I had some warning, some reason to expect things to get ugly. Not a whole lot of warning, but it’s amazing how much difference even a couple of seconds can make when it comes to that sort of thing.
It was enough time for me to brace myself. It was enough time to be ready for something bad to happen, even if I didn’t have any real idea what it would be.
The explosion wasn’t that large, but that was the kind of phrase that had to be appreciated on a relative scale. It didn’t level the building. It didn’t instantly kill anything and everything inside. It only really took out one wall.
But even a small explosion was still a force to be reckoned with. It threw me to the ground, knocked the wind out of me, and generally took the fight right out of me.
I was dazed for a second before I started pushing myself to my feet. Next to me, Aiko was also struggling back to her feet, grabbing for a knife as she did.
It was hard to figure out what was going on. The air was filled with smoke and dust, and most of the lights were out. The ones that were still on were flickering, casting the room into a chaotic mess of light and shadow.
About half the people in the room had been knocked out of their seats. It was worst next to the wall that had been demolished, a short distance to my right. Very few of the people sitting there were still sitting there, and a couple of the ones that had been knocked down didn’t look like they’d be getting back up. It was hard to say whether that impression was accurate—this was a Pack meeting, after all. Werewolves had a well-earned reputation for being quite hard to put down for good, and they weren’t the toughest creatures in the Pack. Even the people that looked like they’d been shattered by the force of the blast might be running around good as new in half an hour.
Maybe ten seconds after the explosion, people started rushing in through the gap in the wall. They moved like they knew what they were doing in a fight, and they were well-equipped. Each of them had some sort of bulky goggles strapped to their heads, and they carried assault rifles.
When they walked into the room, they started shooting.
They weren’t just spraying the room, the way amateurs would have. This was skilled, disciplined shooting, laying down tight, focused fire. One of the bullets glanced off my armor, and I felt a spike of pain even though it hadn’t penetrated. Silver, and heavily charged with magic.
The moment that happened, two things passed through my mind. The first was that I was sitting in a room with a hell of a lot of backup, for once in my life. Without even factoring in the people whose nature I wasn’t clear on, there was enough firepower in this room to level a city.
The second was that with the poor visibility, they didn’t necessarily know where to direct that firepower.
When I looked at it like that, it was pretty easy what I should do. I reached out and called the wind.
I wasn’t David. I couldn’t whip up a gale that shredded people like razors, or crushed them with the sheer force of its passing. I wasn’t walking artillery.
But I had something of a knack with air magic, and I had my bracelet to use as a focus, making the process much quicker and more efficient. And I was willing to throw a lot of power into this. The wind I conjured up wasn’t really a weapon, but it cleared away most of the dust and smoke in a couple of seconds, making it much easier to see what the hell was going on.
There were fifteen or so of the people with guns. They were identically equipped, and they were moving as a unit. These people had worked together before, enough to work together well. Between that and the quality of their equipment, I was fairly confident these people were professionals.
A couple of seconds after I cleared the air, one of the shapeshifters gestured, and sent a wave of fire at the gunmen.
It washed over them without so much as singing their clothes, though the building around them was left smoldering in its wake.
“Your sorcery can’t touch us,” one of the gunmen said, with a surprising amount of swagger in his voice for someone who’d just come within inches of being set on fire. “We’re protected.”
The skinwalker stood. I wasn’t entirely sure why I was aware of that. I could barely see her out of the periphery of my vision, and it sure wasn’t like she was the only person moving. But there was something about her that drew the attention, for no discernible reason. Elsewhere I might not have tried to put a label on the feeling, but here I could just label it dominance. She wasn’t a werewolf, but many of the same concepts applied, and I had the distinct impression that she’d have been one hell of a dominant wolf.
“You’re warded,” she said, sounding totally casual and confident. From what I’d seen of skinwalkers, I didn’t think that confidence was unjustified. “But not well enough.”
She didn’t gesture or otherwise show any sign of effort. But the guy that had been bragging broke. I couldn’t explain it any better than that. It was hard to see from where I was standing, but I was pretty sure that every joint in his body bent backwards, all at once.
He crumpled to the ground, instantly. He didn’t scream. I got the impression that his body probably didn’t have the structural integrity to breathe anymore, which made it pretty hard to scream.
But he tried.
After that, the fight was short, ugly, and entirely one-sided. Most of the mages didn’t seem able to get through whatever wards the gunmen had. I didn’t even try. Most of the people that preferred to mix it up in hand-to-hand were still dazed, off-balance, and too far away to take full advantage of their physical superiority. The gunmen had practically the perfect position.
But they’d tried to attack Conn Ferguson with just a handful of guys with rifles.
They never had a chance. I wondered whether they knew it.
The terrifying thing about Conn, on the very rare occasion that he let his real face show through the harmless mask, was that he didn’t look half as terrifying as he ought to. He didn’t turn into the Incredible Hulk, didn’t transform into a monster. He still looked like a teenage kid, short and slender, closer in build to a mildly athletic geek than a bodybuilder.
Right up until you looked at his eyes. Conn’s eyes had always shown the truth behind the lie he told the world. His eyes looked old, and full of a bitter wisdom that no human had ever matched.
Now, I saw all of that, and also the violent wrath of the most dominant werewolf on the planet with someone trespassing on the territory he’d claimed.
I met his eyes for maybe all of a quarter of a second, then I looked straight at the ground, my head bowed. I damn near knelt, and if there hadn’t been a fight I probably would have. Conn typically didn’t care about open displays of submission; he was the boss, and he knew that with a certainty that made display unnecessary. But just now, I wanted to make it very clear that I was not his enemy.
He didn’t seem to be moving particularly quickly as he crossed the room. He wasn’t moving in a way that suggested he was running, his attitude wasn’t terribly rushed. But somehow he crossed the distance in less than a second.
They tried to shoot him, which almost made me laugh. I could have told them that was a waste of time. They couldn’t hit him on the best day they ever had, and even if they somehow pulled it off, it was just an assault rifle firing silver bullets. That was something you used on a werewolf, and this was the Khan.
He walked through them, and then he walked out the other side, not slowing down.
After he passed, they were dead. All of them. He hadn’t even grabbed a weapon. He didn’t need one. His bare hands were more than enough to get the job done. He shattered spines through their body armor, crushed skulls under their helmets, and he wasn’t even trying.
Conn continued out through the hole in the wall. A few people joined him—the French werewolf, the skinwalker, a couple of people I didn’t recognize. I didn’t bother following. Anything that crew couldn’t handle was so far out of my league I couldn’t even be a credible annoyance.
Aiko stared at the wreckage left behind for a couple of seconds. “Damn,” she said, putting the kind of weight on the word that was usually reserved for names of deities. “Überwerewolf has his angry hat on today.”
“That wasn’t angry,” I said. “Not really. You can tell by how the building’s still standing.”
She grinned. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew her well enough to see it in her posture. When Aiko really grinned, she did it with her full body. “You aren’t laughing,” she commented after a moment.
“I wasn’t joking,” I said. “Come on, we should check on the injured.”
There were only three dead, which was probably a minor miracle. One werewolf had taken a silver bullet in the eye in the first barrage of gunfire, and died instantly. Werewolves were tough creatures, but there were limits. A shapeshifter had been caught in the crossfire between two of the attackers, and took a couple dozen rounds in two seconds. Shapeshifters were tougher than humans, from what I’d seen, but again, there were limits.
The last corpse was the kitsune who had spoken up earlier. Aiko paused by that body, looking down at him.
“Did you know him?” I asked, more out of a vague feeling that I should say something than because the question made much sense.
“Nah,” she said. “Like, I knew who he was, but we never really talked. I just feel a little bad for threatening to tell people his son raped me when I was nineteen. Probably not a great experience to go out on.”
“Did he? Rape you, I mean.”
“Nope,” she said cheerfully. “But he didn’t know that. It was a pretty believable story. That kid was the kind who’d have done it if he thought he could get away with it. Nobody cried when somebody stuck a needle in his ear.”
“I thought people were laughing when you reamed this guy out,” I said after a moment. “Nothing you’ve said so far sounds funny in the least.”
“I said other things too,” she said.
I considered her for a moment. “You know what?” I said at last. “I’m not even going to ask.”
She grinned. “Smart move.”
And then we moved on, leaving the dead kitsune on the ground behind us.
There were more injured than dead, and I spent a minute trying to figure out what I should do for first aid, or triage. Then I realized how silly that was. These people were shapechangers, of one stripe or another. That was the whole point. That was what the Pack was. That particular talent wasn’t universally tied to a superhuman capacity for healing—Aiko was a great example of that. But there was a lot of overlap, and it looked like all the injured here were in the category that didn’t spend a lot on medical bills. If they weren’t already dead, they’d probably be fine.
So we just sat and waited for the people who’d gone out hunting to get back. Snowflake came in and sprawled across my lap, more for comfort than anything else, I thought. She tended to get stressed when things happened while she wasn’t around. She thought things went poorly for me under those circumstances. Considering how often she’d been right, I didn’t have a lot of grounds to argue with her.
After a few minutes, Conn walked back in, followed by the other people who’d followed him. He’d managed to get the blood cleaned up—I wasn’t even going to ask how he’d managed that—and looked like his usual self once again.
“Seems like it was just this group,” he said, taking me and Aiko off to a quiet corner of the room. “We’ve tangled with these people. They’re paramilitary, a bunch of people from police and military backgrounds with a hate on for magic. As far as we can tell they’re mostly going after werewolves, probably because it’s a target they don’t instantly lose against.”
“How did I not know about this?” I asked.
He shrugged. “There’s a lot to know about right now,” he said. “And these guys are new. Small-scale, so far, and they weren’t on the scene before things changed. You’ve had a lot on your plate since then, from what I’ve heard.”
“We all have,” I said dryly.
He chuckled. “Yes, well, I can’t argue with that. In any case, these people aren’t that much of a threat. They’re small-scale, and I don’t really see them hanging around that long. Too much opposition, not enough numbers. They’ve been more of an annoyance than a problem so far.”
I frowned. “Do they usually have warded armor?” I’d managed to track the protections down to spells woven into the body armor. It was solid work, generic and mass produced, but solid.
“That’s new,” he said. He didn’t say that he’d have known if they were wearing it before. Some things were just a given.
I nodded. “I thought so. And how’d they even know where this meeting was being held? No, I think there’s something more to it than that. At a guess, some people I annoyed were using them to get at me.”
He narrowed his eyes slightly. “Something you need a hand with?”
I shuddered. “God, no. I’m already on thin ice politically, here. The last thing I need is to get in more trouble by bringing werewolves into mage business. No, the only thing you can help me with right now is making sure I don’t have to worry about the Pack too, I think.”
“That should be dealt with,” he said. “You’d mostly convinced people already, and then when we were attacked, you instantly started helping. That says a lot. I talked to some other people while we were out chasing accomplices, and I think you’re in the clear.”
I relaxed a little. “Good. Thanks. I’ve got enough people after me without adding you guys.”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re leaving, then?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I think we’ve both got enough things to keep us very busy right now.”
“Yes,” he said again. “Good luck, Winter.”