Wednesday, 17 May 2017

EXCERPTS from "Iron and Magic" by Ilona Andrews

“I knew how it would end from the start,” he continued. “Violence, magic, and fire.  An old power got involved and broke open the mountain under the castle to release the magic of a dormant volcano.  I knew I had to kill Lennart.  We fought. I broke his legs.  He broke my back and threw me into the fire.  The whole thing was idiotic.”
Volcanic fire powered by magic would have melted stone.  He should’ve been instantly burned to a crisp. “How did you survive?”
“I teleported out.  Had a water anchor in a vial around my neck.  There wasn’t much of me left.  Roland put me inside a phoenix egg for three months.  Took me another five to get my strength back.”
He’d spent three months in excruciating pain. He said it so casually, as if it didn’t matter.
“If it wasn’t for Lennart, I might have convinced her. She wavered.”
“I don’t think she did.”

God was dead.
No, that wasn’t quite it.  He was dead.
No, that wasn’t it either.
Voices tugged on him, refusing to let him sink back into the numbing darkness.
He was laying on something hard and wet. The stench of sour, alcohol-saturated vomit hit his nose.
He was drunk.  Yes, that was it.  He was drunk and getting more sober by the moment, which meant he had to find something to drink or pass out again before the void where God used to be swallowed him whole.
Cold liquid drenched him.
“Get up.” A familiar male voice, but the identity of the speaker lay deep inside his memory, and to reach for it, he would have to think.  Thinking brought the void closer.
“This is pointless.”  Another voice he knew and decided to not remember.  “Look at him.”
“Get up,” the first voice insisted, calm, deliberate.  “Landon is winning.  He’s killing us one by one.”
Something stirred in him.  Something suspiciously resembling loyalty and obligation and hate.  He tried to sink deeper into the stupor. God didn’t want him anymore, but the darkness was happy to take him in.
“He doesn’t care,” the second voice said.  “Don’t you get it?  He’s lost.  He might as well be dead and rotting for all good he would do us.”
“Get the fuck off this floor!”
Sharp pain punched his skull.  Someone kicked him.  He briefly considered doing something about it, but that way lay reality.  Staying on the floor was the better option.
“Hit him again, and I’ll split you sideways.”  Third voice.  Cold.  He knew this one too.  That one rarely spoke.
“Think.”  The fourth voice.  Collected, reasonable, dripping with contempt.  “Right now he’s drunk. Eventually he’ll be sober. If you kick him in the head, you’ll injure his brain. What good is he then? We already have one brain-damaged imbecile.  We don’t need another.”
One… two… three… The count surfaced from the muddled depths of his min.  He used to count just like this to see how long the insult would take to burrow through the hard shell that was Bale’s brain.
“I’ll fucking kill you, Lamar!”
“Shut up,” the first voice said.
Yes.  All of them needed to shut up and leave him the hell alone.
“Get up, Hugh.”
Stoyan, his memory supplied. Figured.  Stoyan was always a persistent sonovabitch.
“We need you,” Stoyan insisted.  “The Dogs need you.  Landon is killing us.  We’re being purged.”
Eventually they would go away.
“He doesn’t give a fuck,” Bale said.
“Bring me the bag,” Stoyan said.
Something landed next to him.
“It’s not gonna matter.  He’s all fucked up.  He’s laying here in his own piss and vomit.  You heard that dickhead at the door.  He’s been in this shithole for weeks.”
Hugh heard the zipper.  Something was put in front of him.  He smelled the stench of rotting blood and decomp.
“Even if he sobers up, he’ll crawl right back into the bottle and get shit-faced.”
Hugh opened his eyes.  The severed head stared back at him, the brown irises dulled by the milky patina.
“He can’t even stand anymore.  What are we going to do, tie him to a stick and prop him up?”
The world turned red.
“To hell with this.” Bale leaned back, readying for a kick.
Rage drove him up before Bale’s foot connected to the severed head.  He locked his hand around Bale’s throat, jerked him off his feet, and slammed him down onto the nearest table.  Bale’s back hit the wood with a loud thud.
“Halleluiah,” Lamar said.
Bale clawed at his arm, the muscle on his thick biceps bulging.  Hugh squeezed.
Felix loomed on his right, reaching for him.  Hugh hammered a cross punch into nose with his left hand.  Cartilage crunched. The big man stumbled back.
Bale’s face turned purple, his eyes glistening.  His feet drummed the air.
Stoyan locked his arms on Hugh’s right biceps and went limp, adding his dead weight to the arm.  Felix lunged from the left and locked himself onto Hugh’s arm, trying to force an arm bar.
The world was still red, and he kept squeezing.
Water drenched him in a cold cascade, washing away the red haze. He shook himself, growling, and saw Lamar’s face.
“Welcome back,” Lamar said.  “Let go of the man, Preceptor. If you kill him, there will be nobody to lead your vanguard.”

The void gnawed at him, the big raw hole where Roland’s presence used to be.  It hurt.  Hugh grit his teeth and forced himself to concentrate on the head on the table in front of him.
“When?” he asked.
“Six days ago,” Stoyan said. “He was out. He’d quit after you were forced out.  He took a teaching job in Chattanooga.  Taught high school French.  He wasn’t a threat to anyone. They killed him anyway.  I came to convince him to meet with you.  I was too late.”
His throbbing head made it hard to think. “Camilla?”
Stoyan shook his head.  Rene’s wife didn’t make it. Pain stabbed at him, fueling his rage.
“Dead,” Bale said.
“Purdue, Rockfort, Ivanova, all dead,” Stoyan added.  “We’re it.”
Hugh surveyed the four men.  Stoyan, dark-haired, dark-eyed, in his mid-thirties, looked haggard, like a worn-out sword.  Felix, a hulking mountain of a man with reddish hair, leaned back, trying to stop a nose bleed.  The bridge of his nose skewed right.  Broken. Bale sulked in the corner.  About five seven, five eight, he was almost as broad as he was tall, all his bulk bone and slabs of thick, heavy muscle.  Lamar perched on the edge of the table to far right.  Tall, whiplash-lean, and black, he looked twisted together from ropes of stringy muscle.  Short hair, cut down to the quarter-inch length, framed his long face. A pair of thin, wire-rimmed glasses rode his nose.  He was closing on fifty-five and he pretended to be older than he was.
The second-in command, the silent killer, the berserker, and the strategist. All that remained of his cohort leadership.
“This is the way things are now,” Stoyan said.
“Landon Nez is going down the roster of Iron Dogs and crossing out the names,” Lamar said. “Nobody is safe.  We’re all tarred with the same brush.”
The Iron Dogs.  His Iron Dogs, the elite private army he’d built for Roland.  The name made him wince inside.  The void gaped wider, scrapping at his bones.
He’d led the Iron Dogs, and Landon Nez led the Golden Legion, the necromancers who possessed mindless vampires piloting them like remote controlled cars.  The Iron Dogs and the Golden Legion, the right and left hand of Roland.  He’d hated Nez, and Nez hated him, and that’s the way Roland liked it.  Hugh would’ve found a way to kill Nez eventually, but he’d made a critical error in judgement. Roland purged him. Now the lifeline of magic that anchored him to the man who’d pulled him of the streets was gone. His purpose, his teacher, his surrogate father, everything that was right and true in this fucked up world was gone. Life had no meaning.
“How bad is it?” he asked.
“We’re down to three hundred men now, with us,” Stoyan said.
A few months ago he’d left six cohorts of Iron Dogs, three hundred and eighty soldiers each. He’d hammered them into an elite, disciplined, trained force, the kind of soldiers any head of state would cut off his arm to have.
“There are more out there,” Stoyan said.  “Some are in hiding, some are wandering about without any direction.  Landon has bloodsucker patrols out.  They are hunting us down.”
What the hell happened since he left?  “Why?”
“Because of you!” Bale snarled from the corner.
Hugh looked at Lamar.
“Roland discovered an unpleasant fact,” Lamar said.  “We do not follow him.  We follow you.  You are our preceptor. We’re viewed as untrustworthy.”
Idiots. “You swore an oath.”
“Oaths go both ways. Show him your arms,” Lamar said.
Stoyan yanked his sleeves up.  Jagged scars marked his forearms.  “He told me to raze a village and hang the civilians on trees to send a message,” Stoyan said.  “I told him I was a soldier, not a butcher.  He crucified the lot of us.  Thirty-two people.  I watched them die for three days. I would’ve died there.”
“What saved you?” Hugh asked.
“Daniels saved me.  She pulled me off the cross and let me go.”
The name cut like a knife.  It must’ve showed on his face, because Stoyan took a step back.
He shoved the name out of his mind and concentrated on the problem at hand. Stoyan would refuse the order to butcher civilians.  That wasn’t what the cohorts did. The dark arm of Iron Dogs, which would’ve wiped the village off the face of the planet without questions, no longer existed.  Roland was painfully aware of that.  The order had been a test of loyalty, and Stoyan failed.  Roland didn’t just require loyalty, he demanded unquestioning devotion.  When he failed to receive it, he must’ve decided to purge the entire force.
A waste, he realized.  He’d sank years into building the Iron Dogs, and Roland tossed them away like garbage.
Much like Roland had thrown him away.  No, not thrown away.  He’s cut me, his right hand, off. 
This new heretical thought sat in his brain, burning and refusing to fade.
He groped for the tether of magic to banish the uncertainty and found only the void. It gaped at him, sinking its fangs into his soul.  The invisible imperceptible tie connected them even when the magic waves waned and technology held the upper hand.  It was always there.  It linked them since the moment Roland had shared his blood with him.  Now it was gone.
The void chewed on his bones, the heretical thought burned his brain, and he had no way to steady himself.  An urge to scream and smash something gripped him.
The four men watched him.  He’d known each one for years.  He’d hand-selected them, trained them, fought with them, and now they wanted something from him.  They wouldn’t let him alone until he did it.
“Unless we do something, none of us will be alive this time next year,” Felix said.
“What is it you want to do?” He already knew, but he asked anyway.
“We want you to lead us,” Stoyan said.  “The Dogs know you.  They trust you.  If they know you’re alive, they will find you.  We can pull in the stragglers and hold against Nez.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.” To stay awake and anchored to reality, with the void chewing on him.  He would go mad.
“I’m not asking.”  Stoyan stepped in front of him.  “I trusted you.  I followed you.  Not Roland.  Roland didn’t make me promises.  You did.  You sold me this idea of belonging to something better.  The Iron Dogs are more than a job.  A brotherhood, you said.”
“A family, where each of us stands for something greater,” Lamar said.
“If you fall, the rest will shield you,” Bale said.
“Well, we’re, by God, falling,” Stoyan said.
Fucking shit.
“Do you know why you’re still alive?” Lamar asked.  “Every day, every week, there is less of us, but you’re still breathing.  If we found you, Nez can, too. I bet he knows exactly where you are.”
“I’m alive, because he wants me to be the last,” Hugh said. “He wants me to know.”  Nez wanted him to watch as his necromancers tore apart everything he built, and when nothing was left, he would come calling to squeeze the last bit of blood out of the stone.
Lamar smiled.
“What do we have?” Hugh asked.
“Three hundred and two men, including us,” Stoyan said.
“Whatever each one of us carries,” Bale said.
“None,” Lamar said.  “We’re close to starving.”
Felix shook his head.
Perfect.  Rock bottom isn’t the worst place to start from, and the Dogs who’d managed to stay alive were probably the smartest or strongest.  He had three hundred trained killers.  A man could do worse.
Rene’s head stared at Hugh from the table.  He studied it, committing every detail to memory and hurled it into the void.  The old days were gone.  He would fill the bottomless hole with rage or it would drive him insane.  Either way made no difference.
Hugh strode to the door and flung it open.  Fresh air greeted him.  A small ugly town sat in front of him, little more than a street with a few buildings and a rural road, leading into the distance to disappear between the fields.  A sunset splashed over the horizon, dying slowly, and the three street lamps had come on already, spilling watery electric light onto the stretch of the road in front of him. He remembered oppressive heat, but now the air was too cold for summer.
“Fall or spring?” he asked.
“September,” Lamar told him.
“What is this town?”
“Connerville, Tennessee,” Stoyan said.
The last thing he remembered was Beaufort, South Carolina.
“Where is Nez?”
“In Charlotte,” Lamar told him.  “He’s set up a permanent base there.”
Far enough to keep out of Atlanta and the surrounding lands.  They belonged to Daniels now.  But not so far that he couldn’t bring the legion down if Roland became displeased with his precious daughter.
He had to stabilize them, arm them, and find a base to keep them alive.  Most of all, he had to convince Nez that attacking them now wasn’t in his best interests.  If he kept the Dogs alive through the winter, by spring he would pick a successor and move him into place.  Then he would do what severed limbs did.  He would wither and rot.
Magic rolled over the land.  Hugh couldn’t see it, but he felt an exhilarating rush that tore through him, washing away the headache that pounded at the base of his skull. The electric lamps winked out, and twisted glass tubes of fey lanterns flared into life with eerie indigo light.
He raised his hand and let it flow out.  A pale blue glow bathed his fingers.  Felix grunted as his nose knitted back together.
Hugh picked up Rene’s head.  He would bury him tonight.
“Find me some clothes.  And call Nez.  Tell him I want to talk.”

“Wake up!”
He sensed the kick coming through his sleep and curled into a ball. It didn’t hurt as much this time.   Emile wasn’t really trying.
“You have a client.”
He rolled up, blinking.  He should’ve hidden deeper in the drum that was his nest.  The drum lay on its side and it was deep enough so Emile couldn’t land a good kick. But it was so nice and sunny and so he’d fallen asleep on the rags in front of it.
He looked at Emile and the man next to him.  The man had dark eyes.  He’d learned to watch the eyes. Faces lied, mouths lied, but the eyes always told you if the man would hit and how hard.  This man was large.  Big hands.  Powerful shoulders.  Next to him Emile looked skinny and weak, and he knew it too, because he forgot to sneer. All the street people called him Weasel because of the sneer, but only when he couldn’t hear.  Emile was mean.  He ran the street and when someone tried to stand up to him, he’d fly into a rage and beat them with a rock or a metal stick until they stopped moving.
Emile jabbed his finger in the direction of the man.  “Fix him.”
The man held out his left arm.  A cut snaked from his wrist all the way to the elbow.  Shallow.  Easy to fix.  He eyed Emile.  Usually Emile made him say nonsense words and drag it out, so it would look mysterious, but the man was watching him and it was making him uneasy.
He reached out and touched the man’s arm, letting the magic flow.  The cut sealed itself.
The man squeezed his forearm, checking the spot where the wound used to be.
“See?  I told you.”  Emile bared his teeth.
“How much?” the man asked.  His voice had an accent.
“How much what?”
“How much for the boy?”
His heart sank.  He scooted deeper into the drum, where he’d kept a knife hidden under his rags. He knew what happened to boys who were sold.  He knew what men did to them.  Rene was sold a month ago.  A man took him away. Two weeks ago after the dark, he saw the same man leading Rene on a chain like a dog as they walked into a house.  Rene was wearing a pink dress and he had a black eye.
Emile promised not to sell him.  That was the deal.  He healed clients and Emile gave him food and protected him.
“Not for sale.” Emile said.
The man reached into his leather jacket.  An envelope came out.  A stack of money hit the dirt in front of Emile.  A thick stack.  More money than he had ever seen.  Emile’s eyes got big.
Another stack.
He trapped in the drum. There was nowhere to run.
Emile licked his lips.
“You promised!” he yelled.
“Shut up.” Emile squinted at the man.  “He’s a magic boy.”
Another stack.
“Take him,” Emile said.
The man reached for him.  He shrank back, his hand clutching the knife hidden under his filthy blanket.  He wouldn’t be walking on a chain.
The man stepped toward him, his back to Emile.
“Drop the knife,” the man said.
Behind him Emile’s face turned ugly.  He lunged, a knife pointed at the man’s back. The man turned fast.  His hand fastened on Emile’s wrist.  Emile screamed and dropped the knife.  The man pulled him over.
“Take him!” Emile squealed.  “Take him!”
“Too late.”  The man locked his left hand on Emile’s throat and squeezed.  Emile clawed at the man’s arm with his free hand, flailing, trying to get away.  The man squeezed.  Something crunched.  Emile’s eyes rolled back in his skull.  The man let go and Emile fell down, limp.
He scooted deeper into the drum.
The man crouched by it. “I won’t hurt you.”
He slashed with his knife.  The man caught his hand and then he was yanked out into the sunlight and set on his feet. The man looked at his knife.  “A sharp blade.” He held it out to him.  “Here.  It will make you feel better.”
He snatched the knife from the man’s hand, but he already knew the truth.  The knife wouldn’t help.  The man could kill him any time. He’d learned this truth a long time ago: he was small and everyone else was big.  The big kicked the small and the small hurt.  He couldn’t fight the man. He would have to bide his time and run.
The man took his hand and together they walked out of the alley into the market.  The man stopped at the pirogi stall, bought a hot pirogi, and handed it to him.  “Eat.”
Free food.  He grabbed it and bit into it, the sweet apple filling hot enough to burn his mouth.  He swallowed his half-chewed bite and took another. He could always try to get away later.  Eventually the man would look away and then he would run.  Until then, if the man bought him food, he would take it.  Only an idiot gave up free food. You ate it and you ate it quick before someone punched you and took it out of your hands.
They walked through the marketplace all the way to the park to a man sitting on a bench reading a book.
“I found him,” the man with dark eyes said.
The man on the bench raised his head and looked at him.
He forgot about the food.  The half-eaten pirogi fell from his fingers.
The man was golden and burning with magic, so much magic, he almost glowed.  The magic touched him, so warm and welcoming, so kind.  It wrapped around him and he froze, afraid to move because it might disappear.
“Where are you parents?” the golden man asked.
Somehow he answered.  “Dead.”
The man leaned toward him.  “You don’t have any family?”
He shook his head.
“How old are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hard to tell because of starvation,” the man with dark eyes said.  “Maybe six or seven.”
“You’re very special,” the golden man said.  “Look at all those people out there.”
He didn’t want to look away from the man, but he didn’t want to disappoint him even more, so he turned his head and looked at the people in the market.
“Of all the people out there, you shine the brightest.  They are firebugs, but you are a star. You have a gift.”
He tried to see the light the man was talking about, but he saw nothing.
“If you come with me, I promise you that I will help your light grow.  You will live in a nice house.  You will eat plenty of good food.  You will train hard and you will grow up to be strong and powerful.  Nobody will be able to stand in your way.  Would you like that?”
He didn’t even think. “Yes.”
“What’s your name?” the golden man asked.
“I don’t have any.”
“Well, that’s not good,” the man said.  “You need a name.  A strong name, the kind that people would know and respect.  Do you know where we are?”
He shook his head again.
“We’re in France.  Do you know who that man is?” He pointed a statue of the man on a horse.  The man had a sword and a crown.
“That’s Hugh Capet. He was the founder of the Capet dynasty.  The kingdom of France began with his reign. The descendants of his bloodline sat on the throne of France for almost nine hundred years.  He was a great man and you too will be a great man, Hugh.  Would you like to be a great man?”
The man smiled.  “Good.  Today is a special day because we met.  Is there anything I can do for you on this special day?  Anything at all?  Ask me any favor.”
Hugh swallowed.  “My friend. His name is Rene.  He has dark hair and brown eyes. He was sold to a man.”
“Would you like him found?”
Hugh nodded.
The man glanced over his head at the man with dark eyes.  “Find this Rene and bring him to me.”
The man with dark eyes bowed his head.  “Yes, Sharrum.”
He walked away.
The golden man smiled at Hugh.  “Come sit by me.”
Hugh sat by the man’s feet.  The magic wrapped around him and he knew that from this moment on everything would go right.  Nothing would ever hurt him again.

“Was that vampire from the People?” Sam asked.
“Golden Legion,” Stoyan said.
“Is that like the People?”
“The necromancers who work for Roland call themselves the People,” Stoyan explained.
“They call themselves that because they feel they are the only people.  The rest of us are lesser mortals,” Lamar said.
“The best one hundred of them make up Golden Legion,” Stoyan said.  “The Legion is led by a Legatus, the prick we’re riding to meet. Each Master of the Dead in the Legion can pilot more than one undead. A Master of the Dead can wipe out an Army company with one undead.”
“Depending on how big the company is,” Lamar said.  “Regulations size for a company is between eighty and two hundred and fifty soldiers.  Two fifty would be pushing it for one bloodsucker.  The Legion would need at least three.”
“The point is,” Stoyan said, “When we meet Legatus, you’ll be deaf and dumb, you get me?  If I hear one squeak out of you, you’ll wish you were back on the ranch getting strung up by that sheriff your daddy is so afraid of.”
“How will I know if he’s Legatus?” Sam asked.
Hugh thought about turning around and knocking him off his horse to shut him up, but it would take too much effort.
“Because he’ll look like the rest of the People,” Stoyan said. “Like an asshole in an investment banker’s suit.”
“That’s redundant,” Lamar pointed out.
“Who’s Roland?” Sam asked.
“Someone you need to steer clear of,” Stoyan said.
“An immortal wizard with a megalomaniac complex who wants to rule the world,” Lamar said.
“Why does he want us dead?” Sam asked.
“All you need to know is that he does,” Bale growled.  “Now shut the fuck up, or I’ll count your teeth with my fist and then you’ll be busy picking them out of the dirt.”

Elara strode outside of the gate onto the top of the hill where the castle sat.  Soldiers filed out of the forest, running three to a row.  They wore black uniforms, some in armor, some without. Each carried a large backpack, a bedroll, and weapons.  They moved in unison, their feet striking the ground at the same time.

She didn’t detect them in the forest, which meant they had to be far behind d’Ambray and his party.
The soldiers began to form a block, eight soldiers in a line.  All of that equipment had to weigh at least twenty pounds.  Probably a lot more.
“How long have they been running?” she asked and wished she hadn’t.  Any show of interest was an opening, and D’Ambray would wedge his big shoulder through it and hold it open.
D’Ambray shrugged, looming next to her, a darkness shaped like a huge man.  “From Aberdine.”
“Ten miles?”
“Yes.”  He turned to her, his dark blue eyes calm.  “Would you like them to run back and here again?”
He was completely serious, she realized.
He turned to face the soldiers. They formed four separate blocks, each eight soldiers wide and ten lines deep, and froze, like dark statues against the green grass of the lawn.
“Do you want them to rest before we start?” she asked.
“Are you tired?” d’Ambray barked next to her, his voice carrying across the field.  She almost jumped.
The three hundred and twenty people roared back in a single voice.  “No, Preceptor.”
“They’re ready for your inspection,” Hugh said.

“Darin, why don’t you go on and scout ahead,” Conrad said. “Make sure we don’t run into something.”
Darin clicked his mouth shut and rode on.
Conrad turned to Hugh.  “I know what you’re doing.  If the Lady wanted you to know, she’d tell you.  Leave the boy alone.”
Hugh considered stringing Conrad up by his ankles.  An hour or so with blood pooling to his head, and the older scout would sing a beautiful song filled with all of his secrets.  He was still deciding if he were going to do it, when Darin came riding around the bend.
“A fort!” he reported. “Looks empty.”
Hugh looked at Sam and nodded at the column behind them.  “Get Sharif.”
The kid turned his horse and rode back.  Half a minute later, Sharif came riding from the back.  The dark-haired lean scout had been covering the rear. Sam followed him.
Hugh touched the reigns and they rode on. The path turned.  A wooden palisade rose to one side of the road, a ring of sharpened tree trunks ten feet high.  A crude guard tower stood on the right, just inside the palisade walls, overlooking the road.  A bell hung from its roof.  The gate stood wide open.  To the left, the road bent and rolled on, widening into what used to be main street of a small town stretching into the distance, an old pre-Shift two story house on one side, a trailer on the other, both mostly eaten by the forest.  He could just make out the sharp point of a church steeple in the distance between the new trees.
The palisade lay silent. No sentries.  No movement.
Hugh glanced at Conrad.
“This is new,” the older scout said.  “Wasn’t here nine months ago.”
Sharif dismounted.  Light rolled over his dark irises and flashed green.  He inhaled deeply, crouched and sniffed the road.
“Nobody’s home,” he said quietly.
Hugh dismounted and fixed Conrad with his stare.  “Stay here with the boy.”
If something happened to those two idiots, Elara would screech at him for days.
Hugh walked inside the gates. Three large log houses waited inside, two to the left and one to the right.  In the back, an animal pen stood empty.  The wind brought a hint of carrion.
“The road smells odd,” Sharif said quietly.
“Human, animal?”
“Odd.  Nothing I’ve smelled before.”  He held out his arm.  The hair on the back of its stood straight up.  “I don’t like it.”
Shapeshifters had a freakishly strong scent memory, and among all of the shapeshifters, werewolves were the best.  They had no problem taking a whiff of a blood smudge and sorting through a couple thousand scent signatures to identify a guy they shared a drink with once two years ago.  Sharif had been with him for five years.  If he hadn’t smelled it before, it had to be one hell of a rare creature or something new.
New. Hugh smiled.  “Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it?”
Sharif rolled his eyes for half a second before schooling his features into a perfectly neutral expression.
Hugh turned to the nearest house, walked up the wooden stairs onto the porch and touched the door.  It swung open under the pressure of his fingertips.  A simple open floor plan with the kitchen and dining area to the far left and the living room space to his right. A dinner was laid out on the table.  He moved across the floor on silent feet to the table. The reek of rotten food made him grimace.  Fuzzy blue mold blossomed on the leftovers.  Looked like pulled meat of some sort with mashed potatoes on the side and a serving of formerly green vegetables.  A fork lay by the nearest plate, its tines covered with the mold.
He crouched and looked under the table.  A broken plate.
Sam was hovering nearby.  Hugh pointed at the plate. “Thoughts?”
“It happened in the middle of dinner?”
Hugh nodded.  “There is a walkway built along the palisade and a tower. What was under it?”
Sam blinked.
“Go look.”
The kid took off.
Sharif crossed his arms.  “I don’t like it.”
“I heard you the first time.”
Sam came back.  “A broken plate.”
“What does that tell you?”
“There was a guard on duty.  They brought him dinner.”
“Something killed him so fast, he couldn’t raise the alarm.”  Sam paused.  “Was he shot?”
“No blood spatter,” Sharif said.  “But there is this.”  He slid his finger down the wooden frame.  Four long bloody scratches gouged the wood.
“And this.”  He crouched and pointed to the floor.
A bloody human nail.
Sam’s face turned pale.  “Something dragged them out of here.”
Hugh pivoted to his right.  A row of guns and swords hung on the wall, just by the door.  It would take him less than a second to cover the distance from the table to the wall. “Something smart and fast.”
“Vampires?” Sam asked.
“It’s possible.”
“I don’t smell the undead,” Sharif said.
“But you do smell something. If Nez resorted to snatching people from isolated communities, he wouldn’t use the regular bloodsuckers to do it.” Hugh straightened.
“But why?” Sharif asked.
“That’s a good question.”
The People bought their undead by offering contracts to terminally ill.  That was one of the cornerstones of Roland’s policy. He needed to seed his Masters of the Dead into every major city, and it was much easier to do that if the People seemed like an above-board operation, beneficial to the community.  They ran casinos, they volunteered their services when undead were involved, and they offered the dying a chance to guarantee a payout to their families.  If the general public suspected that the Masters of the Dead began grabbing warm bodies to turn into vampires, Roland would be livid and the guilty would be dead before they had a chance to repent their sins.
But the pattern did fit the navigators.  A fast, stealthy surgical strike.
He headed for the door.
“Are there irregular bloodsuckers?” Sam asked behind him.
“You have no idea,” Sharif told him.

The body of the dog sprawled under a bush.  Blood stained the brown and white fur.  Hugh crouched by it. Next to him Sharif leaned closer to the ground, staring unblinking at the crushed bushes and red-stained leaves.  Karen, the other shapeshifter, dropped to all fours on the other side and took a long whiff.
Shapeshifters had their issues, but Hugh never agreed with Roland’s disdain for them.  He understood Roland’s position well enough and recited it with passion when the occasion called for it, but when it came down to it, shapeshifters made damn good soldiers and that’s all he cared about.
He braced for the uncomfortable flash of guilt that usually flared when he thought Roland was wrong.  It never came. Instead the void scraped his bones with its teeth.  Right.
“He got some bites in,” Karen said softly, her voice tinted with sadness.  “Good boy.”
Sharif bared his teeth.
The dire wolf was big and old.  One of the shepherds had snapped a polaroid of him two night before when the beast prowled the tree line, studying the cows in the pasture.  From the paw prints and the pictures, the old male stood two feet and ten inches at the shoulder and had to weigh close to one hundred and eighty pounds if not more.
Wild wolves didn’t follow the strict alpha-beta pecking order people assigned to them.  That structure was mostly present in big shapeshifter packs. Hierarchy was a primate invention. Instead wolves lived in family groups, a parent couple and their young, who followed their parents until they grew up enough to start their own packs.  But this beast was alone.  Something happened to his pack and he hunted by himself.  A night ago he tried to take a cow.  The dogs and guns ran him off.  Then the magic hit.
The old wolf was a smart bastard, smart enough to figure out that when the magic was up, guns didn’t bark. Still, he stayed away from the pasture and went for the easier target instead, a ten-year-old girl picking pears from the ground in the orchard while her parents were on ladders harvesting the fruit.
The two dogs with the harvesters did their job, and their job was to give their life for their humans.  They found the first dead hound at the edge of the woods.  The second was here.  Now it was up to human Dogs to settle the score.
“Heartbeat,” Sharif whispered.
Hugh reached out with his magic.  The dog was a mess, torn and bitten, but a faint, barely-there heartbeat shivered in his chest.  Hugh concentrated.  This would be complicated.
He knitted the organs together, repairing the tissue, sealing the blood vessels, mending the flesh like it was fabric.  The two Dogs by his side waited quietly.
Finally, he finished.  The dog raised his head, turned in the brush, and crawled toward them.  Sharif scooped the hundred and twenty-pound hound up like it was a puppy.  The dog licked his face.
“He lost a lot of blood,” Hugh said.  “He won’t be walking for a bit.”
“I’ll carry him,” Sharif said.  His eyes shone, catching the light.
“We’re only a mile in.  Take him back and catch up,” Hugh told him.
The werewolf turned smoothly and ran into the woods, silent like a shadow, the huge dog resting in his arms.
Karen took the lead and they followed the scent trail deeper into the wood.
If he never saw another rhododendron bush until his next life, it would be too soon, Hugh decided. The damn brush choked the spaces between trees and getting through it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk.
They pushed their way through the latest patch.  The endless rhododendron finally fell away. The woods stretched before them, the massive oaks and hemlocks rising like a forest of thick columns, cushioned in greenery.
A shadow fluttered between the trees, trailing a smear of foul magic.  An undead.
The day was looking up.  Hugh grinned and pulled his sword out.
The undead dashed right and stopped.
Another smear appeared on the left.  Two. If it was Nez’s standard rapid reconnaissance party, there would be a third, each piloted by a separate navigator.
Karen waited next to him, her anticipation almost a physical thing hovering in front of her.
“Happy hunting,” Hugh said.
She unbuckled her belt with the knife sheath on it, unzipped her boots, and gave a sharp tug to her shirt.  It came open.  She dropped it on the forest floor. Her pants followed. A brief flash of a nude human, then her body tore.  New bones sprang up out of flesh, muscle spiraled up them, sheathing the next skeleton, skin clothed it, and dense grey fur burst from the new hair follicles.   The female werewolf opened her monstrous jaws, her face neither wolf nor human, swiped her knife from her clothes, and sprinted into the woods to the left.
Hugh started through the woods toward the foul magic staining the leaves. The magic receded.  Run, run, little vampire.
Another vampire to the far right, closing in fast.  The front bloodsucker played bait, while the one on the left would close in from the flank and try to jump him.  They didn’t realize he could feel them.  This wasn’t the Golden Legion.  The Masters of the Dead would’ve just met him two on one.  These were likely journeymen, piloting younger vampires. The undead were damn expensive.  Didn’t want to risk the budget, did you, cheapskate?  It will cost you.
He ran through the forest as fast as the terrain would let him. Tree trunks flew by.
Let’s play.