I’d only been to the Otherside once before, on that highly memorable jaunt to the party at Ryujin’s palace. It hadn’t exactly filled me with the urge to go back for weekend trips.
What I discovered this time was that there is a qualitative difference between portals. That one, established with the power of the Dragon King himself, had been incredibly smooth. It had literally felt like simply stepping across a threshold—you know, one second standing outside a small nondescript building, then being greeted in a palace of mind-boggling proportions.
Aiko, as it turned out, seriously wasn’t kidding when she said there was a difference between that and the kind of portal she could make. When I stepped into it, I added a novel and exotic unpleasantness to my catalogue.
Imagine cold, the absolute-zero deep space kind of cold that could kill you in an instant. Imagine being put in a trash compactor. Imagine looking into the void between the stars, emptiness so vast and eternal and brutally uncaring that just imagining it is enough to make you shiver a little and look for a distraction. Imagine experiencing all of that at once, for just the tiniest fraction of a second. Then remind yourself that, as I didn’t exist in the normal sense of the term, I wasn’t actually feeling these things as sensations. It was just a single, distilled experience.
And then it was over. I was leaning heavily on a brick wall, panting, and felt like I was about to vomit, with no memory of how I’d gotten there. Snowflake, with predictable deviations due to anatomic differences, was doing pretty much the same thing near my ankles. Even Aiko looked pale and drawn.
“Damn,” I muttered. “Is it always like that?”
“Pretty much,” she said in a slightly raspy voice, sitting and leaning back against the wall. “Give me a minute to catch my breath.”
While she recovered from the portal I took the chance to look around a bit. We were in an alley not too different from where we’d left, although there it had been around eight there and it felt like two in the morning where we were now. I wasn’t sure how it felt like two in the morning, but it did.
There was no moon, or stars, or streetlights. In fact, there seemed to be next to no light at all; my night vision is better than human, but even so, Aiko and Snowflake were visible only as the vaguest of silhouettes. I only knew that the wall I was leaning on was brick by touch. The alley smelled funny, the way alleys sometimes do. It’s a blend of stale urine, trash, vomit, and a special something all its own, which oddly enough doesn’t seem to grow on me no matter how many times I encounter it.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“Well,” Aiko said, sounding a little more like herself. “You know the seedy back alley, in a sleazy part of town, where shady characters like to hang out and it’s rare you don’t see a drug deal going down?”
“This is that.” She hesitated. “Well, sort of. You know that every domain in the Otherside was built by someone, right? Well, at some point, somebody decided to make the ultimate sketchy neighborhood.” She gestured vaguely around us. “This is what they got.”
I glanced around. “Umm…not to cramp your style or anything, but are you sure this is the right place to be?”
She snorted and shoved herself to her feet. “Hell no. We aren’t staying. This is just a layover.” There was another, much smaller stirring of magic. It was hard to feel over the background power, which was much higher on the Otherside than what I was used to, but I’ve got pretty good senses for that kind of thing. A moment later there was a flicker of light, which then settled into a sort of sourceless, even illumination. It was a gentle but surprisingly intense red-gold light, illuminating a circle around ten feet across.
I’d have to learn that trick. I could work with light pretty well, but unless I’m using a preexisting light source it tends to be either anemic or blinding.
As it turned out the alley we were in was really narrow. Like, really narrow—I could easily have stood in the center and touched both walls. The bricks were red, with crumbling mortar, and there was a Dumpster nearby that looked like it had been vandalized so often they’d given up on keeping it either clean or locked. A classic, really. Everything had been graffitied heavily—not works of semi-rebellious art, mind you. No, this spray paint was a territorial display. They might as well have just pissed on the walls, really.
“I don’t get it,” I said, following Aiko past the Dumpster. “If we’re going somewhere else, why stop in here? Wouldn’t it make more sense to travel there directly?”
“Yes,” she said patiently. “Except that you don’t know jack shit about the Otherside. It’s…look. The Otherside is connected to the mortal world, right? But not universally.” She gestured vaguely about us. “This place? It’s tightly connected, so close that if you get unlucky enough you can just walk down the wrong alley and wind up here instead. Makes it an easy place to start. Then, once you’re actually on the Otherside, you can start moving toward where you really want to go.”
“Oh.” I frowned. “Maybe I should have started asking about this stuff earlier?”
She snorted. “You think?”
The alley led out onto a larger but not significantly nicer street. The concrete sidewalk was pitted and stained, while the street next to us was cracked and badly in need of cleaning. The buildings we walked past were all brick, and they looked tired and beat down. The doors were all very secure, and the occasional window was barred or (more frequently) outright boarded over. There was a little more ambient light here, but it was still dark enough that I was grateful for Aiko’s light.
I really had to hand it to this place’s creator. I couldn’t imagine a much better embodiment of the bad part of town than this place.
“There’s something I should probably mention,” Aiko said after about a minute and a half of walking past unchangingly dismal buildings and alleyways.
“I’m not going to like this, am I?”
“Yeah, probably not. Thing is, a place like this?” She gestured vaguely around us again. “Well, you can’t have a dark alley without a mugger, can you?”
I sighed. “Great. Where are we going, anyway?”
“Somewhere I can use to get to the next stop. If I remember correctly, it should be about fifteen minutes’ walk.”
“Okay then. I’m guessing we can’t expect to go that long without trouble?”
“You’re good at this game.”
I nodded. I’d expected as much.
I almost expected it not to work when I called Tyrfing, but the ancient weapon appeared in my hand exactly as if I hadn’t left it an entirely different universe. Apparently a little thing like the barriers between worlds wouldn’t cramp the sword’s style much. I was almost disappointed.
I undid the clasp and casually flicked the scabbard aside. This was, believe it or not, a deliberate gesture on my part; it suggested that I was so eager to do violence I didn’t worry about putting the weapon away afterward, which fit with the image I was trying to profess. And, on a more mundane level, it said I could afford to casually ruin a scabbard that was a work of art in its own right.
Both of these statements were, of course, total bullshit. The reality was that it was no harder to sheath Tyrfing if the scabbard were in another world than if it were on my belt, and it seemed to be as immune to damage and staining as the sword itself.
“Listen up!” I shouted in a carefully mocking voice. “We’re just passing through. If you’re smart, you’ll stay put, and you’ll still be alive when we leave. Anyone who doesn’t like that idea, kindly come out now so I can kill you.” I waved Tyrfing carelessly around. The blade, which was literally mirrored, shone strangely in Aiko’s magical light. It was almost like firelight, now that I thought about it, except totally steady.
Aiko made a sort of choking sound, while Snowflake laughed inside my mind. “Crap,” the kitsune said in a quiet and strangled voice. “Winter, that wasn’t quite what I had in mind. No way they’ll turn down a challenge like that.”
“That was the idea,” I said equally quietly, keeping my eyes on the darkness around us. “Get it out of the way now and scare the rest into keeping their heads down.”
Let the abgefuckt Spießer come, Snowflake agreed. She’d picked up the habit of swearing in German from Aiko, who claimed that the variety and creativity possible in their invective was vastly superior to English. And no, I’m not going to translate it for you; if you want to know that bad you can look it up yourself. Suffice it to say that it was insulting, obscene, and generally not a nice thing to say in any language. I’ll see how they taste.
There was a sort of shuffling, scraping sound from one of the nearby alley mouths. And then…something…dragged itself into the light.
I can’t really describe it very well. I mean, my normal method of describing things that don’t fit very well into what humans normally experience is to compare them to saner things, right? Well, this thing doesn’t compare very well. It was built a little like a quadrupedal gorilla, with gratuitously large claws tacked on, and sharp forward-curving horns. It had no hair, nor any obvious gender, nor did it appear to have eyes. Not too surprising, I supposed, if it were adapted to living in lightless alleys. Even things that live in terrestrial caves are often sightless.
Oh yeah, and it was better than ten feet tall, even hunched over so that it’s forelimbs dragged the ground. Gulp.
“Crap,” Aiko said, sounding more resigned than anything. I remembered for the first time that she hadn’t brought her armor, sword, or gun, leaving her essentially unarmed except for a tanto and her primarily nonviolent magic.
“Um,” I said, staring up at the monstrous thing. “Uh. Oops?”
By way of answer it opened a mouth large enough to encapsulate my entire head without cramping, showing off an impressive number of teeth that looked very, very sharp. It roared, loud enough to be physically painful. Adding insult to injury, it spattered all three of us with slaver. And, believe you me, the breath of the average alley-dwelling monstrosity is freaking awful.
Then, while all three of us were gulping and backpedaling (purely because it smelled so bad, of course), the gorilla charged us. I dove left. Snowflake dove right.
Aiko, to my profound horror, stood stock still, still facing the gorillathing with an expression of resigned disgust. It snatched her up in one massive claw-hand, rearing up to stand on its hind legs. It was absurdly tall, probably better than fifteen feet standing. I guess the square-cube ratio doesn’t apply very strongly on the Otherside. I probably screamed something, but I don’t honestly recall what it might have been.
It roared again, right in her face. Then, while I was helpless to do anything but stare, it crushed her effortlessly in its hands. It tossed her broken body carelessly out of the circle of light.
I stared, unable to process what had just happened. It seemed unreal; I couldn’t believe that she hadn’t reacted. I knew I had to keep moving, had to do something, but I couldn’t seem to actually do so, not even when the gorillathing rounded on me next.
On my own, I probably would have died right then and there, never managing to get my ass in gear.
Snowflake, as it turned out, had different ideas.
The husky launched herself effortlessly through the air. And I do mean that literally; she landed on top of the thing’s head, ripping and tearing at it fearlessly. It roared again, spinning toward the source of this new pain.
Snowflake was stronger than a normal dog, but she was still basically just a dog. There was no realistic way she could hope to do enough damage to kill this thing. This, in turn, meant that if I didn’t do something, she was about to die.
That thought, as it turned out, was enough to galvanize me to action.
It clipped her with a clumsy sideswipe, throwing her a dozen feet to the side. I heard her sudden sound of shock and pain both with my ears and my mind, and the bond between us was tight enough that I felt a flare of sympathetic agony in my own ribs. It didn’t penetrate the shocky feeling in my head. If I’d been in a saner state of mind, seeing it deliver that kind of force behind its own head when it hadn’t even hit her squarely would probably have made me feel afraid.
As it was, it just pissed me off.
Here’s some free advice for aspiring villains out there. When attempting to drive the hero into a mindless rage by harming their friends, make sure you have a real solid plan for what to do if it works. This goes double for werewolves, who tend to have at least minor anger control issues at the best of times.
It goes triple for werewolves who are currently holding an ancient tool of destruction with few equals in the world, and who have previously demonstrated that their reactions in times of stress tend toward the extreme.
I can move really fast when I want to. By the time Snowflake hit the ground, out in the darkness, I’d covered the distance between me and the monstrosity, and it hadn’t even fallen back onto all four limbs yet. I swept Tyrfing at its leg, never stopping, and caught the limb a little below its equivalent of a knee joint.
I was angry. I hit it hard, and Tyrfing’s edge is sharper than any mortal weapon.
I kept going past it. Behind me it thumped back down on all fours—except that it only had three left. I’d cut clean through the rear-left limb. Which had to have been a little more than a foot thick. This, too, might have been a little unnerving at another time.
I turned to face it again, and I felt my face split into a grin so wide and feral it didn’t feel sane even to me. The huge thing spun too, and I could practically see it wondering what had just happened. I was pretty sure nobody had ever hurt it that bad, and it hadn’t even seen it coming—pun intended.
My grin spread further. “Come on,” I called, almost in a sing-song, high on blood and fury. I’d experienced battle rage before, but my reaction to Aiko’s death and the psychological effect of using Tyrfing in a fight spiraled into outright psychosis in that moment. I wanted to hurt this thing.
It charged again, awkward and ungainly on three feet. I laughed and spun aside, hacking another six inches off the wounded leg as it went past. Then, in the moment when I had a shot at its back, I went on the offensive, darting forward to bury Tyrfing in its back where the kidney would be on a human.
It caught me by surprise, kicking backward with its one remaining leg. The blow caught me square in the chest, and threw me back ten feet in the air, leaving the sword embedded in the gorillathing’s back.
I hardly even noticed. The pain didn’t even make an impact through the anger that was still building in me. I spun shadow and air into a pad beneath myself without even having to think, and used it and my own momentum to throw myself back into the ring of light.
I landed in an easy, graceful roll, calling Tyrfing to my hand once again with a thought. The touch of the sword’s hilt brought with it a rush of silvery sensation, satisfaction and rage and a mad glee at the violence we would wreak upon this thing for daring to hurt her.
Either the gorillathing’s other senses were incredibly acute or it actually did have eyes, because it had no difficulty orienting on me again. It lunged at me again, seemingly oblivious to the blood gushing out of its back and from its leg. This time I didn’t dodge.
It lifted me into the air much as it had lifted Aiko. I grinned, staring right into its ugly face.
As it turned out, the horns offered somewhat more resistance than the leg had. It was like splitting stone.
I was very angry. Tyrfing barely slowed as it passed through the horn, or as I brought it back through the thing’s freakishly huge wrist.
I dropped to the ground, of course, and immediately dodged sideways to avoid the crushing counterstrike that sent brand-new cracks through the concrete. It advanced on me again, and this time I gave ground before it, retreating almost to the edge of the light.
“Hey, stupid,” I called. “Guess who you forgot?”
On cue, Snowflake hit it from behind. She’d taken a hint from me, and she went at its other leg rather than going for the kill.
She didn’t hamstring it outright, alas. But she did do enough damage that, combined with all the beating it had taken to the rest of its limbs, it couldn’t walk effectively. In fact, it couldn’t even stand effectively, collapsing to the side. Snowflake darted out of the way just in time to avoid being crushed under a couple of tons of gorillathing.
I walked up to it, that storm of ice-cold rage still seething in my soul. Too stupid to recognize when it was beaten, it lashed out at me with its remaining forelimb. I dodged effortlessly and struck off that hand, too.
I stared down at the bleeding, mutilated, dying gorillathing, and felt…nothing. This wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy the anger I was feeling. I wanted this monster to suffer, wanted it to fully realize its own utter impotence. I wanted to freeze its blood in its veins and rip it apart from the inside out. And, in that instant, I knew that I could, knew that I could visit brand new realms of horror on this thing’s head.
And, worst of all, I recognized that nothing I could do to it would make things any better.
“Be grateful,” I said quietly, looking down at it as it lay mewling on the asphalt, “that I still know what mercy is, at least.” I gutted it, and then tossed Tyrfing aside as I went to check on Snowflake. I felt something on my hand, and realized that I was crying. I had been for some time, probably.
“Wow,” Aiko said. “Nice job.”
I whipped my head around to stare at her. She was, impossibly, standing right there, tight to the wall, with her hands in her pockets.
I stammered something to the effect of “You’re alive?”
“Obviously,” she said dryly. “Come on, you didn’t fall for that, did you?” She blinked. “Wow, you did. Hey, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.”
I tried to ask about a dozen questions all at once, and eventually settled on, “How?”
She laughed. “Seriously, Winter. You didn’t think I’d really just stand there and take it, did you?” She flicked her fingers, and with another subtle surge of magic there was another Aiko standing beside me.
“Those things are mostly blind anyway,” the kitsune said casually. “Doesn’t take a genius to dupe ’em.”
I firmly believe that irony is trying to kill me. This is why I consider it both an insult and a personal attack that another of the things picked exactly that moment to come charging out of the dark alleyway. It was, if anything, even larger than the last one.
It rushed right past Aiko, going straight for me instead. It was impressively fast, and I was distracted. I dodged out of the way, but not nearly fast enough, and it caught me with a hellacious backhand to the face.
It hurt. A lot. I staggered drunkenly for a few steps and then hit the ground. I tried to stand, but was entirely too dizzy to manage it.
The gorillathing rounded on Aiko, only to find that the kitsune had disappeared. It seemed to sniff around, and I wasn’t at all confident that it would be unable to find her. Besides which, if it couldn’t, it would be coming after me next, and I was in no condition to deal with another of the things.
Fortunately, around that time my head cleared enough that I could do what should have been my first priority, which is to say thinking. And, lucid for the first time since the fight started, I noticed two things that the gorillathing really should have. The first was that Snowflake, too, seemed to have vanished.
The second was that Tyrfing was gone.
And about that time I saw how a kitsune on her home turf fights when she’s playing for keeps.
She appeared about ten feet from the thing, charging it with Tyrfing in both hands like a baseball bat (a stupid way to hold a sword, and not one I would expect from her. Aiko has a lot more training and skill than I do when it comes to edged weapons.) Now, I could tell that it was an illusion—it was too hollow, as little sense as that makes. There was no sound when its feet struck the ground, it cast no shadow, it had no odor whatsoever—suffice to say that it wouldn’t have fooled even a casual observer. Aiko, skilled and clever as she was, was still a very young kitsune, and I expect that under normal circumstances she couldn’t even have convinced me that there was a “her” standing still when the real thing was moving, as she had at the start of the fight.
The key part to realize is that that isn’t the important thing. Serious illusion magic is really, really hard. It was sort of her specialty, but it was still incredibly difficult, and that meant that it would never be perfect. A person under normal circumstances would be able to figure out that something was fishy within a second or so of observation.
But you have to have that second. Adrenaline is a great thing, but it doesn’t lend itself well to detailed observation. Mix in sudden shock, a need for immediate reaction, strong instinctual urges to action, and all of a sudden it gets a lot harder to pick out the tiny discrepancies. Add in the fact that what you see is exactly what you expected, and it gets a lot less likely that you’ll take the time to study it closely. When you have a serious sensory impairment, it becomes almost pathetically unlikely that you’ll know what’s real and what’s a lie.
The thing spun, faster than something so huge should ever have been able to move, and swept those vicious claws across her face—except that in the same instant, the image faded as though it had never been. That happened twice more; the third time, Snowflake was running along beside the illusion.
By that time, the monster had caught on, and didn’t bother even trying to hit the illusion.
Except that, as you may have guessed, Snowflake was actually there. The dog sprinted past, inflicting only a glancing blow to the leg.
Then, while the gorillathing was distracted, the real Aiko appeared behind it. The first stroke, delivered with no warning whatsoever, hamstrung it, and it dropped to its knees. The second was a vicious two-handed diagonal slash from left to right.
Aiko wasn’t as strong as a werewolf, so it didn’t bisect the gorillathing. It must have done some serious damage, though, because it dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.
Aiko, wisely, doesn’t believe in taking chances once a fight gets serious. She took its head off with another stroke, and then beheaded the other one.
“You okay?” she called to me, still holding Tyrfing and facing the black opening of the alley. Beside her, Snowflake was panting slightly. I could feel that, although she was in some pain, she was also very satisfied, exhilarated even.
I tried to sit up, with limited success. “Think a few ribs are cracked,” I shouted back, wincing slightly. It must have been from when the first thing kicked me. Odd, that I hadn’t felt it sooner.
If we stayed here, we would die. Therefore, I had to be able to move. I thought about this for a few moments, and then made a decision.
I am somewhat like a werewolf, and like all werewolves, I heal better than a human. More quickly, and more thoroughly. Like all werewolves, this ability doesn’t prevent me from experiencing all the pain of any given injury, nor does it make me invincible. Not in any sense of the word.
Unlike most werewolves, though, I have a good bit of control over it. It’s a matter of knowledge and training, more than anything, and it’s something any werewolf could learn if they wanted to badly enough. You see, a werewolf’s healing, like the superstrength and shapechanging, is a magical effect, not a strictly biological one.
What this means is that, if you approach it right, you can change the way it functions. By directing additional power to the healing process, for example, you can accelerate it. Of course, by doing so, you tire yourself faster and have less magic available for other purposes, but that’s a fair trade when you really need to fix an injury.
Bone damage is hard to heal, though. A single broken bone can incapacitate a human for weeks or even months, and it might never heal completely. Even a werewolf can take weeks to heal broken bones. I could accelerate that a lot, but using normal means it would still take days, and it would leave me magically exhausted. That was bad.
So I cheated, by doing something that wasn’t really very smart. I pulled out my pocketknife and nicked the skin of my left arm.
Blood is a potent substance, approached correctly. It’s a matter of symbolism. If you ask somebody to pick a symbol of life and vitality, blood and breath are the most common choices. Vampires feed on blood, not saliva. This is not a coincidence. Granted there isn’t much intrinsic power to it, but it’s extremely symbolic.
This is important for, essentially, a different application of the same reason Aiko gave for why we had to travel away from Kyra’s house to cross into the Otherside. What it boils down into is this: magic is hard.
As a mage, I can play games with the fundamental forces of the cosmos. Try and fit that on a business card. But, and this is important, the fundamental forces of the cosmos do not like this. Magic is a chaotic force, and it invariably resists any attempt to use it for a specific purpose. This is why, for the most part, the actual amount of energy you can muster isn’t nearly as important as how effectively you use it. There’s always a certain amount of energy loss due to inefficiency, but minimizing that is a big part of the difference between an amateur and an expert.
So the clearer of a symbol you have to organize your thoughts around, the better. Aiko had used an anonymous back door in an alleyway to symbolize an unsavory neighborhood; I used blood as a symbol of my own life. And, through that medium, I tapped that force and directed it.
In case you didn’t guess this, draining your own life force is a very bad idea. It is also occasionally a useful one, because that kind of power is a lot easier to control and manipulate than pure magic. Low level usage of blood magic isn’t as draining as the normal sort, although heavy or prolonged use can have some very nasty side effects.
In this case, I went with blood magic for two reasons. The first was that, even with my healing abilities, I would not be much good in a fight for the rest of the day at least. This, in turn, meant that my only recourse would be magic, and I figured it would be better to conserve my power for an emergency if at all possible. The second was that, due to a resonance in its essential nature and blah, blah, blah, as counterintuitive as it seems, blood magic is actually very good for healing.
I spent somewhere around five minutes on that, drawing no more power from my life than I had to. When I heaved myself to my feet after that, it still hurt a little to breathe, but I wasn’t incapacitated. Go, team.
“You all right?”
“Good enough,” I grunted. Then I raised my voice. “Okay,” I shouted. “Who’s next?”
There was an absence of movement and noise so pronounced it probably qualified as a presence all its own.
“Great,” I said. “Where to?”
Aiko stared at me for a second, then rolled her eyes and led the way down the sidewalk from nowhere to nowhere. She was still holding Tyrfing, I noticed, the oddly-lit blade gleaming in her hand. “Sorry about the delayed reaction back there,” she said. “I didn’t expect that level of crazy from you.”
“I try to keep things fresh,” I said lightly. “Nice work, by the way. I knew you were good with illusions, but I didn’t know you were that good.”
“We’re on the Otherside,” she said modestly. “Magic’s easier here, especially my kind of magic. I am a native, remember?”
I did, though I seldom really thought about it. It was an easy thing to do—Aiko is more down-to-earth than most of the actual earthlings I’ve met.
Snowflake trotted up behind us, seeming totally unfazed by the whole thing. They taste pretty much like chicken, she said.
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