The void gnawed at him, the big raw hole where Roland’s presence used to be. It hurt. Hugh grit his teeth and forced himself to concentrate on the head on the table in front of him.
“When?” he asked.
“Six days ago,” Stoyan said. “He was out. He’d quit after you were forced out. He took a teaching job in Chattanooga. Taught high school French. He wasn’t a threat to anyone. They killed him anyway. I came to convince him to meet with you. I was too late.”
His throbbing head made it hard to think. “Camilla?”
Stoyan shook his head. Rene’s wife didn’t make it. Pain stabbed at him, fueling his rage.
“Dead,” Bale said.
“Purdue, Rockfort, Ivanova, all dead,” Stoyan added. “We’re it.”
Hugh surveyed the four men. Stoyan, dark-haired, dark-eyed, in his mid-thirties, looked haggard, like a worn-out sword. Felix, a hulking mountain of a man with reddish hair, leaned back, trying to stop a nose bleed. The bridge of his nose skewed right. Broken. Bale sulked in the corner. About five seven, five eight, he was almost as broad as he was tall, all his bulk bone and slabs of thick, heavy muscle. Lamar perched on the edge of the table to far right. Tall, whiplash-lean, and black, he looked twisted together from ropes of stringy muscle. Short hair, cut down to the quarter-inch length, framed his long face. A pair of thin, wire-rimmed glasses rode his nose. He was closing on fifty-five and he pretended to be older than he was.
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.
“Landon Nez is going down the roster of 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, scrapping 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 hand of Roland. He’d hated Nez, and Nez hated him, and that’s the way Roland liked it. Hugh would’ve found a way to kill Nez eventually, but he’d made a critical error in judgement. Roland purged him. Now the lifeline of magic that anchored him to the man who’d pulled him of the streets was gone. His purpose, his teacher, his surrogate father, everything that was right and true in this fucked up world was gone. Life had no meaning.
“How bad is it?” he asked.
“We’re down to three hundred men now, with us,” Stoyan said.
A few months ago he’d left six cohorts of Iron Dogs, three 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. Landon has bloodsucker patrols out. They are hunting us down.”
What the hell happened since he left? “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. “You swore an oath.”
“Oaths go both ways. Show him your arms,” Lamar said.
Stoyan yanked his sleeves up. Jagged scars marked his forearms. “He told me to raze a village and hang the civilians on trees to send a message,” Stoyan said. “I told him I was a soldier, not a butcher. He crucified the lot of us. 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 showed on his face, because Stoyan took a step back.
He shoved the name out of his mind and concentrated on the problem at hand. Stoyan would refuse the order to butcher civilians. That wasn’t what the cohorts did. The dark arm of Iron Dogs, which would’ve wiped the village off the face of the planet without questions, no longer existed. Roland was painfully aware of that. The order had been a test of loyalty, and Stoyan failed. Roland didn’t just require loyalty, he demanded unquestioning devotion. When he failed to receive it, he must’ve decided to purge the entire force.
A waste, he realized. He’d sank years into building the Iron Dogs, and Roland tossed them away like garbage.
Much like Roland had thrown him away. No, not thrown away. He’s cut me, his right hand, off.
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 gaped at him, sinking its fangs into his soul. The invisible imperceptible tie connected them even when the magic waves waned and technology held the upper hand. It was always there. It linked them since the moment Roland had shared his blood with him. Now it was gone.
The void chewed on his bones, the heretical thought burned his brain, and he had no way to steady himself. An urge to scream and smash something gripped him.
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 wouldn’t let him alone until he did it.
“Unless we do something, none of us will be alive this time next year,” Felix said.
“What is it you want to do?” He 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, we’re, by God, falling,” Stoyan said.
“Do you know why you’re still alive?” Lamar asked. “Every day, every week, there is 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 he built, and when nothing was left, he would come calling to squeeze the last bit of blood out of the stone.
“What do we have?” Hugh asked.
“Three hundred and two men, including us,” Stoyan said.
“Whatever each one of us carries,” Bale said.
“None,” Lamar said. “We’re close to starving.”
Felix shook his head.
Perfect. Rock bottom isn’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.
Rene’s head stared at Hugh from the table. He studied it, committing every detail to memory and hurled it into the void. The old days were gone. He would fill the bottomless hole with rage or it would drive him insane. Either way made no difference.
Hugh strode to the door and flung it open. Fresh air greeted him. A small ugly town sat in front of him, little more than a street with a few buildings and a rural road, leading into the distance to disappear between the fields. A sunset splashed over the horizon, dying slowly, and the three street lamps had come on already, spilling watery electric light onto the stretch of the road in front of him. He remembered oppressive heat, but now the air was too cold for summer.
“Fall or spring?” he asked.
“September,” Lamar told him.
“What is this town?”
“Connerville, Tennessee,” Stoyan said.
The last thing he remembered was Beaufort, South Carolina.
“Where is Nez?”
“In Charlotte,” Lamar told him. “He’s set up a permanent base there.”
Far enough to keep out of Atlanta and the surrounding lands. They belonged to Daniels now. But not so far that he couldn’t bring the legion down if Roland became displeased with his precious daughter.
He had to stabilize them, arm them, and find a base to keep them alive. Most of all, he had to convince Nez that attacking them now wasn’t in his best interests. If he kept the Dogs alive through the winter, by spring he would pick a successor and move him into place. Then he would do what severed limbs did. He would wither and rot.
Magic rolled over the land. Hugh couldn’t see it, but he felt an exhilarating rush that tore through him, washing away the headache that pounded at the base of his skull. The electric lamps winked out, and twisted glass tubes of fey lanterns flared into life with eerie indigo light.
He raised his hand and let it flow out. A pale blue glow bathed his fingers. Felix grunted as his nose knitted back together.
Hugh picked up Rene’s head. He would bury him tonight.
“Find me some clothes. And call Nez. Tell him I want to talk.”