Someone had taken Kyra, without any noise or struggle, and without anyone noticing, from the middle of the group, with three members of her pack right next to her.
That shouldn’t have been possible. There were so many ways that shouldn’t have been possible.
Apparently, someone didn’t care so much about that.
I cursed under my breath as we moved on to the final branch of the hallway, moving faster now. Attacking in the daytime, starting off by demolishing the building, it had all been intended to limit the danger. But I’d known that there was nothing I could do that would actually eliminate it.
In a fight like this, there were casualties. There was no way around it.
That didn’t make it any easier to face when it struck so close to home.
Down the last hallway, a little longer than the other two. I was walking faster now, the people behind me almost running to keep up. The world seemed to fade and blur around me, warping in the corner of my eye. I felt disconnected, almost more an observer than a participant in my own actions. I became aware of a discordant, staccato laughter, and realized it was my own.
Inside the door, a vampire fell from the ceiling towards me with hands outstretched, curled into claws. Almost before I was aware of its presence Tyrfing cleared the sheath and leapt through the air towards it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of stroke, the slash perfectly timed and aimed.
The vampire hit the ground in two sizes of roughly equal size, and I kept walking at the same pace, not even breaking stride. I became aware, in a distant and detached sort of way, that the people following me were hanging back a little now, watching me. There was no meaning attached to the thought, no reaction. It was just an observation.
Next door, another slab of oak. I didn’t bother cutting it this time. I just slammed one booted foot into it. The door cracked; the second kick snapped it in half and I kept walking, pushing it out of my way.
The next room was another large dormitory, though the beds were unoccupied. Instead the room was filled with more of the twisted shapes that had formed the first wave when we assaulted the house. Some of them looked human, others were based on canine chassis. This close I could see the madness in their eyes, the same look in the eyes of men and dogs. Their bodies were warped and twisted, and their minds were even worse, broken in ways that went past fixing.
They threw themselves at me in a wave, scrabbling and kicking each other out of the way to be first. It was like watching a swarm of ants, any semblance of the individual subsumed into the horde.
As they got closer to me, they started to slip and stumble, their footing uncertain on the ice around me. I ignored it, cutting them down mercilessly as I kept walking forward. I didn’t bother aiming my slashes to target vital areas, didn’t bother with precision or care. I just cut in broad strokes, dropping several of the creatures to the ground with each stroke. A dog-thing bit my leg and clung there, its teeth scratching at my armor. I ignored it utterly, continuing to walk forward, the same as I ignored all of the twisted creatures that were outside of my immediate reach on the way across the room. They were beneath my notice.
Behind me, I heard gunfire, raised voices, screaming. I smelled smoke, firearm propellant, blood, strange magics that I couldn’t recognize or place. I kept moving, one foot in front of the other.
Another door, this one heavy steel locked into the surrounding walls, sunk into the floor. It was less a door than a wall, something meant to be closed once and never reopened. I considered it as I approached, and paused before it, though it made me feel strange, restless and frustrated.
It was more difficult to cut through than wood, actually presenting a certain amount of resistance to the cutting edge. But Tyrfing cut through it all the same, carving the steel the way a lesser blade might cut pine. Three strokes made a rough, ragged triangle in the wall. I kicked the section I’d cut out and it fell through, slamming against the floor.
Step through, ducking slightly. It felt better again now that I was moving, the restlessness fading. There was an acrid smell in the air now, somewhere between smoke and sulfuric acid. The next room was larger, more open. The ceiling was higher, almost twenty feet above my head. I tried to decide whether there was a hill overhead or I had been descending as I walked. I couldn’t remember, couldn’t focus, and a moment later the question faded.
There were vampires in the room, quite a few of them. The lurked in the shadows by the edges of the room, clung to the ceiling. Had we taken too long, so that the sun set outside? Or were all of these vampires strong enough to be up and active during the day?
The question really didn’t matter. Regardless, I was outnumbered, and the things outnumbering me were each killing machines unto themselves.
That didn’t really matter either. My attention was reserved primarily for the vampire in the middle of the room.
Katrin looked much the same as usual, tall and blonde, dressed all in black. A faint, twisted smile danced around the edges of her lips. It was an expression of amusement, in a sense, but there was a taint in it, something twisted and broken. There was an element of despair to it, a bleakness that went far beyond mere sorrow.
She held Kyra casually in her arms. One arm snaked between her legs to her abdomen, holding her back against the vampire’s chest. The other wrapped across her chest, holding her foreleg to the side. She had her hand jammed into the werewolf’s mouth, deep enough to be profoundly uncomfortable, muzzling, gagging, and choking her all at once. Katrin was bleeding where the teeth had cut her hand and arm, but didn’t seem to care, or even notice.
Kyra was still moving, struggling, but there wasn’t much she could do. Her spine was twisted sideways, two of her limbs were pulled out of alignment almost to the point of dislocation, and with how far the vampire had her arm shoved down her mouth, it would be a struggle to breathe, to keep from vomiting. In that position, held by someone vastly stronger than she was, all she could do was squirm feebly.
“Good evening, jarl,” Katrin said. Her voice was dry and rasping, a mockery of human speech. “How good of you to join us.”
“What do you want?” I asked quietly. My voice sounded more alien than hers, in a very different way. It was slurred, hard to understand, and there were overtones to it that didn’t belong in speech, sounds of snarls and growls, howls and barks, and above it all the endless scream of a raging storm.
She smiled, a fixed expression without any humor to it, showing teeth that were considerably longer than they’d ever been when I saw her smile in the past. “Mind your manners, my dear jarl,” she said. “Lest I grow offended. Or have you no care for your friends’ lives these days?”
“If you were going to kill her you’d have done it already,” I said. The storm had quieted now, a whisper rather than a scream, but still there was the hint of danger, the promise of a slow, freezing death. “Which means there’s a reason you haven’t. So, again, what do you want?”
The vampire looked at me for a moment. Then, faster than a snake striking, her hand shifted, sliding from Kyra’s abdomen down to her ankle. She seized it and twisted, pulling.
Bones snapped and crunched, twisting. I could see Kyra’s hind leg breaking under the strain, bones splitting in long spiral fractures, joints popping. Her hip dislocated, visibly distending to the side. She writhed, bucking hard against the vampire’s grip, but couldn’t move her arm so much as an inch. I could see her sides, her abdomen heaving as she threw up, chewing on the vampire’s arm reflexively, and still Katrin didn’t so much as flinch.
“She can heal that,” Katrin said. Her voice was still flat and dead, utterly lacking in any emotion. “Eventually. But how well will she fare if I keep pulling, do you think?” She smiled again, and it was maybe the single creepiest expression I’d ever seen. There was an absence there more terrifying than any amount of rage could ever be. “Werewolves can’t heal amputations, can they?”
I bit back my first response, and forced myself to stand still. “Good evening, Katrin,” I said instead. My voice was choked, and I was almost shaking with rage, but I managed it. “I’m pleased that we finally have a chance to catch up.”
“Ah,” she said. “As always you learn quickly.” She moved her hand back to Kyra’s torso, leaving the broken leg to dangle, and pulled her other arm out of the werewolf’s mouth, resting it under her chin instead. The limb dripped with blood, saliva, and vomit, but Katrin didn’t seem to care about that either.
Kyra whined quietly, as much of an expression of pain as she could manage right now. I looked at her for a long moment, then met Katrin’s eyes. “You know what this means,” I said. “Everything else, it was business. I didn’t like it, but there was nothing personal there. But this is…it crosses a line.”
“Yes,” she said simply. “I fully expect you to kill me for it someday. Maybe even today. But I’m hoping we can have a conversation first.”
“Why?” I demanded. “Why are you doing this? What the fuck are you getting out of this?”
“Ah,” she said. “Manners, remember?”
I gritted my teeth. “My apologies,” I said, my voice a growl now, almost unrecognizable. “But I would greatly appreciate an answer to my question.”
“In due time, I expect that you’ll receive one,” she said. “But right now, I want to talk about you. What next? That, right there, is the question you need to ask yourself. What next? What do you want more than anything else in the world? What would you do anything, sacrifice anything, to make happen?”
“Right now, I mostly want you to let my friend go,” I said.
Katrin sighed. “Do your ambitions extend no further than that?” she asked. “No further than the moment? Is this the life you want for yourself? This half-life, always struggling without ever accomplishing anything meaningful, living at the whim of another? Do you aim no higher than this?”
“I really find it difficult to focus on long term ambitions with this going on right in front of me,” I said.
“Stop trying to change the subject,” Katrin said. Her voice showed a hint of emotion now, touched with just the faintest trace of frustration. “These questions are important. Answer them.”
I took a deep breath and let it out. My hands were clenched, I noticed. “I don’t really know,” I said. “You asked what I would sacrifice anything for. That’s a loaded question. I know what anything can mean, and that’s not a commitment to make lightly.”
“Quite true,” Katrina agreed. “But that lack of dedication, of commitment, it’s holding you back. You could be so much more than you are. You could be a force to dwarf anything I’ve ever done. But you hold back. You refuse to really commit.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “What’s the purpose?”
“I want you to think about it,” she said. “That’s what’s holding you back, you see. It’s not a lack of power. It’s a lack of vision. You could be so much more, but you refuse to really see. You’re trapped by the immediate, never making it past reaction to what’s in front of you. How can you expect to get what you want if you never look further than the day after tomorrow?”
“It’s hard to look to the future when the present is more than I can stand,” I said. “That’s not a change of topic, by the way. It’s a relevant answer to your question. Recently it feels like just living day-to-day is the only way I can take the pressure. Things are bad, and they’re getting worse, and when I think about the future I can’t see it getting better. And everything I try to do, every time I try to fix things, I end up just making it worse.”
“Exactly!” she said. Again, there was a hint of emotion to that dead voice, but this time it was excitement, not exasperation. “But the reason for that, the reason nothing seems to work, is precisely that your focus is so stubbornly on the immediate and obvious. Right now, for example, you’re fixated on this moment, this situation. Tell me, jarl, who is to blame for what is happening right now?”
“Well,” I said dryly, “given that you’re the one doing this, that would seem to be the obvious answer.”
“Oh, granted the immediate responsibility is mine,” she said. “That’s a given. I know what I am. I won’t deny that I’m a monster. I won’t say that I haven’t earned your hate. I deserve to die, no question about that. But think about it. How do you think I got to be a monster? I wasn’t born this way, I can tell you that. I was a vampire for twenty years before I could kill someone and not feel terrible about it.”
“It’s still a choice,” I said. “You could always have gone a different route.”
I didn’t sound convinced, though, not even to myself. There was no conviction in my voice. I’d seen too many times when the only choices were bad ones.
“Perhaps,” Katrin said. “But even so, do you truly imagine that the blame falls on me alone? Do you think that no one, in all these years, had the chance to prevent me from becoming a monster? That no one could have acted to prevent this from coming to pass?” She smiled again. “I think not. Res ipsa loquitur, jarl. The guilt is there. How many people had to stand by to allow this to happen? How many people chose to allow it, because it was easier than the alternative?”
“Plenty,” I said. “But only one chose to actually do it.”
She snorted. “That’s an illusion,” she said, almost gently. “The idea that you can point to a person and say that they are wholly responsible for their own actions. The idea that a single person is responsible for anything. It’s a lie that we tell ourselves because it’s more comfortable than the truth. The idea that the world is black and white, that there are good men and evil men and you can parcel out guilt without getting your own hands dirty is a myth.”
“I’ve had some doubts about good and evil,” I said quietly. “I’ve had reason to question whether there are any real absolutes. But when I see something like this, it settles that question for me. You can’t do the things you’re doing and tell me that there’s no such thing as evil.”
“Oh, I don’t deny that evil exists,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that genuine good and genuine evil are real. My contention is that you’ll never find the one without the other. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And that, my dear jarl, is why you have found no success with your efforts. It is a lack of vision.”
I took a deep breath and let it out. I no longer had that disconnected feeling, I noticed. I no longer felt like an observer. I must have caught my metaphorical breath, somewhere along the way.
I was acutely aware of my surroundings. There were so many pieces in play. The people I had brought with me were close behind me, just inside the door. The vampires lurked in the darkness all around, in front, above, to the sides. All were silent, watching as though Katrin and I were actors on a stage, all else forgotten.
The situation was ugly. I couldn’t so much as move without Katrin maiming or killing Kyra, and the stalemate could only last so long. Sooner or later the tension would break, and when it did, unless it broke in exactly the right way, one of my best friends was going to die. All the rest of us might, too, but Kyra definitely would.
Oddly enough, I found myself thinking about what Katrin was saying. It was important, I thought, although not quite in the way she meant it.
Vision. That was what was lacking. I had to look past my surroundings, past the immediate.
I thought about pieces again. This was a bit like chess, when I thought about it. Both sides controlled certain pieces. This wasn’t a fight between vampires and vampire hunters, not really. It was a fight between me and Katrin. Everyone else here was…more a playing piece than an actual player.
In that context, vision was simple. My pieces were surrounded, probably outnumbered. They weren’t in a position where I could use their abilities for all they were worth. Katrin’s pieces had better position, and they were more powerful, on the whole. Many of my pieces were pawns, whereas all of hers were rooks or queens. And to top it off, Katrin herself was in a position to take a piece that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice.
Seen through that lens, it was easy to observe that the game was lost. My position was cramped, and obviously unsound. Katrin had the advantage in both position and material. The only way I could even aim for a draw would be if she messed up badly, and even then it would Pyrrhic in nature, requiring me to make sacrifices I couldn’t afford in the long term.
So. The game wasn’t winnable. That clarified things completely. It meant that what I had to think about now was how I could change the nature of the game.
And then I saw it. Bizarrely enough, it was Katrin’s own words that gave me the hint I needed. It was about vision.
Or more specifically, the lack of vision.
“You know,” I said, quietly slipping my hands into my cloak. I doubted she’d notice, not while I was talking. “You know, the funny thing is that you aren’t wrong. You aren’t wrong about people being responsible, and you aren’t wrong about me. About me lacking vision. But you are mistaken on one topic, I think.”
“Oh? And what would that be?”
“You said that the only way to accomplish your goals was to focus on them,” I said. “To focus on them entirely, to the exclusion of everything else. But that’s not right. If you focus that tightly, you’re really giving yourself tunnel vision. You’re making yourself blind to everything outside of your obsession.”
And then I pulled out what I’d been carrying, and threw it at the ceiling.
One of the objects was a grenade, plain and simple. A modified grenade, a special model, but still basically just an explosive. The other was a glass sphere with a spark of blue light captured within it.
The glass was reinforced, and it would take a great deal to break it. Normally I primed those stored spells with blood before using them, removing the protections, but this time I hadn’t had the chance. I would just have to hope that the grenade would be enough to do the job.
The two objects reached the apex of their arc together and started to fall before the grenade went off. It was shockingly loud, in the relative silence of the room. A concussion grenade this time, rather than fragmentation; I didn’t want to deal with shrapnel in this environment.
For a second I thought even that hadn’t been enough. Then I saw a flicker of blue light expanding out, and grinned.
Kinetic force poured out from the broken sphere, pushing everything away. Where it hit air, the effect was minimal, almost nonexistent. Somewhere along the lines of a stiff breeze.
But the stone of the ceiling was less flexible, less able to move without damage. It started to break, cracks appearing, damage done by the grenade being exacerbated by the magic. Chunks of rock started falling.
For a moment I thought even that wouldn’t be enough, and I’d just signed all of our death warrants. Then one of the mages, an independent I knew nothing about, raised one hand and started blasting at it with what looked like greyish lightning. Another, the woman who was apparently their unofficial leader, was exercising her will as well, although it wasn’t nearly so visible. All I knew about that was that I smelled magic, and then there were parts of the ceiling that were just missing.
The hole was small at first, just a pinprick. Then more magic started tearing at the edges of that hole, and Aiko threw another grenade.
Katrin looked up, and I was close enough to see her expression when she realized what was happening. I’d expected horror, or wrath, but instead I saw a broad, beatific smile, maybe the first real smile I’d ever seen from her, as the sunlight fell on her face.