I was expecting something bad to happen, after that. I mean, it wasn’t all that much of a leap of logic. All was clearly not well with the vampires in my town, and while I had little to do with them, my experience has been that that doesn’t really matter much. When supernatural beings get into shit, there’s plenty to go around. When politics is involved, there’s even more.
So I was fully expecting there to be trouble. If Natalie was making a move, and Katrin wasn’t in a position to stop her, I was logically going to be one of her targets. I was an authority figure, a symbol, and taking me out would be a powerful statement. Not to mention that, if she didn’t, I would probably be a thorn in her side later on. I might not like Katrin, but I can at least recognize that she’s a force for stability and calm, and Natalie could hardly say the same. As much as I hated to admit it, in a fight between the two, I would support Katrin.
I was expecting an attack of some kind. I don’t think I can reasonably be faulted for not expecting it less than twelve hours after I met with Katrin.
Back in Romania, it was just after sunset, locally, but I’d already been asleep for several hours. When you’re jumping back and forth through time zones on a daily or hourly basis, fixing your schedule to the sun is basically impossible.
I woke groggy, and it took me several seconds to figure out what had actually woken me. I’d rigged wards to detect anyone with magic approaching the castle, but it had basically just been a measure to assuage my paranoia. They’d never actually done anything before.
Now they were going haywire, screaming at me that there was a lot of power climbing the stairs up our little mountain. Fast; the outermost layer of wards was at the base of the stairs, and by the time I was fully conscious they were already tripping wards halfway up the mountain.
That was enough to wake me up, and then some. Coffee has nothing on an imminent threat on your life, believe me. I scrambled out of bed and started belting on armor frantically, simultaneously calling up power and reaching out.
It took only a moment to locate Snowflake, a long ways down from where I was. She was sitting in the dining room on the ground floor, helping herself to a steak in anticipation of a nap. A moment’s communication was enough to confirm that Aiko and Alexis were both in the castle. My cousin was asleep, and the last thing Snowflake had heard from Aiko suggested that she would be in the library.
I told Snowflake that there were probably enemies incoming, and then looked further, outside the walls. There weren’t many birds moving around at this time of day, but I’d made a concerted effort to encourage the presence of predators around our castle. As such, I was hopeful that I could find something.
I got lucky. There was a nesting pair of boreal owls a few miles away, and the female was in the area. A small nudge convinced her to alter her course slightly, giving me a good view of the path leading up to our door. It wasn’t great—it was at a distance, and even an owl can only see so much on a cloudy night—but I could make out general shapes.
At a glance, I counted around fifteen figures ascending the mountain. Most were misshapen, just grotesque enough to make it clear that they weren’t anything natural. Ghouls, most likely, and I was guessing that there were more around that I couldn’t see. They wouldn’t bother to send that few against me, not after what I did earlier.
The other four were much more concerning. They looked human, generally, but they moved with a speed and grace that was entirely at odds with that. It wasn’t the sort of agility that could really be achieved by a human, or even a werewolf. This was more something that would make you complain about the obviously fake special effects if you saw it in a movie. They ignored the stairs entirely, running up the rough ground and leaping boulders, and they still made it up the hill faster than I could have.
Vampires. Well, that wasn’t good. I’d never fought a single vampire before, and from what I knew of them, I wasn’t sure that I could. Four of them at once was…problematic.
Maybe they were staying away from the stairs to avoid any booby traps I’d placed. If so, they’d underestimated how thorough I’d be; as I watched one of them stepped on the wrong stone, and set off a landmine. The blast of flame and shrapnel didn’t kill it, but they did knock it a ways down the mountain, and it wasn’t too quick getting up.
I grinned in satisfaction before releasing my grasp on the owl, returning to my own body. I grabbed my cloak and threw it over myself as I ran for the stairs, leaping down them considerably faster than was safe.
Aiko was already standing when I reached the library, having heard me on the stairs. “Trouble?” she asked, grabbing her carbine off the floor. She was already wearing armor.
“Vampires,” I said. “At least four, and they have a shitload of ghouls with them. Incoming fast.”
She said something rude in Italian and followed me. “What’s the plan?” she asked.
“Wake Alexis and get down to the front hall. Hopefully the wards will slow them down, and there’ll be a choke point as they come in the door.”
She nodded. “I’ll get your cousin. You get down there and get ready.”
Only a few seconds later I was standing in the entrance hall, watching the door nervously. Snowflake was standing at my side, grinning. Her steel teeth were stained red from the steak she’d been eating, which looked rather ominous.
She wasn’t wearing armor. I was more than a little worried about that, but there was not time to go and get it and I knew better than to think that she would leave.
“What’s going on?” Alexis called from behind me, sounding bleary.
“Vampires,” I said, glancing back. She was wearing a heavy leather coat, the best armor she had, and she’d at least remembered to grab her staff. That was some consolation. I glanced through the owl’s eyes, and saw that the vampires were moving more slowly now, taking care to avoid traps. “They’ll be here within a minute.”
“How do we fight them?” she asked, moving further into the room.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never done it, and it’s hard to find reliable information.” I shrugged. “Cut off the head or destroy the heart if you get the chance. I want you and Aiko providing ranged support. We’ll try to hold them at the door with wards and grenades.”
“Got it,” she said, moving into the corner of the room opposite the door. I felt her gather her power as she went, the scents of ozone and snow hanging in the air around her. Aiko took the time to hug me before going to the other corner, aiming her carbine at the door.
Bullets wouldn’t kill vampires, not in that light of a caliber. They didn’t inflict the kind of large-scale tissue damage you need to put down a ghoul, either. But they might slow them down, keep them busy while Alexis and I lined up the big guns.
We waited like that for a tense thirty seconds or so while the enemy climbed up to us. Finally I started to smell them, a disturbingly strong odor of magic. The predominant odor was blood, but there was something wrong about it, a touch of too-sweet decay, mixed with unpleasant spices. There was a weaker odor of ghoul, not unlike rotting meat, and I caught a hint of something else as well, something even nastier.
There was a pause of several seconds before a male voice, just familiar enough that I felt like I should recognize it but couldn’t, said, “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down.”
There was a rush of power, strong enough to leave me blinking, that smashed the wards on the door, rendering most of them useless. Then something hit the doors, hard enough to make them buckle.
Those doors were taller than me and wide enough to drive a truck through, made of heavy ash and bound with iron. They must have weighed half a ton, and they were barred with another piece of iron the size of a load-bearing I-beam. A team of men with a battering ram would have needed probably around ten minutes to get through it.
It took three hits from this thing to knock the iron beam off its supports onto the ground. One more and the lock shattered, the doors lolling open.
Well, that wasn’t good. I’d been counting on the wards to do some damage, and those doors should have held at least a little while. This was going to cause some serious problems with my plans.
Almost the instant the doors were open, ghouls started pouring through, hideous, misshapen things with patchy fur and oversized teeth.
I didn’t get a chance to see any more details than that, because the moment they moved in, Alexis hit them with a lightning bolt.
Ghouls are tough, but lightning is a hell of a weapon, and she’d been working out pretty hard. Ghouls hit the ground left and right, screaming and convulsing, and the stench of burning fur filled the air.
But more ghouls came behind the first wave, stepping on their kin without any hesitation. Aiko started shooting, short, well aimed bursts of fire, and I could see and smell the blood, but they didn’t stop. There were already ten or fifteen ghouls in the doorway, and more coming up behind them. In only moments they would be through, and that many ghouls in a confined space would go badly for us.
Fortunately, only most of the magical protections had been destroyed.
I sent a spike of power at the doorway, triggering one of the remaining wards, and the doorway burst into flame, a sudden and unnaturally intense fire. It washed over the ghouls, and now it wasn’t just fur burning, it was flesh. It smelled like roasting meat, because that was exactly what it was.
More ghouls hit the ground. There was some screaming, but not as much as I’d have guessed. Something was telling me that wasn’t because the fire hadn’t hurt them. At a glance, it looked like a lot of them weren’t going to be getting up.
There was still screaming, though, and smoke and smoldering flame and writhing bodies, and in all the chaos I didn’t even see the first vampire jump over the whole mess.
The first thing I knew about it was when he was standing about three feet away from me, grinning. I didn’t have time to register much more than that before Snowflake lunged forward, biting at his legs.
I didn’t even see him move, but he jerked back about three feet, and Snowflake’s teeth snapped shut on empty air. That gave me enough time and space to draw Tyrfing, though, and he didn’t look nearly so eager to move into reach once that happened.
I felt and heard another bolt of lightning from Alexis, but I didn’t have the time or attention to spare. Even one vampire was enough to kill us all if given a chance.
Not that I could do much about it. He backed away as I approached, still grinning, and I didn’t want to push too hard and leave myself exposed. I ended up standing about ten feet away from him, between him and the rest of the room. Behind him I could see that the pile of dead or disabled ghouls had grown again. There were still plenty up and moving, though, and Aiko was still dumping bullets into the mass.
Then her magazine ran empty. She started reloading, her motions quick and smooth, but it would take a second.
In that time, another vampire stepped up, ripped one of the doors off its hinges, and threw it at Alexis.
It wasn’t a particularly hard throw. By the time it hit her, it wasn’t moving under much more than gravity. It wasn’t a particularly good throw, either; it barely clipped her.
But that door weighed several hundred pounds. Even a glancing blow was enough to knock Alexis down, effectively removing her from the fight for a few seconds.
In that brief window of opportunity, while both of our ranged attackers were ineffective, the other three vampires entered the room.
Snowflake and I fell back towards the others, watching the vamps warily, as the rest of the ghouls filed in behind them. Not counting the downed ones, there were only around ten ghouls left. Something to be proud of, perhaps.
Not much, though. Not enough. Not when there were four vampires inside of our defenses.
“I thought you couldn’t enter a home uninvited,” I said, more to buy time than anything. Alexis was still trying to stand, and it would go very badly if the fighting started up again while she was down.
One of the vampires—the last one in, I was pretty sure—smiled at me. It looked like a completely normal smile, no fangs or anything. He looked almost bland, except for vivid yellow eyes. “A house is not a home, Mr. Wolf. You may live here, but you don’t claim this land, you haven’t made it a part of yourself.” His smile broadened slightly. “Obviously.”
As though that had been a cue, the other vampires fell on us. We tried to fight. It didn’t go so well.
“Not bad,” the lead vampire said, wandering around the room looking at things. He seemed completely unaware of the fact that his minions were beating the shit out of us. “A little ostentatious, maybe, but not a bad place. Your patron knows how to make a statement, I have to give him that.”
I tried to push myself back to my feet, but a vampire stepped on my hand and grinned down at me, her teeth just a little bit sharper than a person’s. There was a gash across her face where I’d managed to land a hit with Tyrfing, but it wasn’t bleeding the way it should be. There was red liquid oozing out, true, and it smelled mostly like blood, but there was no pressure behind it.
No heartbeat. Blood loss might actually be a viable way to kill a vampire, based on where they got their power from, but you’d need to open a major blood vessel and hang them out to drain.
“Disarm them,” the leader said, turning towards us. “But don’t kill them.”
Apparently the vampires felt this task was beneath them, because it was the ghouls that moved to comply. They took Tyrfing, Alexis’s staff, and Aiko’s carbine, but they didn’t search us with any thoroughness. Sloppy work. I only hoped we’d get a chance to take advantage of it.
“You know, I’m surprised that you’ve been so quiet,” the lead vampire said. “Based on our previous encounters, I was expecting at least a few snide comments by now.”
Previous encounters? I couldn’t remember having run into this vampire before.
And then I looked at those yellow eyes, and realized why that hint of wrongness lying under the other smells of magic in the room was so familiar. “That’s impossible,” I said, stammering a little. “You aren’t a vampire.”
The skinwalker smiled at me. “No,” he agreed. “Fortunately, the vampirism process is deeply flawed. It’s to be expected when they’re still using what was, frankly, only ever supposed to be a very early prototype. The results are mixed. Sometimes they produce highly refined killing machines of the sort you see with me. Other times, the outcome is more of an empty shell, hardly more than an animal.”
I realized what was going on, and my heart sank even further. “You’re possessing him,” I said. It wasn’t a question. I knew the principle—it wasn’t that far off what I did with animals, after all—but I’d never seen it go quite this far.
He answered me anyway. “Obviously,” he said. “I would hardly take the risk of assaulting your stronghold in person. Fortunately, Natalie was quite willing to loan me one of her puppets. I still owe you, after all.”
“If this is personal,” I said mockingly, “why’d you need to bring so many friends?”
He regarded me curiously. “Are you trying to goad me into a duel of some sort? Because if so, I’m a little offended. Do you really imagine I would have survived as long as I have if I were that stupid?”
I shrugged, prompting a warning hiss from one of the vampires watching us. “It was worth a try,” I said.
“Your effort has been noted,” he said dryly. “Now, I need to think of what to do with you. Something suitably extreme, I think, to make up for the embarrassment you caused me the last time.” He turned away from us and started toward the throne.
I must have been getting better at lying, because none of them noticed my excitement when I saw that. Alexis wasn’t quite as smooth, but it hardly mattered; she was literally shaking with terror already, and hyperventilating. No one was going to notice a minor tell through that.
Not that I could blame her. Not knowing something about what she’d gone through at the skinwalker’s hands in the past.
He reached the throne and sat down, smiling at us.
Then things started to happen very, very quickly.
The instant his weight settled onto the throne, there was a loud click. At the exact same time, I pulled a small glass sphere out of my cloak and threw it at the nearest vampire.
The land mines rigged to the throne went off an instant later. These weren’t cheap land mines, either, or antique models. I’d been able to afford several modern anti-personnel mines, the sort that even military forces aren’t really supposed to be using. They were designed to produce a very intense, very localized blast.
In the field, the expectation is that they enemy will step on one and the blast will damage or destroy their foot and leg. Here, there were four set into the throne, with the intention of turning anyone dumb enough to sit on it into a sack of pulp. The nice thing about that type of mine, as opposed to a shrapnel-based one, was that it was very localized, meaning that I didn’t have to worry about it hitting us.
Even at a distance, the sound of four mines going off was impressive. I couldn’t spare the attention to look, but I was confident the look of surprise on the skinwalker’s face was priceless. Hopefully I’d be able to pick it out on the security footage.
The vampire caught the sphere I’d thrown, of course, moving almost too quickly to see. The speed of that movement was enough to break the glass, though, releasing a burst of heat and force. Trapped by her hand, it acted a little like an explosive, shredding her hand. She staggered back, on fire. One of the other vamps reached out to support her, moving on instinct, and the fire jumped to him as well, clinging, burning cloth and flesh with equal ease. They dropped to the ground, trying to smother it, but this wasn’t normal fire. There was so much magic packed into it that it was almost alive.
And that was my opportunity.
I scrambled to my feet, Aiko and Snowflake right beside me. I reached to give Alexis a hand up, but had to flinch away when she hit the final vampire with another bolt of lightning. Lacking a physiology, he wasn’t affected nearly so badly as the ghouls had been, but he still staggered away.
The vampire being possessed by the skinwalker was almost unrecognizable as a human body, there were so many broken parts, but he managed to make it stand. Not too surprising; vampires aren’t alive, as such, so there isn’t much you can do to really hurt them. Short of destroying the heart or the head, they were functionally indestructible. Between that and the fact that this particular vampire was being puppeteered by a skinwalker, it wasn’t a surprise that it wasn’t down for the count.
It stood there, glaring at us hatefully with those vivid yellow eyes. It opened its mouth, maybe to shout orders to its minions, maybe so the skinwalker could cast some kind of spell or something.
Then an anvil fell out of the rafters and hit it in the head. It was a fairly glancing blow, but it still shattered the thing’s skull. The body dropped at once, apparently damaged beyond even a vampire’s ability to function.
In the brief window of opportunity that afforded, we bolted, sprinting for the door leading deeper into the building. I was expecting at any moment to be snatched from my feet by one of the vampires, or hit with magic from the skinwalker, but we made it out of the room without incident.
We weren’t safe. I could hear the ghouls chasing us, heavy footfalls and hungry panting, and the vampires wouldn’t be far behind. The fire and lightning wouldn’t do much more than slow them down, and I wasn’t sure that even the explosion and the anvil would be enough to put the other one down permanently. Not when it was being possessed by a fucking skinwalker.
We were on our home ground, though, and we’d had the advantage of knowing that shit was about to go down. We made it to the central tower without being caught, and slammed the heavy steel door behind ourselves. The ghouls hit it moments later, screaming and tearing at the door, but it would take them some time to get through. That door was designed to hold off an army.
Of course, that was no guarantee with vampires around.
“Come on,” I said, stumbling toward the stairs. I hadn’t noticed at the time, but apparently one of the vamps had wrenched my leg while disabling us, because I was limping a little.
“Where are we going?” Alexis asked, glancing back. She threw another blast of electricity back, but I could tell that she was getting tired. This one couldn’t have had half the power of her first attack.
It was still strong enough that the ghouls screamed in pain and jerked away when it hit the door, though. Inexperienced she might be, but my cousin packs a good bit more raw power than I do.
“Upstairs,” I said. “I’m hoping the ghouls will take a while to get through, and the vampires shouldn’t be able to come in. The rest of the castle might not be a home, but this tower is my territory.”
We stopped in the armory long enough to pick up Snowflake’s armor and some spare weapons, then kept climbing up to the roof. I walked over to the edge and spent a moment looking around, both on my own and through the boreal owl outside, but I didn’t see any more enemies in the vicinity.
We’d gotten lucky. They were dumb enough to commit all of their assets to the attack. Not that this was all that much of a surprise, given that the skinwalker was calling the shots here. He was terrifyingly powerful, not to mention flat-out evil, but he’d also struck me as deeply arrogant. I wasn’t surprised that he’d failed to have a fallback plan.
“Um,” Alexis said. “Not to cramp your style, but we’re kind of trapped up here.”
“No we aren’t,” I said. “You’re thinking like a human. There are other ways out.”
She looked at me doubtfully. “Open a portal?” she said doubtfully. “I don’t know if we have that much time.”
As if to punctuate her words, I heard the distant crash of the door being broken down far below. We still had plenty of time, though. There were another six of those doors between them and us. That should take them at least twenty minutes, and Aiko would only need ten to open a portal.
Assuming that had been the first door. Assuming I’d been correct about the vampires not being able to get in. Assuming they hadn’t brought a ram, or explosives.
Alexis was right.
“Okay,” I said. “New plan. How do you feel about flying?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “No way. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Up to you,” I said. “You want to take your chances staying here, be my guest.” Next to me, Aiko was already grinning and stripping off her armor, bundling it up neatly.
“Can you even carry that much weight?” my cousin asked. She didn’t sound confident.
“Not for long, and not steady. It’ll be more like a steep glide.” I shrugged. “I don’t have a better idea of how to get out of here. You might be okay waiting here, but I wouldn’t count on them leaving without making it up here. If nothing else, there’s a chance that they might just blow the whole building up.”
“No,” she said reluctantly, as Aiko finished stripping and turned into a fox. She jumped up on my shoulder, clinging tightly to my cloak. I grabbed the bundle of armor and weapons she’d left on the ground and put it on my back, extending the cloak into thin ropes of shadow to hold it and Aiko in place. “I’ll go with flying.”
“Okay,” I said, walking over to stand on the parapet of the tower. I scooped Snowflake up in one arm, took a moment to settle her weight, and then held my other arm out to Alexis.
I wasn’t quite sure what happened then. Maybe my foot slipped on a patch of ice. Maybe Snowflake shifted a little and I wasn’t expecting it. Maybe my injured leg picked exactly the wrong time to spasm. Maybe I got a dose of my signature bad luck, and all of that happened at once.
Whatever the reason, one of my legs went out from under me. I started to fall back, toward the empty air beyond the parapet. Alexis was standing near me and I stretched my hand out to grab her, thinking that I could still pull this off. Sure, it was a little less graceful than I’d hoped, but I’d take it. My cousin reached to grab my hand, looking scared and surprised but hopeful.
And then I remembered which hand I’d used.
My maimed, scarred fingers couldn’t exert enough of a grip to hold her, and the slick surface of my gauntlet didn’t provide enough friction for her to hold on. Her fingers slipped through mine, and then I was watching her face fall at about the same speed I did.
I couldn’t reverse my momentum, not when I was off balance and carrying probably a hundred pounds of husky and armor.
I might have been able to get back up. I could—just barely—support this much weight with air magic, at least for a few seconds. I could have held us in place and scrabbled at the edge, tried to drag us back over the lip. With Alexis helping, it might have worked.
But if it didn’t work, it would go very badly. We would be falling uncontrollably, tumbling straight down, and there was no good landing under us. I would already have spent a lot of power to hold us up trying to climb back up, and I didn’t have that much to spare. It would only take a few seconds of freefall for us to build up enough momentum to turn all three of us into smears on the ground.
I could say that it was necessary. I could say that it was the best choice available at the time. It wouldn’t even be a lie.
But in the end, what it comes down to is this. I had the choice to take a risk, or leave Alexis to her own devices on that tower, knowing that there were enemies rapidly approaching and she might not be able to get out. I had that choice, and I chose the latter.
I turned away from her, pushing out from the tower with my legs. For a long, dizzying moment the night spun around us, cold air rushing by us, and then I caught that air and used it, directing it to my own ends. I thickened it and forced it up against myself, supporting our weight and slowing our fall.
We were still falling fast, and I hadn’t been able to get as much of a leap off as I’d hoped for. I ended up diving for almost a hundred feet, eating up a good twenty percent of our height, then using body positioning and a ramp of thickened air to convert some of the speed that generated into horizontal travel.
It worked, in the sense that we started getting distance. The ground around the castle was trapped pretty heavily, and there was a definite risk of the vampires coming out to hunt us down, so farther away was better. But it also meant that we were coming in fast, and there wasn’t much open ground between the edge of the minefield and the start of the primeval woods that sprawled around our castle.
I overshot it.
We were going to hit the trees, there was nothing I could do about it, and while I diverted some of my attention to braking our forward progress, we were still going at almost highway speeds. In that sense, the trees were actually a good thing. They would slow us gradually, prevent us from hitting the ground with lethal force.
The way they would do that was more problematic, of course. But there wasn’t much I could do about that, either.
I did what I could, turning over and holding Snowflake and Aiko in front of myself. Hopefully the armor would protect me from the worst of it, and if not…well, of the three of us, if I had to choose one to get battered to death by tree branches after jumping off a tower, I’d pick me.
That was all I had time for before we hit the first of the trees, and after that there was no more room for thought.
Branches slapped at me painfully, hitting hard enough to bruise even through the armor. The metal did serve its purpose, though, keeping them away from my skin. I’d have been flayed, without it, but as it was I only had to deal with the blunt force.
Not that that was insignificant. We were pretty high up in the mountains, and most of the trees were fairly stunted, but not all of the branches were small. I saw one thick enough to bear my weight coming straight at my head, and barely managed to tuck my chin against the impact in time to avoid whiplash. It shattered on my helmet, sending us into a terrifying spin.
We hit the ground at an oblique angle, fortunately, and skidded, bouncing off of rocks and tree roots for maybe thirty feet. We would have gone farther, but I slammed into a tree, cutting our momentum short.
I collapsed on the ground, unable to think straight through the pain. Maybe twenty seconds later Aiko leaned into my field of view, dimly silhouetted against the moon. “Winter?” she said cautiously. “Are you okay?”
“Ow,” I whispered, whimpering a little at the pain that even that much vocalization caused. “I’m…alive, I guess.”
She nodded. “I’m fine, and I think Snowflake’s just got a few bruises. How bad is it?”
“Broken ribs,” I whispered. “Several. Head hurts.” I tried to push myself to my feet, tentatively, and had to bite back a scream. “Broken arm.”
She nodded again. “I’ll do the portal. We’ll get you back to Colorado to see a doctor.”
I wanted to protest, to say that we should go back and save Alexis, but what would be the point? Fighting three vampires, even three half-dead vampires, was daunting at the best of times; in my current condition, it wasn’t even a good joke. Besides, by the time we got back, they would have made it to her position if they wanted to.
There wasn’t much I could do, then. Not for her, and not for anyone else, not right now.
It was almost comfortable, being absolved of responsibility like that. I lay my aching head back on the ground, and let the world fade to black.