The scene outside the building was a madhouse by the time I got there. There were jötnar running around, a group of werewolves loitering next to a selkie, some mages. To say that it was chaotic would be a spectacular understatement.
I looked for an island of sanity in the midst of the madness, and found it in the form of Kyi. The housecarl was standing on the sidelines, watching. I walked up, and she turned to face me, nodding. “Jarl,” she said. “Why is there a raven on your shoulder?”
“Not your problem,” I said. “Situation?”
“We’re getting into position for the assault,” she said. “We’ve got most of the stuff you asked for distributed.”
“What’s missing?” I asked, frowning.
My frown deepened, and I pulled my cell phone out, dialing Tindr. “Garlic,” I snapped the second he answered. “Where is it?”
“I’m sorry, jarl,” he replied. “I couldn’t—”
“No,” I said, cutting him off. “I don’t want excuses. I want garlic. Make it happen and get it here now.” I hung up before he could say anything else. “Okay,” I said to Kyi. “That’s in the works. How many people do we have here?”
“For housecarls there’s me, Vigdis, Kjaran, Herjolfr, Thraslaug, Brandulfr, and Nóttolfr. All of the Inquisition mages are here, and the independent factions sent another eight between them. Four werewolves and a selkie.”
“Good,” I said. “Any word from Pellegrini or Frishberg?”
Kyi hesitated. “Maybe,” she said. “There are some humans over there that wanted to talk to you. I didn’t want to make any deals or anything without you, so they’re still waiting.” She pointed.
“Good,” I said. “Keep getting everything ready, and look for someone to be showing up with garlic. I’m going to go talk to them.”
“Does garlic even do anything to vampires?” Aiko wondered as we walked.
“Beats me,” I said. “But I want every advantage I can get. Garlic’s cheap.”
We passed in front of the Inquisition mages first. There weren’t as many as there used to be. All three shapeshifters had survived, oddly enough, which gave me a hawk, a bear, and a wolf. Jimmy provided very literal firepower, and while Doug’s control of plants and plant products was unlikely to be terribly useful here, he had some valuable secondary abilities. Aubrey probably couldn’t affect a vampire directly, given how alien and inhuman their mental functions were, but he could keep track of people and maybe handle communications in a pinch. Even Mac was there, to my surprise. I was certain that she wasn’t going to be going inside, but as field medics went, we could do a lot worse.
I didn’t stop or say anything to them. There were problems that could be fixed, and there were problems that couldn’t. My issues with the Inquisition were the second kind. Talking was more likely to make things worse than better, and I couldn’t afford that right now.
Next was the werewolves. Here I did stop, taking a hard look at them. It had occurred to me that a certain sort of person might try to slip an infiltrator in among this group, with the assumption that people wouldn’t be able to tell one werewolf in fur from another. But I recognized all of them. Kyra was wearing the heavy, custom-made armor I’d given her for her last birthday, giving her a grim, intimidating look. Daniell was smaller and leaner, built for quickness rather than strength, and Anna was somewhere in between. Ryan, back on two feet, and Unna rounded out the group.
“Status?” I asked.
“Ready when you are, sir,” Ryan. said. I noticed with some amusement that he’d fallen right back into old habits. His posture could have been the picture in a military textbook describing attention, and he was calling me sir again.
“You’ve got holy water?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” Ryan said, touching the squirt gun on one hip, then the water balloons on the other. They looked a little comical next to a submachine gun and a handful of fragmentation grenades, respectively, but Ryan didn’t seem at all awkward about it. Unna just smiled, showing small, sharp teeth, and nodded. The motion was a quick bob, something that made me think of a bird more than a human.
“Good,” I said. “Be ready.”
Anna fell in on my left side as we walked away, butting her head against my thigh as we walked. It felt good, in an odd way. It wasn’t the same as having Snowflake there, but I’d gotten used to having Aiko on one side and a canine on the other in situations like this one. Going back to that was strangely comforting.
Next up was the independent faction. If you could even call it that; they were standing together, but it wasn’t the same as the other groups. There was none of that sense of solidarity. There was a subtle but noticeable distance between them, a sense of distrust bordering on barely-hidden hostility.
“Status?” I asked them.
“We’re ready,” one of them asked. He was shorter than I was, and stocky, but there was a solidity about him. I couldn’t phrase it any better than that, couldn’t even put my finger on what it was. It was just that I looked at him and got the impression that he was sturdy, like there just wasn’t a whole lot that would really phase him.
“How many of you have fought vampires before?” I asked.
There were eight mages there. Seven hands went up, and the only one who didn’t raise his hand still looked perfectly confident. He might not have fought vampires, but I was guessing he’d done his share of fighting and then some.
It was kind of nice to have some people who really knew what they were doing there. Eight mages who knew what they were fighting and how to deal with it was a significant force, and this group smelled considerably stronger than the Inquisition, overall.
“Good,” I said. “Be ready. We’re making final preparations for the assault now.”
Which, finally, left only the humans. There were two groups, both at a distance from the preparations going on around the building, although they were maintaining a distance from each other. There was definitely no kind of trust between them, judging by the way they treated each other. Both groups were gathered around vehicles, but the vehicles in question didn’t have much in common. One was a fleet of anonymous black SUVs, while the other consisted of military-style jeeps.
I went for the SUVs first. A guy in black body armor was lounging against one of them. He didn’t have any visible weapons, but I was confident he was carrying something where it couldn’t easily be seen.
He wasn’t the only one there, but his posture suggested that he was the leader, and that impression was reinforced when he waved at me. So he was the one I walked up to.
“Nice dog,” he said casually.
Anna bristled, hackles raising. I rested one hand on her head, reminding her of where she was, and watched the man in armor. He was looking at Anna, but there was no fear or surprise in his cool, flat grey eyes.
“You know better than that,” I said, fully confident that I was right. “Next time you go fishing for a reaction from a werewolf, there are probably smarter ways to go about it than that.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said. His voice was just as casual as before, blank and dispassionate in the same way his eyes were.
“Why are you here?” I asked, not making an effort to sound polite or friendly.
“Mr. Pellegrini felt you could use some assistance,” he said.
“You’re here to help with the assault?” I asked.
He smiled. It didn’t touch his eyes at all. “That would be illegal. But I’m sure some of us are prepared to defend ourselves in the case of an attack. That would only be reasonable, with how dangerous the roads are recently.”
“I expect you to follow my orders while you’re here,” I said. “You and all your people. Clear?”
“Crystal,” he drawled. “We’ll follow your orders right up until they contradict our instructions from Mr. Pellegrini.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “You see the woman over there? Tattoos, carrying a compound bow, telling people what to do? Go tell her I sent you to pick up armaments.”
“We’ve got our own stuff,” he said. “No worries.”
I stared at him for a long, quiet moment. “That wasn’t a request,” I said. “Now get over there.”
He stiffened and glared at me for a moment, then nodded.
I went to the next group.
This one had a much different vibe to it, much more organized and formal. There were groups of people standing together by each of the vehicles. They talked quietly to each other, moved around a little, but they stayed in their groups, and they were obviously ready to move at a moment’s notice. They were all wearing identical uniforms, carrying identical rifles.
They looked uncomfortably military. I hadn’t really dealt with the military before.
I didn’t have to look for the person in charge here. The hierarchy was pretty obvious, and if it hadn’t been, I’d still have known when he walked over to meet me as I approached. He was young, maybe early twenties, with blond hair shaved close to his head and blueish eyes.
“Who are you?” I asked, stopping a short distance away.
“Second Lieutenant William Delaney,” he said, saluting. Literally saluting. “Platoon leader, Tenth Special Forces Group.”
I bit back a sigh, and resisted the urge to rub my forehead. It wouldn’t do any good anyway, given that I was wearing a helmet. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Sir, it is our understanding that you are preparing to lead an assault upon a fortified enemy location. I have been assigned to support you.”
“Okay,” I said. “And why exactly is the Army supporting me over her?”
“Sir, I am not privy to that information.”
“Oh, come off it,” I said wearily. “You might not have been there for the meeting, but you know the gist of what they decided. Give.”
“If I had to guess, sir? You don’t have the authority to do what you’re doing, but at least there will still be a city when you’re done.”
I nodded. “Fair enough,” I said. “How much support, exactly?”
“Anything within reason, sir.”
“Cool,” I said, eyeing the building we were here to assault. It was a big, old house, the sort that probably dated back a hundred and fifty years or more. It had been remodeled a few times since then, but the basic structure was the same. “I don’t suppose you have any explosives?”
About half an hour later, I was standing a little less than two hundred feet away, surrounded by a small group of very, very scary people. Each of the major groups involved in the assault had a person there to coordinate things. Kyi was representing the housecarls, and Kyra was there for the werewolves. Those two were the closest to me, literally and metaphorically.
The rest were a little further away. Pellegrini’s chief thug and Lieutenant Delaney were standing on opposite sides of the group, very carefully ignoring each other. Aubrey was there for the Inquisition, more because he didn’t have a place in the thick of things and I could tolerate his presence reasonably well than because he had any kind of leadership role. The independent mages, after considerable discussion, had settled on a tall, slender woman I didn’t know as their representative.
Aiko was there as well, as was Anna. But that was different. They were with me, not just acting as liaisons.
“The evacuation is complete?” I asked. “We’re sure?”
“Absolutely, jarl,” Kyi said.
“Good. Everyone is equipped and briefed on their role?”
There was a chorus of responses from that, all of which were some flavor of affirmative.
“Good,” I said again. “Lieutenant, I believe that’s your cue.”
He nodded and lifted a radio to his mouth, muttering into it. I didn’t bother trying to parse what he was saying. I didn’t know military jargon, and all that really mattered was that he was giving the order to begin.
A few seconds later, the explosives went off.
This was nothing like the last time we’d blown up a vampire’s lair. Those had been demolition explosives repurposed as weapons, and they’d been deployed with the intention of damaging the building rather than destroying it.
These were military-grade, and they’d been set out by someone who knew what they were doing with the specific intent of leveling the place. It was a whole different ballgame.
Two hundred feet away, the noise was still something painful. I had to make a considerable effort to keep the raven on my shoulder, acting as my eyes, when it wanted to fly away from the blast.
The effect on the house, though, was considerably more pronounced. It shattered, and the whole thing started to collapse in on itself in a cloud of dust and smoke.
“Be ready,” I said quietly. Well, quietly compared to the explosion, anyway. “It isn’t over.”
For several long seconds, nothing happened, and I almost thought it really was going to be that easy.
Then monsters started pouring out of the wreckage. Some of them looked like humans, at least superficially. But they didn’t move like humans, not in the slightest. They picked up timbers that must have weighed fifty or a hundred pounds and tossed them aside like nothing, just flicked them out of the way. Behind them came creatures that instead mocked dogs, but too large, too fast, and apparently unfazed by the building being blown up around them. After them came ghouls.
Most of the creatures were injured, some of them grievously. But they didn’t seem to care, didn’t hesitate, showed no signs of pain.
I had to admit, I was impressed by how smooth the reaction was. I’d expected Pellegrini’s men and the soldiers to hesitate, unable to deal with something so far outside of their comfort zone. And, to a certain extent, they did.
But after only a few seconds, they lifted weapons and started shooting.
There were about forty soldiers, and a comparable number of gangsters. Most of them were using automatic weapons, and while they were firing in short, controlled bursts, it still translated to a whole lot of bullets flying downrange.
But they’d gotten the orders I passed on. They shot long past the point where they would have stopped if they were shooting at humans. They shot until they were out of ammo, and then they started reloading to shoot some more.
It did some good. Some of the creatures, mostly those in the leading ranks, fell and didn’t stand back up. They were tough and they didn’t feel pain, but there was a certain degree of damage where that didn’t matter anymore. Once enough muscles and bones have been destroyed, you can’t stand up, period.
I wasn’t sure how many of them were actually dead, of course. The ghouls could probably recover given the opportunity, and if the other creatures were comparably sturdy the gunfire might have barely killed any of them. But it slowed them down, and it took some of them out of the fight. That was worth something.
But they couldn’t keep up constant fire. They had to reload. And these things were crazy enough to just keep charging right through the bullets, running towards us at full speed even as their fellows fell to the ground around them.
It only took a short time for them to reach us.
Our front line consisted of the housecarls, with the werewolves and shapeshifters mixed in for support. As the enemy got closer Kyra and Anna ran down to join in, providing a bit of much-needed bulk to the line.
There was a big part of me that wanted to do the same. I could contribute, maybe more than anyone else right now. This was the kind of fight that I excelled at.
But I was more valuable here, watching and coordinating, and waiting in case something nastier came out of the ruins of the house next.
They reached our front line, and the jötnar went to work, cutting them down and pushing them back. They’d heard my orders as well, and they followed them, focusing on defense more than doing lots of damage. They pushed the attackers away, picked them up and threw them bodily backwards. Here and there an axe or sword connected and took off limbs or heads. Decapitation was enough to finish most of them, but hard to manage. Taking off limbs didn’t put them down, and the wounds didn’t bleed nearly as much as they should, but once a creature had lost two or three they weren’t nearly as much of a threat.
Again, tactics had to be adapted based on the enemy’s capabilities. With foes like this, you had to assume that they’d keep fighting no matter what you did. Bleeding wounds, painful wounds, scary wounds, these things didn’t mean anything. You had to either kill them quickly or else just focus on making it so they weren’t physically capable of continuing the fight.
Where the fighting got particularly intense, or the enemy looked like they might break through, a werewolf or a shapeshifter was quick to jump in, tearing the creatures to pieces and throwing them away. They were the shock troops, not as good on defense, but when they hit back it was devastating. I’d expected Kris to play more of a scouting role, but I’d been forgetting just how much she’d practiced with her abilities. She got right into the thick of things, tearing at warped men and dogs with massive claws, knocking ghouls over and tossing them around.
And the whole while, the soldiers and gangsters kept right on shooting. They had to be more careful now, keeping their shots well away from the front, but still did plenty of damage. More and more creatures were falling now.
Then one of the mages stepped in, lashing out with raw invisible force. These blasts did more damage than anything yet, shattering creatures and tossing them through the air, leaving them lying on the ground like broken toys. One of them hit a ghouls straight-on, and the thing flew into the air. It didn’t land for a solid thirty seconds, and when it did it splattered.
All things considered, we were doing almost ridiculously well. We’d weathered their initial assault without a single casualty, and we’d almost wiped them out. And that wasn’t even considering how many of them we’d killed with the first explosion, taking the house down. I had a strong suspicion that the reason everything we were fighting was so tough was because anything else hadn’t made it through the demolition.
And then, just like I’d guessed, something nastier came out.