It was after one in the morning when Casmin and Stian returned to the Greyson house. The night had grown sharply cold and snow was starting to fall, drifting slowly downward in fat flakes. Rafe was the last to arrive, and he walked with an obvious spring in his step. Stian, on the other hand, was projecting a far more stygian mood.
“What’s wrong, your Grace?” Rafe asked with a grin.
Stian frowned. “I find this part of my job…distasteful. It is not a good thing to hunt men. Our world has no formal authorities and few written laws. We have tradition and precedent, and what a man has is what he is able to hold. I will do what I must because the alternatives are considerably worse. But I will not pretend that I enjoy it. Can you claim that you do?”
“Casmin’s fellows in the history department will tell you that happiness is the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence,” Rafe said, tying back his hair and covering it with a black scarf. He lit a cigarette, and continued. “We all have our final cause, our purpose. The nightingale sings, the thoroughbred runs, the lion hunts. Stephen and Casmin spend their days locked up with their books, Edmund broods and plots like a Caesar when he thinks no one is looking, you do… whatever creepy shit it is that you do, and God, in his infinite wisdom and, I might add, infinite sense of warped and twisted humor made me very, very good at killing. I don’t always enjoy the act, and I’m even less fond of the necessity, but yes, I do enjoy being excellent at what I do.”
Even Stian grinned at that. “You have unsuspected depths, Rafe.
“You have no idea, your Grace,” Rafe responded, and winked at him. “And remember this. If you hadn’t been there, my sister would be lying in that alley with her throat torn out. As I am exceedingly fond of her, I find I will enjoy being excellent at what I do tonight even more than I usually do.”
“We have to find them first,” Edmund said.
“Done,” Stian said. “Fetch?”
The imp appeared and began to chatter.
“No,” the duke said, “Show us.” The imp slumped his shoulders and stomped over to the desk. Stian took a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it, placing it on the desk in front of Fetch. He leaned down over the page and breathed on it, whispering a word. A map appeared, as though it had been written in lemon juice and held over a flame. It covered a one mile square area in precise detail: alleys, sidewalks, roofscapes.
“Where did you get that?” Stephen asked, awed.
“Oh, just some of the creepy shit I do,” he said, flashing Rafe a smile. The imp walked out over the map and pointed to a building before chattering again. “All five of them are in this tavern, and have been for several hours.”
“That will work well to our advantage,” said Edmund.
“More than you know,” Stian said. “If they’re drunk they’ll be unable to shift form.”
“We’ll wait for them to leave,” Edmund continued, “And take them by surprise. The streets should be mostly quiet, but I’d still like to get them away from any bystanders. If we can get them…” he looked over the map. “Here,” he said, and pointed to an empty lot on the opposite side of the block, “we’ll have plenty of room to maneuver and the privacy to do it.”
“That’s a lot of open ground,” Rafe frowned. “And it’ll be bright out there with the snow.”
“I can take care of that,” Stian said, “But you won’t be able to see either.”
“They’re drunk,” Edmund said. “Odds are they’ll be loud. Where do you need to be to do it?”
“I’m better off on the rooftops. I can help drive them down this alley,” Stian said.
“I’ll join you,” Rafe said, “at least until we get them where we want them. I may be able to take one of them down in route.”
“I want Stephen up with us as well.”
“But…” Stephen began.
“Agreed,” Edmund said, interrupting his brother. “You’ve proven today that you can handle yourself, Stephen. That’s not in question. But until we can ensure Willamina is safe, we need to be very careful.”
“And besides,” Stian added, “You’ll learn much from watching Andre in action. His talents are, I believe, very much like your own, and this is something we can only teach you in the field.”
They made the two mile walk in silence. The night was growing colder, and even the prostitutes had begun to clear from the streets in search of warmth. The streets were empty, except for drunks heading home.
When they reached the tavern, it was starting to clear out. As Edmund and Casmin broke off from the group, Stian said, “I need one of them kept alive, if possible.”
The two men walked around to the back of the block and examined the vacant lot. The choice had been a good one: the alley from the main street led back, turned once, and fed into the small area of wasteland. The buildings were three stories tall on all sides, with nowhere to hide. Edmund and Casmin each took up one side of the entrance; Casmin leaned against the wall and waited, silent, while Edmund drew a dirk from beneath his cloak.
“Still have that flask?” Edmund asked.
On the rooftop, Stian, Rafe and Stephen crouched at a point that gave them a good vantage of the bar’s only entrance.
“So are you going to tell me what my mother was doing at your flat in the middle of the night?” Rafe asked lightly.
Stian looked at him. “I hope you appreciate the strength of will I’m exercising right now in not delivering the obvious rejoinder.”
“That’s wise. You saved my sister’s life tonight; I’m starting to like you. I’d hate to set your account back so far. Oh, step lively now…” The tavern door swung open and five men staggered out. Two of them were helping a third between them; the fourth looked none too steady on his feet. The fifth, however, still looked alert.
Stian whispered to the imp on his shoulder, “Think you can round up some friends?” The imp grinned, revealing a mouth full of razor blade teeth. It popped out of sight, only to reappear a half second later at the street level.
Friends, indeed. Stephen counted at least ten, most of them winged. They shrieked and launched themselves at the drunk men’s faces, hissing and clawing.
“What do you need us for if you can get them?” Stephen asked, eyes wide.
“They’re frightening, but they’re shadows here.”
Luckily the wolves didn’t know that. Screaming and trying to swipe the imps away, they turned and ran toward the alley in an attempt to escape.
Rafe was the first to his feet. The most drunk of the lot had stumbled and fallen just inside the alleyway, and he planted a throwing knife in his back. They ran swiftly across the rooftops, pausing only to clear a gap between the front and back row of the buildings. By the time they reached the ledge facing the vacant lot, Stian was singing. A dense fog quickly rose, blanketing the entire area.
Below, Casmin quickly pocketed the now half-empty flask. “I’d guess that’s our signal,” he grunted. Edmund tensed, waiting. The four remaining men stumbled, still screaming, into the fog. One, still sober, immediately went silent and plunged forward and disappeared into the mist.
The second, however, reached out for the alley wall to his right. When he reached the corner, Edmund grabbed him by the jaw, curling the man into him and sinking his dirk up and under his ribs in one fluid motion. He struggled for a brief moment and then fell, deprived of breath.
A third froze when he hit the fog, staring around wildly. He gave a rough cry, and then Casmin seized him around the neck in a choke hold. “Hypnè,” he barked, and the man – who was more a boy, now that Andre could size him up – slumped, unconscious. The fourth, however, alerted by Casmin’s voice, lunged at him. Supporting the weight of the sleeping boy, Casmin slipped backwards, but still managed to raise his right hand and call fire. The light startled his mark, and he took advantage of the split second to regain his footing. He shaped the fire into a long, thin, flexible line. Whirling it around his head, he lashed out with it, searing a deep line into the man from above his left eye to below his right nipple. He let the boy drop, squared himself, and whipped the flame again, this time wrapping the fire around the man’s neck. He pulled, hard, and the man’s head tumbled from his body.
“One man left,” Stian said, watching from above.
Rafe cracked a terrifying grin. “And all mine,” he said, and scaled his way down the wall. When he hit the ground, he reached up and retrieved the pair of kukri he had strapped to his shoulder blades. It was even murkier down here than it had seemed above. He closed his eyes, and reached out with his senses. To his right he could hear Edmund and Casmin tying up the boy. Below that was the soft susurrus of snow falling on snow and the whisper of the cold breeze. He crouched, and flared his nostrils. The tang of the cold and the sharpness of woodsmoke were overwhelming, but with the next puff of breeze he caught a whiff of something wild and animal. He spun away just in time as a wolf, larger than any he had seen in the wild, lunged for him. He rose up, pivoting on his heel, and swung the blade in his right hand around and down. He caught the wolf in the thigh with the outer edge of the kukri. When it whirled to snatch at him, he continued the momentum around, catching it under the jaw with the left blade. Its head snapped back and it gave a startled yelp before he brought his right hand back around, opening its throat.
“And that’s five,” Rafe called out. He lit a cigarette, and pulled a rag out of his boots. He sat down, and cleaned his blades while he waited for the fog to clear.
It took fifteen minutes for the mist to fade enough for the men to gather and survey the damage.
“We’ll have to find somewhere to dump the bodies,” Edmund said, frowning.
“I’ve got a place,” Rafe said.
“Of course you do.”
“I need the heads,” Stian added, picking up the one Andre had already severed.
“You couldn’t have told me that ten minutes ago?” Rafe asked, removing one of his newly-cleaned blades from its scabbard.
“Doing this the old fashioned way, then?” Casmin asked.
“Old fashioned? This is positively civilized; Beorn would have delivered their skins,” Stian said.
“Just so we’re clear,” Rafe said, pausing mid-hack, “it’s far too early in our relationship for me to skin anyone for you.”
“Understood,” Stian responded.
“I mean, decapitations and dismemberments, fine, but if you want me to flay someone you’re going to have to…”
“Yes, I believe we all get the picture, Rafe,” Edmund interrupted.
When they had gathered all four heads, Stian put them in the bag he had brought. He crouched down next to the prisoner, and slapped his face gently. The boy’s eyes fluttered, and then he jerked awake, struggling against the ropes. He looked around, panicked.
“You’re alive because I need you to take a message,” Stian told him. He cut the ropes binding him, and stood him up. He handed him the bag, and continued, “Take this to your alpha, and tell him that I took only what was mine by rights. Then tell him he has until sundown.” The boy nodded, wordlessly, and took off.
“What was that about?” Edmund asked. “We could have questioned him first.”
“There’s a protocol to these things,” Stian answered. “Their pack has until sundown to repudiate the acts of its members. If they do, and recognize my authority, I order them to tell us who their master is and what they’re doing in the middle of London.”
“And if they refuse?” Rafe asked. Stian gave him a significant look. “Right then.”
“Either way,” Stian continued, “we track him back to the den tomorrow night. Until then, no one goes anywhere alone. Andre, you’ll stay with me.”
“Mother will be so pleased, Rafe,” Stephen said with a grin.
“Damn it…” Rafe groaned. But he made no argument, and followed his brothers out into the night.