Home > Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(3)

Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(3)
Author: Ilona Andrews

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.

“Nez is going down the roster of the 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, scraping 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 hands of Roland. He’d hated Nez, and Nez hated him, and that was the way Roland liked it.

Hugh would’ve found a way to kill Nez eventually, but he’d run out of time. Roland had purged him.

The memory punched him, hot and furious. Roland standing before him, devoid of all life and warmth. At that moment Hugh would’ve settled for rage, fury, sadness, anything. But there was nothing. Roland stood before him, cold.

The words scalded him. “You’ve failed me, Hugh. I have no further use for you.”

He remembered every sound. He remembered taking a breath and then the lifeline of magic that anchored him to the man who’d pulled him off the streets vanished. The void had opened, and all became pain. It bit at him now, its fangs shredding his soul.

His purpose, his teacher, his surrogate father, everything that was right and true in this fucked up world was gone. Life had no meaning. And he didn’t even fully understand why.

The four men were looking at him.

“How bad is it?” Hugh asked.

“We’re down to three hundred men now, with us,” Stoyan said.

A few months ago, Hugh had left five cohorts of the Iron Dogs, four 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. Nez has bloodsucker patrols out. They are hunting us down.”

What the hell had happened since he was banished? “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. He stared at them. “You swore an oath.”

“Oaths go both ways. Show him your arms,” Lamar said.

Stoyan yanked his sleeves up. Jagged scars marked his forearms.

“It’s the same old story,” Lamar said. “Roland wanted some land that was occupied. He offered the town money, but they refused to sell.”

“He told me to raze the town,” Stoyan said. “And hang the civilians on trees to send a message. I told him I was a soldier, not a butcher. He crucified the lot and hung me on the crosses with them. 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 shown on his face because Stoyan took a step back.

Kate Daniels, Roland’s long-lost and newly-found daughter. The reason for his banishment.

Hugh shoved the name out of his mind and concentrated on the problem at hand. Roland would’ve known Stoyan would refuse the order to butcher civilians. That wasn’t what the regular cohorts did. The dark arm of the Iron Dogs, which would’ve wiped the village off the face of the planet without question, no longer existed. Roland was painfully aware of that. The order had been a test of loyalty, and Stoyan had failed. Roland didn’t just require loyalty; he demanded unquestioning devotion. When he failed to receive it, he must’ve decided to destroy the entire force.

A waste, Hugh realized. Hugh had sunk years into building the Iron Dogs, and Roland tossed them away like garbage.

Much like Roland had thrown him away. No, not thrown away. I was his right hand. He’s cut me off. What kind of man cuts off his own hand before going into a fight?

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 sank its fangs into his soul. The invisible tie had connected him and Roland even when the magic waves waned and technology held the upper hand. It was always there. It had linked them since the moment Roland had shared his blood with him. Now it was gone.

The void scraped the inside of his skull, the new sharp thoughts seared Hugh’s mind, and he had no way to steady himself. An urge to scream and smash something gripped him. He needed liquor, and a lot of it.

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 weren’t going to let him alone.

“Unless we do something, none of us will be alive this time next year,” Felix said.

“What is it you want to do?” Hugh 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, by God, we’re falling,” Stoyan said.

Fucking shit.

Rene’s head stared at Hugh from the table. He’d saved Rene back then, many years ago, in Paris. He’d saved him again and again, in battle. In the sea of shit and blood that Hugh made, that was the one good thing he had done. Nez had killed Rene for one reason only – to stab at him. No matter what he did from now on, Hugh would always have Rene’s death. He would carry it.

He’s dead now. Because of me. Because I wasn’t there. Because he was here instead, wallowing in self-pity and trying to drown the red-hot vise that clamped his skull.

Hugh studied the head, committing every detail to memory, and hurled the image into the void. The old days were gone. He would fill the bottomless hole with rage or it would drive him insane. Either way it made no difference.

“Do you know why you’re still alive?” Lamar asked. “Every day, every week, there are 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 Hugh had built, and when nothing was left, he would come calling to squeeze the last bit of blood out of the stone. Nez wanted him awake and sober. No fun chasing a dog who didn’t run. Fine. He’d be awake.

Lamar smiled.

“What do we have?” Hugh asked.

“Three hundred and two men, including us,” Stoyan said.

“Weapons?”

“Whatever each one of us carries,” Bale said.

“Supplies?”

“None,” Lamar said. “We’re close to starving.”

“Base?”

Felix shook his head.

Hugh’s mind cycled through the possibilities. Rock bottom wasn’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.

“We have the barrels,” Stoyan said.

“How many?”

“All of them.”

Life kicked him, then blew him a kiss. “Good.”

   
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