The four of us made another mad dash through the house, up the stairs to the second floor. We found another guard patrol there. They panicked when they saw us, going for their guns. Aiko was faster, had already drawn a bead on them before they had the weapons clear of their holsters. I held up one hand to forestall her shooting.
“Think real careful about this, boys,” I said to the mercenaries. “Your contract really worth this much? We’re out of your weight class. Now get you gone, or we’ll visit the wrath of us on your head.”
The two men ran. Aiko looked at me curiously, measuring, but said nothing.
Finally we reached the third floor. The landing of the stairs opened into a small balcony. In front of us was a wall with a single oak door set in it. We opened it and found….
“What are you doing here?”
Samuel Black smiled and flipped another card over. “Work,” he said simply, not bothering to stand up. He was playing solitaire at a small table next to another door. I knew, somehow, that Jon would be on the other side.
I raised one eyebrow. “Isn’t this job a little lowbrow for you?”
He said nothing, didn’t pause in his game.
“Okay,” Aiko said after a moment, “be that way. We need to get through here.”
“Ah,” Black said. “I can’t let you do that.”
I suddenly realized, with a sinking feeling, what was going on. “He didn’t hire you to fight. Did he?”
“No. The contract was that I would watch this door.”
That was the thing about hiring Samuel Black. He wouldn’t ever break a contract, would sooner be tortured to death—but, at the same time, he wouldn’t do more than he was contracted for. Most of the time that was a limitation—if, for example, you forgot to ask him not to talk, he would gladly tell anyone who paid what you were doing. On the other hand, it meant that not even a full-scale battle would get him to abandon his post.
“Okay,” I said after a moment. “You get your money already?”
“Half up front,” he said dispassionately, flipping over another card. “Half on completion.”
“I’ll double it.”
“Even if I thought you were capable of that,” he said, “which you’re not, I don’t break contract.”
I licked my lips. “Even if he won’t be holding up his end?”
He paused. “You have evidence?”
“The Khan will have gotten my message by now,” I told him. “By this time tomorrow, the Pack will be coming down on his head like a ton of bricks. So will the mage clans and at least one vampire. This isn’t a good place to be when that happens.”
Black relaxed and resumed playing. “That’s an excellent reason not to take another job from him. Not such a good reason to quit this one.”
I got an idea. “But you won’t take another contract from him,” I said. “So…if he told you to kill us….”
“I would tell him that I’m not contracted to do that,” he said coolly. “Unless, of course, you were to try and go through this door.”
“And that’s all,” I said. “So…for example…if we attacked him….”
Black smiled sharply. “That,” he said, “wasn’t covered in the contract.”
I nodded. “Aiko,” I said. “Could you pass me a grenade, please?”
She shrugged. “Sure.”
“Thanks.” I pulled the pin and then rolled the grenade over to the door.
“What the hell!” Aiko shouted. She grabbed my arm and pulled me back out of the antechamber, yanking me down to shelter behind the wall.
A second or two later, there was a surprisingly loud boom. Like, it even shook the floor a little.
Back inside, the door was gone. So was the frame. And, um, a good portion of the wall around it. Black and his table, for whatever reason, were untouched, although the mercenary looked rather startled.
“Damn,” I muttered. “Nice grenade.”
“It’s an advanced model,” she said modestly.
I cleared my throat. “Look,” I said in my best pointing-out-the-obvious voice. “The door’s gone.” I paused. “Wait a second,” I said disingenuously. “Does that mean you can let us through now?”
Black started to speak, stopped, then shook his head and chuckled. “I like your style, Wolf. Sure, why not.” He shook his head again, gathered up the cards, and began to shuffle.
We proceeded through a small library into Jon’s inner sanctum.
“Interesting,” he said, not looking up from the book he was reading. “You’re better than I thought, Wolf. I wouldn’t have expected you to bypass my defenses that easily.”
“He likes me,” I said. Aiko lifted her carbine and began to sight along it. I shook my head slightly; it wouldn’t be that easy.
Jon was standing in a set of circles not unlike that I had drawn out in the forest, but far more elaborate. The outermost was a simple ring of silver set into the floor, followed by an elaborate pattern of runes laid out in stone and exotic wood. Within that was another pair of circles, one a permanent fixture made of bronze, the other recently laid down in iron and silver chains.
Looking at that, I realized that I knew what this was. This had been the ritual setup he was planning to use to consume me. Looking at it in that light, it was sorta creepy. I’d been in bad situations before, but that ticking-clock feeling had been new and unpleasant.
I frowned. I had the distinct feeling that there was a reason he wasn’t worried about having a gun pointed at his face. And, sure, I could have done some work and concentrated and figured out what all spells he had up and running….
But, really, why bother?
I looked around for a moment and located a chunk of wood from the door. I bounced it in my hand a couple times, feeling the heft of it, then chucked it right at Jon’s smiling face.
Needless to say, it never hit him. Exactly halfway across the outermost circle it bounced off air seemingly turned to stone. A kinetic barrier, undoubtedly—and, given an unknown length of time to prepare and a permanent circle to work with, there was no telling how strong it was.
Aiko knew what it meant as well as I did. “Grenade?” she murmured. “Take it out by main force?”
I shook my head very slightly. “Even if it worked, the circle is the only thing keeping him from killing us. He can’t do any magic out here without dropping it, thus giving us a shot at him.” Circles are, after all, simple magical fences. And fences keep things in, as well as out. Ordinarily it isn’t too hard to project magic across a circle, but he’d charged this one with a lot of power. It would attenuate any spell he tried to cast to the point that it became powerless.
The kitsune nodded. “Mexican standoff.”
“Except he’s got a lot more friends here than we do.” I frowned, then projected a simple mental communication. Very, very quietly, to be sure that Jon wouldn’t hear it. I didn’t think he could detect even an obvious magical action from inside the circles, but I didn’t see a great need to test that. Behind me, Snowflake started to circle around behind the mage.
“Where’s my stuff?” I asked aloud.
“I destroyed it,” he said calmly. Then, seeing my expression, he laughed, a smooth and confident sound. “What? You expected it to be nearby, I suppose? Protected only by a single, easily picked lock, I suppose.” He shook his head. “I’m not a fool, Wolf. And I have read the Evil Overlord List. I examined your foci briefly—excellent job on those, by the way—and destroyed them.”
“Dammit,” I muttered. “You have any idea how much work those took?”
“Of course I do. Also, you can’t really expect a dog to get through that barrier, can you?”
“Not particularly,” I agreed. “On the other hand….”
A skeleton animated by unwholesome power and driven by an inhuman will left the ground directly behind Jon’s back, passing through the barrier around the mage without even slowing. Legion was, after all, an entity of decay and corruption, chaos and destruction. As he leapt he directed his power, his nature, against Jon’s magic, converting the ordered structures that made up his spell back into the chaotic and formless energy they had originally come from.
He hit the ground within the circle and started to leap again. Jon, with a shout of startled anger, knocked him aside easily with a blast of force.
But for one moment, he wasn’t paying any attention to us at all. And the barrier had fallen.
The instant Legion jumped, I started moving. I sprinted across the gap between us, calling Tyrfing as I went. The cursed sword appeared in my hand, and I undid the catch without breaking stride.
Jon turned to face me. His face went pale, and he lifted his hands. I felt the stirrings of magic as he began to gather power for another strike. I flicked Tyrfing to the side, sending the sheath flying, and drew the sword back for a strike.
Behind me, I heard a gunshot. A moment later, blood started spreading across Jon’s shirt. He staggered to the side, and the magic he’d gathered dissipated harmlessly.
I’d finally made it within reach. Tyrfing descended, mirror-bright steel cutting a beautiful arc across the air.
Somehow, Jon managed to recover his focus in time. I felt a quick burst of power, unfocused and clumsy, and Tyrfing bounced off a barrier maybe three inches from the mage’s skin. He staggered away from me. I heard another gunshot, and a spray of blood erupted from his shoulder.
I stepped forward, taking my sword in both hands, and brought it down in an overhand strike at his head. He held the barrier against it, but grunted with pain as he did. A moment later another bullet hit him. Blood spattered the floor, and something in his knee went out with a nasty sound of ripping cartilage. The mage fell, landing hard on his back.
I stood over him, sword in both hands. On the first swing the barrier cracked, and Jon screamed in pain and terror. On the second swing, Tyrfing shattered the barrier like a pane of glass.
On the third swing, Jon collapsed in a rapidly growing pool of blood. His head rolled away, coming to rest with the eyes staring at me reproachfully.
I stared back for a few moments. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel. Satisfied, maybe. Maybe even guilt, or at least regret.
There was none of that. I just felt numb.
I found the sheath and put Tyrfing away. Then I limped over to where Aiko was standing, her carbine still trained on Jon’s corpse. I’d aggravated the damage to my left leg, and it was slowing me down, but I didn’t think it would cause me any long-term problems.
Samuel Black walked in the door behind us. “The hubris of some people,” he said sadly. “It never ceases to amaze, does it?” He walked by me, shaking his head with disappointment. “For someone so clever, he was an incredible fool. Excellent work, Wolf. I’ll be sure to tell my employer you did well here.”
“Wait. What employer?”
He smiled and swept a mocking half-bow in my direction. He straightened and, much like Loki had earlier, vanished without a trace.
I hate it when everyone I meet knows better tricks than me.