The first priority was the golem that had come up in our midst. It turned and swung one arm in an overhand strike at Kyra. The things weren’t armed, but I knew from experience that they didn’t have to be. A stone fist propelled by superhuman strength hit with enough force to shatter concrete, never mind little things like bones and organs.
Maybe Zhang hadn’t reinforced the stone as much as the last golem I’d encountered, or maybe I’d just gotten stronger. Whatever the reason, Tyrfing managed to cut entirely through the golem’s forearm, throwing off the swing.
It rounded on me, already attacking again without slowing down. One of the benefits of a soldier without self-awareness was that they didn’t react much to damage.
One of the downsides is that they tend not to be much good at tactics. By turning its attention to me, the golem had given Kyra time to get her mental feet under herself and act. She lunged and bit down on the golem’s leg. She couldn’t penetrate—werewolf teeth are sharp, but there are limits—but she could grip it, and she did, tugging it off balance. That gave me time to duck inside its reach and get a shoulder under it, tossing it backwards to land in a clump of its fellows. Three golems fell to the ground, and we had a chance to breathe.
That also gave me a chance to see what was happening. And holy shit, was it terrifying.
In many ways, Aiko, Kyra, and Snowflake were the worst off. They were all deadly, of course, but their weapons weren’t much use in this fight. Teeth and claws would skid off of the golems’ concrete skin, and Aiko’s carbine was relatively small-caliber. The bullets weren’t armor-piercing, and would ricochet off the golems, doing more harm to her allies than the enemy. Her wakizashi was made from ordinary steel, and couldn’t cut stone.
Bottom line, they could aggravate, annoy, and distract the golems, but not inflict real harm upon them.
The same could not be said for the rest of us.
Moray had a short length of some dark wood in his right hand, a focus of some kind, that blazed to my senses with the power he was forcing through it. One of the golems threw a punch at him, but it never got close. A kinetic barrier warped the air around the Watcher, and for all their strength they couldn’t touch him through his magic. He bobbed and wove through the crowd, making his way towards the bar. I didn’t know what he was planning, but I was guessing it would be good; a combat-specialist mage is a force to be reckoned with.
Jackal was crouching with her knife drawn, a feral and vicious snarl on her face. One of the golems approached her and she threw herself on it, slashing at it repeatedly. No individual attack did any real damage, but she was moving fast, too fast to see clearly. Within a couple seconds the golem’s head and neck were scored with dozens of fine cuts. She threw herself off of it, literally, and it staggered sideways and fell. Its head shattered when it hit the ground, and it did not get back up.
As for Ash…well, I got one look at Ash and suddenly understood why she and Bryan had dismissed my fears for her safety. Oh yeah, I understood.
I’d always wondered what that stuffed cat really was. It seemed like a simple affectation, a meaningless idiosyncrasy, but I didn’t believe that. It smelled of magic, in tones quite different from Ash herself, and some of the things she’d said implied that it was a sapient being in its own right.
Well, now I got my answer—or, at least, I couldn’t think of another explanation for the thing standing next to her.
I couldn’t see quite what it was. It looked something like a large wolf, and something like a scrawny mountain lion, and not really much like either. Its fur was pure white and stood on end, making it hard to guess just how big it was, and its eyes blazed azure. Its body was wreathed in lightning, casting flickering shadows across the floor.
As I watched one of the golems got too close to Ash, provoking the beast to attack. It pounced on the golem, moving almost too quickly to see. The fight was over before it started. Claws and teeth cut stone like cheese, lightning crackled on the air, and the golem landed on the ground in pieces before it could so much as take a swing at its opponent. The lightning-beast stood, threw back its head and howled, a sound like the crack of thunder.
Ash, for her part, stood and watched. The bone dagger was in her right hand and soft, subtle power gleamed at her left, but she made no move to attack, just stood and watched with a sad, resolute expression.
That was all that I could see before the golems pressed in, and I had to focus on preserving my own skin. Snowflake and Kyra, recognizing that speed and mobility were their greatest defenses, sprinted off into the crowd of golems, jostling them and knocking them over. They did no damage, but they disrupted the charge, preventing the whole lot of them from arriving at once. And, while dogs and werewolves weren’t especially suited for destroying golems, the golems proved ineffective at harming the canids as well. They had been designed for fighting things shaped roughly like humans, and weren’t prepared for dealing with quadrupeds.
The first golem reached me, and I met its swing with Tyrfing. It was stronger than me, but I was used to fighting things stronger than me. I parried at an angle, deflecting the force of the blow aside rather than meeting it directly, and then counterattacked. Jackal’s success suggested that the head was the key component of these golems, so I thrust straight through this one’s face, throwing my weight behind it. Tyrfing sank in to a depth of six inches or so, and the golem collapsed, its own weight pulling it off of the blade.
Aiko stepped up beside me, wakizashi in one hand and tanto in the other. Her face was pale, but set in a fierce smile. She flicked attacks at the enemies’ faces and arms, distracting them. They retaliated, without success. She was too quick to hit, too agile to catch. Her attacks were, ultimately, no threat, but the golems weren’t smart enough to recognize that.
Aiko and I have fought together a lot. We didn’t need to talk to sort out the best strategy to use. She was the distraction, the annoyance, keeping them off-balance and setting me up to actually destroy them. I did, launching short, brutal attacks whenever they left an opening. I removed or shattered heads when I could, struck off limbs when I couldn’t. They didn’t stop when they lost a limb, but the removed portion stopped functioning when it was separated from the main body and they weren’t terribly dangerous once they were two or three limbs down.
I maimed or destroyed half a dozen of the golems in the first ten seconds, but they kept coming, pressing in around us. They were on all sides now, swarms of them. Aiko and I were standing back-to-back, our motions frantic. I wasn’t even trying to remove them from the fight at this point. It was all I could do to remain standing and keep enough space clear to move in. I tripped them with tangling shadows, sent them stumbling back with blasts of wind, picked them up and bodily threw them away. It was a losing effort, though, and I knew it. I could keep them from overwhelming us, but they weren’t being injured by my attacks, and I was tiring rapidly.
I got only flashbulb glimpses of the larger fight. Kyra and Snowflake were nowhere to be seen, lost in the crowd. Jackal had vanished, which was probably a good sign; she wasn’t the type to go down without a fight. Ash and her protector stood in the center of an empty space littered with bits of stone; it was clearly capable of dealing with them, but it was also clearly more concerned with keeping Ash safe than bailing the rest of us out.
Overall, things didn’t look especially good for us. Ash might get out; that lightning-thing seemed more than up to the task of protecting her, and the golems didn’t seem inclined to mess with it. Jackal might already have escaped, for all I could tell, and I thought Kyra and Snowflake might manage to weave through the crowd out onto the street. Once they were outside, they were fast enough that the golems would never manage to catch them.
But I was pretty sure Aiko and I wouldn’t be able to get out of that room. We’d be dragged down by the weight of numbers before we ever reached the door.
Fortunately, I’d forgotten about Moray.
I’d known that I wasn’t particularly combat-capable, as mages go. I’d known that my tricks had about as much in common with true battle-magic as a canoe had with a battleship. But there was an enormous gulf between knowing that conceptually and seeing it in action.
There was a sudden, sharp detonation, as loud as a gunshot, and the golem in front of me collapsed to the ground. Its head was gone, just gone, exploded into shards no larger than my smallest finger by pure kinetic force. I looked up to see the Watcher standing on the bar.
He didn’t look funny or ridiculous in his three-piece suit and sunglasses anymore. He just looked scary. Magic was gathered around him in a cloak so thick I could smell it from across the room, and that wand was literally glowing, a piercing blue-green light brighter than a floodlight.
They’d had a sink behind the bar, a large one, and taps for drinks. Alcohol, soda, tonic water, whatever; all of them had burst at his touch. The spraying liquid didn’t pool on the ground, the way it should have. It flowed up, through the air, coiling translucent snakes that merged and spun and danced. Moray stood in the center of it all, water flowing around him without ever dampening his suit. There had to be a dozen or two gallons already, and more was flowing out rapidly.
As I watched, he made a slight gesture with the wand, his mouth moving, and a jet of water no thicker than a pencil shot across the room and struck a golem in the head. It must have been at an incredible pressure, because it immediately began drilling into the golem, abrading the stone away. He swept the jet from side to side across the crowd of golems. The wounds thus inflicted weren’t severe—he didn’t hold it on any one golem long enough to do much—but they were numerous, affecting lots and lots of the golems, and they drew attention.
As a mass, the golems began to turn and move in his direction. It was a much-needed reprieve—werewolf or not, I can’t sustain that level of physical effort indefinitely, to say nothing of the magic—but also a concern. There were at least twenty golems still standing, and I didn’t know whether his barrier could hold up under that much force.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry. A moment later the pipes feeding the sprinkler system above the golems burst, and Moray had all the water he could have wanted to work with.
Water poured across the ground, flowing towards the bar at the center of the room. Moray snatched globes the size of my fist out of the air and threw them at the golems, slowing them down, bunching them up, while water swirled and eddied around their feet. It was only ankle deep, but that’s deep enough to throw off your balance when it’s moving forcefully and unpredictably around.
I stared, perplexed. I’d clearly been right that Moray was good with water, but he was still doing a hell of a lot of heavy lifting there, for no clear gain. He was capable of destroying golems—the blast of kinetic force that had decapitated the one in front of me was proof of that—but these games weren’t harming them. He’d managed to get most of the golems focused on himself, and there was plenty of water moving around, but—
I suddenly saw what Moray was planning, and gaped. “Snowflake!” I screamed, both out loud and mentally. “Kyra! Get out of the water!”
I don’t know whether they heard me over the music, or they just saw the same thing I had, but two furry forms sprinted out of the crowd a moment later, moving at top speed.
A moment later, Ash’s companion threw itself into the fray.
The thunder-beast was clearly intelligent, because it waited for almost all of the golems to be standing in the water before it threw itself in, and it led with a ranged salvo. Bolts of lightning peeled off of the aura enveloping it and darted at golems. They didn’t leave craters in the stone, but they made the golems stagger and fall.
I’m not sure why electricity would harm a golem. I mean, I don’t know a lot about the topic, but it doesn’t seem like rocks should be particularly bothered by it. Maybe it was the magic animating them that was being affected, or maybe there was something special about the lightning wreathing Ash’s…pet? Friend? Whatever, it sure as hell wasn’t natural electricity.
Anyway, when that thing hit the water, golems started stumbling and staggering around. And then it went on the offensive, and golems started dropping to the ground.
It moved fast, literally fast as lightning, and it was visible only as a blur. Deep claw marks just freaking appeared on the golems’ heads, chests, limbs, as they struggled to rise and the lightning continued pumping into them through the water. Moray watched it dispassionately from on high, occasionally tossing blasts of force into the crowd to finish off any golem that seemed particularly reluctant to die, or looked like it might get out of the killing ground. The thunder-beast seemed to fly, everywhere at once, attacking the golems from every side.
I cut down the last few that were still attacking us almost without paying attention, staring at the show. The lightning, the strobe lights, and Moray’s wand combined to create a mad, almost hallucinatory picture, one that was disturbingly and undeniably beautiful. The last of the golems fell to the ground in pieces, and the thunder-beast stopped moving. Its sides were heaving, head thrown back, as the lightning slowly faded.
With the perfect timing so seldom exhibited by the real world, the song came to an end.
The thunder-beast padded back to Ash’s side, changing between steps into the stuffed cat. It kept walking, on two legs now, and she picked it up. It made no effort to seem inanimate now, staring around itself with button eyes and casually licking its front paws clean with a long black tongue.
Moray stopped the water pouring out of the pipes with a casual gesture and hopped down off of the bar. The puddle on the floor rolled away from him, not even touching his shoes, and then flowed up into the mass that was still following him around. “I see Zhang hasn’t improved his security measures,” he called dryly, walking back towards us.
I stared. “His security’s been that serious everywhere?” I sheathed Tyrfing, very carefully; it hadn’t been out long enough to make my luck really, truly, dangerously bad, but it always paid to be careful around Tyrfing.
The Watcher shrugged. “Heavier most places. I guess he didn’t want to use anything too dramatic in the middle of downtown.”
“And you dealt with it solo?”
He smiled thinly. “I’m good at my job, Winter. And my job is killing things.”
Aiko paid no attention to any of that. She stalked over to Ash instead. “That’s a raiju,” she said, her voice somewhere between astonished and accusatory. “Why in hell does a half-breed fae have a raiju with her?”
“Please,” the stuffed cat said between licks. “You’re a kitsune who’s screwing a god-born werewolf, and you’re asking that question?” The raiju’s voice was male, fairly deep, and the inside of its—his?—mouth was pure black.
“Hell yes I am. You people don’t even talk to us.”
“Excuse me,” Ash said calmly, “but is it not the case that we should complete our task here before having this discussion?”
At least one person here can keep her priorities straight, Snowflake said, clearly amused. Schulz is still in his office, by the way. I can smell him.
“Good point,” I said. “Jackal? Are you still around here somewhere?”
“I ain’t leaving yet,” she said, jogging down the stairs. She’d clearly bolted to the street outside as soon as the fighting started, and my respect for her went up another notch. Anyone with arms can swing a knife around. You need a brain to figure out when a fight’s too much for you, and run away if that’s what the situation demands.
“Good,” I said, turning towards the office.
Schulz had locked the door, which slowed us down not at all. It was a cheap interior door, and the lock was more to keep drunk patrons from wandering in thinking it was the bathroom than to stop an assault. I kicked it down and walked in without slowing. Schulz was sitting at his desk, on the phone—with Zhang, presumably. He started when I kicked the door in and then stared at us, his face set in an expression of absolute shock.
I grabbed him by the lapels, picked him up, and slammed him into the wall, his feet six inches off the ground. It was a bit of a workout—he was on the heavy side—but I am a werewolf, and I was currently absolutely pissed. Aiko darted past me and yanked the phone line, and the rest of the gang piled in after her.
“If you run,” I told Schulz quietly, “I will cut off your legs. Do you understand me?” He flinched at my tone of voice, which was probably even more coldly threatening than I had intended, and then nodded frantically. “Good,” I said, and tossed him to the ground. “Could you watch him, Kyra?” I asked.
She barked an affirmative and then walked over to straddle him and stare into his face from about six inches away, her half-open jaws dripping saliva onto his face. He flinched away, provoking a growl, and then settled in to wait. I could clearly smell that he’d pissed himself in terror.
I was smiling as I walked over to examine the locked door. I have to admit, Kyra makes a pretty effective thug. I’d have been terrified too.
My smile faded as I examined the door. There was something different about it. “Warded?” I asked Moray, who was already there. The gallons and gallons of water were still following him around.
He nodded, staring at the door. “Pretty heavily. Looks like a mix of fire and electricity.”
“Can you get through it?”
He shook his head. “Like I said, it isn’t my specialty. I could call Monica. She’s pretty good at dealing with Zhang’s wards by now.”
“No time. He’ll be here by then.” I looked at it, weighing options in my head. “I might be able to get through. But not without triggering it.”
Jackal snorted. “Amateurs,” she muttered contemptuously, brushing past to examine it. She looked at it, sniffed a couple of times, then leaned forward and licked it, grimacing at the taste. “Two minutes,” she said, with perfect confidence. “Now back off. I need space.”
I shrugged and did. If she thought she could get through, I wasn’t going to gainsay her.
I’m not sure quite what Jackal did to break the ward, even though I stood and watched the whole thing. She started by nicking her finger with her knife and drawing on it in blood, odd designs placed seemingly at random. She murmured cajolingly in a language I didn’t recognize (a quick glance at Aiko confirmed that she didn’t either). She trailed her fingers over the locks, leaving smears of blood. The whole time I smelled her magic, not particularly strong but subtle and confident.
Finally, almost exactly two minutes later, the last energies of the ward faded and died. “How did you do that?” Moray asked, his voice almost awestruck.
Jackal snorted. “I been around. Now did you want in here or not? I can’t do the locks.”
“That won’t be a problem,” I said confidently. “Will it, Mr. Schulz?”
“N-no,” he stammered, as Kyra stepped aside. She followed him to the door, her nose about six inches from the back of his knee, panting slightly. Kyra knows how to make a statement. Schulz punched in a ten-digit code on the keypad and opened the combination lock. “I, I can’t open the padlock,” he said, sounding so scared I thought he might throw up. “Mr. Zhang took my key. This morning.”
“Not a problem,” I said confidently, leaning forward to look at it. I’d been practicing, and it took me less than ten seconds to open it with magic. Moving tumblers into position with air magic is tricky, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I twisted it open and pulled it off, dropping it on the ground.
“You’re fast,” Jackal said, looking at me with something like respect.
I grunted and shoved the door open. On the other side was a narrow concrete staircase, completely unlit. I could see all of six feet by the dim light of the office. Moray stepped forward, his floating mass of water wrapping around him like a cloak, and slipped his wand out of its pocket. It started to glow, casting a vivid, eerie blue-green light. It was bright, almost painfully so.
The staircase led into a perfectly normal storage room. There were racks of bottles, kegs standing along the walls—everything, in other words, that you might expect to find in the cellar of a nightclub. It was a little larger than I would have guessed, a little more spacious, but otherwise unremarkable.
I frowned as a familiar, unpleasant scent hit my nostrils, and glanced at Kyra. Her expression told me that she smelled the same thing, and had drawn the same conclusions. Kyra’s many things, but innocent and naive haven’t been among them for a long time now.
I followed the smell to another door, this one simple wood and unmarked. It wasn’t even locked; Zhang had been confident that no one would make it down here. I opened it, with a sick feeling of nausea, and was both disgusted and unsurprised at what I saw.
Moray had said that Zhang would ship any contraband that was worth his while. Well, he hadn’t overstated the case, and I shouldn’t have been surprised at what we found in his storeroom. After all, one of the biggest black market commodities has always been other people.
There were around twenty people in there. They’d been hogtied and gagged with duct tape and dumped down here to stew in their own filth. That was what Kyra and I had smelled. They flinched away from the light, to the extent that they were able, and I wondered how long they’d been in the dark. There were no light fixtures down here; Schulz must bring his own light when they needed fed or cleaned, and he hadn’t come since this morning at the latest. I believed that Zhang had taken his key, and he couldn’t have gotten in without it.
There was one other detail that made it offensive, that took it from the merely disgusting and reprehensible to the truly, absolutely evil. Namely, the average age of the prisoners seemed to be about ten or twelve. There were a few that might have been in their mid-teens, a few that couldn’t have been older than eight.
I felt a sudden surge of disgust, hatred, and contempt. Some idle part of my mind wondered how much of it was mine, and how much came from Kyra or Snowflake. Certainly they both reacted with a similar blend of emotions. Ash’s face was set in a cold, flat expression, and she had stopped stroking the raiju.
“Did you know about this?” I asked Moray, feeling a very calm, very cold anger building. I am not a saint, but there are things I will not tolerate.
He looked like he was only with difficulty restraining from violence. “Officially? No. But I’m sure someone did.”
Aiko had been staring through the door for the past several seconds, her face dangerously blank. Now, suddenly, she grabbed Schulz and slammed him into the casks lining the wall, hard enough to rattle his skull. “You sick son of a bitch,” she growled at him, her face about two inches from his.
“Start cutting them loose,” I said quietly to the others. They moved without complaint—even Moray, who I’d half-expected to insist on helping interrogate Schulz. I walked over to stand beside Aiko, feeling oddly disconnected. That was a bad sign. It usually meant I was truly angry, and that meant that there were going to be bodies on the ground soon.
“How long has this been going on?” Aiko demanded, shaking him.
“I, I can’t. Zhang, he…I can’t tell you.”
Aiko punched him in the face. “You sick fucking bastard,” she whispered. “Tell me what I want to know, or I swear to God that if they ever find enough of the body to bury they’ll develop a drinking problem over what happened to the rest of it.” Wow. I didn’t think I’d ever seen Aiko quite this angry.
Schulz looked at me imploringly. “Please,” he whimpered.
“I seldom act from anger, Mr. Schulz,” I said, my voice even and remote. “This is not because I am a gentle, peaceful person. It is because I know that if I do act in anger, I will not stop until I have overreacted seriously.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It didn’t make me feel any calmer. “I am telling you this,” I continued, “so that you will understand that I am not joking or exaggerating when I tell you that you have made me really, truly angry. I have treated you with respect, with courtesy, and I am sick of it.” I smiled, and he flinched. “You will answer our questions, Mr. Schulz. One way or another.”
He gulped. “Seven years,” he whispered. “I’ve worked here seven years. Zhang’s been doing it at least that long.”
“How many?” Aiko snarled.
“I, I don’t know. I don’t keep count.”
“A few hundred. Less than a thousand.”
“Who is he selling them to?”
“I don’t know,” he whimpered. She shook him again. “I don’t!” he cried, “I really don’t. Zhang handled all the transport.”
I believed him. Schulz was obviously a bit player in this operation, and Zhang was too smart to tell him more than was necessary to do his job.
Aiko believed him too. She glanced at me, her expression questioning.
I’ve spent a lot of time with Aiko. I knew what she was asking. I nodded before I could reconsider.
“You deserve worse than this,” Aiko whispered. Then she kneed him in the crotch, hard, and threw him face down on the floor. He lay there whimpering.
I rammed Tyrfing through his back. The sword passed cleanly through him and sunk into the concrete two or three inches. “I kill you in Scáthach’s name,” I said quietly. “Rot in hell.” I wrenched the sword back out and then cut off his head. He would have died anyway, but there was no need to make it slow. Vile, greedy little man or not, tormenting Schulz before he died would accomplish nothing.
I turned around and found a whole bunch of people staring at me. Ash looked calm as ever, while Jackal and Kyra clearly approved. Most of the kids just looked scared, and numb.
Numb. That was about how I felt too. “Come on,” I said, sheathing Tyrfing. “We need to get out of here before Zhang shows.”
Moray nodded, still clearly furious, and started making the portal.