“Unbelievable,” I said, watching a car burn. It crackled rather nicely.
“What’s that?” Aiko asked, warming her hands. It was just for show, of course; it wasn’t that cold out.
“Since when do I help vampires?” I asked. “Yet here we are. Lucius is one of the biggest, baddest vampires out there, and I’m seriously planning how to deal with his enemies.”
“You making any progress on that?” she asked.
I glowered at the papers he’d given me. “Not much,” I admitted. “He wouldn’t have bothered asking if it was easy. Plus they’re human. I’m…a bit out of practice at fighting humans, honestly.”
The files he’d given us had been fairly straightforward. The group he was competing with was almost entirely human, just a bunch of people with no real connection to the supernatural at all. But they were also aware of who he was, and what he was, and they weren’t happy about it. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that they had a bizarrely good track record when it came to acting on that dislike.
They’d killed four vampires so far. That, really, was all that I needed to hear. Human beings did not kill vampires without either getting very lucky or having something special going for them. One or two I could explain away with luck, but four? That was a bit beyond what could be attributed to random chance. Even if they managed to hit all four of them in the daytime, it couldn’t have been easy. In my experience a decent proportion of vampires were still conscious and lethal when the sun was up, and the rest tended to be paranoid. Even finding their lairs was usually a struggle, and they had plenty of protections in place once you made it in.
There were only three ways that I could think of for a group of plain vanilla humans to manage that feat. The first was that their targets had whatever members of the neighborhood they happened to be annoyed with at the time, rather than actual vampires. Given the source of the information, I thought I could safely rule that explanation out. The second was that the entire thing was an elaborate deception of some kind. Given the source of the information, that seemed remarkably likely, but it was hard to figure out the details, if it was.
The third explanation I could think of involved major weapons. Not just guns and stakes, but things like bombs and fires. The kind of weapons that would inflict serious collateral damage, especially in the middle of a major city.
Considering that I already had solid evidence to suggest that they were willing to use toxic gas on people, that sounded disturbingly plausible. By the time you were even contemplating that, you’d taken a few steps beyond caring about collateral damage. I mean, I had some problems of that sort myself, and even I cringed at the thought of what they’d had planned.
Unfortunately, that didn’t give me any better idea of how to track them down. Alexandria wasn’t exactly a small town. Hunting down a group of humans in that crowd was nearly impossible.
Oh, it was hard to find other things in a city as well. A vampire or werewolf could hide very well indeed in a city of almost five million. It could be like finding a needle in a haystack. But this was more like finding a needle in a needlestack. It was just as hard to locate it, if not harder. More than that, though, even if I did find them, I’d have a hard time knowing it.
“I still wonder why he even needs us,” Aiko said. “I mean, he can obviously handle this. They’re just people, and he’s…not.”
“They’re people who’re expecting him, and have a proven track record of beating vampires,” I pointed out. “There’s a difference.”
“Does it matter? He’s like two thousand years old, right?”
“Yeah, and he didn’t get to be that old by doing what people were expecting from him.” I shook my head. “I’m sure he could take them head-on, but that isn’t how he operates. It’s not how his brain is wired, you know? He’s all about manipulation, schemes, hitting people when they don’t expect him. And he’s paranoid. He must have been, to live this long. No, it makes perfect sense for him to want someone else to deal with this.”
“Are you dealing with it, then?”
I shrugged. “I figured I’d ask you, see if you had anywhere else to be. But at the moment my inclination is to say yeah. Having Lucius owe us one is worth quite a bit. Particularly when the only thing we have to do to get it is kill some people that honestly sort of deserve it.”
I felt a bit uncomfortable saying that. It was hard to admit that they did deserve it. They were trying to do the right thing, after all. In their own way, I really thought that they were trying to do the right thing. But the lengths they went to in that effort were too much.
“It is kind of nice to be working with the system for once,” Aiko said meditatively. “I spent so long on the other side it almost feels weird.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “Although it’s not as nice as I thought it would be. It’s not like we’re actually getting any help out of it.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully. “I think we might be able to get some assistance. It’s just a matter of knowing what to ask for.”
“What do you have in mind?”
She told me.
I stared at her for a few seconds after she was finished. The only sound was the crackling of the flames.
“Well, it’ll work,” I said, after a few moments, my tone a mix of admiration and disgust.
“Of course it will,” she said. “Just like old times, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s basically the first trick we ever pulled together,” she said. “Almost brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it?”
“Not quite,” I said. “Well, we might as well get started with setup. Tomorrow night we can do it.”
“Yep,” she said, grinning. I couldn’t help but smile as well, and felt guilty for doing it. I shouldn’t feel happy about this plan, but it was so slick I couldn’t help it.
The next eighteen hours were a blur of frantic activity. I stopped in at Lucius’s, where the party was pretty much over. The music had changed to ambient electronica, and quieted down; the lights were dimmer, and slower. The room had emptied out considerably, and most of the people who were left were out cold.
Lucius was still up in his office, though, looking out over the room. As expected, once I’d explained our plan he was more than happy to loan us a vamp. He seemed to find our scheme deeply amusing; he was still grinning as I left.
I hugged Aiko, and then took off for Italy. In Milan, I found Jacques and reminded him that that request for info on Lucius had been an urgent one. He griped about that, and more when I added the vampire hunters to the list, but a few thousand dollars shut him up.
Next I imported half a dozen jotnar and twice as many ghouls to Alexandria, along with a couple of mages that were rather important to my plan. Aiko’s plan, really, but I was the one making it work. She was good at a lot of things, but logistics weren’t really one of them. Snowflake came with, bouncing excitedly. She was looking forward to this.
Once they were settling into the city, I went back to Colorado Springs to manage my plans. I finally had those meetings that I’d been putting off. Selene had made appropriate reparations for the shop that Aiko had burned, but there was nothing quite like a personal touch with that sort of thing. The new wards needed their final checks, and I had to finish paying Alexander for his work. That entailed a long chat with Tindr, since Alexander’s payment was the kind of thing that put a noticeable dent in even my budget.
Once that was done, it was time to go chat with the Guards and keep up my identity as Jonathan Keyes, better known as Shrike. Things weren’t great there. Tawny was clearly out of sorts about the creature she’d summoned and which I’d arranged to have stick around, and she was terrible at keeping secrets. Everyone could feel that there was something uncomfortable between her and me. They came to some rather hilariously wrong conclusions about it, though. The general consensus seemed to be that she’d tried to hit on me and gotten nowhere. The comments on that topic got laughs from both of us.
That was damn near the only positive thing about that situation, though. David wasn’t happy about how little time I’d been spending with the group, and even less happy when I told him that I had other work to do again the next day. The others didn’t ask questions, but I could tell they were burning with curiosity about what was so urgent.
If the intention had been to set myself apart from the rest of the group, I was starting to think that I’d been too successful. There had already been a fair amount of tension there, but now it was a constant presence, impossible to ignore. More importantly, it was starting to reach the point of being a problem. Almost all of them could plausibly screw me over at this point, and with that relationship in its current state I wasn’t sure they wouldn’t.
It would be hard to change the first impression I’d made, though, and it was a delicate balancing act between the dangers of alienating them too much and all the reasons I’d wanted distance to begin with.
And I just didn’t have the time right now. As soon as I’d made my excuses, it was back to my other crew to check on the thing from the Badlands, since Tawny had reminded me about her. I eventually found her sitting on the roof, seemingly asleep. The cold and snow didn’t seem to bother her any more than me.
I didn’t wake her. She looked bizarrely peaceful in her sleep, and I got the impression that it had been a long time since she last slept. I’d have felt bad disturbing her rest. And besides, I still had a lot to do. I confirmed the financial transfers Tindr wanted to make to settle out various debts, grabbed Kyi’s latest report to read, and then started on the next portal.
Another couple of hours went by as I was picking up various useful tools from our castle in Romania, largely because I had to pause and make one of them. I’d used the last of my disposable alarm wards a while earlier, and forgotten to get more. The one I made was reverse engineered from that design, and it was at best a crude copy. But it was functional, and it wasn’t like I cared how long it would last. If it went twelve hours without being used, I’d be quite surprised.
Then it was back to Egypt, where it was already well into morning. I did one more check to make sure that everyone knew the plan, then ate a solid five pounds of meat and crashed for a few hours in the house we’d taken over as our temporary headquarters. I didn’t need to sleep, but I’d thrown quite a bit of magic around on all those portals, and sleep would help me recover faster. It also kept me from obsessing over whether every detail of the plan was right, which was a good thing.
Snowflake licked my face around an hour before dusk, waking me up. Come on, she said. It’s almost time to go.
I groaned and pushed myself upright. “Fine,” I growled, getting out of the couch. “Tell me there’s food.”
Vigdis picked up some fast food. I think she probably bought them out of stock, actually.
“Close enough,” I said, tugging my armor on. I hadn’t taken most of it off, of course. Sleeping in armor was all kinds of uncomfortable, but I’d cope.
Snowflake hadn’t exaggerated the quantity of food involved. Jötnar and ghouls eat a lot, and there were a lot of them here. Add in the rest of us, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Vigdis had needed to bring along a minion to carry it all.
I practically inhaled two of the cheapest hamburgers I’d ever laid eyes on, and grabbed a third as I headed out to survey the scene and make sure it was ready.
I had to admit, I was impressed with how well it had been arranged. The alley was already narrow, but carefully placed heaps of garbage cut the space down further. There were two snipers with a good line of sight, though I could only see them through the eyes of a raven. The entrances to the alley were rigged to collapse on trigger, leaving anyone inside nowhere to run. The bombed-out shop across from the house was still boarded up, but it was mostly for show. From the inside, the door would open smooth and easy.
We were ready.
The vampire showed up about half an hour after dusk. It wasn’t Lucius, or anyone like him. This one could have passed for a living teenager with minimal effort, and while appearances could be deceiving, in this case I thought it wasn’t too inaccurate. He’d have sent one of his weakest minions for this.
“I’m guessing that Lucius told you to follow my orders, and that you’d die horribly if you failed him,” I said, standing in the street outside our carefully prepared alley.
The vampire grinned. “Good guess,” he said.
“If she gets hurt, I’ll do worse,” I said.
“How cute,” Aiko said dryly, pushing me away. “Come on, let’s do this thing.” She grabbed the vampire’s hand and simpered at me.
I snorted and walked into the alley, doing my best to make it look like I was throwing a temper tantrum. The vampire leaned into Aiko, nuzzling her neck. Not biting, if he knew what was good for him. I hadn’t been bluffing.
I walked into the house and settled in to wait with the rest, wrapping shadows around us. The others layered on their own concealments, of whatever sort, until we were practically undetectable.
The same as our first trick, sort of. Except turned inside out. Way back when, we’d used Aiko as bait, counting on our enemies’ nature as predators to drive them to attack vulnerability.
This time we were counting on…well, more or less the opposite of that.
I almost felt bad about it. Almost.