Clean Slate 10.31

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The house burned hot and fast. When a section looked like it was dying out, the housecarls chucked a little more gasoline into the area, and the two fire mages focused their attentions on it.


I tried to ignore the fact that I could hear screaming coming from inside the fire. It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I’d known that the explosion couldn’t have killed everything, and I’d known that not everyone would have gotten out either to flee or attack. There would be people trapped inside where the exits were blocked, people who were crippled by their injuries, people who were just too scared to move.


I’d known all of that. And I’d given the order to burn it anyway.


It was the same problem I’d run into when attacking vampires before. I knew that not everyone in there deserved to burn. I knew that some of them were completely innocent victims.


But I also knew that some were monsters. Even the humans might be a risk I couldn’t afford. I knew that some of them willingly made themselves victims of the vampires for one reason or another. At worst, they collaborated with them, actively assisting them in hunting and killing other people.


And I had no way to tell the one group from the other. Not really. I could hope to catch them in a lie, but there was no guarantee it would work. I could try to quarantine them all, innocent and guilty, but I wasn’t sure what kind of quarantine measures I might need to take, and it would be a serious risk to try and search the house to take them in safely.


So I’d given the order to burn it. And them.


I stood and watched in grim silence as the screams slowly died out, until the only sound was the crackling of the flames. Anna seemed distinctly uncomfortable by my side; on the other side, Aiko showed no such signs of discomfort.


As for Jimmy and the other fire mage, they both looked dispassionate, caught up in the effort of their magic. A third mage had figured out what they were doing and walked up beside them. From what I could smell of his magic, and what I could feel in the air around me, he was directing the wind to keep a constant stream of fresh air flowing into the blaze. Smart; that would keep the fire healthy, keep it burning bright and hot.


Soon, the wreckage began to collapse further into itself. Key structural elements had been eaten away by the flames, and what was left was falling into pieces, being consumed by fire.


Jimmy paused and glanced back at me, apparently wondering whether they were done. I said nothing, gave no indication that I’d noticed, and he turned back to the fire, stoking it higher. All three of them were getting visibly tired, and I doubted they’d be good for much after this, but that was all right. I had plenty of metaphorical firepower without needing the literal stuff.


In the end, it took closer to twenty-five minutes than fifteen for me to be satisfied. There were still handful of timbers smoldering, sticking up from the ashes like the bones of a beached whale from the sand, but the house itself was gone.


It had been a tightly controlled demolition, I noted with some satisfaction. There had been a little bit of property damage from the explosion, and a few buildings were scarred by the fire, but nothing that would require a large amount of reconstruction.


“Good work,” I said, walking briskly up to the group of arsonists. “Now put it out.” I stumbled over my own feet when Anna looked away and left me blind, and she hurried to catch up to me. I hadn’t actually told any of the werewolves what was going on with my vision, but I was pretty sure they’d all noticed.


“Put it out?” Jimmy asked me, turning and staring. He was swaying on his feet a little, and I thought he’d pushed himself just about to the limit. It was gratifying, in a way, to know that he’d exerted himself that much to make something I wanted happen. I mean, it was probably more that he liked burning things than any actual obedience, but still.


“Yeah,” I said. “We’re moving through there. Don’t tell me you can’t put fires out?”


He flushed and looked away. “I never really practiced that,” he muttered.


The other fire mage rolled his eyes and closed one hand into a fist. The fires died out in a few seconds, even the coals turning from red to black. “There you go,” he said.


“Great,” I said. “You three coming with or staying out here?”


“I think we could all use a chance to rest before another fight,” the same man said.


“No time,” I said. “Wait out here with anyone else who isn’t coming.”


I turned, and saw that the housecarls had already started to gather by the edge of the ash field, holding their weapons and smiling eagerly. I supposed that in a lot of ways they’d been waiting for this day as long as I had. They were the first on the scene, but others were already starting to join them there. The shapeshifters were there, the werewolves, Unna. The lieutenant was standing a short distance away with a dozen soldiers, and the leader of Pellegrini’s gangsters had a similar number of his own people.


“Okay,” I said, as much to myself as the mages. “It’s time. Let’s go.”


I led the way through the ashes, drawing on the jotun in me to bring the temperature down. The fire was out, but things were still hot. I cooled it down a little, and the housecarls following in a broad arc behind me cooled it down further, until it was almost comfortable by the time the rest got there.


As we walked, I catalogued what forces I still had available. There was me, obviously, and Aiko was there as well. All seven of the housecarls with me were still in shape to fight, as were all four werewolves. The three shapeshifters were the only members of the Inquisition who were still ready to fight, but there were five independent mages still standing, and they looked ready for blood. The lieutenant and the gangsters, after some rather tense and awkward discussion, had settled on bringing four men each and leaving the rest to guard the wounded and make sure nobody followed us down.


A sizable force, at least by my standards. I was honestly more concerned that we’d be getting in each other’s way than anything. Not much that I could do about it, though; I couldn’t exactly tell people that they weren’t welcome, not without losing a lot of goodwill.


The entrance to the basement was easy to find, although I suspected it hadn’t been when the house was still standing. The hole in the ground was large enough to drive a car through, the trapdoor little more than a memory.


The stairs leading down were marble, cracked and crazed by the heat. I doubted any traps would have survived that, if there had even been any traps to begin, but I went first just in case. I was probably the toughest person here by a considerable margin.


And besides, it fit the image.


Downstairs, I was surprised at how spacious it was. The hallway was wide enough to walk four abreast with enough space to move. I was still leading, with Aiko and Anna beside me. After that came the housecarls, then the soldiers, the mages, the gangsters, and the werewolves and shapeshifters bringing up the rear.


Theoretically, the formation would give the mages the most possible time to hit back before an attacker reached them. It wasn’t perfect—I was concerned about being attacked from above, or below, or the sides—but it was the best I could do on short notice.


And short notice was what we had. At most, it would be an hour before it ceased to be unambiguously daytime. If we were still down here when that happened, if we hadn’t killed the vampires yet, I wouldn’t lay money on any of us getting out alive.


The hallway was maybe forty feet long, all marble, unlit. Several people started digging for flashlights once we were out of the light, but one of the mages beat them to it, producing a golden light bright enough to hurt my eyes a little.


At the end of the hallway it forked, one path continuing straight while another split off to either side. The light didn’t show the end of any of the three paths.


“We should split up,” the lieutenant said behind me. “Send a group to clear each direction.”


I snorted. “Have you never watched a horror movie?” I asked. “We stick together and check each path in order. Follow me.”


Nobody argued, and I led us down the left-hand path first. I walked about fifty feet before stopping in front of a heavy oak door. It was locked, and not just casually. I counted two combination pad locks and three deadbolts, and I was guessing it was also barred from the inside.


“I can probably get that open,” someone said behind me.


I ignored them, summoning and drawing Tyrfing instead. It took three swings to cut through all the locks, and another two to get rid of the hinges, at which point the only thing keeping the door standing was inertia. I sheathed the sword and stepped up, pushing the door up and back. It slammed to the ground with an almost deafening crash.


“Or you could do that,” the person acknowledged.


I was grinning as I stepped inside.


That grin faded as soon as I was inside the room. It looked a lot like the last room I’d seen where vampires hid from the day. There were some beds scattered around, each of which had a single occupant. The vampires looked more dead than asleep.


There was one obvious difference, though. There was another person in the room, a girl sitting by the opposite wall. She looked human, maybe eighteen to twenty, dirty and disheveled, dressed in something like a hospital gown. She had a heavy steel collar around her neck, which in turn connected to a heavy steel chain that was bolted to the wall. From where she was chained, she couldn’t reach the door, or any of the beds.


“Oh, thank God,” she said breathlessly when I stepped in. “Let me out, please!”


“Don’t go near her,” I said, ignoring her and walking up to one of the beds. There were fifteen of them in this room alone.


Fifteen more vampires. Bloody hell, I’d underestimated Katrin’s forces.


“What?” the lieutenant asked. “We can’t leave her like that. Johnson, Pepper, go get her out of that thing.” Two of the soldiers started forward.


“Don’t go near her,” I said again. Tyrfing came down and took the first vampire’s head off. Around me, Aiko and the housecarls were moving through the room, going to the other beds.


The soldiers ignored me, walking up to the woman. One of them reached out towards her neck, apparently to try and get the collar off.


I was watching the whole thing, and it was still hard to say quite what had happened. One moment, she was just sitting there motionless while the man reached for her neck.


The next, she had her hand around his wrist, pulling him forward. He stumbled towards her and she stood, one hand wrapping around the man’s head, pulling him down to meet her as she rose.


It still looked almost innocent. It could have passed for a kiss, with the mouth just a little lower than just usual, on the bottom corner of the soldier’s jaw rather than his mouth. It could have, and likely it did to the other soldier, who stepped forward and reached out to separate them.


She reached out and caught him as well, grabbing the front of his vest. Then she lifted her head from the other man’s neck, and it became horribly apparent what had actually been happening. Her mouth was stained crimson, and more blood poured from the bite in his neck when she moved her mouth away. He crumpled to the ground without her holding him up, and lay on the ground in a heap.


The other soldier panicked and tried to push her away. He might as well have been pushing the wall for all the good it did him. She picked him up and swung him into the wall easily, although he must have been twice her size. She pinned him there against the wall with her hand on his throat as she leaned in and whispered something in his ear.


She dropped him a moment later. He collapsed to the ground, and even at this distance I could see that his throat was crushed. A rapid enough tracheotomy could conceivably save him, I supposed, but I doubted the opportunity would arise.


“Not very polite,” I said, watching her carefully. “Killing the people who wanted to let you out.”


She smiled, showing very red teeth. “They disobeyed an order,” she said sweetly. “That must be punished.”


I shook my head. “No. Don’t try to put this off on me. You were going to kill them whether I’d said anything or not.”


“Yes,” she admitted. “But that does not change the truth of what I said.”


I nodded. “Fair enough. So why are you in here? I’m guessing you’re fae, and I can’t imagine one of the fae would be wearing that collar willingly. But if you wanted out, you could have just let them unlock that collar.”


“Or maybe I couldn’t,” she said with a coy smile.


“Maybe not,” I said. “I don’t suppose you could tell me the exact terms of the oath you swore?”


The smile got a little wider, until she was showing white teeth behind the bloody ones. “Oh, someone’s clever,” she said. “I swore that I would protect these vampires as they slept, keep them safe in their refuge from the sun’s rays.”


I glanced around, and saw that all of the vampires were already done for. The housecarls had made quick, efficient work of it. “It seems to me that they’re rather beyond any protection you can offer,” I said. “Which means that your oath is completed.”


“Clever, clever,” she said happily. “I always find it so delightful when a human takes the time to think before he speaks.”


I didn’t bother correcting her on the human bit, mostly because I was pretty sure she already knew. The way she’d phrased that had pretty clearly been meant to imply that I was human without stating it. She was doing me a favor, in a way, keeping my secrets from the actual humans present, while also subtly threatening me with the possibility that she could stop keeping those secrets.


Or maybe I was just reading too much into it. But considering that this was one of the fae, I didn’t think that was terribly likely.


“I’m going to come over there and let you out now,” I said. “If you try to cause problems for me while I do, I swear that you’ll regret it.”


“I’ll be good this time,” she said. “Promise.”


I walked over, ignoring the people staring on me, and hoping that none of them would notice that Anna was still following at my heel and put two and two together.


It was a forlorn hope. I’d just put my hands on the collar when the fae gripped them and leaned forward a little to whisper in my ear. “Someone’s eyes don’t shine half so bright as they ought to,” she said, so quietly that I doubted Anna could understand her with lycanthropic hearing from five feet away. “Would the puppy like me to fix them for him? I could give him a new pair, if he liked.”


“I’ll keep my own,” I said, just as quietly. “I have it on excellent authority that this is a temporary condition.” I started probing the collar, looking for the lock. It only took a few seconds to find it, and a couple more to open it with a twist of hardened air. I could damn near have picked the thing with my fingers, it was so clumsy. She’d been kept bound by her own word, not the lock.


She looked at me with a disappointed moue on her face as the collar fell to the floor beside her. “Very well,” she murmured. “I’ll simply have to find another way to repay you, then. Goodbye for now, dear puppy.”


She stalked to the door, and her posture, her movements were so confident that everyone got out of her way without even quite seeming to realize what they’d done.


I bent down to look at the soldiers, and confirmed that they were both quite dead. A moment later someone else stepped up beside me. I glanced up, expecting to see Aiko there, but it was the lieutenant.


Not that I could see that. It was a reflex to look up, an instinct, the same as it had been a reflex to bend down to look at the soldiers. In both cases, the actual visual was coming from Anna.


“How’d you know what was going to happen?” he asked me quietly.


“I didn’t,” I said, straightening and turning to the door. “I hadn’t even really looked at her. My priority was making sure that none of the vampires were going to wake up. This is a war,” I said to the lieutenant, not looking back. “And it’s one where you don’t know the enemy, and you don’t know the rules. Keep ignoring the people who do, and those two won’t be the last people you lose today.”


The next hallway we checked was the one directly across from us. It was basically a mirror image of the first, and we treated it the same way. There was no fae chained to the wall this time, but that didn’t make me feel any less suspicious.


That suspicion turned out to be justified. We’d killed two vampires when suddenly one of them got up and threw itself at us. It killed three of the gangsters and threw Ryan into the wall hard enough to break bones before the woman the independent mages had chosen as their representative earlier got to it.


I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of magic she threw at it. It was something exotic, a more abstract sort of magic. But there wasn’t much vampire left when she was finished with it.


I kept watch as the housecarls finished the job. I was breathing hard, though I hadn’t had time to actually get involved the fight. In a way, that was what made it so stressful—what made every fight with a vampire so terrifying. They were just so fast. They could kill people before I could even react.


That one could have killed people I knew and cared about rather than gangsters I hadn’t even met, and there wouldn’t have been much I could do about it.


No wonder I was feeling a bit stressed by it.


As we got ready to move on to the third branch of the hallway, I glanced over the group, then paused. The headcount was off.


I looked again, and again after that, with an increasing sense of desperation, but my first impression had been correct. At some point during that last fight, Kyra had disappeared.

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