Before any of the vampires could do much in the way of moving, things started blowing up.
They were freakishly strong, almost invulnerable, and possessed of bizarre powers that I really couldn’t even guess at. But at the end of the day, they were still meat. There were certain rules they had to follow.
When land mines started going off under their feet, they were about as helpless as anyone else. The sheer force of the explosions tossed them around like rag dolls, bodies flying ten feet or more into the air before falling back to the ground.
They weren’t dead, barring unlucky exceptions. It took a lot to kill a vampire, and while explosions were a good way to get the job done, these particular weapons hadn’t been intended to kill them.
What they did do was sow chaos and confusion, making it pretty hard for them to actually do much. Even the ones that hadn’t been sent flying were falling to the ground, screaming in surprise or pain, if they were alive enough to feel pain. The things were horrifically strong and tough, but they were still meat, and they couldn’t operate well with half their bones broken, or muscles torn to pieces by shrapnel.
Kyi had had enough time to remove the mines closest to us from the detonation pattern, so we weren’t at risk of the same fate. The impact was still enough to knock Aiko from her feet, and Snowflake and I staggered hard.
A moment later, before anyone really had a chance to recover or adapt, the gunfire started. I couldn’t really hear it—I was effectively deaf from the explosions—but I knew the plan, and I could see the results. This wasn’t precision shooting with a sniper rifle; that kind of thing wasn’t a great tactic for vampires, and the housecarls weren’t exactly precision shooters, either. The weapons they were using were more crude, designed to just inflict mass damage. Automatic weapons, shotguns, that sort of thing.
Most of them just trained their weapons on the crowd of vamps and pulled the trigger. That kind of spray-and-pray tactic wasn’t effective, but there were around ten of them shooting into a massed group of enemies. Even if one bullet out of ten actually hit a target, it was still inflicting damage, putting enemies down.
The handful that were actually competent—Kyi, Brandulfr, a couple of others to a lesser degree—were using the same weapons, but with a very different intent. They were aiming mostly at the vamps closer to us, they were aiming carefully, and they were shooting to kill.
It’s hard to kill a vampire. It’s even harder to get the job done with a gun. Guns are good at killing, but the way they typically get used doesn’t lend itself well to vamps. But if you know what you’re doing, and these guys did, it can be done. I’d seen videos of assault rifles being used to cut down trees; cutting off someone’s head wasn’t out of the question with sustained fire. Similarly, a couple well-placed shotgun blasts could pulp someone’s heart or brain well beyond what a stake could manage.
When those attacks put vamps down, not all of them got back up again.
Those closest to us had started to react, though, rushing towards us at speeds considerably greater than what I could manage. Running was out of the question. Snowflake could probably get away. If I were on four feet, I’d even give myself decent odds. But there was no way Aiko could move fast enough, and her magic wasn’t remotely strong enough to hide from a vampire.
So I did the next best thing. I drew Tyrfing, and I charged right at them.
I felt a few bullets hit me as I did so, either ricochets, missed shots, or bullets that had passed clean through their target and kept going to hit me. Most of them didn’t penetrate the armor, and the couple that did didn’t do any critical damage. Not right away, at least; bullet wounds could be tricky that way. But I was fine for the moment, and that was all that mattered right now.
I ran straight at them for about three steps. Then I threw Tyrfing at them. I didn’t bother trying to aim. The objective wasn’t to cut them, after all.
Then I forced power through the focus I’d built into the boots of my armor, thickening and controlling the air underneath them. It was very challenging to do it at full speed—turning it on and off in time with my steps, when I was sprinting as fast as I could—but I’d practiced it. I’d practiced a lot.
It was strenuous, not unlike sprinting up a very steep staircase, except that I also had to create the staircase. It was a massive physical, mental, and energetic strain, and I knew that I couldn’t keep it up for long.
But by the time I reached the leading group of vampires, I was twenty feet above their heads, maybe a little more. They could easily have jumped and caught me, but they were still trying to adjust. I’d kept this facet of my abilities very quiet, specifically so that people and Katrin wouldn’t know I could sort of mimic flight. Between that, the mines, the gunfire, and Tyrfing, they didn’t react in time as I ran right over their heads, dropping a pair of grenades as I passed.
When they detonated an instant later it knocked me out of the air, sending me tumbling to the ground. It was a hard fall, hard enough to stun me for a moment.
That left me on the ground in the middle of a crowd of hostile vampires, but in an odd way that was actually the best place I could be. I was lying under the gunfire, for the most part, and in the chaos they weren’t able to really make use of their advantageous position.
Then I called Tyrfing again, and swept it in a circle around myself, at around knee height. It sheared through flesh and bone, and vampires hit the ground all around me, crying out. I was swamped by the rush of dark, foul-smelling blood. There was no real force behind a vampire’s blood—no heartbeat—but I’d just cut off their legs, and even without pressure that translated to a lot of bleeding.
There was another explosion, although I could only dimly hear it. A grenade, most likely. A moment later Snowflake burst through the crowd to my side. Her metallic teeth were stained with that same dark blood, her eye was bright with excitement, and her lips were peeled back in a snarl that I couldn’t hear.
I could really get to hate this reliance on guns and explosives. They were potent, but being effectively deafened for minutes at a time was a pain in the ass.
And then, a moment later, I found myself being grabbed by the neck and hauled into the air. I tried to struggle, but I might as well not have bothered. The person lifting me was stronger than me, in the same sense that I was stronger than a puppy. I might as well have been trying to overpower a locomotive as outmuscle them.
Katrin lifted me up until my face was on a level with hers. She was tall and I wasn’t, so my feet were dangling a couple of inches above the ground. I could breathe, barely—the armor was limiting the compression on my throat, and she wasn’t really squeezing. But it’s pretty much impossible to have much in the way of strength when you don’t have anything to push against. I supposed that I could try to use Katrin herself as an anchor, but that seemed like a spectacularly bad idea.
She looked at me coldly, seeming completely oblivious to the ongoing hail of gunfire, to her minions screeching and dying all around. “You,” she said, “are an exceedingly irksome man.” She must have been almost screaming, for me to hear her clearly, but her face remained blank and calm.
I opened my mouth to reply, and then I felt something, a surge of emotion that wasn’t mine. It took a second to process and figure out what was happening, by which time it was too late. Snowflake leapt through the air, jaws spread wide, claws ready to rake and tear.
And the vampire swatted her out of the air with one hand.
Snowflake was tough and strong and usually smarter than that. But she was still a dog, and not even a particularly large dog. Even with the armor, she couldn’t weight more than about two hundred pounds, max. And she didn’t have anything to push against either, which made it a matter of pure mass and velocity.
When Katrin hit her, she flew. Literally flew, twenty feet or more, out of sight. At the same time, I completely lost contact with her. My magic just suddenly stopped telling me that she was there, at all.
Before I had time to think about what that meant, Katrin threw me in the opposite direction. It almost felt like I was falling, the same wild and uncontrollable movement, and just about as fast. I was horizontal in the air and spinning, the world flashing before my eyes too quickly for me to take it in.
I’d felt a lot of kinds of pain in my life. There was the pain of having your eye melted out of its socket by magical fire. There was the pain of being crucified with silver spikes. There was the pain of broken bones and crushed organs.
The pain I felt then was easily on a par with the worst I’d ever felt, a solid bar of agony from one end of my body to the other. It hurt so much that I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t even really breathe.
I’m pretty sure I blacked out for a couple of seconds after that. Once I was cognizant of my surroundings again, I realized that I was lying face-down on concrete. I tried to roll over and look around, and this time I almost did scream. And all I really managed was to flop around a little. My body wasn’t responding the way I wanted it to.
Biting my tongue to keep from making any more noise than I had to, I tried again, and again. By the time I managed it I was sweating hard, I felt like I was about to throw up, and my tongue was bleeding.
And it was still a relief. For a second there, I’d been genuinely terrified that my back was broken.
Lying there, I took a few seconds to think, trying to figure out what had happened and what I should do. As far as I could tell, I’d slammed flat on my back into a brick wall, then fell to the ground. My spine wasn’t actually broken, but I’d still taken some serious damage. Broken ribs, a spectacular amount of bruising, probably some internal damage. It was hard to say for sure.
I tried to stand, and couldn’t. Everything hurt, my coordination was shot, and my balance wasn’t much better. I could maybe have gotten on my feet, but I didn’t know how long I could stay there, and I was scared that another fall would knock me out for good, leaving me helpless at a time when I really couldn’t afford to be.
So I rolled back onto my stomach, gathered my cloak around myself for a little bit more concealment, and started crawling back in the direction I’d come. I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I got there, but I’d be damned if I just let this happen.