“What’s your visual range going to be like?” I asked Kris as I parked the heavily armored truck that I typically used to ferry minions around. As I’d expected, she’d had absolutely no problems with coming out to help hunt ghouls. We’d always gotten along pretty well. I’d recruited most of the mages of the Inquisition, but Kris had been the only one to volunteer.
“Should be pretty much fine,” she said.
I blinked. “Really? You don’t think it’ll be too dark?” Raptors are famed for their vision, with good reason, but there’s a reason that you don’t typically see them out and about at night. They aren’t very good at seeing in the dark, probably worse than ordinary humans.
“Nah,” Kris said, grinning. “I’ve been playing around with adjusting my eyes. The range isn’t as good, and I lose a little in the way of detail, but they work a lot better at night.”
“Nice work,” I said, meaning it. Even for a shapeshifter, that kind of delicate adjustment wasn’t easy. I don’t know that I would have had the balls to make changes to my eyes like that.
“Okay, people,” I said, getting out of the truck. “This is the neighborhood that the report came from. Vigdis, Kris, I want eyes in the sky. You’re looking for rapid movement, signs of disturbance or violence, anything anomalous. Try not to give yourselves away unless you have to. If you think you’re in danger get to my location and land. Questions?”
“Nope,” Kris said, climbing out of the truck. Vigdis, just behind her, grunted and shook her head. Both of them started stripping, quickly and efficiently. Shapeshifters of any stripe tend to have a hard time bringing their equipment with them. Granted they were both smaller as birds than humans, so they could have shifted in their clothes, but it was inconvenient and neither of them was particularly modest, so they didn’t bother.
“Good,” I said, turning to the last member of the group. “Kyi, you’re on the ground with me. I want you scouting a perimeter around me as I move, looking for the same things as the fliers. Anything odd or threatening, come find me. If it’s urgent or you think you’re in danger, give me a signal and I’ll get to your position. Otherwise, don’t let anyone see you.”
She nodded, grinning. The compound bow on her back bobbed with the movement, as did several knives and a pair of kama. Kyi specializes in taking people down without them ever knowing she was there, either by putting an arrow through their face from a hundred feet away or by sneaking up on them and putting sharp things into their squishy parts. She isn’t nearly as strong as the other jötnar, but she’s quick, and in a fight she can do a lot more damage than most people expect.
She stalked off into the shadow at the edge of a building. I didn’t bother trying to watch her past that.
Behind me, there was no sign of the two shapeshifters. In their place was a pair of birds, perched on the truck. One of them was an eagle, huge even by the standards of eagles, which was flexing its wings as though it could hardly stand to put off its flight for even a moment. The other was almost indistinguishable from a red-tailed hawk, though if what Kris had said was right, its eyes were rather markedly different.
“Go on,” I said, locking up the truck. Between the armor and the defenses I’d added since I bought it, it locked up pretty nicely. You’d have better odds of cracking a bank vault than getting into that truck without a key.
When I looked back, the birds were gone. I took a deep breath and nodded. I checked the contents of my pockets, more out of habit than anything, and then started walking through the streets. As I went I reshaped my cloak into a long coat, drawing a sheet of shadow up over my head so that none of the armor was visible, before pulling a broad-brimmed hat on over my helmet. In the dusk, it would look like I was just a man in a coat, with a hat casting a shadow over my face. Nothing too remarkable.
The report had indicated that the ghouls were on the eastern edge of the city, out in the plains, but hadn’t specified beyond a general neighborhood. We’d been able to narrow it down a little from there, just by knowing the habits of ghouls. They wouldn’t be in a populous area. Ghouls were at home in wastelands, deserts, graveyards, and abandoned places. In the city, that narrowed it down quite a bit.
That still left a lot of room to look in, though. So as I started walking, I cheated. I called up my magic and sent my awareness out, casting around for any hints of their presence.
One of the cardinal rules of magic is that everyone has something, some particular knack, that comes more naturally than anything else. For Kris, it’s the shapeshifting. Alexis is a natural with electricity.
For me, it’s always been animals, especially predators. I can communicate with them, and see through their eyes.
Oddly enough, though, I’d never really practiced with it. I’d never seen the need; it came so naturally I assumed that I didn’t have anything else to learn. Once I’d been given a motivation, though, it turned out that wasn’t quite the case. Over the past year I’d made some considerable strides. I’d learned to manage multiple sets of senses at once, processing input from different sources at the same time. Five was the most I’d managed so far, as I’d said to Aiko, and I couldn’t get full detail from more than two at once, but that was still a far cry from being limited to one set of senses at a time.
One of the other tricks I’d learned was to only dissociate a piece of myself, keeping the bulk of my attention in my own body. I couldn’t pay attention to details while I did that, and I tended to come across as somewhat distractible, but it gave me some options I wouldn’t have otherwise.
That was what I did now, devoting part of my attention to skim the awareness of animals around me. I kept most of my focus on myself, and while my reactions would be a little slower, I could function normally. With the rest of my mind, I was skipping from one predator to the next, looking for any kind of sensory information that could point me at my target.
Hunting ghouls required different tactics than most quarry. Ghouls have some talent with illusion and shapechanging, and most of them can pass for human when they want to. Their natural forms are a lot more conspicuous, but most of the time they don’t use those forms in an urban setting. If you’re tracking down a ghoul in a city, you need to look for more subtle cues.
I’d been walking for about three minutes when I noticed something odd. I devoted a little more of my attention to my magic, and confirmed that a dog about a mile north could smell decay. It wasn’t garbage; the scent was nastier than that, with strong odor of rotting meat.
Rot isn’t a perfect indicator for ghouls, but there’s a definite association. At the next intersection I turned north, focusing my attention a little more on the animals I was sensing from that direction. As I did I briefly glimpsed Kyi pacing me on the roof of a nearby apartment building, letting me know she was still pacing me.
It only took a minute or so to establish that numerous animals were smelling rotting meat in the same general area, enough that it was more than a coincidence. Even more tellingly, I couldn’t find any actually scavenging for it. That was a definite anomaly; rotting meat is still meat, and your average fox, raccoon, or raven isn’t going to be too proud to indulge in such a meal.
Once I’d confirmed that there was something funky going on, I started focusing more tightly on the area in question, looking for a sign that I was uniquely suited to find. Ghouls come in a lot of varieties, but one of the major common features is an insatiable hunger for flesh.
Back in the day, ghouls were notorious for luring people into the desert and eating them. They often scavenge in graveyards, digging up corpses for food. In the city, though, both of those behaviors are likely to draw unwanted notice, and as a result ghouls tend to fall back on other sources of meat. One of the most telling indicators of a ghoul’s presence is that animals, pet and stray alike, tend to go missing and not be found.
It took several minutes to pick it out, but eventually I found it. There was an area not far north, maybe three blocks in size, with almost no animals in it. There were pets, but they were all indoors, where it would be difficult to snatch them without drawing attention. I found a couple of birds on the streets, but not many, and the ones I could reach all felt wary, especially those towards the center of the area I’d sketched out in my mental map of the region.
I’d found them.
I drew my attention back into my own body and turned towards the location I’d just marked, picking up my pace. My minions would observe the change and know that I’d spotted the target
It was a bit of a hike, but I didn’t hurry. It would give people time to get off the streets. It was getting dark, and it was chilly for a September night. I thought most people would be clearing out pretty quickly.
By the time I was in the right area, the streetlights were coming on and I was starting to feel a little edgy. I couldn’t have told you how I knew, but I was pretty sure that I was being watched.
That was fine. This was their territory, and ghouls are notoriously territorial; I’d known they would have someone watching. Now it was just a matter of waiting for them to contact me. I wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, and it was hard to construe my presence here as anything other than a challenge.
I’d been loitering for maybe five minutes when someone walked up to me. His posture was aggressive, angry, and his expression was fixed into an impressive scowl. His features were human, mostly, but wrong, the bones too thick and pronounced, the muscles of the jaw seriously overdeveloped.
There were three people standing behind him, with generally similar features, though he was the biggest by a considerable margin. Glimpses through the eyes of a nearby crow suggested that there were another five or so standing around the corner. I felt a sudden thrill of excitement from the sky, though it was muted and remote. Kris and Vigdis might look like birds, but they weren’t, and that difference made my magic clumsy and vague. It was only recently that I’d managed to sense the shapeshifters at all.
“You don’t have permission to be here,” the lead ghoul said. His tone was hostile, but also wary.
I grinned, though I knew he couldn’t see it. “I don’t need permission,” I said lightly. “My authority was granted by a higher power than yours.”
He grunted. “What power?”
“You heard of Winter Wolf-born?” I asked him.
He nodded. “The giant, right? They say he owns this city.”
“They say right,” I said. “And you’re standing in it.”
The ghoul grunted again. I was getting the impression that he wasn’t all that great of a conversationalist. “You work for him?”
“On occasion,” I said, grinning. I wasn’t going to lie, since that was often a foolish decision and wouldn’t be good for my rep if it got out, but that didn’t mean I was going to tell them the truth. “You didn’t ask him for permission before you settled here. He decided to send someone to find out what the situation was.”
“We don’t answer to your master,” he growled.
I sighed and shook my head. “That was the wrong answer,” I said. “If you want to live in his city, you’re going to answer to Winter.”
“Or else what?”
“I’ve got permission to kill all of you if you don’t cooperate,” I said mildly. “I can’t say I want to kill you, but I doubt I’d lose much sleep over it, either.”
The ghoul’s grin was ugly. “Big words,” he said. I noticed that his features were becoming less human, the jaw extending into a muzzle, his eyes shifting color to an unpleasant shade of yellow-green. His cohorts followed suit. “But there’s only one of you.”
I grinned and held one hand up, gesturing slightly. Almost instantly an arrow flew out of the darkness, moving almost too quickly to see, and slammed into the leading ghoul’s knee. It was a heavy, four-bladed broadhead, and the carbon fiber shaft disappeared almost to the fletching. Kyi, unlike most of my housecarls, is fiercely modernist in her equipment choices.
It wasn’t a serious injury, not to a ghoul. They have a reputation for taking an ungodly amount of punishment to put down; I doubted that taking an arrow to the knee would even inconvenience this one. They aren’t like werewolves, either, where all you need is silver. As far as I knew the only way to kill a ghoul was with massive damage.
An instant later, before they could really react, a hawk streaked out of the sky and slammed into my upraised hand. Kris mantled, showing off impressive plumage, and let out a hawk’s distinctive scream.
“I’m seldom alone,” I said to the ghoul, who hadn’t even reacted to the arrow. “And if I were, I could still take you. Last chance. You sure you want to go this route?”
The ghoul grinned and popped his neck. His features had become distinctly bestial now, almost hyenoid, with pronounced teeth. Glancing down I saw that he’d kicked off his shoes, revealing extremities that were more hoof than foot. “I reckon,” he said, his new mouth mangling the words almost beyond understanding, “I reckon you’re bluffing. I reckon we can take you. Run now, and I’ll leave you a hand or a foot. Your choice.”
I nodded slowly. “All right, then. Let’s go.”
The first thing I did once the fight officially started was jerk my arm, tossing Kris into the air. She moved with it, smooth and practiced, turning the motion into a short flight to my right. She turned human before she hit the ground, the change coming and going so fast you couldn’t see a point in between, and landed on her feet.
The leader of the ghouls seemed inclined to hang back and get my measure before attacking. One of his minions wasn’t so patient, though. She stepped forward, leering, her jaws open wide enough to fit my head in one bite. They were slightly lopsided, and I suspected that she couldn’t actually close her mouth properly.
I didn’t get the chance to find out. The instant she moved, an arrow slammed home into one eye. The ghoul staggered back, reaching for her face, just in time for a second arrow to pass through her hand and into her other eye. The ghoul retreated and started ripping at the arrows, trying to get them out.
A moment later the other group of ghouls poured out from around the corner. My count had been off; there had to be at least ten of them, a veritable tide of misshapen bodies and dirty, matted fur. Some of them, like the leader, resembled hyenas. Others looked more like gorillas, or even goats. The only commonalities were ugliness, hostility, and some formidable natural weaponry.
They made it maybe ten feet before an eagle swooped down out of the sky. Maybe ten feet from the ground, Vigdis turned into a huge wolf, letting her momentum carry her forward into the group. She hit hard, knocking two or three of them to the ground, biting and tearing. She danced back after a few seconds, blood streaming from her muzzle, jaws open in a savage grin.
Apparently this was enough to spur their leader into action. He leapt at me, jaws agape, both arms ending in oversized claws. I ducked aside, but he was faster than I’d expected. I could see him grinning wider as he realized that I’d moved too slowly, and one paw was going to hit me in the face.
That grin faded as his claws skittered aside, utterly failing to find purchase on my helmet. No surprise there; that armor was forged by dwarves, and reinforced by a god. Not much was going to penetrate it.
Before he could recover from the surprise, I stepped closer, pulling a knife out of my cloak. I slammed the knife into his chest, glancing off a rib before slipping between them. Leaving the knife in him, I lifted him from the ground, grunting slightly with the effort, and tossed him back. He hit one of his followers and both of them sprawled to the ground in a confused tangle of limbs. I grinned, took a step back, and called Tyrfing. The cursed sword appeared in my hand, eager as ever, and it only took me a moment to undo the catch and flick the scabbard aside.
Vigdis’s entrance had thrown that group of ghouls into disarray, and she’d done some considerable damage while they were down. But a few bites wasn’t enough to drop them permanently, and now that they were getting back up she was outnumbered and in a bad position. More arrows flew out of the night, hitting vital areas with incredible precision, but they weren’t doing much, and Kyi stopped after only a few seconds. She was smart enough to realize that it wasn’t an effective tactic for this situation.
The ghouls didn’t pay much attention when Kris stepped up next to Vigdis. I couldn’t blame them; Kris really didn’t look like much. She was barely over five feet, and while she was in good shape, her build was closer to that of a long-distance runner than a weightlifter. Her shoulders were a little more heavily muscled, probably because of the flying, but it wasn’t something you’d notice on casual observation.
She was also unarmed, and naked. The ghouls were confident that she didn’t represent a threat, and one bite would be sufficient to take her down. Only one of them even bothered to move on her; the others kept their focus on Vigdis. When Kris slapped at that one’s head, it didn’t bother dodging.
Then, too fast to see clearly, Kris’s hand melted and reformed as a claw, an absurdly oversized version of a hawk’s talon. The claw raked across the ghoul’s face a good bit harder than someone Kris’s size should have been able to swing, and tore through flesh without slowing. Blood poured out of several broad gashes. One of his eyeballs was gone, impaled on a claw and ripped away. The other was still attached, but only barely, dangling by the nerve. He staggered back, shocked, and Kris followed up by jumping onto his shoulders. She jumped again, throwing him to the ground, and turned into a hawk in midair. The hawk flew away, screaming again, mockingly.
The ghoul hit the ground and stayed there. He wasn’t dead, but I was guessing he was in a lot of pain, and it would take time for his vision to recover. I didn’t think he was going to get up soon.
The others weren’t so lucky. They got to deal with me.
I stepped past the group that had come to confront me before the leader could stand up again. One of the ghouls, the one that Kyi had shot at the beginning of the fight, tried to stop me. I took her claw in the chest without flinching and countered with Tyrfing, a short cut that took one of her hands off. She blinked, staring at the blood fountaining from the stump. I continued past her without further delay.
The other group of ghouls were focused tightly on Vigdis. She was staying back, on the defensive, but the ghouls were tougher than she was, and they had her surrounded. Both parties knew that the fight was just a matter of time, and the ghouls were pressing in tighter, all their attention on their imminent meal. None of them were prepared for an attack from the other direction.
I hit the ring of ghouls from behind, without warning. I didn’t go for anything fancy, just started cutting them down with Tyrfing. Normally I would have gone for broad, sweeping attacks, removing limbs and dropping whole swathes of them, but that wasn’t good tactics for ghouls; they were too tough, and hard to incapacitate. I used more precise strikes instead, targeting the head and neck.
In the first two seconds I decapitated two ghouls and split the skull of a third, my motions swift and economical. Those ghouls fell, and didn’t move afterward. Ghouls are hard to kill, but Tyrfing is really good at killing things.
The others reacted quickly, turning to face the new threat. That put their backs to Vigdis, and she was quick to capitalize on the opportunity, darting forward and laying about herself with claws and teeth. She focused on the ghouls’ legs and feet, tripping and slowing them. None of the injuries were serious, but they left them vulnerable to me, and at this point the ghouls were well aware of what a dangerous position that was.
I stepped through the ghouls, ignoring several more attacks. Claws and teeth slipped aside on the armor. Hooves did a little better, transferring a fair amount of force, but I ignored those as well. They wouldn’t inflict anything worse than bruises, and bruises didn’t scare me. One ghoul got her hands on me and started to heave me off the ground, but Tyrfing chopped through her forearms easily enough, and I was through.
“Nice entrance,” I said to Vigdis, stabbing one of the fallen ghouls through the spine. It jerked and went still.
The wolf grinned at me, showing teeth that were more red than white. She was bleeding from a pair of bite wounds on her flank, but didn’t seem to care.
“Get airborne,” I told her. “You’re more valuable if they don’t know where you’re going to hit next.”
She nodded and then flickered back to the giant eagle. She had a harder time taking off than usual, likely as a result of the bites, but she managed it.
I turned to face the ghouls. They were hanging back, clearly reluctant to come any closer to me. I couldn’t say I blamed them. The end result was that I had a wall at my back and about ten feet of clear space, but they had me hemmed in with a semicircle of ghoul.
A few seconds later the leader walked up through the center of the semicircle, stopping about five feet from me. He was bouncing my knife in one hand.
“Nice work,” he said, regarding one of the dead ghouls. “Shame we’re on opposite sides. I could use a man with skills like yours.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I already answer to more people than I’d like,” I said honestly.
He shrugged and tossed me the knife. I caught it and returned it to its sheath inside my cloak. “That’s how it goes,” he said. “But it’s a pity to kill someone with your talent.”
“That’s funny,” I said lightly. “I was about to say the same thing.”
He chuckled. “I appreciate the bravado, but let’s get real. You’ve got your back to the wall. You’re good, but this is it for you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” I said. “Look behind you.”
He smirked. Several of the ghouls laughed, a sound which really drove home the hyena resemblance.
None of them looked behind themselves.
Thus, none of them saw Kyi step up out of the shadows on the right edge of the semicircle, kama in hand. The curved blade reached out, almost delicately, and hooked the jaw of one of the ghouls. She drew the kama back, slicing its throat open from one side to the other, and then faded back into the darkness. The whole thing only took a second or so.
By the time the others reacted to what had just happened, the ghoul had already hit the ground, surrounded by a rapidly growing pool of blood.
While their attention was diverted, I made my move. Two long steps brought me within reach of the lead ghoul. He looked back at me, and started to move, but it was too late. Tyrfing started down on the stroke that would take his head.
And then, with no warning whatsoever, there was someone else standing next to him. She reached out and grabbed my wrist, stopping my swing cold, though she didn’t look nearly strong enough to do such a thing.
I wasn’t surprised, though. Natalie wasn’t the most combat-capable vampire I’d met, but she was still a vampire.
“Peace, Winter,” she said, her voice more serious than usual. “These people are here under our protection.”
I glared at her and jerked my arm away. She didn’t try to stop me. “I wasn’t informed of their presence.”
“That doesn’t give you the right to initiate violence against them,” Natalie said. She didn’t sound happy.
I smiled. “I didn’t initiate violence,” I said sweetly. “I approached openly and started a conversation. I was open and honest regarding my motives and authority. I offered them multiple opportunities to discuss the situation and come to a peaceful resolution. I explicitly warned them that I would use lethal force if they didn’t cooperate. After all that, I was well within my rights to defend myself when they attacked.”
Natalie glanced from me to the leader of the ghouls. “Jibril. Is this true?”
He glowered at me. “He didn’t say he was Winter Wolf-born,” he muttered sullenly.
“No,” I said. “But I informed you of the authority I was here under. It isn’t my fault that you didn’t ask for my name or rank.”
“Well,” Natalie said, glaring daggers at Jibril. “It would appear that you weren’t in the wrong here, Winter. We won’t be taking action against you as a result of your actions tonight.”
“Hang on,” I said. “You still haven’t addressed the question of why you’ve moved a large group of violent ghouls into my territory without my permission. That’s a pretty blatant violation of our treaty.”
“I’m sorry,” Natalie said. “But I’m not in a position to answer that question now.”
There was a long, pregnant pause, broken only by the sound of Jibril’s claws extending and retracting. I could see Kyi lurking behind the ghouls, seemingly unnoticed by everyone else, spinning a knife in one hand. She was clearly ready to burst into action at the slightest signal from me.
“I see,” I said at last. “There will be repercussions for this, Natalie. There will be consequences.”
“Yes,” the vampire said. Then, without fanfare, she disappeared.
“I really hate that trick,” I said to no one in particular.
“Agreed,” Jibril said. “Shame we’re on opposite sides, jarl. I suspect we could get along.”
“I suspect you’re right,” I said. “But that’s how it goes.”
The ghoul sighed and nodded, then turned and walked away, his human guise returning as he went. The other ghouls trailed after him, many shooting hateful glances at me as they left.
I noticed that they took all the corpses with them. Ghouls are always hungry.
I sighed and sheathed Tyrfing, wincing slightly at the pain in my ribs. I was going to be feeling those bruises for a while.
Kris flew down a few seconds after the ghouls left, changing ten feet above the ground. She did a frontflip on the way down, presumably because she could, and landed on her feet with casual grace. “Hey,” she said. “What was the deal there at the end?”
“Vampires,” I said grimly. “Turns out they’re the ones that moved the ghouls in.”
Kris grunted and nodded. “Figures. Did you work it out?”
I shrugged. “Sort of. Dealt with the immediate issues, I guess. Didn’t really resolve anything.”
“We killed a bunch of them,” she pointed out.
“Not as many as you might think,” I said. “Ghouls are tough. But yeah, we killed a few. Does that bother you?” Kris didn’t enjoy violence nearly as much as the rest of my minions, and she had the strongest moral center of the bunch.
She shrugged. “Not really. I mean, you tried to solve things peacefully. Not really our fault if they won’t give us a chance, I don’t think.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Speaking of, what was that bit with the claw? I haven’t seen that before.” I hadn’t seen any kind of partial transformation, in fact. As far as I’d known, all of my shapeshifters were limited to just the one human and one animal form. Vigdis could do multiple animals, but she also wasn’t quite a shapeshifter, and even she couldn’t do partial forms.
“I’ve been working out,” Kris said, shrugging. “You want to get out of here before somebody shows up?”
“Yeah,” I said. We hadn’t made that much noise fighting, but it was best to be careful with that sort of thing. Especially for me. “You’d probably better go bird. Don’t want to get hit with a public indecency charge.”
Kris snorted and made a rude gesture at me, then leapt into the air. I sighed and checked that my disguise was in place, then started trudging back towards the truck. I hadn’t done all that much, but I felt exhausted, and not physically. This outing had been supposed to make me feel better, giving me a simple problem that I could actually solve, but I felt more tired than before on the way back.
I saw Kyi every now and then, pacing me, and my allies circled overhead. It didn’t comfort me as much as it might have.