Okay. So my situation wasn’t great. I was effectively crippled, Snowflake was probably unconscious and definitely out of commission, and there were still at least a dozen vampires up and fighting.
As I crawled, I took stock of what I still had to work with. My people had superior positioning. Katrin obviously hadn’t been prepared for me to have something like that arranged, or her minions wouldn’t have been hit nearly so hard. That meant that the vamps were going to be struggling to respond. Katrin would be able to coordinate them, I was sure, but it would take a few precious seconds.
That meant that they would just now be starting to hunt people down. My housecarls were split into groups of two, which meant that the vamps would have to split up comparably to tackle all of them at once. I was guessing they would do that rather than concentrate their forces on one at a time. Vampires tended to be rather arrogant in my experience.
The other main advantage I could think of was that Katrin couldn’t really have expected me to be back in the fight. If they were trying to hunt me down they’d already have found me, which made me think that they were probably prioritizing taking the other targets down first.
Which was the right choice, tactically. But it also put me in a position where I could potentially do some good.
The first thing I had to do was get to a position where I could see the scene of the fight, make sure that my guesses weren’t totally off. The gunfire and explosions were sure to have terrified any animals away, and I would probably need to spend several seconds going the wrong direction to lay eyes on it myself.
Fortunately I’d thought ahead. Each team of jötnar had a cat in a carrier, where it could see the target area. In addition to giving me a clear idea of where each of my teams were, it also gave me a way to see for myself what was going on.
The nearest of these cats was pressed tight against the back of the carrier, not looking in remotely the right direction. I tried to nudge it to turn so that I could see, but it was scared almost out of its mind, and not inclined to pay attention to me.
So I pushed a little hard, taking control and just moving it, until the amphitheater was in my field of view. I could see a lot of vampires, on the ground or struggling to stand. None of them were in condition to fight, and there weren’t as many as had initially shown up, which made me think that my guess about what they were doing was probably accurate.
I didn’t see Katrin or Aiko.
I let go of the cat and kept crawling, moving towards the closest group of housecarls. They were about a hundred feet away, on top of a small hill.
I paused as I went. A hundred feet wasn’t that far, but…I wasn’t running right now. I wasn’t even walking. At a crawl, it would probably take a minute or so for me to get there.
A minute was way, way too long for my people to hold out against vampires. And that wasn’t even taking the other locations into consideration.
I needed to be moving faster.
I took a deep breath and called Tyrfing. The sword appeared in my grasp, the weight a comfortable presence in my hand. I unsheathed it, setting the scabbard carefully by my side so as to avoid making a sound, and then used it as a sort of cane to push myself to my feet.
It wasn’t so much that the cursed sword made the pain go away, exactly. It was more that it just didn’t matter as much. Rage and bloodlust rushed through me from the weapon, bringing something like an endorphin rush to swamp out the pain signal from my body. The emotions called an answering impulse from within me, raging hunger and a violent, feral anger at those who had dared to violate my territory.
Normally I would have tried to fight those feelings. They came from the wolf more than the man, and under most circumstances letting them run rampant was a very bad idea. I’d gotten used to limiting the way Tyrfing affected me, locking them out, until I hardly even had to think about it.
This time I encouraged them, stoking the anger up until the pain was lost behind it.
It still hurt, and my body still wasn’t responding to my directions quite right, but I managed to stagger forward, using Tyrfing to help my balance. It wasn’t pretty, but I was moving.
I heard a shout of pain from about the right location to have come from one of my housecarls, and gritted my teeth. Those people were mine, dammit. There was no way in hell I was going to let vampires have them. I started moving more quickly, although it still wasn’t nearly as fast as I’d usually be.
A few seconds later I got a look at the hill. There was one vampire, instantly recognizable by the strange, stiff grace of its movements. Brandulfr was on the ground in front of it, with an obviously broken arm. Skallagrim was halfway up a tree nearby, out of immediate danger, but obviously not confident in his ability to shoot the vampire without hitting Brandulfr. And that tree wouldn’t mean much of anything against a vampire. The thing could probably jump high enough to hit him.
I’d wanted to get a sneak attack in, take the vamp by surprise, but it would only be seconds before it killed the downed housecarl. That necessitated certain changes in my approach.
“Hey,” I shouted, moving closer. “You didn’t really think that killed me, did you?”
The vampire glanced over its shoulder at me. Then it grinned, a wide and profoundly wrong expression that showed teeth a bit too sharp for comfort, and turned back to Brandulfr. It wasn’t carrying a weapon, but it didn’t need one.
I growled and tried to run, managing only a sort of slightly-faster shamble.
I wasn’t going to make it in time.
I stopped and lifted Tyrfing, getting ready to throw it at the vamp. It was a stupid thing to do, but I had to do something, and I couldn’t think of any other weapon I was carrying that could put it down before it had time to kill Brandulfr.
Then the vampire paused suddenly. I couldn’t see its face, but its posture looked confused.
A moment later Aiko flickered into view, standing right next to him. Her wakizashi was thrust through his neck to the hilt, sticking out the other end covered in blood. She leaned in close and whispered something in his ear, then pulled the blade back out.
The vampire dropped like a marionette with its strings cut. She’d cut through the spine entirely, apparently.
“Nice job,” I said, trying to pretend that hadn’t surprised me as much as everyone else. I kept walking forward, not leaning on Tyrfing. That wouldn’t be good for my image. “Do we know what happened to the others?”
“Kyi and Nóttolfr bolted,” Aiko said instantly. “Pretty sure they got away. The rest…I don’t know.”
“Okay,” I said. “We’re going to go check on the rest. Brandulfr, Skallagrim, you’re with us.”
The next location was an office building, currently empty. Haki and Njáll had been on the third floor, barricaded inside an empty office.
Now the door on the office was hanging open from one hinge. Njáll was lying on the ground under the window, broken in ways that not even a jotun was going to be standing up from. There was no sign of Haki.
I didn’t like that, but if there was one person on my team who could get by on his own, it was Haki. So we kept moving, looking for the next team.
Continuing around the park, it took more than a minute to find the next location. This one was a small store that had been empty for several years for reasons I wasn’t entirely clear on. Ragnar and Vigdis had been on the roof earlier to get the height they’d needed to shoot down into the crowd. From the sound of things, though, they’d since moved down into the main room of the store, and they were still fighting.
I froze, startled, then rushed into the building.
The interior of the building was a striking tableau. Three vampires were on the ground, each marked with damage from the bullets and explosives, then decapitated. Vigdis was lying next to the door, her right leg snapped like a toothpick just below the knee. Ragnar was still standing, holding a broken spear, which he was using to fight against the last vampire still standing.
The vamp was missing its left arm near the shoulder, and the other injuries were severe enough that it could hardly stand. And it was still obviously, easily more than a match for the jotun. He was feinting with the spear, keeping it at bay, but there was no question of who would win.
I didn’t say a word, just stepped up behind the thing and swung Tyrfing, aiming to chop its head clean off. It heard something and dodged at the last second, so rather than kill it, I cut deep into its right shoulder.
Not lethal, but still pretty decent. Now both its arms were effectively useless.
That’s what I thought, anyway. I was swiftly proved wrong as it spun, not seeming to care about the injury, and slapped me in the chest.
It couldn’t put more than a small fraction of its full strength behind the blow, but then, I wasn’t in much better shape. Even that weak of a hit was enough to knock me from my feet.
The others were filing in the door, though, and the vampire was seriously outnumbered. It turned, looking at what was happening, then tried to bolt for the door.
Vigdis’s hand around its ankle brought it up short. The giant had to be in terrible pain, but she held tightly enough that even vampire couldn’t jerk away easily, and she was grinning wildly.
Ragnar lunged forward, trying to impale the thing on his spear. He succeeded, sort of, but apparently he missed the heart, because it didn’t even slow down. It didn’t even turn to face him as it lashed out, kicking him in the chest.
Ragnar flew backward, his feet coming an inch or two off the ground, and hit the wall. He dropped, instantly, and I was guessing he was out of the fight. Maybe permanently; that was a hell of a kick.
Vigdis took the opportunity to tug his supporting foot out from under the vamp, toppling it. That put it on the floor not far from me. I grabbed the spear sticking out of its chest and started pushing, trying to shove it further into the thing and get the heart.
The reaction was instant and violent. It had been trying to stand, but once I grabbed the spear it gave up on that and started scrabbling away from me on the ground.
It had only three limbs, one of which was basically nonfunctional, and poor leverage, so it made only limited progress. A moment later Vigdis let go of its ankle and moved up, pushing against its back and shoving it into the spear.
The vamp went berserk, bucking against me, kicking out and hitting me with its remaining arm. I gritted my teeth and shoved the spear another inch into the thing.
The vampire screeched, a sound more like metal tearing than a human scream, loud enough to hurt my ears. I ignored the pain, braced myself as best I could in such an awkward position, and pushed.
The vampire bucked one more time, almost throwing me off completely, then went still. I pushed myself slowly to my feet, still holding the spear, and looked at what I’d done.
The vampire was lying on the ground, perfectly still, blood trickling from its mouth. I’d shoved that spear clear through its body and an inch into Vigdis’s breast on the other side. She didn’t seem to care about that injury, any more than the broken leg. She just kept right on grinning at me, wild and ecstatic.
Skallagrim grabbed one of Vigdis’s axes off the floor and brought it over without any hesitation. He glanced at me to make sure it was okay, then brought it down, chopping the vamp’s head clean off.
I felt woozy standing up, almost so much so that I couldn’t, even leaning on Aiko. When I looked around, the rest of the crew didn’t look much better. Brandulfr had a broken arm, and Vigdis wasn’t going to be standing on that leg any time soon. Ragnar was unconscious, and even if he weren’t that kick had shattered several ribs, apparently driving them into his lung.
A normal human would very probably have died from that already. Jötnar were tougher, but whether Ragnar was tough enough to survive this was not at all certain.
“Okay,” I said, and then stopped to cough. I was a little surprised by how much it hurt; I couldn’t even see straight, and I had to lean heavily on Aiko to stay standing. Apparently some of my ribs were cracked, too. I didn’t want to think too much about what might have happened without the armor. Grappling with a vampire wasn’t high on my list of things to do again. “Where are the rest of us?”
“Watching from the roof, it looked like almost everyone made it to the shelter,” Vigdis said. “We were farther away and they’d already sent some vamps after us, so we thought it’d be better to hunker down here.”
“Shelter,” I said. “You mean the basement we prepped?”
“That’s the one,” she said.
I sighed with relief at that. I’d done what I could to prepare for this, but I hadn’t had much warning. The closest thing I’d been able to arrange to a decent fallback position was the basement of a nearby house. For reasons I couldn’t even really guess at, he’d converted his basement into a tornado shelter. I’d had my people reinforce the door as best they could, and sent Jimmy and Aubrey to set up some basic wards.
It wasn’t great, as fortresses went. The best I could really hope for was that the vampires would think it was more work than it was worth. But it was the best I’d been able to arrange on such short notice.
“You stay here,” I said to the housecarls. “Aiko and I will go check on the scene there.” I didn’t like leaving them there, but there was no way Vigdis or Ragnar could travel. This building was reasonably defensible, and Katrin had already sent four vampires to clear it. With luck, she wouldn’t bother throwing more at the job. And if not, well, Brandulfr, Skallagrim, and Vigdis were still in shape to fight, sort of. I’d give them even odds against one vampire. Against more than one, I’d lose at least one housecarl, maybe all four.
Not great. But probably better odds than if they came with us.
The five blocks to the shelter were among the hardest in my life. I could barely walk, it hurt to breathe, and I was terrified that a swarm of vampires would fall on us at any moment. It didn’t help that Aiko had seen where Snowflake fell, and we detoured to pick her up.
I’d seen her injured as badly before, but very seldom. Her shoulder was shattered, as were a couple of her ribs, and I thought her skull might be cracked. In any case, she was definitely unconscious, and to my magic it felt like she was more unconscious than usual. It was like, if the usual feeling of her being knocked out was a phone that was playing a dial tone instead of her voice, this time the phone wasn’t even plugged into the wall.
A crappy metaphor, especially when I couldn’t even remember the last time I used a landline. But it was the best I could come up with.
I wasn’t sure how Aiko managed it, given that she was carrying Snowflake and holding a lot of my weight up as well. I only really straightened up again when we reached the house in question.
The basement-turned-shelter had a separate entrance, a heavy steel door set in the ground. Runes cut crudely into the metal acted as the focus of the warding spells, and I knew that there were several steel bars hastily welded to it to help hold it closed. A vampire could probably batter their way through it, given enough time, but not casually.
Luckily, there were no vampires nearby. Apparently Katrin had been confident that the minions she left behind were enough to get the job done, and she hadn’t thought that getting the rest of the housecarls out of this shelter was worth the effort.
I looked around for a few seconds and then cut a branch off a nearby tree with Tyrfing. I used the branch to tap on the door. The pattern was simple enough that I didn’t need to worry about messing it up, but complex enough that an aggressor was unlikely to get lucky and guess it.
There was a brief pause before I heard the locks, bars, and chains being undone. A moment later the door opened a crack and Kyi stuck her head out. “You made it,” she said, with some relief.
“Yeah,” I said. Looking inside it seemed like all the rest of the housecarls were here. Even Haki had made it, though I wasn’t sure how he’d been able to cross the entire park on his own after his partner was killed by a vamp.
“Almost all of us made it,” Aiko said. “Now it’s time to start thinking about how to get back at them for this betrayal.”
I nodded and sat down, leaning against the house. Katrin’s betrayal, if you could even call it that, had been inevitable and entirely predictable. Now that we’d gotten through it, I could finally slap her down for good without worrying about taking a hit to my rep.
Maybe after a nap. A nap sounded good.