Having never been to Russia before, I was a little disappointed by how little difference there was between it and Colorado. Brick’s portal dumped us out onto an open plain near a river, with a conifer forest to the other side. The environment was actually quite a lot like the subalpine forests outside of town.
There was a small cluster of tents by the river, and it was towards these that Brick headed, not checking to see whether we were following him. I did, because there wasn’t really much point in doing otherwise at this point, and everyone else followed me.
Aiko was there, of course—I hadn’t even tried to suggest that she might stay behind—and Anna had come along to provide me with vision. Kyi had to stay behind to manage things, but I’d brought several of the other housecarls, especially those who weren’t that well suited to city fighting. They were more useful here, I thought.
No mages, though. If the Conclave’s entire force couldn’t deal with this, the handful I could convince to come with me weren’t likely to manage it.
Anna could smell smoke well before we reached the small camp, thick with the smell of the pines and spruces it had come from. Moving closer, I could see the small details that hinted at how serious the situation was. The tents were the highest-quality models money could buy, but all were soiled, and many were torn, or set up improperly. People were eating, but they were eating what looked like old MREs, the sort of food that could keep you alive for a while, but didn’t have much else to recommend it. Most of them were injured, and almost all were downing pills as they ate. The few who weren’t eating were either tending to injuries or unconscious in the tents.
Everywhere, there was an air of urgency. There was no conversation, and everyone was moving quickly, like they couldn’t afford to waste even a second.
Brick walked through the midst of it all without even looking. The rest of us attracted a few curious looks from various people, but they went back to what they were doing after only a couple of seconds. These people were just too exhausted to work up much interest.
We made our way to a slightly larger open tent near the river, almost a pavilion. There were people running back and forth from this tent, holding scraps of paper or carrying bags. These people, too, looked worn and broken down.
Watcher was sitting at a small table within the tent, her cane leaning against her chair. As each person came in, she took the paper they handed to her or listened to spoken messages, considered each for no more than five seconds, then replied.
Brick made his way to her through the press without any evidence of concern for the people he displaced. I followed in his wake, feeling a little overwhelmed. I had seen some fairly large conflicts in the past, but nothing this long-term. Normally, by the time I was anywhere near to as worn out as these people were, the fight had been over for a while.
“Wolf,” Watcher said, not looking up from the paper in her hand. I wasn’t sure how she could read it, considering that her eyes were very much blind and she used magic to compensate, but apparently she could. “This is all you brought?”
“I had to leave people behind to keep my territory secure,” I said defensively. “And besides, I don’t know what you’re fighting out here. How am I supposed to know who’s useful?”
She grunted. “Everyone’s useful right now,” she said darkly. “But I take your point. Your associates are physical fighters, I take it?”
“Primarily, although one of them is a shapechanger and another has some magical ability. We’ve got quite a few weapons, too—guns, explosives, stored spells, that sort of thing.”
“Right,” she said. “We’ll want them on the front lines then.” She scrawled a quick note on a piece of paper and handed it to the runner who she’d been dealing with when we walked up. “Take that to Raven,” she ordered him. “Then go to Jäger and ask him where he wants a squad of skilled and equipped physical combatants.”
The runner nodded and sprinted off, stumbling a little before he hit his stride. I was guessing he was also functioning only due to massive amounts of chemical assistance. Take away his stimulants, and he’d probably be down for the count.
“I notice you aren’t fighting,” I said. “Why? You’re one of the strongest mages in the world, right?”
Watcher smiled grimly. “We’re trading off,” she said. “I fought yesterday and the day before. Today is my rest day before I go in again. Right now Guard and Prophet are keeping him busy. Keeper, Arbiter, and Maker are trying to establish a wall to keep him from getting any closer to Saint Petersburg. We haven’t been able to lock him down yet, but hopefully we can keep him going the path of least resistance, and he won’t make it to the city. If he does, we might not be able to bring him down at all.”
“Okay,” I said. “Overlooking the fact that it apparently takes five members of the Conclave just to keep him contained…who is this guy? Why’s he such a problem?”
She reached under the table and pulled out a paperback book. It looked like it had been manufactured in a hurry, with smeared ink on the cover and the binding applied at a wonky angle. “Viktor Samsonov,” she said, handing the book to me. “Here’s the dossier. Don’t waste time reading it right now.”
“All right,” I said, taking it. “What should I be doing instead?”
“We need people to pick up less mobile assets and bring them here,” she said. “You and anyone with you who can open a portal should report to Celina Cateye. Brick can show you where to go.” Watcher waved another messenger up, and we walked away.
“She’s pretty energetic for someone who’s been working for three days straight,” Aiko commented.
Brick snorted. “She’s on modafinil and amphetamine,” he said. “And magic. We don’t have enough witches who can mitigate sleep deprivation for them to work on everyone, but she’s important enough to get the treatment. Now hurry up.”
Celina turned out to be a short, heavily tanned woman standing near the edge of the camp. She was pacing restlessly back and forth, and she was wearing a heavy winter coat, although I hadn’t noticed any particular chill in the air.
“Celina,” Brick said. “Got another two for you. They both do Otherside portals.”
She stopped pacing and turned to face us, staring intently with sunken blue eyes. “You,” she said, pointing at me. Her finger shook slightly. “Where can you go?”
“Colorado,” I said. “Wyoming, Oregon, and North Dakota. London. Romania. Singapore. Should I list the Otherside locations?”
“No,” she said. “Still working on agreements with them. Good. American, but good. You?”
“Colorado,” Aiko said. “Milan. Leipzig. Bremen. Seville. Tokyo. Cape Town.”
“Very good,” Celina said. “And the rest of these people? What do they want, Brick?”
“They’re going to one of the fortifications the Jäger clan is defending,” he said. “Don’t know which one.”
“Someone will be making a trip in that direction within an hour,” she said. “They wait here until then. Now. Where in Colorado? Denver?” This last was clearly directed at me.
“Colorado Springs,” I replied.
She thought for a moment, then nodded. “Close enough. Go there, go to Denver. Your pickup will meet you at the coffeehouse on…Colfax?” She dug a scrap of paper out of her pocket, glanced at it, and nodded. “Colfax. Downtown. Go there, get them, and bring them here. Then you talk to me and I will tell you where to go next.” She then turned to Aiko. “Go to Tokyo,” she said. “Akihabara. Your pickup will meet you at the AKB48 theater.”
“I know where it is,” Aiko replied.
“Good,” she said. “Now go.”
I had a surprisingly easy time getting to where I was supposed to be. The highway between Colorado Springs and Denver was usually congested and miserable, but at the moment it was more or less deserted. In Aiko’s Lamborghini, I managed to do triple digits most of the way. It was probably unsafe, but at this point, who really cared?
Finding the rendezvous points was a little harder, since I wasn’t familiar with the city and it had the same problems as Colorado Springs, or worse. The roads were bad, and many of the major ones weren’t even functional. But I managed it after only a little struggling, and pulled into the parking lot.
I didn’t like leaving the car there, but it wasn’t the biggest issue right now. And besides, it wasn’t likely that someone would steal it. Not after I powered up the defenses.
I stepped inside the building, Anna sticking close to my side.
It wasn’t hard to find the group I was looking for. They were damn near the only people in the building. There were maybe fifteen to twenty of them gathered around a couple of tables they’d pushed together in the corner. Most of them were holding cups of coffee that they weren’t drinking, and staring at each other distrustfully.
“I’m here to pick you up,” I said, walking up to them. “For the fight in Russia?”
One of them, a big guy with dark skin and muscles on his muscles, glowered at me. “What is that werewolf doing in my territory?” he asked, rising halfway to his feet.
“You’re the Alpha of this town?” I asked, more out of curiosity than anything. I’d spent a lot of years practically next door to him, and I’d talked to more than a few of his wolves in the past, but I didn’t remember having actually met him.
“That’s right,” he said. “Now answer my question.”
“Guess you’ll get that show of solidarity after all,” I muttered, smiling a little. Then, louder, “We’re just here to do the pickup. Not moving in on your turf. Now, do you really want to start problems about it? Because I think we’ve both got bigger problems right now.”
“He’s right, Thomas,” another man said. This one was shorter and a lot thinner, although still in decent shape. He was also most definitely not a werewolf; there were a lot of magical signatures around that table to sift through, but if there was one scent I could pick out of a crowd, it was werewolf, and he didn’t have that. “I’m Steve, by the way. Blake clan, mental specialist.”
“Don’t really care, honestly,” I admitted. “Although…if you’re that good, why are you still here?”
“I’m not much of a fighter, frankly,” he said. “Not one of the first people you’d call for something like this. And I don’t know anywhere in Russia well enough to open a portal there.”
“Fair enough. Now come on, we don’t have time to waste.”
The portal from downtown Denver to the forest of Faerie was a pretty major difference in terms of the conceptual and atmospheric difference between the two. That made it harder to bridge the gap, and it took me almost ten minutes to get the portal up, even with the focus I’d designed to help with that sort of magic. A couple of people tried to rush me, but Steve and another two mages shushed them.
The amount of distance being covered would also make the experience of crossing it particularly unpleasant, but that didn’t really matter to me. I got a little bit of vomit on my boots from one of the other werewolves, but I’d stepped in worse things. It also meant that I was almost done with the next portal when people started waking up, which was a nice perk.
Back in Russia, I walked up to Celina with the people from Denver following me. “Got these guys,” I said to her. “Don’t know what to do with them from here.”
“I’ll handle it,” she told me. “Werewolves, over there!” she shouted after that, loud enough to make me and most of the werewolves wince a little. “Everyone else, that way! Ask for Watcher, do what she tells you, don’t cause trouble!”
People started breaking up into groups and moving where she’d pointed. No one questioned what they’d been told, not even the Alpha. Celina Cateye had a considerable amount of presence, when she chose to exert it.
“All right,” she said to me, more quietly. “Next up, Romania. There’re two groups, one in Bucharest and one in a village outside Sibiu.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I can do that. What are the details?”
The second trip was harder than the first. The only place I knew to put a portal in Romania was right outside our castle, which was in the northwestern portion of the country. I shifted into fur, and Anna and I just ran southeast towards Sibiu. It wasn’t a run I’d made often, since normally if we wanted to go to the city we just took a portal somewhere, but I knew the way.
We made decent time. Not spectacular, but decent; it was relatively rough terrain, forested and fairly steep, and even werewolves could only go so fast. It didn’t help that this was my first time trying to run at full speed as a wolf while looking through someone else’s eyes. It took us a bit to coordinate that, and there were a few accidents on the learning curve, including one particularly exciting tumble off a sizable cliff.
But we managed, and it only took us two hours and change to get there. The village we were looking for was small, barely a thousand people, not far from Sibiu. I didn’t get a chance to see much more than that, because this time the people we were there to pick up found us before we’d even made it into town.
There were three of them, two male and one female. All three were very obviously vampires; the blood-and-spice scent of their magic was clear, as was the absolute stillness they had when they weren’t moving.
They didn’t say a word, just walked up and nodded to us. When we started running again, they ran beside us with no evidence of difficulty or complaint. One of the males actually turned into a wolf, a massive beast with jet black fur and glowing red eyes; the other two stayed human in shape, but they still kept our pace easily. I got the impression they could have outdistanced us if they wanted to.
We could have stolen a car and driven, but I didn’t think it would really be any faster. We’d have to stop for me to change, since driving in fur was awkward in the extreme and there was no way I was getting in a car driven by a vampire right now. Then the highway took a rather circuitous route, and we’d have to deal with any problems that the road had right now, which might be serious. Simpler to just run it.
So that’s what we did. Following the road would have been easier, but it went well out of the way, and we were all capable of handling harsh terrain, so we went straight cross-country. That took another three hours or so.
When we got to about the right neighborhood of Bucharest, the humanoid male vampire looked at me. “We can go in and get them,” he offered. “You stay here and start the portal.”
The three of them walked further into the city without waiting for a response, the wolfish one melting back into a humanoid form. Although, now that I looked at him in that context, there was something about him that was less human than the other two. He moved with a sort of predatory grace that was subtly but noticeably inhuman.
Once they were gone, I started by shifting back to human, and then opened the next portal. It was a bit of a struggle—I was already pretty tired from the running—but by the time the vampires returned with my pickup from this location, I was ready to go.
Back in Russia, the vampires moved off toward the command tent without waiting for instruction from me or Celina, pulling the rest of the group with them by sheer charisma.
“Where next?” I asked Celina, leaning on the table a little. I was more fatigued than I’d realized, and, now that I thought about it, hungrier. Almost starving, really.
She shook her head. “There is no more time for this,” she said. “The necromancer has broken through the defenses. You are needed to help hold him back from Saint Petersburg. Go and talk to Watcher. Your transport will arrive soon.”
“Okay,” I said, turning and walking back towards Watcher’s tent. I wasn’t in the best of shape for a world-class fight right now, but I couldn’t deny a certain excitement at the thought. I’d been hearing about how bad this situation was for a while now; actually seeing it couldn’t be worse than the vague, formless fear I had felt.
“Wait,” she said.
I paused and looked over my shoulder. “Yes?”
“In Italy,” she said, “I would say in bocca al lupo now, to wish you luck. It means ‘in the mouth of the wolf.’ Now, to wish for the death of wolves now is not a good thing to say. But I think there is another meaning that is not so bad to ask for.”
“I often like to have my enemies in my mouth,” I said dryly. “If that’s what you mean.”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “In bocca al lupo, then. And may God have mercy on us all.”