“I’m sorry,” I said. “For a lot of things, I guess, but mostly because I wasn’t here when you needed me to be. The rest of it I can mostly make excuses for. That one is…it’s harder.”
I hadn’t expected a response, and I didn’t get one. I started to reach out to touch her, but my hand fell back to my side without touching fur. Snowflake’s condition was still delicate enough that a careless touch might cause serious damage. The doctors hadn’t even wanted me to be in the same room with her, but they hadn’t really tried to keep me out. Probably they’d known better.
“They tell me you’re completely out,” I continued, not looking directly at her. “Can’t hear a word I’m saying. They’re good at what they do, and my life isn’t storybook enough for you to be awake in there and this whole thing to just be a bad dream or whatever. So I guess I’m mostly talking to myself here.” I snorted. “You know, in case I wasn’t crazy enough already.”
I risked another glance at Snowflake, and promptly looked away again. There was something profoundly wrong about seeing a husky lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to the tubes and wires associated with life support. It was surreal, in the worst way.
When that husky was Snowflake? That was worse. That was so much worse.
“Anyway,” I continued, injecting some forced cheer into my voice. “Kimiko’s still alive, I hear, which is some consolation. I don’t know if she’s going to stay that way. I mean, I saw how deep those claws went, and I smelled it when I was getting her out of there. She’s got shit in her blood, literally, and that’s the kind of thing you don’t come back from. But Kikuchi knows a doctor who he seems to think can handle it, so she’ll probably be fine.”
Unlike you. I didn’t say it, and she couldn’t hear it, but it was all I could think of.
“The neurosurgeon had a tricky time adjusting to working on a dog,” I said. I felt like I was about to cry, but my voice was even more cheerful than before. I wasn’t sure why I bothered pretending, when I was the only one who could hear me. Maybe it just made it feel less real. “But apparently the basic work was the same, so he could handle it all right. Apparently you’re stable, so unless something goes really badly wrong you aren’t about to die. That’s good news, right?”
Still no answer, no matter how much I wanted there to be.
“The bad news,” I said, more quietly now, “is that none of them seem to think you’re going to wake up. They don’t come right out and say it, but they make sure I know they’re thinking it. You aren’t waking up, or if you do, you won’t be you. You’ll be missing things. Basic functions, personality traits, memories. You.”
For several seconds the only sounds came from the gentle whir and hum of machinery. Monitors, ventilators, intravenous tubes and God knew what else. I wasn’t even sure what half of the machines were supposed to be doing.
“I’m not going to let that happen,” I said.
The words sounded casual. They weren’t. The rest of what I’d said had been at least partially intended for Snowflake, on the off chance that she wasn’t quite as comatose as they thought she was.
But that last line? That was for me.
I was not going to let that happen. To hell with the price.
I sat in that little room and listened to the machines for another five minutes or so, then stood and left.
I pulled my phone out and dialed a number from memory. “Any news?” I asked the moment they picked up.
“Plenty,” Selene said. “Have you gotten any sleep?”
“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “Tried a while ago, but I wasn’t going to get any rest, so I got back up.”
“You’re just making it worse when you finally crash,” she said disapprovingly.
“Honestly, if I live long enough for that to be a concern I’ll be pretty happy. Now. News?”
“Right,” she said, and I could almost see her grabbing her notebook to read out of. Except that Selene didn’t need notes; if her memory wasn’t perfect, it was close enough to fool me. “You remember the mage that contacted us a while ago? Guy named Jack?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I told you to set up a meeting, right?”
“That’s the one. Well, I just finalized the meeting. Three hours from now, at Pryce’s. Does that still work for you?”
“Sure, fine,” I said absently, getting into the car. I was driving my SUV right now, since the armored truck was still out of commission and there was no way in hell I was driving a limousine. Selene had wanted to send me with a chauffeur, but I’d put my foot down at that. There was too much work to be done right now to tie up one of the housecarls on driving me around. “Next?”
“Next,” she said. “The werewolves reported in. Apparently they think they’ve tracked the vampires down to their lair, or at least to a lair. Some fancy house on the north side of the city, according to the selkie.”
“All right,” I said, glancing at the sky. Sunset was getting close, not immediate, but close enough that we’d have to push to get anything meaningful done before night. And I really didn’t want to attack a vampire lair in the night.
But I also didn’t want to give them another night to attack me. And I might not have another chance to take them out in the daytime. My twenty-four hour reprieve from Blind Keith was set to end just after dawn, and I wasn’t going to count on him giving me a second longer than I’d bargained for.
“All right,” I said again, more firmly. “I’m going to go clean out that lair. Send some of the housecarls to meet me. Kyi, Vigdis, and whoever they think is a good fit.”
“You got it, Boss,” she said. “Give ’em hell.”
Even knowing what I did, it was hard to believe this was the secret lair of the vampires that had been causing me so many problems for so long.
“You’re sure?” I asked quietly, looking at the small semi-detached house. It looked so innocuous.
Kyra barked. Everything about her, her tone, her posture, it all indicated extreme confidence. If the vampires hadn’t gone into that building, they’d done a really spectacular job of setting up the fake. Theoretically they thought they’d killed me, which made putting that kind of work into setting up a trap a pretty extreme thing to do.
Not that I had any intention of taking chances. Once Kyra had confirmed it, I signaled the housecarls, and they started carrying boxes over to the house. They set the boxes down at regular intervals around the walls, fiddled with them a bit, then walked back to the semi for more boxes. Vigdis threw rocks at several of the second-floor windows, hard enough to shatter them, and then followed them up with slightly smaller boxes.
After a few minutes, the housecarls stopped and moved back to where I was sitting with Aiko and Kyra. A human I employed but didn’t recognize in the least got into the semi and drove away, moving fast and not looking back.
Kyi handed me a remote control with a twisted smile. “Whenever you’re ready, jarl,” she said.
I looked at the remote. It was very simple, just a black box with one big red button. The button was covered by a plastic shield. This was not the kind of button you wanted to push by accident.
Were there people in there other than vampires? Almost certainly, I thought. I had an idea of how vampires operated, and one of the big things was that they were extremely vulnerable in the daytime. And they knew it, and they hated it. For beings who were otherwise so incredibly powerful, the idea of being utterly helpless to defend themselves against their enemies had to be a sore spot the likes of which I could hardly imagine.
So they took steps to mitigate that vulnerability. Traps were obvious, but sometimes you needed something more than just an automated response.
And that meant minions. I wasn’t sure just what form those minions would take, although I could make some guesses. There would be humans, both as servants and as food. There would be augmented creatures, things that resembled mortal creatures but were invested with power by the vampires, making them more dangerous. And there would be some hirelings, ghouls or low-ranking fae, something like that.
Minions. That was all I really needed to know. Some of them probably deserved to die, some of them probably didn’t, and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do to sort the one from the other. Not without taking a hell of a lot of risks.
In a lot of ways, it was the same choice I’d been faced with infiltrating the rakshasas’ lair, or attacking Natalie way back when. I had to weigh the certainty of killing some innocents against the risk of much, much greater harm.
And, in the end, I knew that I was going to make the same choice I’d made those times.
I flipped the shield up and pushed that big red button.
These weren’t the same as the explosives I’d used on the rakshasas. Those had been military-grade plastic explosives provided by a major crime lord. I didn’t have his connections, and I hadn’t wanted to purchase more from him. The last batch had been enough of a strain on my funds, to say nothing of the risk of lowering his opinion of me. If I had to rely on Pellegrini for more than very occasional assistance, he wouldn’t have much reason to tolerate me.
Fortunately, while I didn’t have his network of criminal contacts, I did have some connections of my own. I owned, through various shell companies and aliases, a variety of companies throughout the city, and I had shares in a lot more. One of the ones I owned outright was a construction company that did a lot of demolition work. They were actually more regional than local, but Tindr had ensured that they had a warehouse in the city, giving me ready access to construction supplies.
And, more importantly for my present purposes, access to demolition supplies. Including explosives.
When I hit that button, the charges went off. I was sitting a couple hundred feet away, but the force was still enough to push me back, and even with my ears plugged and muffed the sound was painfully loud. It wasn’t just the explosion, although that was loud as hell. On top of that, though, there was the sound of shattering glass, breaking wood and bricks.
And screaming. There was some of that too.
I watched with a sort of horrified fascination as the building suddenly tilted to the side. The explosions had been precisely calibrated to damage the building, destroy a lot of it and probably kill the people inside, but not actually collapse it.
Even the most precisely arranged demolitions charges weren’t exactly surgical instruments, and some of the nearby buildings were also damaged, some of them quite badly. We’d evacuated them beforehand, but it was still pretty devastating to whoever happened to live in those buildings. Their whole lives, just wiped away.
And the worst part?
I’d do it again without a second thought.
“Come on,” I said, once the dust had settled. I got out of the car and glanced at the sky one more time, confirming that we still had time. It was hard to say exactly how much time, since “dusk” was a measurement with a certain amount of room for error, but I was guessing we had at least half an hour, at most twice that.
The housecarls fell in behind me as I walked up to the door. It had been left untouched by the blast, deliberately. That way I could kick it open and stride inside. It looked more badass than just stepping inside.
That sounded like a small thing, but it wasn’t. I had my housecarls here, and I knew for a fact that there were a ton of people watching, Innocent bystanders, people we’d evicted, spies and members of other factions, they were all watching. If I came across as a badass, as someone they’d rather not cross, that was another brick on the wall.
I walked inside with Tyrfing out in my hand, watching for any movement. Many of the interior walls were sagging oddly, the studs and drywall shattered, but things were stable. Mostly.
I wondered idly whether blowing the place up first had really been a good idea. I was starting to have my doubts.
We’d been inside for less than thirty seconds when I heard a doorknob rattling to the left. I walked that way and found the door in question, a solid oak door barred from the outside. I chopped through the bar and pulled it open, revealing an emaciated looking man. “Thank God,” he said. “You have to get me out of here.”
I stepped inside. I hadn’t sheathed Tyrfing.
He noticed. “Hey,” he said, backing away from me now. “Hey, man, I’m innocent. I didn’t do anything! They just kidnapped me, and…you’ve gotta get you out of here, man! I’m innocent!”
“Probably,” I agreed. “But I don’t have a way to tell for sure, and I can’t take the chance. Not with half a million lives riding on it.”
Tyrfing lashed out and took his head off in a heartbeat. It was as quick and painless and merciful as I could arrange. It was still very lethal.
“No survivors,” I said quietly, turning back to the housecarls. They looked back at me impassively. The only exception was Vigdis, who grinned like a kid in a candy shop.
There was a reason that I’d asked for her by name. The other housecarls were soldiers, and they could be brutal, but they still had limits. They had honor, and morals, even if they didn’t line up well with most of humanity’s.
Vigdis, though? She only understood morals as something that other people had, and even that was a vague conception.
I watched as they scattered, moving through the house to look for anything still moving or a way downstairs. I didn’t for a moment believe that the vampires were aboveground during the day.
“Pretty brutal,” Aiko commented. “Killing everyone like this.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s the point. Do it like this, the next person that thinks about challenging me remembers this and changes their mind. Somebody that will do this is somebody you don’t want to fuck with.”
“That’s cold,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
On my other side, Kyra whined quietly and pressed against me, butting her head against my thigh. I dropped one hand and scratched her ears absently.
It felt good, in a way, to have here there. To have a friend there. I loved Aiko, but at the same time she was tied up in this, the violence and the magic and the ugliness. Our relationship had started with blood and death, and for all that I loved her there would always be that element of darkness to it.
I loved Aiko, and she loved me, but at the same time, she’d fallen in love with Fenris’s child, a man who walked hand in hand with monsters and left death and destruction in his wake.
Kyra, though, knew me back when I was just…well, me. It felt oddly comforting to have her there with me as I took the next step away from that person, and into the person I was becoming.
Nothing else was said as we waited for the housecarls to finish their work. It only took a few minutes for them to start returning to the room where we were waiting. Most of them were stained with blood. None of it was theirs.
“Found a staircase hidden in the closet,” Kyi said. Her hands and clothing were clean, but that didn’t mean much for Kyi. She was an assassin at heart, and it’s a clumsy assassin that gets blood on herself.
“Good,” I said. “Let’s do this.”
The staircase had been hidden behind stacks of folded laundry, and it was opened by a hidden switch. I wasn’t sure how Kyi had managed to find it, but I didn’t ask. It didn’t matter, and it was better for my image if I seemed to already know.
The staircase was narrow and steep, totally unlit. Most of the housecarls had headlamps, though, which was good enough for us. None of us needed as much light as a human. At the end of the staircase was another door, not unlike that on a werewolf safe room. This, though, was meant to serve a very different purpose. It kept things out, rather than in.
I eyed it for a few moments, then stepped up and drew Tyrfing again. I chopped through the hinges, then through the lock, and kicked it as hard as I could.
The door weighed close to five hundred pounds, I was guessing, so it didn’t fly through the air or anything. But I did knock it out of the frame, and when it hit the ground, it was loud. That was good enough for me.
Stepping over it, I saw a group of people standing up from a table across the room. It looked we’d caught them in the middle of dinner, and maybe a game of poker as well.
I didn’t wait to see what they would do, just pulled another stored spell out of my cloak and threw it at them. This one was more traditional, a simple, high-energy fire spell.
They burned. They burned hot and fast. People were screaming, several of them dropping to the ground and rolling in an attempt to put it out, but it wasn’t working. This was more like napalm than normal fire, and nothing that simple was going to stop it. One person tried to run. Kyi shot him in the leg with an arrow before he’d made it three steps, and he hit the ground like the rest of them.
It was only a few seconds before the screaming and moving stopped, and the fires were just burning peacefully. I walked forward without hesitation, gathering cold to myself until Aiko and Kyra were shivering just from my presence. The fires died as I came close to them, deprived of the heat they needed to keep burning.
I decapitated one of the bodies with Tyrfing as I passed, to make sure he was dead and as a statement. The housecarls followed suit as they passed the corpses, ensuring that each one really was a corpse.
The vampires were in the next room. To my amusement, they weren’t in coffins, but rather lying on expensive, antique beds. It made sense, I supposed.
I was just glad they were really here. To have done all this and have it be a false alarm…I didn’t want to think about that.
There were fifteen vampires in that room. I removed the first one’s head with a single stroke, then stabbed it through the heart. There was no reaction at all, but presumably it was dead for good now. We’d take the corpses with us when we left, just in case. I was planning to burn them, mix the ashes with salt and have them blessed by several priests each, and then scatter them widely. Overkill, maybe, but from what I’d seen overkill wasn’t even a meaningful term when it came to vampires.
Kyi, Aiko, and Kyra all stood with me and watched as the rest of the housecarls finished the job, decapitating each of the vampires in turn and stacking the bodies in the middle of the room like cordwood. They did the job quickly and efficiently, until the only vampire left was the one on the largest bed, set on a small dais.
I approached that one myself. This was their leader, evidently, and that meant it was my job to handle it. Image, again. This vampire was female, not Katrin, unfortunately, but apparently one of her high-ranking lieutenants, if she had this many vampires under her command.
She was also awake, at least a little, watching my approach with milky eyes. I didn’t think she could move, really, but she was clearly aware of her surroundings. We’d waited a little too long, maybe. Or maybe she was just stronger than the rest. I’d always suspected that the strongest vampires were more inconvenienced than actually incapacitated by the sunlight.
“You’re a monster,” she said. Her voice was a dry rasp, a mockery of what a voice was supposed to sound like. She sounded accusatory, and I thought she might know exactly what I’d done. She might very well have been watching this whole time, by one means or another.
I smiled a broken, ghastly smile. I was just as glad that no one could see it under the helmet. It was bad enough to feel that expression on my face.
“I am what you made me,” I said, still smiling.
Tyrfing came down one more time, and I turned away from the body.