“For crying out loud,” I muttered. “Isn’t there one cliché this guy doesn’t love?” I was thinking furiously, even though I think we all knew what I’d choose. He would be well defended in his throne, I knew that.
And, at the end of the day? Laurel didn’t matter to me. Kyra did.
I drew Tyrfing slowly, the ringing of the blade challenging and sharp. I don’t know whether Tyrfing is really sentient, as I understand the concept anyway, but it can definitely convey a message. This time it sounded cruel and hungry, it sang blood and vengeance on the air. I tensed, readying myself for the attack.
And then I smelled something else. Magic, just the barest touch of it on the air, scented like disinfectant touched with decay and a hint of regret. At the same time I felt another mind brush against mine, and Aubrey’s voice seemed to whisper in my ear. His message was short and to the point, and very welcome.
I grinned ferally. Time for him to learn what it’s like when somebody thinks circles around you. “You know something, buddy?” I asked, advancing slowly on the slowly tightening ring of constructs. My senses were exceptional by pretty much any standards, but I had to keep him distracted or he would notice the same thing I had. “People like you, you always make the same mistake, you know that? You think people like me are suckers. You think we’re losing at your game, right?” I grinned wider, picking up the pace. Beside me, Snowflake was growling softly, and I felt her anticipation in the back of my mind. She knew what Aubrey had just said to me.
I was almost at the edge of the horde now. “I’m guessing it never occurred to you,” I continued, tightening my grip on the sword, “that I just didn’t feel like playing.”
And then things started happening.
I broke right, as fast as I could, transferring the sword to my left hand as I did. I stuck my arm out like I was clotheslining somebody as I raced past the line of constructs.
Tyrfing cuts stone the way lesser swords do silk. Bone didn’t slow it down a bit. And, in a dazzling lack of creativity, he had made all the constructs exactly alike. The same size.
The same height. Dipshit.
I was close enough to the ring that Tyrfing, fully outstretched, severed the first construct’s head completely, and cut deeply enough into the second’s neck to kill it. And they were packed together like sardines.
I wasn’t even trying. And I still left thirty constructs dead on the ground before I broke off and charged at the mage, Snowflake running along beside and slightly behind me.
I was close enough to see his eyes widen, when the chaos broke out behind me. Given that I wasn’t actually looking myself, I wasn’t sure what was happening. But I heard a sudden rockslide-roar, stone screaming as it was forced to do things that stone was never meant for, followed by the hollow woompf of fire magic.
As I’d expected, there were wards all around his throne, runes and sigils cut into the stone of the floor which flared to life at his gesture. They burned with light throughout the spectrum, cold and flowing as the Northern Lights, and they smelled of bleach and anise.
There were more layers than I’d expected, admittedly. I’d figured on his having perhaps three or four warding spells around his throne. But, when he activated them, I counted no fewer than nine circles of light. That was probably about eight more than I could handle.
I never did learn how not to do stupid things. So rather than back down, run away, and try again later, I kept charging.
I couldn’t smash my way through all of these wards the way I had the one at the top of the stairs. There wasn’t any point to even trying. That meant that conserving my power became crucial, and that meant recognizing what I could and couldn’t survive.
The outermost circle of runes had a subtle note of old dust to it which reminded me of the smell in Abdul’s room. So, hoping like heck that meant it was a similarly mental effect, I ran straight into it, Snowflake at my side.
I got lucky. It was, indeed, mental witchcraft bound into that ward. The second my foot touched the light of the runes, I was assaulted with a wave of depression too great to withstand. His spell unleashed lethargy, lassitude, and apathy in equal measure, and my knees buckled under the weight of it.
A human would have been knocked unconscious. A werewolf, even an enraged werewolf, would have been incapacitated by the impact.
But he’d forgotten two critical factors here. The first was that I had Tyrfing, freed of the scabbard which served to contain its magic, in my right hand. The sword was terrifying, in large part because of the effect it had on me. Any anger, any hatred, any smallest urge to violence, was magnified a thousandfold by the weapon. When I’d thought Aiko dead, the resulting storm of emotion had kept me from anything resembling rational thought, prevented me from seeing even the most obvious logic clearly. Now, well, the mage’s magic could blunt the force of that feeling, but it couldn’t overcome it.
The second thing he overlooked, or possibly just didn’t know, was that Snowflake wasn’t just a dog. There was something else inside her, a purely mental entity that lurked in the depths of her mind. He was a wolf, once, but prolonged exposure to a demon and shamanic magic could change anything. In his case, the result was a being with little to no resemblance to an animal. He was why Snowflake thought in words rather than instinctual feelings and images, and even before he completed the transition to what he was now his mental presence had been strong enough to challenge a demon-possessed mage.
These factors weren’t enough to protect us from all of the force of the emotional assault. We moved only slowly, shuffling our feet along at the pace of a tortoise on high-speed film. It felt like there was a weight attached to the end of my sword, dragging the tip down toward the ground, and every step was a fresh effort. But we moved.
As we did this, the witch’s mask collapsed. All joviality gone, his face was turning red from fury and strain, his lips drew back from his teeth in a snarl. He pointed his finger over my head, making motions as though trying stab the air. I smelled his magic, a sharp, vinegary odor, even if I hadn’t a clue what it was supposed to do. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be aimed at me, which made it something I had no attention to spare for.
This whole time, the sounds of a furious battle roared behind us. Earth cracked, fire burned, werewolves snarled, wind howled, guns barked. I desperately wanted to turn and see what was happening, but that was also something I couldn’t spare the time for. The world narrowed to the stone in front of my feet. And then, at last, we were across the ward, and the lethargy faded.
The next line was a firetrap. The same smell, the same magic as what we’d seen before, and I attacked it the same way. Tyrfing disrupted its structure enough that I was able to ground out most of what magic triggered successfully. I shielded my eyes from what remained, and accepted what burns I still got as a fair price to pay, while Snowflake hid behind me.
A few feet closer, another ward. Ice-white light loomed up in front of me, and I knew from the structure of the spell that this was a kinetic barrier. It was one of the simplest defenses in the books, and while I couldn’t make one strong enough to bother with, I knew how it worked. The idea was to weave magic into a structure that would prevent anything from crossing the line it demarcated. If anything attempted to do so, it would exert simple kinetic force in equal measure, essentially turning empty space into a wall. Enough force would overload it eventually, but I didn’t have a tank or an hour to work with, so I would have to do this the quick-and-dirty way.
I set Tyrfing’s point against it and leaned on it. The tip of the sword slowly sank into empty air a tiny fraction of an inch. Then the mage, glaring down at us with murder in his eyes, clenched his fist. The barrier surged with renewed power, and Tyrfing’s glacial forward progress stopped.
I grimaced. Then, tightening my grip on the hilt, I leaned against it harder, all my weight resting on the sword now. I didn’t have to cut myself to find the power in my blood, because the patch on my back had ruptured a while ago; blood was already oozing down my back beneath my cloak. I took the power, ripped it ruthlessly from my own life force, and, operating more on instinct than any logic or experience, sent it into Tyrfing.
The sword’s mirror finish gleamed a little brighter. Then, suddenly, the barrier fell, destroyed by Tyrfing’s edge and magic. I stumbled and then faceplanted, unable to stand without the resistance. Tyrfing clattered away, its loss only serving to slam home the exhaustion I felt further.
I tried to push myself back to a standing position, and couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I had, at long last, hit my limit. My body just wasn’t listening to what I told it.
A size ten work boot slammed down next to me, filling most of my field of view. Then a hand with the approximate strength of an elephant closed around my cloak at the nape of my neck and, with about as much effort as I used tying my shoes, hauled me to my feet.
Doug didn’t smile. He didn’t approve of violence, and he wasn’t the kind of guy who would be so overwhelmed with adrenaline as to smile anyway. But he nodded to me, and his eyes were not unfriendly.
On my other side, Katie had already advanced to the next warding line. She had a wand (looked like hazel to me, but I could be wrong), which I could tell was a crude but reasonably effective focus. Probably for shadow magic not unlike that I used, given that that was her specialty. “I could use a hand here,” she growled back at us, sounding strained.
Doug glanced at me, checking that I could stand without assistance, and then walked forward to help her. I brought Tyrfing to hand and, once again, used it as a cane, its point sinking into the stone when I put my weight on it. I managed to hobble forward, Snowflake tight by my side helping me to keep my balance, but there was no need for me to participate. I felt the next ward, another kinetic barrier, collapse just before I got there. The runes were covered in unnaturally thick shadows, choking out the light, and small roots were growing within them.
Four down, five to go. The sounds of battle behind me were slowing, and it didn’t sound like the constructs were winning. Twelve mages, even twelve mediocre self-trained half-educated mages, are a significant force when they have the advantage of surprise, and I didn’t doubt that the last of the enemy would be mopped up shortly. Laurel, having been freed by now from that ridiculous Bond villain-mechanism, would be throwing her weight behind us shortly. The enemy couldn’t flee without abandoning his wards—I could see a couple more corridors leading out of the cavernous room, but, in an embarrassing oversight, none of them were next to the throne—and he didn’t have good odds of getting away before one or another of us brought him down.
We were winning. He was living on borrowed time, and he must have known it.
Which is why it’s only natural that that’s when the fight changed.
He had spent so long on the defensive, I had all but forgotten it was possible for him to be proactive about defeating us. But in that moment, he reminded us very clearly of that.
The first assault was brutal, unexpected, and terribly efficient. It was intelligent, too, which was worse. Snowflake and I were both insulated from a great many effects, and we’d demonstrated an ability to shrug off a lot of his magic like raindrops.
Doug and Katie didn’t have the same protections.
Both of them dropped in an instant. They were convulsing violently, and it was clear that neither of them was going to be able to stand under their own power, let alone fight. That left only a dog and me to fight a true mage in the center of his power, and I could barely walk.
And then he dealt with that problem. I wasn’t sure quite what kind of magic this guy specialized in, but it was clear that he had a certain amount of skill with fire, and it was fire that he used against us now. He must have been more clever than I thought, too, because he didn’t even try to hit me. I was accustomed to functioning through pain, and I knew I could heal almost anything given enough time; I wouldn’t have been stopped by a little fire.
No, he attacked Snowflake. A gout of fire, the pale violet of a burning potassium and too bright to look at, covered the distance between him and my dog in the space of a blink. It was well-aimed, a perfect headshot on a moving target.
The fire did as fire does, and Snowflake burned as huskies burn. She screamed, out loud and in my head both, and pawed desperately at her head, reason overwhelmed by pain.
And then I was reminded of something. Snowflake wasn’t accustomed to pain. I’d gone out of my way to keep her from being injured. Oh, she’d suffered bruises, cuts, scrapes, sprains, and so on, and that might seem like a lot to you. But if so, it’s only because you live in the modern world. Humanity has become so civilized that pain is a stranger, an intruder in your life, and actual injury nearly unthinkable.
When you’ve been shot and stabbed, when you’ve clawed your fingers to stubs and been casually tortured during an interrogation, a bruise doesn’t even register anymore. The truth is that those are small pains, as such things go.
Having your face lit on fire isn’t a small pain.
Snowflake and I were tightly bound. We’d spent, at this point, more than a year together, and that was long enough for my magic to build a soul-deep link between the two of us. Unless we specifically make an effort otherwise, we can’t not feel what the other is experiencing. Normally, that isn’t a problem; we’ve gotten used to it to such a degree that we don’t even have to think about it anymore.
She didn’t have the presence of mind to block that now, and I didn’t have the energy. Her pain, and the animal terror it aroused, echoed into my mind.
I collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. I don’t just use that because it sounds good, but because it’s accurate; I fell without thinking about it, without controlling the movement at all. My head bounced off the ground, a pain I hardly felt through the agony of having my face melted, and my limbs sprawled randomly. Tyrfing remained standing, and of course I dragged my hand across it in my fall, because bad luck is what Tyrfing does and I’d spent entirely too much time around the naked blade for safety recently.
I fell in such a way that I could see what was going on in the fight, which was some small consolation. Thought couldn’t penetrate to me right now, but I still saw, and even in some way understood.
The constructs were all but gone. Many of them were knee-deep in stone where, prodded by Brick, it had folded and crawled up their legs, and those were being executed one-by-one by my allies. Others had been incinerated by Jimmy’s violent fire magic, entangled in strands of shadow, battered by the feeble winds Erica could call so far underground, or—because the Inquisition understood that not every solution was magic—shot repeatedly. The rest had for the most part been shredded by the werewolves, or by the wolf and bear which were the Inquisition’s combat shapeshifters. Laurel, as I’d expected, was in no danger. Kris, naked and paying no attention to that fact and carrying a large knife, was currently fishing her out of the water, having already cut the ropes. The cinnamon wolf, too injured to fight effectively, was over by the stairs with Mac, while Ryan watched over the pair.
Overall, we still looked fairly good. Snowflake and I were done—definitely for the context of this fight, quite possibly permanently, but the constructs were too, and that gave us the advantage of numbers. That many mages could take out the remaining wards no problemo, and once they did I didn’t give the bad guy good odds. It would take all his concentration to incapacitate a single werewolf with his magic, and that would leave plenty of available force to kill a small army, let alone one man.
Which is why, once again, he changed the game.
I never felt anything, not the slightest whiff of magic, nothing. I never felt the magic, because there was no magic to feel.
He didn’t need magic. Just good planning and preparation, and a little less cohesiveness within the pack than there should have been.
The last werewolf—the brown one, the one I didn’t know, the one without any noteworthy characteristics, the one I never looked at twice—moved suddenly. He launched himself at Kyra’s back.
I didn’t think that he was stronger than her. But he didn’t need to be. He hit her from behind with no warning at all, and she never saw it coming. Moreover, he was wearing armor, and I could see that there was a tracery of silver on the surface of the steel.
He knocked her down. And then, in the instant before she realized what was happening, he threw himself on her. No playing around, this time; he went straight for the throat.
My best friend was about to die. Nobody was close enough to act before he ripped her throat out, and that was something not even a werewolf could expect to recover from. Kyra would die, and I was helpless to do anything but watch.
The sound of a gunshot came from over by the stairs. The werewolf staggered sideways, confusion clearly visible in his posture, and then stumbled.
Silver, it had to be. Nothing else would have had such a profound effect. Good to know that I wasn’t the only one who’d planned for betrayal. Ryan looked as shocked as I felt, but his reactions had been fast enough to get the job done.
Kyra, visibly furious beyond the limits of sanity, stalked over to the traitor. Meanwhile, the rest of them finished with the constructs—I don’t think most of them even noticed that little byplay—and Laurel and Kris came to where I was being one with the floor. Snowflake had managed to stop, drop, and roll the fire out by now, but she was in no shape to fight, and neither was I.
They caught up to me about the same time I got the reflected pain under control enough to think again. Laurel, soaking wet but with her sword belted on again, and holding my ginormous new shotgun in her hand, helped me up. Leaning on Tyrfing again, I limped forward, the others following closely.
They were behind me, so I didn’t quite see what happened next. But I felt a sudden surge of magic, and heard a thump from behind me.
Turning around, I saw that Kris had hit the floor, sound asleep. Between her and Laurel, the kinetic barrier had snapped back into place, cutting us off from the rest of the fight.
“Thank you, Laurel,” he said. “I think this charade has gone on long enough. Shall we end this?”
“Let’s,” she said, raising the shotgun to her shoulder. “You have no idea how glad I am to be done pretending to work with you.”
He paused, confused.
The gun wasn’t pointing at me.
“Don’t be a fool, Stark,” he said. “You can’t back out now. The Watchers committed to helping me avenge the death of my brother.”
She grinned, the expression every bit as disturbing as I’d come to expect from her. “Yeah, well, the Watchers changed their minds.”
“That’s absurd,” he snapped. “The political fallout from my clan would be disastrous. Your position is already precarious.”
“No one outside this circle can hear a word we say,” she said. “And the only witnesses aren’t likely to be sharing information with your clan.” She paused. “For the record, I normally wouldn’t engage in this kind of banter. But I dislike you too much to shoot you before you understand just how badly you screwed up.”
The other mage nodded. His expression was a little tight, but not exactly worried, as though he still hadn’t quite processed what was going on.
“First off, your brother was breaking the laws. We know that he was breaking them, and the only reason we didn’t kill him for it is that Wolf and his people beat us to the punch. To turn around and ask us for help avenging his death after that was incredibly stupid. I just want to get that out of the way.”
“It was intended to be a statement. I felt that Jon would appreciate the irony.”
It was still stupid,” Laurel said dismissively. “Then there was the way you went about it. The curse you had me laying out was very close to the edge of the laws, and ensuring that it did no real harm was a lot of work, which didn’t do much to endear you to me. Besides which, targeting innocent people with something like that? That is fucked up. So yeah, I’m going to enjoy this.”
And then, without any pause, she pulled the trigger.
A seven-gauge shotgun is a powerful weapon. Thanks to the way that shotgun bores are measured, it’s almost twice the size of the more common twelve-gauge. Loaded with buckshot, that kind of gun can do a hell of a lot of damage.
The results when such a shot is aimed at someone’s head from a distance of less than fifteen feet were predictably messy. To say that the mage was decapitated would be an understatement.
“Sorry about all that,” Laurel said, handing me the gun. “Like I said, I normally wouldn’t be this much of a drama queen, but that asshole really pissed me off.”
“That’s fine,” I said numbly. “So this whole thing was just so that you would have an excuse to kill him?”
“Pretty much,” she said. “I don’t really get involved with the political aspects of our work, but I know that things are delicate right now. The Li clan is one of our biggest contributors, and we couldn’t really afford to alienate them at the moment. Had to maintain plausible deniability and make sure the credit went to someone with a legitimate grievance.”
“Good. Your backup did better than I was expecting. You told them where to show up?” I nodded. “Thought so. Our guy would have made sure they were here anyway, but it’s good that you dealt with it. Says a lot about you. I must say, Mr. Wolf, it’s been a pleasure working with you. That tunnel over there’s the escape route; it exits about twenty miles away. I’d appreciate it if you gave me a bit of a head start; it’d be awkward if you were to run into me on the way.”
And then, still seeming quite cheerful, she walked off. The barrier melted away before she reached it, and she sauntered off down the tunnel before I could ask another question.
Snowflake was alive. I cannot express the degree of relief I felt when I saw that.
One of her ice-blue eyes was milk-white instead, not unlike a fried egg and equally as blind. I cannot express the degree of pain I felt when I saw that.
Mac had done her best, but even magic has limits. Restoring the skin somewhat, encouraging healing, limiting inflammation and pain, all of these were things she could do. Repairing something with the complexity of an eyeball when it was practically melted out of the socket is not.
Realistically speaking, Snowflake was almost certainly never going to see out of that eye again. I knew that. She knew it, too, and while she covered the distress she felt at the prospect, I knew better.
The rest of us, though, came out of it fairly well. The three werewolves, between Mac’s magic and their own, looked to be in much better shape than when I’d left. They wouldn’t want to get in a fight right away, but they weren’t going to have difficulty walking out either. Of the fourth, the traitor, all that remained was a pile of meat and bone hardly recognizable as having been a canine. I saw a few tufts of brownish fur, and did not look further.
It was a long walk out of there. My back hurt, and I was absolutely exhausted.
But eventually I walked out into the cool night air, and looked at the moon, and let out a sigh of relief. I couldn’t say I’d handled it well, I couldn’t deny that damage had been done, but it was over, and I was still alive.