Pier drew his monster of a sword slowly. It shone in the moonlight, and flickered oddly as he spun it lightly in his hands.
Fortunately, at least in the weapons department, I wasn’t outclassed. Tyrfing sang as it slipped free of the scabbard, gentle and suffused with the promise of death. Its surface was bright as a mirror, and in the eerie half-light of the moon and the storm it almost seemed that it was reflecting a bit too much light to be just a reflection.
There was a moment of silence, much like that which had accompanied the Sidhe lady’s appearance, when I drew my sword. Tyrfing was a mighty sword, and its appearance on any battlefield was the sort of thing that demanded respect—and got it, even from the Wild Hunt.
That probably should have scared me more than it did.
Pier and I began to slowly circle one another. The mask of storm and shadow still wreathed his body, making it hard to say for sure, but I thought he seemed a lot less angry than I would have anticipated. Resigned, perhaps, would be a better word. Like…he didn’t regret what was about to happen, but he wasn’t going to celebrate it either.
After a minute or so of this, with the low growling of the hounds the only soundtrack to the fight, Pier attacked. He closed the distance between us faster than anyone his size should have been able to move, let alone somebody wearing heavy armor, and launched the same diagonal strike he’d used to start the fight with Carraig.
Like Carraig before me, I ducked easily away to the rear. I didn’t bother trying to parry; Pier was twice my size, a champion of the Sidhe, and wreathed in the power of the Wild Hunt besides. The only thing matching my strength to his was likely to do was rip my arms off. Better to dodge.
He was obviously expecting the move, because he immediately turned the slash into a cross-body thrust at my chest. This blow I could parry—not pitting my strength against his directly, but striking perpendicularly to the direction of his strike while stepping sideways. Like Carraig’s sword, his weapon was apparently immune to Tyrfing’s edge. Shame.
“Not bad,” Pier said, falling back out of range of any counterattack. I took several steps back as well—his sword was rather longer than mine, after all.
“I don’t get it,” I said, watching him warily. The storm would make it harder to see the telltale cues before he attacked. “You saved my life from Carraig.”
“I thought that you’d lead me to the spear,” he said, shifting the sword to a higher guard.
“That doesn’t make a lot of sense, you know,” I pointed out. “It was pretty clear that I was looking for it for myself. Why would you want me to find it before you?”
I thought for a second that he would answer me. Instead he lunged forward, cutting horizontally at his shoulder height—halfway up my head, in other words. I was a little too slow dodging, and had to interpose Tyrfing between me and the attack. As I’d expected, the force of the huge man’s swing tore it from my hand, but it gave me time to fall back and the sword passed over my head.
Pier pressed the attack, stepping forward and bringing his blade back around to stab at me while I was lying on the ground. I had no idea how he could move that monster of a sword around so quickly and effortlessly—his strength had to be almost unimaginable.
Fortunately, there’s more than one way to fight. I flung shadow and air at his foot just as it started to move, knocking it sideways behind his other leg. A textbook perfect foot-sweep, executed with magic. He didn’t fall, but he stumbled and the would-be killing stroke fell far short. I had plenty of time to scramble to my feet and recover Tyrfing.
“Maybe I didn’t want Carraig killing you,” Pier admitted.
“Why not?” I asked, genuinely curious. A failing of mine, perhaps, that I was obsessed with figuring out why things were happening when it would have been smarter to worry about surviving the next five minutes.
Pier stepped closer, forcing me to retreat. Much farther and I’d run into the line of hounds. “I loved your mother,” he said, low enough that not even the dogs would hear and cold enough to make the night air look like a sauna.
I feinted at his face. He batted Tyrfing casually from my hands—I was barely even trying to hold onto the thing, at this point—but I used the time it bought to circle around him, giving myself room to maneuver. “Then why call the Hunt against me?” I asked, summoning Tyrfing once again. That was an excellent trick, and I had to admit that maybe I was actually grateful to Val for giving me the sword. Cursed or not, Tyrfing had served me admirably.
“She never loved me, of course,” Pier continued, taking no notice of my question. He lunged at me, holding the huge sword one-handed, but he was so far overextended I could deflect it easily enough, and even riposte. “But she never lied about it. And she was willing to play around.”
I shuddered and cut at his legs, mostly to interrupt that sentence. I so didn’t want to hear the details of what my mother got up to with the champion of Daylight. I mean, I knew enough sordid stories about her sexual exploits already to make me nauseous whenever I thought about it. I did not need another.
Pier stepped away from the attack easily, and cut down at my hands. I dropped Tyrfing and jerked back out of the way. His sword hit the ground and sank three feet into it, having as much difficulty cutting into the rocky earth as most blades have with the resistance of jelly. It wouldn’t last long, but for just a moment his sword was trapped, and I took advantage of it. Tyrfing came easily to my call, and I brought the cursed sword down in an attack on his hand. I didn’t cut it off—Pier was uncannily fast even by my standards—but I nicked one of his fingers. First blood to me—and, better yet, now I knew that Tyrfing would penetrate both the storm and the armor without difficulty.
Not surprising, really. There isn’t much that can resist Tyrfing’s edge. But it was good to be sure.
Pier snatched his sword back up before I could press the advantage any further, and danced away. “I suppose I feel like I owe her,” he said, circling around again. I moved with him, so that the distance between us remained constant.
I raised one eyebrow behind my helmet. “And yet you brought the Wild Hunt here to kill me.”
He snorted, moving the sword’s point through small patterns in the air. The cut to his finger didn’t seem to be bothering him at all, and in fact now that I thought about it I couldn’t smell blood anymore—or, at least, not more than the background magic of the Hunt. He’d healed already, healed a cut made by Tyrfing no less. Wonderful. “That’s why. I don’t know whether she’d want vengeance, but it’s the least I can do.”
I blinked, and almost lost a hand because of it when Pier attacked without warning. I barely dodged out of the way in time. “Vengeance? For what?” I was starting to run out of breath and it probably would have been smarter to conserve it for the fighting, but I’ve never been too smart where my curiosity is concerned.
That’s the source of a lot of my problems, actually, now that I think about it.
“Killing her, maybe?” he said.
“My mother was a suicide,” I spat, thrusting at his abdomen. He batted the attack aside with his hand, not even bothering with the sword.
“Suicide?” he said mockingly, stepping back out of range. “Yes, I suppose that’s what they would have told you. Wouldn’t do to hurt your feelings, after all.”
“What are you getting at?” I asked, falling back as well. I wanted to be sure that I heard what he had to say before the fight was over, either way.
“You never met her,” he said, voice dripping venom. “But I know you’ve heard stories. If you’ve any of her brains you must have thought that the story they told you doesn’t make a lot of sense.” He snorted again. “Suicide in slow-motion? Carmine Vilkas, dead of a broken heart for someone she spent one night with? I don’t think so.”
“What would you know?” I snarled. I was somewhat surprised at the depth of my own emotion; I’d always thought that her death didn’t bother me all that much—I’d never known her, after all—but apparently I’d been wrong. It occurred to me, somewhat belatedly, that neither of us was keeping his voice down.
“I don’t know what your father was,” Pier said, and his voice wasn’t calm either. “And I’ve no idea what sort of monster you are. But I know a parasite when I see one.” He started stalking closer to me.
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said!” he roared, loud enough to hurt. “You’re a leech, and she died because of it! You took something from her, and the more you grew the more she lost. But it was never enough!”
“No,” I stammered. Glancing back, I saw that I was once again almost to the edge of the ring. I heard the hounds behind me growling, snarling. “No, you’re lying.”
Pier laughed. “Tell yourself whatever you please.” He was close enough, now, to attack, and he did.
It quickly became clear that he was done with talking, and ready for the fight to be over. If I’d thought he was fast before, now it became clear that he had been slacking off. Now he wasn’t, and he moved almost too fast to see.
In the first five seconds he attacked me twenty-three times. That included fifteen sword blows, five unarmed attacks—which, of course, would have been every bit as lethal had they connected, given how unimaginably strong he was—and three magical attacks. Of those last, two involved fire, and the last was a beam of light that I felt sure would have burned like a laser. I dodged it, fortunately, and it dissipated when it struck the wall of storm around us.
I have no idea how I survived that barrage. I was once again moving on instinct, not thinking at all, and while I know exactly what he tried to do to me I cannot for the life of me say what I did to avoid it. By the time we came apart, I’d lost Tyrfing—a few times, I think—and I was bleeding from several wounds, none of them life-threatening. He’d broken a couple ribs when he connected with a knee, even through the armor.
But I was alive. And not all the blood I could smell was mine, so I must have nicked him again in there somewhere.
Pier was finally starting to show some signs of wear—apparently even he was stressed by that flurry of attacks, because he was breathing heavily, and his guard wasn’t quite as perfect as it had been before.
That wasn’t quite as comforting as it might have been, because I was undoubtedly still the worse off by a wide margin. I was panting, and even with the full moon the cuts to my left shoulder and right shin would be moderately incapacitating, and of course the ribs had the potential to be a serious inconvenience.
In other words, things looked bad. I’d been playing Pier’s game, and now that he was playing seriously it was very clear that I would lose. I couldn’t survive another onslaught like that, and he looked plenty capable of launching one.
So. That meant I had to change the game.
I backpedaled fast, almost to the other edge of the ring. Pier looked at me, and even with the mask and the armor anger was writ large in every line of his body. He charged straight at me—no words now, no careful exchanges. This wasn’t a play fight anymore.
I concentrated. I would have to time this perfectly for it to have any chance of success. At a thought the wind picked up, blowing into my face. The air around me dropped a couple of degrees, and I felt my mouth spread into a cold smile. “Ten thousand years of winter,” I murmured, and wrapped the freshly forming frost around my fingers. Feathers of frost spread in seconds across my body, down Tyrfing’s length, onto the ground at my feet.
It was that last one I was concerned about. Pier was around ten feet away, his sword upraised, and moving fast. I concentrated on a thought I still barely understood, and the frost around me spread further, turned in places to ice.
Pier was fast, strong, and skilled, and I don’t doubt that he could have killed me. He was furious, too, enough to do it without a first thought, let alone a second. But, like some werewolves I’d known, he let that fury blind him. Being too angry to see straight can be an asset in a fight, occasionally, but it seldom helps a person think clearly.
It definitely wasn’t helping Pier right now.
I waited until he was only a few feet away, until the sword had already started the downswing, before I moved. I didn’t try and fight. I dove sideways to the ground instead, simultaneously throwing a surge of magic behind the wind, whipping it up into a gale. It was very localized, and it would only last a moment—I wasn’t strong enough to muster anything more.
It was enough. Pier tried to turn to face me, where he would have plenty of time to run me through on the ground, but his own supernatural speed worked against him. He had so much momentum, aided by the tailwind I’d so thoughtfully given him, that he couldn’t turn on a dime.
I was suddenly reminded of the demon-possessed werewolf, the only thing I’d ever fought that could possibly have matched Pier in terms of sheer strength. Like him, it hadn’t been able to perfectly control its own momentum once it really got going.
Of course, back then I hadn’t been able to produce patches of ice on the ground on an otherwise warm night.
Pier’s foot hit the ice slick just as he was turning his forward momentum into a turn. For those of you who haven’t had the joy of experiencing something similar, trying to turn at speed while on ice isn’t a very good idea. Predictably enough, his foot went out from under him.
Of course, he still had a lot of momentum. And the ground was quite slick, what with all the frost and ice on it. So, rather than bounce straight back to his feet, Pier slid.
Into the storm.
I couldn’t see what happened, then. But I could hear it. It didn’t sound nice. Not nice at all, in fact.
I moved back out to the center of the ring, and finally did what I should have done to begin with. That is to say, I used my brain.
Pier was vastly my superior in physical combat. That was obvious. I couldn’t continue to fight him like this and hope to survive—and he wouldn’t fall for that trick with the ice again. That was for sure. He might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with the Sidhe without some kind of brain.
But he wasn’t omnipotent. And, as the sounds from the cloud bank started dying down, I realized something. Pier hadn’t, at any point, pulled the weird short-range teleportation he and Carraig had employed so extensively while fighting each other. Now, in the early stages, that made a certain amount of sense—he hadn’t wanted to kill me all that much, clearly. But now? He wasn’t playing softball. So why no teleportation?
I thought maybe it was because he couldn’t. I mean, the only way I could think of to work that sort of ability was to use the same mechanism as a portal to the Otherside. Oh, not exactly—but everything I’d ever learned about magic suggested that just flat-out manipulating the fabric of space was impossible. Or, if not outright impossible, nigh-impossibly difficult. Portals avoid that difficulty by exploiting the fluidity of the border between my world and the Otherside—but even on the Otherside, with its bizarre approach to geography, I’d never seen or heard of a portal from one place to another within the same domain.
So, if I was right, Carraig’s shadow walking trick had been essentially the same thing, in a different way—taking advantage of his role as an avatar of Midnight to walk from one shadow to another through the medium of Faerie.
Pier couldn’t do that, not now. Because to do so would, in some measure, be to leave the area set aside for our duel, even if he exited and reappeared within it.
I grinned and saw what I had been doing wrong. I tossed Tyrfing aside.
Just in time, too. Pier walked back out of the storm cloud at more-or-less the same time I had my realization. And he looked like hell.
In spite of everything, I had to admit a certain amount of pity for the big man. He was quite literally dripping—both normal, human blood, and something that looked like liquid shadow touched with lightning from the tears in the Wild Hunt’s mask. Parts of his armor, visible where the shroud of storm had faded, were missing. In most cases the gaps revealed burns, but I also saw a few puncture wounds, at least one of which was too big to have been made by teeth. Even werewolf teeth.
Note to self: don’t try to leave the ring. The Hunt wouldn’t take it kindly.
The injuries were terrible. They would have killed a human, no doubt about it. Even a werewolf, even tonight, would have likely been incapacitated. Even Pier noticed them. His sword was missing a chunk from the hilt, which appeared to have been bitten off, but he was still carrying it, and looking very angry. If he was moving slower now than before, it was clearly because he didn’t want to get burned again.
I didn’t waste time talking. Instead, as soon as I could see him clearly, I threw the object in my left hand at his feet.
Light is a very simple thing to produce with magic. I mean, magic is defined by thought, right? Well, pure light’s something very easy to think about. It’s easy to concentrate on, which makes it easy to work with. I’m not very good with it, just like I’m not good with almost everything else. Using it in a fight was probably a waste of time.
But that all changes when you’re talking about a stored spell instead of something cast spontaneously. With a stored spell, all the work is put in on the front end, meaning you have all the time you need. That takes a lot of the stress out.
The clear marble I’d just thrown was one of the simpler spells I’d made. It was designed to trigger on impact, and to do nothing fancy. It would just burst into light.
Very, very bright light.
I turned my face away and closed my eyes in time. It was still bright enough to see through my eyelids. Pier, who hadn’t had any such forewarning, was caught by the full brunt of the light. When I opened my eyes again, he was standing still, one hand outstretched. I didn’t think blindness would slow him down—heck, even I could function on other senses—but it had stunned him momentarily. It had stopped him, however briefly, in his tracks.
Which meant he wasn’t watching closely enough to stop me from throwing what was in my right hand. Namely, Tyrfing.
Throwing your sword in a fight is a bad idea. It’s a terrible idea. But Tyrfing isn’t a normal sword, and as such it isn’t subject to the same limitations as a normal sword. For one thing, the curse on it ensures that bad things happen to whosoever has the bad luck to be near it, which means that you don’t have to worry about a bad bounce or it twisting in the air—throw it at someone, and that someone will probably get stuck.
For another, I could always recall it to hand. That alone takes throwing it at the enemy from an insanely stupid tactic to a quite workable one.
I did not, of course, leave it at that. I also drew a knife in my left hand and threw that. And a rock.
As I watched, the giant fell. It was more akin to watching a tree fall than anything I associated with people. A few moments later, the shroud of the Wild Hunt flowed away, fading into the background storm. I walked over to inspect my handiwork.
As I’d expected, Tyrfing alone almost certainly would have been lethal—a yard of powerfully cursed steel through your lung can do that to a person. I cursed when I saw that—I would have preferred to ask him whether he was lying about my mother, but I wasn’t going to be asking Pier anything. Ever again. Or, more accurately, I wouldn’t be getting an answer—I could ask all I wanted, he was just too dead to reply. The knife, which had hit one of the large gaps the Hunt had left in his armor, had hit blade-first and slipped between his ribs—assisted, undoubtedly, by Tyrfing. A spinning knife is just random enough for an entropy curse to affect.
This is also, of course, why the stone had bounced off his breastplate straight up under his helmet and shattered his jaw. Even if he hadn’t died instantly, there was no way he could have spoken.
I collapsed to the ground next to him. I felt almost too exhausted to move. I’d been throwing around a lot of magic, tonight, and between that, the injuries, the exertion, and the fact that I still wasn’t totally recovered from being crucified, I was pretty much wiped out.
Around me, the hounds went from sullen growling to outright howling. A moment later, the Sidhe with the white horse rode out into the open space. “Excellent,” she murmured, looking down at Pier’s dead body with unmistakable satisfaction.
I looked up at her, although now that the adrenaline was fading even that much movement was an effort. “I take it you’re satisfied with how things turned out, then, Scáthach?”
“How did you guess?” she asked me, a laugh like the loveliest of bells playing a dirge underneath the surface of her voice.
“Pier couldn’t have called the Wild Hunt himself,” I said dully. “And they weren’t really trying to kill me, from the start.” I stared off into the night, still shrouded from view by the Hunt’s porta-storm. “You were happy to see him dead.” I shrugged listlessly. “Seemed like a reasonable guess.”
She laughed delightedly. “So! A fine mind, for one so young. Perhaps my sister was right about you.”
“Your sister?” I asked. I realized I sounded almost as monotone, in my exhaustion, as Bryan did all the time. If I hadn’t been so damned tired it would almost have been funny.
Scáthach did something which, in a being of less refinement, I might have called a shrug. “No matter. Congratulations on your victory, Master Wolf.”
“I didn’t win,” I said softly. “He lost.” I knew, without even a shadow of doubt, that Pier’s death was in large measure his own fault. If he’d taken things seriously from the start, or restrained his anger later on, I’d have been dead meat.
“Perhaps,” the goddess said, and I got the distinct impression that she knew exactly what I meant. “Even so, you are alive and he is dead. Is that not worth celebration?”
I sighed. “I used to think so. But every time I see someone die, I become less sure.”
“An unusual attitude for a werewolf.”
The saddest part, of course, was that it was true. I couldn’t work up the energy to reply, and I wasn’t sure what possible response I could have to something like that.
“We will hunt elsewhere, this night,” Scáthach promised me. And then, without fanfare of any kind (Loki could stand to profit by that example), the Wild Hunt was gone, taking Pier’s body with it.
I couldn’t seem to care enough to move, so I slept in the bloody dirt right there.
My dreams were, of course, of the nightmarish variety.