The black SUV pulled up in front of the building almost exactly as we walked outside. I wanted to think that it was great timing, but considering it was Kjaran driving, it was more likely that he’d been waiting outside for several minutes and just timed the final approach to suit. For a guy who didn’t talk, he had a surprising appreciation of the dramatic.
Kjaran was driving, and Kyi was in the passenger seat. There were more of my minions in the second row of seats—Nottolfr for sure, along with Jack and a ghoul I didn’t recognize. That left David and I to take the very back row.
“You have a driver?” David asked, buckling himself in.
“Not specifically, no,” I said. “People swap out for the job. But Kjaran does it most often, because he’s the best at it.”
There was a thump and some muffled shouting from the cargo area behind us. I didn’t react.
David did. He pushed himself up in his seat and looked back there. “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted a moment later, fumbling with the seat belt.
I glanced back. As expected, the three gunmen from earlier were back there, hogtied and gagged with heavy black duct tape. “How was I supposed to know they were in on the game?” I said irritably. “You should be glad I told my people to be fairly passive or they’d probably have been in an incinerator by now.”
One of the guys twitched at that, as best as he could. It wasn’t much. They’d been very effectively restrained.
“It was just a training exercise, for God’s sake,” David said. “There was no need to bring ‘your people’ in at all.”
“Well, then, maybe you shouldn’t have played it up like it was a real problem,” I told him. “You wanted me to take it seriously? Well, you got your wish.”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “You need to learn to trust us.”
I snorted. “Trust you? Maybe. The rest of them? Let’s get real. Have you seen those people? I wouldn’t trust them to prepare a sandwich without screwing things up. They’re still in the equivalent of boot camp. I don’t think it’s unfair of me to hesitate a little before trusting them to keep me alive.”
“And how are they going to learn if you don’t give them a chance?”
I shrugged. “I’m giving them a chance. I told my people to hang back and stay out of sight. They were there strictly as a safety net, and the newbies don’t ever have to know the net was there, any more than they have to know the whole thing was a drill. I’m trying here, David, but you’ve got to meet me halfway if this is going to work.”
He stared at me for a few seconds, then sighed. “We’ll talk about this later,” he said. “For now, you said you had a crisis?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Kyi? Details, please. Oh, and I guess we might as well take the tape off.”
“I’ve only heard this secondhand, since we’ve been here waiting,” she said. “But the report is that four mages showed up around fifteen minutes ago asking for you. Selene kept them outside and put them off for a while, but once they realized that you weren’t there, they got aggressive. No casualties as of three minutes ago, but there’s some structural damage and things are getting tense.”
“Why can’t they deal with it on their own?” I asked, trying to think about who was there. I couldn’t remember all of them, but from what I could remember, there was a reasonably substantial force at the mansion. Selene was there, obviously, since she’d been the one to contact me, and she had several housecarls with her, a few ghouls, at least a couple of low-power mages, and probably a couple of human mercenaries. The last I heard Aiko and Snowflake were planning to hang around there, too. Not an army, but it should have been enough to scare off four people.
“I don’t know,” Kyi said. “Selene wasn’t all that clear. Things were a little rushed on her end.”
I grunted. “Yeah,” I said. “Well, I guess we’ll see soon.”
It was easy to see what Selene had meant by “structural damage.” The jötnar and ghouls were about as good in the dark as I was, but some of the people working for me were human, and in any case I’d felt that it was better to not take any chances we didn’t have to. So there were floodlights tucked away unobtrusively on the mansion’s exterior in case of an attack in the night, and currently they were turned on, lighting up the snow like it was broad daylight.
Thus, it was easy to see that some of the trees around the building had been reduced to charred stumps. There were some burn marks on the walls of the mansion as well, although it didn’t seem like the fire had been able to find any real purchase there. No surprise; we’d prepared for fire pretty extensively.
A couple of the windows were shattered as well, which had apparently prompted the residents to close the shutters. Heavy sheets of steel worked with geometric patterns in silver, they were tougher than the walls around them.
The front door was broken as well, cracked in half and lying on the ground fifteen feet from the door. But again, that hadn’t gotten the attackers much of anywhere. The gap in the wall was blocked by the security door, a slab of steel a foot thick with a silver core. I didn’t think they were going to have much luck getting through that door. I’d based the design on the vault doors they used on werewolf safe rooms, and built up from there.
It was impressive that they’d even managed to get that far, though. The windows and doors were still behind the wards, and we’d beefed those wards up heavily since Loki’s little announcement.
The attackers were also pretty easy to see. Selene had reported four of them, but there were only three in sight when we pulled up outside the building, two men and a woman. One of the guys was surrounded by vaguely canine shapes woven out of darkness, little more than vague shapes and gleaming teeth. Constructs, I was guessing, but not the sort I was used to dealing with. These were more temporary, the pattern of their construction not tied together as tightly. They were meant to be used, not to be kept or sold.
The woman, on the other hand, was surrounded by a nimbus of flame. It was a dull crimson in color, clinging tightly to her skin and flickering across her fingers. I noticed that it wasn’t actually touching her clothing, which looked to be a loose silk shirt and pants. She had impressively fine control over the fire, then. Odds were good the flames around her were as much a demonstration of that as anything.
The other guy had no obvious demonstration of his magic. He looked like just a normal guy, a fairly short fellow wearing a cheap suit and glasses with plastic frames. He actually had a pocket protector. I hadn’t realized they even made those anymore.
Of the three, I was by far most concerned about the third. The first two, I had some idea what they could do, what I had to worry about from them. Fire was a bitch to defend against, but I had a decent idea of how to go about it. I’d had lots of practice at it. It was probably the most common talent out there, after all. Constructs were a bit trickier, since they were potentially a lot more versatile. I’d never actually fought someone who specialized in making them that I could remember, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the real thing. But the constructs I’d fought in the past had been pretty wimpy, and while I was guessing these things were going to be tougher, I didn’t really expect them to be a serious threat.
The other guy, though? I didn’t know what to expect from him. Not at all. He didn’t look like much, but neither did most of the really terrifying people I’d dealt with. There were exceptions, but generally speaking, the people who you really had to worry about didn’t look like anything much.
“This one’s your show,” David said, handing the binoculars back to me. “How do you want to handle it?”
I grimaced. “Do you recognize any of them?”
“The guy with the dogs, I think,” he said. “His name’s…Bob, Bill, something like that. I’ve seen him around a few times. Seemed all right, as far as I could tell. I don’t know the other two.”
“Damn. If you know him, that probably means they’re legitimate.” I frowned, staring up the hill at them. “I can’t kill them out of hand, not if they’re really with a clan,” I said. “Not without getting myself into even more trouble. And I can’t afford to leave them be. That’d be hell on my rep, plus they’d probably do some serious damage to the house. So I guess that leaves talking.”
I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard a disappointed sigh from one of the minions.
“You’re with me, please, David,” I continued. “Having you around will make look a lot better, and hopefully they’ll hesitate to just set you on fire. Kyi, Nóttolfr, I want you somewhere they won’t see you and you can do some damage if necessary. On my signal, go after whoever I target first. After that, use your own best judgment. The rest of you, with me, hang back ten feet. Same instructions, bring down my first target fast and then use your own judgment. Jack, you’re playing defense; keep them off us if you can. Everyone clear?”
David said, “Clear.” The others just nodded.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s go.”
I felt almost naked as I started up the hill. I hadn’t thought to have Kyi bring my armor; I was so used to wearing the stuff that the notion of having someone else bring it for me was foreign.
Not that it would necessarily have done much good. My armor was good for a lot of things, but stopping heat transfer wasn’t really one of them, and in the past it had never really done me much good against fire. If those constructs were powerful enough to matter, and from the guy’s attitude I thought they were, odds were very good that they had a way to deal with it as well.
But still. It would have been nice to have it along. As a security blanket, if nothing else.
I didn’t have it, though, and there wasn’t much point in standing around wishing I did. So I tugged my shirt into place, made sure the knife on my belt was very obviously visible, and hiked up to where they were standing just outside my door.
“Hi,” I said, once I got close enough that they could see me. “Can I help you guys?”
Apparently I’d been quieter than I thought as I got close, because all three of them startled and turned in my direction. One of the constructs tensed as though it was about to charge me, but the guy standing with them put his hand on its back and it relaxed again.
“I don’t think so,” the man in the suit said. “Move along, please. This is none of your business.”
“See, it actually kind of is my business,” I said dryly. “On account of you’re standing outside my house.”
He turned his attention fully to me. “Are you Winter Wolf?” he asked.
“That’s me,” I said cheerfully. “And you are?”
“So you really weren’t here,” he said, ignoring my question completely. “It seems I owe your employee an apology. I had assumed she was lying in hopes that we would go away.”
“Nope, she was telling the truth.” I paused. “I mean, probably. I don’t know exactly what she told you, but I’m guessing she probably wasn’t lying. Anyway, I’m here now, so you can go ahead and leave.”
“I don’t think so,” he replied. “We’d like to have a chat with you about certain incidents.”
“More specifically, we’d like to pull out your guts and strangle you with them,” the guy with the dogs added helpfully.
“Ah,” I said. “Any chance I could talk you out of that?”
“I don’t think so,” he said, stroking the back of one of the constructs. It didn’t react. “I really, really don’t.”
The woman hadn’t said anything. But I noted that she was flexing her fingers rhythmically, and the flames around her were moving in time with that rhythm, flaring up and then dying back down to a slow, intermittent smolder.
“Hold up,” David said, stepping between us. “This man is doing good work. He’s making things better. Don’t you think you should at least hear him out?”
“You’re with the Guards, aren’t you?” the man in the suit asked him.
He nodded. “I thought so. I saw you back in Russia. You did a lot of good in the early stages of that mess.”
“Thanks,” David said cautiously. “I got taken out pretty early on. One of his creatures had a rifle, and I didn’t see it in time.”
“Happens to the best of us,” the man in the suit said sympathetically. “That’s a little disappointing, though. I thought you were a decent guy. I’m sorry to see you working with this man. Do you know what he did?”
“He hasn’t been convicted of anything that I know of,” David said. “And the only thing he’s even been accused of was killing someone who earned it ten times over.”
“He killed my grandmother,” the guy with the dogs snarled.
“And my mentors,” the one in the suit added. “Both of them, which is fairly impressive, when you think about it.”
I raised my hand. “Um,” I said. “Do you mean, like, a metaphorical grandmother?”
“No,” he said coldly. “My actual, literal grandmother.”
“Oh. Well, shit. Sorry?”
“Even if that is true,” David said, cutting off the inevitable and disastrous reply, “it’s beside the point. He hasn’t been convicted of anything, and he joined the Guards specifically to improve things. I think it’s the least you could do to let him have a fair trial.”
“We won’t get justice in a court,” the man in the suit said. “The system is corrupt, and he has too many friends in high places. The only way he’ll get what he deserves is if we do it ourselves.” He looked at David seriously. “Walk away, Guard. We don’t have anything against you.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then you’ve obviously been deluded by a dangerous criminal. And I won’t be responsible for what happens to you as a result.”
David nodded slowly. “So you want me to stand by while you illegally lynch a man who hasn’t been found guilty of anything, and who I’ve accepted as a comrade in arms, with all that implies. And you’re threatening to kill me as well if I don’t allow you to do this.”
“Pretty much,” the man in the suit said. “You seem to have an admirable grasp of the situation.”
“Well, I think there’s only one way to respond to that,” he said. Then he threw his arms forward, accompanied with a sudden, massive surge of power.
I’d seen air magic in use before. I considered it one of my stronger suits. I could do some fun tricks with it, and occasionally it even came in handy. I wasn’t spectacularly good at it, but I was decent.
That being said, nothing I’d ever done had come anywhere close to this. The sudden tide of air was more like a hurricane than a heavy breeze. It physically knocked people over, sent them sprawling and rolling across the ground. One of the constructs was actually lifted off the ground and thrown through the air, where it hit a tree and shattered into drifting shadows before dissipating entirely.
David staggered to the side a little, the effort of moving so much air so quickly obviously exhausting even for him. Then he started running for the door, a little bit unsteady on his feet, with the rest of us close behind him.