It didn’t take long for the target to show up. Or targets, more accurately. There were four of them. They were all human, or else they were very good facsimiles of human. They looked human, they smelled human, they moved human. There were three males and one female, ranging from around eighteen to a solid fifty in age.
In spite of everything, I had to respect them. It takes a lot of courage, as a plain old human being, to go up against a vampire. They clearly understood the danger. I could see the fear in the way they carried themselves. They knew what they were letting themselves in for.
And they were willing to do it anyway. For the sake of a stranger.
Those were brave people. A bit dumb, but brave.
The oldest of them, a grizzled man who looked like he’d lived through more than one war, raised a scrap of paper and begin to recite something in Arabic. A prayer, most likely.
The vampire recoiled at the sound, and it wasn’t faking. Genuine expressions of faith were uncomfortable to vampires, even painful, and I supposed that theoretically they could be lethal. It was a complex reaction, one that had a lot to do with how malevolent spirits could be warded away with similar expressions of faith. A spirit was repelled because it was a creature of thought and meaning, and the meaning being expressed was one that was antithetical to its nature. It was something like acids and bases; the one opposed the other, potentially canceling it if there was enough of it.
Vampires weren’t spirits. But they were utterly dependent on their stolen life force, and their grasp on that life force was fragile. That was the root of many of their weaknesses, really. Anything that challenged that grasp was something they would instinctively avoid. It weakened them, and it could potentially kill them. That was why they couldn’t tolerate the sunlight, it was why they couldn’t enter a home without invitation, and it was why they were repelled by faith.
Against, say, Lucius I doubted this would have done anything. He was old enough, and powerful enough, that a great many things that worked on lesser vampires wouldn’t do much to him.
But this guy was a newbie. And when the man presented that scrap of paper—a written prayer, perhaps?—and started reciting the words of his genuine, strongly held faith, the vampire flinched. He began retreating into the alleyway, carrying Aiko with him.
I watched that part carefully. I really hadn’t been bluffing earlier. I was sure that Lucius could be enormously cruel to those that displeased him, but I was also sure that Loki could trump him any day, and if this vamp hurt Aiko I fully intended to hand him over to the mad god. I was certain that Loki would be overjoyed to take him.
But it looked like he was playing his assigned role. Aiko looked like she was scared and in pain—and she sure as hell played her role up, shrieking and kicking—but the reality was that he was holding her quite gently. It was harmless.
The vampire hunters bit. They bit hard. The four of them rushed into the alley after the vamp, calling out in Arabic. I didn’t understand them—I had no grasp at all on that language, though I’d at least heard enough from Aiko to recognize it—but it wasn’t hard to figure out what they might be saying.
“Showtime,” I said, returning my consciousness to my own body. There were some nods and murmurs as the order was passed down the line.
A few seconds later, someone cut a rope. The mechanisms holding the walls in place disengaged. I could hear the buildings collapse, cutting off the alley with several tons of debris. It was a fairly impressive crash; we’d basically collapsed large chunks of the buildings on either side into the alleyway. Not half bad, considering how little time they’d had to arrange the trap.
I heard the shouting a moment later, people crying out in Arabic. Or something like it. Honestly, my ability to recognize the language was probably nowhere near reliable, and I hadn’t checked what they spoke in Egypt. I wasn’t staying, after all. If I had my way, after tonight I’d never see this city again.
Once upon a time, I’d have kicked the door open, for the sheer drama of it. Not today. I didn’t feel dramatic. I felt old, and tired. So I opened the door quietly and stepped out into the alley. I didn’t have a weapon drawn. I didn’t feel the need. This wasn’t a fight. Four of them, a dozen of us, and they were the weakest ones present. We had positioning, we had preparation. Hell, we had snipers. That alone could have won this fight, I was guessing. Everyone else was overkill on a grand scale.
Which was my usual approach. But…usually it was against something where overkill was needed. These were just people.
I’d always thought of myself as the underdog, with reason. This was the first time I could think of that it had quite occurred to me that wasn’t necessarily true, anymore. Oh, against someone like Lucius, sure. Measured against Loki or Coyote, I didn’t even register.
But here and now? With these people?
They were the scrappy underdog. And I was the big bad wolf.
The vampire tossed me a mocking salute as I stepped out. Then he jumped, easily grabbing the edge of the roof and pulling himself up. You could do that, when you were that strong and you weighed that little.
The vampire hunters recoiled from me, Then the doors opened behind them, and more of us came out from there. My people spread out in a loose ring, enclosing them with me.
Aiko walked over to me, grinning widely. Snowflake stepped up a moment later to stand on my other side.
“Why?” the old man said. “Why do you do this? You are not one of them.” His tone made it almost a question.
“No,” I agreed.
“Then why? Why would you defend them?”
I sighed. “It’s complicated,” I said. “I don’t…disagree with what you’re doing, exactly. But I’m not comfortable with some of the details of how you’re doing it.”
“Neither am I,” he said frankly. “But sometimes we must do things we do not like to achieve a worthy goal.”
“I know what that’s like,” I said. “I guess in a way that’s what I’m doing here.”
He nodded. “The beast sent you.”
“Their leader here. You were seen leaving his home.”
“Ah,” I said, understanding. “Lucius is the name I know him by.”
He gestured dismissively, the meaning very clear. It doesn’t matter. “Why do you help him?”
I thought about it for a minute, trying to think of how to respond. He didn’t seem inclined to rush me. I could feel Snowflake getting impatient, but outwardly she was utterly still.
“I’m tired,” I said at last. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like fighting. I like the thrill of it, the rush. I always have. But…I guess I’ve gotten tired of fighting for no reason. It seems like I’ve spent a lot of time fighting with people when in the end we really didn’t have much to fight about. And I feel like Lucius and I are probably in that category.”
“He eats people.” The man said it flatly, without emotion.
“Granted you know him better than I do,” I said. “But from what I’ve seen, he mostly eats people that want to be eaten.”
There was no response to that.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I added. “I don’t like it. I don’t like him, what he does, pretty much anything about him. I’m just not entirely convinced that he’s so awful that eliminating him is worth doing no matter what it costs.”
“His being hurts others,” one of the younger men said. “People more than you see there.” His English wasn’t as good, though it was still more or less understandable.
“I could say the same about how you were planning on removing him,” I said. “That kind of thing isn’t exactly a surgical strike. It would hit people beyond who you were aiming for.”
“True,” the older man said. He sighed heavily. “It can be hard to know the right thing to do.”
“I know that feeling,” I said wryly. “I’m guessing you aren’t going to show me to your leader.”
“No,” he confirmed.
I nodded. Fair enough. I hadn’t been planning on it. They’d left a trail coming here, I was guessing. Out of the people here, someone could follow it. I was fairly confident of that.
No need to tell them that, though. “Sorry about this, then,” I said, drawing a knife. “It’s nothing personal.” There was a soft, whispering chorus as a great many other weapons also left sheathes.
And then I heard a sort of crunching, grating noise.
“Oh, no way,” I said, turning towards the barrier of rubble. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
There were more noises, and it quickly became clear that they were not, in fact, kidding me. The improvised wall of stone and wood was reshaping itself.
After only a handful of seconds, the last pieces shifted, forming a clear path through. It wasn’t built into an arch or anything like that. No, there was just an open aisle straight through the rubble, like there were invisible walls holding it open. It made me think of Moses parting the water. Except it was happening right in front of me, on a rather smaller scale.
Three people walked through. In the lead was a familiar face in a cheap suit. Magic sparked at his fingertips, something so subtle that it was almost impossible to detect. I didn’t recognize either of the people with him. One, a woman with long dark hair, had an expression of intense concentration on her face. I was guessing she was holding their path open. The last one was a much older guy with flinty eyes and a rather impressive mustache.
“Hello,” the mage in the suit said. “Seems we’re just in time.”
I growled. “What is it with you guys?” I asked, as the people I’d brought began to subtly shift position, focusing most of their attention on the newcomers. “I mean, seriously. What is your problem?”
“We’ve made this very clear,” he said, stepping through into the clear space. The magic holding the rubble out of the way snapped off a moment later, letting it collapse back into place.
“We want you to face justice for your crimes,” he continued, once the noise from the settling rubble faded. “And, in this case, we seem to be just in time to stop you from adding to the list. You know, Wolf, I’m disappointed. My opinion of you was never the highest, but I really thought better of you than to protect vampires.”
“I’m not protecting vampires,” I said quietly. “They were going to gas a residential neighborhood. I’ve got the freaking chlorine.”
“I seem to recall you doing something similar,” he commented. “Different choice of weapons, of course, but you do have a history of collateral damage.”
I opened my mouth, then paused. I…didn’t have much of a retort for that.
“You’ve got a point there,” I admitted.
“Not really,” Aiko said. “I mean, first off that vamp was actually, you know, doing things. There were actual reasons to stop her.”
“I did try to negotiate with her first,” I added. “For years. She just wasn’t willing to listen.”
The mage snorted. “You always have an excuse, don’t you?” he said scornfully.
“No, you know what?” I said. “Screw you. I did the best I could, within the limits of my ability. Including my ability to figure out the best thing to do. And if I’m stopping other people from making the same mistakes I did, it’s not because I’m a hypocrite. It’s because I’ve realized that my best wasn’t good enough.”
“How touching,” he said. “We’re still going to kill you, though. Pretty words don’t make up for all the things you’ve done.”
“Funny thing about that,” I said. “You didn’t seriously think that we’d triggered all of the traps before we came out, did you?”
On cue, one of the housecarls hit the wall, hard. Things broke, including the only really solid support left in that wall.
I wasn’t anything like an engineer. So I didn’t really understand how this system worked. But I knew the result. The rest of the building was stable, sort of, but it was only stable because it was leaning on that pillar. Knock it out, and the weight it had been supporting would fall on another part of the wall—one that wasn’t able to bear it. Like falling dominoes, as each portion of the wall collapsed in turn it would place more and more of a burden on the rest.
End result? After that first hit, things started going to pieces. And it was only a short time before the whole building collapsed into the alleyway.
And on the other side, the other building was rigged in the exact same way.
The really funny thing? When I’d first heard that there was a minor wizard in town who specialized in setting buildings up to collapse in highly controlled ways, I hadn’t thought she’d be worth much. Which, normally, she wasn’t—I hadn’t even hired her, really, because her talents were just too circumstantial to have on as a permanent position.
Just now, though, it was rather a useful knack to have on hand.
I started running, and the rest of my crew did too.
It wouldn’t kill them, of course. That force mage had held off a sizable proportion of this weight for the sake of that dramatic walkway, after all. I was confident that she’d be able to at least keep this off them long enough to get out.
But it would take all her focus to do so. And unless I missed my guess, she’d only been able to do that because the guy in the suit had been helping. Alexander had said that one of his abilities would be to increase the effective strength of other mages, and that would explain why I’d felt his magic as well.
If those two were busy, that left just the other guy to attack us. The three of them together was enough of a threat that I’d rather not chance it, but one? That I thought I could handle.
Apparently he agreed with me on that, because he didn’t bother us as we ran. We scrambled up over the barrier at the other end of the alley and kept running. After a few minutes, when we were pretty thoroughly lost in the alleys of the city, I finally slowed from a headlong sprint.
The nice thing about being lost is that is that it’s hard for anyone else to figure out where you are logically. I mean, if you don’t have a clue, it’s hard for anyone else to. I supposed they might have a way to follow our tracks directly, but I doubted it. If they did, they’d have been causing me a hell of a lot more trouble than this.
I did a quick headcount, and came up with everyone being present and accounted for. Good. The problem with that panic button had always been that it had a serious potential to go wrong. If someone was slow or unlucky, it could turn deadly very, very quickly.
But we’d gotten lucky.
I’m almost disappointed, Snowflake said to me. I was hoping we’d at least get some fun out of that.
I snorted. Don’t worry, I said. Something tells me we’ll be having plenty of that kind of fun pretty soon. For the moment, I’m fine with catching our breath.
After a couple minutes, I was starting to think about where to go next. It wasn’t obvious. On the one hand, I thought I could probably go back and sort out that trail. I could follow it back to the vampire hunters’…whatever they had. I wasn’t sure what to call it. But on the other hand, those mages were back there as well. I did not want to pick a fight with them. There was no way that would end well.
Before I could decide what to do, someone poked his head into the alley. It took me a second to recognize the eldest of the vampire hunters from earlier.
“Did you mean what you said earlier?” he asked.
I thought for a second, trying to remember whether I’d lied. I couldn’t think of any, so I said, “Yeah. I did.”
He nodded. “Good,” he said. “I will take you to speak to our leader.”
“Why’d you change your mind?”
He smiled a little. “I am tired of fighting for no reason,” he said.
I chuckled a little. “Touché,” I said. “Lead on, then.”