It was very quiet as I walked up to Jon’s old tile shop.
The sun was just now slipping below the mountains, staining the skies bloody crimson and throwing our shadows out behind us like flags, but it was already past working hours. Not far away the flood of rush-hour traffic was still snaking down the freeway, but here the streets were almost eerily silent. There were no cars in sight, no people walking the streets. High overhead, a lonely hawk circled against the backdrop of the setting sun, its piercing cry echoing through the sky.
Behind me came monsters.
Werewolves are pretty creatures, if you look at them in the right way. But it takes a special mind to see it, and even to me a werewolf in fur is a scary creature as well. A hundred and fifty to three hundred pounds of wolf with appropriately sized fangs and claws is not a comfortable sight. They can pass for dogs most of the time, but only because they make an effort to seem tame, combined with a healthy dose of people’s own refusal to see what’s in front of them.
They were not making an effort now. Kyra and her three wolf-skinned compatriots didn’t look like dogs tonight. They looked like what they were, terribly dangerous people who straddled the line between man and monster, and who tonight didn’t have much care for which side they landed on. Even if you know werewolves, even if you like werewolves, even if you are a werewolf yourself, that isn’t something you can look at and feel nothing.
The two who looked—mostly, more or less—human weren’t much better. One of them had a pair of old-school revolvers belted on over his jeans and a classic .30-30 Winchester lever action slung across his back. It looked ridiculously antiquated, but I knew better than to make fun of him; old weapons kill people just fine, most of the time.
Besides, I know Edward Frodsham. He was in Wyoming and Colorado during the Gold Rush, which gives you some idea of how long he’s had to practice, and the results are…kinda scary, actually, even to me. I never saw the greats shoot a revolver, but I doubt they could have been much better than he is.
The other werewolf was taking a decidedly more military approach. That much was obvious, even if it was hard to tell exactly what military he might have in mind; the body armor and assault rifle were aggressively modern, but the submachine gun clipped to his waist looked like the classic Uzi from the fifties, and his trench knife could have seen service in the first World War.
The four werewolves in fur weren’t nearly as visually distinctive, which was to be expected. One was a brown male a little lighter than Kyra’s walnut, one a sleek and fast-looking female with cinnamon fur, and the last was a hulking grey-black brute with startlingly blue eyes who had to weigh at least two-fifty. He wore probably close to sixty pounds of the plate armor werewolves use occasionally without seeming to notice the weight, and I don’t doubt that I could have ridden on his back without straining him appreciably. Werewolf cavalry; now that is a scary thought.
We all met up around two blocks from the target. The werewolves, none of whom except Kyra I was familiar with, introduced themselves (the cowboy called himself Bill, and the soldieresque fellow was Ryan, if you were wondering).
Great, Snowflake said. Nobody said the Wild West Show was coming.
I was distracted by struggling to restrain my laughter at that—but not so distracted I didn’t see Bill’s lips twitch. Interesting. The only werewolf I’d known to hear Snowflake before was Conn, and he’s…well, Conn.
Kyra took the lead from there. She, like the cinnamon wolf and Snowflake, wasn’t wearing armor. In Snowflake’s case this was because it wouldn’t have fit a sanely-sized dog (I was going to have to get a custom set made, as often as she got into scrapes beside me), and I was guessing that the other werewolf found speed and agility to be a more effective defense than any amount of steel plate; I’d seen that type of lean, sleekly muscled wolf before, and they can be unbelievably quick.
Kyra’s case was a little more interesting; I knew that she liked having a layer of metal between her hide and the enemy, but she couldn’t use it anymore, not with her wolves along. Alphas can’t afford to show any kind of weakness in front of the pack, and wearing armor suggests that you’re afraid to fight without it. That was also, incidentally, why she was leading this party; the Alpha is the first wolf to encounter the threat, always.
Ryan came next, his metronomic jog and perfect posture further supporting the idea that he was ex-military, followed by the brown wolf. Then came Snowflake and I, loping along side-by-side, followed by Cowboy Bill. The huge dark wolf playing rear guard, where his massive bulk would present a serious obstacle to anybody attacking from behind, giving the rest of us time to react. The other female, as I had expected, ranged out around us as a scout rather than sticking in formation. As anticipated, she was startlingly fast even by werewolf standards, easily running circles around the rest of us.
Now, it might have occurred to you that this was a rather military, orderly procession, given that we were still quite a ways from the actual location we were looking for. If so, you are entirely correct. It may have also occurred to you that a mage with time to prepare and a general knowledge of what was coming his way could have prepared all manner of tricks, traps, and ambushes throughout the entire region. This statement is also entirely correct, and is why we were ready for a fight.
We didn’t encounter it, nor did we run into anybody else. You could only explain so much with the location and time of day, and I was betting that Kyra had more of her people keeping bystanders away. Anybody who did see us probably concluded, quite rationally, that we were a bit more trouble than they wanted to buy.
By the time we made it to the store, I was starting to get a little nervous. I mean, nobody had tried to kill us. That was suspicious as all hell.
By prior agreement, when we made it to the target we fanned out so that I was at the front door proper, with a semicircle of werewolves splayed out behind me. The door was the logical location for any ambush, while the choke point slowed us down and whoever was on the other side had plenty of time and knew exactly where we would be, and even Kyra had been forced to reluctantly admit that I was the best close-quarters fighter we had. Tyrfing was a pretty massive advantage in that regard.
“Do you want to do this quiet?” I asked, watching the door carefully in case something hit it from the other side hard enough to send it at my face in pieces. And yes, that’s happened to me.
Kyra snarled, deep in her chest, and laid her ears back flat against her head. A chorus of answering snarls went up from her pack, even those that were still firmly in the embrace of bipedalism, and I could practically feel the weight of all those eyes on my back.
I’m guessing that’s a “no”, Snowflake murmured, amusement mingling with anticipatory bloodlust in her mind. She didn’t have the same deep-seated fury driving her that the wolves did, but…well, let’s just say that the husky enjoys violence more than I think is entirely healthy. And I ain’t exactly a pacifist myself, if you get my drift.
You think? I sent back, slipping my sword free from its sheath. Another murmur went up from the werewolves, one of…appreciation, I guess, is the closest I can come to an accurate description. They might not be able to consciously sense magic the way I did, but Tyrfing was coming out to play, and that’s not something anyone ignores.
I swept the sword in a single vertical slice, cutting through latch, deadbolt and chain with little effort. At that point the door was held shut by nothing but laziness, but I went ahead and kicked it in anyway. ‘Cause, you know, some things you just have to do, right?
I launched myself through instantly, Tyrfing in my hand and power held ready for use at a moments’ notice, and it was the only thing that saved my life. The blow that would otherwise have shattered my spine and left me dying on the ground merely clipped my trailing leg and spun me sideways to impact the wall.
I got only a momentary glance at what had hit me, mostly just an impression of big, grey, and ugly. But I heard it roar as I was pushing myself to my feet, and that gave me a decent idea of what scale we were talking.
That roar, a primal pissed-off declaration of challenge, was so loud it vibrated in my chest and hurt my ears like a rock concert. It shook the ground beneath me. I heard several werewolves whine and snarl in pain just from the impact of the sound on their sensitive hearing.
Spinning to face the doorkeeper, I was greeted with a picture out of nightmare. It stood fully fifteen feet tall hunched over, and was so wide that it still managed to look stocky. It seemed to be made of stone, and judging by the cracks in the floor where it had just missed me it was about as hard.
It didn’t have a weapon. It didn’t need one. A single love tap from one of those massive fists would break me in half.
I knew what this was. It was a golem, a construction of stone and magic created to serve its master. They were commonly used as foot soldiers by the few mages who had enough skill or natural talent to make them, and it wasn’t hard to see why.
The golem was currently duking it out with half a dozen werewolves at once. And, unquestionably, hands-down, no contest, it was winning.
They were fighting well, I have to give them that. It was beautiful, in a savage way, beautiful like a wildfire. They were a marvel of fur and muscle, flashing teeth and constant motion. As I watched, Kyra ducked away just as its fist struck the ground with another earth-shaking crunch. Even as it swung at her, the scout hit it from behind, the big guy attacked its arm, and Ryan went at its other side with his trench knife. It might seem odd that such an obvious gun-nut would go for a knife instead, but I reckoned he was thinking the same thing I was, which was that a bullet relative to the golem’s size would be little more than an annoyance.
It reminded me, more than anything else, of watching a fight in the movies. Real-life violence doesn’t have that choreographed beauty—but this was a pack of werewolves, and they were connected so deeply that when they were running on instinct they operated like a single individual. Every motion of every wolf was perfectly timed, placed, and coordinated.
It just wasn’t good enough.
The golem disregarded all of them entirely. Ryan’s knife skipped off its skin, striking sparks but not penetrating a bit. The wolf behind it tried to bite its ankle where the Achilles tendon would be on a human, and made no more progress than he had. She dodged aside when it kicked back a moment later, but obviously it hadn’t suffered for the experience, so I was calling it a draw.
And the big wolf? He tackled its arm with fangs and all four limbs…and it just picked him up. Better than three hundred pounds, most of which was preternaturally powerful muscle actively fighting him, and it just lifted him into the air. It seemed to take about as much effort as I have lifting a can of soda.
I had a brief, unpleasant flashback to Aiko’s demise in a similar manner. Illusory or not, that scene was going to stick with me for a while.
Rather than attack him, though, the golem just tossed him aside. It just flicked him away like a bug, sending that massive werewolf a dozen feet through the air before he skidded a bit further across the floor.
The thing was such a marvel that I had to respect it, even if it was trying to kill us. Individually, its attacks weren’t all that dangerous; it was quick, but it was still huge and that meant every motion took longer to complete than a human’s would. The werewolves were having no difficulty dodging—but eventually they would get unlucky and trip, or zig rather than zag, and even one full-on impact would likely be lethal. Moreover, the wolves were burning tons of energy with all that quick and unpredictable movement. They were tougher than humans in pretty much every way, but even a werewolf’s stamina is limited. They were bound to get tired eventually, and then a mistake was inevitable. It was a war of attrition that the golem couldn’t lose. As a fighter, it wasn’t all that—but when it comes to keeping people out, it was pretty hard to beat.
All that happened in less than a second, while I was orienting myself. Then I launched myself back into the fray, letting out a wordless, snarling cry as I did.
It was fast. Not just faster than anything that size had a right to be, but faster than anything had the right to be. It heard me coming and turned, disdaining the weight of another werewolf dangling from its leg. I saw its face for the first time. It didn’t have one, just a blank slab of basalt. No eyes, no mouth, no features at all except for an inscription of some kind on its forehead. I wasn’t sure how it had roared.
I growled and stopped, maybe five feet from it, Tyrfing held in both hands before me, weight on the balls of my feet. That close, it couldn’t turn its attention away without my having the chance to strike, but I was just out of its range, meaning that it would have to move before it attacked me.
It was an obvious challenge, and it took the bait. Why not? It wasn’t like it had to worry much about the werewolves. There was still one clinging to its leg, after all, and he was having to scrabble just to keep from falling off. The chances of those teeth penetrating enough to hurt it were miniscule, and I was pretty sure that bullets would just ricochet.
It took another step forward, moving with a quickness entirely inappropriate in what appeared to be a creature composed entirely of stone, and swept one fist at me in a roundhouse that was guaranteed to pancake whatever it hit.
I am also quick. I ducked under the wild blow, though I had to drop almost prone to do so thanks to the sheer size of its fist, and came up swinging.
I was braced on both feet, and feeding my inner werewolf all the magic I could. I was wielding Tyrfing—Tyrfing, which cut stone and steel like cloth—with both hands, and swinging it like a baseball bat as hard as I possibly could.
It was the kind of strike that could one-shot a troll, is what I’m getting at here.
Tyrfing sunk into its flank. Like, all of three or four inches—maybe even enough to cover the whole blade. Compared to the raw, overwhelming bulk of the golem, I estimate that was roughly the same threat a papercut posed to an adult gorilla.
It drew back, and for all my superhuman strength I had only two options: come with, or let go. I chose the latter, because I figured that grappling this titan was a cruel and unusual way to commit suicide.
It drew back up to its full height. Things looked pretty bad. Tyrfing was embedded in its flank but my strongest attack hadn’t even inconvenienced it, and the werewolves that were still attacking it relentlessly were having about as much effect as a mosquito might on an enraged elephant. It had every reason to be confident.
It let out another earthshaking roar—I have no idea how, since it didn’t have a mouth—as I stumbled back, thinking frantically. Plan B, Snowflake shouted frantically, rendered almost incoherent by terror, where’s the Plan fucking B!?
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I kept moving backward, far enough that I wouldn’t be the primary threat anymore, and stuffed both hands into the fabric of my cloak. It responded to the panicked urging of my will, a tangible current of shadow bringing several objects to my grasp.
I pulled them out and fiddled with them a bit. Then, shouting “Clear!” at the top of my lungs, I chucked them forward.
The werewolves were intelligent, and also at least as desperate as I was. They scrambled away from the golem at top speed. I closed my eyes and covered my ears, warning Snowflake to do the same as best she could.
I don’t have a lot of experience with explosives, so I don’t really know how they work or what kind of effectiveness you can expect to get out of them. But I did know that Aiko’s grenades were a custom model, and I suspected that not all of their effectiveness was due to mundane chemical reactions. One of them produced a pretty good boom, and could take out a sizable chunk of wall.
Six of them going off at once was, believe you me, impressive by any standards. The sound hit me like a pressure wave. It didn’t match the sound of werewolves snarling, golem bellowing, concrete shattering, and guns shooting. It dwarfed them, took that whole mix and, laughingly, showed them what a real noise sounds like.
Explosives are terrifying in a way that swords and guns will never be. A sword can be blocked, and even bullets can be dodged if you get lucky enough. This wasn’t like that. You couldn’t dodge it, or fight it. All I could do was turn my back, shield my ears as best I could, and ride it out. It was more like a sandstorm than what I thought of as conventional weaponry. You didn’t fight it; you hunkered down, waited for it to end, and prayed to every god you could think of that you might survive the experience.
It was humbling, is what I’m saying, and the knowledge that I was the one to bring it about didn’t do much to abate that feeling.
I was tossed from my feet and flung through the air by the blast—a fun experience, by the way, when you have your eyes closed; falling blind is a real treat. I felt shrapnel hit me in a dozen places as I tumbled across the ground. It felt a bit like they describe being disorientated while underwater; I couldn’t, in all the chaos, tell up from down, let alone get it together enough to try and protect myself.
When, after mere moments that seemed to last a subjective eternity, it finally ended, it took me a moment to recognize it. My ears were ringing so loud that it seemed like I was still hearing the explosion, and when I stood I staggered drunkenly, dizzy. I was almost scared to look at the destruction I’d wrought.
The golem was gone. All that was left of the thing were chunks of stone scattered around, ranging in size from dust to blocks twice the size of my head—the source, I suspected, of the shrapnel that had hit me, and I shivered a little when I saw it. I had gotten incredibly lucky not to have been utterly pulped. The ground hadn’t fared too well, either, the grenades having carved out a literal—if, in all honesty, rather shallow—crater in the concrete. The ceiling was high enough to have escaped damage, but some of the ducting would probably never be the same, and one of the exterior walls had a gaping hole in it.
I gulped. Granted I’d been operating under the assumption that explosives were used to demolish stone on a daily basis, that was the whole reason I’d used the grenades against the golem, but…wow. I hadn’t intended quite that amount of destruction.
For what it was worth, Tyrfing was unfazed. The sword was stabbed into the floor at the very center of the crater, radiating an aura of satisfaction.
Miraculously, none of us had been damaged by the explosion, either. Oh, there were some bruises, and nobody looked happy, but a quick visual survey showed that all the werewolves were still there, as was Snowflake. They were all looking at me, rage temporarily overwhelmed by shock in their eyes.
I guess Ryan was more accustomed to grenades than the rest of us (no surprise there) because he jogged over to me before any of the rest of us had gotten our heads together enough to move.
He said something. I couldn’t hear him over the ringing in my ears. I attempted to indicate this by tapping the side of my head. Unfortunately, I appeared to still be having some coordination problems, because I wound up smacking myself instead.
Ryan got the message. He moved closer and, about three inches from my ear, all but shouted “What the fuck was that?”
I grinned feebly. “Grenades?”
He rolled his eyes. “I knew that. I meant, ‘what the fuck were you thinking?'” The moron was left unstated, but conveyed itself quite clearly all the same.
I shrugged. “I was thinking that if something didn’t change that thing was going to kill us and nothing we’d tried so far was doing much.”
He opened his mouth, then glanced back at the rubble and nodded reluctantly. “Point,” he said, with equal reluctance. “But there’s no way somebody didn’t hear that. We’re going to have cops beating down our door in about a minute.”
The ringing was finally starting to fade, thankfully, although my right ear still wasn’t working right. My healing meant that I would probably recover eventually, but it appeared I was going to be operating half-deaf for the rest of this gig. “Have somebody call in a hostage situation,” I suggested.
He blinked. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he asked dubiously. I could see, behind him, that Kyra and Snowflake were jogging over to join us, although the other wolves were staying behind, I thought to tend to various injuries obtained from the golem or the explosion.
“No,” I said, making sure to speak loudly enough that Kyra would hear. I needn’t have raised my voice, given that werewolf hearing would ensure that she heard me regardless, but it was polite. “It’s a terrible idea. But it’s the only thing I can think of to keep them from coming in until we deal with things.” Meanwhile, Are you okay? I asked Snowflake.
Fine, she replied, sounding—God help us—excited. When can we get some more of those things? That was awesome.
“So,” I concluded, “unless we’re calling this off, we have to do something. If you have a better idea that’s wonderful, but otherwise ‘hostage’ is the best I can think of for making sure we have time to finish this.”
He hesitated. Kyra growled a negative. Ryan looked like he wanted to argue, for which I couldn’t blame him—werewolves can cope with a lot, generally, but things that shrug off their attacks like raindrops aren’t included.
But Kyra was Alpha. Her word was law. And, when push came to shove, he wasn’t willing to question that law. He kept to sullen silence.
“Great,” I said. “You make it happen and get ready to move ASAP. I’m going to scout around.”
As I more than half expected from the first time I saw her, it was the cinnamon wolf that actually found the path, less than twenty seconds after the explosion. That was good; we were currently operating under a serious time limit, and I needed us to be moving well before the cops arrived if this plan was going to work.
We all gathered around the stairway in silence. Well, most of us did; as it turned out, the huge wolf had broken a few bones and was in no condition to continue, and Cowboy Bill was limping pretty badly from a shrapnel wound to his left thigh. They left via the hole I’d blown in the wall, bringing us down to six.
The stairway we were looking at was a weird mix of the prosaic and the remarkable. I mean, it isn’t all that uncommon you find a staircase in the back rooms of a store leading to the basement storage area. But it is uncommon that said staircase is little more than a tube of concrete, with layers of wards around the threshold, and a solid steel trapdoor waiting to be dropped over the top.
We stared at it. Werewolves, generally speaking, aren’t much when it comes to feeling magic, but you would have to be blind, deaf, and unconscious not to notice this. The air around the wards fairly hummed with lethal promise, and the air shimmered like a parking lot at noon in July. Anybody who set of those wards was going to be one crispy critter, and the way they were rigged would unleash the full extent of their power if anyone so much as touched a toe to the top step. Even better, they wouldn’t be especially discriminating, turning the entire room into a blast furnace that would leave nothing alive.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I licked my lips nervously, then said, “Clear the room, please.” Ryan, the only one present with a language-capable mouth, looked like he wanted to argue. I met his brown eyes with my amber ones, and he looked away fast. Moments later I was alone in the room.
I didn’t waste time. As soon as the last tail cleared the door, I drew Tyrfing from where I’d returned it to the scabbard on my belt. I dragged the blade across the palm of my hand, cutting just deeply enough to draw blood. Every drop that touched Tyrfing’s blade vanished, drained almost instantly into the sword, but more dripped down my fingers and spattered onto the wards, where it immediately began to steam and hiss.
Like I said. Blood magic is scary, risky, stupid stuff to play around with—but when you need power badly enough that you don’t care what the cost is anymore, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
I didn’t have the time to be subtle and clever. I took all the power I could hold, drew it in from the air around me and the shadows in the corners, from the blood dripping off my fingertips and the anger boiling quietly beneath the surface of my mind. I inhaled, the magic I was holding leashed pressing against my skin from the inside.
And I huffed, and I puffed, and I blew the house down.
I couldn’t outsmart this guy. His wards were a thing of beauty and grace, elegant weaves of power interwoven into a whole that outstripped any spell I could spin by an order of magnitude. That was why I was taking a Gordian-style approach instead. Tyrfing slammed into the ground, which didn’t do nearly as good a job of resisting the blade as the golem had.
Tyrfing was more than merely metal, and its edge could cut more than matter. It was forged by dwarves to be an instrument of destruction, and I don’t know if there’s anything that can really stop it indefinitely. It sliced into the magic of the wards as easily as it had the concrete.
They triggered instantly, of course. That was a given. The structure of the wards snapped, and the energy they had been holding flooded out, trying to produce heat and flame enough to turn me into a greasy stain.
I didn’t let them. Once the potential for heat became actual, it would be unstoppable, way more thermal energy than I could hope to counteract. Until that happened, though, they were just magic, just something that could become real. And that I could control, sending a massive wave of my own magic to swamp it out before it could finish the process of activating.
It didn’t work, not completely. Purely energetic stuff was far from my forte, and it was inevitable that some would slip past me. The air in front of me turned to fire and death in an instant, rushing forward at me.
I couldn’t afford to break my concentration, or I would have a lot more than this to worry about. I spared just enough energy to throw an arm up across my eyes, dropping Tyrfing so as not to stab myself in the neck, and otherwise kept right on grounding out all the power I could.
It hurt, when the flames hit. It hurt a lot. But pain was not a stranger to me, and I refused to allow it to stop me. I endured.
Several long moments later, the fire died out, and the last of the magic faded from the air, taking with it the smell of hot metal and bleach. I cautiously lowered my arm and let the last scraps of the power I’d gathered go, staggering a little with the expenditure of magic.
The room was smoldering a little, but not as much as I’d expected. There just wasn’t much there to burn—concrete takes a lot of heat to set on fire, and while it was charred black in places it was essentially intact.
There was one notable exception. Where I was standing, and in a circle for almost five feet in every direction, the floor hadn’t been burned. It was, rather, covered in a sheen of ice. Frost had formed on the surface of my body, covering all exposed skin in a layer of the stuff. My face had been burned—I knew it had, had felt the flame lick my face and struggled not to scream with the pain of it—but it didn’t hurt now. The skin, which had been burned off, had been replaced with ice, close to my face as a second skin. Even my eyes were covered in a thin layer of ice, which melted away when I blinked and reformed a moment later.
Even stranger, the ice seemed to dull the pain. I could still feel it, but it was distant, almost like I’d been dosed with a topical anesthetic.
Creepy. Useful, but deeply creepy.
I called the werewolves back in, less than fifteen seconds after they’d left. They looked at the fire damage, and then at the frost, and then they saw me.
Only Snowflake had no fear in her eyes when she saw my face.
“Come on,” I said, both a hint of a growl and something eerily like a winter breeze hiding in the depths of my voice, and jerked my head at the staircase. Kyra, well aware of how little time we had remaining, didn’t wait for me to ask twice before bounding down.
Snowflake and I brought up the rear once again. Once we were down, Ryan slammed the trapdoor shut behind us. The steel door must have weighed better than a hundred and fifty pounds, but he lifted it like nothing. “In case the cops try to follow us,” he explained, and took off after his pack.
I didn’t argue. But I did use Tyrfing to cut off the bolt before I sheathed it. Just in case.
The staircase was incredible. After around the first thirty feet, it turned from concrete to stone, masterfully cut and joined, and the fluorescent lighting was replaced by odd, glowing orbs of some white stone I didn’t recognize. It just kept going, one flight after another, twisting and turning back on itself in ways that didn’t always make sense.
I’m not sure how deep that staircase was. The steps were unevenly spaced, generally shorter than I would expect, but sometimes they had to be higher than was allowed by code. I lost track around three hundred, and we kept going for quite some time after that.
This is insane, Snowflake said, bounding down the stairs just below me. Nobody builds shit like this.
No, I replied. Jon probably hired trolls or dwarves or something to make it. Heck of a hideout.
By some miracle, we didn’t encounter any dangers on the way down the stairs. There were no more golems, no wards, not even a tripwire. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. I mean, of course it was good that we weren’t being threatened at every step, but…well, I kept thinking that that could only mean that whatever was coming up next was big and bad enough to make up for the lack.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what was so big it dwarfed a fifteen-foot-tall monster made from solid granite that laughed at Tyrfing.
When we hit the bottom, we saw the first signs of opposition in a while. Two creatures—constructs, they had to be, made by this nutter from the stuff of the Otherside—lying dead on the floor. They were hideously ugly things, roughly humanoid slabs of muscle topped by horrific fanged mouths more suitable to a grizzly bear than anything bipedal. They were obviously made for violence, not any aesthetic purposes, and the grievous wounds they’d sustained did nothing to improve their looks.
They were each two hundred or more pounds of claws, teeth, and muscle, more than a match for any human without serious armaments. But four pack werewolves driven nearly berserk with rage had outclassed them rather badly. It was hard to tell with any precision what had happened here, but there was no sign that any of the wolves had been injured, and each of the constructs had been ripped to pieces.
The werewolves, of course, were long gone, down the long tunnel before us. They had outstripped us easily on the stairs, and were obviously too deeply in the grip of the mad rage of a werewolf whose pack has been challenged to wait for us at the bottom.
“Shit,” I said, jogging down the corridor after them. I wanted to run, but I’d been pushing myself hard with all the magic and acrobatics, and I was starting to come up against my limits. That added another layer of urgency to the situation. If this wasn’t over soon, I might not be able to finish it. “I told them not to try and take him alone.” Snowflake, matching my pace easily, growled deep in her chest, either unwilling or unable to express the extent of her reaction in words.
We passed several more corpses, or pieces of corpses, as we went. It was hard to tell precisely what had happened to them—constructs are unstable, and decay very rapidly once they’re destroyed—but I still didn’t see any blood, or anything else to indicate that the werewolves had been hurt.
The corridor—it seemed impolite to call it a tunnel, given the artistry that had gone into making it—continued for what felt like a very long time. The constructs came thicker as we progressed, until after around three hundred yards they were coming in groups of ten and fifteen, and the werewolves hadn’t had the time or attention to spare for absurdly grotesque overkill anymore. I started seeing bullet casings where Ryan had had to resort to modern weapons, and in places there were tufts of fur and blood to mark where their numbers had been so overwhelming that one of the wolves was injured. A while after that, I heard the unmistakable snarls of werewolves in battle ahead.
Snowflake and I picked up the pace. After another twenty yards or so the corridor opened up into a room, the first we’d seen since we descended the stairs. We slowed down a little as we emerged, high on the wall of a chamber I’d have sworn couldn’t possibly be buried under the city. And stopped, stunned, to stare at the scene in front of us.
The room was more stone, boggling the mind with the amount of work it must have taken to cut and fit it all, and had to be about a hundred yards square, and thirty tall. We were just below the ceiling, standing on a narrow ledge that turned into an equally narrow stone staircase that switchbacked down the face of the wall.
In what I judged to be the exact center of the room, four werewolves stood back to back. Ryan’s assault rifle had gone by the wayside at some point, and he was holding his trench knife in his right hand and the Uzi in his left. He was facing us, Kyra at his back. The cinnamon wolf to the left was limping, her left foreleg crushed too badly to bear weight, and only the fourth wolf didn’t look significantly the worse for wear.
Surrounding them was a mass of constructs. They weren’t outnumbered five-to-one, or even by a factor of ten.
From what I could tell, there were more than two hundred constructs in that seething horde. Fifty of them for each of the werewolves.
I stared for a moment from my perch, stunned. In my most pessimistic moments I hadn’t expected that there would be this many enemies here. We couldn’t hope to take that many. The six of us could kill thirty apiece and there would still be enough to bring us down through the sheer weight of numbers.
On the far wall, highlighted by a literal spotlight, was the bait. Laurel was stuck in a contraption remarkably like that the Watchers had held me in, the only immediately visible differences being that she was still wearing that dull red cloak (not a kindness to leave her clothed, given that once soaked clothing becomes more of an inconvenience than anything), and that she was bound with simple hemp rope instead of fancy handcuffs. She was clearly conscious, surveying the scene with an expression of such fury as to impress werewolves, but incapable of affecting things from her current position.
On the other wall, to my right, framed by another spotlight, was a small but literal throne. It was made from more stone, and though it was hardly larger than an armchair, its positioning on a small dais and the mastery of its construction left no doubt as to its nature.
Seated on the throne, wearing a simple old-fashioned suit, was a familiar face, the very same one my instincts had been going haywire warning me about from the first time I saw him. Crazily, even with everything I’d seen, the suit combined with the baldness and the jovial expression made him look like a jolly businessman.
It fit, too, that was the worst part. I’d assumed that he was a Guard, but all he really said was that he wasn’t a part of the Watchers. There’d always been that anger toward me, too, buried much of the time but not hard to see. And then there was the fact that Watcher had made no mention, none at all, of who he was or what his role might be.
Strangely, the constructs weren’t attacking. I would have expected them to swarm forward and overrun the wolves, but they were standing dead still, forming a perfect ring about two feet from Kyra’s nose. That could only mean that the bad guy didn’t want them to move yet, and that could only mean that he wanted something.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do yet. But I was pretty sure that I needed to be down there to do it, and pronto. So I scooped Snowflake into my arms and jumped off the ledge, pushing off as hard as possible so as not to land on the staircase below. Eighty feet down—no problem. I stretched out my will, thickening the air we fell through and forcing it to press up against us, slowing us down. Eighty feet down, but we hit with no more speed than if we’d fallen ten or so. I dropped Snowflake just before we hit so that she wouldn’t be crushed; like a cat, she landed on all fours and came up snarling. I, being somewhat less like a cat, hit the ground and rolled to disperse energy, but I also finished the motion with a snarl on my face.
Only to freeze as I realized what was going on.
A third spotlight had come on, centered on Kyra, and the bad guy (I really needed a better name for him than that) was laughing. It should have been inaudible, but somehow cut across the distance between us and the snarling wolves without any trouble. The acoustics—or, quite possibly, the magic—of the room must have been arranged such that anyone on the throne had their sounds amplified.
“Wolf!” he exclaimed, sounding just as jovial and just as quietly, homicidally furious as ever. “Jolly good of you to make it! I was afraid you’d miss the fun.”
That was when I realized what was going on, and a quick glance confirmed it. Yep, the constructs were slowly pressing closer to the wolves. And, when I looked over at her, Laurel was slowly sinking into the water. The rope contraption she was in was lowering steadily into the water.
He saw, when I realized that, and laughed again. “I see that you recognize the choice you are faced with, Wolf. Do you try to kill me? Or do you free the person you came here to help? Or will you try and save your friends? I assure you, you have only enough time for one of these things.”