I’d shown up to fights in a lot of circumstances, to the point of being something of a connoisseur.
Driving a rented sedan across Boston at an impressively unsafe pace while blasting Vocaloid music at a volume that had people wincing as we drove by was one of the stranger ones. Not the strangest; it wasn’t like this was my first time with Aiko. But it was up there.
She skidded to a stop just short of the docks, grinning. Snowflake was grinning too, draped so far out the window that I had one hand on her back in case she slipped and I had to catch her before she fell out.
It was horribly dangerous to drive like that with the roads so bad–Boston, as it turned out, hadn’t made as much progress as Colorado Springs on clearing up the streets, and a recent blizzard hadn’t helped matters. I wasn’t terribly concerned, though. I’d gotten used to Aiko’s driving skills a long time ago. And besides, what did it really matter? A high-speed car crash wasn’t much more than an inconvenience to me. It wasn’t like there was any shortage of snow. Boston in early March had that much to recommend it, at least.
We got out and started getting ready while the rest of the crew caught up. Being somewhat less confident and more sane of drivers than Aiko, the housecarls were still a ways behind us. That was fine. It gave us time to get ready before we got started.
The first thing I did was help Snowflake into her armor. I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about that; it was pretty essential when there were liable to be a lot of people with guns out on this island, but it also made swimming also impossible, which was…less than ideal given that we had to get to the island first. But she’d been in favor of it, and it was ultimately her decision, so armor it was.
Aiko had her armor as well–the set she’d gotten as a part of her ascension within the Court, rather than the one Loki had arranged. She had her wakizashi and her knives, which she’d gotten from the same source. She also had a gun, a carbine that looked very much like the one she’d had for as long as I’d known her. I was guessing that it was the product of a similar manufacturing process to the one used for the armor, though. It didn’t smell like iron.
That was funny, in a way. For most of my life, iron had been essential, sometimes the only weapon that could balance the scales with the fae. Now, it was something we went out of our way to avoid, for the same reason.
For my part, I didn’t have a lot to bring. There just wasn’t a whole lot that I needed. I was wearing casual clothing, and a replacement for my cloak of shadows–the one I’d actually used had been lost with my original body, but I’d had a backup just in case that had most of the same properties. I had a number of toys in my pockets, stored spells and grenades and such. Beyond that, I was unarmed and unarmored.
Once we were ready, we stood and looked out over the ocean while we waited. It was almost midnight, and the moon was hidden behind clouds, leaving the water dark and cold. There was no light out there, not that I could see. It was dark, a storm was brewing, and the water was full of monsters. Nobody smart was sailing tonight.
Finally, after several minutes, half a dozen white vans pulled up next to us and started disgorging people. There were a dozen jötnar there, including most of my original housecarls. Another dozen ghouls and four werewolves rounded out my frontline troops, and then I had a mix of human mercenaries and mages for other roles.
I’d brought out the big guns, this time around. Jibril was leading the ghouls personally, and Kyi was there to fill that role for the jötnar. I had some of the stronger mages in my employ, too. Brick still wasn’t on the best of terms with the rest, but they could work with him, and then there were Jack, Shadow, and a handful of more recent hires. Selene had even managed to come up with a Bostonian water mage who swore that he could ensure we got out there safely in addition to actually fighting, at only moderately obscene rates.
In principle, I could bring that much force to bear on any given target. In practice, though, it usually wasn’t worth leaving my forces in the city that short-staffed. Not to mention that a lot of those people were only very slightly under my command. They might work for me, but the relationship wasn’t as straightforward as it was with the housecarls. If I asked too much, I might end up losing them entirely.
For this, though? It was worth it.
They piled out of the vans and started getting ready for the fight. As the jötnar were getting into their armor, and the ghouls were eating, the mercenaries unpacked some inflatable boats and a compressor from the last van and started getting the boats ready.
These weren’t your average inflatable raft. They were motorized boats of the same type used by the military, designed to cover short distances quickly and without being noticed. And they weren’t just similar to the military version; they were the exact same boat. Being on fairly good terms with a mobster kingpin was helpful when you wanted to get your hands on some military gear that you really weren’t allowed to have.
It took some time to get all four of the boats inflated and in the water. Snowflake passed the time telling dirty jokes; I was mostly occupied with not laughing. Aiko didn’t bother, which really didn’t matter much. If the Maiden of the Midnight Court broke down laughing for no apparent reason, it was unlikely to do much but cement her reputation as a frightening and unpredictable person.
Finally, everything was ready, and I stepped gingerly out onto the rubber boat. I knew that it was safe–worst case, it wasn’t like I could drown when I didn’t breathe–but still. Boats were…a bit outside my scope. The fact that it shifted and flexed under my weight didn’t help.
It didn’t collapse, though, and after a moment the rest of the crew started to follow me out. I noticed, not entirely gladly, that almost all of them seemed more comfortable with the situation than I was. Even Snowflake, who I was fairly confident had never been on a boat in her life, seemed just fine with it. Aiko carried her onto the boat, since the claws and spikes on her armor weren’t likely to get along particularly well with a boat that was made of rubber. For much the same reason the dog ended up stretched out across Aiko’s lap and mine, dangling her front paws in the water.
The rest of the passengers of that boat were mostly the more important members of the group. Kyi was there, along with Jibril, Brick, and the local mage who was acting as our guide. His name was apparently Josiah, though he quite reasonably preferred to be called Joe.
I wasn’t entirely happy trusting a total stranger to guide us out to this island and keep the ocean from swallowing us. It would be pretty damn easy for this guy to sabotage us. I was counting on a mixture of being very well-paid and having a very acute awareness of the likely consequences of failure to keep him from doing that.
The last person on the boat was one of the human mercenaries to act as the pilot. Luckily I had enough of them in my employ that all of the boats had someone who knew their way around this kind of boat to pilot it; as I understood it, you really didn’t want a novice in that role.
The engines whirred quietly to life, and we headed out onto the water.
Hangman Island, aside from the rather melodramatic name, was a good place to have a clandestine meeting. It was closer to the mainland than most of the islands in the bay, but it wasn’t much more than a speck, and there wasn’t a lot of reason to go out there.
More to the point, it wasn’t somewhere that many people would be able to get if they wanted to. It wasn’t one of the islands that had public accessibility, so the only way you were getting out there was with your own boat. Even then, most people wouldn’t want to risk it. The island was tiny, but it was surrounded by an extensive network of shoals and rocks that could shred a boat if you weren’t careful about how you approached it. As I understood it, unless you knew your way around the island your chances of getting there safely by boat were slim at best.
That had been the main reason to hire Joe. I had my own people to run the boats, and while the threat of storm was a serious one, if it got really nasty not even a water mage would be able to save us on these inflatable boats. But he’d been hanging out in this bay for almost thirty years now, according to him. He knew his way around the rocks. There was no doubt about that.
We showed up just over an hour early, stopped at a distance from the island, and killed the lights and engines. Aiko promptly started weaving an illusion around us, a web of image and shadow that should take the chances of us being seen from slim to none.
The timing on this was going to be tricky. We wanted to catch them by surprise, which meant that we couldn’t really be on the island before they were. It was just too small for that–not even an acre in size, and there was no real cover to hide behind. Aiko could spin a hell of an illusion these days, but even with the power of a Faerie Queen no illusion could be quite perfect, and everything on that island was going to be the subject of intense scrutiny. So we really had to be at a distance from the island to have a chance of making the ambush work.
At the same time, though, we couldn’t be far. There was no way of guessing how long this meeting would take; it might be hours, or just a couple minutes. If it was the latter, our window of opportunity here was going to be very small.
We sat there, just bobbing on the waves, for around half an hour, before the quiet of the night was broken by the sound of motors. A few seconds later, I spotted the Lighters approaching. There were close to thirty of them, packed into a pair of the same boats I was using. Not just a similar design of boat; as far as I could determine, it was the exact same model. Which made sense–they had the same needs as I did right now, and it wasn’t like I was the only one who had contacts that could get their hands on military supplies.
But still. It was amusing.
They made their way through the rocks to the island, passing within around fifteen feet of us without noticing a thing. They landed, got out of the boats, and searched the island thoroughly. Very thoroughly; I was pretty sure they physically touched every square inch of the island between them.
I was feeling pretty smug about having decided to wait out here. It was more work, but these people were serious and efficient. They might just be humans, but that didn’t mean that we could afford to get sloppy here.
Once they’d satisfied themselves, they settled in to wait, the same as we were. They had some portable lights, enough to make the island clearly visible. The fact that it also blinded them to what was outside their light was just a nice perk for us.
It felt a little odd, being the monsters lurking in the darkness and waiting to ambush our enemies for once instead of the other way around. We could kill them all if we wanted, almost certainly. Hell, just a quick round of gunfire could probably drop half of them before they realized what was going on.
Around forty-five minutes after they showed up, Aiko suddenly stirred. She’d been still and silent since we got here, just focusing on keeping up the illusion around us. She was starting to look strained, too; that was a hell of a long time to maintain an illusion, even for her. Especially on the ocean. Water was a good solvent, and as was often the case, its magical properties reflected the chemical properties. You could do magic in the water, but it tended be harder to maintain a spell when it was being eroded by water.
So when she said, “Start heading in,” I didn’t argue. I just gestured to the pilot, who started up the engine again. On that signal, the rest of the boats started up again, and they followed our lead into the rocks.
Joe knew his business. Well, that or he just got all kinds of lucky, but I didn’t really care. His directions got us through the shoals safely, and that was really all that mattered.
And the whole time, Aiko kept that illusion up. I’d been impressed when she was just hiding the boats, but this really drove home just how good at illusions she was. Managing to conceal four moving boats, the water they displaced in their wake, and the noise their engines made, after you’d already been working for close to an hour and a half? That was pretty freaking impressive.
We’d just about reached the island when I suddenly smelled magic, and saw a patch of air at the center of the island go blurry. It took me a second to recognize it as the ending terminus of an Otherside portal; they were a lot more dramatic from the other end.
After a moment, four people stepped out of the portal onto the little spit of rock called Hangman Island. I recognized one of them, an older man called Reese who was apparently Jason’s second-in-command.
Well, then. Confirmation that the Lighters were tied to Jason. Or close enough to confirmation for me, at least.
It’s showtime, I thought, as the boats ground up against the island and Aiko finally let the illusion fall.