I had to wonder whether there had been an abandoned building sale a month ago that I hadn’t heard about, or what. I mean, I couldn’t even remember how many this one brought us up to for the past week.
It was, I had to admit, not like Black’s lairs had been. This was a big, beat-down old shed on the edge of town. It didn’t just look abandoned; it looked like it ought to be condemned. There were holes in the roof and the sheet metal walls; the interior had to be drafty as hell. There weren’t any of the protections Black had used, either.
Inside was a different story. There was a small antechamber inside the huge front doors, obviously there simply to keep something of the elements out. We trooped right across it and through the opposite door, which was made of oak and looked significantly nicer than the exterior of the building would suggest.
The other side was a bizarre amalgamation of the abandoned building the exterior suggested and a well-furnished house. The whole shed appeared to consist of a single cavernous room, unheated and without insulation and as a result possibly even colder than it was outside—not that it bothered me or anything. There were no holes in the roof, though, or the walls, although they were made of the same corrugated metal as the exterior.
Inside that space were an old four-poster bed, complete with canopy, and a mahogany dining table that could seat thirty. At the moment there was only one person there, though, a male Sidhe sitting at the head of the table eating some kind of roast.
Oh yeah, and scattered along the length of the table were around twenty barghests. All of them were bright, beautiful Daylight green, with glittering onyx eyes. They had their own sections of meat as well, and were devouring them with every sign of enjoyment.
The room was sunk maybe ten feet into the ground. As a result, though the door was at ground level, inside we were at the top of a short flight of stairs leading down into the room. As Enrico shut the door behind us, the Sidhe stopped eating.
He wasn’t in a hurry. He set his utensils down and even took the time to wipe his mouth with a cloth napkin. Then he called, in a perfectly calm voice that nevertheless conveyed immense irritation, “What is the meaning of this?”
And just that fast there were twenty pairs of glittering black eyes staring at us. Gulp.
“We have reason to suspect you of tampering in the affairs of the Pack,” I said as confidently as I could manage. I didn’t bother mentioning the murder bit. The Sidhe Courts, Day and Night alike, had little concern for the life of a single mortal. Or a million. But they had a deal with the Pack, and breaking deals was serious business for them.
“Take it up with my employer,” he said dismissively.
Huh. So both sides had been acting through intermediaries. That was interesting.
“Thanks,” I said, “but I think I’ll take it up with you first.”
He looked at us for the first time. “Isn’t a mortal’s life short enough,” he murmured, the soft sound somehow carrying with perfect clarity, “without such foolishness?”
“Look,” Erin interrupted before things could get any more heated. “Our conflict is with your employer, not you. Talk with us, maybe tell us who we should get in contact with, and we won’t bother you any more.”
“Not interested. However, as you at least know what courtesy is,” he glared at me, “I have a counteroffer. You have ten seconds to get off my property. Do so and I’ll forgive your trespass.” He turned his attention back to his meal.
I glanced at the people with me, and gestured slightly down at the table. Erin nodded, her lips pressed tightly together. Aiko grinned and fondled the grip of her carbine with one hand. Kyra was almost snarling. Enrico mostly looked confused, but he didn’t actually argue in favor of leaving, so I took that as agreement.
See, here’s the thing about the Sidhe. If they don’t respect you, they’ll walk all over you. You have to earn that respect, too. With Black, that hadn’t been a problem; we’d killed his trolls already, after all, and he knew Erin besides. This fellow, though, still looked at us as something he could brush off casually.
Worse, if we let him we couldn’t expect the Courts to respect us, either. They would assume that his judgment had been accurate, and as a result any effort we made to resolve things peacefully would be mocked.
So instead of answering him, I bounded down the stairs about as fast as I could. The hounds were standing as I touched the floor, and at the same time I took the restraint off of Tyrfing. I wished that I still had my gun; Tyrfing was incredible, but there’s a reason modern soldiers use shotguns more often than swords.
“You are insane,” the mercenary said, rising from his seat as well. “You will be destroyed. And even if you aren’t, Court law is on my side.”
I grinned at him, maybe a little maniacally. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, mate. But I don’t see anybody from the Courts here. And I’m really getting sick of not getting the answers I want. So either you start talking, or we’re gonna have problems.”
“So be it,” he hissed. He made one small gesture with his hand. And then a number of things happened all at once.
All of the barghests started moving as a single unit. They surged toward me in an unbroken emerald tide, faster than any real dog, flowing under the table and leaping over it. They snarled and growled as they came, showing long white teeth.
Almost simultaneously, the sound of three different guns broke out overhead, completely drowning out the noise the hounds made. One of the hounds, hit by Erin’s steel-jacketed sniper round, simply dropped to the ground. Three others suffered lesser wounds and continued to charge, dripping blood and emerald flame as they came.
The nearest hound threw itself at me in the air, not touching ground at all for fifteen feet. It was preternaturally fast, covering that distance in a matter of instants.
But reacting quickly isn’t as important as reacting intelligently. If it had waited a second or two so that it wasn’t attacking me alone, it would likely have done for me in the opening seconds of the fight.
As it was, not so much.
It was uncannily fast, but it had to move its whole body fifteen feet. All I had to do was draw a sword—and, although I’m nothing like as fast as those things, I’m still faster than human. You can do the math.
The cursed sword impacted on its right foreleg while it was still airborne and cut cleanly through it. It struck high on the barghest’s shoulder and cut through that too, before lodging in the clavicle. Good to know Tyrfing had some limitation, at least. I sidestepped its jaws and used the motion to throw it to the side. It slammed into the side of the staircase and immediately rolled to its three remaining feet, pouring blood and fire. If the injury bothered it at all I couldn’t tell it.
I managed to kill two more hounds in a couple heartbeats, before three charged me at once. There was no way I could stop them all with just the sword, no matter how powerful it was.
Fortunately for me, I have magic. And, although I’m still a bare apprentice in most ways, I’ve picked up some things pretty quickly. Air magic is one of the main ones. I wasn’t up to anything like the display Alexander had put on fighting—slaughtering, rather—the first Cu Sith. But I didn’t really have to be, either.
One of the things I’ve always been relatively competent with is making magical foci. A focus is basically a magical cheat code, one that lets you skip a lot of the difficult and complicated work involved in casting a spell. A well-made focus can let even an amateur like me pull off some useful magic.
My most recent focus was a braided leather bracelet designed to assist with manipulating air magic. Granted, I hadn’t meant it for quite this sort of thing—but a good focus should be able to do lots of things.
In this case it converted a surge of power and will into a gale-force wind directed at the only barghest stupid enough to jump at me.
Jumping, as any martial artist will tell you, is a stupid thing to do in a fight. It lets your opponent know exactly what you’re going to do. And, because muscle doesn’t do much without something to push against, for those few seconds you’re powerless to alter your course.
My blast of wind didn’t hit the hound hard enough to break bones or anything. It didn’t need to. It was powerful enough to reverse its momentum and toss it back into another hound, sending both of them to the floor. That left only two fighting me for a brief moment. I ducked away from one and beheaded the other with Tyrfing.
A fight is a chaotic thing even with only two participants. With more than twenty it was impossible to follow anything beyond my immediate surroundings, impossible to think of the future beyond the next handful of seconds. As a result, I’m not sure when the mercenary stood up and jumped thirty feet or so to land near the door.
I am sure that when he did, he immediately grabbed Aiko and Enrico both by the muzzles of their weapons. He let out a bloodcurdling scream of pain at the touch of iron, but it didn’t stop him from throwing both of them to the ground below. Aiko rolled immediately to her feet, both of her hands full of steel, and the hounds showed a certain amount of wariness about attacking her.
Enrico hit hard and, for an instant, lay stunned on the ground. It wasn’t long—but it was long enough. The barghests swarmed him, and he disappeared beneath a sea of green fur.
Up until that point I hadn’t really wanted to fight. Oh, I’d done it, because I knew that I had to—but I’d seen it as a necessary evil. I’d resisted Tyrfing’s insatiable thirst for blood, because I hadn’t wanted to kill or even injure any more people than necessary.
Now I was pissed. And, for the first time since I hit the floor, I went on the aggressive.
I turned back toward the stairs. I killed the three-legged hound almost in passing, gutted another and left it bleeding and mewling in agony on the ground, and swept three barghests into a tangled pile with another blast of wind. Then I was at the staircase. I leapt and caught the handrail a good seven feet above the ground with one hand.
I don’t look like much, but I have the strength of a werewolf. It was, in my current state of mind, not too hard to pull myself up and onto the stairs with one hand.
I arrived at the top just in time to see Erin and the mercenary dueling. She was using her steel staff; he was unarmed. But somehow, just as I got there, he ducked under her swing and clubbed her on the head with one fist. She staggered to the side, staff dropping from her hand, and collapsed against the wall, her eyes closed.
The mercenary turned to me, with a sharp-toothed smile. He had produced a short, crystalline sword from somewhere, and looked entirely willing to spar with me.
So, naturally, I cheated. I dug out another handful of ball bearings and threw them at his face—
Only to see them deflected, without ever getting close to him, by a burst of wind not unlike those I had used. One of them struck my wrist and made my hand go sorta numb. Two more hit me with painful but less immediately worrying force, one in the chest and one in the thigh.
Dammit. I hate it when the other guy is as ready to cheat as I am. It takes all the fun out of fighting dirty.
The mercenary took two long steps and closed with me. I tried to slash at his face, but, well….
Remember what I said about my not being all that good with a sword? Yeah, well, I wasn’t actually joking. Against trolls and faerie hounds I was adequate, largely because I had Tyrfing and they hate the touch of iron. That’s a pretty big handicap.
Against one of the Sidhe, armed with a sword and a lot better at it than me, it wasn’t nearly big enough. He deflected my first attack with laughable ease, not even bothering to riposte. The second parry sent Tyrfing down at my own left thigh, where it sliced through cloth and flesh with equal ease and only stopped at the bone. The disadvantage of a supernaturally sharp cursed sword, I guess; even an accidental blow is potentially deadly, and once Tyrfing had been drawn for more than a few moments accidents were inevitable.
That time the mercenary did counter, a simple cut that took me across the left side of my ribs down nearly far enough to join onto the cut on my leg. It was painful, irritating, and not life threatening. He was playing with me.
On the third stroke my grip, weakened by that stupid ball bearing, gave out entirely. Tyrfing flew out of my hand, bounced off the wall, and totally failed to accidentally impale the mercenary as a result. Figures that the bad luck would only hit me. The sword rested on the floor just behind him, but it might as well have been on the moon for all it would help me.
I backpedaled, and the mercenary advanced, still smiling. I tripped. I fell. I continued to scrabble backward, because what else are you supposed to do in that situation?
He smiled, standing over me. He spun the crystal sword in one hand idly. “You know,” he said conversationally, “you really should have taken my offer and fled. But you wouldn’t. You have all of the arrogance for which your kind is famed, and none of the power.” His smile widened. “I’ve never killed one of you before. I think I’ll enjoy it.”
Things looked bad. Like, really bad. My allies were grotesquely outnumbered, and almost certainly badly injured by now as well. Enrico and Erin might well be dead. I was disarmed—well, I had a handful of weapons still, but I didn’t think I would have the chance to use any of them, and I didn’t really think that any of them would work anyway. I was already bleeding seriously from multiple wounds, and in a second or two none of that would bother me much because I would be dead.
The mercenary drew his sword back. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see the stroke that would end my (admittedly rather shitty) life. And, as a result, I didn’t see what happened next.
The sword didn’t come. A moment later, a familiar voice rasped, “Surrender and call them off, or I shove three feet of steel through your spine.”
I opened my eyes. From my angle, I couldn’t see anything but the Sidhe mercenary, standing on tiptoe and bent backward, with a look of utter shock on his face. There were pale fingers tangled in his hair, pulling his head backward. His sword clattered to the floor.
There’s no feeling quite like when a megalomaniacal ego freak takes time to gloat before they’ve quite won, and gets totally burned as a result. It had only happened to me a couple of times, because until recently I mostly didn’t run with that crowd, but believe me, the look on their face is priceless. I mean, seriously. MasterCard is totally missing out.
I stood, slowly and painfully, and saw Erin standing behind him with a grim expression and Tyrfing pressed to the small of his back. My imagination was more than adequate to fill in the gaps from there. The old werewolf hadn’t been knocked unconscious at all; she might have been stunned momentarily, but that was it. Once she’d seen her opportunity, she’d snagged the fallen sword off the floor and snuck up behind him.
The mercenary didn’t move or speak, but I felt a subtle burst of magic that smelled like growing grass, sunflowers, and long, lazy summer afternoons. And, in the same instant, the noises of battle cut off.
I walked slowly to the railing, limping heavily, to see that the barghests had stopped fighting and were all sitting, staring up at us. There were about seven of them left standing, and they looked at me with pure hate in their black eyes.
Aiko was still standing, holding two blades dripping flaming blood and grinning in a manner that suggested she was happy to keep going if they wanted. Kyra was soaked with blood, making it largely impossible to tell if she was wounded, but her left foreleg was held off the ground slightly.
Enrico was lying on the ground where he had landed, with a slowly spreading pool of blood around him. He wasn’t moving.
I must have missed something, because when I turned back Erin had let the Sidhe go and was standing, holding Tyrfing in a posture that wasn’t quite relaxed. I took the sword from her and sheathed it, strapping it carefully into place. Then I looked at the mercenary. I’m not sure what he saw in my face, but it made him blanche slightly.
“Your employer is stirring up shit between the Khan and the Court,” I growled. “I think trying to make the Twilight Court go back on its sworn word is bloody stupid. I would like you to convey to the Twilight Court this opinion, along with the identity of your employer and all the information you have regarding their plans and activities. Do you understand me?”
A muscle twitched in his jaw. “Yes.”
“Swear it. That you will deliver this information to all of the Twilight Princes you are capable of contacting. Immediately.”
“I swear, by my name, my power, and my Court, to do as you ask. I will convey this information to the Twilight Court: the identity of my employer as far as I know it, my knowledge of their actions, and what you have said.”
“Also,” Erin interrupted, “you will seek no revenge upon those here today, nor upon the Pack, including economic, political, and indirect harm. You will not hire others to do such for you, nor engage your proxies to act against us in any way unless we offer you fresh insult. You will not provide assistance to other agents for the purpose of causing any of us, our associates, our agents and proxies, or our employees and servants any direct or indirect harm. Following your performance of the agreed-upon task, there will be no debt, grievance, or other imbalance between you, your employees and associates, or your employers and any of us or our associates, agents and proxies, employees or servants, or superiors or employers.”
Wow. I guess Erin knew how to talk to these people a little better than she’d let on.
His jaw twitched again. “I swear this as well.”
“Go,” I growled. “And take your dogs with you.”
They vanished in a burst of Daylight-scented magic, leaving behind a godawful mess and a number of corpses.
The first thing I did was check on Enrico.
It was bad.
I had a certain amount of medical training. Not a whole bunch, and not especially official; mostly it boiled down to recognizing who can be saved, and who can’t. Enrico was firmly in the second camp. There were bite wounds on his abdomen, his shoulder near the neck, both legs, and probably a bunch of other places. Even if he were in a hospital this instant his chances wouldn’t be good.
There are injuries a human cannot survive. Sometimes it really is as simple as that.
And then I realized what that meant. Injuries a human cannot survive. That isn’t the same thing as injuries which are downright unsurvivable. “Kyra,” I called.
She trotted over, favoring her left foreleg heavily. She looked at Enrico, and I could practically see her draw the same conclusions I had. She looked at me and whined softly.
“You know what has to be done,” I said heavily. She nodded and turned back to him.
I looked away. I knew that, at this point, for her to try to change him into a werewolf was the only real chance he had to survive. On the other hand, I didn’t want to watch one of my best friends maul the barely-living body of another friend.
Technically you don’t have to be severely injured to become a werewolf, and you don’t have to be bitten by a werewolf. All that has to happen is that you get a significant portion of werewolf magic in you, and your own power is too depleted to fight it off successfully. Serious injury is simply the easiest way to deplete your magic. Having that injury inflicted by a werewolf in fur is the easiest way to get that power inside you.
His odds weren’t all that great. Only about a third of people who try to Change without preparation survive the experience. Plenty of those die shortly afterward. And if you’re heavily injured already it’s even harder.
Still. More chance than he had otherwise.
While I was trying to find something else to pay attention to so that I could try and ignore the horrible wet sounds in the background, I saw something strange. There was frost on the ground. I walked over to inspect it and found that it formed a distinct pattern. More specifically, it formed a footprint.
More specifically still, it formed my footprint. A number of them, in fact, leading from where I had been standing when Enrico fell over to the stairs. There was frost on the handrail where I’d grabbed it, and more footprints on the stairs themselves.
Which brought my disturbing revelations of the day up to: Erin having known something about Black’s employer before he told us, Enrico either about to be a werewolf or about to be dead, another person making reference to my having a heritage known for arrogance, and another case of frost forming around me when I used my magic.
I sighed. There are days I hate my life.
In another case of the anticlimax that seemed to be the theme of the day, that was the end of it. I had a number of injuries, but the only really major one was, ironically enough, the one inflicted by my own goddamn sword. The rest of them I managed to heal in a matter of minutes with magic and the werewolf side of my nature. Apparently, though, there’s something to the claim that wounds inflicted by Tyrfing never heal and anyone injured by the sword will die, because I couldn’t even get that cut to stop bleeding.
Kyra had two cracked ribs, a sprained wrist and enough bite wounds that they probably would have killed a human. Erin had a concussion, a broken wrist, and several torn muscles. Aiko, surprising me, came out best of us. She had sprained an ankle during the fall, and been bitten by several barghests, but all of the bites were shallow; they wouldn’t have threatened even a normal person at all. Aside from a really impressive black eye, that was all.
As a result, Aiko and I went to the hospital while the werewolves took Enrico and our weapons of questionable legality to the pack house. Fortunately, once I got there, nobody expected me to answer questions. Or maybe they did and I didn’t notice; by that point I was pretty loopy with fatigue and blood loss.