The mercenary’s hideout was an old lumber yard on the edge of the city, where the forested mountains give way to low, rolling plains that stretch to the other side of Kansas. Like a lot of the other buildings I’d been seeing recently, it looked to have been abandoned for a long time.
It was covered in protections similar to those around the last place I’d found him, albeit much, much more powerful and finely tuned. As before, there were all kinds of symbols and formulae hidden in the graffiti on the walls. There was no sign of life, but I was confident of the information I’d gotten.
I dropped my trench coat in the car. I didn’t want it getting in my way if it came to a fight. Aiko, too, ditched her outermost layer of clothing, revealing a set of scale armor that looked like it should be adorning a medieval samurai. She’d left off the armored gloves and helm this time, at least.
Erin fetched her metal staff from the trunk, and passed Aiko a sword belt. It held the same pairing of wakizashi and tanto I’d seen her use before. The kitsune also pulled out a carbine which, perhaps in an effort to prevent people from thinking she’s old-fashioned with the armor and sword, looked like it would make the average military supplier envious.
It was already loaded, of course. Aiko did not have as much respect for words like “risky” as she perhaps should have.
Kyra, who currently had the sharpest sense of any of us by a wide margin, led the way in. I was next, then Aiko, and Erin brought up the rear. We were all on high alert, with at least one weapon held ready at every step, but at first it seemed like there was little to justify it. We made our way across the empty yard without incident. Kyra made it to the door of the warehouse, and started sniffing around for traps.
And then, without any warning, the door freaking exploded. Shards of wood maybe a foot long were flung nearly ten feet to land at my feet, and there was a literal cloud of splinters around the door itself.
Most of it, though, flew straight out as a single piece. Kyra managed to turn enough that it hit her shoulder instead of her face, but it still impacted with terrible force, throwing her back. She landed hard, but rolled aside almost immediately to avoid what was following the door out.
The thing was better than six feet tall, but so broad it looked squat. Its ash-grey skin was covered with a rough tunic, and it carried an axe in one hand that looked too heavy for me to even lift. It had an ugly, monstrous face, with tiny eyes and sharp, protruding teeth.
It was also one of the few faerie creatures I recognized. A troll, widely used as muscle by the Midnight Court. Depending on what you paid you could get either a stupid, brutish thug, or an extremely skilled, brutish craftsman—and thug. I was hoping this one was the former.
It turned its beady gaze on me, and its mouth split open into an inhuman grin. It took one step forward, raising its axe, and my heart sank as I saw that it moved with calm precision rather than the shambling, lumbering gait I had somehow expected.
The smart thing to do would have been to back up, opening fire with my shotgun and buying time for my allies to hit the thing hard. In fact, that was what I intended to do.
Somehow I didn’t. Without even thinking, I dropped the gun to hang from its strap against my chest, and went for the sword instead. The troll grinned even wider when I did, and it raised its axe invitingly.
The strap was undone in an instant. When I grabbed the hilt, it fit into my hand in a way that seemed bizarrely familiar. More than familiar, actually; it felt natural, as though I’d been missing something all my life and only now realized what it was. Tyrfing seemed almost to sing as I drew it, a high piercing note that spoke of blood thirst and an eager, wild hunger. It might have been my imagination, but I thought the troll’s smile faltered somewhat when it saw the blade. I felt myself grinning as well, savage and feral, and started advancing on the troll.
A more rational part of my mind viewed all of this with deep concern. I was moderately skilled in a handful of martial arts thanks to Dolph and Erin, and I had a werewolf’s strength and speed on top of that. The fact remained that I’d never trained with a sword, certainly never used a sword in my life. Meaning, essentially, that I was just knowledgeable and skilled enough to recognize that I wasn’t anywhere near skilled or knowledgeable enough to go toe to toe with a troll and walk away.
But the instant Tyrfing was in my hand, none of that mattered. My thoughts and doubts alike seemed to vanish, and I was running on pure instinct. The troll swept its axe at my head, the motion far too fast for such a huge bulk. I ducked under it easily, took another step in, and slashed at the thing’s arm.
It shouldn’t have done much. I was in a pretty poor position to actually swing the sword. On top of that, I hadn’t had the time to feed the wolf inside me more power, so I hit it barely harder than a normal human would have. And the troll’s forearm was as thick as my leg, with hide like leather. Between all of those things I was sure that my strike would barely penetrate, and leave me vulnerable as well.
But I hadn’t accounted for the supernatural sharpness of Tyrfing’s edge. The mirror-bright blade didn’t just penetrate. It cut cleanly through both of the troll’s arm bones and came out the other side in a spray of blood a little bit too dark to be human. There was a certain amount of resistance, but not nearly as much as there should have been.
I’m not sure which of us was more surprised. We both stared, shocked, at the stump of its arm for a second. Behind me I heard the troll’s axe, along with its hand and most of its lower arm, clatter to the ground. Its flesh, where the steel sword had touched it, seemed to be smoldering with almost-invisible blue fire, which just added to the effect.
I recovered first, probably because I wasn’t the one who’d actually been injured. I brought Tyrfing around and thrust it hard into the troll’s chest about where the heart would be on a human. The sword sank in almost to the hilt, the tip protruding from its back. I twisted the blade and ripped it back out, bringing with it another gush of blood and fire. The troll dropped to its knees, then its face.
I hardly even noticed it. I was overwhelmed with a rush of emotion, strong and wild in a way I’d never quite experienced before. I felt the thrill of victory, a mad and vicious joy, satisfaction that it was me that had been victorious and my enemy dying in a pool of their own blood. I wanted to dance and sing, and—
And what was wrong with me? I’d felt satisfaction in victory before, but nothing like this. I staggered a couple steps away, eyes closed, fighting to keep from losing my lunch. I dropped Tyrfing and it rang against the ground beside me. As it did, the feeling lessened considerably.
I would like to say that the cursed sword was responsible for all of the joy I felt. I would like to say that, but it wouldn’t be true. The truth is that I am, at heart, a predator, and like all predators I have a certain reaction to other predators invading my territory.
What I’m saying is, essentially, this. Tyrfing played with my emotions in a way I hadn’t experienced before, inspired a savage joy in battle. It made me a worse person—but it had plenty to work with.
I opened my eyes and bent to pick up the sword. It brought with it a slightly muted surge of the same emotions as before, which I managed to largely ignore this time. I looked for something to clean it with, but a moment later realized it was unnecessary. The troll’s blood was vanishing into the sword the same as mine had when I cut myself on it. Within only a few seconds it was gone entirely, the mirrored surface of the blade shining as brightly as ever.
If it had sung when I drew it, it sighed contentedly as it was sheathed. I didn’t have to work at all to let it go this time, and I strapped it back into its scabbard with a definite feeling of relief. The more I learned about that sword, the more convinced I became that if anything, Alexander had understated how dangerous it was.
I was extremely careful as I walked back to the dead troll, where the others were standing waiting for me. I did not want to take another embarrassing, potentially dangerous fall as a result of the entropy curse on the sword. Aiko nodded to me and said, “Nice one.” Erin was too busy looking at how cleanly cut the bones were, and then looking at me with a calculating expression which was frankly a little scary.
Kyra took the lead again as we proceeded into the unlit interior, which was still full of shelves. Erin, fortunately, had brought a flashlight, which put out just enough light to cast some really frightening shadows.
“Do you know where he is here?” Aiko asked.
“Not a clue,” I admitted.
“We search the whole place then,” Erin said. “Kyra, you’re lookout. Make sure nobody leaves.”
She barked once and then stalked into a patch of deep shadow near the door where she would be able to see, hear, and probably smell anyone coming. That left me going first as we filed deeper into the darkness.
Trolls are a lot of things. Sneaky, as it turned out, wasn’t really one of them. I heard the next one coming down one of the side aisles in plenty of time to turn, draw a handful of ball bearings out of my pocket, and throw them at its face. They sparked a dozen tiny, barely-visible fires where the iron touched its flesh.
Like I said. When I fight, I cheat.
It reeled back with a bellow. I sidestepped out of the way as Aiko continued behind me, her short sword and dagger both in her hands.
They were not anything like as deadly as Tyrfing. But they were steel, which—as I’d just seen—trolls do not like. And they were sharp. And Aiko, as it turned out, was good. I’d never really seen her fight before; now that I did, I understood a bit better why she’d never seemed particularly concerned about the prospect.
The fight didn’t much resemble my performance. That had been a short, brutal thing. This was like watching a dance recital. The kitsune wasn’t as fast as a werewolf, or at least wasn’t choosing to show it if she was. She didn’t need to. She moved with the same inhuman grace I’d noticed earlier, and somehow every time the troll swung its axe she wasn’t quite where it hit. She lashed out with both blades as she moved, perfectly timed, and within a few seconds the troll was dripping blood and fire from half a dozen small wounds. Eventually she enraged it enough that it charged her, bellowing again.
I tensed. Aiko was absurdly smooth, but she was still on the small side by human standards, and the troll could have given the average powerlifter fifty pounds. If Aiko went down with that thing, she wouldn’t be getting back up.
It got closer and closer, and I realized that she wasn’t going to be able to get out of the way in time. she was about to get crushed by a charging troll, and I was too far away to do anything about it.
Then Aiko sidestepped with casual grace, letting the troll run past her, with maybe an inch of space between them. I’d half-expected her to trip the thing on the way by, but that was ridiculous. Its sheer mass would have broken her leg.
So she slashed its ankle instead. It tumbled headlong into a set of steel shelving. Then, while it was lying on the floor stunned, she sliced its neck open with her sword.
All in less than thirty seconds. Erin and I never even had to get involved. And Aiko wasn’t even breathing hard.
Damn. I guess Alexander wasn’t the only person whose dangerousness in a fight I’d underestimated.
I stared at the body, and even Erin looked impressed. “Nice one,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
She grinned at me fiercely and wiped the blades clean on the troll’s tunic before sheathing them. “Thanks.”
The third troll attacked from behind as Aiko was standing back up, which was good, because I was worried Erin wouldn’t get a chance to participate.
That fight was shorter and more brutal than either of ours. It swung at her with an axe and missed. She swung at it with her steel staff and didn’t. The tip of the stick impacted the side of the troll’s head. It fell down and didn’t get back up.
Like I said. Erin is a really scary werewolf when she decides to be.
Other than that, nothing much happened inside the darkened warehouse. We didn’t see anything alive other than the three trolls. After maybe ten minutes of searching, we reached a simple door set into the wall.
When I opened it, we saw the same mercenary from before seated at a table playing solitaire. He was using an ordinary deck of cards this time. The lamp over the table illuminated the table, the merc, and not much else.
He looked more or less the same as before. Gaunt and dangerous, dressed in dusty black clothing, he wasn’t the sort of person you approached lightly. The only difference was that his ears were tapered this time, maybe because he was aware that I knew who he was.
“Hey,” I said, stepping inside. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
It was the same ploy as before, of course. Get the mark’s attention and hit them when they’re distracted. He didn’t have his trolls to take us from behind this time, but he didn’t really need them either.
Fortunately for me, I’d been expecting something like that. And, say what you will about repeated and absurd assassination attempts, they really sharpen your awareness. And reflexes. So when a small dart flew out of the shadows in the corner of the room, I dodged without even having to think about it. It hit the wooden door and stuck, quivering.
I was sure he had other things planned. And, as a result, I’m not quite sure what would have happened next if Erin hadn’t suddenly said, “Samuel?”
There was a sudden, startled pause. “Erin? What are you doing here?” The voice was the same one I remembered, and came from the same corner as the dart had.
“Came to have a chat with you,” she said. “But your guards had different ideas.”
There was a brief pause, and then the image of the mercenary at the table flickered and vanished. Wow. I hadn’t even noticed the spell—he was good at that trick.
The actual mercenary walked out of the shadows a moment later. He was carrying a short blowpipe, and had the same expression of perfect calm as before. “You didn’t hurt them too badly, I hope.”
“Killed three trolls.”
“Damn it, Ferguson. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find decent help?” He shook his head and turned his attention to Aiko instead. “You,” he said, pointing at her. “I don’t know you. Who are you?”
“Call me Aiko,” she said simply.
He grunted. “And what are you doing here, Wolf? I thought I told you not to do anything stupid?”
I winced. “Call me Winter. Please. And like she said, we came to talk.”
He paused, then sat down in the same chair as his vanished illusion had used and pulled out the same deck of cards. “What do you have to say?” he asked bluntly, dealing a hand of solitaire.
“You mind telling me how you killed the man at the bakery?” I asked.
“With a knife.” His voice was perfectly matter-of-fact; he didn’t even pause in moving cards around. He was playing faster than I’d ever seen, too fast to think, but every move was right. It was the kind of subtle note that could make a scary person even creepier.
I silently pulled out a few folded sheets of paper and handed them to him. He took them, glanced at the lurid photos Enrico had given me, set them aside. “Nice,” he said. “And I care why?”
Erin spoke up. “Pretty sure that was a rival of your employer’s. Screwing with her message and all.”
“And that seems like the sort of thing she’d want to know?”
She paused. “Doesn’t that seem like something you should tell her?”
“She didn’t hire me to tell her things.”
“What about doing it just to be nice?” I asked.
“I didn’t realize you were a comedian,” he said. He wasn’t smiling.
I was rapidly losing my patience with this particular game. “How about,” I enunciated carefully, “you tell her because if you don’t, I will gut you like a Christmas goose.” I rested my hand on Tyrfing as I spoke, just to give it that little bit of weight as though I might be serious. I’d already taken the restraint off the sword.
He looked up at me and paused in his game. Then he smiled, the expression cold and flat, and resumed playing. “I like your style, kid.” He looked at Erin. “You could stand to take a few pointers from the kid here. He knows how to get things done. I’ll make the call.” He finished his game as he spoke—he won—and swept the cards back into their box.
Erin was giving me an unamused look as he left, while Aiko was grinning like she’d heard a particularly good joke. “What?” I said to Erin. “It worked, didn’t it?”
She considered that for a moment, then nodded grudgingly. It wasn’t much comfort. I mean, a Midnight Court mercenary had just said he liked my style. That didn’t exactly say good things about me. The Unseelie Sidhe have…a very bad reputation in the supernatural world. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the thought that I might be solving problems in a way that one of them would approve of.
About five minutes later the mercenary walked back in, holding a folded sheet of paper. He handed it to me and sat back down.
I opened it and found that it contained only a single line of neat handwriting. It listed an address on the southeastern edge of the Springs. Nothing else.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Where you can find the one you’re looking for.” He shrugged carelessly. “That’s what the boss says, anyway. She’s usually right about things like this.”
“You’re not coming with?” I asked.
He pulled his cards back out and dealt another hand of solitaire. “Not getting paid for that.” His voice was so casual and unconcerned you’d think he was talking about the price of gas rather than someone actively working against his employer, and who was responsible for at least one murder in the past few days.
“Oh,” he added. “You might want to hurry. I don’t know how long he’ll be there.”
We turned and left. The mercenary watched us go; his eyes, the color of clouds in winter, were flat, without even enough emotion to call them bored, and held all the cold savagery of Midnight.
It wasn’t until then that I realized what had struck me wrong about that whole scene.
How had Erin known that the mercenary’s employer was female?
“I take it,” I said dryly once we were outside, “that was Samuel Black.”
Erin looked at me and shrugged. “That’s what he calls himself. I never knew he was from Midnight until just now.”
I sighed. Of course it would be the mercenary she’d offered to ask for information before.
I hate irony.
“Guess I should have taken you up on that offer.”
“Wouldn’t have mattered. He wouldn’t have told me anything.” She shrugged. “He has no morals to speak of, but he’s a professional. He never talks about his customers. He’d rather die than break a contract.”
“Think he was on the level?”
She hesitated a beat before answering. “Probably. I know him well enough that he wouldn’t deceive me unless he was getting paid to do it.”
“And if someone hired him to?”
“If someone hired him,” she said without hesitation, “he would put a bullet in my back without a second thought. He might regret it, but he’d do it. He won’t take more than one job at the same time, though, so unless his employer’s playing a lot deeper game than we realized he’s on the level.”
I nodded slowly. “Doesn’t really matter. We don’t have a better idea. If any of you want out, this is the time. I wouldn’t blame you.”
Two werewolves and a kitsune looked at me with varying degrees of eagerness and, I was pretty sure, disgust that I had even bothered to ask. None of them seemed inclined to take me up on the offer.
I pulled out my phone and stared at it for a moment before, reluctantly, dialing Enrico. I didn’t especially want him involved in this, but I had promised. Besides which, getting involved in supernatural badness was his choice. I didn’t have the right to make it for him.
He arrived about fifteen minutes later. I glared at him. “I thought I said to come ready for a fight.”
He grinned and drew his Hawaiian-patterned shirt aside to reveal a Kevlar vest and a standard-issue sidearm at his hip. “I listened.”
I looked at him doubtfully. It was perfectly valid equipment, don’t get me wrong, but…kinda wimpy looking compared to the rest of us. “Tell me you at least brought steel-jacketed rounds for that thing.”
He shook his head. “Don’t have any on hand, and you said you were in a hurry.”
I sighed. “You know how to handle a shotgun?” He nodded, and I handed him my ten-gauge. “Careful, it’s loaded. Okay, I don’t have much time. These people,” I gestured at the rest of my motley crew, “are with me. We’re going to take down the person responsible for that murder the other day—and probably, to one extent or another, the ones a few months ago. It will be bloody. And illegal in the extreme. You don’t want in on it, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
He frowned slightly. “Who are we going after?”
“We don’t have time to go into that right now. If we both live I’ll explain later, but for now you just have to trust me.”
“All right. I’m in.”
I nodded tightly. “Great. Follow us. When we get there, no matter what you see, don’t start shooting unless we do. Let’s move.”
With two cars it was significantly less crowded for this part. Kyra rode with Enrico, partially because she took up the most space and mostly because she was the only one of us currently mute. I wasn’t trying to hide information from him, exactly, but I was well aware that I was currently mixed up in some seriously scary business. I’d rather not get him any deeper into it than absolutely necessary.