Home > Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(6)

Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(6)
Author: Ilona Andrews

He hated Charlotte. He hated the way it looked, the way it smelled, the rubble, the tortured skyline of the city, the white stallion under him, and the void waiting just beyond the border of awareness, ready to swallow him. He thought of getting off this damned horse, finding a hole within the rubble, laying down, and just letting it eat at his soul until there was nothing left. But he had a feeling the four men riding behind him would pull him out, set him back on the horse, and force him to keep going. There was nothing left but to stew in his own hate.

“Friends.” Bale grinned and patted his axe.

Hugh glanced up. An emaciated figure crouched on top of the wall of the rubble canyon on the far left. Thin, a skeleton corded with muscle, the creature hunkered down on all fours as if it had never walked upright, its hairless hide turned to a sickly bluish gray by undeath. It was too far to see much of its face, but Hugh saw the eyes, red and glowing with all-consuming hunger. No thoughts, no awareness, nothing except bloodlust, wrapped in magic that turned his stomach. A vampire.

Not a loose one. Loose bloodsuckers slaughtered everything with a pulse, feeding until nothing alive remained. No, this one was piloted by a navigator. Somewhere, within the secure rooms of Landon Nez’s base, a necromancer sat, probably sipping his morning coffee, telepathically gripping the blank slate that was the undead’s mind. When the vampire moved, it was because the navigator willed it. When it spoke, the navigator’s voice would come out of its mouth. He never liked the breed, the undead and the navigators both.

“A welcoming committee,” Stoyan said.

“Nice to be recognized,” Lamar quipped.

“Have you found a base?” Hugh asked.

“I found several,” Lamar said. “None that would have us.”

“What’s the problem?” Bale demanded.

“We are the problem,” Lamar said. “We have baggage in addition to a rich and varied history.”

“What are you on about?” Bale asked.

“He means we’ve double-crossed people before,” Stoyan told him. “Nobody wants Nez as an enemy, and nobody wants to take a chance on us stabbing them in the back.”

“We need to find someone desperate and willing to overlook our past sins,” Lamar said. “That takes time.”

Hugh wished for something to happen. Some release. Someone to kill.

Bucky raised his tail and shit on the road.

“You gonna clean that up?” a male voice challenged.

Thank you. Thank you so much for volunteering.

Hugh touched the reins. Bucky turned.

A tall, dark-haired man stood on the side of the road. In shape. Clothes loose enough to move, but not to grab, light stance, plain sword, no frills. Flat eyes. There was emotion in the voice, but none in the eyes. He wasn’t angry or riled up.

Behind him another man and a woman waited, the man shorter and stockier, holding a light mace, the woman armed with another plain sword. Long blond hair.

Professionals.

This was a test. Nez wanted to see if the months of drinking had taken their toll. Disappointment slashed through Hugh. He couldn’t take his time. He would have to do this fast.

Hugh dismounted and held out his hand. Stoyan pulled his sword out and put it in Hugh’s palm. Hugh started toward the three fighters.

“Should we--” Sam started.

“Shut it,” Bale told him.

The leading fighter stepped forward. The man moved well, light on his feet despite his size. Hugh swung the sword in a lazy circle, warming up his wrist.

The shorter man stalked to his right; the woman moved to his left with catlike grace.

He waited until they positioned themselves. “All set?”

The leader attacked, his sword striking so fast, it was a blur. Hugh moved, letting the blade slice through the air half an inch from his cheek, and slashed, turning into the blow. The blade of Stoyan’s sword met the mercenary’s neck and sliced clean through in a diagonal cut. The man’s head rolled off his shoulders, but Hugh was already turning. He batted the woman’s sword aside, dodged the mace, and brought the sword down in a devastating cut. The blade caught her shoulder and carved through one breast. She stumbled back, her arms hanging by her side. Hugh stabbed, sliding the sword between her 5th and 6th ribs on the left side, withdrew, and spun. The mace wielder had already started his swing. Hugh leaned out of the way, caught the mace’s handle on the upswing, throwing his strength and weight against the man and driving his blade up through the attacker’s liver into his heart. The mace wielder was the only one to realize what was coming. His eyes widened as the sword pierced his gut. The lights went out. Hugh shoved him back, freeing the blade with a sharp tug, and turned.

The woman was still alive, but barely. She would bleed out in another thirty seconds or so. Death from blood loss was relatively painless. She’d close her eyes and go to sleep.

Hugh crouched by her. Her breath was coming in shallow rapid gulps. He wiped the sword with her pretty blond hair, got up, and handed the blade back to Stoyan. Sam stared at him, his face slack.

Hugh mounted.

“I think you didn’t look hard enough for a base,” Bale said.

“I wouldn’t do so much of that if I were you,” Lamar said.

Hugh nudged Bucky, and the white stallion started down the road.

“Do what?”

“Thinking. It’s not your strong suit.”

“One day, Lamar,” Bale growled.

The void ate at Hugh. He closed his eyes for a long moment, trying to shut it out. When he opened them, he was still in Charlotte, still riding, and the air around him smelled like blood.

The canyon of debris widened. Shops and eateries popped up here and there, evidence of the city fighting back against the rubble. All were post-Shift, new construction: thick walls, simple shapes, and bars on the windows.

“Was that vampire from the People?” Sam asked.

“The 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 People have ranks,” Stoyan said. “They start as apprentices, then become journeymen, then finally they get to be Masters of the Dead. The best one hundred Masters make up the Golden Legion. The Legion is led by the Legatus, the prick we’re riding to meet. Each Master of the Dead in the Legion can pilot more than one vampire. A Master of the Dead can wipe out a US Army platoon with one undead.”

“Depending on how big the platoon is,” Lamar said. “Regulation size for a platoon is between sixteen and forty soldiers. Forty would be pushing it for one bloodsucker. The Legion would need at least two, maybe three if the platoon is well trained.”

“The point is,” Bale said, “when we meet the Legatus, you’ll be deaf and dumb, Sam, 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 the 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 a dickhead 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 up out of the dirt.”

The path turned. Ahead, on the left, a Viking mead hall stood on the corner. Built with thick timber, with a roof of wooden shingles, the mead hall resembled an upside-down longboat. A sign on the side proclaimed, “Welcome to Valhalla.”

On the side, a low deck offered several wooden tables, flanked by short benches. Landon Nez sat at the corner table, in plain view of the street.

   
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