“Give me a moment,” Aiko said as we walked out the door. She stood dead still for several moments, eyes closed, head thrown back in a way reminiscent of a canine taking a scent, then sighed contentedly.
I got the impression maybe she was glad to get out of the house.
“Where are we going?” Alexis asked, as Aiko continued to bask in the pleasure of not being confined.
I shrugged. “Nowhere specific, as yet,” I said. “At the moment we’re on hold for somebody to get a location on the target. Where do you want to wait?”
I’ll never know the answer to that question, because before any of the three of them responded I felt a sudden rush of magic. It was scented with darkness, blood, with hints of some odd piquancy—licorice, perhaps, or aniseed—and a subtle, dry undertone that made me think of feathers. It was also fairly strong—not phenomenally so, but I definitely would have noticed it, even if I wasn’t paying attention.
I promptly turned to face the shadowed alley where that scent was emanating from. A few seconds later, Hrafn Gunnarsson stepped out into the street. He was still wearing black, but it no longer looked ridiculous; he’d traded out the velvet and silk for worn black leather, and ditched the cloak entirely. It was a much more martial outfit, and one which looked much more natural on the vampire. He was clearly ready for a fight, too; he was carrying an axe quite openly over his shoulder. It looked like an intermediary step between a Danish bearded axe and an executioner-style bardiche. The haft was around five and a half feet long, and better than an inch thick. The head had a cutting edge more than a foot long. A human would have been hopelessly slow with such a heavy weapon. Even a werewolf would have found it more than slightly cumbersome. Somehow, I thought that Hrafn wouldn’t have that difficulty—and if he landed a solid blow with that thing, it would hit with terrifying force.
“Jarl Winter,” the vampire said, nodding almost deeply enough to call it a bow. “I hope I find you in good health.”
“Indeed,” I agreed. “I would say the same, except that I suspect your health ceased to concern you some time ago.” The vampire chuckled heartily. I almost had to remind myself that he was an evil spawn of darkness and evil, and a leech on humankind. “You are not here without reason, I presume.”
“No, indeed,” he said, sobering. “Your timing is quite impeccable. I had just been dispatched to your home to find you. Kikuchi’s people have found the lair of these rakshasas. He and his kin are awaiting only our presence to begin their assault.”
I frowned. “He and his kin only?”
Hrafn sighed. “Katrin is…well. Your treatment of her pricked her pride. She assisted the yokai in their search, but she will not come to the battle.”
“And yourself? Why are you here, if I have offended so gravely?”
“I am a simple man, jarl,” he said, heaving another sigh. “I cannot abide the machinations and deceits of political games, nor have I any great ambition. You wish to rule this place? Fine, say I. ” He shrugged, the gesture making his axe bob oddly. “In any case, I have never been one to flee from the fight.”
I nodded. “And the third that came with you? Natalie, I think her name was?”
Hrafn’s face twisted with distaste. “Even if she wanted to come, you would not wish her to. Her talents lie in other areas. In open violence, you would find her to be of little use.” His tone made it clear that he regarded that very, very poorly, increasing my suspicion that Hrafn was an old, old vampire. That sort of almost instinctive revulsion towards people who rely on trickery, deception, and wealth to avoid physical combat hasn’t been prevalent for quite a long time. It was a small thing, and circumstantial at best, but combined with his…well, his air, for lack of a better word, it made me pretty sure that Hrafn was old. How old was impossible to say, but I was guessing a few hundred years at least, maybe even a thousand. At a guess I would have said he was certainly older than Natalie, and maybe even older than Katrin.
I inclined my head toward him slightly. “Thank you for your honesty,” I said seriously. “We’d best not keep them waiting, though. They might start the fight without us, and we couldn’t have that.”
He laughed at that. “Indeed,” he said. “Have you a vehicle?”
“Don’t you?” I asked curiously.
“I came a faster way,” he said cryptically. “But I cannot take you with me, and it is some distance to our destination.”
I was really wondering what that “faster way” was—I’d certainly felt the magic from the vampire’s arrival, but it had none of the tones of Otherside travel, and that was seldom faster than a car for such short distances anyway—but this was clearly not the time for that sort of inquiry. Not that I really expected Hrafn to answer me, regardless. “Alexis?” I said, turning to look at her. She was visibly curious about what we were talking about—I’d told her virtually nothing about the events at the meeting or the people involved, which I expect made the conversation rather hard to follow. “Do you have your keys?”
She started, then nodded and started fishing around in her pockets. “Wonderful,” I said. “Miraculously, your car is still unstolen, so we do indeed have a vehicle, Hrafn, just down the road a little.”
It was a little tricky packing the five of us into Alexis’s sedan, but we managed. She drove, by reason of it being her car, and Hrafn was in the passenger seat providing directions, with his axe between his feet. That left me, Aiko, and Snowflake in the backseat. It was a little crowded, but we were all quite friendly, so it wasn’t a real problem.
I mostly tuned out the directions Hrafn was giving, and didn’t pay a lot of attention to our surroundings, either. I was fairly confident that it was safe enough. Hrafn wanted this fight too much to sell us out before we got there (and if not, well, he was the only one who knew where we were going anyway), and there was not a chance in hell that Alexis could overcome him in any way, should she be less enthusiastic than she claimed. So, because my participation wasn’t in any way required, I didn’t worry about it. I spent a few minutes scratching Snowflake’s ears, checked that all my knives and assorted other tools were in place, and in various other ways tried and failed not to dwell on what was about to happen. I always get like that, in the interval between the last chance to make preparations for a fight and when hostilities actually start.
I started to feel strangely uncomfortable as we traveled. We were down in the south end of the city by this point, in one of the more expensive neighborhoods. We moved off the highway into the hills, along progressively more unnecessarily winding streets.
Winter? Snowflake said. Does this seem familiar to you?
Yes, I said, staring out the window at very, very expensive houses as we passed. Yes, it does.
Hrafn directed Alexis to park at the side of the road. From this angle, I could see a small group of people clustered at the base of a hill, all of them looking up. At the top of the hill, framed against the trees, was a single house. It was a lot smaller than my extradimensional abode, but still quite large enough to qualify as a mansion in this era, three stories and proportionally broad. At the moment the lights were all off in the windows and the moon was mostly obscured by clouds, rendering the building into an ominous, brooding silhouette barely visible against the forest.
If you were shooting a movie, you would have no hesitation in choosing this place as your house of monsters.
“You’re kidding,” I whispered. “They’re here?”
Hrafn looked at me with confusion. “Yes. Why? Is there a problem?”
“Not exactly,” I said dubiously. “But this is the old pack house. The werewolves based their territory out of here for years.” I smiled wryly. “Of course, I expect the rakshasas aren’t exactly displeased by that statement.”
Hrafn chuckled softly. “No, jarl, I expect they are not.” He opened the door and got out. I followed suit immediately—I didn’t want him to reach the assault team before I did—with Aiko and Alexis following a few moments later.
As it turned out, it was a relatively small group waiting for us. Kikuchi was there—he could hardly afford not to come, politically speaking—flanked by two other tengu, both male in appearance, not that that meant much. All three looked basically human in shape, but were covered in inky black feathers, and had beaks sprouting from their faces. Kikuchi, who I recognized more by scent than sight, was wearing armor not unlike an abbreviated version of my own, while the other two wore only loincloths. All three were carrying the katana-and-wakizashi ensemble that had once been the distinguishing mark of the Japanese samurai.
The tanuki, whose name I couldn’t seem to remember, was also there. He was still wearing his biker leathers, and was carrying a massive oak club. It was nearly five feet long, shaped roughly like a baseball bat, and studded with iron at the striking end. Miyazaki—that was his name, I knew I’d remember it eventually—handled the thing like it weighed about as much as a rolled-up newspaper.
Sheesh. Between this and Hrafn, I was starting to feel a little insecure. I mean, sure, Tyrfing was easily the equal of any weapon here—for that matter, it was pretty much the equal of any weapon anywhere—but sheesh.
Hrafn and I walked over to meet them. I was flanked by Aiko and Snowflake, with Alexis trailing after, looking lost. The vampire stood just far enough away not to look like we were a group. The message was clear.
“Are we about ready to go in?” I said to Kikuchi, making sure to keep my voice respectful, and to make clear that I was asking his opinion rather than stating my own.
“Not quite,” the would-be dai-tengu said absently, staring up at the mansion. His words were oddly mangled by the beak. “Matsuda Kimiko is scouting. We will wait for her to return before we move.”
I didn’t argue, for two reasons. First, this was his mission; I was pretty much just the muscle here, while he was the brains. Second, I’d have to be a freaking moron to say we should charge in blindly without waiting for the scout to report. I’m not that dumb.
We all stood around for a few minutes in silence. There didn’t seem to be anything to say; we couldn’t very well plan strategy until Kimiko came back with the scouting report, and small talk was out of the question.
Fortunately, the kitsune returned before the silence could really settle in, make itself at home, and become an oppressive cloak. She was in fox form, a fennec hardly larger than a big rat with enormous bat-ears. It wasn’t hard to see why she’d been assigned to scout out the target; her fur was a pale tan that wouldn’t blend into the surroundings particularly well, but she was so small and so agile that it would hardly matter. There was no question that she could get closer than any of the rest of us without being noticed.
She slithered down the hill, detectable only by the faint rustling of grasses as she passed through them—and I only even noticed that because Kikuchi focused on it. She covered the last few yards in ridiculously long, high bounds, and changed to human form almost before she’d stopped moving. She started strapping on weapons without any sign of modesty, no more conscious of her nudity than if she’d been entirely alone. I looked away, slightly uncomfortable. I don’t have much in the way of a nudity taboo—most werewolves don’t, mostly because we’re no more able to shift in clothing than a kitsune—but there was something intensely awkward about the moment. Maybe it was because of the strangers present, or because we were about to storm the not-entirely-metaphorical castle of a bunch of monsters—or, hell, maybe it had something to do with the fact that my heavily-armed girlfriend and female cousin were both standing right there.
I should have known better, of course. Alexis looked away, blushing furiously—but, equally predictably, Aiko leaned over to get a closer look, and peered at the scene with interest. “Not bad,” she said appraisingly. “She’s been working out since the last time I saw her.” She followed the statement up with a wolf whistle, loudly enough that everyone present would hear but not enough so to present a risk of detection.
“Aiko, that’s your cousin.”
“So?” she said reasonably. “I can still appreciate her body on an aesthetic level, can’t I? Besides, it isn’t like there’s any chance of inbreeding, is there, so what’s it—wait. Is that a tattoo? There? That must have really hurt.”
Ooookay then, Snowflake said. This conversation is now officially too disturbing even for me, and I think we all know what that means. Kindly change the subject. Right now.
Fortunately, I was spared from either having to continue that conversational line any further (because really, that was disturbing) or trying to change the topic, because about then Kimiko finished pulling on her biker’s leather, belted on the same paired-sword ensemble as the tengu were wearing, picked up a Kalashnikov assault rifle, and gestured for us to come closer.
“They’re definitely in there,” she said quietly, no trace of levity in her voice. “Hard to say how many, but I’d guess not less than a dozen rakshasas, maybe as many as thirty.”
“They’ll have human minions with them,” I said, remembering the scene Reynard had showed me. Four rakshasas, and fourteen human servants. “Maybe a lot of them.”
She nodded. “Probably. They’re on a fairly tight lockdown. All of the first-floor windows are boarded over, and the back door. The front door is locked, and I spotted two rakshasas on guard outside. The whole building is warded.”
“What kind of wards?” I asked.
“Detection,” she said. “That much is certain. There’s also a force reversal ward in place, and there might be any number of spell triggers worked into the matrix.”
“That presents a problem,” Kikuchi said, stroking the hilt of his katana absently. “A detection web will negate any chance of taking them by surprise. And they’ll be able to hit us with all sorts of magic while we’re delayed by the wards, not to mention the surprises they will be preparing for us as they wait.”
I frowned. “I can take down the wards,” I said, somewhat surprised by the confidence in my own voice. “But I’ll be vulnerable while I do it. We have to take out those guards first, preferably without alerting the ones inside.”
Hrafn cleared his throat mildly, making several of us jump—clearly, I wasn’t the only one present who found it easy to forget about the presence of the vampire, especially when he wasn’t breathing. “I can kill one sentry without causing alarm,” he said in a calm, even tone. “And the detection spells will feel nothing.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Some of those things are really hard to hide from.”
The vampire smiled. It might have been just my imagination saying his eyeteeth were more pronounced than was entirely natural, when every other time I’d seen a vampire they looked entirely human—but I doubted it. “Very little sees me when I do not wish to be seen,” he said with perfect assurance. “Trust me, Winter jarl. They will not feel my presence.”
“That’s one of the guards,” Kikuchi said. “Matsuda? Do you think you can conceal yourself from the wards as well?”
Kimiko frowned, chewing her lip. “Maybe?” she said tentatively. She paused for a moment, then nodded. “I think so,” she said, more decisively.
“Good,” he said. “In that case, you and your cousin will approach and remove the other sentry, allowing Wolf to approach and remove the wards. Meanwhile, the four of us—” he indicated the tengu standing to either side of him, and Miyazaki standing a short ways off—”will move around to the back of the house and cause a diversion, hopefully preventing the rakshasas within from interfering with you. You will enter and strike them from the rear, and we will grind them between us. Are there any questions?”
There were not. I wasn’t going to say so, but I had to admit being rather impressed with Kikuchi. Granted he must have expected something like this—certainly it would be almost unimaginable for a group of rakshasas, knowing that they were in a state of war, not to erect wards around their stronghold—but the fact remained that, within just a few seconds of learning the extent of those protections, and of his allies’ capabilities, he had a workable plan of battle laid out. One that put him in the most dangerous position, no less, and he had no apparent qualms with that idea.
“Very good,” he said. “Let’s get started, before they send someone out to take us as we stand here. Diversion starts in three minutes, so be ready.” He gestured to the other tengu, and the three of them moved off at an angle to the hill, melting almost instantly into the night. Miyazaki waited just long enough to shoot us a thumbs-up and a fierce grin, his blocky teeth startlingly white against the beard, before following. For all his size, the tanuki made no more noise than the tengu, and vanished just as quickly into the trees.
“We have to get into position,” Kimiko said, checking over her rifle. It had the look of ritual to it.
“Right,” I said. “Go ahead, you two. Snowflake, you’re with me. Hrafn—” I looked around and discovered that the vampire had disappeared. It was impossible to say when he’d left, and equally so to tell where he’d gone. “Right,” I muttered. “Because that isn’t creepy at all.” By the time I looked back, Aiko and Kimiko had also vanished, already on their way to their assigned position.
“Winter?” Alexis asked, once again sounding scared almost out of her wits. “What should I do?”
“Stay behind me,” I said. I tried to think of a way to say “Stay out of the way and don’t do anything stupid,” more politely, without much success. “And shout if anyone tries to sneak up behind us,” I finished lamely, well aware that if someone from this crowd did sneak up on us Alexis would almost certainly be dead before she knew anything about it. I was fairly confident she knew that, anyway, making it not really worth pointing out.
Snowflake and I moved up the hill, fairly slowly. The last thing I wanted to do was give away the game before the others were ready—and, in any case, I didn’t really want to get that close to the building anyway. I was pretty sneaky, particularly wearing the cloak, and Snowflake was better—but I knew my limits. Trying to approach an alert rakshasa from dead ahead stealthily was beyond them, and I didn’t have the first idea how to hide from the magics they had in place. If I went in before the diversion started, or before the sentries were dead, there was no possibility I would go undetected.
We got to within around ten yards, though, both of us flat on our stomachs in the underbrush. I was feeling pretty grateful that the rakshasas’ overweening pride had demanded they make their home in the werewolves’ former center of power. The wolves had chosen this place for its privacy and close access to the forest, both of which were currently playing to our advantage. Alexis, whom I had completely dismissed as unimportant at this time, was hanging back a fair ways—pretty much where we’d started, in fact, and well out of the danger zone. Smart. If she could just stay there until the fur stopped flying, we’d all be better off for it.
From that vantage, I could see the building fairly clearly. The windows were boarded over, as Kimiko had said, although I thought that a bit of an understatement when there was a sheet of plywood, a set of cross-braced planks, and iron bars over every first-floor window I could see, and the upper ones were barred. The door was flanked by a pair of what I could only presume were rakshasas. They both looked human, although visibility was very poor—even by werewolf standards, it was damned dark out here. I could at least see that both of them were holding weapons, though there wasn’t anything like a uniform between them. The one on the left had a halberd planted against the ground and, as nearly as I could tell, was wearing heavy plate armor. The right-side guard had what looked like a scimitar at his hip, was holding a shotgun or rifle of some sort, and had no armor on that I could see.
We sat there, waited, and tried not to think about all the things that could go wrong with this plan.
We were not terribly successful. Even by my standards, this plan was less than solid.
Fortunately it wasn’t more than a minute, maybe two, before Kikuchi’s diversion started. There was a sudden flash of light on the other side of the building, which I supposed any civilians would mistake for lightning. That impression would be helped along by the thunderous boom that followed a moment later, a sound closer to explosions than to gunshots in volume and timber. A moment later I heard the tengu shouting, his voice small in the wake of that artificial thunder but still quite loud enough for me to hear. He spoke mostly in what sounded like Japanese, but with occasional forays into other languages. Judging by the few parts I understood, he was not exactly shouting compliments on the rakshasas defenses.
The two sentries both jerked at the light, then jumped slightly at the following noise. The unarmored one moved as though to go around and investigate. The other reached out and caught his arm, and I didn’t have to hear it to imagine the stern lecture on the meaning of “guard this door” and the nature of diversionary tactics.
And that was our moment.
Hrafn appeared, just freaking appeared behind the armored, evidently superior guard while he was distracted. That monstrous axe of his came down in a whistling overhand strike that started on the crown of the rakshasa’s helm and concluded somewhere in the vicinity of the bottom of his sternum, which I felt pretty much guaranteed we didn’t have to worry about that one. The two of them had been standing so close together that I suspected the axe had also caught the second guard, but if so it hadn’t been more than a glancing blow. He jerked back, visibly surprised, and I was quite confident he was about to start raising hell.
Kimiko, who had emerged from the trees the moment the light started (her illusions weren’t quite as good as whatever Hrafn had done, and I was watching closely enough to catch the slight discrepancy) put her katana through his back, turning the incipient scream into a grunt of pain. A moment later Aiko, whose concealment had been more complete than her cousin’s, passed her wakizashi through his throat. He dropped to the ground, sliding off the sword stuck through him, and the kitsune wiped their blades clean and sheathed them.
And as quickly and simply as that, two rakshasas were dead.
I started uphill at a run, Snowflake tight by my side and thrilling with excitement, and called Tyrfing as I went. I undid the clasp and flicked the scabbard aside, and as always I felt joy and fury rush into me with the drawing of the sword.
Aiko and Kimiko had taken up a position to one side of the door, with Hrafn watching the other. All three were keeping close watch on the surroundings—it was not impossible that this entire thing was a setup, luring us into an ambush—and I noticed that Hrafn was standing in such a manner that he could easily take a swing at anyone coming through the door.
I had to slow down a little as I approached, for fear that the combination of poor lighting, uncertain footing, and Tyrfing’s attendant bad luck would put me flat on my face. That was unacceptable—it would make me vulnerable to the rakshasas, and it would make me look weak and stupid in front of Hrafn and Kimiko, neither of which was something I could afford.
I pulled up short in front of the door and closed my eyes, already examining the structure of the warding spells. They smelled much like the rakshasa I’d encountered earlier that night. I could easily discern multiple individual signatures in the magic, making me think that it had been established by a cooperative effort of multiple rakshasas.
As I’d hoped, the wards were static in nature, solid and locked rather than flowing. It’s sort of hard to explain what I mean by that—you can’t really get it unless you have the senses to perceive it for yourself, in which case you hardly need an explanation—but a metaphor might help to convey something of what I was perceiving. Think of the type of ward they were using as a crystal. Everything was locked into a precise, orderly form, with no flexibility to it, no room for variation, no movement. Some wards, in contrast, were more like fountains. The overall shape was consistent, but within that boundary the energy itself was free to move around, shifting and flowing.
There were benefits to the kind of ward the rakshasas had used. It was more stable, for one thing, which gave it a longer shelf life. Any long-term magic has to be repaired periodically unless its construction was absolutely flawless, but a fluid format is much more susceptible to leakage and power loss to the environment. This type of construction was simpler, too, and you could get more bang for your buck with less skill. Its stability made it more resistant to meddling, interference, and hacks of all sorts.
But it has disadvantages, as well—obviously, or it would be the only thing anyone used, ever. Such rigidity made it incapable of adapting. A more fluid design would level itself out, so to speak, so that you couldn’t substantially weaken one part of it without taking on the whole thing. There wasn’t enough freedom of movement in the energy making up these spells’ structure to allow that sort of correction. Like diamond, it was strong, durable, incredibly hard—yet brittle, and easily fractured by the right sort of blow.
A fluid ward is susceptible to clever tactics, cunning tricks, and subtle maneuvers. A crystalline ward, on the other hand, is easily defeated by a sufficient amount of brute force, skillfully applied. That’s why I, like any good paranoiac, used a mixture of both.
I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, let it out, and opened a long, shallow cut on my wrist with Tyrfing. The sword’s mirrored blade swallowed the blood without a mark, as always, but it flowed freely down my arm, dripping off the back of my hand to the ground.
I gathered my magic. I reached, through the medium of my blood, for the power of my life, power I could convert to magic at need, and held it ready. And then I slashed viciously at the door with Tyrfing.
When Tyrfing collided with the ward, the ward tried to keep it out. The magic attempted to turn the force impacting it back on itself, send the sword flying back at my face with extra velocity thrown in. Had it been an ordinary sword, or a battering ram for that matter, I don’t doubt it would have been quite adequate for the task. I mean, there’s a reason that a force-reversing spell is the bread-and-butter standard issue warding spell. It was the equivalent of an assault rifle—simple, versatile, and capable of dealing with an incredibly wide range of opponents.
The problem wasn’t with the ward. The problem was that, to continue the analogy, Tyrfing was the equivalent of a mainline battle tank. Standard issue equipment wasn’t up to handling that sort of thing. If you want to shoot a tank, you need anti-materiel weapons with armor-piercing ammunition, and even then it’s going to be rather chancy. Likewise, if you want Tyrfing not to cut you, a standard warding spell, or even a set of them, wasn’t enough. You need….
Actually, I wasn’t sure what you’d need. I had yet to encounter something Tyrfing couldn’t cut through, given a little time, with the exception of the personal weapons of the champions of the Sidhe Courts.
So, long story short, when the ward’s magic tried to latch onto Tyrfing, it failed to find a hold on it. Tyrfing, on the other hand, had no such difficulty with slicing into the ward, which didn’t fare nearly so well from their encounter. The sword slowed only slightly as it passed through, and bit into the door deeply.
The damage to the ward’s structure was enough, though, to trigger the next line of defense. Embedded within the base layer of magic were more…proactive defenses. The principles involved were actually the same as those of a stored spell. A small trigger—in this case, the feedback of the ward’s own shattered magic—acted to release a much larger amount of energy that had been appropriately shaped beforehand. In this case, I was pretty sure it was a combination of kinetic force and lightning, which would cause distinct problems if it hit me. The force wasn’t an enormous problem—the armor would mitigate some of the damage, and I could probably heal the rest—but I had no real defenses in place against electricity, and there was enough of it here to be quite definitely lethal.
Which is why, at the exact moment it started to trigger, I hit the ward with all the power I’d been holding. It was a brutally simple tactic. As the structure of the spell started to collapse I smashed it with raw, undifferentiated magical energy.
I have no real talent with either kinetic energy or electricity. But this wasn’t either of those things, not yet. I caught it in the split second between when it started to release the stored power and when that power took on a physical form. I wasn’t exactly skilled at purely energetic stuff either, preferring more tangible magics—but, then again, this wasn’t exactly finesse work. It was a contest of brute strength, more or less, and I was prepared, relatively fresh, and using blood magic to supplement my natural power.
I was skilled enough for that.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t perfect. I took a hit roughly as hard as a strong tackle, sending me staggering backward, and a miniature lightning bolt that hurt like hell and set my muscles to twitching furiously. Between these two things, it should come as no great surprise that I wound up on my ass, and probably would have banged my head painfully off a rock if I weren’t wearing a helmet.
But significantly more of the power backlashed into the ward itself. When I managed to sit up and look around, slightly dizzily, the door was hanging drunkenly open from one hinge, there were burn marks spread over a dozen feet of wall, and it took only moments for me to see that the ward’s structural integrity had been too badly damaged for it to continue functioning at all. There was no further impediment to entry through this door.
“We’re good,” I croaked, pushing myself to my feet and recalling Tyrfing to hand. Aiko, Kimiko (who was looking at me with newfound respect, and maybe a hint of fear) and Snowflake slipped into the darkened building at once. Hrafn stayed to give me a hand up, and made no move to follow me inside.
“Aren’t you coming?” I asked as I limped over the threshold, every sense alert for enemies on the other side.
“I cannot enter a home uninvited,” the vampire said, his expression one of icy calm which I felt strangely confident belied a terrible frustration. “I will go assist the yokai with their distraction.” Hrafn vanished, so fast that I couldn’t really say whether he’d teleported or was simply that fast, leaving only a lingering scent of vampire and raven.
Well, great. So much for our heavy hitter. I had magic and was better equipped, but there was no doubt that Hrafn was stronger, faster, and more durable than me. I’d been counting on his assistance inside, and felt significantly more vulnerable now that I knew I wouldn’t be getting it.
I also felt more than slightly stupid for not even considering that this might happen beforehand, of course. But that didn’t really have much bearing on the situation.
The house was dark, even to my eyes, and I was relying more on hearing and my awareness of how the air flowed over and around objects than on my largely useless vision. Even with those advantages, it was hard to understand what was going on. There was nothing for it but to continue, though, so I walked into the madhouse.
The rakshasas seemed to have been gathered in the large, hollow room that made up most of the first floor of the house. I smelled alcohol and roasted meat. They were still clearly trying to react to the surprise and figure out what was going on. In the confusion, we had gained the advantage. The smell of blood was vivid, and I could see at least two enemies on the ground, dead or dying.
Aiko and Snowflake, who’d both had quite a while to learn to work together, were standing to my right as I entered the room. The kitsune had her wakizashi in one hand and a tanto in the other—clearly, she’d decided that, between the dark, the confusion, and the proximity, the blades were a better choice than gunfire. She was fighting something like a dozen opponents at once, and making it look easy. They were human slaves, judging from the wooden movements. They were armed with an eclectic mix of baseball bats, knives, and clumsier improvised weapons—but they were still just humans, and unskilled, poorly motivated humans hampered by the rakshasas’ mental controls at that. Aiko was simply out of their league. She dodged everything they threw at her, and retaliated with unbelievable precision and skill.
As I watched, trying to make sense of what was happening, one of them finally got into a position behind her, and raised a club of some sort—only to be taken out at the knees by Snowflake. I don’t know whether she dealt him a lethal blow while he was down, or he was trampled by his own allies, but that slave fell, and did not rise again.
They were skilled, experienced, had taken the enemy by surprise, and were mowing them down like a combine harvester. The fact remained that it was only a matter of time before the weight of numbers told, and everyone knew it. The rakshasas weren’t getting involved, because they didn’t have to. They could let their minions absorb the brunt of the attack, and then move in to mop things up.
To my left, Kimiko was faring even worse. She had her back against the wall, and was fending off nearly as many attackers as Aiko and Snowflake. She had her katana in both hands, and it rapidly became apparent that while she was very, very good, she lacked the pragmatism and experience that elevated Aiko from a skilled fighter to a nearly superhuman one. Kimiko cut down three people with as many strokes as I watched, but the third took the sword with her as she fell.
She reacted almost before I could register what happened, springing away in a ridiculous, ceiling-scraping leap. She even pulled a frontflip in midair, landing in a crouch a few steps from Aiko. She immediately straightened and opened fire with her AK-47.
The assault rifle put out a few dozen rounds in the space of a couple seconds.
They accomplished more or less exactly nothing.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. People died. Maybe a half-dozen slaves in the front rows dropped to the ground, dead or dying or just injured too grievously to stand. But the bullets never made it past that to threaten the rakshasas. They hit some invisible barrier in the air, just beyond the first rank of minions, and ricocheted away harmlessly.
Well, harmless to the rakshasas, at least. Several of the ricochets hit the humans from behind, inflicting additional injury on them. One particularly unlucky bounce hit Kimiko in the arm, just as she stopped firing—no doubt she had realized too late the uselessness of her action. A number of others flew in the general direction of Aiko and Snowflake. One bullet skipped off my helmet, making me flinch away. My armor was good, but there’s a wealth of difference between the small-caliber weapons I’d encountered earlier and a military-grade firearm such as this. If that shot had hit me directly rather than merely glancing off, there was a very good chance it would have gone through—and a bullet to the head is almost certainly beyond even a werewolf’s ability to heal.
Which mattered very little at the moment. Because another round had zinged right past my shoulder—and was promptly followed by an almost-silent grunt of pain from just behind me, the first audible indication of damage I’d heard from the enemy in this fight.
I couldn’t be absolutely sure I’d heard it, of course. I mean, it was damn near silent, and Kimiko had just opened fire with an assault rifle less than fifteen feet away. My ears were ringing pretty well—moderately superhuman hearing acuity isn’t always a blessing, after all. But it was enough to get me to focus my senses on that rather than keep trying to sort out what was going on in front of me.
What I found was another group of people creeping up behind me. Some of them came from the short hallway leading to the back door, where they’d presumably been awaiting Kikuchi’s entrance once he managed to get through the wards. Others came down the stairs from the second floor. Some moved with the clumsy, almost wooden manner common to the human slaves. Others were shaped like something not-quite-human and moved with the oily agility of a greased leopard, and were presumably rakshasas. As nearly as I could tell, all of them were armed.
Their plan suddenly made a great deal more sense. They hadn’t just been wearing us down by throwing waves of minions at us. They’d been bogging us down, forcing us to commit, so that when the reserves hit we’d be surrounded and helpless. They’d cut us down in seconds. Sure, it would cost them terribly—how many of their slaves had died already, just to set this up?—but they probably wouldn’t care. From a rakshasa’s perspective—at least, according to what I’d read—human lives were more a property issue than anything. They had a certain amount of value, granted, and occasionally you might come across one you liked enough to keep, but by and large they were replaceable. They probably thought of this tactic more in terms of expending ammunition than sacrificing lives.
All of which, of course, was quite inconsequential at the moment.
My first impulse, upon discovering the flankers, was to turn and fight, keep them off my allies’ backs. I dismissed that impulse as a moronic one. They still outnumbered us enormously—and, even if they didn’t, we hadn’t even fought the rakshasas themselves yet. It seemed reasonable to assume that if the four of us could handle all of them, they wouldn’t be here in the first place.
That’s why you make battle plans before the fighting starts, and stick to them. When you were in the thick of things, it was easy to be swayed by details which, although incredibly significant on a personal level, were tactically unimportant. That’s a weakness which is easily exploitable by pretty much anybody. You can’t afford that sort of weakness.
In other words, I had a job to do here. The fact that it wasn’t the job I wanted to be doing had no real bearing on the situation. It didn’t make that job any less necessary.