A foul magic washed over me as if someone had thrust my mind into a rotting liquefied carcass. Vampires. A lot of them.
People turned to look at the hallway. Some rose and leaned over their tables to get a better view.
Horns blared in a chorus, an ancient alarming sound taut with a warning. The banners on the walls stirred.
People marched down the hallway, coming toward us. They wore black and gray and they moved in unison, two by two. I focused on the leading pair. Hibla walked on the left. Her hair was pulled back from her face and she stared straight at me with a cold predatory glare. Gone was the woman who'd asked me for help and pleaded silently from behind the cage bars. This was a killer, disciplined, icy, and lethal. A familiar insignia marked her chest: a small five-rayed star with a half circle above it and a tall triangle on the right: the ancient hieroglyph of Sirius, the Dog Star. Voron's voice came from my childhood memories: If you ever see this, run.
"We've been had," I said. "These are the Iron Dogs."
"What are they?" Aunt B asked.
"Roland's elite unit," Curran said.
"How bad?" Mahon asked.
"Bad," Curran said.
Bad was an understatement. Each Dog was a highly trained ruthless killer. They used weapons, they used magic, and a lot of them weren't human and hid more surprises than a Swiss Army knife. A single Iron Dog could slaughter a dozen normal soldiers. They served as my father's commando force. Hugh d'Ambray was the preceptor of their order.
I stared at Hibla's face. I'd felt bad for her. I'd tried to help her. I'd bought her clueless local bumpkin act hook, line, and sinker. How could I have been so stupid? No matter. Next time I'd know better.
The first pair of Iron Dogs stepped into the great hall and split, standing on each side of the door, locked into an at-ease pose.
Two men and two women followed, wearing impeccable business suits. As the first woman stepped through the door, her high heels clicking quietly on the stone, an emaciated arm hooked the top edge of the doorway. A vampire crawled into the great hall over the top edge of the doorway, muscles flexing like steel cables rubbing against each other under its pallid hide. Another undead followed. They scuttled up the wall like some grotesque predatory geckos, driven by the navigators' will.
Hugh had brought his Masters of the Dead. This was just getting better and better.
The Masters of the Dead took positions behind the twin lines of the Iron Dogs. The hallway stood empty for a long breath.
You could hear a pin drop. The shapeshifters froze, silent and wary.
Hugh turned the corner. He wore leather armor. Supple, but reinforced with metal plates, it molded to him as if it had been melted, poured over his body, and allowed to harden. Loose but thick leather pants shielded his legs. Wrist guards of hardened leather and metal plates protected his wrists. A strip of leather, likely hiding a thin flexible length of metal, guarded his neck. He had come to fight shapeshifters. Raking him with claws would do no good.
He marched down the hallway, wearing black and cloaked in magic. He looked unstoppable. He would soon learn that looks could be deceiving.
"Hail to Hugh d'Ambray," the Iron Dogs intoned in unison, their voice one loud chorus.
Hugh strode through the door and walked to our table, straight to Desandra's chair on my left.
"You're in the wrong seat." He held out his hand.
Desandra blinked, stood up, and put her hand into his. Hugh led her to his chair on Curran's right and held it out for her. She sat. He turned and sat in her place, next to me.
"You didn't bring enough," Curran said quietly.
"It will suffice," Hugh said. His voice boomed. "In honor of the hunt, I bring you entertainment."
The Iron Dogs took three steps backward, turning, moving in unison until they formed a line along the wall to our right, behind Jarek's werewolves. People entered the minstrel's gallery, carrying small round drums, accordions, and other instruments. A line of men walked into the great hall, dressed in identical jet-black djigit coats. The musicians plucked at their instruments, adjusting and settling down.
A wild melody started, fast and limber, the rhythm of the drums like a racing heart. The men spun across the floor, dancing like a flock of graceful ravens, pivoting and leaping. The lead dancer dropped down and spun across the stage on his knees. I winced.
Hugh pretended to be absorbed in the dance. What are you planning, you bastard?
Something tugged on my jeans. I glanced down carefully. Atsany stood by my chair.
You've got to be kidding me.
The small man patted my leg with his pipe, winked, and pointed to the side. I glanced up. Astamur stood by the door, leaning against the wall. He wore a long wide coat of black fleece that covered him from head to toe. A rifle rested in his hands. He looked straight at me and his eyes were grim. The nearest Iron Dog was feet away and oblivious to the man behind him. Nobody paid him any attention, as if they couldn't see him.
I glanced down. Atsany was gone. I leaned to Curran. "Do you see him?"
"Astamur. By the door."
Curran frowned. I looked back. Astamur was gone.
Okay, I did just see that. That wasn't a hallucination.
The dancers snapped into their final poses. The music died. Hugh clapped. Reluctant applause followed from the side tables.
"Is there going to be a play next?" Curran asked. "I never took you for the dinner theater type."
"I promise it will be a show you never forget," Hugh said.
A man and a woman walked in. The man, lean and graceful, wore the black djigit outfit, his profile hawkish, his dark hair slicked back. The woman wore a silver-white gown that covered her head to toe. Fitted in the bust and the waist, the gown flared at the skirt. She looked like a swan. Her black hair fell in four braids, two over her chest, two down her back, all the way past her narrow waist. A small hat perched on her glossy hair, with a white veil trailing from it to hide her back.
The woman turned, standing side by side with the man. Her face was beautiful. I felt a brush of magic. It felt ancient.
"Thousands of years ago Suliko's family entertained the ancient kings of Georgia," Hugh said. "Today she honors us with her presence. She will dance the kartuli for us. Count yourself fortunate. You will not see another dance like that."
A song started with a solo of some sort of reed pipe, so old it rolled through me, familiar and new at the same time, like an echo of some racial memory buried deep inside me, in the places mind and reason couldn't reach. The man held his hand out. The woman placed her fingers on his. He led her forward. They bowed.