To say that Tokyo is a large city is the equivalent of saying that the Pacific is a large body of water. It’s not wrong, exactly. But it utterly fails to convey the degree, the scale. There are lots of large cities, but there’s only one Tokyo.
It would be wrong to say that the city was unaffected by the changes in the world. Everywhere had been affected. But Tokyo, and the numerous cities that it had swallowed up into the greater Tokyo area, was so massive that it could shrug off the impact more easily than a lot of places. The fact that Tokyo had its own supernatural ecosystem, unlike anything else even in Japan, didn’t hurt. Not many people wanted to get involved in that kind of well-developed system, and the things that were already there mostly had too much invested in the city to do anything too drastic.
The end result was that while there were neighborhoods that looked like hell on earth, there were also large sections of the city where life went on almost without interruption. And, for whatever reason, it was in one of those areas that I met with Guard to discuss my new position. “Whatever reason,” in this case, had a lot to do with that stable, almost-normal state of affairs. It was easier to run an organization out of a stable environment, and as a result most of the administrative centers of the Guards were currently in large, old cities that had weathered the destruction fairly well so far. That meant London, Paris, Chicago…and Tokyo.
“We aren’t going completely public,” Guard said, popping some sort of fish-stuffed dumpling into his mouth. I had a dish of them as well, though I wasn’t eating mine; seafood wasn’t really my favorite thing. I wasn’t sure it was his, either, but at this point I was guessing he hadn’t eaten in long enough that he wouldn’t really care.
“I’m not sure what the point is,” I said, watching people in suits hurrying back to work as their lunch breaks ended.
“The point is that someone needs to do it,” Guard said. “The behind the scenes, cloak and dagger stuff? It isn’t working. Hasn’t for years, really. There are just too many people for this to work for much longer. And if we’re going to work openly, we need to have a system to integrate with government.”
“And that’s us?” I asked. “Really?”
“We’re the best available,” he said. He didn’t sound any happier about it than I felt. “And that’s why we’re only going partially public. There’s still a lot of work we have to do that we don’t want the general public knowing about.”
“This thing is going to turn into an organizational nightmare,” I said. “Trying to keep both sides of things running without getting into each other’s way…it’s a mess.”
Guard smiled a little. “I’m not looking forward to it,” he said. “But it’s what we’ve got.”
I sighed and nodded. “Okay. So when do I start?”
I ignored the armed guards as I knocked on the door. They were largely irrelevant, almost like furniture. Basically every figure of any importance in the world had some kind of protection right now. For those who couldn’t manage this protection themselves, guards were a must.
I heard a vaguely affirmative noise from inside, so I opened the door and went into the study. One of the guards–Army, or something like it, the bearing was unmistakable and subtly different from police–was annoyed that I’d done it myself rather than letting them. I wasn’t too concerned.
Inside, the mayor was sitting behind his desk, looking at something on a sleek, expensive-looking laptop. His name was…John Something-or-other, I thought. I’d read his last name at some point, while going over the briefing materials, but I hadn’t bothered to remember. He was only marginally less irrelevant than the men standing outside his door. With things the way they were, the mayor of the city was a pawn, barely more than a figurehead.
He’d always been a pawn, of course. But now he knew it.
“Hello, sir,” I said, nodding. “I’m with the Guards.”
It felt so strange saying that to a civilian. I’d spent a long time–years, now–treating it as almost classified material. Even saying the word was something you did with people that you could trust, or at the very least people that were on the inside. Acknowledging the existence of the organization to the uninformed was beyond taboo.
Not that I’d broken that taboo, really. This guy had no idea what the Guards really were.
“You finally made it,” he said, with obvious relief. “It’s about time one of you got here.”
“Colorado Springs was relatively low-priority, sir,” I said patiently. “Since there are already local powers maintaining stability here.”
“What, you mean the dictator that took over the city the second things started falling apart?” he asked. “I guess that’s one way to phrase it, sure. Speaking of that, you’ll probably want to coordinate with the police when you go to take him out. Let me get you the contact information you’ll need.”
I’ve always been pretty good about thinking before I talk. It’s a big part of why I got the position I did. From what I’d heard of how we were setting up the publicly-acknowledged Guards organization, being in charge of a local branch mostly required being able to deal with the normal world. More specifically, it required being able to deal with normal officials and governments. And that required a lot of…careful phrasing.
So I ignored the first response that popped into my head, and then the second and the third. Once I’d gotten those comments out of the way in my mind, what actually came out of my mouth was, “Do you realize what you’re saying?” Which still wasn’t the most politically savvy response I could have come up with, probably, but compared to those initial ideas it was a thing of genius and beauty.
“What do you mean?” the mayor asked blankly.
He really had no idea. I had to fight back a grimace, and keep my face in a blank, vaguely pleasant smile. “I’ve read the organizational dossier on this guy,” I said. “So let me work through it, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, sir. First off, he’s got a sizable force. We’re talking at least thirty combat-capable people, most likely.”
“Yes,” the mayor said impatiently. “That’s why you’ll want to coordinate with the police.”
“The police are already stretched thin,” I said. “And they’d take some losses going up against that crowd, which they can’t afford. Then there’s Winter himself. And by all accounts, he’s pretty terrifying in a fight.”
“That’s what the Guards are for,” the mayor said blithely. “You’re supposed to be good at killing monsters, right?”
Once again, I stared at him for several seconds, considering and discarding several responses, including rapping on his skull to check whether there was anything inside. “I wouldn’t be so quick to describe people as monsters, sir,” I said at last, a little tightly. “And I’ve only got four Guards with me to start. He’s got more experience than any two of them put together. The best case scenario if we go up against him, I would still expect at least one of those Guards to die. And that’s not taking into consideration the transhumans he has working for him.”
“If you can’t take care of the problem, then what are you guys good for?” he asked. He was starting to sound irritable now.
I took a deep breath and let it out. I’d forgotten how annoying it was to deal with people who were absolutely clueless about this sort of thing. “You’re asking rookies to go up against a veteran,” I said. “Once they’ve got a bit of experience, sure, I’d give them a chance. But right now, I don’t think any of them has been in a serious fight in their life, and he’s been in a lot. That’s not a winnable fight, sir.”
The mayor considered that for a moment, then sighed. “All right, then,” he said. “So what are you good for?”
My smile got a little stiffer, but I didn’t lose it. That’s why they pay me the big bucks. “It’ll take some time for us to get established,” I said. “In the meantime, we’ll be working on training, and keeping some of the less…spectacular threats under control. With luck we can reach a peaceful solution with the, ah, dictator.”
The mayor didn’t look convinced. Luckily for me, he was more aware than he used to be of his role in things. So I didn’t have to sugarcoat things, or pretend that we were working to his agenda and just not getting results.
It was, on the whole, a pretty nice feeling.
He ended up shrugging with that same dubious, dissatisfied expression on his face. “I suppose it’s possible,” he said. “Well, don’t let me keep you. I’m sure you have lots of work to do.”
He was annoyed. That could be a problem; theoretically, I was going to be working with this guy for a while. But I could worry about that later. Preferably after I had some evidence of progress on that peaceful solution. It would happen, but at present it was all behind the scenes, on a level that the mayor just didn’t have any way of knowing about. It would be easier to convince him it was possible after it had started to show up on his level.
I nodded to the soldiers on the way out. Theoretically, I might be working with them for a while too. They didn’t respond.
I was not impressed by the quality of my new recruits. Or, rather, I was. They made quite an impression. It just wasn’t a good one.
The first was a fairly standard pyromancer. He was a hothead, figuratively as well as literally. Lots of power, little control, and not much of a margin of error between hitting someone and maiming or killing them. Normally that would be fine, but I’d been informed in no uncertain terms that lethal force was something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. I was guessing that he’d end up transferred to some kind of special forces unit that only came out when killing people was acceptable, but in the meantime he was mine to deal with.
The other boy had almost the exact opposite problem. He was the kind of wizard that mostly focused on making things, lots of prep work invested in advance. It was easy to see that he was a nerd, the kid that got pushed around a lot at school. That lack of self-confidence carried over, and while a certain degree of caution was helpful, you needed to be confident in this line of work. Hesitation often ended with you not making any choice, and in a fight that was usually worse than making a mistake.
The older girl–not really a girl, she had to be in her mid-twenties, but she carried herself in a rather immature way–was more skilled. She was also more worrisome. She was a sociopath, plain and simple, and while that wasn’t uncommon in the Guards, it was something to take care with. The fact that her abilities were so unusual, so abstract, that I wasn’t sure I could defend myself against them didn’t help. The fact that she obviously had some issues with authority? Just took it from mildly concerning to seriously problematic.
And then there was the last girl. She stood out from the rest, in the way that a nuke stands out from conventional explosives. And, like the nuke, she was just about as dangerous to her own side as the people she was fighting. If my briefing was accurate, she’d damn near leveled St. Louis when she got out of hand with what she let in. Like the pyromancer, she didn’t have a lot of room between “useless” and “demolition crew.”
This was the group that I was supposed to build into a functioning team. This. While also coordinating with clueless government officials and presenting a positive first impression to the world at large.
After the first day of introductions, I caught myself hoping that this Winter guy really would sign on. He might be an incredibly dangerous, possibly insane mass murderer, but at least he knew what the hell he was doing.
Everything that Tokyo was, Saint Petersburg wasn’t. If Tokyo was an example of a generally successful transition to the new way of doing things, Saint Petersburg was a cautionary tale of what might happen if you got it wrong. There were heaps of garbage lying in the streets, and here and there a body. People shuffled around like zombies, so exhausted they could barely stand up, and a lot of them were injured. Almost one building in three showed dramatic structural damage, or was entirely demolished. A handful were worse than demolished, tainted or twisted in ways that were far beyond repairable.
And yet somehow, some way, this was still the good outcome. Compared to what could easily have happened there at the end, this was sunshine and roses.
I knew that damned well. I’d been there for the fight against the necromancer. If I’d ever wondered whether Watcher and her goon squad were too harsh in enforcing their bans, that had convinced me otherwise. Things like that shouldn’t exist. If that meant sometimes doing things that we’d rather not, it was worth it. As far as I was concerned, anyone who said otherwise either didn’t understand just what they were being protected from or had a vastly skewed set of priorities.
Even having won, though, the fight had consequences. You couldn’t have that much violence, that much desperation and that concentration of magical energy, without it having consequences. It attracted some nasty things, in much the same way blood in the water might draw sharks. And once they’d arrived, they gravitated to Saint Petersburg as the nearest concentration of…well, pretty much anything.
This city hadn’t been doing well before that. It hadn’t been doing terribly, but it hadn’t been doing well.
Now? It was quite a bit worse than unwell. Bad enough that there might not be much of a city left afterward, regardless of what we did to mitigate the damage.
Which was how I ended up here. There was nothing much to be done back in Colorado, not for the moment, and there was enough work here for every free hand and then some. Yesterday, I’d helped take down a gang of ghouls that was terrorizing the eastern part of the city. Today, I was going into one of those tainted buildings. An old schoolhouse that had been taken over by one of the more malevolent sorts of faerie, it had come to the local Guard’s attention when she heard reports that a group of looters had broken into it with unfortunate results.
One of the looters made it back out. I wasn’t entirely sure whether he was the lucky one or not. As I heard it, he’d torn his own eyes out trying to get away from the visions. For rather obvious reasons it was standard procedure not to go into places like that alone, she’d put out a general call for anyone willing to come and lend a hand. Nobody smart went into a place under the control of malevolent faeries without backup.
It was a long, ugly day. Some of the things I saw were…well, they’d be providing fresh material for my nightmares, for sure. Not just the violence, though there was some fairly grotesque violence in there. No, for me the worst part was the way the basic structure of the building was just…wrong. Hallways that twisted and broke, doors that opened onto walls, places you could walk in circles without ever passing the same spot twice.
That was the real reason you weren’t supposed to attack a faerie on its home ground alone. It wasn’t because they were too powerful to fight; some of them were, but there were plenty of others that a single trained mage could handle easily.
No, it was because you really didn’t want to be alone when your world started coming apart at the seams around you. I thought it was mostly in my head. I really hoped it was, because the alternative was too frightening to contemplate. But even if it was just a mind game, you really didn’t want to be alone for it. It was the equivalent of picking a fight while you were tripping balls and nothing was real. There was no way it could end well.
I wasn’t sure that thing was a faerie at all. It was a fae sort of magic, but it didn’t resemble anything that I’d seen from the Courts. Not that I’d seen more than a tiny fraction of the crazy things they had to offer.
In the end it didn’t matter much. We killed the thing, whatever it was. We killed it with extreme prejudice and the thoroughness that a lifetime fighting the freakish and inhuman will teach you. Then we demolished the building. And set the wreckage on fire, just in case.
The normals walking by didn’t ask why. Times being what they were, they probably already knew.