“That door doesn’t open from the outside!” I shouted at David, peeling off to the side. “Window!”
He instantly veered off to follow me, running impressively fast for a human. He practiced, regularly. The jötnar kept pace easily, of course, and the Guard mercenaries were pretty quick on their feet as well.
Just not quick enough. A burst of fire caught the hindmost of the mercenaries, wrapping him in the same dull scarlet flames the mage had been shrouded in until the wind blew them out. Except he didn’t have her control over the fire, and she wasn’t inclined to be merciful.
He died too fast for screaming, long before any of the rest of us could do a thing about it.
Well, that didn’t bode well. I could get through the window, sort of, but we still had the wards to contend with, and I hadn’t designed those with the intent of letting people through the windows easily. Not even me. I could break through them, but I couldn’t do it clean, and I couldn’t do it quick. I’d kind of been counting on that blast of wind buying me a window of opportunity to get inside the house, where we’d be in a much stronger position than we were now.
Except that I didn’t need that window, as it turned out. As we got close, I realized that the wards were gone. Not broken, not nonfunctional. Gone, like they’d never been there at all. And not just on the window, either. A quick sniff, even the most cursory of inspections, showed that there were no wards on the entire building.
Well, that wasn’t good. I mean, it meant that I could get inside more quickly, which might mean the difference between life and death right now. But it was very worrying in the long term.
And wasn’t that just my life in a nutshell? Bloody hell, this game was getting old.
But right now it was a good thing, sort of. It meant that Tyrfing chopped through the shutter over the window on the first try, rather than the third or fourth. I slashed at it again, planning to cut it out entirely, but I smelled more magic and there was screaming behind me and I could smell cooking meat and there was no more time to spend on this. So I bodily threw myself into the shutter, counting on physical strength and momentum to get me through.
Somehow, in the rush and the chaos, I’d forgotten that I didn’t have a shell of metal to protect me from the consequences of my own dumbassery right now.
It turns out that breaking down a heavy security shutter with your shoulder hurts. Rather a lot, in fact. I picked up some burns where I brushed against the silver inlay, and that hurt too.
Then I landed on the shattered glass of the window on the floor inside. That was worse. The clothing I was wearing was reinforced enough not to get cut, but it didn’t cover my hands, or my face. And even in the places that were covered, it still hurt landing on a bunch of small points. They might not break the skin, but that didn’t mean they were anything like comfortable.
I just lay on the floor for a few seconds, pondering what a foolish decision I’d just made. It was worth pondering. Although I supposed that I was still alive, just not very happy. Seen from that perspective, diving headfirst through a secured window onto broken glass actually might have been the best option.
And again, wasn’t that just typical?
After I indulged myself with a couple of seconds of self-pity, Aiko gave me a hand and I pulled myself to my feet. That drove a couple of the shards of glass further into my flesh, making me glad that I still didn’t have all that much feeling in my left hand. The pain that did get through was more than enough for my liking.
“That was a stupid thing to do,” she said, still holding my hand. I was leaving small, bloody marks on her armor. It didn’t stand out that much against the red and gold, but there’s no red quite like fresh blood.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I said. “Who’s the fourth guy? We only saw three out there.”
“He’s good with illusion,” she replied. “Making you see things that aren’t there, or not see things that are. Took us a bit to catch on to what he was doing.”
I tensed. “So he could have snuck in with us. He could be standing right next to us.”
“Maybe,” she drawled. “Or maybe he’s not actually as good as he thinks he is.” She reached out almost casually with her other hand, holding her tanto. I hadn’t quite noticed when she drew it.
I stood there looking silly for a couple seconds. Then a skinny man with features that made me think of a rodent faded into sight right behind me, with her knife in his abdomen.
“How?” he gasped, seeming more upset at having been caught than at having been stabbed. The pain hadn’t really set in yet.
“This is my game,” Aiko said, sounding almost insulted. “You didn’t seriously think you were going to beat me at it, did you?” She pulled her knife back out and then flicked it up and across his throat. He dropped like a puppet with its strings cut. Which, from some perspective, I supposed he was.
“Jesus Christ,” David said, staring. “You just killed him.”
“He was in my house, concealed, after announcing his intent to kill me,” I said. “If the clans want to challenge my claim that this was legitimately in defense of my life and territory, they’re welcome to try.” I looked at the body, confirming that it actually was a body. I was pretty sure it was. It looked very, very dead, and if it was an illusion this guy was one of the best I’d ever seen. “Throw him out the window,” I said. “It might make them hesitate. And someone work on closing that window. You should at least be able to hold that shutter in place, or nail it to the wall or something.”
“Jesus,” David said, as my minions hurried to comply. “That’s cold.”
“Yeah, well, so am I,” I said, as Snowflake hurried up to me. I scratched her head, smearing blood on her ears. Her jaws were already wet with…not blood, but whatever those constructs had instead. “Working for the Guards, I’d have thought you’d be used to killing by now.”
“I’ve killed people,” he said. “But I’ve never taken it that casually. And I usually at least try to solve things without murder.”
“We haven’t all had that luxury,” I said. A pair of the canine constructs jumped in through the open window, but they were cut down in seconds, and Kjaran slammed the shutter back into the opening a moment later, holding it in place by main force. Fire magic hit it a few seconds later, but with at least four jötnar actively focused on keeping it cold, she’d have a hell of a time heating it past mildly uncomfortable.
“I’d like to think that you could at least make the attempt,” David said.
I met his eye. “You’ve read my dossier,” I said. “You have an idea of what I’ve done. The people I’ve brought down. Do you really think I could have managed those things if I hesitated to solve problems in the most efficient way available to me?”
He blinked first, and looked away. “Was that guy telling the truth about you killing his grandmother?”
“How the hell should I know who his grandmother is?” I asked.
“That’s not an answer.”
I sighed. “David, let’s get real. I’ve killed a lot of people, okay? A whole lot. Some of them were probably somebody’s grandmother. It isn’t like I ask them first.”
“You’re still not answering my question,” he commented. “That worries me. Those people seemed to have something very specific in mind.”
“I killed Guide,” I said after a few seconds.
He blinked. “Wait. You mean, like, Guide? The one on the Conclave?”
“That’s the one,” I said. “I’m surprised they didn’t tell you.”
“I don’t really know,” I said, feeling very tired, and very hungry for something I couldn’t quite name. “This was back in Russia, towards the end. I…kind of called the Wild Hunt. I didn’t mean to, but it happened.”
“The Wild fucking Hunt?” he shouted. “How in hell did you call the Wild Hunt and not mean to?”
“It’s a long story,” I said defensively. “Loki kind of did it on my behalf. I don’t remember a lot of what happened after that, the things I did. It’s just a blur. We got the necromancer, but apparently somewhere along the way I also killed Guide.”
He just stared at me for about thirty seconds. Outside, the sounds of violence had stopped. Apparently, the mages were trying to figure out a new angle of attack.
“Jesus motherfucking Christ,” he said at last. “You know, they offered me double pay to come here. This was before you were joining up. That was just to work in the same city you live in. And I’m suddenly feeling like that isn’t remotely enough in the way of hazard pay.”
“I’m not that bad,” I protested.
He stood and stared at me.
“Okay, I might be kind of bad,” I admitted.
He continued to stare at me.
“All right, fine,” I said. “Double pay isn’t nearly enough for getting dragged into the mess that is my life. Happy now?”
Aiko laughed. So did Snowflake. And Selene. And most of my employees, actually.
David just looked back at the window. “They aren’t attacking,” he said. “They might be giving up.”
“Maybe for the moment,” I said. “What happened to the wards, anyway?”
“Don’t know,” Aiko said. “The guy in the suit walked up to the building with a bunch of the dogs to cover him. We took out the dogs from the window, but he touched the wall and the wards just unraveled like that.” She snapped her fingers. The gauntlets made it a somewhat difficult gesture to perform very well, even for her, but it got the point across.
“Wolf!” a voice shouted from outside, just barely loud enough to be heard through the shutters. It took me a second to recognize it as belonging to the guy in the suit. “We’re leaving now. You have the advantage here, and we all know it. But we’ll find you again, and we’ll kill you. You will face justice for what you’ve done. I promise you that.”
I snorted. There was an empty threat if I’d ever heard one. If justice existed at all, the world would look rather different than it did.
“Are they actually leaving?” I asked.
Kjaran pulled the shutter away from the wall, just a little, and Selene peeked outside. “Looks like it,” she said. “There’s the portal, and…yep, they’re gone. Took the dead one with them, too.”
“Good,” I said. “Start working on taking the house off lockdown. David, thanks for your help. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Bullshit,” he said, without any particular anger. “You’d have figured something out.”
“Yes, but I couldn’t have done it in this specific way without you, so that statement is still technically true. Anyway, your help is appreciated. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow for training. Probably best I get going, though, now they’re gone.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “We don’t want too much of an obvious connection between you and me. You want to wait for the door to be open?”
“The window’s fine with me,” he said. Kjaran pulled the shutter away as he got close, and he jumped out the window. Just as he hit the apex of his leap a roaring wind caught him under those wingsuit-style flaps of cloth, carrying him up and out of sight. I’d been right. He could literally fly.
I felt that spike of jealousy at the sight again, then turned to Selene. “I’m worried about how easily they took out the wards,” I said. “If he can do that, we’re going to have a hard time keeping this place secure. I’m thinking we need expert assistance with this one.”
“Meaning I want you to call Alexander,” I said.
It took more money to get Alexander to come out to the mansion than a lot of people made in a year. Even at that, I was guessing he only came because he liked me. Cash really didn’t mean a lot to someone like him.
When he did arrive, he and Legion spent around half an hour talking shop. I tried to participate in that conversation, thinking I could contribute something or at the very least learn something, but demon and wizard both brushed me off.
Not that I was missing a lot. They were talking about things a lot more abstract and theoretical than I was accustomed to working with. They lapsed into Greek and Latin sometimes, and even when they were speaking English I didn’t know a lot of the words they were using. The parts I did understand sounded like they were borrowing from a fairly impressive range of fields, everything from magical theory and philosophy all the way to computer science and information theory.
Finally, Alexander walked over to me. He was wearing a ratty old bathrobe, rather than the formal robes he wore in his role as the Maker of the Conclave, but there was still no missing the authority he carried. There was a sort of precise, calm confidence to his movements that spoke of power more clearly than any ostentation could. He held himself like a man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, but who could carry that weight.
I wondered idly whether he’d hid himself better when I was his apprentice, or I just hadn’t known to look.
“Looks like your guy is a specialist with abstract energies,” he told me. “His magic works on energy before takes it a physical form.”
“So…what? He can pull wards apart before they do anything?”
“Among other things,” Alexander said. “Odds are good that he’ll be able to unravel anything you build. You probably won’t be able to touch him with magic, either. You aren’t good enough to get anything through the kind of defenses this style of magic can put up.” His voice betrayed nothing but a detached interest, as usual.
“But he can’t actually do anything physical,” I said.
He shrugged. “It isn’t in line with what he did here, anyway. I wouldn’t count on him having no skills in other fields at all. But that isn’t really what you have to worry about from someone who can work with energies on that level.”
“What is?” I asked.
“What he breaks, he can also build. You tell me what you have to worry about from someone with that degree of control over the basic building blocks of magic.”
I thought about it, then groaned. “He can make people stronger, can’t he,” I said. “Other mages, I mean.”
Alexander smiled thinly. “Yes. Not literally, he’s feeding them energy to use rather than actually changing their capabilities, but the end result is much the same. That’s a basic enough application of this sort of thing that I would be very surprised if he can’t do it.”
“How much stronger are we talking here?”
He shrugged. “It depends on many things. The exact nature of his approach to magic, how much he and his partner have practiced together, how neatly their respective powers fit together, efficiency of transfer…it isn’t something that I can quantify or predict. But if he’s any good at it at all, it’s a substantial difference.”
“Wonderful,” I said sourly. “Okay, priorities. Wards. Can you set them up in a way that he can’t just take them down?”
“I can tie them to a physical structure,” he said. “That will make it considerably more difficult for his approach to affect them, and if he does unravel them it will be much, much easier to put them back in place. But it will take time, it will take materials, and it will be expensive.”
“Talk to Tindr,” I said. “The money can be arranged. In the meantime, I have to go pull some glass out of my skin.”
He smiled. “Good luck with that.” Then he turned back to Legion, going back to the conversation they’d been carrying on earlier. I felt a little like a child being told to go and play while the adults talked about business.
Which I was fine with, honestly. Abstract theory and mathematical modeling had always been my least favorite parts of magic. If I could spend a fortune to get Maker to do that work for me, it was a fortune well spent.
Astonishingly, the next few days passed without much incident. I did the training with the Guards, and while the others were clearly not comfortable around me, we were learning to work as a unit. We were getting more efficient. That was all we could really expect, I was guessing.
I got jumped by constructs a handful of times, but I didn’t see the actual mages again. The constructs were no threat to me, of course. I broke them without even really paying attention to them. I knew I’d have to deal with their maker eventually, along with his associates—I didn’t for a moment believe that they’d given up. But for the moment, it wasn’t too much of a problem.
Alexander got to work on the wards, although other people were doing most of the work. He drew up the plans, and the housecarls did the grunt work of installing the physical structures that would act as the skeleton for the wards. He put in around an hour a day, which was still more expensive than the material cost—and that wasn’t cheap. But I could afford to throw a few million at this project. If it worked, it would be worth it and then some.
And then, finally, the day I was supposed to meet with the Pack rolled around. We took a portal to Chicago, then bought a car to drive to the suburb where the meeting was being held. I wasn’t doing public transportation. I hadn’t ever liked public transit at the best of times, and from what I’d heard, Chicago after dark was pretty far from the best of times.
Aiko drove about three times faster than was safe for anyone involved, and skidded to a stop out front of the warehouse. She grinned at me and shut off the stereo.
“You know,” I commented, “it isn’t that I have anything against songs about insane asylums being converted into brothels, exactly. But did they actually have a little girl doing the vocals for it? Because that would be fairly messed up.”
“Nah,” she said. “That was just the nightcore remix. So are we going in?”
“You’re sure you want to come?” I asked dubiously.
“Hey, I’m allowed,” she said. “Kitsune are technically allied with the Pack. And I have two tails now, so I’m not a total chump. They don’t want to let me in, they can suck both of them.”
“As much as that mental image is now dominating my thoughts,” I said, “that wasn’t actually what I meant. Do you want to come? Because odds are good this is going to be ridiculously boring and aggravating.”
“See, here’s the thing,” she said. “Mostly I only get to see your unique ability to turn any situation into a total clusterfuck while we’re actually fighting. I’m looking forward to seeing it in action in a diplomatic setting, and I’m not actually allowed into diplomatic settings all that often.”
“If you say so,” I said dubiously. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. Let’s do this, then.”