Empty Places 14.5

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I had to admit, I was fairly impressed looking over the group of people that I’d assembled for this fight. As I’d often noted, it’s one thing to know that a group is scary and badass, but it’s another thing entirely to see it. This was just the first time I’d been on the good side of that feeling.


I’d known that I was assembling a pretty serious organization, and that I had an even more impressive network of contacts and favors that were owed to me. I never really saw them all at once, though, never called in most of those favors. Between that and the fact that my mind had taken a bit to catch up to reality, I still thought of myself as the underdog, the upstart.


Now, with an army that could put most of the ones I’d fought to shame, it was hard not to adjust that view.


The core of it was my own minions, of course. The housecarls were acting as a combination of shock troops and front line–tough, heavily armed thugs that could take a beating, and a handful of elite troops to step in when necessary. The ghouls, led by Jibril, made up most of the rest of the front line, since they were just so damn resilient that not much would kill them.


That was the core. But there were a lot of other groups with some representation there.


The first, and most numerous, were the fae. Aiko had sent a small but significant contingent of them, and while they were small by the standards of Court battles, they were pretty damn numerous compared to the scale I was used to working on. There were trolls and ogres to provide bulk, rusalki and pixies for less overt tasks, even a few sylphs to provide aerial support. The leader of that group was an armored Sidhe officer in gleaming violet armor who introduced himself as Lackland and smiled in a slightly odd manner, petting the hilt of a crystalline rapier.


Then there were the independents. I’d been in this town for a long time, and before I’d been a jarl I’d been one of the crowd of unaffiliated small fish that made up the supernatural underclass. I’d stayed on good terms after that, and then when things fell apart, I’d made a concerted effort to get on their good side. Some of them had outright signed on with me, but there were plenty more that that wanted their independence more than stability and a steady paycheck, some of whom were willing to help in a pinch. They were the auxiliaries, not as trained or experienced as some, but with some bizarre abilities that were hard to prepare for. In a lot of ways, they were my wild card.


The Inquisition was…well, it wasn’t there. Not really. Most of them were dead now. But the ones who were left were there. Brick was gone–the Watchers were spread too thinly for him to still be in the city as my liaison–but the rest were all with me now, even Mac. What they lacked in numbers they made up for in power, experience, and sheer insanity.


Similarly, David and his Guards weren’t terribly numerous. But they were frighteningly powerful, well equipped, and had a decent idea of what they were doing.


I’d been a bit surprised how easy it was to get them to pitch in on my side, really. I’d been concerned that they would be unwilling to take sides on this. But apparently I’d built up more goodwill with them than I’d realized, and David was spinning this attack as a threat to the stability of the city in general rather than to me specifically.


Did they know who they were helping? Who they’d fought with, briefly? Probably, I was guessing. David knew, and given that Razor specialized in improving her own attention to detail it was a sucker’s bet that she’d caught on. Crimson had been there when I recruited the creature she summoned up from Limbo, and that creature was with me now, which was a bit of a giveaway. With that many informed, I was guessing the rest had been told or guessed.


But they were here now, and that was what mattered. Crimson had two minions with her already, one a little shapeless blob of light that I couldn’t put a name to, the other a small brownie from Faerie. The rest of them were holding guns, or magic, or both.


The next group was almost even more unexpected. Jackal and her crew of outcasts, the half-breeds and changelings and things that didn’t quite fit into neat categories, had come when I called. I recognized a few of them. There was Jackal, holding a crude knife as ugly as she was, who nodded and rasped, “Good luck.” Blackcap, with her delicate beauty and quiet voice, smiled at me and showed needle-sharp teeth. And, as far from the rest as she could get while still being a part of the same group, Ash Sanguinaria was holding her patchwork stuffed cat and waiting.


I stopped when I saw her. “What are you doing here?” I asked


She smiled slightly and stroked the head of the stuffed animal, which twitched slightly. The raiju wasn’t being shy, it seemed. “I am doing what I can,” she said.


“You know I can’t protect you here,” I said. “And neither can he. Not with things on this scale.”


“I know,” she sighed. “We all take risks, Winter. I know what I’m risking here, and I choose to do it anyway.”


“How did you even know to come here?”


“I hear things,” she said simply. “I heard that you were in a position where you required assistance, and I recalled that you were acquainted with Jackal, so she seemed to be a reasonable way avenue by which to reach you.”


“Ah,” I said. “That makes sense.” I paused, then said, “Thank you.”


“Aw, just get going,” the raiju said, in a voice that had just a bit of crackling static under the surface. “You don’t have time to waste.”


That seemed like a reasonable assumption, and I had nothing left to say anyway. So I went.


The next group I had to check in on were the humans. I had quite a few of them with me, minions of mine or Pellegrini’s thugs or independent mercenaries I knew. All of them were armed, heavily, with a mixture of automatic weapons and sniper rifles, some armored vehicles with mounted machine guns, some grenades and demolitions charges. They were the best people I had for taking enemies down at range.


And finally, there were the people that didn’t fit neatly into any other category. The thing Crimson had brought from Limbo, lurking on a nearby rooftop feeding her pet lizard-thing. The humanoid wolf I’d seen in the Wild Hunt, a few times now. A couple of werewolves that were part of my usual gang of thugs (though not Kyra or Anna; this was too brutal, too nasty, to bring them into). Selene, and around half a dozen other demons from Hell that were there to back me up for one reason or another. There was even a kappa there, and a trio of kitsune who I didn’t know–Kikuchi might not be there officially, but apparently he was willing to pull some strings.


All told, I had close to three hundred people there, ready to fight for me and what I represented. It was a staggering number. To say that this was a larger engagement than I’d ever really been in charge of before was a bit of an understatement. Then again, knowing that so many people were counting on me–that they really believed we could do this–was a sobering realization. It was a lot of pressure, and I wasn’t at all confident that I could live up to the expectation.


I had to try, though. And that meant that I had to do everything I could to win this thing.


In some ways, the hardest part was organizing the whole mess. With so many different groups that I was trying to weld into a coherent whole, at least for a little while, coordination and organization was challenging to say the least.


I wasn’t sure how Tindr and Selene had managed to split that army out and coordinate all the individual groups. I wasn’t sure how they’d managed to get every squad a couple of radios to keep them in communication with the command group. I could only assume that it had taken a minor miracle to get iron weapons and armor to everyone that could use it.


But somehow they’d managed it, and now everyone was parceled out around the city. We had no idea where the Daylight forces would start their assault, which meant that we had to be ready to respond anywhere in the city. So there were individual groups spaced out through the whole city, all connected by radio communications and ready to act in unison. Frishberg was using her influence to keep the police out of things, and while we couldn’t manage a legal state of emergency, word of mouth was enough to get most of the people off the streets for a while.


In short, we had things ready. There was nothing left to do but wait.


The Daylight Court, unsurprisingly, attacked at noon. They used permanent Ways rather than direct portals; the first indication of the attack was when people started appearing out of nowhere. It was well-coordinated, with eight different groups showing up within ten seconds of each other all around the city.


Within seconds, we started getting reports from around the city, as various teams reported on the enemy’s number, location, armament, and behavior. I mostly ignored that; I could see them myself. I was about as diffused as I’d ever been, spread through dozens of animals, snowdrifts, and patches of shadow. One or another of them had an angle on every one of the enemy units. A large, freestanding mirror in the throne room of the mansion displayed the images I was seeing, something like a streaming video from a bunch of security cameras.


Once I was satisfied that I’d seen as much as I was going to, I brought myself back together and assembled a crude body out of ice in the throne room. “Hold fire,” I said, as soon as I had a working set of pseudo-lungs.


Kyi nodded sharply and spoke into the radio. I wasn’t giving the orders myself, not directly; too hard to keep track of a radio when I was hopping between bodies, and I didn’t know the details of the troop arrangements as precisely as Kyi did. “Hold fire,” she said. “Repeat, hold fire.”


I waited for around ten seconds, then said, “Snipers ready.”


“Sniper teams three, six, seven, eleven, thirteen, fifteen, eighteen, and nineteen,” she said instantly. “Ready to fire on my signal. Repeat, ready to fire.”


I waited a few more beats, and then said, “Fire.”


The fae are powerful. There’s no argument about that. Nobody in their right mind would cross them lightly. They’re numerous, individually powerful, in many cases incredibly experienced. Individually, the fae are dangerous. As a group, they’re far worse. You need a hell of an impressive attack to even faze them.


Fourteen trained marksmen using high-powered rifles firing steel-jacketed armor piercing rounds was enough to make an impression.


“They’re dropping,” a cool, calm voice said over the radio, speaking loudly to be heard over the gunshots. “And they see us, right. Sniper team eleven withdrawing. Wait, what’s that? Oh shi–”


The voice cut off, interrupted by the sounds of fire. That was in turn followed by static, and then silence.


And as quickly as that, the battle was joined.


I wanted to fight. I wanted very much to go out and fight myself. And I could have, too. My side had some very skilled fighters on it, but there was no real question that I was the most personally dangerous one we had. I could have tipped the scales of any of the individual conflicts.


But that wasn’t my job here. I was the guy in charge, command and control. I was more valuable calling the shots and coordinating our efforts than just going out and cutting people down. Not to mention that there was a very good chance this was just the opening salvo, the Daylight Court feeling us out. They would have worse to come, and we couldn’t afford to waste resources on this.


So I sent people out to fight and die for me, and all I could do was watch it happen. I couldn’t do much, but I could at least bear witness to what was happening.


The snipers had provided a very strong opening, as high explosive armor-piercing rounds ripped into the enemy ranks. But as the fate of team eleven had proven, they could only get off a couple of shots each before they had to move or risk a devastating counterattack. There were plenty of Daylight forces still standing.


The first group to engage them directly was on the western side of the city, just north of the territory claimed by Kikuchi. Dozens of Daylight trolls and faerie hounds were there, led by a Sidhe knight on a silver horse. They started setting fire to buildings within a few seconds of showing up.


That was a bad sign. I hadn’t been sure how they would treat the residents of the city, whether they’d consider them to be civilians or the fact that I claimed to be their jarl was enough to make them fair game in the war between the Courts. If they opened with casual arson, that was a bit suggestive that this wasn’t going to be a clean fight without collateral damage.


They didn’t make it far before one of my squads was on them. That one was composed mostly of jötnar, bellowing giants with steel weapons and armor, backed by a smaller number of humans with guns.


The first sign of their presence was when the flames went out, smothered by the cold brought by a dozen jötnar. The second was a hail of automatic gunfire that killed the horse and half a dozen of the hounds.


The Sidhe leapt easily off the dying horse and landed on his feet, nimble as a cat. “Good,” he said, smiling and drawing a silver sword from his belt. “I was wondering whether you would put up a fight at all.”


Kjaran’s response was, predictably, swift, brutal, and silent. He bound his sword with the Sidhe’s, and brought the steel-wrapped edge of his shield around into the faerie’s head. The Sidhe staggered to the side, his expression one of pain and shock, and didn’t recover before Kjaran ran him through.


From there the fight devolved into chaos, but it was obvious who had the edge. The fae were disorganized and surprised, and they were fighting a disciplined group of fighters as strong as they were and armed with steel.


The fight was short, and bloody. Not one of the giants fell.


In the north, the snipers had a more dramatic effect. That group of Daylight soldiers had had the poor luck to step out of a way in an open park that was directly between two sniper teams, and between them they’d made mincemeat out of the fae. Even an ogre fell when half a dozen armor piercing rounds hit it in less than ten seconds.


They didn’t just stand there and take it, of course. But it took them a few seconds to figure out that they were under attack. They weren’t accustomed to guns, or explosives; those weapons didn’t generally work in Faerie. Once they did catch on, they picked one of the teams and ran at them, moving faster than gnomes had any right to. Those legs were short, but they were bloody fast.


Unfortunately for them, reacting quickly isn’t the same thing as reacting well. I was guessing they were panicky, caught by surprise and with their ogre already dead. It was, perhaps, forgivable.


That didn’t change the fact that they ran straight into a group of Pellegrini’s troubleshooters. A pair of fragmentation grenades, loaded with iron shrapnel, was enough to finish that group off.


In the east, out at the very edge of the city, the coverage got a bit thinner. It was far from the mansion, which was the center of my organization in more than just a metaphorical sense. Not only that, but there just wasn’t much out there. It was the part of town that was all open plains from there to Kansas, with no real geographic features or major buildings.


There were no snipers to take on that Daylight assault team. Between the generally thin coverage in that area and the lack of good hiding places, it had seemed like a poor location to assign snipers to.


As such, they got more time to rampage than most of them. There were trolls in that group as well, dryads that looked like humanoid trees, even a few salamanders. They were capable of some pretty impressive damage.


They said that the Daylight Court was…not good, precisely, but more benevolent than the Midnight Court.


That might be true, but somehow I didn’t think it was much consolation to the civilians that group caught.


Within a few minutes, though, Jackal’s crew had caught up to them.


Unlike most of the people I’d recruited for this, they didn’t fight as a unit. They weren’t coordinated at all. There were nine of them, and once they showed up there were nine individual fights going on. It was hectic and chaotic, and even as a passive observer, I could barely keep up with what was happening.


There was Jackal herself, so fast she was just a blur as she tackled them with her knife. Blackcap’s demeanor was completely changed. The only time we’d spoken, I remembered her being shy and withdrawn, speaking with a stutter if at all. Now she was singing a sweet, haunting melody as she cracked skulls and tore trolls limb from limb with her bare hands.


And there was Ash, with a knife I’d given her a long time ago in one hand and some subtle magic wrapped around the other. She mostly just stood still, expression sad, as the raiju shredded and electrocuted things all around her.


The fight lasted for around a minute, and when it passed the ground was covered in blood and sap and ashes. Not all of the dead were from the Daylight Court. There were three of Jackal’s crew that I didn’t recognize who weren’t moving.


But they won.


Not far southeast of the mansion, a more mixed group had turned things into a running battle through the streets with a group of mounted fae that looked suspiciously familiar. It took a moment for me to realize that while they weren’t the Wild Hunt, they looked too similar to that group for it to be a coincidence. It wouldn’t surprise me if I’d seen some of them there before.


Without the power of the Hunt, though, they were struggling to catch their prey. Fae horses and hounds were far more than their mortal counterparts, but they were chasing cars through twisty streets that they didn’t know very well.


And this quarry was one hell of an awkward one to chase. Half a dozen cars, weaving through the streets like only someone who’d lived in this city for years could, trading places and changing directions…even watching from the outside, following what was happening was not an easy thing to do. Then they were throwing iron caltrops out behind them, taking potshots whenever they went in a straight line for more than a few moments.


Some of the cars were carrying more…unusual payloads, too. The independent crowd in the city had needed to get creative to survive this long without the backing of a major power, and it showed. The odd magics were just the beginning. There were nets, clouds of iron filings and high-power fans, some sort of grease slick…it seemed like every twist and turn brought a new and dangerous obstacle.


Of course, it wasn’t entirely one-sided. These were experienced hunters, after all. A precisely placed arrow took out a tire on a sharp corner, sending one of the cars sliding into another. Both of them crashed hard, and anyone that might have survived the impact didn’t survive the following hunters.


Then the whole group went down a narrow alley that I didn’t recognize through the eyes of a raven overhead. The cars had only a very slight lead by then, less than fifty feet.


It was enough to collapse the walls in between them, though. It wouldn’t stop the hunters–a pile of rubble wasn’t nearly enough of an obstacle to really stop them. But it would slow them down.


Then the illusion masking the walls of the alley faded, and a small army pounced on them from the sides. The bulk of this group was composed of ghouls, but there were a few werewolves, and of course the three kitsune who had been maintaining the illusion.


Caught by surprise, surrounded, and with their momentum killed, the fae never had a chance. They were dragged down in a matter of seconds.


One of the kitsune looked straight up at the raven I was riding and smiled. I could see a mouthful of bloody meat through her teeth before she swallowed.


The Guards, unsurprisingly, had settled in downtown. It made sense. It was the area of town they were most acquainted with, and also the one where collateral damage could be the most devastating. I wasn’t surprised that they weren’t taking risks with it.


Of course, they also had some very different standards for what the appropriate response to this sort of thing was. The Guards were still very much concerned with public perception, and they still had that pesky rule about not killing people unless they really, absolutely had to.


That limited the people I could send to help them rather dramatically, since most of my gang was…not great at restraint. So they had some people on the rooftops with binoculars to keep them informed, and I’d provided them with cars for mobility, but they were largely on their own.


In fact, that was a good way to think of it in general. Obviously a lot of the people I had working with me today weren’t really my people, but the Guards were more obviously doing their own thing than the rest of us. They were listening in on our main radio frequency, but they had their own communication as well. David was listening to instructions from me and my lieutenants, but there was no doubt that he was the one calling the shots.


Luckily, he was good at what he did. It had been a while since I saw them, and the last time I hadn’t been all that impressed, but apparently in between he’d managed to make the new Guards into an actual, coordinated team.


And it showed. They knew their roles, and they carried them out smoothly enough that it was obvious they’d practiced it a mind-numbing amount. David was the mobile fighter, flying around and knocking people down, tripping them up. Crimson was hanging back and throwing minions in to keep them busy–not strong creatures, nothing as scary as she was capable of calling up from the Otherside, but lots of little things, demons and faeries and nameless things. Individually, they couldn’t take any of the fae, but there were freaking swarms of them, more than enough to keep the enemy busy.


That left Razor and Chainmail as skirmishers, closing in and disabling the Daylight forces with nets, lengths of chain, and Tasers. Even when the fae could find them to attack, they couldn’t do much. Razor was too aware of her surroundings to be caught by surroundings, and it was hard to hit something when you were mentally incapable of really recognizing its presence. That left Spark as artillery to scorch anyone who seemed to be making too much progress, which he was more than happy to do.


It was, I had to admit, impressive. I still thought their nonlethal approach was…naive, I supposed, was the word for it. I had a hard time thinking that it could really work. But I couldn’t deny that they were good at it, and they were making it work for them.


I didn’t spend too much time watching that fight. They were good at what they did, and I knew it. There were other things that needed my attention more. And besides, with the chaos and the sheer scale of that engagement, it was hard for me to find a vantage point to watch from.


Watching all that, I was starting to feel a lot more hopeful than I had been.


Oh, they weren’t all wins. The Daylight Court got some solid victories of its own. Here, an entire contingent of ghouls was wiped out by a group of ogres, and we had to scramble to assemble a unit of auxiliaries and unaffiliated people to go bring them down. There, a Sidhe noble cut a bloody swathe through my Midnight troops until a concerted hail of magic and automatic weapons finally brought her down.


On the whole, though, we were holding our own. It wasn’t a one-sided fight, but that applied to them, too. And all things considered, a more-or-less even fight seemed like a win to me. It was a hell of a lot better than I’d really been expecting.


Which made it unsurprising–almost satisfying, even–when we heard something else over the radio.


“What the hell is that?” Vigdis said, the first thing she’d said since the fighting started other than wordless happy noises when she didn’t realize there was a radio picking up the sound. Then, “Oh, wow. Oh shit. Run!”


I paused when I heard that.


I had never known Vigdis to voluntarily run from a fight.


“Well,” Kyi said dryly. “It would appear that’s your cue, jarl.”

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