The contrast between Lucius’s house and the vampire hunters’ headquarters was striking.
It was a small, simple building. A rundown cube of a place, it looked like it might be older than I was. The neighborhood was a match for the building, quietly impoverished and faded. The people looked tired, worn down. Somewhere a radio played an old jazz song, quiet and distant, contrasting with the buzzing of flies.
It was a warm night. A very warm night.
My guide pushed the door open without knocking. It groaned quietly as we stepped inside, and he turned on a light. It was a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Everything about this place felt…old. Tired. Snowflake looked around distastefully, and sneezed from the smell of dust.
The old man opened a door and led us down a flight of stairs. They were bare concrete, starting to crumble at the edges. There were so many stains that they didn’t have distinct outlines any more, blending together into a single mass instead.
At the bottom of the stairs, he opened another wooden door and we walked into the basement.
It was a kitchen. Linoleum floor, wooden furniture, another bare bulb for light.
“Sit, please,” our guide said, gesturing at the chairs. There were only three of them. “I will bring him.” He walked off down a narrow, slightly crooked hallway.
I glanced at Aiko, then shrugged and sat in one of the chairs. It creaked rather alarmingly under the weight, but didn’t actually collapse. Aiko had looked like she was planning on sitting on my lap, but she changed her mind at the noise and sat on the floor instead, resting her head on my thigh. Snowflake sprawled on the floor next to her, and she scratched the husky’s ears absently.
It was a few minutes before our guide came back. He had another guy leaning on him, an even older one. This man must have been well past seventy, and he carried the years heavily. His back was stooped, and even with the help he walked slowly, with a pronounced limp. The other man lowered him gently into a chair, then stood behind him, leaving the last chair empty.
“My name is Rafi,” the older man said. He said it like it had weight, like it mattered. Unusual in a human.
“My name is Winter,” I replied, in a similar tone. It felt…more solemn than most introductions.
“Winter,” he repeated. “It suits you. It wouldn’t suit me, I think. My joints ache when it gets cold.”
“I wouldn’t have thought it would get that cold here.”
“No,” Rafi said. “Not for you.” He looked at Aiko. “And you?”
“Aiko,” she said. Her tone was…slightly chilly. Not hostile, but less cheerful than usual.
He nodded. “And the hound?”
Please tell me you’re going to say something funny, Snowflake said. Come on, you know you can do it.
“Her name is Snowflake,” I said.
Boring as usual, she sighed. She shifted a little, pushing her head into Aiko’s hand.
“Snowflake,” Rafi said. “You’re a cold man, Winter.”
“I wasn’t always. But I’ve found that life will make you one, if you let it.”
He nodded. “True enough. Something to drink?”
“Only if it isn’t too much trouble,” I said. I wasn’t thirsty, but hospitality demanded a certain response. Refusing outright was at least as rude as taking too much.
Not that it probably mattered. Those rules mostly only mattered when you were dealing with particularly traditional, usually very old creatures, and Rafi smelled as human as anyone. But you couldn’t be too trouble.
He nodded. “Something to drink for our guests,” he said. The man lurking behind him walked to the ancient, battered refrigerator in the corner and started rummaging around in it.
“Tell me, Winter,” Rafi said. “What brings you to my home?”
“I hear that you’re fighting with vampires for…control, I suppose, is the word…of the city. And I’d like it if we could find a way to settle things peacefully.”
Rafi sighed heavily, and seemed to age ten years as he did. His face fell, and his shoulders bent further. “And if we don’t?” he asked wearily.
I paused. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I said. “But I think we both know that this fight can’t end well for your side.”
He nodded sadly. “That’s true,” he said.
The other guy returned a moment later, setting glasses of a frothy green liquid in front of us. He set Aiko’s on the table in front of me, after a slight hesitation.
I picked my glass up and sniffed at it. It smelled very strongly of lemon and mint, enough that I almost sneezed. I picked it up and sipped at it, but didn’t actually drink. This wasn’t from fear of poison—I was hard enough to poison that it was a relatively minor concern, for the most part, and I was pretty sure these glasses had all been poured from the same pitcher. Not a perfect guarantee, but enough that I wasn’t that scared.
No, I just wasn’t sure whether I wanted to taste it. Not if it smelled like that.
Rafi picked up his glass and drank with apparent enjoyment, then set it down with a soft click. “What brings you here, Winter?” he asked. “Truly. Why are you on his side?”
“Who says I’m on anyone’s side?” I countered. “See, I don’t think that ‘sides’ necessarily has to be a relevant concept here. Why are you fighting him?”
“He takes our young people,” Rafi said.
“From what I’ve seen, they want to be taken,” I said.
“Many of them don’t come back,” he said. “Many men and women have gone, and not returned.”
“Why would they?” I asked quietly. “Lucius has the world to offer them. And, meaning no offense, Rafi, but you don’t. Why would they stay here, given the choice of everything they want if they leave?”
Rafi looked like he’d been struck. He flinched away from me, then stared at the table. “We need them,” he said quietly. “If they leave, we have nothing. There will be nothing left of us. No one left when we are gone.”
“You know,” Aiko said, “it’s funny. Lucius is almost two thousand years old. But you’re the ones that are terrified of change.”
He started to say something, but she interrupted him. “No, let me finish,” she said. “He’s two thousand years old, but you’re the one that’s trying to cling to the past. If people don’t want to follow in your footsteps, taking away their way out isn’t going to solve anything. At best, it’s covering up the problem for a little while.”
Rafi didn’t look much happier about that. “Some of them die,” he said.
“Everybody dies,” I said. “Now look, Rafi, I have a question before we go any further. Lucius says you killed a few of his vamps. You as a group, I mean, not you personally. Is that true?”
He hesitated, then nodded.
“Nice,” I said. “But, uh…how?”
“There is value in the past, whatever your friend says. We have fought vampires before. We remember how.”
“I thought they were European.”
Rafi’s lips twitched. “Two thousand years is a long time.”
I snorted. “Fair enough,” I said. “So tell me, Rafi, why are you lying to me?”
I sighed. “Come on. I’m not dumb. Reading about how to take down a vampire in an old book wouldn’t cut it. For one or two, sure. They’ve got enough weaknesses that if you know how to capitalize on them you could manage a couple. But we’re talking about going up against an organized, numerous group, one with plenty of resources and minions. We’re talking about going up against Lucius. He’s freaking ancient, and even when he was human he was a scary guy. If it was just a matter of you ‘remembering how,’ he’d have crushed you.”
“Perhaps you underestimate us.”
“It’s possible,” I admitted easily. “That’s one of the explanations I’ve come up with. You might be as far from human as anyone in this room, and just better at hiding it. You might be something that can go toe-to-toe with Lucius and walk away from it. That’s the first possibility.”
He smiled a little. “I don’t think that’s it.”
“Me either,” I agreed. “You don’t seem the type. Second, you might genuinely think that you’re winning, but be wrong. I could see him manipulating you like that. Maybe he’s using you as a tool to get rid of some undesirable people, or this whole thing is just a game to him.”
“I don’t like that idea much.”
“Understandable, and it’s got some holes, as well. Particularly the fact that he’s offering me a fairly meaningful payment for removing you from play, and a man like Lucius doesn’t do things without a reason. So that leaves the third option. You’re what you seem, but there’s someone else pulling the strings to make you a legitimate threat.”
Rafi shifted uncomfortably. “It is…possible that we have received some assistance,” he admitted.
I grinned. “Here we go,” I said. “From whom?”
“That would be us,” a familiar voice said from the stairs.
I turned and, as expected, saw a rather predictable trio at the top of the stairs. The man in the suit looked untouched, as did the guy whose abilities were still an unknown to me. The force mage was obviously starting to get tired, but she also looked excited, almost thrilled.
“I was wondering when you’d turn up,” I said. “Come on, have a seat. Only one chair left, I’m afraid, but your friends can stand. You can have a glass of…whatever this is.”
“We could kill you where you sit,” he said, not moving.
“Probably,” I agreed. “But who knows? I might get lucky. And Rafi’s sitting right there. Whatever you’re planning, I don’t think you can guarantee that he wouldn’t end up as collateral damage.”
“You think using him as a human shield will protect you from me?” he asked.
“You?” I shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t been able to get much of a read on you. Your friends, though? Yeah, I think it will. They think they’re the good guys here, and good guys don’t murder innocent old men.”
He didn’t glance at his associates. But they did glance at each other, and we all knew that I was right.
“That’s a bit of a low blow,” the man in the suit commented. “You really are scum.”
“You’re trying to kill me,” I said patiently. “And I’m disinclined to let you. If that makes me scum, then I’ll wear the title with pride. Now come on, take a seat. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
He grimaced, and picked his way slowly down the stairs. The other two followed him, looking a bit uncertain.
“A drink for our new guests,” I said, looking at the vampire hunter. He, in turn, looked at Rafi, who nodded. Thus satisfied, the vampire hunter went and started getting more glasses of that green drink.
“So what are your names, anyway?” I asked. “Don’t think I’ve caught them.”
“What, so you can use it against us?” the force mage said. She was standing behind the chair, as I’d suggested, but she was fidgeting, shifting her weight, practically vibrating. I got the impression that she wasn’t much of a one for standing still.
“Mostly I just want something more convenient than ‘hey, you,'” I said dryly. “Here, I’ll go first. I’m Winter, and this is Aiko, and Snowflake is napping. Our host is Rafi. Now you go.”
“My name is Jason,” the guy in the suit said. He seemed vaguely amused. “My friends are Reese and Sarah.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “So how about you explain why you keep trying to kill me when I’ve repeatedly explained that I’m really not interested in fighting you guys?”
“We’ve been over this,” Jason said. “You need to face justice for your crimes. And if that means that we need to take matters into our own hands, so be it.”
“You keep saying things like that. But I haven’t actually heard what crimes you’re so upset by. Please, enlighten us. What have I done to offend you so freaking much?”
“You say that while you’re working for a vampire?” Jason shook his head. “Open your eyes, Wolf.”
“We were just going over this with Rafi, here,” I said. “Maybe you can explain it better than he could. Just what has Lucius done to merit summary execution for everyone that has anything to do with him?”
“He’s a parasite,” Reese said suddenly. “A leech.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I used to feel that way, too. But what do you think will happen if you kill him? You think the problems will just go away? That killing Lucius will somehow eliminate vampires? That it will eliminate the things that let him get so much power in the first place?”
“It’s not about that,” Reese said. “It’s about doing the right thing. Whatever it costs.”
“See, that’s the thing that really pisses me off,” I said cheerfully. “It’s not that things are shitty. It’s that the people who are trying to fix them usually end up making them worse. Because of that attitude, right there. Sometimes things aren’t black and white.”
“And sometimes they are,” Reese said. “It’s easy to choose the lesser evil. But if you do, you’re compromising with it. And evil’s never satisfied with a compromise.”
I rolled my eyes. “And if you don’t choose the lesser evil, you’ll usually end up with the greater by default,” I said. “Look, I’ll make this simple, since you guys seem to be allergic to complexity. Does anyone in this room have a comprehensive plan for what to do after killing Lucius, which they can plausibly carry out? One which doesn’t plunge Alexandria into chaos that will ruin more lives than he ever would.”
The room was very, very quiet.
“All right, then,” I said, clapping my hands. “That’s settled, then. If you come up with one I’ll be glad to hear you out, and I might reconsider my stance on the whole topic. But for the moment, keeping Lucius alive and keeping his organization intact does less harm than the alternative. So. Next complaint?”
Aiko giggled a little. Snowflake was still and silent, though I could feel that she was ready to move at a moment’s notice. No surprise there. We both knew how this would end.
“You’ve killed a lot of people,” Sarah said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Most of them deserved it.”
I shrugged. “I’ve made mistakes. I don’t think I’ve ever denied that.”
“Enough of this,” Jason cut in. “We all know where this is going. You killed Guide.”
I sighed. “Yes,” I said. “I did. While saving all of our asses from a nigh-apocalyptic threat. Doesn’t that count for anything? Some kind of amnesty?”
“Not with us,” Jason said quietly.
“So you won’t listen to the voice of reason,” I said. “Even though I’ve repeatedly offered you the chance to just walk away, you won’t let this end with anything other than a fight.”
“And there’s nothing I could say or do to change your mind, short of killing you?”
“No.” Jason’s voice was quiet and very, very final. Reese and Sarah didn’t look as certain, but they didn’t argue.
“Okay,” I said. “So you know, I’ve been recording this whole conversation. I’m guessing a recording of what you just said is enough to make a solid case for self-defense. So next time I see any of you, I’m going to be trying to kill you. Nothing personal on my part, but if I leave you running around, sooner or later you’ll get lucky. You might as well head out now, then. I don’t see this conversation going anywhere.”
“That’s where you’re mistaken,” Jason said, smiling broadly. It wasn’t a very nice smile. “You see, Wolf, we didn’t come alone. Benjamin’s been waiting outside compiling constructs while we’ve been talking. He must have a small army of them ready by now. So no, we aren’t leaving. We don’t need to postpone this fight any longer.”
“How rude to bring it into Rafi’s house,” I said, shaking my head. “Sorry about that, my host. Oh, and there are also two glaring oversights in your plan. First off, you think you’re the only one who thought to bring a small army and have them wait outside? Not even remotely.”
Jason nodded, like he’d expected that. “And the second?”
I grinned. “You morons,” I said, “were actually dumb enough to get within our reach.”