I’d seen a lot of warehouse complexes while doing this sort of work. They had a lot of qualities that made them appealing to the aspiring evil overlord; they were cheap and easy to rent, had a lot of open space, and it was much less likely that your unsavory activities would attract attention than in, say, your average residential neighborhood.
It was no wonder that I’d seen so many, really. And by now, I’d seen enough to be something of a connoisseur.
I had not, however, seen one quite like what the Lighters had taken over. It was a gated complex, with the actual warehouses behind a concrete wall. I hadn’t seen a similar layout in the past, though I wasn’t sure whether that was just because I was used to a more low-brow sort of warehouse or this was genuinely unusual.
By the time I showed up, the werewolves had already installed themselves around the district. They were loitering in nearby streets pretending to be dogs, eating in cafes, in one case even standing next to a stalled car at the side of the road. A handful of them with firearms experience were waiting with large, heavy rifles in places with good views, positioned to have someone looking over the scene from every angle. That had required a bit of finagling–I’d had to buy a freaking ship to get one of them out on the river, and even for someone who could afford to throw a million dollars at a problem without really thinking about it, buying a container ship on short notice was not cheap.
But, again, money just wasn’t an issue anymore. Besides, I was confident Tindr would figure a way to turn a profit on the whole thing. Probably just by selling it at a profit, although I supposed it was possible I’d end up being a shipping magnate on top of everything else.
I debated walking right in the front gate, since it wasn’t like their security system could even slow me down. But while that idea had a certain dramatic appeal, it seemed…imprudent. This was more of a fact-finding mission than anything, and while I highly doubted the Lighters had anything capable of stopping this crew, they might be able to delete some vital scrap of information if we gave them warning.
I walked around a ways to a quiet spot out of sight of the gate instead, and then just jumped the wall. It was ten feet tall, the kind of wall you put in when you really took your privacy seriously. I vaulted it cleanly, not even touching it on the way past.
Elijah was only slightly more hindered by it, putting one hand down to give himself that last bit of height to get over the wall. Snowflake cleared it easily, and then the ghouls and jötnar started clambering over it. I never saw Antonio actually jump the wall, but when I glanced around I saw him standing on the same side with the rest of us. He was sucking on what smelled like a cherry lollipop, and smirked at me when he noticed me looking.
Show-off, I thought, then glanced around to make sure that everyone had made it. It seemed like we were all present and accounted for. The wall had taken us, at most, thirty seconds to get past.
A ten-foot concrete wall was a decent defensive measure. But it was…rather insufficient here.
I knew that the Lighters had their headquarters here somewhere, but the information hadn’t extended to actually saying which of the warehouses they were based out of. Greg hadn’t been able to narrow it down at all–not without taking more time, at least, and I wasn’t willing to wait any longer than absolutely necessary. I’d been planning on figuring it out here, if necessary sneaking into the buildings myself to take a look before bringing the horde in.
This turned out to be unnecessary. I’d forgotten that I was dealing with…well, people, as opposed to the things that I’d gotten used to. They were normal humans in most respects, with everything that implied. And as such, they’d made a choice that would normally be a perfectly decent one, but which in this particular case was very much not.
They had guard dogs.
I could feel the presence of the animals from across the lot. There were nineteen of them spread between a pair of large warehouses on the other side of the complex. It seemed implausible that there would be quite that many dogs in a warehouse for any good reasons, but I took a moment to check just in case.
It only took a second for me to slide into one of the dogs and look around through her eyes. At a glance, it looked like the right place. There were some people standing around with guns, and they smelled like magic to me, but it was very much on them rather than in them. It seemed like the usual Lighter base. Good enough for me.
I was in for a nasty surprise when I returned to my own body again. Namely, I didn’t exactly have one. The body I’d built for myself out of ice and darkness was already collapsing by the time I got back, both in the sense of falling down and in the sense of falling apart.
Oh. Of course. In the past, when I’d occupied an animal’s mind, I’d been able to rely on autonomous bodily functions to more or less continue in my absence. Now, I didn’t exactly have those anymore. I was, on some level, nothing but mind, and when I wasn’t occupying my body, it ceased to be a body.
I caught myself before I actually fell, and took a moment to piece my body back together. Some of the people with me looked concerned, but none of them were actually freaking out, and none of them asked questions.
“This way,” I said, before they could change their minds on the questions, and then started across the lot. I wasn’t too terribly concerned about being spotted–I was even less scared of the security guards here than of the Lighters–but I stuck to more shadowy areas on the way regardless. It wasn’t too hard, anyway; it was almost sunset.
The two warehouses were detached, maybe ten feet of open asphalt separating them. I was suspicious that there was a more direct connection underground, but I wasn’t certain; none of the dogs I’d felt had actually been below ground.
In any case, that left two entrances to cover, and we couldn’t really afford to do them sequentially. I was reasonably confident that we still had the advantage of surprise, but I was expecting that to end the moment we opened the door. That being the case, giving one of the warehouses time to get ready would kind of negate the whole point of being sneaky about this.
“You take the team and clear that one,” I said to Kyi, pointing at the warehouse on the right. “Antonio and I will take the other.”
“We will?” Antonio asked. He sounded vaguely amused.
“You wanted to see me in action, didn’t you?” I asked. “Well, here’s your chance.”
And, more importantly, I wasn’t at all confident that I wanted him around my people. I was guessing that probably everyone knew that was the real reason behind how I’d divvied the teams up, but they wouldn’t call me on it. It was a courtesy thing.
Kyi wanted to argue. I could tell. But she wouldn’t show any disobedience in front of outsiders. She nodded sharply instead, and turned towards her assigned target, her one eye hard and cold.
I started toward the other, with Antonio slouching along beside me. He was still sucking on that lollipop, or possibly another one; I hadn’t been paying that much attention. Snowflake came with me as well, which was some comfort.
I thought about being subtle and picking the lock. I really did.
I justified kicking in the door by telling myself that it was marginally quicker, and they’d know they were under attack when we walked in anyway. And if it really had more to do with me feeling a lot of generalized, pent-up frustration and wanting to express it physically, that didn’t make the justification any less correct.
It was a tough door, heavy and bolted shut. Most people would probably have had to batter at it for a while with a ram to have any chance of getting through.
I managed it on the first kick, and walked in while the echoes of the crash were still ringing in the air.
Inside, things were…well, a lot like I’d expected from the raid in Colorado Springs. The room was very clean, very bright–it looked more like a lab or a supermarket than an evil lair. That impression was reinforced by the contents, which looked a lot like an office. There were several long Formica tables, each of which was a white so blinding that it had to be scrubbed daily, if not hourly, and a few large metal cabinets stood at the back of the room. Maybe twenty people were sitting at the tables, each of them sitting at a computer and wearing a headset. A similar number of armed guards were spaced out around the walls, along with another nine that were specifically there as dog handlers.
The dogs, really, were a brilliant touch. There were a lot of supernatural critters out there that could have walked right through this crowd and never been noticed. But dogs were harder for most people to hide from, between having better senses and being different enough mentally that most mental magic would have a hard time affecting them. Add in some cameras to cover those more susceptible to less biological mechanisms–and they had cameras, I could see them–and you had about as good of a security system as a normal human could manage.
I had to appreciate the thought they’d put into it. They’d done a really decent job of setting this up.
I could not, in all honesty, blame them for not realizing the weakness they’d built into their system by doing so. There really weren’t all that many people in the world who could exploit it. It was just their bad luck that one of them had happened to show up here.
I didn’t want to take any time over it, and I really didn’t want to have to take the time to piece myself together again. So rather than do anything fancy, I just sent a quick wave of magic out, and every dog in the room collapsed, instantly and very deeply asleep. Snowflake wasn’t affected, whether because of her resistance to mental magic or because she wasn’t exactly a dog or because I didn’t want her to be. It probably had something to do with all of the above.
If they hadn’t realized that shit was hitting fans before, that definitely gave it away. A couple of the dog handlers tried to get their charges to wake up for a few seconds before realizing that it was a lost cause. Otherwise, the guards mostly went for weapons, while the rest of the people opted for more of a “duck and cover” response.
Again, I had to respect the speed and precision of their response. The Lighters had a ridiculous name, but their training was solid. It was probably only two seconds after I’d kicked the door down when they had guns trained on the doorway. That was a pretty fast response time, as such things went.
Considering what they were up against, it was two seconds too slow. In that time, Snowflake already had two of the guards down and bleeding, and she was jumping on the third.
I followed her in at a slightly slower pace, going the other direction. It was still faster than they’d anticipated, and mostly their shots went well wide of me. A couple did hit, but they were using small-caliber weapons–the sort that was designed for use in places where you didn’t want bullets flying for miles, or going through walls. Birdshot and hollow-point nine millimeter, for the most part, I thought. It was still dangerous–hell, a .22 caliber could be lethal under the right circumstances. But that kind of ammunition just wasn’t suited for the kind of massive damage that it took to put me down. Long before they’d done enough raw physical damage to do the job, I was on them.
They had body armor–magically reinforced body armor, probably, based on the equipment these nutters had used previously. But I had Tyrfing. Even discounting my raw physical strength, that wasn’t a fair contest. The first few went down hard and fast, and didn’t get back up.
Apparently they realized just how badly out of their depth they were at that point, because the ones on my side of the room fell back, dropping or holstering their guns.
Then one of them grabbed a grenade off her belt, and I realized that what I’d taken for a retreat was really just a change of tactics.
I was quick enough to catch the grenade in a web of air and darkness before it could reach me. An instant later, though, it burst into intense, highly localized flame. I managed to keep it at a distance from me, but it was hot, and even as far as I was from it, the front of my body still started to melt.
I started to move, thinking that I could close the distance to them enough that they couldn’t really afford to use that sort of weapon, but there was already another incendiary headed my way, and I couldn’t afford to just take that hit. I caught the other one as well, but holding both of those magical constructions steady took all of my focus; I couldn’t really move at the same time. It was looking very much like I’d have to come up with another body–irritating, particularly in such a bright, sterile environment. There wasn’t a whole lot here to work with.
Then Antonio, very clearly, said, “That’s enough.”
An instant later, something seized control of the darkness I was holding in midair. I was pretty sure I could have stopped it from taking control pretty easily, but there wasn’t any particular reason to, so I let him have it.
He used it to flick both of the incendiaries back towards the Lighters, angled in a way that knocked the third one back with them before it could even get near me.
There was some screaming then, and the next grenade didn’t come.
I ran in a wide arc to avoid the fire, jumping from one of the tables to the next, and circled around behind the Lighters. Once again, they weren’t prepared for me to move that fast, and I hit them before they could adjust to the change. I’d learned my lesson, and now I didn’t stop to give them a target for the weapons that could actually hurt me. I just kept moving, taking one out and then continuing without pause.
I was fast, and with Tyrfing I was pretty much guaranteed to kill these guys in one swing. I could make very effective use of hit-and-run tactics, here, and they just didn’t have enough people to take long enough to figure out a response.
Less than a minute after I walked into the room, I cut the last of the guards on that side of the room almost in half, and turned to see how the rest of the fight was going.
Snowflake had done a comparable job on the other side. Her armor could shrug off small caliber fire just fine, and she was just too fast for things like those incendiaries to be viable. Every one of the guards over there was lying on the ground, most of them visibly mangled. None of them was going to be getting up again.
None of the other people in the room–the ones who’d been looking at computers when I came in–was doing a thing. It took me a moment to figure out why.
They were all staring at Antonio, a flat, fixed stare. And they were breathing in sync.
I could smell his magic, now. And it did not smell human. Oh, there was a bit of human to it–enough that I was sure human was a part of what he was. But the dominating tone was something else entirely, something sour and greasy, sulfur and foul, sickly-sweet rot. I’d never smelled anything quite like it, but it was familiar enough that I could make a decent case what it came from.
“How stable is that?” I asked, nodding at the crowd of mesmerized humans.
“Not very,” Antonio said absently. “I have to concentrate to keep them like this. It’s delicate.”
“Okay. Let me tie them up first, then.” I’d brought a pack, since I was rich enough that replacing it if I had to abandon this body wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t have a whole lot, but I did have some heavy duct tape, and now I took it out and started gathering up the Lighters.
“Not killing them?” Antonio asked. He sounded vaguely curious.
I shook my head as I started taping them up. It wasn’t a great job–I wasn’t really any good at this–but I was standing right there watching. It really just had to slow them down enough that I’d have a chance to react before they could do something stupid. “They might know something important,” I said. “Can’t afford to kill them until I find out.”
“Makes sense,” he said. “Though I think you already got lucky. Those cabinets at the back are server farms. I’m guessing there’s a lot of data there.”
“I’d rather not take chances,” I said, and then nothing else until I was finished taping them up.
Antonio blinked then, and that foul magic that had been throbbing in the air faded. The humans started to shake it off, and their breathing went back to normal. It took a moment before they realized that they were bound and gagged, seemingly. The dogs were still asleep, and even if they woke up I wasn’t too concerned. Dogs were not a threat to me.
“Fascinating,” Antonio said, looking at me. “You look somewhat…melted.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “I can fix that.”
He nodded. “When you said that they killed you, and it just didn’t take. This is what you meant?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s not something that I want to advertise too broadly.”
“I’ll not tell anyone, then,” Antonio said. “You don’t have to worry about me spilling your secrets. I respect you too much for that.”
“Why?” I asked.
He pursed his lips. “I suppose you’re something of a role model. You’re one of the few people that’s managed to really make it work.”
“I guess I can see that,” I said. “Oh, while we’re on uncomfortable topics. You’re a cambion.”
“A cambion,” I repeated. “The child of a demon and a human.”
“Ah,” he said, with a slightly twisted smile. “That. How could you tell?”
“You smell like Hell,” I said simply. “I’ve had some dealings with them. Enough to recognize the smell. But you’re not a full demon.”
“Interesting,” he said. “I’ve never really had much interaction with them myself. Though I’m told that I take after my father more strongly than most…cambions? That’s a good word.”
“How did you get this kind of power without even knowing what you’re called?” I asked.
Um, Snowflake said. Maybe not antagonize the half-demon warlord quite so much?
Don’t worry, I sent back. He’s…not harmless, exactly, but I don’t think he’s that much of a threat to us.
“I figured some things out,” Antonio said, shrugging. “And honestly, a lot of that power is just bluffing. I picked those first few fights to favor me, heavily. What I’ve got makes me decent at defending my home turf, so once I established myself, it wasn’t too hard to keep. Got lucky a few times, and I’ve mostly been coasting on that reputation since.”
I laughed. There wasn’t anything inherently funny about it, but something about it was…I had to laugh. It was contrast as much as anything, I thought. I’d gotten so used to people being a hell of a lot scarier than I initially gave them credit for that having the opposite happen was strangely amusing.
“Okay,” I said. “This is dealt with. You know how long we have before the cops show up?”
“Doubt they’re coming,” he said. “One of the things I can do is mess with sounds. I muffled everything in here, and the other building went down quiet. Shouldn’t be anything to tip off the police, and if somebody does file a noise complaint, they’re too busy to follow up on it.”
“All right, then,” I said. “Guess this is it, then. I think you’re entitled to a question.”
Antonio nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I want to know…is it worth it?”
I paused. “That…is a very open question.”
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “I’ve never really…done the cambion thing, to speak of. Got my position, but I’ve been sitting on it ever since.”
“I saw the people you had with you earlier,” I said dryly. “Seems like they’d disagree if they could.”
He laughed. “I hire them by the hour. I pay well, and I’m told the experience is actually quite pleasant. A mild high, something like laughing gas, from how they describe it. It’s easier for me to hold someone the more time I’ve already had them for, so it works out fairly well.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I’ve never really done the cambion thing much. I’ve got a lot of potential, everyone I’ve asked says so, but I haven’t followed up on it. And I figured I’d ask your opinion, since you have followed through on your potential, you know?”
I nodded slowly. “I’d have to say it’s not worth it,” I said. “Every step I’ve taken on that path, I’ve regretted it. But…ultimately, we can’t change our nature. We can only be what we are. And in hindsight, it would have been less painful for everyone involved if I hadn’t tried to fight that. Take that for what it’s worth.”
“I see,” Antonio said thoughtfully. “Well, thanks. That answer was…more honest than I was expecting, actually. Good luck with the Lighters.”
The cambion stuck another lollipop in his mouth and sauntered out into the night, leaving us alone with a lot of prisoners, a lot of computers, and a whole lot of bodies.