Like most apartment buildings, this one hadn’t been intended to withstand military assault. The door, a pretty standard sliding door, shattered when I kicked it. I stepped inside, and absently noticed a couple shards of glass getting stuck in my feet. It didn’t really matter; I didn’t feel any pain, and it wasn’t like I was going to bleed out. Hell, if anything it was more material to work with, and it would probably hurt more if I wound up kicking someone for some reason.
There was a desk just inside the door, and an attendant sitting at it. She was staring at me, and reaching for the telephone.
I looked at her as my minions streamed in behind me. “Leave it,” I said. That was all.
She got the point. Her hand fell back to her lap, and her lip trembled. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” she asked.
“Probably not today,” I said. “Just don’t do anything stupid.”
She nodded weakly, obviously scared and pretty sure I was lying. I almost felt bad about it. She was probably still in high school, working this job to scrounge up a bit of petty cash. She didn’t deserve the bad day she was about to have.
Then again, what people deserved had never had much in common with what they got.
“We’re looking for some people that are staying here,” I said. “You’ve probably seen them go by. They’ll have been armed, probably moving as a group.”
“That’s most of the people that live here,” she said. “Nobody wants to be on the street alone and unarmed.” She didn’t quite say moron, but she didn’t quite need to.
I felt a spark of amusement, although my lips didn’t twitch. That immediate response didn’t exist anymore; smiles were a deliberate action, not an instinctive one.
“Fair point, these days,” I said. “Different approach, then. Is there somewhere in this building where not many people go? A place that the residents, maybe even most of the staff, aren’t allowed?”
She considered that for a moment, then shrugged. “There’s the basement, I guess,” she said. “It’s just storage down there, I think. Only the manager goes there most of the time.”
“The basement,” I said. “Good. Where’s the entrance?”
“In back,” she said, gesturing behind herself.
“Thanks,” I said. “You’ve been very helpful. Tape her up and leave her somewhere she’ll be found by morning.”
She started to protest, as three of my minions jumped to comply. I held up my hand, and she went silent, instantly.
Huh. I’d always wanted to do that, but I just hadn’t had the presence for it. Apparently the authority vested in me as a champion of the Midnight Court carried some weight. That, or the presence of a lot of heavily-armed lunatics made up for any deficiency of innate charisma.
“I’m sorry to do this,” I said to her. “But it would be dangerous for you to stay here, and the stakes are too high for me to just let you leave. This is the best compromise I have available. It’ll suck for tonight, but tomorrow this will just be a bad memory. Okay?”
She still looked scared out of her mind, but she nodded. Kyi and another jotun quickly, efficiently hogtied and gagged her with industrial-strength duct tape. The other jotun–one I didn’t recognize; Aiko’s recruitment drive had been quite thorough–picked her up effortlessly and carried her to the door.
“Make sure the snipers keep an eye on her,” I called out as they left. “I’ll hold you personally responsible if anything happens.”
He nodded and left. The rest of us went behind the desk.
It wasn’t hard to find the basement. There were only so many doors back there, and most of them were obviously not what we were looking for. Mostly it seemed very mundane–an office, a sort of breakroom, a back exit. The process of elimination didn’t take long.
I led the way down the staircase, which was surprisingly spacious, with my army of monsters and killers behind me. A couple of ghouls and a jotun stayed up top in case anyone wandered by and saw the broken door, and started asking inconvenient questions. It wasn’t a perfect solution–they’d have a hell of a time explaining things to the police, for example, and they only had enough tape to hogtie a few people. But at some point you’ve to call it good enough and take the risk, or you never get anything done.
At first, I was a little disappointed by what we found down in the basement. It seemed to be about what it claimed to be, just storage. Not even storage for particularly exciting things. There were lots of cleaning supplies, maintenance materials, that sort of thing.
Down here, out of sight and out of mind, we didn’t have to be gentle and delicate about searching the place. The thugs ransacked the place while Kyi and Snowflake and I stood and watched.
It took a while. They’d buried it behind a bunch of crates of bleach and cleaning solvents, somewhere that not even the employees would have seen. I had to respect their dedication, on some level. It must have been an immense pain in the ass to move that whole stack every time they wanted to use this door. I could admire the dedication and discipline that had kept them doing it anyway.
The rest of me was just annoyed at the delay. This plan was, of necessity, a time-limited one. Every moment wasted was a moment we couldn’t afford.
But finally we dug it out, and reached the door. It was a simple metal hatch, one that looked like it had been jury-rigged into place long after this basement had been constructed. It was heavily locked, a problem I solved with Tyrfing rather than a set of picks. Subtlety was not high on my priority list.
The raw, aftermarket feel continued as I started down the other side. The tunnel was roughly cut into the stone, seemingly by hand. Sections of the walls and ceiling were reinforced with unfinished concrete, but by and large it was crude at best. It was unlit, a problem I was not terribly concerned about. None of us needed much in the way of light, and my minions had brought what they needed. The shadowy, unsteady illumination the flashlights cast was perfect for me. It gave me lots of shadows to work with, darkness to bend to my will.
I was more concerned by the temperature. It was hot in that tunnel. Not just casually warm, but sauna-hot, more than hot enough to be uncomfortable for a human, which made it far too hot for my happiness. The presence of the jötnar was enough to keep it at manageable levels, but I was still having to work to maintain my frozen body. Finding enough ice to scrape another one together out of in this heat was out of the question.
So. If I took enough of a hit to wreck the body I was manifesting through, my options were limited. I wasn’t entirely sure how I could adjust to that.
It was almost like old times.
How do all these people manage huge underground lairs? Snowflake asked as we hurried down the tunnel. We were setting a pace considerably faster than most humans could sustain, which was part of why I hadn’t brought any humans down in here. Speed was important here, and with a crowd in enclosed quarters, guns weren’t a great choice anyway.
That’s actually a good question, I replied. Most of the ones we’ve seen, the people that built them have serious connections. But these guys are new on the scene. Call it more evidence that they’ve got some kind of sponsor, I guess.
You know what the problem with you is? she said after a moment. I want to laugh and call you paranoid, but then you keep being right.
Trust me, I’d rather be wrong. Speaking of, looks like there’s another door up ahead. Think we’re about to meet the welcoming committee, and I somehow doubt they’ll be glad to see us.
My only response was a delighted laugh and an increase in her pace. If she were wearing a leash, she’d have been pulling me along rather than the other way around. I could feel her eagerness, the thrill she felt at the prospect of violence.
Snowflake wasn’t a very good person. It was time I stop beating around the bush on that one. I’d lived with her inside my head for a long time now, and somehow I’d kept making excuses for her, and dressing it up in pretty words. The reality was that she quite simply was not a good person.
Not everybody could be. Not everybody even got the choice.
I arranged my thugs at a distance from the door, in case something bad happened when I opened it. I chopped through the locks with Tyrfing, and then shoved it open.
I promptly took a shotgun blast to the chest.
I stumbled back a step, glancing down. “Huh,” I said. “Guess they had a trap for someone who opened it without a key.”
“Are you all right, jarl?” Kyi asked promptly.
“Should be fine,” I said, pulling the holes in my torso closed again. I didn’t bother pushing the pellets out first. There wasn’t any real need. I didn’t have any actual control over the metal, but I could carry it along without any particular trouble, I was pretty sure.
Moments later, I continued, continuing to go first in case there were any more traps. I pulled the shotgun down, and then we kept going.
As underground lairs went–and Snowflake was right, I had seen a bizarrely large number of them–this one was…odd. It felt too new, too modern. It almost felt like a hospital, with the bright fluorescent lights, the white walls and gleaming tile floor, everything kept fanatically clean. Maybe I’d just spent too much time around extremely old-fashioned people, but this was not what I’d been expecting. Even if it hadn’t been built with a medieval design aesthetic, I would have expected it to feel more tired, more rundown.
As it was, I was starting to get a distinctly ominous feeling about this place. I felt like there was something I was missing, some obvious piece of the puzzle that I hadn’t quite slotted into place.
“Okay,” I said, looking around. It seemed like a fairly normal hallway, fairly generic. There were doors opening off it at regular intervals, none of which had a convenient label on it. “Spread out, small groups, start looking. I want anything you can find that might have information we can use. That means files, computers, anything that might seem remotely useful. Assume that everything is trapped, and if you find anyone, shout.”
A wave of nods swept over the group, and they started fanning out and opening doors. They were professional about it, which I was glad to see. Every movement was coordinated, and nobody was taking chances. That boded well for our chances here.
I stayed where I was with Kyi and Snowflake, and waited. I was confident our entry had not gone unnoticed, and I was fully expecting them to respond to it rapidly. Nothing I’d seen from this group suggested that they were less than efficient.
And what did they call themselves, anyway? I hadn’t heard a name for them. It was a minor issue, admittedly, but it was starting to bug me.
In any case, I didn’t have to wait long. Not two minutes after I triggered the shotgun trap, I heard footsteps and a group of people came around the corner. They were wearing modern camouflage gear, and heavy, face-concealing helmets, and they were carrying guns.
Once again, I was the first off the line. No one else–not even Snowflake–had so much as started to move before I was sprinting in their direction at full speed.
Unfortunately, I was fast enough now to run into the same problem I’d often exploited in the past. Reacting quickly is not the same thing as reacting well.
Because I’d put such an emphasis on reacting fast, it wasn’t until I’d almost reached them that I noticed a few important details.
One, the guns they were holding were oddly light, lacking the bulk of military-grade rifles.
Two, they were all carrying large metal tanks on their backs. It looked like they were connected to the guns with hoses.
And three, I could smell petroleum.
The resulting chain of logic was enough to instantly and completely reverse my focus. I’d had some bad experiences with fire in the past, enough to have a healthy respect for its destructive potential. Now that I was made of ice, I somehow didn’t think that I would enjoy it any more.
The moment I realized what I was dealing with, I stopped and threw power out into the hall. Again, it was a sloppy, inefficient bit of magic, but it did what it was supposed to do. It flooded the space with frigid, semisolid darkness a moment before they pulled the triggers on their flamethrowers.
Flamethrowers are scary weapons. Not the most effective, necessarily–they have a lot of limitations. But they’re terrifying. I mean, there are reasons so many of the most horrific events in the history of war involved fire, from sacking cities when “salt the ashes” was a literal phrase all the way to the Dresden bombing. Nearly every living thing has a healthy fear of fire, and millennia of civilization aren’t enough to remove that animal terror.
I didn’t feel fear in the same way I had, not quite. It lacked the same immediacy, lacked the physiological element.
When I saw the napalm chewing through my barrier, I still panicked.
I tried to smother it with another wave of magic. That proved to be an exceptionally bad idea. Trying to split my concentration when I was already maintaining a complex bit of magic just meant that both of them collapsed for a critical moment.
It was only a second. Just the space of a heartbeat in which I didn’t have defenses in place.
That was too long.
Napalm washed over me, and eradicated me. I wasn’t any better protected from this than anyone else. Hell, I might have been more vulnerable than a normal human. I was made of cold and darkness, and I’d just been immolated in flame and light.
I was knocked out of my embodied state, and the body I left behind was turned into nothing but steam. I was left implicit in the shadows and the cold and the hunger in that space, but I was pretty far out of it. I thought there was definitely something to my idea that having to put more bodies together took something out of me. I wasn’t sure how many more I had in me.
Come to think of it, I didn’t really know if I was going to recover. I’d sort of been assuming that I would, because the idea that I would heal with time was one that had been drilled into me throughout my life. But I wasn’t alive anymore, and I didn’t know all the rules of what I was. It was entirely possible that I’d already burned through most of the chances I’d ever get, without realizing what it meant.
With that comforting thought in mind, I turned my attention back to what was going on around me. It took a moment, and when I did my view was fuzzy, even more so than usual while I was in this state. It felt like my connection to physical reality was more tenuous, more fragile than it had been.
From what I did see, it seemed like the fight was most certainly not over. The flamethrowers hadn’t had enough fuel to keep going for very long after incinerating me, or else it was too hot for safety, because they’d stopped firing. They were grabbing for pistols instead, but they were too slow, because Snowflake was already in the middle of them.
She’d run straight through the lingering fires, barely skirting around patches of freaking napalm, to get to them. Unbelievable.
She pulled one of them down and started biting at their throat, but apparently the uniform was made out of some toughened fabric or the mask was getting in the way or something, because blood didn’t immediately start flowing.
One of the others pulled a grenade off their belt and threw it at the jötnar and ghouls who were streaming out of the doors into the hallway.
I felt a moment’s impotent rage. This fight was suddenly and rapidly turning more dangerous than I’d expected, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
Kyi threw a knife and hit the grenade out of the air, sending it spinning back to the ground. Snowflake bolted away, jumping through the fire again in her haste to get away before it blew.
It went off a second later with a flash bright enough and a noise loud enough to be annoying, even through the veil between me and the physical world. It was clearly enough to stun the people with guns, and even most of a hundred feet away, my minions were obviously not happy about it.
A flashbang. That made sense; in these enclosed spaces, a fragmentation grenade was just a fancy way to commit suicide. Then again, they’d been willing to use flamethrowers down here, so obviously that wasn’t something they were too worried about.
That burst of impotent wrath proved to be the motivator I needed. I transitioned into the shadow of one of the masked humans, and then manifested myself through that patch of darkness, filling it with Midnight power and making it more real in the process.
I grabbed them by the head and wrenched it back towards me with awful force, more than enough to destroy the spine. In the process, I got a good look at myself in the dark lenses of the mask.
I was an animate shadow, a vaguely humanoid piece of darkness that blurred seamlessly into the darkness I stood in. The only thing that stood out clearly were the eyes, which burned with a dull amber glow. Lines of brighter light and total darkness crossed them in subtly moving patterns, evoking the pictures frost makes growing on windows.
That was all that I had the chance to see before one of the others fumbled a high-power flashlight off their belt and caught me in the beam of light, tearing apart the shadow I was forming myself from and scattering it. It tore me apart in the process, leaving me disembodied once again.
Huh. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be vulnerable to something quite that…mundane as a result of what I was using as a door into the world. It made sense, though. Hell, that was probably why they’d brought flashbangs.
These people knew more about my weaknesses these days than I did. There was no question about it, somebody was way too well informed here.
Unfortunately for them, they’d focused too much on me, and left everyone else free to act. Some of the jötnar got close enough to the napalm to put out the fires with the cold that was their nature, and then the ghouls pounced.
The resulting bloodbath was mercifully short. That was about all that I could say for it.
I thought about trying to form a permanent body out of shadows, but it didn’t seem like a great idea. I hadn’t done anything more than disposable shells out of darkness alone, and I wasn’t sure that I could. It was clearly a secondary element, not something I could work with as well as easily or well as ice. And besides, they were prepared for darkness here. Getting more bodies destroyed by flashbangs and flashlights and who knew what other light sources just seemed like a waste of effort.
Instead, I picked the deepest patch of shadow available and pieced together another crude temp body, just enough to speak through.
“Keep going,” I said, surprising myself a little with the eerie, hollow sound of my voice. “Remember to search them, and keep an eye out.”
Apparently the sound startled them too, because my minions seemed more inclined to run than obey. It probably didn’t help that they’d just seen me burned alive, and they didn’t know the details of my current arrangement. From their perspective, this whole thing was probably starting to seem more than slightly freaky.
But Kyi acted like obeying creepy voices from the shadows was totally normal, and in the face of that unflappable calm, the unease faded quickly. By the time my body dissipated into wisps of shadow, they were already back at work searching the rooms.
I slipped into Snowflake–very gently, very delicately, not imposing myself, just a presence. You mind if I ride along? I asked.
The immediate response was shock, swiftly followed by sardonic amusement. Why not? she said. It’ll be just like old times. So what now?
Now we go check out where these nuts came from, I thought. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that there are more where they came from.
Let’s hope so, she said, standing and shaking herself. All right, let’s do this.