Frost Bitten 7.12

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Back in Colorado, we turned the kids over to Sveinn to be cleaned up and cared for. They would need food, water, probably medical treatment. Moray went to tell his boss what had happened.


I went to talk to Jackal.


I found her outside, near the edge of the trees. She was sitting with one of the people we’d rescued, a scrawny guy who looked like he was sixteen and smelled like he hadn’t been clean for years. “Is this Wishbone?” I asked. Jackal nodded.


He looked at me. His eyes were haunted, and I didn’t think it was because of being kidnapped. He gave the impression of being someone who had seen more than his share of misfortune. “You Wolf?” he asked, his voice distant.


“Yeah. Do you think you could do me a favor?”


“Maybe. Maybe not. What?”


“Were you given a message of some kind? Something maybe a little cryptic?”


He stared into the distance. “Favors aren’t free,” he said finally.


I blinked. “Are you really—” I began.


He shook his head. “No,” he interrupted. “That was the message. Some Sidhe told me the day before Morgenstern grabbed me. Don’t know what it means.”


“Huh,” I said. “Thanks.”


Jackal looked at me. “You taking Zhang down?”


“I’m going to try.”


She considered that, then nodded. “We ain’t up to that,” she admitted, no trace of shame in her voice. “You ain’t bad, Wolf. See you around.”


I nodded and left them there.


I couldn’t figure what the message was supposed to mean. Scáthach had said that Morgenstern was smuggling a cipher, something that could be used to decode another message. Well, if this was a cipher, I couldn’t figure out how.


I also didn’t have time to think about it right now. I had things to do.


I found Moray outside the building. He was staring at nothing, his face grim.


“They’re letting him go,” I said quietly, walking up beside him. “Aren’t they.”


He nodded tightly. “Same story I’ve heard a thousand times. ‘The greatest good is served by preserving stability and maintaining the ability of the Watchers to protect humanity.'”


“They’re going to let him get away with selling kids as slaves?”


Moray’s voice was bleak. “They can’t prove anything. Not without admitting they know what we just did.”


“I don’t like that answer very much.”


“Neither do I.”


“What if there’s another one?”


He looked at me guardedly. “What are you suggesting?”


“The Watchers are already denying one operation. They can deny another.”


“What you’re talking about goes a bit further than just disrupting a shipment.”


“That’s kind of the point,” I said dryly. “Look, I’m sure your bosses know where to find him. All those times you wished for backup? Well, this time you’ve got it.”


“It won’t make a difference,” he said reluctantly. “You know that. I hate to admit it, but they’re right about that. Zhang just moves the goods. So long as someone wants to buy and someone wants to sell, there’ll be people like him.”


I knew that what he was saying was true. Killing Zhang wouldn’t change anything, not really.


“Do you really believe this is the greater good?” I asked quietly.


He sighed. “I don’t know. It’s hard to see, sometimes.”


“Yeah,” I agreed. That was a sentiment I could get behind. “You know what isn’t hard to see? Zhang takes peoples’ freedom. Smuggling is one thing, I could tolerate smuggling for the greater good, but Zhang is not a smuggler. He takes away freedom, takes away choice. Not for the greater good, not in service to some ideal. He does it because he can, and because it profits him. And if he gets away, he’s going to keep doing it.”


A muscle twitched in his jaw. “Yeah. I know.”


“Look,” I pressed. “Call your boss—the big boss, I mean, not the one who thought he could bribe me with Conclave recognition. Ask her where Zhang’s hiding—because I’m sure he’s hiding right now, after what we just did. I bet you she’ll answer. I bet you she meant for us to be having pretty much exactly this conversation.” I’d never quite gotten sure just how many layers of plans Watcher had the last time around, but I knew she was one of the smoothest operators I’d ever dealt with. That kind of long-term planning and manipulation was well within her purview.


Moray hesitated, then nodded. “That’s her style,” he admitted. “Look, I’ll make the call. If she says yes, you’re on.”


“Good,” I said, and went to get some food.


I found Snowflake, Kyra, and Aiko in the office on the third floor. Kyra looked bemused, insomuch as a wolf’s face can manage the expression, to find herself in the room where she’d spent so much time as Alpha. Things hadn’t changed much. I don’t really spend much time in the office.


I walked in carrying several pounds of beef, most of it raw, and a few loaves of bread. It wasn’t particularly tasty, but it would work. I’d gotten by for months at a time on a diet of raw meat and little else before Alexis ever showed up; I could handle a day. “Good news,” I said, dropping the food on the desk. I unwrapped the raw meat and set it on the floor.


“Yeah?” Aiko asked. She was staring out the window at the trees.


“Yup. Moray’s finding out where Zhang’s fortress is, and then we’re going to go take him down.”


“You do realize what a stupid plan this is, right?” she said dryly. “We almost got taken out by the defenses around a minor hideout.”


I hate to admit it, Snowflake said reluctantly, but she’s got a point.


“I know.” For several seconds the only sounds came from Kyra and Snowflake eating. Not for nothing do they call it wolfing food. “Do you think we should back down?” I asked reluctantly.


Kyra growled in a menacing, aggressive way, making her opinion clear. Hell, Snowflake said, amused. I’ve got no problem with it. I’ve never wanted to die in my sleep anyway. Just making sure we were all on the same page.


Aiko was slower to answer. “I don’t know. I mean, it’s just…things are nice, you know? Things are finally going right.” She sighed. “I guess you always have to pay it back. I thought I’d gotten off easy, but I guess it just took longer coming around than I thought.” She grabbed a sandwich. “Fuck it,” she said through a mouthful of roast beef. “Let’s go kill the bastard.”


“You sure?”


“Yeah,” she said, her eyes hard and cold. “He deserves it. Besides, it’s been ages since we had a proper battle.”


I grinned faintly. “Yeah, it has. What do you say we make a real party out of it?”


She looked at me and started to smile.


Fifteen minutes later Moray came in and told us that Zhang was at his main base of operations, a heavily-fortified manor in the Himalayas. He also, more quietly, said that Watcher had given unofficial approval to our plan. We were permitted to remove Zhang, permanently, by any means necessary.


Most people don’t take phrases like that seriously. They don’t really mean it when they say things like “by any means necessary” or “at all costs.” I was pretty sure Watcher did. No expense too high, collateral damage not a concern.


I don’t like being handed a blank check like that. I’m always afraid of what I might do with it.


“So do we have a plan?” Moray asked.


“You won’t like it.”


“Try me.”


I told him. He didn’t like it. I inquired whether he had a better idea. He was quiet for several minutes, and then told me no, he didn’t have any suggestions.


Moray left to get more armaments, presumably from his home in Seattle. Unless he had a stash nearby, which he probably did; that seemed like his style. I thought that was a great idea, and went back to the mansion to do the same.


I always carry a decent supply of equipment. But, werewolf or not, you can only carry so much at one time, and it’s important to pick your gear carefully. On the last trip out, I hadn’t really been expecting trouble—I’d just been going to a meeting, after all—and I’d chosen my kit appropriately. I’d been carrying a lot of items suitable for hiding and running away, with an emphasis on not being overtly threatening or conspicuous.


Well, right now I had different priorities. We were going to break and kill whatever and whomever got in our way. I could put a pleasant spin on it, and it might be the only way to resolve the situation, but that didn’t change the fact that what we were planning was to go and murder people, at least some of whom probably didn’t deserve it.


So what I’m getting at is that being inconspicuous and nonthreatening weren’t on the table anymore, and I didn’t even try. I put on my armor, including the helmet and gauntlets, and grabbed my shotgun. I was still carrying a few stored spells designed for producing cover or concealment, but mostly I’d switched to more aggressive ones, a mix of explosives and a couple more exotic weapons. A few grenades, a couple of knives, and my favorite pistol rounded out the mix.


I also helped both Snowflake and Kyra into their armor. Kyra’s was a standard werewolf design, heavy plates of steel over the back, chest, and flanks, leaving the legs and most of the head uncovered. She’d brought it with her, assuming that things would turn violent at some point—which, let’s be honest, she was around me. It was a fair assumption.


Snowflake’s armor was a little more exotic. I’d purchased it custom from the same kitsune who made both my armor and Aiko’s, at a moderately exorbitant price. It had thick plates of steel inlaid with silver covering her chest and sides, and a mix of scale armor and chainmail along the legs, throat, and head—although, unlike Kyra’s, her armor was covered in spikes and sharpened ridges, making any attempt at grappling with her a risky proposition. Her paws were covered by tailored metal sheaths, complete with oversized steel claws. It was colored white with swirls of pale blue, making her look almost ghostly. The whole thing was lined with extra-thick Kevlar, and between that and the metal she was probably safe from anything short of anti-tank rounds.


It was fairly heavy armor. A normal husky couldn’t have stood up in it, let alone sprinted. Fortunately, Snowflake was not normal, or anything like it. She was stronger than she should be, and the spells woven into her collar made her significantly stronger than that. I’d actually designed those enchantments myself; there aren’t very many witches specializing in affecting nonhumans. I’m not really sure how to compare her to other dogs—you can’t just say how much she bench presses, for example—but she’s at least as strong as most werewolves in fur, and faster.


Snowflake’s kind of scary.


Aiko walked into the room, wearing her full suit of armor and carrying her carbine on a strap around her shoulder. She had her wakizashi on one hip and her tanto on the other. I looked at the demonic mask of her helmet, she looked at the lupine mask of mine, and then we both broke down laughing until we were leaning on each other to stay standing. She swayed sideways and I fell on my ass, which just made me laugh harder.


I don’t get it. What’s the joke?


Nothing, I said, still laughing. It was just the image of the four of us, sitting here in our tin cans with all the guns and swords and explosives. And then Moray in his suit.


Snowflake considered that for a minute. Nope, she said eventually. Amusing contrast, but not that funny.


“Okay,” I said, getting myself back under control. “Ready to go pick up our guests?”


I couldn’t see Aiko’s face behind the helmet, but I could tell that she wasn’t smiling anymore. “Yeah,” she said. “Let’s go.”


The first stop was back at the pack house to pick up Vigdis and Haki. Vigdis was coming because I knew that she wouldn’t balk at any task, however unpleasant. Most people react poorly when ordered to do things like finish off wounded enemies or shoot through human shields. They might obey, because most people are disgustingly obedient, or they might not, because everyone has their limits—but either way, they hesitate. Vigdis doesn’t. If dirty work needed doing, I could count on her to do it.


Haki was coming for the somewhat more straightforward reason that he was a badass. Now, don’t get me wrong. All of the housecarls were soldiers, even Tindr. They could all fight. But Haki lived for it. He spent every free moment training, practicing, exercising. He could take any two of the other housecarls on any given day. Sveinn and Kjaran were skilled enough that it might take him a couple of minutes to beat them; for the rest it was a matter of seconds. The guy’s absolutely lethal in a fight.


I might be able to take Haki, in a fair fight. But only because of Tyrfing and my magic. He’s bigger, stronger, faster, and more skilled than I am, and all else being equal he would kick my ass.


He also redefines the term “lone wolf.” Haki Who-Fights-Alone, they call him, a name with a lot of implications. He earned every one of them.


The six of us stood there in silence for a few minutes, holding our various weapons and growing increasingly impatient. I was just starting to wonder whether maybe this whole thing was a setup when the Watcher walked up.


Brick Anderson was a tall guy, and beanpole thin. He looked to be in his early twenties, and had for at least three or four years. He was currently wearing a long, hooded grey robe. He was carrying a wooden staff and a granite rod, and no other obvious weapons. It looked a little ridiculous, but I knew better. That robe was bulletproof, and the staff and rod were foci of some sort. I’d seen him go toe-to-toe with a skinwalker, and while he’d been badly outclassed he’d still held the thing off for almost a minute. I couldn’t have done half as well.


“Brick,” I said, nodding to him. “I’m glad you decided to come.”


He smiled. “It isn’t often I get to work with really skilled fighters,” he said, casually dissing the rest of the Inquisition. Having seen the lot of them in action, I couldn’t argue. They’re scary—but they’re minor talents, not even as versatile as me. Brick was in an entirely different class. “I’m looking forward to this.”


“Bring any of the gang with you?” I hadn’t invited the rest of the Inquisition—I didn’t want to drag them into something like this—but I hadn’t exactly uninvited them either. They might not be on Brick’s level, but they’d had a lot of time to practice what they did and there were a lot of them. Not as many as they started out with, maybe, but quite a few all the same.


He snorted. “No. Katie has everyone who will listen to her chasing a vampire in Pueblo.”


“And who does that include?” I asked, curious in spite of myself.


“Almost nobody. Kris and Doug have dropped out, and Matthew doesn’t have the patience for investigating things.” He smiled thinly. “At this rate, they’ll be weeded out entirely before long, and I can move on to a real job.”


Moray arrived in a rented sedan less than five minutes later. He was still wearing his three-piece suit, which presumably had the same kind of protection as Brick’s robe. That wand hung from a nylon web belt, along with a knife and a heavy semiautomatic pistol. He’d added a black silk balaclava and gloves, leaving no exposed skin.


The two Watchers eyed one another distrustfully. It looked amusingly similar to a pair of dogs who weren’t yet sure whether they were going to fight or not. I was guessing they hadn’t worked together before. Neither of them were wearing their official emblems—not surprising, considering that this little outing was as unofficial as they come.


“We ready?” I asked before they could start showing teeth.


“You aren’t bringing any of your other henchmen?” Brick asked, not looking away from Moray.


I shrugged. “I can. Do you really think we’ll run into any problems we can solve by applying more manpower than we already have?”


“Probably not,” Moray answered before Brick could say anything. “That isn’t Zhang’s style. He goes for versatility, not numbers. Adding more of the same thing won’t help us deal with curveballs.” He paused. “Would be nice to have the raiju along, though. That thing could chew right through his defenses.”


I shook my head. “I don’t think it would leave Ash. And I’m not bringing her along on this trip.”


“No argument,” Moray said. He rolled his shoulders, pulled his sunglasses out of a jacket pocket, and put them on. “I’m ready when you are.” Brick, never one to talk much, just nodded.


“All right. Let’s do this.”


The first step was getting to Zhang’s hideout, a process that was significantly easier than I’d anticipated. Moray just so happened to have a connection point about ten minutes hike from the compound, shown to him when he was given the unofficial position of dealing with Zhang’s crap. The Watchers had always known where to find him, of course. Like most mobsters, Zhang had been hidden more by politics than secrecy.


We did not, of course, approach directly. That would have been foolish to a degree that approached suicide. We stopped two hills away and looked at it through binoculars. I wasn’t the only person who’d remembered to bring a pair this time.


Zhang, as you might expect, had money to flaunt, and he’d flaunted it. The manor was sprawling, a rough square maybe a hundred and fifty feet to a side, nestled into a large valley. The building itself was two stories, but considering the nature of its owner I was confident there was at least one basement level we couldn’t see. There were no roads leading to the manor, not even a gravel path. Zhang was a mage with an international smuggling network; he could presumably get everything he needed shipped in by other means, and he didn’t want visitors.


Unfortunately for us, that also meant that his defenses didn’t need to be as low-key as they had in the middle of Munich. There was a ten-foot-tall concrete wall around the perimeter, topped with coils of razor wire, and guard towers spaced along the perimeter. There were no visible gates in the wall, or any other obvious structural weaknesses. I could see all that clearly, because there were also a bunch of spotlights. The area for twenty feet around the wall was cleared of all vegetation and lit up like a sports stadium, the light reflecting off the snow.


That wasn’t good. I’d been counting on the darkness to let us sneak up on the place. As things were, approaching it was going to be problematic. Zhang was the type to have large numbers of armed men on duty at any time of day or night, and that would pose some difficulties. Armor is a fine thing, but there are limits. Large amounts of military-grade munitions were probably on the wrong side of them.


“Vigdis,” I said quietly, returning the binoculars to my pocket. “Eyes in the sky?”


The giant nodded and set her axes down on the ground. It was cold and snowy—we were in the Himalayas, after all—but she paid no notice as she kicked off her sandals, removed her sundress, and folded it neatly before setting it down. Brick, I noticed, didn’t look away from examining Zhang’s defenses, while Moray was clearly not as accustomed to a shapechanger’s casual nudity.


He was probably somewhat surprised when Vigdis changed. Her shapechanging is closer to that of a shapeshifter or kitsune than a werewolf; there’s no prolonged warping of flesh and bone, just a sudden surge of magic and a different body. Where Vigdis had been, now there was an eagle. It was a huge bird, large even by the standards of eagles, with dust-brown plumage. It took off immediately, soaring into the night.


Most raptors, including eagles, don’t fly at night. Fortunately, Vigdis wasn’t really an eagle. Her vision would be very poor, like that of an actual bird, but she had access to a few other senses that neither birds nor humans do, and she was smart. It made her surprisingly good at recon, especially when people weren’t expecting it.


It would take her a few minutes to go and come back, though. I walked a short distance along the hill to where Moray was standing, staring at the manor. “Does this look right?” I asked.


He nodded, not looking away. “I haven’t seen any of his places this heavily fortified, but some of them came close. It’s his style, too.”


“Can you tell if it’s warded?” I asked. I couldn’t, not at this range, but that wasn’t exactly my specialty. My magical senses are unusually good, but I’ve spent a lot of time honing them for highly detailed work, not on expanding their range. Plus I don’t have a nifty pair of enchanted sunglasses.


He nodded. “Definitely some energy on the building itself. I can’t tell what they’re doing at this range, but if it’s his usual mix he’ll have kinetic barriers, mantraps, and a lockdown.”


“Lockdown?” I asked.


“A ward designed to limit access,” he explained. “Try to open a way to the Otherside and it shuts you down. Nobody gets in, nobody gets out.”


I frowned. “Doesn’t that limit his options for escape?”


Moray shrugged. “Yeah. It also means he doesn’t have to worry about unhappy customers bypassing his security. Or prisoners escaping, for that matter.”


“I guess that makes sense,” I said. “So if we keep him inside the building, he can’t just slip away.” I frowned again. “Might make getting out tricky, though.”


“You’re confident,” he said dryly.


I snorted. “Maybe you’re cool with a suicide run. I’m planning on surviving this.”


“Likewise,” Aiko said, strolling up next to us. “Those lights are going to be a problem.”


“Yeah,” I agreed. “Can you…?”


Moray shook his head. “I might be able to take them out, but we’d have to get too close. I don’t know if I can blast through that wall, either.”


“Brick can,” I said confidently. He had a talent for working with rock and earth, and concrete was close enough. “I don’t know of any way to deal with the lights, though.”


“Distraction?” Aiko suggested. “We don’t really need the lights gone, we just need them to be looking the other way.”


“Might work. We’d have to move fast, though. What kind of distraction are you thinking of?”


“Dunno. I don’t think I can manage an illusion that would do it at this distance.”


I was about to answer when Snowflake told me that she heard Vigdis approaching. I turned around just in time to see her land and melt back into her human shape. “Jarl,” she said, not bothering with clothing. Moray gulped audibly.


“Vigdis,” I said. “What do you see?”


“Snipers on the hills,” she said briskly. “Three teams. Every approach is covered by at least one.”


That was a problem. Having seen an anti-materiel rifle in action, I knew better than to think my armor would even slow it down, particularly if they were using armor-piercing rounds, which I was confident they were. “Can you take them out?” I asked.


She considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Já. It will take me a few minutes.”


“Good,” I said. I reached into a pocket of my cloak and, very carefully, pulled out a hollow glass sphere a little bigger than a marble. It was warm to the touch, and a tiny spark of blue light hovered in the center. I bit my finger, drawing blood, and smeared a little of it over the surface of the glass. The magic of the stored spell shifted slightly at the touch of blood—the signal it had been designed to react to. Like most stored spells meant for sale, it had a very specific set of triggers that anyone could provide.


Before, it had been relatively safe. It looked like simple glass, but Alexander was smart enough to reinforce it with magic, and it would have taken a few hits with a sledgehammer to break it. Contact with any kind of blood removed that protection.


In other words, it was now about as safe to carry as nitroglycerin on a carnival ride.


I set it on the ground, very gently. “Deal with the snipers,” I told Vigdis. “Then come back and grab this. Do not break the glass. Fly it over and drop it at the base of one of the towers on the opposite side of the compound. We’ll meet you inside the wall. Do you understand?”


“What will it do?” she asked, staring at the sphere with some trepidation.


“Blow up,” I said. “Make sure to drop it from high enough that the glass will break. It should take out the tower. They’ll assume we’re running for that gap, and we should be able to get by on the other side while they’re distracted.” I spoke loudly enough that everyone would hear.


Vigdis nodded, and melted back into the eagle without another word. I watched her fly off into the night and worried. Vigdis was tough, and the snipers were presumably focused on their jobs, but this was still a chancy prospect. Whether she could take out three teams of snipers unarmed without raising an outcry was far from certain.


One of the hardest parts of having minions—and teamwork in general, but it’s worse with minions—is trusting the other guy to do his job. Especially for someone like me, who’s naturally more suited to lone wolfing it, it can be more stressful than just doing things yourself.


Unfortunately, Vigdis was the only one of us who was mobile enough to get to all three locations and deal with them in a timely manner. And we also had a job to do; we had to be in position to move, immediately, when she dropped Alexander’s spell on them. So I did my best to pretend I wasn’t concerned, and started moving.


We set off across the hill, moving fairly quickly. Vigdis wouldn’t take long, and we didn’t want to be running late. The humans had the hardest time of things; the almost-full moon didn’t provide enough light for them to be comfortable, and the terrain was rougher than they were used to. Brick, at least, was accustomed to the altitude, although we were probably a fair bit higher than Colorado Springs here. Moray was coming from the coast, and he was visibly suffering for it.


Haki changed while we walked. It was nothing as dramatic as Vigdis’s shapeshifting; I didn’t even notice when it happened. But at some point I glanced over and saw that he’d dropped the human mask, and let his true face show through. Haki in his natural form stood almost ten feet tall and was leanly built, reminiscent of a half-starved wolf. His chain shirt, which had looked more like a dress, fit him now, and the axe which had seemed enormous previously fit comfortably in one hand. He was also carrying a half-dozen knives, which looked like toys next to his bulk, and a short sword that most humans would need both hands to lift.


“Can you make us a hole in the wall?” I asked Brick as we hiked. He nodded, not sparing the breath for speech, without any hesitation. That was good. Another stored spell or two could crack the nut, but I was really hoping to save those for use as weapons. They were pretty much the only big guns I had.


A few minutes later, we were lying on the ground just outside the pool of light surrounding the wall. We were well within sight of the guards on the wall—I could see them now, and my guess that there would be a lot of them was confirmed—but I didn’t think they would see us. Their own spotlights blinded them to anything lurking in the dark.


The snipers were a different story—they would be using some form of night vision or thermal imaging device, and darkness was no adequate defense against that. But Vigdis had presumably removed them by now, and if she hadn’t we probably had bigger things to worry about anyway.


We lay there for about five minutes, waiting. I didn’t get cold, because I pretty much don’t, but I felt sorry for the others.


I never saw Vigdis fly overhead, nor was I in position to see the glass sphere fall. My first hint that it was time to move was when I saw a flash of blue light reflected in the snow on the other side of the building, hardly visible against the brightness of the floodlights. A moment later there was a loud sound, resembling thunder, and I saw one of the towers tilt sideways. The blast had taken out only a small chunk of it, relatively, but most towers aren’t so good at remaining standing without a foundation.


I was up and running before the screaming started, a blend of shouted orders and panicked yells. Those of the guards I could see rushed about like distressed ants, paying no attention to me.


Snowflake and Kyra were right behind me, and outstripped me in seconds, with no particular effort. Haki came next, followed by Aiko, while the mages came last of all. A pair of guards in one of the towers had kept their heads about them and not abandoned their post, and they shot at us while we approached. They missed, and their shouts of warning were lost in the din.


Before they could get another volley off, the concrete of the tower seemed to simply melt and flow like wax. The tower slid free and collapsed at an angle, tossing the guards to the ground and forming a ramp to the top of the wall, crushing the razor wire. Snowflake and Kyra, running far ahead of the rest of us, reached the guards before they could stand up. Jaws closed on necks, blood stained the snow, and that was that.


I glanced back and saw Brick, smiling calmly, return the rod to its sleeve within his robe. He hadn’t even paused.


I rolled my eyes. “Show-off,” I muttered, reaching the base of the tower. I jogged up it, taking care with the slick surface—the last thing I needed was to slip off and get tangled in the razor wire. I reached the top, looked out over a clear expanse of ground, and saw something terrifying.


There was a space maybe twenty feet across between the wall and the building. When we’d looked down on it from a distance, it had been a simple, barren courtyard of concrete, with no decorations to provide cover.


Currently, it was crawling with golems. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I could have walked from the wall to the manor without once setting foot on the ground. Most of them were the vaguely humanoid forms we’d seen in Munich, but there were a couple dozen shaped like enormous hounds, and a few bipedal monsters as big as Haki. All of them were sculpted of smooth, cold concrete, some of them with snow still clinging to the surface.


We didn’t have time to deal with this. It would only take moments for the guards to discover that they were under attack from the opposite side. If we were caught in the open when that happened, things would go poorly for us; the defenses inside would probably be at least as deadly, but out here we were sitting ducks exposed to numerous lines of fire.


Fortunately, this time I’d come prepared for golems. As I reached the lip of the ramp I pulled a grenade out of my cloak, pulled the pin, and tossed it down into the crowd.


In my experience, most members of the preternatural subculture don’t have sufficient respect for the damage purely mundane weapons can inflict. Stored spells are wonderful things, and for many tasks they’re irreplaceable. But for just blowing shit up, you can’t go wrong with plain old explosives.


The grenade went off with a hollow boom that made the din of shouting voices pale in comparison. It cleared an area maybe ten feet in diameter in the middle of the mass, shattering the golems into so much shrapnel.


Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to really make a dent in the sheer numbers of golems present. It also attracted lots of attention. The chitter of automatic weapons fire started almost immediately.


I snarled. They weren’t hitting yet, but they would soon, and I hadn’t cleared nearly enough of the golems for us to make it to the door. I could—if nothing else, I had enough grenades and stored spells to carpet bomb a significant chunk of the courtyard—but nothing I was carrying could do the job quickly enough, and I couldn’t afford to waste the munitions.


Before I could think of a plan, Brick brushed past me, muttering something about amateur work. He was holding both staff and rod again. He stood there, ignoring the bullets whizzing past, and swept the rod from left to right, muttering something under his breath.


And, just like that, two hundred golems collapsed to the ground, their legs melted just as the tower had been. It took maybe two seconds, start to finish, and the area between us and the manor was clear.


I stared. I’d brought Brick specifically because I’d known to expect stone golems, and he was an expert with stone—but damn. He didn’t even look like he was trying.


“We need to deal with the wards,” he said, shouting to make himself heard over the ongoing gunfire.


I shook myself out of it. He’d cleared the way, but we still had to get there. “On it,” I said, digging in my cloak. I came up with a silver sphere the size of a pea, packed with so much magic that the silver burned my fingers, even through the gauntlets. “Trial by fire,” I shouted, and threw the sphere in the direction of the manor.


It hit the ground five feet from the wall, rolled a little, and then burst into yellow-gold light that made the spotlights look like they needed to work out. It burned through golems, wards, and walls with equal ease, sending shrapnel flying in all directions. When the light faded, there was a nine-foot sphere that had been emptied of everything but bits of rubble. The edges of the wall smoldered a little, and the concrete was burned black.


“Go!” I shouted, jumping down and sprinting for the hole I’d just made. Snowflake and Kyra were right beside me, and then in front of me—a werewolf in fur is always faster than one without, and Snowflake is faster than either, even with the armor. The handful of golems that managed to get in our way, they dealt with before I ever got close. Drawing on their experience from the last fight, they didn’t even try to fight the things. They just knocked them off balance, bowled them over, or physically tossed them aside.


As I ran, an eagle swooped down beside me. Vigdis changed ten feet above the ground, did a flip on the way down (because she could, presumably) and hit the ground at a sprint. Haki, who’d been carrying her gear, tossed her an axe on the run, which she promptly used to decapitate one of the golems the canines had knocked down.


Snowflake and Kyra reached the door first and took up positions on either side. I was the first one through. The wards, fortunately, had been taken out by the stored spell; I’d used a similar spell for the same purpose once before, but I hadn’t been completely sure that Zhang’s wards would also be susceptible to it. There are a lot of ways to make a ward, and not all of them are vulnerable to a brute force attack like that one.


Inside, I found myself in what appeared to be a large kitchen. There was no one around, and no defenses that I could see. Once I’d crossed the threshold without dying in some horrible way, Snowflake and Kyra followed, with Aiko on their heels. Haki and Vigdis were next, leaving just the Watchers outside, predictably. Don’t get me wrong, they were fit—but they were also human, and most of the time a human will lose to a nonhuman in a contest of speed.


Brick came first, holding his staff under one arm to keep it out of his way. Moray was fifteen feet behind him, panting, and had slowed from a sprint to a fast jog. The guards had their weapons sighted in now, and the bullets were coming in short, on-target bursts. Moray was deflecting them with a kinetic barrier, but he couldn’t maintain his barrier at a high enough strength to stop bullets indefinitely, and dividing his attention was slowing him down.


I glanced at Haki and gestured slightly. He nodded—it wasn’t hard to figure out what I wanted, after all—and bolted out the door. He reached Moray in a couple seconds, threw the Watcher over his shoulder, and returned. His speed was not noticeably lessened by the weight. He tossed Moray through the hole—literally tossed him, I mean—and stooped to get through himself.


Brick stepped up to the entrance as soon as Haki was through. “Figure out which way to go,” he said calmly. “I’m going to seal this.” I felt him gathering power, scented with a dry, earthy tone. Bits of concrete started moving toward the hole. Most of them were golems, and some of them were still moving. Brick didn’t seem to care.


I left him to it and went looking around. There were three doors out of the kitchen, all of them identical in appearance. The first went to a larder; Snowflake went down the stairs for a quick look around, turning up nothing interesting. The second opened onto what appeared to be servants’ quarters, currently empty. Zhang had evacuated, apparently, in preparation for our attack. Whether that was a surprising touch of humanity from him or just concern for his property was hard to say.


The third door led into a large, elaborately decorated dining room. Snowflake, Kyra, and I, being most easily able to keep in touch with each other, went through the dining room and explored the rest of the house. There was a living room, an office, a painter’s studio, a guard barracks—all empty. The only door to the exterior we found was locked and warded, and from the structure of the wards I didn’t think the guards would be able to pass through them. Zhang or one of his subordinate mages must have lowered the wards every time they needed to change shifts. The inconvenience was offset by how much more secure it made them. Any time your security system will let some people through, there’s a possibility that an unauthorized person will take advantage of the same hole.


Of course, now that we were inside the building, it would have the opposite effect, keeping the security forces from chasing us in. That gave us a little breathing room, a little time to work.


We found no defenses on the ground floor, and no sign of Zhang’s presence. The three of us gathered at the base of the stairs, just down the hallway from the dining room. There was one staircase leading up, and one leading down. I had no idea which way Zhang was; being on the top floor had connotations of superiority which would appeal to his arrogance, but underground was probably more secure, and he might be smart enough to go with safety over style.


We’ll have to split up, Snowflake said reluctantly.


I nodded just as reluctantly. If we picked wrong, Zhang would slip out behind us, and we wouldn’t catch him unprepared (relatively speaking) again. We couldn’t wait and flush him out, either; the guards would catch us from behind, and we wouldn’t have much of a chance at success then. That really didn’t leave many options other than splitting up. it was always bad tactics to divide your forces, but sometimes that’s all you get. Hopefully we’d brought enough force to get the job done anyway.


“Let’s go report,” I said, walking away from the stairs.


Back in the kitchen, no one had mysteriously vanished, which was excellent news. The hole in the wall was stopped with a massive heap of concrete fragments, many of which seemed to be fused together. How thick it was I couldn’t say, but it seemed like a fairly formidable obstacle. The guards would dig through it eventually, of course, but it would take some time.


I explained what we’d found, briefly. Brick immediately came to the same conclusion we had, and said as much. Nobody liked the idea much—everyone’s seen the movies—but no one had a better idea, either.


We all proceeded as a group to the stairs. Moray examined them for maybe a second and a half before he said, “Trapped.”


“Trapped how?” I asked.


He shrugged. “The usual. Looks like fire, force, lightning—” He paused. “That step’s actually a golem. How did he manage that?”


“Can you disarm them?” I asked.


“Maybe. Most of them don’t look too bad anyway. I should be able to shield against them.”


“All right. You and Brick check the upstairs. Take Vigdis and Haki with you. If you clear it come down and help us.”


“It would be better if one mage went with each group,” Brick said, looking down into the basement. “No offense, Winter.”


I shook my head. “No, it wouldn’t, and we don’t have time to argue about it.”


“You’d better know what you’re doing, Wolf,” he said quietly.


“Trust me, I don’t plan on dying here.”


He looked at me, then sighed. “All right, but only because crazy works for you. Come on, meat shields,” he said, turning to his staircase. Magic flickered to life at his fingertips, sparks of green-brown light running along the length of his granite rod. “Let’s bring the house down.”

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