The tunnel ran half a mile from the underground...
Lair, Eric Salvador thought. Face it, it's a lair. And we may be walking right towards an ambush... with absolutely no way to go back if things go wrong.
It didn't have the spaciousness and smooth interior décor of the rest, though; this was one of the clandestine emergency exits. Cheba could walk upright but he had to stoop a little—it would be just doable for Adrian Brézé, who was a bit of a shrimp. The naked rock was patched here and there with concrete where the tunnelers had run into cracks, sparsely lit by occasional LED's stapled to the ceiling and smelling of slightly damp stone and the metal of the ventilation ducts. You felt the weight above you here, and he could have sworn he heard it creak in the arch over his head.
Every hundred feet or so was a portcullis of silver-plated steel, cranked up by a simple ratchet mechanism like a car jack, also silver-plated; when they went through, a touch on a toggle and the welded bars crashed home again behind them with a sound like giant teeth. Which left you between two of the things, with no way to raise the one behind you.
Good thing I'm not claustrophobic... much, he thought.
"Why no motors?" Cheba asked.
Eric shrugged, looking at the tunnel with tactical eyes and feeding in what he'd learned of the creatures he was fighting against... and with.
"Don't know for sure. I'd guess motors could be jiggered by their minds, that Wreaking stuff. Electric controls just needs a little nudge but this is straight-up hard work."
"Can't they lift things? By thinking at them, I've seen that."
"Not silver, and these would be too heavy anyway. Notice how the crank handles are all behind these gate things? This is a one-way route, for going out not in."
The children were grinning; they'd had a good night's sleep and bowls of Grape Nuts and cream and orange juice and toast and were raring to go. The tunnel became an instant accessory to an improvised game, and from what he overheard and understood—half the time they were talking French—it was something like Dungeons and Dragons with the Hobbit movies they'd been watching thrown in. Cheba was a little subdued, and Eric felt...
OK, truthiness time, I'm getting a rush out of this. Hey, Eric, why did you reenlist twice? Did your brain flip your skull open and run away screaming like a pink blob on legs both times before you put your hand up, or were you addicted? As in, you'd have been in twenty years and made Gunny and been the terror of recruits at Camp Pendleton in your middle age if that IED hadn't given you a lot of time for thought and a rearranged face? At least I don't have that bug-crawling sensation this time. Just normal fear.
Cheba was in expensive stone-washed black jeans, ankle-boots with silver chains and toe-caps—
The better to kick you with, he thought. Useful masquerading as bling.
—and a midnight-blue silk turtleneck with more very fine silver thread sewn invisibly into the collar, and a sheepskin jacket; the fashionable backpack had the machete sheath built into it, with the handle looking like an innocuous fixture. She didn't have much formal training, but she had what was much more important, an instant readiness to put everything she had into doing an enemy lethal harm. Most people took a while to learn to throw the switch like that; some just couldn't.
Eric was wearing a suit and overcoat that fitted like nothing he'd ever worn, with a label that said Cuthbertson and Sheppard, London, England. It had come with a stiffly worded note saying that going by laser measurements was crude compared to an in-house session and that they resented it despite how much they'd been paid.
Complaining about being given great heaps of cash... It was all new but as comfortable as an old work-glove, and had some remarkable storage capacity added for various illegal, immoral and lethal things. It had been included in an assortment of clothes and gear that had simply arrived about a week ago; some of the items were in the luggage they were trundling behind them now.
"Is this how the rich live?" Cheba asked suddenly, touching the coat, as he wound yet another portcullis up. "Everything they want just... just coming?"
"How the hell should I know?" he said, grunting as the metal grid locked in the up position.
They walked through; he did a double check to make sure everyone was clear, then tripped the release and it dropped with a huge clang. Then he started on the next one and went on:
"The closest I ever got to rich before all this was buying a new Nissan Pathfinder one year, and I couldn't really afford that, not and live in Santa Fe on a cop's salary."
Cheba showed an expression that wasn't a smile. "Next to the way I was, that is rich."
"Next to Adrian Brézé, it's like being a panhandler living on the streets."
Surprisingly, she chuckled. "Si. I understand that. You climb up the ladder but there's always someone higher, eh? You are always staring up someone's backside."
He snorted. "I think ordinary rich people don't have big honking eagles flying in through their walls and trying bite chunks out of their ass, either."
"I thought that it tried to rip your face off with its claws. Talons? Whatever the word is."
"Ass is a figure of speech there. And they don't have underground fortified bases below the sub-basement or have to do this sort of shit."
The tunnel ended in a square chamber with a metal ladder running up one wall. At the top was a featureless metal rectangle with a set of old-fashioned door-bolts, only thick as his wrist, covered in silver and arranged so they ran down at an angle into metal sleeves in the frame. He worked them back with his left hand and held his gun in the right; it was a big-ass pistol cut down from a shotgun, evidently Brotherhood standard and looking like what he imagined stagecoach drivers carrying in the old days.
He'd practiced with it—there was a shooting range in the lair—and he had to admit that at close range it was a real chainsaw. Hard on the wrists and slow to reload, but just the thing for nightwalkers or the Zombie Apocalypse.
There was a click that was felt through his palm rather than heard as he put his hand to the trapdoor, some sort of Wreaking booby-trap that had recognized him. Wreakings had this quality of intention that put his teeth on edge; it wasn't like dealing with machinery. More like little invisible but vicious trained animals chained to a spot or object.
He pushed. When nothing happened he fought down a stab of fear at the thought of being trapped here, then realized that the trapdoor was just a heavy sucker, even for someone as strong as he was. He strained until it fell backward against some sort of soft buffer that kept the noise down to a muffled thud. The space above was dim, with light from narrow dusty windows; it was a closet at the back of a garage with the usual stained concrete floor, and old-fashioned swing-out doors and work tables and racks of tools along one wall.
His eyes flicked around, and the weapon followed. Eric let out a long breath as the empty feeling sank in. There was a cool-looking sports car, a big BMW touring motorcycle, a couple of SUV's and—he grinned at the old friend—a military-type hard-top Humvee, different from the ones he'd used only because it was clean and new and had a spiffy paint-job and didn't have a CROWS remote-operated weapon turret on top. He immediately decided he'd take that, just in case things got hairy. A Humvee could pretty well climb walls, and they might have to go off-road.
Though it's still sorta strange thinking of driving through my hometown to the airport as a combat op, he thought. I'd be even more nervous if I didn't have the kids along. Weird, but near as I can tell anyone who just blew all our asses to hell with an RPG or a big IED would have Adrienne Brézé torturing them for the next couple thousand years and knows it. And if she couldn't for some reason, the whole of the Brézé family would take after an outsider who did that, ditto. If anyone comes after us they'll do it personal, like the last try, which gives us a chance.
He grinned at the thought. Werebeasts and spells were all he had to worry about. And those were less dangerous than some renfields or mercs with explosives, when you looked at it objectively. At least to someone like him who couldn't hex the other guy's weapons. The Power was scary in a sort of visceral way he couldn't really account for, but less dangerous. Dead was dead, but for some reason Shadowspawn felt worse.
"Clear," he said down the hole. Then when all three of them just stared at him: "That means we're OK to go."
Cheba handed up the luggage, then the children, then extended a hand to him. He grasped her wrist and lifted her up until she could swing her feet onto the floor.
"Strong!" she said, looking at him a little oddly and rubbing her wrist.
"Still alive," he replied. "OK, stay here for a minute."
He checked the ground outside; there were inconspicuous openings that let you see all around, and he took his time scanning the flat, scrubby semi-desert landscape. There were fewer juniper and pinion and chamisos close by than you'd expect, though the clearing was cleverly done to be as inconspicuous as possible. It was early morning, but definitely post-sunrise. That meant no nightwalkers, but a Shadowspawn was bad news even in the flesh; the only good thing was that there just weren't very many of them and they mostly didn't have patience enough for a stakeout.
But they can hire mercs, he thought. From what I'm told, they fight each other all the time too.
The building was on a flat stretch below the cliff; he could see a glint off glass at its top, Adrian's sky-aerie. Seeing it from here gave him a bit of a pang. Except for the last bit, it had been a pleasant, restful episosde in a life that had gone from routine is-this-all-there-is approaching-midlife bad to really, really nightmare bad over the last year.
"Que?" Cheba said, when he laughed softly.
"I was thinking it was restful up there, the last couple of weeks. Then I thought that my definition of restful has gotten pretty weird, cause it's only a bit spoiled by were-eagles. It's sorta like I've gone back to thinking of a Forward Operating Base as safe and homey 'cause there's nothing worse than an occasional mortar coming over the wire and you've got a nice cargo container to sleep in."
He walked over and pushed the trapdoor with his foot, bracing himself against the wall of closet because the angle was awkward. It dropped home with a thunk and click-chunk as the retaining springs jarred loose and the bars slid out again, and then it was just a smooth patch of floor.
I'm getting the drift of defenses against the Power, he thought.
Even if you could jigger the lock mechanism, the bolts were simply too big to move with mental effort and there wasn't any machinery to be screwed into releasing them. And even if you could handle the bolts, it would be a stone bitch to get the trapdoor open from this side; you'd need lifting equipment, you'd have to drill and tap so you could sink a big eyebolt in it, and to do that you'd have to tear down the wall of the closet because it was slanted to make it hard. All time-consuming and noisy.
The Power's like a scalpel, he thought. So silver aside, the best way to fight it is to keep everything simple and big and heavy. Brute-force stuff, don't get subtle. The Power does subtle real well. Make it a baseball-bat fight, not a scalpel fight.
It was the hour before dawn, and surprisingly cold outside—not that Dmitri Usov minded anything this New Mexico place could do, after years in Novorossiysk. The place advertised itself as an Inn and Spa and was built in a thick-walled, flat-roofed style around a courtyard now lightly covered in snow; it all reminded him of things he'd seen in the more backward parts of Central Asia, with an interior heavy on thick vividly-striped blankets, exposed pine beams and handsome pottery decorated in zigzag styles. Dale Shadowsblade called it the boutique Injun style, or Hokumfakum Tribe with something of a sneer.
Dinner had been superb, though, with one of the waiters for dessert. Now, though...
"Handle your own empties," Dale Shadowsblade said. "Look, Russki-boy, this isn't any clan's territory and there aren't any Council clean-up squads to call for. We're operating frontier-style here."
Dmitri snarled back at him, and pointed to Kai. "Have her handle it, then!"
He carefully did not add the chernozhopyi that came to his mind, except to himself. Someone who'd survived years as a roving executioner of Shadowspawn was not one to be casually called black-ass. Better to say nothing while he had to work with the man; there was nothing more futile than threatening a hedgehog with a naked buttock. Some day, of course...
"No prob," Kai said helpfully. "He makes a sorta cute corpse, you know? Not much use to a girl, dammit. I think he was getting cold before you guys stopped humping, though."
Dale slapped at his renfield-lucy. She dodged and rolled with the blow and came up grinning; she was wearing a t-shirt and nothing else.
"She works for me," Dale grated at Dmitri.
"Please, may I borrow her services to get rid of this fucking corpse? Did I not spare some of the blood?"
Unexpectedly the Apache Shadowspawn grinned. "OK, since you asked nicely, ndaa. He's starting to get a bit high, yeah."
Blood went off so fast...
"Ndaa?" Dmitri asked.
"That means 'brother'."
"All the time!"
Kai sighed and rolled her eyes as she zipped herself into her jeans. Then she stripped a blanket from one of the beds—they had taken two bedrooms that shared a common lounge—and rolled the slim body of the waiter onto it with her foot, tucked it around him and then pushed the bundle onto another. There wasn't much blood; Dmitri felt fairly bloated with his share, buzzing with the Power. The somnolent humans throughout the big building were like low-banked fires smouldering in the night, with the occasional brighter fleck from one waking early.
"What's the drill?" Kai said to her Shadowspawn.
"We're not planning on eating here much, so it doesn't matter where we crap," he said.
Dmitri barked a laugh when he translated the unfamiliar idiom. Kai gave a slight grunt as she dragged the wrapped body towards the door; there he could sense her feeble tremor of the Power scanning the hallway before she opened it.
"I'll just stuff him in a broom closet or something," she said. A giggle. "Won't someone be—"
Her eyes went theatrically wide as she bumped the door with her backside and hauled her burden out.
"—surprised as shit!"
Dmitri laughed himself; it was a humorous image. The little whore was engaging in her way, and probably useful, which was undoubtedly why she was still alive. Those with a touch of the old blood were the most amusing to hunt, generally speaking. They made challenging game, and had receptive minds.
The inn was within easy walking distance of the town's central square, and they left travelling light; the heavy gear was in Dale's truck in any case. The whole place was very much like a resort town in the Crimea, if you subtracted the ocean—even to the snow-topped blue mountains looming northwards, just now turning pink and crimson with sunrise. Kai brought them warm pastries and quite good coffee from a place called the Plaza Bakery, logically enough, and they sat on a bench in park. Restaurants and jewelry shops and other expensive stores framed it on three sides, all in the low brown adobe style, with the old Palace of the Spanish governors to the west—a large single-story structure with a row of log pillars supporting an arcade where Indians were already setting out their wares on blankets.
There was also a monument to what the yanki called their Civil War; Dmitri sneered slightly at the fuss over such minor skirmishes. Then something teased at his perceptions. He stretched them while he inhaled the fragrant steam of the coffee, muttering a phrase in Mhabrogast.
Dale looked at him sharply. "What's up?"
"Our esteemed imperial bitch was here... and killed."
He frowned, and the heavy high-cheeked brown features grew abstracted for a moment. "Yeah, some homeless dude, she blew a weak spot in his brain. Nice neat job. Not like her to be so kindhearted."
They smiled. Dale went on: "That was when she stole her brother's blond. The one he got back. Tasty piece, but it'd make you puke the way he moons over her."
Dmitri sucked his teeth thoughtfully. "It would not do to underestimate him," he said. "He has killed so many of us... including several of my cousins."
"Tell me. Or to underestimate his sister. So should we try for the kids, or not? I really want to get my hands on that Mex who shot silver at me, too. Hands, not to mention teeth and other stuff. I like breaking the brave ones."
"Hmmm. A big payoff if it works, they are a shield to our enemies and Adrienne wants that complicating factor taken off the board, but she will be... how do you yanki put it... peeved, if there is any injury to her children. She made that very clear to me."
Dale was visibly tempted to say: Do I care? Or words to that effect, but he did not. It was so transparently untrue; you would have to be insane not to care what Adrienne Brézé thought. Dmitri's respect for him went up a notch when he avoided empty bluster.
"Only if we have a truly obvious and very good chance," he said, and the Shadowsblade reluctantly nodded. "From your account of your own attack on Adrian's home, his renfields were much luckier than they should have been—and they have excellent defensive Wreakings, both implanted and their amulets."
Then both their heads came up, turning towards the northeast. "They are moving!" Dmitri said.
"Yeah," Dale breathed, and his voice was somehow chill and hot at the same time. "How would you feel about watching kids for a while, Kai?"
"Watching 'em catch on fire?" she said hopefully. "Drown? Fall off cliffs?"
"No," he said, cuffing her good-naturedly. "Watching 'em really carefully."
"There is something in my baggage that we need," Dmitri said. "Assault with the Power did not work very well for you; and it is daylight now. Perhaps more mundane means... "
Copyright © 2012-2013 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>