The lot of us marched down the narrow, brightly lit concrete hallway. There was no one there, not that any of us could detect. The part of me that has entirely the wrong priorities noticed that Aiko’s veil was visible from the inside. It rendered shading and texture outside the area of effect oddly warped, almost flat-looking.
There was one door at the other end of the hall. We all crowded around it, straining to sense anyone on the other side. I couldn’t feel a presence with magic, not that I dared to extend myself much here. Snowflake didn’t hear or smell anything. Legion…presumably would have done something to indicate it if he had detected someone.
Aiko eased the door open, and we let out a collective sigh of relief when there was nobody in the staircase thus revealed. That was one of the major drawbacks to this kind of concealment. If doors started opening and closing when there was no one around, it would rapidly become obvious that something was funky. And, like I’d told Kyra, no spell of concealment can ever be truly perfect. If someone really looked at us, our cover would probably be blown.
We repeated the same performance at the top of the stairs. There was a guard on the other side who was, in all probability, currently looking at the door. We waited for a long, tense minute, a stalemate made even worse by the fact that only one party was aware of it.
Eventually I felt a shift in the air patterns, and I knew that he’d moved. We slipped through, making no more noise than a cat through the grass, and closed the door behind ourselves. The room we found ourselves in was relatively large, with one visible doorway to our right. It currently had a guard standing on either side of it. No way to take them out without causing a ruckus.
I gestured to get Aiko’s attention—no speech, that would get us caught in an instant—then pointed at myself, then the guard to the left of the doorway, then flashed thirty fingers at her. She nodded, almost imperceptibly, and began working her way around the edge of the room toward the guard on the right.
I went the other way, spinning my own concealment around myself as I went. It was a totally different method than hers, all about weaving shadows into an impenetrable cloak around myself. Visually, it would render me one more patch of darkness in a dimly lit room. And, thanks to all the practice I’d been getting in recently, it would also do a bit to muffle any sounds I might happen to make. It was harder, without the ring I used as a focus for shadow-based magic, but not undoable.
I worked my way around through the shadows at the edge of the room. I had to move with agonizing slowness to be sure of going unnoticed. Halfway through I had to speed up, because otherwise I wouldn’t be in time. I had the longer distance to travel, to get to my target.
I made it in time. And, when my count was at twenty-eight, the other guard suddenly jerked to one side. A knife flashed into visibility as it darted forward and carved a broad, bloody grin across the man’s throat. He dropped, gasping like a landed fish and pouring out blood across the marble floor.
My guard opened his mouth—to scream, to call the alarm, I would never know. In the same instant I darted forward, abandoning my shadows as I moved. One arm snaked around his neck in an eerie echo of Snowflake’s earlier attack, clamping down on his mouth. The other plunged the glittering tip of the icicle into the side of his neck, just under the ear, where the carotid artery was close to the surface.
It was a crap weapon but, let’s be honest, that’s more than you need most of the time anyway. I drove it into his neck until half the length of the icicle was buried before I jerked it sideways, ripping the wound open and snapping the icicle off in my hand.
I held the thug up, holding my hand tightly over his mouth, and as I did I recognized him. He had been one of the men who’d hooked the restraints back up after my chat with Jon, the one who had disapproved of needless cruelty.
It’s been a while since I was disturbed by blood or death. But I suddenly felt nauseous, like I was about to lose a meal that I hadn’t even eaten. I stepped back, letting him reel to the side and slide down the wall. The broken icicle fell from my hand and landed in the scarlet pool slowly spreading across the floor. The ice refracted the light weirdly, making it hard to tell quite what you were seeing through it.
He hadn’t been my enemy. He was just doing a job. Probably had a wife and kids—or, at least, a lover, parents, people counting on him to bring home a paycheck. He didn’t like his job. Had tried, in some small way, to spare me something of the pain that I had experienced today. Had tried to be a decent human being, as well as he was able.
And I’d just killed him, for no better reason than that he was in my way. His blood was quite literally on my hands, like a visual aid to describe how thoroughly wrong things had gone.
Easy to see that I was on the wrong path. Harder to find the right one.
Aiko asked if I was all right. I said that I was, and we continued onward.
It went great right up until we were on the stairs to the second floor. Suddenly, no opportunity to hide or dodge, a pair of constructs turned the corner onto the staircase above us. They weren’t quite as grotesque as the one I’d dispatched before, but they were still very obviously not human. One of the things narrowed its eyes, looking at the faint not-quite-rightness where we were. Its mouth opened.
Aiko shot it, and its fellow. That little carbine was the kind of weapon civilians aren’t allowed to have, and for a good reason. It was small enough to fit under a hoodie, never mind a trench coat, and in less time than it takes to shout a warning she’d shot both constructs three times. One, having taken two bullets to the head, dropped right where it stood. The other, although the three holes in its chest would quickly prove lethal, lived long enough to scream.
“There goes the advantage of surprise,” Aiko snarled. “What do we do?”
I considered the odds that remained against us. An unknown number of soldiers, an unknown number of constructs, and a mage of unknown but potent capability. Not good odds, in other words. I made a snap decision. “We run. Where’s the entrance?”
She nodded once, sharply. “Follow me.”
We turned tail and ran like…not little girls, we had more direction and purpose than that, but something that runs, at any rate. Rabbits, maybe.
It was a hectic race. We were making no effort at all to go undetected, and Aiko set a pace that was at the very upper edge of my capabilities. Snowflake was panting behind me, although she kept pace easily enough. Legion, as always, was utterly silent, although his skeletal footsteps fell with force that should, in a logical universe, have done some damage to the unsupported bones.
We turned one corner, another, another, too fast to keep up with, dizzying. I didn’t even try to keep track of the turnings, trusting Aiko to know where we were going.
Eventually, we turned one last corner and saw the big glass door. And my heart sank.
We hadn’t been fast enough.
There were a dozen or so mercenaries between us and the door, aiming various kinds of ugly in our direction. Another half-dozen constructs, hulking things with snakes’ eyes, filled out their ranks. Two of them had silver claws where their hands should have been. The others were holding guns more or less like their human counterparts’.
We pulled up short. More than a dozen gun barrels were aimed at us, and I knew that there would be no offer of surrender here, no mercy, no chance to talk our way out. They would shoot us in just moments, and up against so many not even the four of us would have much of a chance. I can do a lot of things, but stopping bullets isn’t one of them. The armor couldn’t stand up against that much firepower, either.
My hand found Aiko’s without either of us doing anything consciously. Nice knowing you, I thought, though I didn’t have time to say it aloud. Nice knowing all of them, really. I just regretted that I would be dragging them down with me.
And, right about that time, the newest player entered the field.
There was a sudden explosion in the back ranks of the mercenaries, as though someone had thrown a hand grenade. A blast of fire and light. A great force, sending people staggering. An enormous cloud of smoke plumed up.
Through the smoke walked Luke Laufson.
He didn’t look like a kid anymore. He just looked scary. Fire crawled along his arms from fingertip to shoulder, climbing and shifting. It seemed to dip into his flesh and rose six inches from the skin, looking absolutely terrifying. A cloak of flame cascaded down his back and pooled around his feet. He obviously should have been in agony, burning to a crisp, and he just as obviously wasn’t.
The mercenaries chose the better part of valor—which, in the face of such an overwhelming and terrifying force, was definitely the smart thing to do. The constructs, lacking human intelligence, threw themselves either at him or at us. Some of them were struck down with fire more intense than I had ever seen someone conjure. The rest learned, as their fellows had earlier, that firearms are actually just as dangerous as magic, in the right hands. The last couple turned and ran alongside the humans.
“I thought you didn’t call him,” I whispered to Aiko under cover of this distraction.
“I didn’t,” she hissed back, taking aim and sending a quick burst of bullets into a fleeing construct.
“Winter,” Luke shouted, his voice roaring with mad laughter. “How you doing?”
“We need to get out of here,” I shouted back. “There have to be reinforcements coming.”
He cocked his head to one side, then nodded. “He has a bloody army out here. I’m reading…sixty-five constructs currently active? And he has more coming online.”
Aiko said some very creative and very, very impolite things under her breath in German. I only recognized them because one of the things Dolph had taught me when I was younger was how to swear in a dozen different languages, most of which I knew literally no other words of.
“We have to leave,” I said again, darting a glance behind myself.
Luke laughed again. “You have a job to do, Wolf. He’s still on the third floor.”
“You don’t get it,” I said. “We can’t beat that many.”
He grinned, wide and insane and with very little humor, and I almost recognized him then. “Can’t we?” he said, challengingly.
As though on cue—which they might have been—figures began filing in the open doors. James had fire dripping off his hands too, though not anything like what Luke had been throwing around. Katie, almost unrecognizable behind the darkness that wreathed her like a cloak, held a short wooden wand which burned with an eerie violet light. Her magic felt familiar, and I realized that she was doing something not unlike my own work with shadows, though hers was a little less subtle than what I’d used it for.
And more of them came after. A wolf, not as physically imposing as a werewolf but moving with the same uncanny intelligence, followed by a polar bear. Shapeshifters, I assumed. One after another, too much to process and no time to spare for thinking about it, in any case. The clashing scents of their magic was harsh, jarring to my senses.
Luke grinned, the expression mad and twisted, flexing his fingers. The fire seemed to respond to the movement, flaring up so bright that he was briefly nothing more than a silhouette amid golden flames. “We’ll hold the doors. Go get this done.”