Following the hallway the masked lunatics had come out of, at first we didn’t see anything special. There was a dormitory, full of empty beds, each neatly made, impersonal as a doctor’s examination room. There was a large kitchen, complete with a long table to act as a dining table, the sort of place that served enormous quantities of food that would sustain vital functions and not a whole lot more. There was a large office area, half a dozen computers set up on another large table without any partitions between them.
I’d want those computers, in case they’d stored any useful information on them. But for the moment it was more efficient to keep moving and leave the heavy lifting for the minions.
The hallway continued for a long ways after that, with just a couple of doors. Snowflake opened a couple of them, finagling the handles with her jaws or just shattering the latches by main force, always with the same result. The large–huge, really, far larger than they needed to be, even if the ceilings were rather low–rooms were empty.
Not just in the sense of having no people, either. They were literally, absolutely empty, not even any furniture. They were just empty space, waiting to be given a purpose.
Who went to the effort of carving this massive complex out of the bedrock just to leave most of it sitting empty?
I felt like there was something I was missing, some obvious detail that I just wasn’t seeing. But this was not a good time to be distracted, so I tried to push that feeling aside and focus on my immediate surroundings. Sharing Snowflake’s mind did a lot help with that; she’d always had a certain immediacy about her, like most animals. It was one of the few really animal things about her, actually.
Not that it turned out to matter that much. We didn’t see one other person on the way. Not a single one.
It was hard to believe that the group we’d dealt with earlier had been all the people here. A lot of this place was empty, admittedly, but we’d only killed around ten of them so far. There had to be more than that.
The only conclusion I could come to was that this compound had been abandoned, and that group we’d run into had been a rear guard of sorts.
It was getting old having people be one step ahead of me. I was getting really sick of being a day late and a dollar short.
Finally, the hall ended at a simple, plain lobby of sorts. The only feature was a large, stainless steel door with a white button next to it. It took a second for me to recognize it as a large elevator. It only took a moment longer for me to recognize it more specifically than that.
Damn it. I’d known it was too good to be true, but somehow I’d still wanted to think that they could be what I’d wanted them to be.
Hope springs eternal in the deluded breast, I suppose.
Snowflake went to hit the button, but I stopped her with a gentle reminder. If I was right about what was above us–and I was pretty freaking certain about it, it all just fit too well to be a coincidence–then we did not want to go up there alone. There’s confident, and then there’s stupid. Picking a fight with all of them at once, by ourselves, was solidly in the second category.
We turned around and went back to check on the minions instead.
I’d been half-expecting to find them all dead. It would fit with how well the rest of this whole project had gone. Apparently my luck wasn’t quite that bad, though, because they were still working on searching the place, seemingly unharmed.
They were efficient. I had to give them that. They already had most of the complex ripped open, papers and computers dragged out into the hallway and stacked neatly in a pair of heavy-duty black duffel bags.
The corpses had been stripped and searched, very thoroughly. Some of the ghouls were chewing. I didn’t look closely enough to see any more details than that. I didn’t think that I wanted to know.
Snowflake sat and watched as they finished ransacking the complex. The duffel bags were zipped shut, and two of the jötnar heaved them up off the ground. The things must have weighed a couple hundred pounds each–computers are heavy, and I hadn’t wanted to take the time to pull out the hard drives and such. It didn’t matter. The giants looked human, but they were far stronger than anyone short of a serious bodybuilder. The bags wouldn’t slow them down appreciably.
They started towards the entrance we’d come through, but Kyi knew enough to look at Snowflake, and Snowflake looked down the hall towards the elevator. As simply as that, the direction of travel shifted, and I was guessing that most of them didn’t even realize how it happened.
The elevator was more than large enough to handle all of us at once. Unsurprisingly, really; it was a heavy-duty model, almost a freight elevator.
I was fully expecting a fight when the elevator doors opened again–or, if not a fight, certainly a confrontation of some sort.
I was not disappointed.
The doors slid open with a gentle chime, and we crowded out into the lobby. As expected, it was a familiar lobby, complete with a gift shop and a cafe. It looked like they’d just about finished remodeling. The entrance was across from us, and as expected, there were some people between us and it. As expected, I recognized all of them.
I wondered, idly, how many of them had known what was going on beneath their feet. David had known, must have, he was too much in control of what happened here for it to have gone on without his notice. Elyssa, similarly, must have been aware. Awareness was her whole thing, what she did; it was pretty much impossible to keep a secret from someone who had magically sharpened focus and perceptions when she was living in the building where you wanted to keep that secret.
The rest? I wasn’t so sure. I hadn’t spent enough time with most of them to really get an idea of who they were. On some levels, sure, but I didn’t know them well enough to really guess on this. There were too many unknowns. And all of that was assuming that the Guards hadn’t been lying to me, which they rather obviously had.
Regardless, though, this was a conversation I wanted to have for myself. So I slid out of Snowflake and wove myself a body of darkness from the shadows of the jötnar and ghouls. They moved away slightly to give me room as I manifested, seemingly out of instinct.
It was probably a pretty freaking dramatic entrance. I’d have to remember this for later use.
“Hi,” I said, in that same eerie, hollow voice. “Been a while.”
David regarded me cautiously for a moment, then inclined his head slightly. “Jarl,” he said. “Reports of your death were somewhat exaggerated, it seems.”
“Only somewhat?” I said lightly, taking more pleasure than I should have in the way Tony flinched a little at the sound. “You wound me, David. Do you not like the new look?”
“I told you not to call me that,” he said, sounding impressively casual.
“I forget what your name is in-costume,” I said. “Which is, by the way, still a ridiculous thing to do. I do remember the rest of them, though.”
“I do feel special,” he said dryly.
“Happy to help. Here’s the interesting thing, though. I had no idea this building had a basement level. Did you guys realize that?”
Tawny and Derek–or Crimson and Chainmail, or whatever the hell I was supposed to call them–exchanged dubious glances for a moment before looking back at me. It wasn’t much of a tell, but it was enough. They didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.
“This building has been renovated several times now,” David said smoothly. “I’m not surprised that there would be features we weren’t informed of, especially since we acquired it while local affairs were particularly unsettled.”
“Right,” I said sarcastically. “And I’m guessing you had no idea that there were a bunch of people living down there. People who, at the moment, I really don’t like.”
“Do you have an actual grievance with us?” David asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I have a great many grievances with you. But at the moment, you’re a secondary priority. So you’re going to provide me with any information you have on the people that have been basing their operations out of the complex under this building, and then you’re going to get out of my way. And later, if I have time, maybe I’ll lodge a complaint with your bosses or something.”
“We could stop you,” David said, in a rather conversational tone.
“Maybe,” I said. “But we had a deal, sort of. And I thought that meant something for you.” I paused. “Also, think about this. Yes, you could maybe stop me from leaving, and definitely you could stop me from getting the information I want. But if you start a fight here and now, it’s going to be a bloody mess. You and I will get out fine, sure, but a lot of other people will die. And while you’re certainly involved with some unpleasant dealings, I don’t think you’re really a bad enough person yourself to be willing to do that.”
I smiled, though I doubted it was visible on a face made of darkness. “So what’s it going to be, David?”
He stared at me. I stared at him. The tension in the room could have been cut with a rolling pin, let alone a knife.
Finally, he nodded.
I managed to keep from letting out a relieved sigh as I melted back into the shadows.
It took a surprisingly short amount of time to gather all the relevant information and get back to the mansion. I had a strong suspicion that David wasn’t half so opposed to the whole thing as he’d wanted to seem. He didn’t put up nearly as much resistance as I would have expected, and I saw him smiling when he thought no one was looking.
In a way, it made sense. David had struck me as a fairly upright sort of guy, on the whole, and I doubted he was terribly happy about being forced to cooperate with those lunatics and house them in his basement. I could see the Guards as a whole seeing them as a useful tool, a deniable weapon to be used on inconvenient parties. But David, personally, didn’t have to be happy about that.
It was basically the same relationship we’d always had. He was using me to do something he really wanted to, but for political reasons couldn’t.
We spent so much energy on lying, when everyone knew the truth. It wasn’t the first time I’d had the thought, but this was one of the more annoying occasions. It was just such a huge and pointless waste.
But eventually we figured it out, and lugged the bags back down to the mansion. I sculpted myself a new body on the way, one a bit more stable than pure shadows, out of a cooler of packed snow in the back of the car. The extremely excessive force around the apartment building cleared out, leaving behind nothing but a mess and a woman covered in duct tape in an alley. I expected that situation to arouse some questions, and also for it to be rapidly hushed up. No one wanted too much investigation into that, and some of the people that didn’t had more than enough pull to make it happen.
Hell, these days I was one of them. It would only take a few phone calls to make that problem disappear.
I opened the front door of the mansion and walked in with my minions arrayed behind me. There were more minions waiting for me inside, along with some people whose names I actually knew.
“Get some people to sort through this,” I said, as the jötnar set the duffel bags down behind me. “Some people who know what they’re doing, please. Call me when you’ve got answers.”
Unsurprisingly, it was Selene who nodded and stepped forward to start getting things under control. “Where will you be, jarl?” she asked.
“I’m going to rest for a while, I think,” I said. “Then go see how Aiko is doing with the faeries. She might want me to beat some heads in by now.”