. She had rolled in the dirt, covering herself and her clothing, her hair buried under a dirt-covered hat, so that she blended in. Her only risk—the binoculars. They could glint in the sun, warning him.

The sun was hot. Powerfully hot. She hadn't expected it. She had been in Northern Europe too long with its pale sunlight and cool summers. She had never been to Argentina before.

She shifted ever so slightly, measuring the distance with her eyes. He had moved to a dilapidated farmhouse, the wood gray and sagging from the harsh weather. Grime covered the windows.

If she hadn't known, if she hadn't followed him here, she would have thought the place abandoned.

He lived here. The Great Wulf, who had once lived in a lavish castle overlooking the Rhine, had settled in this dry and dusty place, living in near poverty.

She wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't seen it for herself. She tracked him here, watched him enter that ruined building. He looked like so many German exiles in this part of Argentina, back bowed, too thin, defeated.

They shouldn't have seemed so defeated, these German exiles. They escaped.

The binoculars were heavy, and they yielded little. The crookedly hung front door. The broken stoop. Empty chicken coops.

The farm clearly did not sustain itself and the Great Wulf did nothing to change that. He hadn't tilled the land or hired anyone to help him. He kept no animals, and he appeared to live alone.

But she had no way of telling what lurked behind that door.

She didn't want to go in. Once she went in, she would be at his mercy. She would stay outside and kill him the hard way.

With a rifle.

And, with luck, he would never know what hit him.

* * *

In the end, she had volunteered.

She found that ironic now, that she had volunteered. She had learned he was in Argentina, and she saw it, not as an opportunity for vengeance, but as a way out of Europe.

Europe, so defeated, so destroyed. Everywhere she went, she found rubble, starving people, begging children. She could not help them. She did not want to help them, if the truth be told.

She used to have compassion, back before two world wars destroyed it. Or perhaps it wasn't the wars, but the aftermaths. When she met a single starving person, she gave money or food or helped the poor soul find shelter.

When she saw dozens, she turned away.

But now that there were thousands—thin ragged near-corpses—she felt only irritation. Irritation at them for failing to provide for themselves somehow (even though she knew so many of them couldn't), irritation at the remains of the governments for ignoring the problem, irritation at the combatants for causing this problem in the first place.

Someone else needed to solve the crisis. She could not. She would not.

She had survived, first by hiding, then by pretending to be one of them. She was blond. She had blue eyes and high cheekbones. She stole the identity of a German woman and lived part of the war in Paris, where a semblance of a civilization remained.

She stayed through the liberation with yet another piece of identification, this one marking her as French (her language skills were good enough, as long as she told people she was from the Alsace). She might have stayed there, if it weren't for the dreams.

* * *

The farm's isolation worked for her and worked against her. With her hair beneath the hat, loose clothing, and dirt all over her face, she could pass for a boy. The problem was that everyone in this little valley seemed to know everyone else.

Things would have been much easier had Wulf still lived in Buenos Aires.

She had parked her old Ford pickup over a mile away on what was little more than a cart path. The roads here were dirt, harsh, uncompromising. The side roads looked like they were created by rabbits.

She had found just enough brush to shield the truck from the most overt gaze, but it would not remain hidden for long. Someone would see it. Someone would report it. Someone would find her.

No movement inside the farmhouse. Nothing outside as well, although she did not expect it, in the heat of the day like this.

She was foolish, lying in the sun like this, with only her binoculars and two old Coke bottles filled with water.

She would need to plan better when she came to do her job.

She would need food, a bit of shade (and there was none, not within range), and enough water to make it for more than a day. If only she could wait until the weather cooled, and the rains started.

But then she would have the water to deal with, and probably the wind.

Plus there would be no guarantee that he would remain here.

No guarantee that he wouldn't sense her.

No guarantee that he wouldn't kill her.

Like he had killed so many before.

* * *

The first dream seemed benign. Her father, sitting in his favorite chair, a worn red velvet chair her mother wanted to replace. Her father had had kind eyes and silver hair. In the dream, he held his pipe, puffing it occasionally, filling the room with the scent of his specially blended tobacco.

She had awakened in tears, still smelling the tobacco, still feeling the warmth of the room.

She missed him. She had never mourned him or her mother. She had moved on—she had to, or she would have died—but now, in the comfort of her Parisian bed, in the first winter after the war (the second war), she felt herself shivering from loss.

If she let in that loss, she would have to let in all the others, and she would collapse. She would never be able to move, never be able to function.

She fled Paris for Venice because she heard that it too was untouched.

But that was a lie. Venice looked the same—no one had bombed its lovely bridges. The canals smelled as ripe as they always had—but the winter was cold and damp and no one had money. So many exiles in that place, so many formerly wealthy Europeans trying to find the life they had had between the war, mourning what they had lost.

It drizzled when she arrived and it drizzled when she left. She had been cold the entire time she was in Venice and she finally decided to go home.

To Germany.

* * *

She stayed low to the ground as she hurried along the ridgeline, watching the road for any signs of anyone. She headed back to the truck.

The silence in the valley was vast. She now knew that when she started that truck's engine, people would be able to hear it for miles.

The valley was narrower than it looked, or perhaps the tall mountains simply reined in sound. Or the heat, accompanied by the unbearably thick humidity, caused some kind of acoustical feedback.

She didn't know.

But it posed yet another risk, in a job filled with risks.

She wasn't sure how she would solve them yet.

Or if she could solve them.

All she knew was that she felt compelled to try.

* * *

When she decided to return to Germany, her first thought was how bad could it be? Sure, she had read the reports of the Allied bombings. She knew that some areas had become craters. She knew that Dresden was gone.

She toyed with going to Munich—her family had lived there for a generation, but that was the generation before hers. She barely remembered the city. She wanted to see Berlin.

She had grown up in a tree-lined neighborhood, in a big rambling house, with fireplaces in each bedroom, and a massive double fireplace on the first floor. Her parents never shut the front parlor, not even in the winter, because they could afford the wood to keep the place heated.

As she edged toward adulthood, she would tease her father, saying he had used some sort of alchemy to make the wood last. He hadn't denied it.

But later, she realized it wasn't the wood he had magicked. He paid for the wood, like he paid for most things.

He never touched the wood. But he used his own brand of magic on the heat, moving it from floor to floor, keeping the entire house warm, when the homes of her friends always had cold spots and closed unheated rooms.

She had been raised in a wealthy household, a scholarly household, and she had taken the comfort for granted.

She had taken it all for granted—the clothing, the rich food, her parents as they laughed late at night.

A child raised in love, her mother used to say, will always be able to love in return.

Perhaps, once upon a time, her mother had been right. But her mother had no idea what the future was going to bring them.

Her mother, who would die screaming, blood oozing from the pores in her skin.

Her mother, who would plead for the lives of all four of her children.

Her mother, who, when offered the chance to save one, would refuse to save any at all.

* * *

Even with the windows open, the truck was too hot. She wrapped her shirttail around her hand just so that she could grab the door handle, feeling the metal sear into her palm as she tugged.

She didn't relish the drive back. The open windows would merely blow the hot air around, not cool it off.

She had no idea how anyone lived down here, why anyone lived down here, how they survived the summers or why they even tried.

Christmas had been the worst. She hadn't expected it. She never thought of Christmas in a tropical place, on the wrong side of the equator, where summer and winter were reversed.

She liked the cold, the snow, the dismal gray sky. She hadn't been prepared for the unrelenting heat and the glaring sunshine.

It was on Christmas morning—less than a month ago now—that she realized the Germans here truly were exiles. No self-respecting German would celebrate Christmas in a place like this, not voluntarily, not year after year after year.

She drove back to Buenos Aires in a half crouch as she waited for the bench seat to cool off. It was too hot to sit on, at least for a long period of time, and she thought about that as well.

Maybe she was making the wrong plans because she was in a foreign place, a place so strange to her that she felt on edge just by being here. The heat in December and January, a kind of heat she had never experienced before, the roads that seemed more like paths, the dirt and the dust and the faint smell of manure, coming from the various farms all around her.

In the city, she smelled only exhaust. The buildings, which someone had once described to her as having an old-world charm, did not look old-world to her. She had come from the old world, the very old world, and the buildings there had had a real charm.

Part of Buenos Aires had been built in an old world style, but with new world materials—woods that were unfamiliar to her—and painted a brilliant white so that they withstood the sun.

In the Mediterranean, when the locals used white, they painted it on brick or stone. They knew that stone kept the heat out.

The wood did not.

But, she was told, it grew cold in Buenos Aires during the winter—a damp cold, the kind that seeped into your bones. And the wooden houses were supposed to be good at dealing with that kind of cold. A local had told her that the stone held in the dampness, while the wood let it escape.

She did not know. She hoped she wouldn't have to find out.

By the time she reached Buenos Aires, the truck's seat had cooled enough to allow her to sit. She drew strange looks with her dusty truck, her dirty face, and her filthy clothing. But she ignored them. She knew people thought they were looking at a boy. No self-respecting woman dressed like she did.

Later, when she left her apartment, she would dress in a flared skirt and light blouse, her hair combed around her face, and her make-up just so. Down here, the locals favored bright red lipstick with a touch of rouge, and often they accented their eyes with a hint of kohl.

She was too fair to use kohl and if she used too much rouge, she looked like a German kewpie doll. But if she applied the make-up properly, she looked less German and more American. Her Spanish wasn't good enough to make her sound like an Argentinean no matter how hard she tried. Her fluency in French and Italian actually hurt her assimilation. The words in all three languages were too similar and at times, they confused her. She had to speak slowly so that she would say the exact right things.

When she finally arrived at her apartment in one of the poorer sections of the city, she looked at no one. People didn't look at her either. But she knew what they thought, if they thought of her at all.

They thought the dust-covered boy in the truck was the brother of the woman who had rented the apartment. She made sure they thought this. Otherwise, she never would have rented in a neighborhood like this.

The apartment came with a small garage. She deliberately looked for a place with a garage because, after seeing the poverty in the outskirts of the city, she did not want to leave the truck on the street.

The apartment and garage cost her more than a simple apartment would, but it had the benefit of placing her in a slightly better neighborhood. She didn't care about the money. She had more than enough and her sponsors would give her even more if she asked.

But she wasn't going to contact anyone, not until the job was done.

They had hired her, yes, for an obscene amount of money.

But she would have done the job for free if she had been able to find Wulf on her own. She hadn't been able to.

She had needed her sponsors. They had tracked down Wulf. They had come up with the plan.

She had had no plan, not until 1947 when the dreams became unbearable.

* * *

In Paris, she dreamed of her father, always awakening to the scent of pipe smoke. For a while, she had thought one of her neighbors smoked the same special blend of tobacco, bringing the dreams, but the dreams followed her to Venice, and she knew then and there that they were coming from another place—although she wasn't sure if they came from inside herself or from someone else, attempting to trigger memories.

But the dreams expanded in Venice, changed just enough that she realized they were dreams.

Her father would smoke and smile, leaning back in his chair as he contemplated something important.

Her mother sang as she set the formal dining room table. Their housekeeper would try to stop her mother from working, but her mother would have none of it. She liked to be useful, she said, and since she married, she hadn't felt useful.

Her siblings rarely made an appearance. In some of the dreams, she felt like an only child.

She woke in tears from those dreams as well. Because she was an only child.


In the dreams, she would lean her head on her father's knee. He would put a hand on her head.

Such a comforting gesture. Such a comforting dream. The pipe smoke, the singing, the warmth of his hand.

And then it all changed.

The library got cold, damp, and it smelled fetid. The stink of the canals invaded her dreams.

Until one night, her father leaned forward, his eyes so blue they barely looked human. She had seen him like that only a few times in her life, and the look always sparked fear in her.

It sparked fear in the dreams as well.

"Hilda," he said, and she cringed at the sound of her name. She had abandoned that name when she fled her dying family. She took whatever name anyone gave her now, and she lived by that name until the name was no longer useful.

But Hilda, she had been Hilda to her family, to those she loved.

Those she failed.

And those who failed her.

She would force herself awake after he spoke her name, his voice echoing in her ears. She would walk to the window and look out at the chill, sleeping city, only a few lights burning, and she would remind herself that her family was long dead, her parents were long dead.

She owed no one anything.

But she did not believe it.

She breathed.

She stood.

She lived.

They did not.

And at some point, she knew, she would have to do something about that.

* * *

Her Buenos Aires apartment came furnished. The kitchen smelled of cooking oils, chilies, and garlic, old lingering odors that no amount of scrubbing could erase.

The sofa sagged, but the mattress in the one and only bedroom was firm—relatively new, which made her wonder what had happened to the old one. In places like this, the owners did not replace the furniture unless it had become useless.

Sometimes, as she lay in the heat, the windows open and the city sounds echoing around her, she wondered if the person who held the apartment before her had been elderly, and if he had died in this bed.

Although it would not have been this bed. It would have been another.

To die in this heat would leave an odor, worse than the garlic, chili, and cooking oils smell of the kitchen. So either no one died here, or the dead body was found relatively soon.

Perhaps something else had happened to the mattress. Perhaps the previous tenant had stolen it.

Perhaps the springs had finally poked through.

It was a measure of her life that she though of death first, rancid putrid death, which was what she had found in Berlin.

Ragged people, the stench of death.

A city she no longer recognized.

A place she had to escape.

But she had not known that when she arrived in Berlin.

When she arrived, she thought she was following the compulsion of the dreams.

She thought she was doing what she needed to do to get a little peace.

* * *

"Hilda," her father said, "he is still alive."

She didn't have to ask who "he" was. She knew. With the logic of dreams, she knew her father was speaking of the Great Wulf, even though she hadn't heard of the Great Wulf until her father was already dead.

At Wulf's hand.

Then she'd been hauled into his castle—his lair, he'd said laughing—and propped against a wall with her siblings. Her brother Gunther, all of three. Her sister, Lisel, eight. Her other sister, Eda, twelve. She squeezed between them. Hilda, fourteen.

Still, he hadn't looked at her, the Great Wulf. Thin, austere, with dark hair and dark malevolent eyes. His lips were thin, his beard a mere wisp on his chin. His clothing matched his hair, as brown as the wooden chairs, his skin as gray as the walls.

He did not seem healthy. Hilda had difficulty thinking of him as strong. As powerful enough to murder her father, with little more than a thought.

But he had.

She had seen it.

She had seen it all.

Wulf watched her mother. Her mother, still beautiful, still relatively young. All of her children shared her blond hair, her fair skin. The younger three had her brown eyes. But Hilda had her father's blue eyes, which she took a care to shield.

Their fire hadn't saved her father. They had flashed so blue, she thought he would bring the world down around them. But he hadn't had that kind of power. His gifts were domestic, gentle, built for comfort, not for destruction.

Wulf destroyed comfort, loathed it. Saw it as a threat. She sensed that the moment she walked into his castle, saw the sharp edges, and felt the chill. The most powerful man of his age, and he kept his home cold and unwelcoming.

Especially this cellar, deep beneath the mountain, no windows, nothing except a stout oak door. Eda whispered that perhaps it had been a prison once. A cell, Lisel had corrected.

Her mother had begged them to hush. She had had no powers, always relying on her husband's, and now he was dead.

Wulf had brought her mother here, not because she was special, but because she wasn't. Because he could. He loved tormenting people. He adored tormenting her.

He had tormented her mother alone for days. When the servants brought the children into the cell, Hilda expected to see a broken disheveled version of her mother. Instead, her mother looked as she had before—her dress neat, her feet crossed at the ankles and tucked at the side of the chair, her hair pulled back into a soft bun.

Only her eyes were different. Older. Sadder. Almost empty.

Until she saw the children.

Nooooo, she had moaned.


The word echoed against the damp stone walls. The entire cell smelled of mildew and sweat, a scent Hilda would later associate with fear.

Perhaps that was why she had hated Venice. The smell of mildew. The remains of fear.

Thoughts like that would jolt her awake every single time. The dream would end, but the memory wouldn't. She would roll over in bed, wrap a pillow around her head, try to blunt the thoughts, the recollections, but she couldn't.

She couldn't.

They would come anyway, all of them, flashing through her mind like a broken film.

Wulf sweeping his hand toward the children he had lined against the wall. You can live, he said, if you chose which three of your children must die.

Gunther, crying. Mama. Mama. Wanting to run to her.

Lisel, holding him back.

Their mother, shaking her head.

Choose, Wulf said. You will live.

Mother, shaking her head.

Then they will all die, Wulf said, and you will still live.

Hilda meeting her gaze. Her mother's eyes filled with tears. Let me die, she said. Let them live.

Hilda should have shielded them long before they had been brought to the castle. She should have herded them out of the house, down the tree lined street, into the vastness of Berlin itself. She should have taken them far, far away.

But she hadn't known that then. She hadn't known what was possible. She hadn't known what she could do.

Her eyes warmed.

Her mother panicked, shook her head slightly, the gesture aimed at Hilda, not at Wulf. Later, Hilda would recognize the feeling, know what it meant. Her blue, blue eyes had flared, like her father's used to, when he touched his powers.

She had finally found hers.

Too late.

But she had no idea what they were or how to use them.

Her mother slowly closed her eyes, giving Hilda an example, silently telling her to look down, away, keep her own eyes shielded.

Only one with power, Wulf said, without turning around. Sad how families work, isn't it? The traits you want to give your children aren't always the traits they get.

Mama, Gunther wailed. Mama.

Lisel pulling him close.

Eda clutching Hilda's hand.

Their mother, beginning to bleed, her face, her arms, her clothing, turning slowly red.

See? Wulf said, not to her mother, but to her, to Hilda. See what I can do, just with my mind.

Hilda's memory always broke there. Skipped, like a stone over a clear mountain lake. She could look down if she wanted to, but she never wanted to.

Hilda knew what had happened.

They had all died, in front of her.

He hoped to break her. He did break her.

And after, he set her free, telling her to return when she understood her own power, when she was ready to use it.

"He's still alive," her father said over and over in her dreams.

He's still alive.

Even though they said they killed him.

Even though they said he would never hurt anyone again.

* * *

She had six different guns scattered around her kitchen. She kept the shades drawn and the windows closed, despite the god-awful heat. She didn't want anyone to look inside, see the guns, the bullets, the bits and pieces of other guns, of bombs.

Bits and pieces of her indecision.

The best way to kill a man.

There were so many.

And, in the case of Wulf, so few.

She had three fears about his farm. First, she knew if she got too close, he would sense her. Not all mages could sense magic, but the powerful mages, they could. She could, and she was nowhere near as powerful as he was.

As he had become.

As he had become before everyone spoke of his death.

As he should still be.

Second, she worried that someone would see her and report her, or try to stop her, or recognize her for the outsider she was (the killer she was) and do something about it.

What they would do, she didn't know.

She could defend herself.

She merely chose not to, most of the time.

And third, she worried about the method. She was a great close-range shot. She could kill looking someone in the eye, without the slightest hesitation. She could—and had.

But distance shooting, that took skill. Skill she had, yes, but had never tested in the field. Most of her targets had allowed her to get close or had become victims of her magic.

They were of a piece—her shooting and her magic. Maybe Wulf had known that when he spared her.

Maybe he had changed her into that.

Her mind shied away from that thought, then returned like a tongue worrying a loose tooth. Was magic that corruptible? Or had he had a special skill that allowed him to corrupt?

Or had this been her magic all along?

She had never known—and the war that Wulf had started with his power grab, the war that he had championed, had led to the destruction of all the old-timers. People like her father (scholars like her father) who had kept the history of magic, half in books and half in their minds, passed down like precious heirlooms from scholar to scholar, mage to mage.

She tried not to think of that, tried not to think of how much had died with him, with all of them, in those early assaults by Wulf and his minions.

He had only killed a select few himself. The rest, he let his henchmen dispatch, and they had done so swiftly and with great aplomb. He was a great strategical thinker, a powerful man albeit slightly crazed, a man who wanted the entire world—the entire magical world—and nearly got it.

The nonmagical world would see nothing like him for nearly a hundred years. And even then, Adolf Hitler lacked the magic, lacked the wisdom, and had just a bit more crazy. Circumstances had created him.

She didn't know if circumstances had created Wulf. That knowledge died with the scholars.

With her father.

With generation after generation. Only a handful survived. Some were the least magical, so no one felt threatened by them. No one sensed them. No one searched for them.

Some hadn't come into their powers yet. (Like Gunther, her mind told her, and then she physically shied away. She could not think of her baby brother. Thinking of him destroyed her before. It might—it would?—it could destroy her again.)

And some, an even smaller handful, used their powers to escape.

She liked to think she was part of that handful. She had escaped. But her escape wasn't heroic, like the escapes of so many others she later met.

Her escape had come because Wulf had let her free.

Had he foreseen what she would become?

Had her mother?

That simple closing of the eyes, perhaps it hadn't been a signal. Perhaps it had been fear, dislike, disgust. Perhaps she had seen what her daughter could be.

An assassin.

An assassin for hire.

An assassin for hire who usually relished her work.

She put her face in her hands.

God. What had she become?

* * *

She found him on the tree-lined street where they had grown up. Jacob Weidman, her childhood best friend. Only the street was no longer tree lined. It wasn't even fair to call it a street any longer.

She had come back to Berlin twice before. The first time, after the Franco-Prussian war, to see if anything had changed.

It hadn't. Not to the naked eye anyway. Inside, she could sense the difference: there was no more magic here.

It had made her uncomfortable to stand near her old house, and not just because of the memories. But also because something had been there, a sense memory, an impression, a bit of darkness or the ghostly remains of a long, horrible, lingering death.

She had left Berlin then, left Germany, returning only after the Great War, once again brought to her childhood home by a compulsion she wasn't sure she understood.

The house remained. Some of the trees were gone, replaced by younger, healthier trees. One of the nearby houses had expanded. Another had disappeared completely.

But that sense of anguish was long gone, replaced by something else, a defeat, maybe, among the people who still lived here.

People without magic. People who suffered for choosing the wrong leaders and following them blindly.

This time, she couldn't stay. She need the basics like everyone else, and she saw no point in living in a place without adequate food, without a solid currency.

Without hope.

So she left again.

Only to return after the Second War, compelled by a dream, by her father's voice.

He's still alive.

She wasn't sure why that had brought her here—to the neighborhood that was no longer a neighborhood. No trees, no houses. The Allies had left rubble.

The area still stank of rot, and she knew—a year after the war ended—that the stench didn't come from old corpses, but from new ones. People who had buried themselves in the rubble, or had simply died here, trying to find somewhere else to survive.

No one dug them up, no one searched for them. Berlin was a defeated, divided city, cold and terrified. The Germans all disavowed their recent past (I was in the resistance, they would say. Or I never believed in him anyway. I kept my head down. I did not want to be noticed). Everyone knew they lied, and no one really cared.

For some reason known only to yet another set of leaders, the Allies had divided Berlin down the middle. The Soviet East and the European West. Both parts, gray and hopeless, but those in the Soviet East, even more hopeless, even more frightened, not sure if they had traded one crazy man for another.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, her old home was in the European West. She had gone there, her stomach queasy—not just from the smell—her teeth clenched, terrified of what she would find.

And it was worse, worse than she expected.

Because in her mind, that house had always remained, a tribute to her father, to a life—for all five of the dead—that should have continued, in comfort and style and warmth and love.

She sank to her knees on the rubble near where the home had been—she wasn't even sure if she was close—and heard:

"He's still alive, you know."

The same voice she had heard in her dreams. The voice she had followed here.

A voice, she now realized, too nasal to be her father's. His had been rich, deep, musical. He always sounded like he was singing, even when he was not.

This voice had no music at all.

The voice had invaded her dreams.

Her mind.

She looked up, saw Jacob Weidman sitting on a stoop, just as she had first seen him when they were all of three years old. One of her first memories, one of her firmest.

Little Jacob Weidman. Thin, blond, pale, and beautiful in a small boy way.

Maybe if the house still stood, if the world had gone in a different direction, they would live on this street, in her family's home or in his family's, raising their own children, grandchildren, and the various greats, keeping the books and passing the stories that she had learned from her own father. The history, the secrets, the lore.

And they would joke, she and Jacob, about that meeting on the stoop, all those years ago (nearly a century ago), and they would laugh about destiny and love and the Way Things Work Out.

But he was not a little boy any longer, and she was not a dreamy-eyed little girl.

He was lanky, his blond hair now a muddy brown. His face, once chubby and red-cheeked, the epitome of German childhood joy, now taut, too thin for lines, but carrying suggestions of them all the same. Frown lines, anger lines, lines suggesting a hatred barely suppressed.

He stood when he saw her, brushing off the dust off the back of his pants. That movement remained the same: He had done that the day he met her, only with more energy and verve—a little boy, who would get trouble if his parents saw how dirty he had become.

"He's still alive," Jacob said for the third time.

And because she was angry, because she hated the violation, because she had come here and seen the destruction that had been inevitable, but hurt all the same, she said, "Why should I care?"

Jacob flinched. Just a small flinch. Enough to let her know that her harshness had hit its mark.

"He killed our families," Jacob said.

"And since then, millions of families have died," she said. "The history of humanity. Genocide on a mass scale."

He didn't flinch this time. Instead, he threaded his hands before him. She could sense him, willing himself to be calm.

"They told me you had changed. I hadn't believed it."

So flat, so unemotional, as if he didn't care that the bright, joyful little girl who used to laugh with him, who would probably have become his wife in another life, had become this thing, this creature who lashed out, any way she could.

"Who are 'they?'" she asked.

But she had a hunch. An old man she'd met on a train to Vienna before the Great War, just a bit of magic hanging off him, like an untrimmed thread. A woman her age, who had served her tea in Babington's near the Spanish Steps one hot summer in Rome.

And others. She had met so many—that's how she knew the magical still survived—but she had never joined them.

She never wanted to, no matter how much they begged. No matter how much they claimed she was needed.

"We're building our numbers again," Jacob said. "We can have a community once more."

"But?" she asked.

"We have to get rid of the last of the evil." He seemed so serious. "We don't want them to wipe us out."

The word "again" was implied. Even though the last of the elders used their dying powers to get rid of Wulf and his minions, somehow the plan failed. Wulf lived.

If she could believe Jacob.

Wulf's empire was gone, but Wulf remained, undefeatable. Waiting, lurking, going in for the kill.

Although that didn't make sense. The longer he waited, the more his enemies would build their strength. His minions had destroyed the powerful. They had destroyed the elders and their memories, the scholarship, the research, the spells that enhanced the white magic.

But scholarship could be reconstructed. Research rebuilt. Magic rediscovered. And as new generations were born, the powerful returned. For only so much of it was hereditary. Sometimes great mages appeared with no familial antecedents.

Gunther would have been such a mage.

Had he lived.

But she didn't challenge Jacob. She still had enough respect for him—for their shared past—that she couldn't speak to him with as much disrespect as she would have used with someone else.

Instead, she said—her tone emphasizing her doubt—"You have proof?"

"Yes," he said. "We have a lot of proof."

* * *

In the end, she decided on the rifle, and two pistols, stuck in her belt as if she were a caballero.

Because it didn't matter if she lived.

What mattered was that he died.

She waited two days, hoping that the weather would break. When it did not, she drove back to the farm, wearing her dusty clothing. She had cut off her hair. She no longer cared how she looked (she had a hunch she would not survive this anyway. She would never get another chance to dress like a woman, so why should her vanity get in the way of her mission?) She brought beef jerky, six old Coke bottles filled with water, and more ammunition than she probably needed. She also brought the binoculars, although the rifle's scope would probably have done as well.

She left Buenos Aires two hours before dawn, one of the few vehicles on the road, and bounced her way over potholes on the dusty roads that led into the valley.

It was already hot. It was going to get hotter. She tried not to think about that.

She parked the truck two miles away from the farm, just as the road twisted into the valley. She had found a small area with trees, enough to shelter the truck from casual glances.

She spent fifteen minutes pouring as much dirt over the truck as she could. Then she gathered everything into a pack and hiked the two miles. She wore the truck's keys around her neck, but wasn't sure she would need them.

She wasn't sure she would need anything again.

* * *

The proof Jacob showed her made her eyes hurt.

He took her to a office in a rebuilt section of the city, not too far from the Soviet East. The office, up five flights, was little more than a closet. A desk dominated the room. A boarded up window let in little light, and a single bulb swayed overhead.

She thought, at first, of all those clichéd interrogation scenes from American movies—the overhead bulb swaying, the light driving the criminal to confess—then Jacob turned on a desk lamp, dispelling that illusion.

He pulled over a chair, one that did not match the chair behind the desk.

Nothing matched, and it took her a moment to realize it was all salvage—surviving bits and pieces taken from destroyed buildings, ruined houses, flattened neighborhoods.

She sat at the edge of the chair, suddenly unwilling to touch much of anything in the room.

Then she asked again for proof.

She expected a few papers, but mostly, she thought she would see images. A few photographs, and then a magical presentation, like one she had seen on the only other magical job she had ever done right after the Great War.

The mage had opened a tunnel in the air, and through it, she could see the target as he was at that moment, preparing himself a solitary supper.

That target was the only one she remembered in action. She remembered him as a scrawny man, making himself dinner, not as a corpse she had kicked into an open grave.

But Jacob's magic did not go to the visual. That was why he had projected his own voice into her mind.

No, he gave her nothing magical at all.

Instead, he thrust ledgers at her. Ledgers from banks, from private accounts, from brokerages all over the world, some (according to the notations) painstakingly copied from the originals. Later ledgers were telexes or photostats or both.

Jacob started to explain these to her, but she shushed him.

She might be doing a job that required little intellectual finesse, but that didn't mean she failed to understand balance sheets. Once she found the beginning of it, she realized whose financial ledgers she was looking at.

The Great Wulf's.

The ledgers from before he "died" told a story all their own. Money moved from one country to another, from one account to another. New names formed. New accounts established. Some only numbered, some by name, some in Germany, most elsewhere.

Each account then followed as if it were a separate person. Money tracked, wealth compounded, more identities branching off like bits of trees.

"You found him through his money?" she asked, looking up, her eyes aching.

Jacob nodded, a half smile on his thin lips. Proud of all the work.

All the mundane, non-magical work.

She put her hands over her eyes. She couldn't tell if they ached from the tiny print, the careful scrawls she had stared at for hours now, or because her power was starting to flare, or because it all seemed so simple, an easy, overlooked way of tracking a man she had thought—they all had thought—too powerful to be found.

For the next two days, she studied the ledgers. She wanted to see if there were any flaws. She didn't want to act if there was any chance at a mistake.

There was not.

Some of the money vanished in the 1870s—the Franco-Prussian war, the American Depression. More vanished in the early 1900s as another worldwide collapse threatened, but stopped this time by intervention of an American named Morgan, whom some thought to be a wizard himself. And even more disappeared in 1929.

But Wulf had built up so much money, in so many names, in so many accounts, in so many countries, that the funds overwhelmed the losses. He never lost it all, and he always gained a great deal in the good times.

He was fantastically wealthy.

But he was in exile.

And worse, in 1947, he was a German in exile.

Which to the rest of the world—the nonmagical world—meant only one thing.

A German in exile meant a Nazi in exile, running from his criminal past.

Wulf was running from his criminal past, so that much was true.

He was German as well.

And he had committed mass murder.

Only of a kind the non-magical world would never prosecute.

So it was up to her.

* * *

She could have built a shield around herself, so that the sun wouldn't bake her and she wouldn't feel the heat, but she didn't. She was afraid to use any magic this close to Wulf. She was afraid he would sense it.

But as she lay in the dirt, the sun frying her fair skin, she wondered if he hadn't sensed her already.

She hadn't seen him since the first few days of her surveillance, yet she knew he hadn't moved. His money hadn't moved—she checked with Jacob—and neither had the big green Chevrolet Wulf used to get to Buenos Aires.

If he were going to leave, he would have taken the car. He didn't want to use his magic. He didn't dare—he could be tracked through it.

He was here.

She knew it.

She just had to wait for him to appear.

She had the rifle braced on a little tripod she had purchased at a photography shop. She had learned long ago that little tripods like that held the rifle, keeping it secure in a way that her hands, in position for hours, could not.

Her Coke bottles were buried in the dirt so that they didn't reflect the light (and she liked to think that they stayed cooler, although cooler was, at this moment, a relative term). She had eaten some jerky already, not because she was hungry, but because she had learned long ago that jerky had salt, and a person in the sun needed salt.

Even after several hours, she felt fresh, ready.

Although a part of her, a small part, wanted this to end. She didn't want to think about Wulf any more. To think about (Gunther) the lovely lost house on the beautiful vanished tree-lined street and the life that could have been.

So she forced her mind away from her family, from her revenge, made herself focus on the task.

Which held her for another hour at least, until her dry lips made her realize that she needed to drink or she would be useless.

She sipped from a nearby bottle and continued watching the house. The dusty windows showed no signs of life. The yard looked the same as it had days before.

All she had was a strange confidence that he hadn't left.

She had learned to trust those confidences. She believed (although she did not know) that those feelings were a part of her magic.

She really didn't know what, exactly, her magic was supposed to be. Magic divided itself into parts, distributing itself reluctantly. One person got a bit of this, another got a bit of that.

Through practice and concentration, the bit of this might become a lot of this, but never did it become a bit of that.

She didn't practice much. She had a few skills—she could build shields, and she could augment harm if she really tried.

But she didn't know much else.

She didn't want to think about it.

Magic brought too much of what could have been.

So she waited, and made herself remember the other times.

The times she hadn't used magic at all. The times she got paid, and the times she hadn't.

The times she found a satisfaction in the death itself.

* * *

She found the fat man in the forest outside of Berlin after her first meeting with Jacob. She had actually contracted the job, going to a friend of hers in the Haganah and asking for an assignment.

The Haganah, the underground Jewish defense force based in Palestine, actually had squads of its own that pursued ex-Nazis and members of the Gestapo, but they also had some high-value targets that they couldn't seem to catch or kill on their own.

She had known that for months because her friends in the Haganah had asked her before, and she had said (wrongly, she later realized) that it was not her fight.

She made it her fight after seeing the ledgers. She needed to do something, to get rid of the restlessness, to prove herself to herself.

So they told her about the fat man. He was a high-ranking member of the Gestapo posing as a regular citizen. In his arrogance, he stayed in Berlin, thinking he could pass as a beleaguered German, when in fact, he had murdered dozens, maybe hundreds all on his own.

He confessed to them all before she killed him. He confessed, not because she threatened him, but because she was blond and blue eyed, with round German cheeks.

Fraulein, he said, we are the same, you and I. Inside your heart, you know that these people do not belong on the Earth. You know I did nothing wrong.

She didn't answer him.

Instead, she shot him in the face, just so that he would shut up.

She should have kept him alive long enough to take names, dates, all the things that the Haganah wanted. Or at least a location of files, so that names and dates could be confirmed.

But the bastard had commiserated with her, as if she had understood him. As if she knew what kind of man he truly was.

We are the same, you and I.

But they were not the same.

They were not.

She would have told him that, if she hadn't already shut him up.

* * *

Her scalp prickled in the heat. To keep her mind off the sweat gathering under her shirt, she went through all her killings from the fat bastard all the way back to the dapper little man in Victorian London who had taken it upon himself to slaughter all the prostitutes in Whitechapel.

She didn't remember the people she had killed for money.

Only the ones she had killed for the right reasons.

Like she would kill Wulf.

Suddenly, there he was. In front of her scope, too close to shoot.

He just appeared. She raised her head, but he was already gone.

She felt a shiver run down her back.

An illusion? The real Wulf? She couldn't tell. She wasn't sure.

Then he was beside her. Thin, older, the man she had seen days before.

He smiled. He was missing one of his front teeth.

"I knew you would come back to me," he said in German, and vanished again.

Leaving footprints in the dirt.

The real Wulf. Did he lack the power to create an illusion? Or had he realized that the use of magic would bring everyone to him, so he might as well go all out?

He probably thought he was fooling her. He probably thought she believed him an illusion.

But he wasn't.

He appeared to her front, then on her right.

Front, side.

She felt him the third time, behind her, creating his own breeze. She didn't turn around, trusting (perhaps foolishly) that he wouldn't hurt her.

He wanted her.

She had a sense—oddly—that he needed her power.

"You knew I was here," she said, still facing forward.

"You're hard to miss, my dear," he said. "You send a wave of magic ahead of you."

She hadn't heard that before, but it did not surprise her.

"Such hatred in you," he said, with pleasure. "It gives you power."

And then he was gone. Another breeze told her that.

Gone as if he had never been.

She moved her hands away from the rifle's butt, slowly, carefully. Her muscles were not sore. She had learned how to keep them fresh. She had done this too many times before.

She slid her knees under her torso, crouching, ready.

He appeared again.

In front of her.

She had expected him at the side.

"You cannot predict everything," he said, and laughed.

The laugh was cold. She remembered it as vividly as she remembered (Eda, screaming) her family, her father's eyes, her mother's sad smile.

He vanished again, but not before she saw him, truly saw him.

Tall, thin, old. She had noted the old before. It diminished him, accented the gray pallor of his skin, made him seem more unwell than he had seemed in that dungeon, all those years ago.

Perhaps she was going to do him a favor when she killed him.

Then she realized that thought was one he sent her. It did not belong to her. He was trying to convince her that killing him was what he wanted, knowing that if she believed that, she wouldn't do it.

He was playing with her mind.

Somehow she had let her mind become porous.

First Jacob had invaded.

Now Wulf.

No one would do so again.

She whirled to the left.

Wulf appeared just as she did that, just as she pulled out her pistol.

Before he could speak, she shot him.

The power of the shot sent him tumbling backwards, leaving a brain-and-blood trail in the dust.

She stood, half dizzy, her legs weaker than she expected, worried suddenly that she hadn't shot Wulf, that she had shot someone he had used as a foil.

So she clambered toward the body, her legs aching, her clothes clinging to her overheated skin.

It was him. His features, so familiar from her dreams, had relaxed in death. The shot was clean. A perfect, solid little hole in his forehead, the center of his power.

He was dead.

No one—magical or not—survived a shot like that.

She sank onto the earth, feeling a relief so profound that she nearly passed out. Her father would have approved. (Except that he believed in comfort, not vengeance.) Her mother would have been proud. (Had Hilda done this when the family was still alive). Jacob would be as relieved as she was.

Indeed, came the thought, and she wasn't sure if it was her own. At the moment, she didn't care.

She blinked, then looked at Wulf's corpse. Truly looked at it, as it was now.

He had been a small man. A small old man with tattered clothes and bad teeth.

All those years, she had thought him the embodiment of evil.

Jacob had thought him the embodiment of evil.

Had they given him too much credit?

Or had their belief given him the power to survive?

She would never know. Because she did not want to know.

She did not want to examine him or her role in his survival.

Her role in his life.

She picked up her rifle, packed her supplies in her bag, wiped the impression of her body out of the dirt.

Then she stood over him one last time.

She had buried all the others, the ones she had killed. She had put them into the ground, disposing of them in the most humane way she knew.

But she would give him no courtesy. Let the jackals get him. Let the sun bleach him to bone.

So much hatred in you. It gives you power.

"Yes," she said as she walked away. "Yes. It does."

* * *


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