Snowflake was, unsurprisingly, the fastest to react. Almost before I’d finished talking, she was lunging forward, clamping her teeth around Sarah’s leg and pulling. I could clearly hear the bones breaking, and the force mage hit the ground screaming. She tried to scramble away, and failed miserably. Snowflake was a lot better at this game than she was.
She could have blasted the husky away, of course. A solid hit from her would be enough to pancake any of us. But she was having a bit of a hard time concentrating while having her shin split open like a soup bone. Some people could have focused through the pain. Hell, some people wouldn’t even really notice the pain. It’s all a matter of scale, really.
But for her? It was more than enough to disrupt her focus.
I was, however, a bit surprised when Jason was the next fastest off the line. He stood, fast enough to knock his chair over, and slipped around the table to grab Rafi by the shoulder. “Don’t move,” he said, producing a narrow dagger and laying it against the old man’s throat. “Or I will cut.”
I shrugged and stood as well, a little more slowly. “You do realize I came here planning to kill him myself, right?” I said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’d rather he not die. I’ve got nothing against him. But it’s not the end of the world if it happens. If you seriously think that’s going to scare me off, you’re deluding yourself.”
He grimaced. “You’re a real piece of work, aren’t you?” he said. He had to almost shout to be heard over Sarah screaming.
“Hey,” I said, calling Tyrfing and stepping away from the table to give myself room to move. “I’m not the one with my knife at his throat. That’s all on you, buddy.”
“Stop it,” Reese said suddenly. He stepped up next to Jason and pulled the knife away. “We aren’t fucking killing him. Jesus.”
One of the shadowy hounds bounded down the stairs a few seconds later, oozing black slime from numerous injuries. Aiko shot it a couple more times and it collapsed. Meanwhile, our first guide tried to pull Sarah away from Snowflake, but stopped when her screaming hit a new pitch. When you’re in that kind of situation, being pulled away from the person biting your leg off is going to feel a hell of a lot worse before it feels better.
It was funny, in a way. For being such dedicated killers, willing to go up against terrifying monsters, none of these people seemed very good at it.
More constructs started down the stairs. These looked more humanoid, bipedal shapes cobbled together out of darkness and magic. They weren’t in much better shape, though. There were bullet holes in them, and gashes, a couple of them missing limbs. They kept coming, though, almost falling over each other in their eagerness to get at us. It was a little grotesque, actually.
“You know, I’m curious,” I said. “Did you ever actually care about fighting the vampires, or was it all an elaborate setup to put me in a vulnerable position?”
Jason broke off glaring at Reese to glare at me instead. “You have a high opinion of your own importance,” he said, letting Rafi go. The old man stumbled away from them.
I shrugged. “Hey, you’re the ones that keep going to ridiculous efforts to start fights with me. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable conclusion to reach.”
“You are not the only person who thinks he’s above justice,” Reese said quietly.
“Not much of an answer,” I said. “But I guess it’s close enough. Pretty funny, though, that we’d run into each other again. Almost seems like somebody went out of their way to arrange it.”
Jason smiled a little bit, and nodded slightly, the gesture of a fencer acknowledging a touch. No surprises there, but it was nice to have the confirmation.
I wondered whether these people realized how hard he was playing them. It seemed fairly obvious to me. Magic reflects personality, after all, and Jason’s magic was all about manipulating other people, using them as tools, making them stronger and weaker to suit his purpose. That said a lot about who he was.
I kept stepping around the table until I was standing next to Snowflake. I nudged her and she moved out of the way. I could feel a little reluctance from her, but it was minor in comparison to her eagerness. The game was just beginning for her.
Sarah struggled to sit up, gathering her magic. I was guessing she was planning on the kind of attack that could level a building.
She didn’t manage to finish before Tyrfing caught her under the sternum. The sword punched up into her vitals, and she slumped back to the ground. It seemed pretty staggeringly unlikely that she’d survive the wound.
I shoved it in further and twisted it before pulling it back out, regardless. I hadn’t lived this long by leaving things at unlikely.
“You bastard,” Reese said, staring.
“Hey, you started this,” I said. “You guys straight-up admitted that you’d only stop if I killed you. What, are you surprised that I did?”
He didn’t answer, just stared at me some more. I could smell him doing something, a dry, grey sort of magic, with a bit of extra zing from Jason’s involvement. The world started to lose color and go fuzzy, and my vision narrowed down to a tunnel.
Then the room was violently shaken, throwing all of us to the ground. I didn’t hear the boom, but when I came back to myself my ears were ringing.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, shaking my head to clear it and pushing myself back to my feet. “I may have told my people to just blow up the building if they found your construct guy. Benjamin, you said his name was?”
“You’re a madman,” Reese said.
I rolled my eyes and offered Aiko a hand up. She took it, and by some miracle there wasn’t even a joy buzzer involved. “You say that like it’s news,” I said. “It kinda makes me wonder about you. Like, what did you think I was?”
“Reese,” Jason said. “Portal. Now.”
“We can’t just leave,” Reese protested.
“We’re outmaneuvered,” Jason said. “And we’re losing.”
“Is almost certainly dead already,” Jason said bluntly. “And we’ll join him unless we get out. Now, Reese.”
The other man didn’t look pleased at all, but he threw up a portal. With Jason’s support, it only took him a few seconds, and then the two of them vanished.
I didn’t bother trying to chase or interrupt them. I was fast, but getting across the room in time to stop them from leaving wasn’t a thing that could plausibly happen. We’d taken out a couple of them, at least. That explosion had probably been plenty strong enough to kill Benjamin. I’d had the housecarls use demolitions explosives. If the blast wave hadn’t killed the man, the collapsing building had probably finished the job.
“So he can’t make portals himself,” I commented. “Interesting.” I sheathed Tyrfing and walked over to help Rafi up, as well. The old man had to lean on me fairly heavily to keep his balance.
“Well, that was fun,” Aiko said. “Over faster than I expected, though. I was guessing they’d be a little more reluctant to run away.”
I nodded. “Yeah. The boss has a pretty different attitude to the whole thing than the rest, though. I’d bet he was already after me, and he found them while he was looking for tools.”
“They seemed like tools, all right,” Aiko agreed, nudging Sarah’s corpse with her foot. It didn’t even have the good grace to lurch upright and moan dramatically. “Sorry about the mess, by the way.”
“It isn’t your fault,” Rafi said, settling back into his chair with a wince.
“Isn’t it?” the other man demanded. “They would have killed you, Rafi!”
“It was not Winter with a knife against my throat,” he said dryly. “That position was reserved for our former friends. And it would be unreasonable to expect him to risk his life to save mine.”
“Were they actually helping you?” I asked, also sitting down. Aiko took the third chair, now that it seemed unlikely that anyone else would be joining us. Snowflake seemed a little disappointed as she went back to dozing on the floor, but not terribly. Even a little bit of action was enough to make her happy.
Rafi shrugged. “Some,” he said. “Not directly, but in small ways, yes. Information, or assistance with travel. Simple things.”
“Interesting,” I said. “Um. Where were we when they showed up?”
“Trying to figure out how our friends here managed to kill multiple vampires,” Aiko said helpfully.
“Oh, right,” I said.
“Wait,” the nameless vampire hunter interrupted. “You cannot mean to go back to that. Not after….” He gestured vaguely, apparently unable to convey what he meant.
“Yes,” I said patiently. “I can. I doubt they’re coming back, not after they got their asses handed to them that badly. And if I stopped having a conversation every time some moron tried to kill me, I’d never get anything done. So what do you say, Rafi, are you ready to start talking terms?”
“Terms,” he said. “What do you mean?”
“Well, here’s the thing,” I said. “You can’t actually fight Lucius. I mean, you’re…so far out of your depth you’re not even in the same freaking ocean, there. You aren’t even equipped to fight me. You sure as hell don’t have a prayer against him. Especially now that your benefactors are pretty definitely gone.”
He nodded. He didn’t look happy about it, but he nodded.
“So,” I said. “Terms. I’d rather not massacre you if I can help it. If at all possible, a compromise is a much better way to resolve this. So the question becomes what elements that compromise needs to have for you to consider it.”
“I want people to stop dying,” he said.
“Everyone dies sometime,” Aiko replied quietly.
Rafi sighed. “I know,” he said. “But there must be something that can be done. I have seen so many young people die.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s stop and work through that in more detail. From everything I’ve heard, you aren’t that concerned about Lucius lurking in dark alleys and pouncing on unsuspecting passerby. The problem here is that so many people are going to these psycho parties of his. Is that about right?”
Rafi nodded tightly. “Sometimes people are attacked. Foreigners, mostly. But that is…minimal in comparison.”
“Right. Well, let’s break it down further. The problem isn’t that people go, it’s that they don’t come back. Now, I can’t make these events not kill people. It looked like Lucius was already putting some kind of limit on things, but there’s always going to be an element of danger to it.”
“Of course there is,” Aiko said. “That’s the whole point. Nobody goes to a party like that to feel safe.”
I nodded. “Yeah. And I can’t stop people from wanting that, either. Some people are always going to want to engage in risky or self-destructive behavior. That’s a fact of life. I could maybe ask Lucius to tone that risk down a little, but I can already guess what his response would be, and it isn’t likely to be a positive one.”
“You make this all sound very simple,” Rafi commented. “Like it’s just a part of normal life.”
“Well, it kind of is,” Aiko pointed out. “That’s the whole point. These people happen to be using vampires instead of needles, but doing things that hurt your body because they make you feel good isn’t new.”
“Keeping things on topic,” I said, “that’s one group. Like I said, I’ll talk to Lucius about making things less dangerous for them, but there isn’t a whole lot I can do beyond that. But there’s another group, which are people that aren’t necessarily inclined to self-destructive behavior. But Lucius is offering them a way out and, let’s be honest, it isn’t like they’re spoiled for choice here.”
“They could stay,” Rafi said quietly. “Things aren’t so bad here.”
“For you,” I agreed. “But what satisfies you guys isn’t satisfying them. They want more, or maybe just something different. Whatever, the point is that they want out, and Lucius is one of the ways available to them. But they don’t necessarily want to live that lifestyle, and if they felt they had a choice they might not. Is that accurate?”
He sighed. “Likely.”
“Cool,” I said. “Well, we can’t make them stay. I mean, technically we could, but we can’t make them want to, and without that the other is just cruel. But what I can offer you is another alternative. I can give those people transportation to somewhere else, and a place to live and a job when they get there. I’ll be honest, it’s not completely safe. I’ve got my enemies, and some of them would target noncombatants. But it’s probably better than what he’s offering.”
“Hold on a second,” Aiko said. “Winter. Are you seriously offering jobs to…who the hell even knows how many discontented teenagers? Seriously? Without asking me first?”
“You offered a place to that thing Crimson summoned without asking me,” I pointed out. “A few hundred whiny teenagers is roughly equal.”
“That’s a fair point,” she admitted. “Okay, carry on.”
“Thank you.” I turned back to Rafi. “So. What do you say?”
“I have the uncomfortable feeling that we’re being used,” he said.
“You are,” I admitted cheerfully. “But I’m relatively benign about it. And the nice part about me having them join my organization, instead of just giving them transportation, is that I’m also in a position to help them out. I don’t have the kind of power and influence that Lucius does, but I’ve got some. And this is not a good time to be on your own in a strange environment. It’s really not.”
“It’s not a perfect answer,” he said thoughtfully. “But then, what is? This is…better than nothing. And nothing is what we have otherwise.”
“So is it enough?” I asked.
“It depends,” he said. “We’ve talked a great deal about what I want. And very little about what you want.”
“Hey,” I said. “I’m just the messenger, here. But what Lucius wants is for you to stop fighting him. He goes back to being the unquestioned ruler of Alexandria. You stop interfering with his projects, and you most definitely stop killing his people.”
Rafi’s shoulders slumped. “You want us to give up,” he said.
I met his eye. “No,” I said quietly. “I’m telling you that you’ve lost. And I’m trying to make that loss as painless as possible, for everyone involved.”
He nodded slowly. “I understand,” he said. “We surrender, then. Your…terms are acceptable.”
“Good,” I said. “And…look, I don’t mean any offense by this. But I’m staking my reputation on you following through on your end of this. That’s a risk on my part. So…if you don’t follow through, I’ll be back. And I won’t be so nice the second time around.” I smiled and stood. “Thank you for your hospitality, Rafi. Have a pleasant day.” I nodded politely to each of them and then walked out.
“So,” Aiko said, once we were outside again. “That went well.”
“Yep,” I agreed. “Halfway done.”
“What’s the other half?”
“Getting Lucius to agree to what we just arranged. Come on, time’s wasting. It’ll be dawn before too long.”
None of us paid much attention to the bombed-out building as we left.