Several hours later, I was sitting in my throne room back in Colorado Springs. I wasn’t sitting in the actual throne—that thing was agony when I didn’t have seven broken ribs—but a suitably impressive substitute had been found, and ample cushions had been placed in it.
It was still agony to sit in. But anywhere was agony at that point, so it was something of a moot point.
In addition to the ribs, I had a cracked skull, although the doctor didn’t think it was a serious problem. I was covered in bruises, and I had a cast on my left forearm.
On the bright side, I was at least in good enough shape to be darkly amused by the luckiness of my injuries. I mean, it wasn’t like my left hand was good for much anyway.
Aiko was making arrangements to deal with the group of fae undermining Scáthach’s position, and she’d taken Snowflake with her. Brick was reporting to the Watchers. It was Kris’s day off, and the rest of the former-Inquisition mages only came in to work for me when I had a specific task I needed them for. Alexis was safe, having managed to get a portal up in time after all, but she was exhausted and currently passed out in a warded safe house in France.
At this point I was injured and alone with my housecarls, most of whom were brutal and violent, all of whom were at least a little bit psycho. If I were the sort of guy to regard others with distrust, it might almost be the sort of situation to make me a little uncomfortable.
Good thing I’m not one of those or anything.
About an hour and a half before dusk, Selene walked up to me, nodding to Sveinn on the way by. He’d taken it upon himself to stay by me while I was injured, somewhere between a servant and a bodyguard. Knowing him, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that he would adopt that role.
“Jarl,” Selene said, nodding to me in a way that wasn’t quite a bow. “Katrin has arranged payment for your services, but requests that it be picked up in person from the drop point.”
“Take care of it,” I said. “Take Tindr with you to make sure the money is right. ”
She nodded. “Understood. Also, we’ve got a confirmation on that thing in the sewers. Sounds like it’s some kind of wyvern variant. Fairly small, and not intelligent. Apparently they tend to avoid people.”
I frowned. “Still possibly dangerous, though. Send in the rest of the housecarls before you go.”
She nodded again and left. I lounged in my not-throne and waited.
Maybe five minutes later, the other four jötnar were standing in front of me, waiting for orders.
“There’s a wyvern in the sewers,” I said without preamble. “I want you to kill it, preferably without attracting any notice. Haki, you know the location?”
He nodded. Haki isn’t like Kjaran, who never spoke at all, but he still didn’t like to waste words.
“Good. Take Kjaran and Vigdis and get the job done. Kyi, I want you with them to do scout work. I think the plan we discussed earlier should work.”
Kyi perked up at that, ever so slightly, and gestured with one hand. It was a small movement, and even if someone had been looking they wouldn’t probably have noticed. Not that anyone was looking. It was Kyi, after all, and people didn’t really look at her.
I couldn’t gesture in response, not without being noticed. But I nodded, very slightly, and saw her nod in acknowledgment. The order had been conveyed.
A few minutes after that, I was alone with Sveinn. “You know,” I said, “you’re really very good at this. The vast majority of people would never have caught you.”
He looked at me in confusion. “Jarl?” he asked.
“See, that’s the problem,” I said. “Your one real mistake. Why would someone like you have come to work for me?” I gestured vaguely, and winced at the pain it caused my ribs. “The others, I get. If you’re desperate and nobody in their right mind would take you, then it makes sense for you to take a risk on a low-value employer. But you’re competent, you’re reliable, you’re sane.”
“I don’t understand.”
I sighed. “Drop the act, please. I’m aware that you’ve been less than honest with me. I know that you’re a traitor. Let’s just accept that you aren’t going to be able to bluff your way out of this and move on, shall we?”
He looked at me for a moment, then nodded. “What gave it away?” he asked curiously.
“Like I said, you’re competent. Why would you take a position with me, when you could work for basically any jarl you want?” I shrugged, wincing again. Why do I never seem to learn how to cope with an injury? “Anyway,” I said to him. “Once I realized that, I started paying a little attention. It didn’t take much to realize that someone had to be giving information about my activities to Katrin, and the only suspects were my housecarls. It wasn’t hard to narrow it down from there.”
He nodded again. “I can’t really complain,” he said. “I mean, you only caught me because I was doing my job too well. That’s not so bad.”
“Nope,” I agree. “Honestly, I really respect you for pulling it off for so long. You’re good, like I said.”
“Thank you,” he said, drawing his sword. “I would have said the same, but then you confronted me about it while we were alone. And you’re injured. That wasn’t smart.”
He took a step toward me, and suddenly an arrow sprouted from his knee, causing him to stagger. A moment later another arrow hit him in the other leg.
“Yeah,” I said, watching calmly as he fell. “About that. I think you guys can come out now.”
Kyi stepped out of the shadows near the entrance, a third arrow already nocked. A moment later Selene walked down the stairs, watching the whole thing with a kind of detached sadness.
Sveinn looked around, saw who I was talking about, and then looked at me incredulously. “You’re mad,” he said, pushing himself up to a seated position. “You trusted a demon above me?”
“Trust?” I said. “Sveinn, you’re missing the point here. Of course I don’t trust her. Selene reports everything I tell her to Coyote, and probably also to Iblis, or whoever runs the little mockup of Hell she comes from.”
“In fairness, that was never a secret,” she said, walking over to stand at my left hand. “I told you up front that was the deal.”
“Yeah, and you have no idea how grateful I am to you for being honest about it.” I saw that Sveinn still looked dumbfounded, and rolled my eyes. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go through this in order, shall we?”
I pointed at Kyi. “You,” I said, “answer to Loki. You’ve been sending monthly reports to one of his agents since you started working for me. You’ve also taken several independent contracts as a hitman.”
She blinked. “You are knowing, that I have these things done?”
“Obviously,” I said dryly. “I just don’t care. Loki’s going to know what I’m doing regardless, and you’re smart enough not to have killed anyone I care about. Oh,” I said after a moment, “and also you can drop the accent. I know you speak perfectly good English, and that shtick got annoying years ago.”
She blinked again, then nodded. “Yes, my jarl.”
“Better. Okay, what next?” I grinned. “Oh, right. Tindr keeps Skrýmir up to date on all my financial dealings. He’s also embezzled almost a million dollars from me. Vigdis is working for Hrym. Haki was sent here by the Volsung family, presumably to make sure I’m not planning to make a bid for the title. He’s also being blackmailed for information by someone else, and a few steps up the chain that information also gets to Skrýmir. At this point the only one I’m not sure about is Kjaran, and I’m not sure about anything when it comes to him.”
Sveinn considered that for a moment, then nodded again. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I respect you,” I said. “And I want to make it clear why I’m taking steps to deal with you when I haven’t with anyone else. My other housecarls might not be entirely honest, they might have other deals going on, but they’re still loyal. They do what I need done, and their side projects aren’t actually hurting me. You, on the other hand, were put here specifically to undermine my position and prevent me from maintaining stability in this city. It’s a pretty freaking important distinction.”
“Understood,” he said. “So what now?”
“I cast you out, Sveinn Wartooth. I call you a traitor. You swore loyalty to me as my housecarl, and you have broken that oath.”
“Witnessed,” Kyi called from across the room.
“Witnessed,” Selene repeated.
Sveinn glared at the succubus. “You are not a jotun,” he stated.
I smiled at him. It was the kind of smile that shows more teeth than happiness. “No,” I agreed. “But she is a member of my court, and two witnesses are all I need to expel you.”
He slumped. “Understood,” he repeated. “What happens now?”
I looked at the jotun for a moment. How much had he hurt me, I wondered? How much of my strife with Katrin could be attributed to the fact that he had generally been the go-between? How much of my difficulty keeping people in line had to do with him keeping information from me?
How much of the blame for the Inquisition’s collapse could be attributed to him?
Some. Not all, but some. And while the fault was still rightly mine—a more competent jarl would never have allowed a traitor to have such influence—that didn’t negate the portion of guilt that belonged to him.
Even a little bit of guilt is a hell of a lot when your actions lead to tens of thousands of people dying.
“The traditional punishment for a traitor is death,” I said at last. Jotun law is old-school, and there’s only one crime old Norse culture condemned as harshly as betrayal. “I don’t see much reason to lighten that sentence.”
Sveinn took a deep breath, let it out, and nodded. “Understood,” he said again. “As your housecarl, I have the right to ask that you do the deed yourself.”
“My housecarls have that right,” I agreed. Another interesting facet of jotun law; jarls are expected to do their own dirty work. “But you took that oath in bad faith. You are no housecarl of mine.”
Kyi’s arrow hit him in the nape of the neck, just above his coat of mail, and punched clean through his neck.
Sveinn hit the ground in a pool of his own blood, already dead or dying, and a knife bounced out of his sleeve. It looked and smelled like silver, and I was guessing the oily sheen to the metal was not the kind of poison a werewolf could ignore.
“Predictable,” I sighed. “Competent enough to try and get me into reach at the end, but he couldn’t see how obvious he was being about it.”
“That’s Sveinn for you,” Kyi agreed, moving closer. “Well, that was Sveinn.”
“You’re sure he’s dead?”
She shrugged, knelt down beside him, and drew a knife. A moment later she stood up, holding his head in one hand, and nodded. “I’m sure now,” she said.
“Good. When the others get back, I want you to inform them of what happened, and that you’re now the leader of my housecarls.”
“Really?” she said. “Even after I….” she trailed off and gestured vaguely.
“Sure. You know that I know about it, and you know what happens if you go further than I can overlook. I’d say that makes you a perfect choice.”
She snorted and shook her head. “There’s something broken in your head, jarl. I’m not even a fighter, not really. No one in their right mind would put me in charge of their housecarls.”
“Yes,” I said, meeting her eye. “I know. And I know that means that this is the best chance you’ll ever have of being the right-hand man of someone important. I recommend you think about that, the next time someone makes you an offer.”
She eyed me, and then knelt and bowed her head. “I am your housecarl, jarl. Whatever else may come.”
“I know. Selene, get someone in to clean this up. Thorough is more important than fast.”
She nodded. “On it. Do you have anyone in mind?”
“Not really. Maybe talk to Pellegrini’s people. I’m sure they have a cleaner on retainer. Pay them out of the operational fund.”
“Good. Kyi, I would appreciate if you would clear the room; I have business to take care of that I would rather you weren’t here for.”
She glowered at me. “Jarls do not request,” she chided. “Jarls order.”
“If you think that wasn’t,” I said dryly, “try disobeying it.”
She chuckled and left. Selene followed, off on her task. I looked at Sveinn’s body, and then looked away.
No point putting it off any longer. The situation needed to be resolved. And, as Scáthach had so helpfully reminded me, a good card is no better than a bad one if you’re too scared to play it.
“Loki,” I said aloud.
“Loki the crafty in lies, Loki the Sky-Traveler, Loki Laufeyjarson, I call you.”
Nothing continued to happen.
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, hurry up already. I know you can hear me. I want to make a deal, and I’m short on time.”
“A deal, you say?” a voice said in my ear. I startled, almost falling out of my chair, and turned to glower at him.
Then I blinked. Loki was standing at my elbow, grinning at me, and he looked pretty bizarre. His skin was greyish, his eyes were the kind of green that made you think of poison, and he was wearing what looked like an nineteenth-century businessman’s suit.
“What’s with…this?” I asked, gesturing vaguely.
“I was at a party,” he explained. “One I’d rather like to get back to. I believe you mentioned a deal?”
I made a conscious decision not to ask. “Yeah,” I said. “You owe me nine answers. I want to call one of them in.”
“Understood,” he said with a sharky smile. “Ask away.”
“Where is the sanctum of the vampire called Natalie, who was until recently the lieutenant of the vampire called Katrin Fleischer in this city?”
“I thought I told you that you didn’t need to worry that much about the phrasing,” he said dryly. “Well, in any case, I think it’s easiest to show you.”
With that warning, I didn’t stumble when the next blink found me standing, rather than seated. We were on a low hill out near the edge of the plains, looking over a small strip mall.
“There,” he said, pointing at the strip mall. “Mostly underground. The stores are a front.”
I looked at it and nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I’m not using another of my questions. But I would like a bit of clarification, the same way I did more for you than we’d agreed.”
He was still grinning at me. “You’re welcome to ask.”
“Natalie is in there?”
“Yes, at present. This is where she comes to hide from the sun.”
I nodded again. That was almost the definition of a sanctum, but it didn’t hurt to confirm. “Is there anyone else in there?”
Loki closed his eyes momentarily, then opened them and nodded. “Eight other vampires. Forty-five humans. Eleven ghouls. Twelve hounds, which you might say were built on the chassis of a dog, but they’re something much more dangerous. Aside from Natalie, there’s nobody you know.”
Wow. I’d…not really expected that she had that kind of force. I mean, nine vampires is…a lot. If Katrin was to be believed, that was at least twenty percent of the vampires in the city. Add in the human minions, the ghouls, whatever those hounds were, the skinwalker, and you had…a much more credible threat to Katrin’s position than I’d been expecting.
Could I take them?
I thought about it for almost a minute, and I couldn’t think of a way. Forty-five humans could bury me in bodies, even if they weren’t armed. I’d fought that many ghouls before and come out okay, but I’d had a lot of assistance, and I’d still relied heavily on catching them by surprise and taking them out before they realized what kind of threat I posed. And I had no idea what the hounds were capable of.
Not to mention the vampires. If even one of those were up and active, it was likely to be more than I could handle.
Maybe I could manage something. I could get my housecarls, the mages, Katrin and her forces, maybe even some assistance from Kikuchi. We could mount an assault on the place, and maybe we could take them out. But it would take time to arrange, time to assemble them, time to plan and coordinate.
I looked at the sun, hanging low over the mountains. We had, at most, an hour before sunset freed the vampires to go about their business. Once it did, I might never have an opportunity like this again.
Clearly, another avenue of attack was called for.
Luckily, I had something in mind.
“Okay,” I said, turning to Loki. “You remember that deal I mentioned? I want this place gone. I want it destroyed in a way that’s dramatic enough to make a statement, and I want to be sure that nobody escapes to cause trouble later. You do that, and I’ll forgive one of the answers you owe me.”
He made an interested sound. “No one escapes? Not even the humans?”
I frowned. What are the chances that some of the humans are innocent victims? Basically a hundred percent. There were nine vampires in there, and that meant that at least some of the humans were food.
Then again, not every human that a vampire took went against their will. There were plenty that signed up by choice, for power and the chance at eternal life. With forty-five people in there, it was almost certain that both groups were represented, which made letting them go a risk to say the least.
Not to mention the possibility that Natalie would possess one of them, the same way that the skinwalker had possessed one of the vampires. I wasn’t sure she could do something like that, but I wasn’t sure she couldn’t either, and if she could it would make the whole exercise a waste of time.
“No,” I said to Loki. “Nobody gets out. Not the humans. Nobody.”
He nodded. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “As you say,” he murmured, turning towards the strip mall. He raised one hand, and a bead of golden fire the size of a marble formed just above his palm. It flew out, disappearing from sight in a few seconds.
Loki glanced at me, looking for a reaction. I didn’t give him one. He sighed dramatically and then turned back to his work. He gestured slightly.
And then a column of golden flame a hundred feet across fountained up to the sky with a roar like a thousand engines sparking to life all at once.
I managed not to scream. I’m pretty sure I did, anyway; it’s not like I’d have heard it. But I stumbled back, raising one hand to block the light. Too late; I was already dazzled, blinking away tears.
When I could see again, I saw that the strip mall was gone. Just…wiped away, like it was never there. In its place was a circular pit maybe fifty feet deep, lined with glass. Just the same as, although a whole lot smaller than, the one that marked the center of the destruction on the north side of the city.
Not surprising. It had the same cause.
There was no collateral damage this time, at least. No other buildings were on fire. As far as I could tell none of them had been affected at all.
“There we go,” Loki said, turning to me and bowing grandiosely. “I believe that fits your criteria.”
“I can’t complain,” I said, staring at the pit. It was almost hypnotic in how clean it was. No blood. No bodies. No lingering fires. Just…gone.
“Very good,” he said with a smile two shades too sharp. “You have seven answers remaining, Winter Wolf. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a party to be getting back to.” He tipped a black tricorn hat to me and vanished.