I was sure something would go wrong on the way out of the party. Lucius would stop us, or a gang of monsters would be waiting when we made it back out to the dance floor, or those drugs Aiko had grabbed would turn out to be less harmless than she’d thought. Hell, even if the guards just didn’t let us out, that would potentially be a very big problem.
But none of those things happened. The most dangerous thing waiting when we got out into the main room was pounding music, a nausea-inducing lightshow, and an instant headache. The wendigo—Annabel, according to Lucius, though I had my doubts as to whether the concept of a name was even applicable to such a creature—was standing near the door into the back hallways. It just smiled at us as we passed. There were scraps of meat in its teeth, fresh since the last time I saw it. No surprise; a wendigo was always hungry. It was almost the definition of what they were.
The party itself was going at about the same pace, or a little slower. The atmosphere was a little different, a little less frenetic. There were fewer people dancing, and more people partied out and collapsed in the corners. It wasn’t just the food, either. Even most of the monsters were slowing down.
The guards waved us out without question or comment. Presumably Lucius had told them not to bother us.
That, or they weren’t actually keeping people in at all. Now that I thought about it I wasn’t sure I’d actually seen them stop anyone. I’d just been assuming that it was a sort of pitcher plant, a lure to get the prey inside and the goons to keep them from leaving once they realized what they’d gotten themselves into.
In an odd way, that was more comforting than the alternative—that Lucius was being honest, and these people were here because they wanted to be. Even knowing what happened here, what was going to happen to them, they didn’t want to leave. That was an incredibly disturbing prospect. I knew that some people glorified leeches, but for it to be happening on this scale and to this degree was something else.
I was feeling deeply, deeply unsettled as we climbed out of the basement up into the cleaner air of the street.
I took a moment, once we were out, to breathe deep and clear my head. Just being down there left me feeling dirty, in a way I couldn’t quite explain. The funny thing was that it wasn’t like this was the worst thing I’d ever seen. Not by a long shot. There was just something about it that bothered me to a rather disproportionate extent.
“Well, I’m not sorry to leave that behind,” Aiko said, echoing my thoughts. She shook her head briskly. “I’d forgotten how nasty those parties were.”
“Have you gone to many?” I asked.
She shrugged. “A few. They were never really my thing, but I used to know some people that went to them all the time, and I tagged along a few times. Not many. Is it just me, or is that guy down the block looking this way a little too closely?” The segue was smooth, without even a hitch to mark the transition.
“Yeah,” I said, not looking directly at him. I didn’t need to. Alexandria, it turned out, was a decent city for raccoons. “You want to go check it out?”
“I’m undecided. On the one hand, he’s probably with this mysterious rival trying to take over the city, which means that going over there is basically guaranteed to get us involved with a mess that’s none of our business. On the other, not knowing what the fight’s about is going to drive me crazy.”
I shrugged. “If you’re that curious, I’m fine with heading over and finding out.” I started walking in that direction.
Aiko had to hurry for a few steps to catch up. “Are you serious?” she asked, drawing even with me.
“Yup,” I said. “See, I’ve heard the whole ‘you’re free to go and I won’t coerce you into making a deal’ line before. In my experience, they pretty much always find some way of roping me into it anyway. So I figure we might as well beat him to it and at least go check it out.”
“That’s an exceptionally cynical way to look at it,” she commented.
“Not an inaccurate one, though.”
“Nope. Oh look, he noticed us.”
Sure enough, the guy had clearly realized that we were walking towards him deliberately, and not just coincidentally wandering in his direction. He looked like he wanted to bolt, but couldn’t quite make up his mind.
I wasn’t in the mood to chase him down. Especially not in a city I’d literally never set foot in before tonight. I was guessing that I was faster than him, but raw speed didn’t necessarily guarantee success in chasing someone down. Not when he knew every twist and turn, every back street and hidey-hole around.
So as we got closer, I raised my hands to display that there were no weapons in them. I wasn’t sure whether I had a language in common with him, but some messages are universal.
Aiko’s was another of those. She had her carbine out and pointed in his general direction as we got closer. Which was probably sending a bit of mixed messages, but I thought we were getting the point across. We were here to talk, and unless he was faster than a bullet running wasn’t the best option for him.
“You come from the monster house,” he said as we got within about fifteen feet. His English was rough, at best, but I could more or less figure out what he was saying.
“Yeah,” I said. I was trying to get a grasp on him, and it was hard. He stank of chlorine, to such an extent that I was almost sneezing fifteen feet away from him. I couldn’t remember having run into magic that smelled quite like that in the past. The closest I could think of were a couple of mages who’d had a note of bleach to the standard human disinfectant.
“They tell you to kill me?” he asked. He seemed fairly comfortable for a guy with a gun pointed at him.
I shrugged. “Maybe,” I said. “The guy that owns that place wanted me to take out some enemy of his. He might have meant you; I’m not sure. I told him I wasn’t interested.”
“And he let you leave?”
I snorted. “For the moment. In my experience people like him always find a way to drag you back in somehow. But enough about me. I want to talk about you. More specifically, why you’re so interested in what’s going on over there.”
“You no like the people there, yeah?” he said. “Us either. They are evil. So we work against them. Tonight we heard that they have many people here, so I come to watch and see if this is true.”
“Okay,” I said.
Then Aiko sneezed.
I knew what that meant. The reason that scent seemed odd was that it wasn’t magic. He just actually smelled like chlorine.
On its own that wasn’t such a bizarre thing. A lot of people smelled like chlorine, at least by my standards. My sense of smell was acute enough that I could sometimes pick it up even if someone just washed their clothes with chlorine bleach.
But this was something else. This guy stank like a swimming pool. It wasn’t just me and Aiko. Normal humans would notice this stench. They’d probably give him a wide berth to avoid it.
There weren’t very many reasons to smell that strongly of chlorine. Given that I knew he was here to deal with his enemies, the only one that really came to mind was poison gas. Chlorine was an old chemical weapon, but it was still nasty.
Except that it was an asphyxiant. Chlorine had other effects, but it was strongest by far when it got into your lungs.
And vampires didn’t breathe.
The second I put that together, everything clicked into place. Just to be sure, though, I looked at him and said, “That gas won’t work on the monsters.”
He twitched, obviously caught by surprise. It took him a second to recover his composure. “It isn’t for the monsters,” he said after a few seconds.
Of course not. I almost laughed. “The humans in there are the victims,” I said. “They don’t deserve to die.”
“They are food. The monsters will be less without them.”
I nodded. “You set this up, didn’t you?” I said conversationally. “You arranged this whole thing. Well played.”
“I do not understand.”
“Not talking to you,” I murmured. “You might as well come out now. You’ve made your point.”
There was no warning. No hint of movement. Lucius just appeared next to the man, and snapped his neck in an instant, with a flick of his fingers.
“Bit of a drama queen, aren’t you?” I asked. “You told them to show up tonight?”
“Through certain channels,” he confirmed. “They knew it was a trap, of course, but their responses are somewhat predictable.”
I nodded. “How did you know I’d follow up on it?”
“The same reason that I know you can’t tolerate this attack,” he said. “I know you, Wolf. I know you better than you know yourself. You’re as bad as Voltaire, in your own way. You may disapprove of the choices my guests make, but you’ll defend to the death their right to make those choices. That goes for you as well, of course,” he added, nodding to Aiko. “But I think we all knew that.”
“And this is a typical attack for them?” I asked.
“This is the first time they’ve tried something quite like this,” he said. “But it’s very much in keeping with their general approach, yes.”
I groaned. “Fine,” I said. “Give me the info.”
He smiled and handed me a sealed envelope. “I thought you might say that,” he added unnecessarily. “Have a pleasant evening.” He tipped a fiercely violet hat and disappeared as suddenly as he’d shown up.
“See?” I said to the corpse. “I told you they always find a way to pull you back in. Come on, we have a car to set on fire. I’m very definitely feeling the need for that pick-me-up right about now.”