The components of the 9-millimeter automatic lay scattered across her workbench like a three-dimensional schematic. “Keep track of your parts,” her father had told her and that advice, at least, had made sense. The pistol was stock, a low-end brand, and sporting no modifications beyond aftermarket grips and iridescent dots on front and rear sights. No surprise the cheapskate owner required the services of a gunsmith now, she figured. A higher end manufacturer would have employed a better grade of steel for the frame rails, and a gunsmith assembling a custom build would have swapped out the rails and channeled longer tracks into the slide.

            “More work for me,” Heidi Weylund muttered.

            And easy, high volume work at that. Occasional, painstaking custom work provided a nice change of pace, but seemed so time consuming.

            She considered the rails, eyeballing the linear deviation. She sighed, reached for her digital calipers, just for confirmation. Yes, that was the problem.

            She could order a new part, buy the client a quality replacement, and return a handgun superior to the one he’d brought in. But parts delivery took time. And then there was the expense to consider. Which she’d have to front, of course.

            Instead she took a deep breath, closed her eyes to summon the True Sight, then examined the frame rail again. Now she could see the warp of the steel, the precise spot where the latticework of atoms shifted gradient.

            Heidi clamped the rail in the vise and reached without looking for her two-ounce ball peen hammer. A few taps, timed with a little nonsense ditty she sang in tempo with the resonance of the steel, and the rail was aligned. Probably truer than it had been fresh out of the box. It would never compare to higher-grade steel, but unless the client ran a few hundred rounds through the gun every month he’d never know the difference. Judging from the brand of pistol, she deemed such frequency unlikely; a serious shooter wouldn’t have bought a bargain basement model like this.

            She reassembled the pistol with rapid, practiced motions. There: easy money.

            She laughed, imagining what her father would say if he could be privy to that thought.

            A wall-mounted speaker buzzed, announcing a customer at the front door. Heidi rose from behind the bench, pausing to check the video monitor before leaving the workroom. The camera above the locked, steel-core door transmitted a foreshortened view of a single figure, male. He fidgeted, cast a glance over one shoulder. The other shoulder bore a slung backpack.

            Heidi took up her position behind the counter in the storefront, then pressed the door release mounted on the underside of the countertop. Bolts clacked.

            She pressed the intercom button.

            “It’s open. Come on in.”

            The door opened and the man entered, allowing her a better look at him than the vantage the security monitor afforded. She canted her head appraisingly while keeping her hand on the butt of the .357 magnum revolver holstered under the countertop next to the array of concealed electronics. A lot of gun for her, the .357; she hadn’t inherited her father’s size. But the pistol’s six-inch barrel helped tame it.

            She pursed her lips, musing. She tended to prefer large, blocky men, blondes or redheads built like bludgeoning implements. This man was darker, perhaps Levantine; slim, a knife blade rather than a hammer.

            He was attired in grey slacks and a charcoal sport coat. Black shirt, no tie. Neat and conservative, but not office bound. She deemed the backpack over his shoulder the proper accessory for him, neither a briefcase nor a messenger bag, but something functional, middle-of-the road.

            “Is there a firearm in the backpack?” Heidi asked.

            The man nodded, then looked back over his shoulder as the hydraulic arm finished easing the door closed and the locking bolts shot to. He didn’t start – no surprise at the noise, only an alert, smooth reflex.

            Heidi approved.

            “Welcome to Weylund Gunsmithing, sir. Please set down the backpack on the counter and let’s have a look.”

            He placed the backpack on the polished quartz surface and stepped back.

            “It is in the case, there in the second pocket.” His smooth baritone voice contained the hint of a tremor.

            She unzipped a pocket, retrieved a grey plastic case, and snapped open the latches.

            “Kimber .45. Nice. Skeletonized hammer, expanded trigger guard. Mounting rails. Good work. What seems to be the problem with it?”

            “Well, ma’am – “

            She cut him short. “Heidi. Heidi Weylund. I’m way too young to be a ‘ma’am.’”

            “Of course. Sorry, Heidi.” He held out a hand. “Efrem. It is a pleasure to meet you Heidi Weylund.”

            He smiled. He had a nice smile. Heidi returned it as she shook his hand.

            “The thing is,” Efrem said, “that there is nothing wrong with it. It’s just…for what I need it to accomplish there isn’t enough right with it, if you follow me. See, rumor is that you have the gift of providing certain modifications. Modifications one might need if, say for example, one might require protection against one of the jötnar.”

            Heidi lifted an eyebrow. An Initiate? He didn’t look the type. Too young, perhaps. Too…normal. Still, you never could tell.

            “So, it’s like that, is it? What did you have in mind? Do you know his True Name? I can weld a plate embossed with his True Name in reverse to the lip of the magazine and imbue the plate with a Charm of Bonding. That’ll stamp the ogive of each bullet you fire from that magazine with his True Name. Pretty effective, I’m told.”

            “Ogive?”

            “Sorry – shop talk. The bullet’s nose. Each one will have his name on it. Literally.”

            Efrem shook his head. “I don’t have his True Name.”

            “Is he invisible? I can slide a penlight on the mounting rails that’ll provide a beam of the True Sight.”

            “No. At least I don’t believe invisibility is one of his tricks. He is — less subtle than his pedigree might suggest.”

            “Known vulnerabilities? Silver, perhaps? I think I’ve got a box of silver hot-loads in .45 somewhere in back.”

            “I wouldn’t want him to bite me, but I’m pretty sure Finn is no werewolf.”

            “Finn?” Heidi asked.

            “The jötnar in question.”

            “Well then, Efrem, might I suggest a Charm of Accuracy?”

            “You might. I defer to you expertise. I need some sort of an edge and I don’t know where else to turn.”

            Her favorite sort of client: one with nowhere else to go.

            Ten seconds later she had Efrem’s pistol field stripped, the parts set back in the case with the exception of the barrel. That she retained.

            “Make yourself comfortable, Efrem. Relax. Read a magazine.” Heidi gestured towards the coffee table in the corner flanked by a pair of black suede tub-chairs. A selection of shooting magazines fanned across the center of the table next to an air pot full of coffee and cardboard cylinders containing sugar and powdered creamer.

            Heidi returned to the workroom, bringing the barrel with her. She strapped on a tool belt containing her portable gear.

            She sat in her work chair, cradling the barrel in both hands. She leaned back, settling into a comfortable position, and closed her eyes. She took several deep breaths, reaching through the True Sight.

            The silence of the deep forest greeted her when she opened her eyes. Tall, dark pines enveloped her in a cool, fragrant embrace. A breeze lapped at her face, emanating from the clearing before her. And there dominating the clearing – massive, climbing to dwarf the tallest pines, rising ever higher, bough above bough, to disappear into the clouds – loomed the Tree.

The wonder of beholding the Tree had faded over the years but would never completely disappear.

She remembered. A little blonde, pig-tailed girl clutching her teddy bear in one hand, the other engulfed in her father’s hand. She remembered the fear. She remembered the awe. Not simply the awe she always felt in the presence of her father. Günter Weylund was a primal figure, a shaggy bear of a man, his massive forearms a pattern of forge-burn scars disrupting a thicket of tawny hair. What the Tree engendered was something deeper, something more akin to worship than respect. Her father led her into the clearing, her tiny hand seeming to end at the wrist where it disappeared within his thick-fingered paw.

            “The Tree, Heidi, is the source of wisdom. All our gifts derive from here. But don’t forget that experience is a teacher every bit as worthwhile as the Tree. The Tree is our secret but it should not be a crutch. Everything worth having is worth paying the price for. I have no interest in taking short cuts. They are ultimately never worth the perceived convenience.”

            His voice was solemn, but even his growling bass seemed swallowed by the vast stillness pervading the clearing. She nodded, trying to contain her anxiety.

            “Always remember,” he’d said, emphasizing the importance of the point with an upraised finger, a blunt digit capped with a dirty, broken nail, “that a thing worth having is a thing worth earning. And wisdom is to be prized above all else. So if you wish the Tree to grant you wisdom you must relinquish to it something of great value to you.”

            She’d bit her lip, thinking, before raising her teddy bear aloft as an offering.

            She’d always wondered what the Tree wanted with a threadbare teddy bear, not to mention why, if what the Weylunds received from the Tree were ‘gifts’, the Tree required anything at all.

            “I wonder what dad offered up,” Heidi said as she entered the clearing, the base of the Tree swelling above her like a living cliff.

            Heidi found her favorite spot, a juncture where the heads of two roots humped up from the pillowy turf before plunging back in. She sat, wriggling close to the Tree, letting the heat pulsing beneath the bark warm her back.

            She selected a diamond point stylus from her tool belt and held the tip to the steel of the 1911 .45 barrel. Then, letting the wisdom of the Tree filter through her she etched a Charm of Accuracy into the metal.

            Heidi found herself humming “The Battle of New Orleans.” Günter loved that song and she’d grown up listening to it, collapsing in giggles at the thought of alligator cannons.

            Her back protested when at length she uncurled her legs and rose to her feet. She could not tell how long she’d been hunched over. This place seemed timeless. But she doubted she’d been at it long. A Charm of Accuracy was about the simplest crafting in her repertoire, no real test of her skill. She’d learned the art from the Tree long ago and no longer felt any obligation to squeeze a few drops of blood onto the bark in payment. Seemed to her that Efrem required only a generic bit of work. What the client needed the client would receive. Within reason.

            She strolled out of the clearing and rose from her work chair.

            Efrem sat in one of the customer chairs leafing through a recent issue of “Guns & Ammo.” Steam coiled up from a cup of coffee on the table. The disconnect between her subjective time with the tree and the flow of time here in the middle-realm always carried a momentary disorientation.

            Efrem rose.

            “That was quick,” he said.

            She held up the barrel so he could admire her work. Then she slid the bolt into the receiver and deftly reassembled the pistol.

            “It takes as long as required,” she said. “No more. No less. Weylund Gunsmithing means efficiency.”

            “I’m not complaining. Fast is good. See this thing with Finn…” Efrem trailed off, leaving the thought unfinished.

            Heidi left him hanging. She knew he was deliberately leaving an opening for her to inquire about his hazardous dealings with this jötnar, Finn. But while Efrem was kind of cute, she did not get involved in her customers’ business. No profit in it.

            “Well, what do I owe you, Heidi?” he asked just before the silence reached an awkward phase.

            “No parts, just labor. Let’s call it an even hundred. Discount for a man with good taste in 1911’s.”

            Why had she added that? Was she actually flirting with this man?

            Efrem counted out five twenty-dollar bills from his wallet.

            “Do you mind if I insert a magazine?” he asked.

            Heidi hesitated. Then, “Go on. You seem a trustworthy customer.”

            Her hand did stray below the countertop though, as Efrem produced a loaded magazine from his backpack and slipped it in place.

            Beveled magazine well, Heidi noted approvingly.

            Efrem looked at the pistol in his hand, then raised an eyebrow at Heidi.

            “Go ahead, Efrem. Cock and lock.”

            “Thank you, Heidi.” He chambered a round, then slid the pistol into a paddle holster at his belt. “And goodbye.”

            The bolts clanked shut as the door closed behind him.

            There was, Heidi decided, still time to get some work done before home, dinner, and big fluffy slippers beckoned. She settled herself behind her workbench and grew absorbed in disassembling a rust-flecked .32 revolver a client had found at an estate sale. Heidi received these from time-to-time, aged firearms garage-sale treasure hunters hoped would stand revealed as valuable antiques. In Heidi’s experience such collectors met disappointment more often than not.

            But she got paid either way.

            The buzzer announced another client. Now? It had to be after closing.

            She checked the security feed. Suit, tie. Full head of wavy hair. A dim nimbus obscuring the figure. Such were her impressions. The dusk worked against a clear picture and the lights in the parking lot had yet to warm up to full intensity.

            In the front room Heidi assumed her position behind the desk, one hand on the pistol. She was prepared to inform the customer she was closed and ask him to return tomorrow. Still, she did not want to act in haste and inadvertently turn away a lucrative commission.

            She buzzed him in.

            He sauntered in, a casual rolling walk drawing her attention to his long legs and broad shoulders. Then he smiled and for a moment all she saw were teeth, gleaming white, and prominent, sharp-tipped canines. Shaggy hair fell almost to his shoulders, and thick mutton chop whiskers grew near to the point of his triangular chin.

            He wore a suit of some fabric that carried a sheen – a dark green silk-blend that shimmered with silver glints. His wing tips bore a mirror polish.

            “Heidi Weylund?” he asked, his voice growling menace.

            “Might be,” she said and decided she could do without this commission, whatever it was. “Doesn’t matter this evening though; we’re closed.”

            He ignored her comment and took another step in. Gods! he was tall.

            “You had a customer earlier today, Heidi. He would have requested a rather – unusual – bit of customization.”

            Heidi cocked her head, looking at the man anew. He didn’t strike her as an Initiate. Rather the opposite in fact. While he appeared in sharp focus when viewed head on, looking at him from the corner of her eye was another matter entirely. He blurred at the edges, fuzzy where the outline of his suit should provide crisp delineation. He stood right before her and yet seemed elusive. This was no Initiate. This was the sort of creature Initiates tended to oppose.

            Her left hand crept to the small of her back, brushing against the hilt of the knife her father had given her. Its touch always provided comfort, and this situation caused her distinct discomfort.

            “How did you find me?” she asked, ignoring his comment in turn.

            A wet section of red tongue lolled from his mouth as he barked a laugh. “You advertise, Heidi.”

            All Heidi could think about then was what her father would say if he knew.

            She could see him at the departure terminal. Ancient leather satchel slung over one ham-sized shoulder. He still loomed over her, even in her twenties.

            “Günter. Dad. C’mon, Japan?” She didn’t bother to disguise the incredulity in her voice, though she thought she masked most of the hurt.

            “I’m not too old to learn, Heidi. I’ll stop striving to improve my craft when I can no longer lift a hammer.”

            “Günter, there’s nothing they can teach you that you couldn’t learn from the Tree. They’re just going to use you. Some Hanzo or Watanabe or whoever will be bowing and scraping to customers, taking credit for blades you make.”

            She could see it. Her father, looking comically oversized hunched over a forge intended for more compactly built smiths, bathed in sweat while a half a dozen Japanese apprentices took their ease, drinking saké from tiny china cups, watching the big gaijin with his decades of experience and supernatural gifts do all their work. Meanwhile, an impeccably robed fraud would be up front, pretending he’d made this incomparable sword, this sword that could only have been forged by a Weylund.

            Her father’s gentle smile infuriated her even as it broke her heart. “And what if they do? I don’t forge for fame. I do it for the love of making. Anonymity serves me well. Remember that our gifts serve those who guard us here in the middle-realm. Calling attention to ourselves would only alert those the Initiates oppose. And they frighten me.”

            Heidi ignored that last – the concept of anything frightening her father was too alien to seriously entertain. She clung to the main point.

“But, daddy, they are going to ride your coattails.”

            “Heidi, I don’t care. Others taking credit can only help me maintain a low profile.”

            And then he was gone, making his slow, deliberate way down the concourse, leaving her a parting gift of a fixed blade, double-edged knife of his unmistakable, painstakingly exquisite craftsmanship.

“So save me some time, Heidi. Tell me where I can find the Initiate.” Finn’s harsh demand returned her roughly to the present.

Heidi felt too flustered to bluff. This guy scared her. She didn’t want the bother of cooking up lies. She just wanted Finn gone. But on the other hand she’d be damned if she’d roll over on a customer.

“Two questions,” she said. “What makes you think I know where to find him? And why should I tell you?”

“How? Certainly a smart business owner like you keeps records. Credit card statements. That sort of thing. And – perhaps here I am overreaching – you may feel little loyalty to a customer who begins blazing away with his Heidi Weylund special so soon after purchase. And to so little effect. A poor marksman, this one. Not the sort to deserve your protection.”

Heidi swallowed. That confirmed it. She faced Finn, the jötnar from whom Efrem fled. She managed a raised eyebrow, attempting an expression of only mild interest.

“That the best you’ve got?”

“Ahh,” Finn said, his growl a purring menace. “Recalcitrant. I can respect that. Allow me then to appeal to your sense of justice, to your better angels, before resorting to more – direct – inducements.

“Your customer holds an item I require. That is all. I harbor no ill will – except for a certain natural resentment at being shot at. If he relinquishes the key I’m willing to let that provocation pass under the bridge.”

“A key?” Heidi asked. As long as he talked Finn did no harm. So she was wiling to fill in the gaps with encouraging nudges.

“Yes, I did let that nugget of information slip, didn’t I? You see, my father has been locked up for a considerable amount of time. And, well, we do owe certain duties to our parents, don’t you agree? The lock possesses a key. The lock is the weak point to the chain that binds my father – that keeps him pent beneath the slow-drip torture of the serpent’s venom. The chain is too well forged for me to break, too strong for me to cut, too durable for me to melt. As a matter of fact, unless I miss my guess, an ancestor of your played some part in the forging of the chain.”

Heidi lifted an eyebrow again.

“Oh, do not fret on that account,” Finn said, offering her another lupine grin. “Are we to be held accountable for the sins of our fathers? No, our own misdeeds surely suffice to earn what retribution comes our way.”

His grin vanished into a cold, hard-set line.

“What is coming your way is slow death by disembowelment if you don’t tell me where to find that godsdamned Initiate.”

Finn raised his left hand, displaying talon-like fingernails; blackened, half-inch long, thick, but as sharp-edged as razors.

“I told you,” said Heidi, fighting down a quaver of terror, “I don’t know where he is. He paid cash.”

“I do not offer many chances, Ms. Weylund. Let’s see if you stick to that story with your intestines hanging down to your knees.”

“Look, I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”

“Wrong answer, Ms. Weylund.”

Then he stepped forward, appearing to grow as he moved, assuming an even more feral aspect.

Heidi brought up the pistol and fired.

Finn seemed to shimmer, to flicker. A bullet hole marred the sheetrock of the wall behind him.

Finn grinned, his incisors now decidedly longer. “You missed.”

Well, what had she expected? Finn was a jötnar. She reached for the True Sight. What good that would do she couldn’t guess. She’d inscribed Efrem’s .45 barrel with a Charm of Accuracy and he – a trained Initiate – was probably a better shot than she to begin with and little good it had done him. Still she had to try something.

With the True Sight overlaying her vision she saw Finn as a double image, one ghostly form like a transparency atop the other, though which appeared more solid fluctuated. One image remained the seemingly human, intimidating man who’d entered her shop. The other was a snarling, two-legged wolf, a creature of fur, claw, and teeth.

She fired again. The twin figures did not move but their immediate surroundings did. Where the taupe and cream wall of her front room had stood there appeared instead a dark forest, leaves and needles a green shaded nearly black. A gloom shrouded the dense woodland, relieved only by a reddish-orange glare, perhaps some vast but distant conflagration.

And then the storefront reappeared, sporting a fresh bullet hole.

So that’s how he did it. The realization shot through the portion of her mind that wasn’t threatening to succumb to panic. He doesn’t dodge bullets, he world-shifts, transitioning from the middle-realm to – where? Jötunheim?

“Let’s see what you had for lunch today,” Finn said.

Heidi registered a blur, then Finn crouched atop the counter, leering at her simultaneously through mouth and snarling muzzle. He was fast. Maybe he coulddodge bullets.

Gods, she did not want to die.

She lowered the pistol, slumping, arms hanging limp. As she did so her left hand brushed against the hilt of her father’s knife.

Heidi straightened, whipping the knife free of the sheath and driving it up at the figure poised above her.

Finn shifted realms but the knife shifted with him. Heidi watched his grinning triumph and his slavering, wolfish smile switch to shock as the knife blade plunged into his right hip/right haunch.

He howled, dropping to the floor. The knife tore free, splattering black droplets of blood on the countertop.

“This you will pay for,” he said, his voice a tight, pain-filled rumble emanating from deep within his throat. He limped through the door and was gone.

#

A certain trepidation slowed Heidi as she neared the complex of identical concrete and cinder block structures that made up the suburban business park in which she leased the space for her gunsmith shop. She’d locked up and fled as soon as her heart slowed its machine-gun cyclic rate to something approaching normal. Heidi retained a memory of setting the alarm and turning off the lights, but she’d little recollection of driving home.

Now in the Jeep Grand Cherokee creeping toward her reserved space in the parking lot her eyes flicked about, searching for any sign of Finn. If he were to set an ambush where would it be? The business park occupied a leafy suburban district about a mile off the freeway, a sprawl of concrete encircled by green space. It certainly provided enough concealment for a lurking wolf. Perhaps he waited inside, having bypassed a lock and alarm system meant only to discourage human trespassers.

But what the hell. She pulled into her spot. A little caution was commendable and – she allowed – understandable given the events of the previous evening. But she refused to give in to fear. Or so she told herself, letting the Jeep idle for another five minutes before cutting the engine. She gave the car door a resolute slam and strode to the shop door, keys in her right hand.

She kept her left hand on the hilt of her father’s knife.

Heidi inserted the key. A motorcycle rumbled up fast from behind. Her hand jerked back and the keys dropped to the sidewalk. She spun, loosening the knife in its sheath.

The motorcycle – Italian, she thought – braked hard, stopping with a chirrup of rubber. The rider reached up to remove a full-face helmet.

Efrem.

Heidi breathed. Not Finn.

But that only meant she faced a different collection of problems. The set of Efrem’s face suggested either worry or anger.

He turned to hang his helmet from a handlebar and Heidi crouched to snatch up her keys. Why let him see how rattled she was?

She’d punched in the alarm code and flipped on the lights by the time he entered, smoothing down his dark hair. His clothes were rumpled, which did not surprise Heidi as it appeared to be the same outfit he’d worn yesterday.

“I’ll make some coffee,” she said. “I think we could both use a cup.”

He nodded and slumped into a chair. His gaze fixed on her. Heidi couldn’t decide if it was an angry glare or the unfocused stare of exhaustion.

“So, Efrem, what’s Finn’s beef with you?” she asked to fill the silence while she measured and poured.

Efrem stirred in his chair, blinked.

“Finn – ah, Finn wishes to release a particularly dangerous, um – entity, from imprisonment. He needs a certain item to do so. The guardians of that item caught wind of his scheme and decided to move it before he could steal it. I was the chosen delivery boy. But Finn…well I guess the appropriate expression would be that he scented me.”

Heidi nodded. That comported with what Finn had told her.

“He paid me a visit last night,” she said, flicking the toggle switch on the percolator.

Efrem sat up. “Oh?”

“He was looking for you. Thought you might have left a credit card trail or a business card.”

“I am sorry, Heidi. I did not mean for you to get involved. Are you hurt?”

“I’m OK. He was a bit irked at me. I had to prod him with a knife to convince him to leave.”

“Then you did better than I could,” Efrem said. “I emptied a magazine at him. I swear it was a perfect grouping, center mass. But…” Efrem shrugged.

Heidi gestured at the bullet holes in the wall. “Wasn’t your fault, Efrem. I didn’t do any better from point blank. He’s shifty. Moves in and out of the middle realm too fast. Perhaps that .45 isn’t enough gun.”

Heidi could see Efrem mulling that over. The coffee finished dripping into the pot and she poured two cups, doing some mulling of her own.

Finn was fast. But how fast? Sure he could shift between worlds when faced with semi-auto rounds. Might be something she could do about that, something she could smith up with the aid of the Tree. But might there not be an easier way? A more efficient solution, an intermediate step that would not require tithing the Tree?

“I think it’s time you traded up to full rock-and-roll,” she said. “Let’s swap out that semi-auto .45 for a fully-automatic machine pistol.”

Efrem looked up from his coffee. “You’ve got something like that handy? Is that legal? Won’t you need me to show I’ve got a Class Three License? Because, let’s be clear, I don’t.”

Heidi ignored the tricky question. “I do have one handy. Not exactly off the shelf. Something I built myself, playing around. Let’s see Finn shift at eleven hundred rounds per minute. Machine pistols are crap for accuracy, but I think Finn is a cyclic rate problem.”

“What’s that going to run me?”

“Tell you what: Finn is becoming a pain in my ass now, so let’s consider it a loan for now. I’ll engrave another Charm of accuracy for another C-note. You borrow the machine pistol. If you like it, then we’ll discuss licenses and price. Deal?”

Heidi leaned against the Tree, engraving the barrel she’d machined and bored herself. The Charm replicated the previous day’s work and Heidi finished it in a satisfyingly efficient manner. She patted the Tree amiably before she left. Still she felt a faint unease, as if she’d spent an hour in a coffee shop chatting with a friend without springing for at least a cup of tea.

Efrem counted out another stack of Jacksons and took the proffered machine pistol with a workmanlike interest.

“Ammunition?” he asked and Heidi handed him a box even before he finished the question.

Efrem thumbed cartridges into extended capacity magazines. Heidi enjoyed the steady click, the methodical, practiced motions.

“So, I ought to run through one of these magazines in about -” Efrem did not finish the question. The roar of an engine preceded a crushing protest of fiberglass and metal.

Through the security monitor above the door Heidi saw a full-size Nissan pickup truck come to a stop atop the crumpled remains of Efrem’s motorcycle.

The door of the truck swung open and Finn stepped out. The sound of a magazine slapping into a pistol well jerked Heidi’s attention towards Efrem.

“Let’s try this again,” Heidi heard Efrem mutter as he walked to the door.

Efrem worked the slide, then pushed open the door to confront Finn, Heidi trailing.

“Hand over the key, little man,” Finn said. “We already know you’re a piss-poor shot.”

The machine pistol commenced its chatter, like an angry squirrel scolding through a megaphone, Efrem contorting his wrist to compensate for the jack hammering recoil constantly throwing him off target.

Heidi called on the True Sight.

“No,” she breathed.

Finn shifted worlds with the speed of frames of film spooling through a projector, the worlds appearing to strobe and overlap. Even that should not be fast enough to avoid catching a bullet. But Finn wasfast enough. Some rounds tore through Finn’s position as he shifted into the realm of the jötnar. As he flickered back other slugs appeared to correct in mid-flight, zeroing in on his heart, the Charm of Accuracy performing its arcane function, rounds veering like miniature heat-seeking missiles. And yet, just as bullet should strike, Finn twisted, dodging each projectile like a hyperactive matador.

The staccato barrage ceased.

“You don’t listen well, do you?” Finn’s basso growl cut through the ringing of Heidi’s ears. “No surprise from a little weasel who’d prevent a man from releasing his father from endless torment. A coward who’d shelter behind a woman’s skirts.”

Efrem depressed the magazine release and slapped in a fresh one even as the first clattered against the sidewalk. Heidi was impressed; Efrem possessed some speed as well. But, she feared, not speed of Finn’s caliber.

Still, as Finn approached, Efrem opened up again. And that appeared to slow the jötnar’s advance. Perhaps he required a minimum distance to dodge oncoming fire.

Finn crept closer, testing his agility. Wolf and snarling man shifted, twisted, and inched forward into ellipses of lead. The bullets pumped one after the other from Efrem’s pistol, their threat the only thing preventing Finn from tearing out the Initiate’s throat.

Click.

Empty.

Finn stood a mere yard from Efrem. Efrem could not possibly reload before Finn eviscerated him. Finn’s lips twisted back from his fangs in a vicious grin.

Finn started forward, then checked. Sirens echoed through the concrete baffles of the business park. The police!

Heidi allowed herself a glimmer of hope. Finn could no doubt handle a few cops. But how many riot guns could he face? And how many middle-realm law officers could he slay before other inhabitants of the hidden worlds intervened to maintain secrecy?

It seemed Finn felt it too great a risk.

“Reprieve, Initiate,” Finn said. “But don’t get too comfortable.”

Finn retreated to his truck, backed off of the crumpled motorcycle, and left in a squeal of spinning tires.

“Efrem, are you OK?” Heidi asked

“Yes, for a moment. A moment’s all we’ve got.”

Heidi understood. The police would arrive to find a wrecked motorcycle and about sixty spent shells littering the sidewalk. Then they’d discover an unlicensed, fully automatic weapon. So much for her business. For that matter, so much for staying out of jail.

Efrem handed her the machine pistol.

“Take this. I’ll clean up here.”

Heidi hesitated. Then she nodded, deciding to trust him. He was an Initiate after all.

She trotted into her workroom, breaking down the pistol. She secreted the pieces in the first few hiding spots she could find, then returned to the front.

Three police cruisers idled, haphazardly parked. Red and blue bars flickered disco lights across the wall of her building. Of the motorcycle, of the spent brass, of Efrem, no sight remained.

Heidi spent five minutes explaining to a half-dozen cops that she’d heard no gunfire, seen nothing suspicious, and had no idea what the 911 caller might have heard. She handed out cups of coffee and business cards. Policemen were good customers.

She leaned against the rough concrete wall after they’d driven off and closed her eyes.

“Thought they’d never leave. Did you have to serve them coffee?”

Heidi jumped. There stood Efrem. There lay the ruined bike. Glittering brass lay strewn about the sidewalk like metal confetti.

Heidi collected herself. If she’d bothered using the True Sight…

“Nice illusion,” she said.

“Thank you. Now I suppose I ought to get moving. Sorry to leave you with the mess, but I’m pretty sure Finn is coming back. And, well, I appreciate what you’ve tried to do for me, but…”

“No, Efrem. I haven’t really tried doing anything for you yet.” Heidi squeezed her eyes shut. She recognized a stinging truth in her words. She’d been taking short cuts, not willing to pay the price required for an effective solution. She imagined Günter standing nearby, and she cringed at the look of disapproval on his face.

“Third time pays for all, Efrem. I’ll provide you a way to deal with Finn. I swear it.”

She left Efrem to clean up then returned to her workroom. Reclining in her chair she opened the way to the glade.

The Tree stood as it always did, impassive, an emblem of permanence, the pillar of the worlds.

“OK, Tree. I’ve got the kernel of an idea. But I’ll require inspiration to germinate it. I’ll require power. And…and that comes with a price. I get it.”

Heidi ran her hand along the bark of the Tree. Something of value. A sacrifice. She felt a flash of insight, a notion of what Günter had been trying to teach her all these years.

She blinked back tears. “Günter. Daddy. I get it now. Good enough isn’t good enough. Only my best is. No more short cuts.”

Heidi tugged her father’s knife from its sheath, admiring one last time the clean lines and the almost hypnotic damascene. Then she set the knife into a crotch of a low branch.

“Fair exchange,” she said before taking up her accustomed seat among the roots.

Her original idea uncoiled like a time-lapse film of a rose bud flowering. An intricate piece of work faced her and she felt daunted. But at the same time the challenge exhilarated her.

Heidi returned to the shop. She sent Efrem on a shopping trip, tossing him the keys to the Jeep. She collected tools and material. Then, after tying her hair back in a green bandana, she shifted to the Tree.

She cut lengths of 0.0018-millimeter steel, so thin it felt a bare step above foil. With magnifying glass and a diamond tipped stylus she inscribed Charms of Accuracy in spiral patterns on the strips. Then she rolled the strips into tubes, the Charms inside now forming miniature rifled barrels.

The work taxed her. Her fingers fought cramping. Despite the magnifying glass her eyes felt the strain of the fine detail.

And she remembered. She was twelve years old watching her father work. He sat hunched over a worktable in the forge, absorbed in a length of steel clamped in a vise – a large knife of the Bowie pattern . He’d applied acid and a fine chisel to the blade and now was continuing the etching on to the tang. The design continued unbroken, contracting, diminishing proportionally from blade to tang, flowing seamlessly into the smaller area in an exquisite display of artistry.

“What are you doing that for, dad?” Heidi asked. “You’re just going to cover it up when you put on the grips. No one will see any of it.”

“I see it,” Günter said. “And the steel sees it. Without the continuation the work would be incomplete.”

“That’s stupid, dad. If no one can see it then it’s a waste of time.”

“Fully completing a job is never a waste of time, Heidi. Yes, satisfying the customer is important and he may be satisfied with half-completed work. But the one you truly must satisfy is yourself. And you will always know if you’ve finished the job or not.”

Heidi stretched and flexed her fingers. Fine, dad, I’m going to finish this job.

She set to work on a mound of .00 lead pellets, employing a small butane torch and ball peen hammer to taper each into a roughly conical shape: miniature Minié balls. Then she etched an arcane rune signifying ‘wolf’ in the base of each.

Heidi patted sweat from her brow and tried to ignore rumbling protests from her stomach.

She fit a pellet into each tube. The tolerances were tight. Each required effort and concentration, a bit of elbow grease and a dab of actual grease.

Heidi took up a brick of empty plastic shotgun shells and fit primers and wadding. Next she fit her hand built tubes into the shells. Even with the fine gauge steel the tubes still consumed a deal of shotgun-shell real estate so she was limited to seven tubes, one pellet shy of the standard .00 buck complement. She heated and dribbled a drop of wax into the interstices, firmly seating the tubes.

After crimping the tops she weighed each shell, discarding those that failed to conform to the optimal weight. She inspected the remainder, searching for imperfections.

At last she leaned back, satisfied. Her hair lay limp beneath the bandana, a lank, sweaty mess. Her fingers ached, each an individual source of pain. Her back shot spasms of protest up her spine.

And she smiled. She looked at her work and she smiled.

Heidi tottered erect, collected her work and equipment and – with a grateful nod to the Tree – returned to the shop.

Efrem waited, fidgeting. Only three hours had passed here but Efrem had managed to clear away the remains of the motorcycle, police up the brass, and take a taxi to and from a gun store.

He handed Heidi the Remington .870 twelve-gauge shotgun he’d purchased. Per her instruction he’d picked up the riot gun model with an eighteen-inch barrel and extended magazine tube.

Heidi took the shotgun into the workroom, clamped it in a vise, and shortened the barrel even further with a hacksaw. It was her day for violating Federal firearms laws. But given Finn’s speed she couldn’t risk a tight spread of pellets even from the short eighteen-inch barrel whose very purpose was to allow a wider pattern.

“Sorry, Efrem,” she said when she emerged, gesturing at the newly shortened barrel. “I’ll reimburse you.”

Efrem shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll consider it an expensive rental.”

“Right then.”

She explained her work to Efrem while inserting eight of her shells into the Remington’s magazine tube. She racked the slide, feeding one shell into the chamber, then fit one more shell into the magazine.

Efrem took the shotgun and tucked the few remaining shells into his pockets.

“What do I owe you?” he asked.

“Nothing. My previous work was sub-par. Consider this mitigation. A Weylund has to consider her reputation.”

Efrem nodded. He took the shotgun and opened the front door.

“Time for me to move. I’m tired of Finn getting the jump on me. He’s going to return here, so maybe I can find a spot to get the drop on him when he does.”

But he’d waited too long.

The yip of brakes announced Finn’s arrival. He must have coasted through the lot in neutral, engine off.

Heidi shared a glance with Efrem. “Showdown,” she said. “Good luck.”

Efrem offered a wry grin that Heidi judged half determination and half nerves. Then he strode out to face Finn.

Wishing she still had her father’s knife, Heidi followed.

The parking lot looked barren, the employees of the neighboring establishments already homeward bound. Finn’s truck was the only other vehicle visible besides Heidi’s own.

“Enough,” Finn said as he clambered out of the Nissan’s cab. “Give me the key. Allow me to rescue my father and I will allow you and the smith to live. No talk. No questions. No more tricks. Give me the key. Now.”

The sky had assumed a crepuscular softness. The parking lot’s lampposts flickered to life. Their hum was just audible above the distant drone of rush hour traffic.

Heidi felt the tension rising within her as Finn’s words hung unanswered.

“I can’t let you free him,” Efrem said at last and he swung the shotgun smoothly to his shoulder like an experienced wing shooter.

“I’ll engrave that on your tombstone,” Finn said.

And then he moved, a blurred mixture of human and beast, his coattails stretched taut by the speed of his passing.

The True Sight allowed Heidi to watch the confrontation in a comprehensible manner, the action appearing with the clarity of slow motion. The muzzle flare of the shotgun oozed from the sawed-off barrel like a viscous fluid. She could see the spin and the deformation of the individual pellets as they spread, describing an expanding conical path set to intersect that of Finn. Finn came on, the parking lot and street lamps replaced by dense forest and a dim light the red-orange of a lava flow. A flicker, then the business park asphalt returned.

Finn and the spread of pellets neared. And Finn flowed, twisting and contorting his torso. The speed of the jötnar defied belief. The pellets swerved to track his motion. Too late for some: they passed through the space Finn had occupied a shaved moment before. But despite Finn’s phenomenal speed he could not be in multiple places simultaneously. He could dodge a portion of the spread pattern, but not all.

Two .00 buck pellets plowed into Finn, one catching him in the hip, the second in the lower ribs.

Finn spun at the impact, keeping his feet but thrown off stride. Heidi heard the grim click-clackof Efrem racking the slide, chambering another of her custom rounds.

Despite his wounds Finn kept coming, his face becoming a wolf’s maw as he shifted between worlds. He redirected his steps and regained a full sprint – just as Efrem sent another spread of rune-incised pellets at him.

Finn tried to hurl himself aside but succeeded in eluding only one pellet. He was off his feet as the bulk of the spread tore into the right side of his chest, slamming him to the ground.

Heidi blinked and time resumed its middle-realm flow.

Efrem stood over Finn’s twitching body, prodding the jötnar with the muzzle of the shotgun.

Heidi stepped up beside him, looking down at the massive form leaking blood into the asphalt. He still looked feral, dangerous. She shuddered.

“You do good work, Heidi Weylund,” Efrem said, hefting the shotgun. “Y’know what? I think I’d like to buy you dinner.”

That didn’t sound to Heidi like a bonus from a satisfied customer. A date? She smiled. Why not? He’d earned it.

End

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Photo by jmf1007