Downstairs, things were a bit more hectic.
The mercenaries had apparently decided to fight after all. The constructs, of course, weren’t able to decide otherwise. They were gathered outside in a crowd, firing shots inside.
Luke and his gang were sheltered behind a short wall of stone that had been erected not far inside the front doorway, seemingly pulled up out of the granite floor. It should have been shattering under the sheer amount of firepower being directed at it, and the reason it wasn’t was pretty obvious. Brick, whose name was even more bizarrely appropriate than mine, was leaning against it, eyes closed in concentration, and earth-scented magic poured off him like heat from a bonfire.
I didn’t get a really good look at what the rest of them were doing. It was simply too chaotic to follow, too many energies flying to sort out. I saw fire pouring out in strikes that weren’t nearly as intense or focused as they had been when I left. Luke wasn’t showing the strain, but James looked barely able to stand. I didn’t know how he was still fighting. The shapeshifters I’d seen earlier were standing to either side of the door. When one of the clawed constructs—with steel claws, this time, rather than silver—darted through, I saw why. The bear fetched it a blow to the head with one paw. It looked casual, but it literally took the thing from its feet and tossed it sideways. The wolf was on it in an instant, just in case the first hit hadn’t been enough to kill it.
A grenade flew in the doorway and, caught in a sudden and powerful headwind, flew right back out. There was shouting on the other side, panicky and startled. Then there was another boom, a good bit quieter than Aiko’s custom model, followed by brief silence.
“Listen up,” I bellowed as loudly as I could into the pause. “Your employer’s dead. You aren’t getting paid enough to throw your lives away for no reason. Start running now, and you don’t have to.”
Luke glanced back at me, face flushed and exuberant and not in the slightest afraid. “Winter,” he called, laughter dancing just under the surface of his voice. “You finished it?”
“Yeah,” I shouted back, jogging forward to join them behind their improvised shelter. “Are they running?”
“Hard to say,” he said. “Aubrey?”
The quiet young man closed his eyes briefly. “Most of the mercenaries are. There are…six of them still here. I can’t feel the constructs.”
“They won’t run,” Luke said confidently. “What’s the word from our eye in the sky?”
Aubrey was silent for a moment, and I could feel a low, quiet pulse of magic from him. “Kris says they’re mostly broken,” he said eventually. “We’ve got about thirty constructs out there and another group just went in the back door. They’ll be on us in less than a minute.”
“Anything between us and the car?”
“Ah…she says just the ones right outside.”
“Wonderful,” Luke said, once again giving the impression of an orchestra conductor. “Jimmy, if you would.”
Hah. I was right.
The two fire mages turned their backs on the door. There was another surge of magic, one that went on longer than I had anticipated. Jimmy was swaying on his feet by the time they finished, but Luke didn’t even look like he was even making an effort. I had to wonder what he really was; he did not seem much like the rest of them. I would still say that they were largely untrained, relatively weak mages who didn’t seem particularly versatile, but Luke had to be at least as good as Alexander in terms of raw power.
“Wonderful,” he repeated, turning back to the door. “We’re running now. Wolf, if you want to live, I suggest you and yours come with us. Aubrey, kindly tell Mac to bring the car as close as she safely can.”
“What about the people outside?” someone asked. I thought it might be Katie.
Luke grinned. “They’re either constructs or idiots. In either case, killing them is a favor to the universe.” He paused. “We have less than a minute before this house goes up in flames. I recommend we get out now.”
Aiko muttered more curses, some in German and some in what I thought might be Arabic. Even Snowflake made an unusual growling sound, and mentally I heard her suggesting that Luke do several things which were extremely unsettling, conceptually, and also probably anatomically impossible. Especially the bit with the wombat, the porcupine, and the sausages. Even Aiko would think that one was a little over the top.
I settled for calling Tyrfing. The sword appeared literally in my hand, and I could feel its incredible hunger without even drawing it. I undid the clasp and threw the sword out the door. I saw that, by some incredible coincidence, it lost the sheath in midair and accidentally buried itself in somebody’s chest.
“Give that a minute to work,” I told the others.
“We don’t have a minute,” Luke reminded me.
We compromised at the thirty-second mark. Aiko chucked another grenade out, and in the aftermath of the explosion we ran for it.
There were dead constructs outside. Lots and lots and lots of them. They were burned, hit by shrapnel, shot by us or by each other, and in some cases dead without any mark to show what had happened. Mixed in among the corpses were more than a handful of human mercenaries. Other mercenaries, still standing, were running away. Trying to, anyway; mostly they slipped and staggered and fell, and made remarkably little progress. The combined effect of panic, fatigue, poor footing, and Tyrfing made it hard for them to keep their footing, let alone sprint.
The constructs, being essentially just robots, didn’t run. They didn’t feel fear, either. They attacked us with the same mindless ferocity as they had at the beginning, with guns and claws and their bare hands. We cut them down, in some cases literally, and kept moving.
Twenty seconds out the house behind us literally went up in smoke. It started small—flames visible through the windows, smoke leaking out of them, that kind of thing. Within another ten seconds or so, though, it had accelerated into a full blown conflagration.
A red-tailed hawk stooped out of the sky above us. I felt magic building as it came, and when it was about ten feet from the ground the power released in a sudden and surprisingly powerful surge. The falling hawk morphed in a blur of color, every bit as fast as Aiko changing, and the shape that hit the ground wasn’t a bird at all. Kris landed in an easy roll and came to her feet. “Last group is still after us,” she said without preamble, keeping up easily. “You got a few of them in the house, but most of them made it out.”
“Not a problem,” Luke said. “Without Jon, they’ll die within a week. All we have to do is get out of here and we’ll be fine. Speaking of which, there’s our ride.”
Their ride, as it turned out, was a big white step van. It was about a hundred yards from the house, a distance we covered at a speed that would make some sprinters envious. It’s amazing, really, what raw terror does for your adrenaline.
Luke took over driving, while the rest of us piled into the back. It was a little crowded, especially with Snowflake and Legion packed in, but none of us were complaining. Fortunately both the other shapeshifters had also reverted to human. The bear, as it turned out, was Chuck, while the wolf turned into Matthew. Luke drove out much, much faster than was really safe. We didn’t complain about that either. Especially not after there was a sound behind us like a small bomb going off.
“You know,” I said, “when I talked about raining down fire and destruction, I didn’t actually mean it literally.”
“That’ll teach you to joke around,” Luke said brightly. “Oh, Mac? Would you mind taking a look at our guests? Also, someone should call the fire department. I’d hate to start another wildfire.”
The tall blond woman who had been driving before Luke took over looked at me. “You’re injured?” She closed her eyes, and then let out a surprised breath. “Wow. You are injured.”
“Nothing that won’t heal,” I demurred.
She opened her eyes and glared at me. “You know how often I hear that?” she demanded. “And how often it gets infected, and they come back, and it’s ten times more trouble than if they’d just gotten it looked at when I told them to?”
I blinked, and then realized what Luke had meant. “Ah. You must be the healer.”
“I’m a nurse,” she said in precise, clipped tones. “The magic is incidental.”
“Right. You ever done work on a werewolf before?”
“No. Willing to give it a try?”
I shrugged. “What the hell. Why not.”
At that point, nothing would do but that I strip down to my skivvies, lie down in the back of the van, and let Mac do…whatever it was she did. I could smell the magic, like growing grass and blood, and even feel it sliding through my body, but I had no idea what it was actually doing. It must have worked, because when she was finished I wasn’t stiff or sore anymore, and even the burns and cuts were feeling better. She was good at that trick.
It made me feel better when she made everyone else—except Legion—go through the same process. It was especially amusing when she did it to Snowflake, because the dog complained bitterly and with a plethora of obscenity to me. I managed to keep myself from laughing, in the interest of not seeming like a total loon, but it was a struggle.
Which was silly, and immature, and pretty reckless considering we were surrounded by mages who had wanted to kill me not that long ago, but screw it. After surviving that ordeal, I’d earned it.