Power flared along my staff as I readied myself to strike the Colonel when a woman's hand pressed on my arm, Muminah. Her lips were narrowed and her eyes pleading as she looked to the corner. "Warden – I know you could strike them down, but I fear that there would be consequences."
I followed her gaze back to a corner of the oubliette where a small cluster of brown robed kids were standing together. Good, I was pleased that at least some of the apprentices were still alive. There were five of them, four girls who looked to be of tweeish to late teenage years and a boy who might have been sixteen or so. Some of them were even far along enough in their training that I saw signs of rings and bangles that might actually have been useful in a fight. Some, but not all of them looked old enough that they could probably cast a shielding charm. If there was a firefight in this space, some of them would die.
Muminah pleaded for the safety of her captor's children. "My lord. Have mercy. These men only know the god you cast down from heaven, not the god you've become."
Hell's bells – how did things keep getting so twisted? If I actually ended up in a fight with the Russians, I didn't even have a reasonable guarantee that the Wardens would be on my side. Sure the Archive was saying "let them go" but if I started trying to axe mortals, deal or no deal, the wardens weren't just going to watch that happen. And while I'd made my promise not to harm the Wardens except in self-defense, Nanami would probably consider defending her guests to be an obligation.
And honestly… I just didn't want to have to kill these guys. The Colonel clearly didn't have a clue how far in he was over his own head. He was way in the supernatural deep end and just treading water to keep himself from drowning in exactly how screwed he was. These guys were just working stiffs fighting for their country, they had their orders and they'd fight to the death to accomplish them.
"How much am I going to have to pay you?" I asked, addressing the Russian.
"Excuse me?" The Colonel replied, an irritated edge to his voice. "You're trying to bribe me to betray my country."
"No, I'm trying to offer you a much more profitable deal than dying in a dark hole to be fed upon by the ghouls that I'm positive the vampires brought with them." I replied dryly. "This is a no-win scenario for you buddy. If you manage to knock me out, kill the Archive and her bodyguard, and even if the Wardens let you do that to their guests, you've still got a vampire army coming aaaaannny second now."
I help my hand up to my ear, miming listening as the sounds of the battle wizards above the oubliette echoed down horrifyingly. The screams of vampire warriors were growing louder and louder as the army advanced through Archangel. "And unless someone who knows how to take down the wards for this place - someone like me by the way – you're going to have to fight an army of thousands with…. What, a few dozen? Those don't feel like good odds to me even without the whole 'near unkillable' aspect of vampires. Warden Nanami, what's the attrition rate on even seasoned vampire hunters? I mean the really good ones? They kill maybe a couple hundred vampires before they die."
"Some of them get into the thousands over a lifetime." Nanami replied, her face inscrutable as she held the hilt of her blade. "But that's with support and planning. Only a fool attacks vampires from a point of weakness. And we are not in a point of strength."
"I figure each of you are probably serious badass types. So, let's say that each of you manages to survive this. You each take out two hundred vampires before you die." I made a show of counting each of them, even turning my back on the Colonel briefly to show how little of a threat he represented to me. "Yeah… that's not going to be enough. I mean, you guys are good enough to get the drop on even me but we're on Alamo time here. And Santa Anna is knocking."
"You're going for regional Texas history for your metaphors to enraged Russians?" My brother whispered in confusion. "Calling him an American? Are you trying to piss this guy off?"
I ignored Thomas. "Alternatively, I can take down the wards, we can open a way out of here, leave, and I can just give you something more valuable than two Goa'uld. If what you need is medical data on them, I can just give that to you without requiring what I presume would be the vivisection of my subordinates as a bonus."
The Colonel shook his head. "I have read the American's reports. The word of the Goa'uld is not to be trusted."
I snorted. "You do realize the inherent absurdity of a Russian Officer informing me of how he's going to take the word of the American military at face value."
The Colonel stopped pointing his weapon at the Archive, though he continued to point the rifle at me. "And I am to trust you because the Americans do not?"
I snorted. "I don't expect you to trust me, but the offer of something beats the combined offers of nothing and a horrible death."
"And what do you offer me?" The Colonel asked.
"Well, I'm going to start by giving the Archive enough gold that Kincaid agrees not to find you and murder your and your entire family for having pointed a gun at a six-year-old girl in his care." I nodded to the Mercenary who was giving the Colonel a truly murderous glare. I was sure that the Colonel hadn't seen the Archive issue a command to Kincaid with sign language, presumably the only reason he hadn't shot the man already. "Because I've seen the man's fees for killing people he doesn't want dead, and I'm entirely sure you can't afford the cost of paying him to defer killing someone he does."
"Damn right he can't." Kincaid smiled wolfishly it a way that actually made the Colonel flinch.
"I'll give you medical information on symbiotes. Hell, I'll give you symbiotes." I'd been trying to think of any use for the tank full of Moloch's children we'd taken in the previous month other than target practice anyway. We hadn't just killed them outright just in case we started running short of symbiotes as the war progressed, but both Ul'tak and I were mutually reluctant to have anything that had touched Moloch inserted into my armies. None of my Jaffa wanted to risk the spiritual taint of raising Moloch's children within them, and I didn't blame them. "I'll give you as many symbiotes as you want, provided that you promise that you're planning to kill the damn things. You don't want any of them in a host."
"You offer me your own people?" The Colonel replied in slight disgust, though not disinterest.
"Da comrade." I replied. "Do we have an accord?"
The Colonel swallowed nervously, listening to the screams from above as he weighed his options. I kept my face scrupulously neutral, praying that he made the smart choice. "Don't be dumb. Take it, take the deal." I repeated to myself on a loop in my head. "Please don't be dumb."
And then, for once in my miserable life, someone actually chose to do things the easy way. "We have a deal, Lord Warden."
And then, quick as a snake, a form blurred across the room to sock the Colonel squarely in the nose. The Colonel fell to the ground, swearing profusely as Kincaid held a gun to the back of his head. The Mercenary looked around at the Russian soldiers, holding his rifle at them as he held his gun to the back of the Colonel's head.
"Kincaid!" The Archive shouted. "The wergild from the Warden will be sufficient. Do not do that man permanent harm."
The Mercenary stood up from the Colonel, kicking him "accidentally" in the ribs as he did so. "Hey, he's paying me not to kill the guy. Nobody said anything about roughing him up."
The Colonel shouted to his soldiers as they aimed their weapons at us, spitting out blood as he shouted. "Do not fire. Not without my order." He stood up, wiping the blood from his clearly broken nose. "I will not allow you to get the drop on me like that a second time, mercenary."
"Good fucking luck," Kincaid replied.
"If we are all mutually finished trying to kill each other or demonstrate how we are capable of achieving each other's deaths, I would very much like to go back to the "escape Archangel" plan." Thomas interjected. "I liked that plan. Still a little hazy on how it works, but I'm willing to learn."
"First things first, Archive, I need my tools and my people." I turned to the six year old as she bobbed up and down on her toes.
"Assuming there are no further objections?" Ivy looked around the room expectantly. "None? Good."
She snapped her fingers. The pillory containing Ammit opened up and the silver chain binding Muminah fell to dust as she walked over to a thick iron chest locked with a heavy padlock. She pulled a key from the little pocket in her dress, a large iron key that seemed comically large in her tiny hand. It spun twice, clicking loudly as the iron top swung up – exposing my belongings to the room.
Ammit stood up from the pillory, snarling and snapping as she looked around the room nervously. I was actually somewhat surprised that she wasn't even bothering to look at the soldiers. She was instead looking at the women in the room, an expression I couldn't quite place on her saurian features as she looked from woman to woman. That struck me as odd, though not nearly so odd as when Kincaid allowed her to get close to the archive and start talking with the child in hushed whispers. I would have expected Kincaid to interpose himself between them almost immediately.
The two of them finished their whispered exchange and Ammit grabbed the iron chest, hefting it up and dumping it's contents to the ground in front of me. "Get dressed. Now."
"Ammit?" I replied, shocked at the Goa'uld's abrupt tone. Even in the worst situations she'd never been outright rude to me. She'd always been gruff, and perhaps a bit blue, but there was a spiteful immediacy to her tone that worried me.
"We're getting these women out of here Warden. All of them." Ammit's contemptuous look up the stairs was the thing of nightmares on her crocodilian features as she spoke in a murderous tone in the Goa'uld language. "Even if we have to die to do it."
"Uh… yeah, that's my plan." I replied in Goa'uld, stripping out of my Russian hand-me-downs and into my battle armor.
"Not your plan, Warden. Your plans go to shit. This is my plan, and we're sticking to it." Ammit pulled a goa'uld healing device from a leather satchel among her belongings as she walked over to Enlil. "We aren't fucking this up Warden. They all go home tonight. All of them."
Stars and stones – what had I done wrong this time? Ammit was probably the second or third most female I'd ever met in my entire life who I felt closest to understanding her mindset, and I was still as lost with her as I'd ever been with Elaine or Susan.
"Let it go Warden," The archive spoke, following my confused gaze. "We have take down the wards. Once we can get into the Nevernever, we'll be safe from the Vampires and Koschei."
"The vampires I get." I replied, my voice modulating as I placed the helmet over my head and acclimatized myself to the heads-up display. "But isn't he a prince of Fairy? I never knew one of their royalty to have much trouble navigating the Nevernever."
Ivy tilted her head, scrunching up her little nose in thought. "You are simultaneously one of the most well and poorly informed individuals I've ever met."
"It's a talent." I replied. "But seriously – Fae nobility can bend the ways of the Nevernever over their knee and make them beg for mama. He'll be on us in a second."
"Warden, Koschei is forbidden to ever step foot in the Nevernever. He has been banished by his mother." Ivy replied as though it ought to have been common knowledge. "And given that the Scion chose his father's path, it's not entirely accurate to call him Fae."
"Koschei is a mortal wizard?" I replied in bafflement.
"Hardly." Ivy twirled her wand. "Koschei was born in the early days of this world, long before mortals were a relevant concern."
"Learning what the hell that actually means is going to cost me a fortune, isn't it?" I sighed. "More than you would be obligated to provide due to our little issue of mistaken identity?"
"Infinitely." The Archive agreed, smiling eerily. "Shall we see to taking down the wards?"
"Yes." I agreed, looking over as Ammit used the hand device upon Enlil. The man was apparently starting to recover enough to go back to cursing his luck to have ever met me. That was a good sign, if he was healed enough to be annoyed at my existence he'd soon be back to his normal, irascible self. "I assume that you know how they work? I've never met a Wizard who could resist writing down his warding plans."
"Obviously." The little girl replied.
I looked around the room, identifying the five keystones set into the walls of the pentagonal oubliette. They were unremarkable bits of marble, made in a time where the idea of decorating one's wards would have reeked of unnecessary ostentation. They were the sort of brute force wards that one could only manage when one plugged them directly into the local ley-lines. And while there were centuries worth of protections built up from the five primary wards to prevent people from getting close enough to touch them, once the five keystones went down, the rest would just crumble. It's one of the major reasons that Wizards don't actually let people visit their sanctums unless they implicitly trust them, once you're inside the threshold of a warded building it's too damn easy to break them if you understand how they work.
"I'll hold back the protective magics if you can disconnect them from the leyline." I said, walking up to the nearest keystone and putting my hand on it. Warden Nanami's eye twitched at the laughable ease with which I manipulated the centuries old warding magics, placing my armored hand on the bare stone when at least three spells ought to have flensed me to the bone. But I knew these wards too well for them to impede me. They were bigger and badder versions of the wards I'd used on my apartment in Chicago, but they were just upsized not different. In a pinch I could shut down the wards for my apartment in a matter of minutes. And while I was dealing with a jumbo-sized keystone for Archangel, I had a god sized pool of power to make a key nowadays.
Ivy and I made short work of the five stones, between my magical strength and her knowledge we'd cracked four of the five stones faster than I'd even expected us to do so. By the time we got to the fifth, Enlil was armed and standing as close to me as he dared while we were in progress. His clothing was stained with blood, but he was otherwise undamaged.
It was as the fifth stone dropped that the battle wizards we'd left to hold off the vampires retreated beneath the trap-door, bolting it shut as they screamed a warning to those of us below as Koschei's mordite blade pierced the wood, rotting it away. The Russian soliders opened fire, peppering the Prince of Winter with bullets as he ripped through the despoiled timber, cackling like a madman.
To their credit, the wardens tried to engage him in swordplay. Their ensorcelled blades glittered through the air as they used spell and steel to try and prevent the implacable monster of Winter from advancing, but to little effect. Their blades pierced him, but did not wound him. Their spells sloughed across his skin as though they'd never touched him. And all the while he laughed.
The wardens charged to aid their compatriot, led by Warden Nanami, but even as a group the Brute Squad was no match for the ancient horror that was mother Winter's bouncing, baby boy. It was as the sixth warden died that I realized two things. The first was that Koschei, had only been killing the men. The second was that rather than charging him as I would have expected to, Ammit had placed herself between Koschei and the apprentice wizards, holding up a Kara'kesh in one hand and shaking in what I could only describe as uncontrollable fear.
Ammit was terrified of Koschei. Ammit wasn't terrified of anything. Ammit hadn't even been scared of the Shoggoth. She'd been worried, perhaps even resigned to her fate, but the Eater of the Dead never allowed herself to show any sign of fear.
Apparently almost never.
I couldn't help them, not while I was holding back he keystone's offensive magics from Ivy, so I was forced to watch as Koschei slew all but three of the Brute Squad – all but the three women. When he pulled the sack from his waist my eyes went wide as I was helpless to stop him from pulling the sack over the head of first one woman, then the next. The apparently magical vessel consumed the women whole, sucking them into a swirling black vortex as he dropped it over their heads – taking them blade and all. Nanami cast fire, screaming in horror as he sucked her into his leather bag, bouncing it on his palm before advancing on Ivy and me.
The Hellhound was having exactly none of that.
I don't know where Kincaid got the chainsaw from. I certainly hadn't seen it when I got here, nor could I begin to tell you what he used to make the oil burning along its surface glow purple, but apparently the whirring, burning saw-teeth at least managed to hurt Koschei as the Hellhound came out of nowhere, and ran the chansaw up Koschei's body from the groin upwards from behind. The Prince of Winter howled in agony, dropping his blade and the sack as his body split in half.
My brother dove for the bag, only for it to disappear as his fingers tried to grab it. Ammit used her Kara'kesh to fling one of Koschei's halves across the room, stomping up and down on the other half with all her weight as she screamed incoherently – doing her best to annihilate Koschei's face, "No more! You don't get any more. Never again! Never again."
"Warden – I need to be the one to open the way." Ivy spoke concisely as the final keystone fell.
"No!" I disagreed emphatically as the two halves of Koschei melted, reforming into black shadow-things that flew into the air – skeletal wraith things that started slaughtering the Russian soldiers with gleeful laughs mirroring Koschei's own. It was a god damn slaughter house, "You'd have to be the last one through."
"I know of the only safe path from this Archangel. If you open the way we could end up anywhere, and randomly entering the Nevernever could put us in more danger." Ivy disagreed. "It has to be me."
"Damn it, just do it kid." I replied, tossing force at one of the wraiths as it devoured a Russian man whole before cursing myself for not having realized that the other wraith had Koschei's bag out and was snatching up the women.
Ammit actually flung the Apprentice wizards through portal as Ivy opened it, clawing away the wraith as it tried to shove them into the bag. She managed to get three of them through, two of the girls and a boy, before the second wraith snatched up the older girls.
I swore, interposing myself between Koschei and my brother as the cackling monster reconstituted himself from the shadow monsters and tried to cut him in half. My staff hissed and crackled against the deathstone, my will alone preventing the deathstone from destroying my foci. The monster of Winter licked his rotten lips. "I'm growing bored of this game, Cheater. You have only so many toys for me to break before you have no choice but to give me my prize."
"I'm going to make you an offer, Koschei. Just one. You're going to let those women go. You're going to forswear any claim you have on the Archive, and you're going to spend the rest of your life in exile. Because if you don't, I'm going to find you and I'm going to make you wish you had." My eyes glowed through my visor, even as my armor's HUD screamed warnings to me about the presence of mordite.
"Ooooh. Scary." Koschei crowed mockingly, "Going to throw me through another wall?"
"Fuck no. I'm going to kill your ass dead." I went with the momentum of his blade, spinning my quarterstaff around to pull his legs out from under him and clock him in the chin. "And then I'm going to sing a song over your grave."
I aimed my foci at his prone body only for him to dissolve into black smoke again, appearing behind me and slashing at my back with his mordite blade. My armor held against the weapon, but I was tossed to the ground painfully. I spun around to stop his decapitating blow, only for Koschei to suddenly fly through the air to crash into the wall behind me. The Archive's hand glowed purple as she waved to me, the way she'd opened into the Nevernever closing rapidly. Apparently she and I were the only ones still within the Oubliette other than Kincaid.
"Lord Warden, get your ass in gear or we are leaving you." Snarled the mercenary. "He can't step into the Nevernever and I'm not spending a second more on ground that he can actually stand on while he draws breath."
I pointed my foci at the ground, shouting, "Forzare" to propel myself along the ground and through the rip in space and time as the little girl and her bodyguard ran through it. I flew across the stone and into a wooded thicket within the Nevernever, toppling tail over teakettle as I soared into a tree. Dignity, thy name is Dresden.
I breathed deeply in relief as Ivy hugged her haggard and injured bodyguard, the little girl giving him a little peck on the cheek in thanks as she holstered her little wand – secure in the knowledge that we were safe on the other side. I let out a long sigh of relief as I assessed the survivors. Three apprentice wizards, four Russian soldiers including the Colonel, my brother, Enlil, Ammit, Muminah and I seemed to have been the only ones who actually made it through.
Ammit helped me to my feet, a steely look in her eyes as she said. "We need to go back, Warden."
"We just got here Ammit." I replied, still feeling a bit dizzy. "Give me a second to catch my breath."
"Warden, I'm not leaving those women with Koschei. We are going back." There wasn't any implication of it being either a question or a request. "That prick doesn't kill the ones he takes. I don't care if they tried to kill us, I don't care that they tried to sell us, I don't care that they were going to torture us, Koschei doesn't get to keep them."
"Yes," I agreed. "We're going to go back. But we can't go back without a plan. We need to figure out – "
My eyes bugged as a flicker of motion moved across the closing portal and I cried out a warning to the little girl that was far too late as the Archive was proved incorrect for the second time that day. A long arm stretched through the closing aperture in the Nevernever, pulling a sack over the child's head and dragging her back into the real world as the aperture closed before Kincaid even had the opportunity to scream in horror. Koschei had stolen the little girl.
I had failed.
I ran to the spot where the portal had closed, ready to re-open it and fight Koschei – to chase him to the Earth's end if need be, only to find myself lifted into the air as a great, hairy, horned beast tackled me from behind, beating me about the head with a thick club. I flung it off of me as braying warriors surrounded us, massive goat men decked out in armor bearing the heraldry of the Summer Court. Perfect, in all the hullabaloo I'd been wondering when Summer's Assassins were going to catch up with me.
"Gruffs!" Ammit bellowed, firing her Kara'kesh into the treeline.
What can I say? Fairy timing was impeccably dedicated to being the most efficient pain in my ass possible. I raked my gauntlet across the caprine creature, ferrous materials causing it to howl in agony as it leapt back from me – spinning its club. It charged me again, falling limply to the ground as a military grade bullet ripped through its skull. The Colonel walked up to it and shot it three more times just to make sure it was dead.
"Shit… shit, shit, shit!" I backed towards the apprentices.
There were dozens of the goat-men in the trees, all of them armed and here for blood.
"I don't have time for this crap." I snarled, casting flame into their ranks. "Go cross a bridge or something!"
"Think of it this way." My brother interposed as he started firing at a fairy archer. "It can't get much worse."
It was then that I heard the sound of distant horns. Hunting horns that were all too present within my memories of the night that I'd experienced the Darkhallow. My eye twitched as I snarled at my brother. "What possibly possessed you to say that out loud? Why? Why would you ever say that."
"Eventually it has to be true." Said my brother apologetically as the massive shape of what could only have been the Earlking rode through the tree-line atop a massive stag. "I mean… obviously not now, but eventually."
"Just…. Just try not to die." I groaned as the stag's head lowered and the Earlking lifted his blade above his head as goblin after goblin crossed the tree-line.