I was pretty sure the traps on the stairs were rigged to a pressure trigger—that was the simplest way to do it—which made the solution pretty simple, too.
Of course, there was a big difference between “pretty sure” and “sure.” If I’d guessed wrong, this was going to be an exceptionally embarrassing way to bite it. But if safety was what we wanted we’d have just stayed home, so I figured screw it.
Besides, there wasn’t time to spend second-guessing myself.
Kyra was the only one I wasn’t sure could make it, so I picked her up. She was heavy—with the armor, it probably came to around three hundred pounds, and even for me that was a load—but I could hold her for a while. It helped that she didn’t squirm or struggle, although she did twitch fairly enthusiastically when I grabbed her—more out of surprise than anything, I think.
I took off down the stairs at a dead sprint. Or, more accurately, I took off above the stairs at a dead sprint, shoving power through the focus of my boots to hold us several inches off the ground on a cushion of air. We dropped at a steep angle—I wasn’t used to supporting this much weight with magic—but, given that we were descending a staircase, that was less of a bug than a feature.
We reached the bottom of the stairs a few seconds later, seemingly without triggering any of the traps. I dropped Kyra, who looked like she knew something weird had just happened but couldn’t quite put her finger on what, and looked back up the staircase. It didn’t look like anything bad had happened, so I sent Snowflake the all-clear. She hit me in the chest about two seconds later, knocking me to the ground.
Aiko made the jump look graceful, which was pretty impressive. She took two long steps and dove forward, turning and coiling in the air to avoid coming into contact with any of the surfaces, and landed in a crouch. She also landed on me, because the universe has a weird sense of humor.
It took me a second to catch my breath—seriously, you have someone jump down a flight of stairs onto your stomach and see how you feel—during which time we heard a couple of explosions and a lot of cursing from above. I remembered Moray’s mention of deliberately setting off the traps, and optimistically wrote it off as “according to plan.”
There were no lights down here, the same as in the storeroom in Munich. Zhang could make his own light, and I didn’t get the impression that he cared overly much about other people’s convenience—particularly not here, in his private sanctum, where even his guards and servants were clearly not allowed.
Fortunately, Aiko can also make a light. She’s never quite been able to explain how it works to me—she was raised to approach magic from a very different standpoint than I was, and techniques don’t tend to translate well from one school to the other. There was a gentle twist of magic, scented with fox and spice, and a reddish gold light filled the staircase. It illuminated a circle about ten or fifteen feet in diameter, roughly centered on her.
We turned the corner and found another flight of stairs leading downward. I wasn’t sure if this one was trapped as well—I could smell magic, but that might have just been Zhang’s wards—but it was a pretty safe assumption. We got around it the same way as before, although this time I went last. The narrow hallway we found ourselves in was little more than a concrete-lined box; aesthetics were evidently not high on Zhang’s priority list. It led off into the darkness with no distinguishing features or doors in sight.
We started down it. It was an unnerving experience, walking down a lightless hall in the stronghold of a ruthless criminal wizard without knowing for certain what we would encounter. The fact that it was too narrow for the four of us to walk side-by-side and short enough to feel claustrophobic just added a little spice to an already unpleasant mix.
We found no more traps as we walked, which just made me more nervous. Things were going too smoothly.
Finally, perhaps fifty feet along, the hallway split into three. All three branches were unlit and unoccupied, and there was no way to say for sure which one led where.
“Which way?” Aiko asked after a moment.
I nodded toward the right. “That one’s warded,” I said. It made sense that Zhang would be hiding behind wards right now.
She nodded. “Right it is, then. Hang on a second.” She pulled out a piece of chalk and drew a large, obvious arrow pointing back toward the stairs. “All right. Can you get through the ward?”
I grinned and drew Tyrfing. “Let’s find out.” As always, excitement and bloodlust rolled through me from the sword, more obvious than usual. Most of the time if I’m holding Tyrfing I’m in a fight, and that generally means I have anger to spare already. I took a deep breath, set the emotion aside, and turned to face the ward.
It was a fairly simple design, nothing more than a kinetic barrier. It was strong, though; I could have rammed a truck into that barrier and bounced off. Explosives wouldn’t do the job, not without bringing the ceiling down on our heads, which I felt was a definite step in the wrong direction.
Fortunately, Tyrfing is much more than just a sword, and it cuts more than just flesh and stone. I swung it at the barrier, two-handed, and I put all the strength I had behind the blow. It bounced off seemingly empty air—but I felt the magic quiver at the touch. Two strikes, three, four, and then the sword’s magic bit into the barrier’s and the blade stuck. I wrenched it back out, sheathed it with some difficulty, and then gathered my power.
I’m not good at purely energetic work, magic unconnected to the physical world. It’s one of my weakest suits, actually. But I’ve gotten a little better over the years, and this was pretty much the simplest application of the skill there was. Designing a ward this solid took a genius, but breaking it didn’t require much in the way of technical knowledge. Just power and an understanding of what I was looking at.
It’s almost always harder to make a thing than break it.
I started at the crack Tyrfing had made. That made things much easier. Wards are a lot like any other kind of defenses. Once there’s one breach, it’s hard to keep the enemy from expanding it. I took advantage of that fact, sinking claws of power into the opening and tearing at the structure of the ward. It had been constructed as a single unit, each strand of magic dependent upon each other strand, and once it started disintegrating it was relatively simple to keep unraveling it.
Suddenly, though, things changed. The structure I’d been picking at collapsed, imploded, and folded into another shape. I had about a second to recognize the new alignment of energies before it activated.
A second doesn’t sound like much time. That’s because it isn’t much time. But it was long enough to let me react. I immediately stopped messing around with the ward, threw one arm over my eyes, and turned my attention to dropping the temperature. I’ve gotten a lot faster at that, and it took me less than a second to take it from chilly (we were in a basement in the Himalayas at night, after all) to something well below zero.
An instant later, all of the energy that had been bound up in the barrier degraded into heat, rapidly. A lot of heat. That kinetic barrier had been strong enough to hold up under a battering ram, and that translated into enough heat to render us all extra crispy.
If I hadn’t had that second’s warning, we wouldn’t have stood a chance. As it was, the hallway was cold enough to begin with that it took a few seconds to really crank the heat up, time during which I could continue trying to chill it back down.
Don’t get me wrong, it still sucked. There was a rush of hot air like standing in front of an oven, except that it went on and on, building and building, until it must have been at almost two hundred degrees in that hallway. Agonizing seconds ticked past, one after another. Finally, almost ten seconds after the ward triggered, the heat started fading. It only took me a few more seconds to dial it back to something comfortable.
I opened my eyes hesitantly, wincing. “You all right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Aiko said from about twenty feet away, while both Snowflake and Kyra barked. “What happened?”
“Zhang happened,” I said, glowering. “He had the ward rigged to turn into a fireball if it stopped working.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I guess this means we can expect some traps ahead.”
We progressed very slowly, very cautiously down the hallway. Aiko’s light was a godsend (not literally, of course; in my experience most actual godsends are rather unpleasant and dangerous); I would never have been willing to walk down that hallway if I were relying on a flashlight to see my way. Strangely, there actually weren’t any traps. I supposed that made sense, in a way; Zhang could pass through his own wards with ease, but mechanical traps are inconvenient for everyone.
We did find two more wards, though, spaced ten feet apart. We’d gotten smart about it. I approached each one, alone, in a bubble of air as cold as I could make it, and just beat the shit out of it with Tyrfing until the damage triggered its fallback mode. I got some burns—it felt like a whole body sunburn—and my cloak, never designed for such conditions, was going to need serious repairs, to the extent that it might be easier to just replace it. But there was no serious harm done, and I got through.
Finally, thirty feet along, we reached a door. Saying it was the kind of door you would expect to find on a vault would be accurate, but misleading. Most vaults couldn’t dream of a door like that. I suppose there are a few that still have massive steel blast doors secured by bolts as thick as my arm, but I don’t think they’re very common. It had a pair of large combination locks set into it. Somehow I didn’t think my usual tactics were going to be very effective at picking them.
“Do we blow it?” Aiko asked.
“Of course we blow it,” I said, digging more glass spheres out of my pocket. They were the same design as the one I’d given to Vigdis, although not nearly as high-powered. I’d made these myself, reverse-engineering the design from Alexander’s model, and my talents with this kind of magic were nowhere near his. They looked pretty much the same, except that the spark of light inside was emerald green rather than blue.
I tugged my gauntlet off and bit down on my fingertip again, drawing blood. I smeared a little blood on the surface of each sphere and then, very carefully, taped each of them against one of the bolts. (It goes without saying that I was carrying a roll of duct tape. That stuff is indispensable.)
We retreated most of the way back down the hall. I couldn’t see the vault door by the time we’d reached a safe distance. I had a good idea of where it was, though—and, seriously, it was a straight hallway. It wasn’t that hard to aim my shotgun in more or less the right direction and pull the trigger.
Before the noise of the shotgun blast could begin to fade, one of the pellets hit one of the spheres. The glass, which was now exactly as fragile as glass should be, shattered. I almost fancied that I could see a tiny spark of viridian light begin to unfold like a flower.
Then the expanding pressure wave released by that first sphere hit the other two. Glass shattered instantly under the force. Suddenly there was no doubting that the shot had been on target; the light was visible now, bright as a lantern, then brighter, brighter, until it was nearly blinding. Snowflake whimpered instinctively in surprise and distress. The noise started moments later, a crashing, crunching sound like car being compacted.
There was very little heat, the spheres having been designed to produce kinetic energy rather than thermal. They were designed as demolitions charges, not weapons. The force hit us a few seconds later, though, sending me stumbling backward. The noise died away. I blinked a few times, clearing my vision—not that there was much to see, until Aiko brought her light back.
The hallway had held up well under the stress, as I’d anticipated. There were cracks in the floor and walls, and the floor was covered in chunks of concrete that had fallen from the ceiling, but the structural integrity didn’t seem to have been damaged.
The door, being at the epicenter, hadn’t fared so well. The bolts were sheared through and the door lolled drunkenly to the side. I pulled it the rest of the way open, grunting at the weight. I’m sure it set off all kinds of alarms, which really wasn’t important considering that we’d already set off every alarm he had.
I wasn’t disappointed by what we saw on the other side. Well, actually, that isn’t quite true. I’d been hoping to find Zhang, and we didn’t. But what was there was enough to make up for it.
The room was fairly small, perhaps fifteen feet to a side. It was packed, though, barely enough room to walk between the crates, shelves, and pallets. The contents were pretty much the same as what Moray had described, although it was a hell of a lot more impressive in person.
“Do you think you could carry this out?” Aiko asked, eyeing a large gold ingot speculatively.
“We should keep moving,” I said.
She stared at me. “Come on, Winter. You don’t even want to grab a handful of diamonds or something? You’ve become jaded.”
Some diamonds would look nice on my collar, Snowflake said. Even Kyra looked at me askance.
“No, actually,” I said. “I was thinking that, if we go kill Zhang first, we can come back and loot it at our leisure. I want to take more than one load.”
“Ah, pragmatic greed. There’s the Winter we all know and love.”
“Damn straight. Now come on. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can roll around in heaps of money.”
We tried the hallway directly across from the vault next, and were disappointed—for real, this time. It led into a mage’s workshop. It was a nice setup, actually a suite of rooms. Zhang had a large laboratory, a carpentry shop, a darkroom—he even had a literal, old-school forge. There were no wards or other defenses, presumably because there was nothing there valuable enough to require more protection than remoteness, armed guards, the wards on the house, and booby-trapped stairs.
Okay, so that was pretty reasonable.
That left one more branch to clear. I was guessing that was where we would find Zhang; it was clear that the basement was where he kept the highest-security rooms, and from the workshop it seemed likely that he spent a lot of his time down here.
Besides. It just felt right.
Fifteen feet down the hallway—just outside Aiko’s bubble of light, from the intersection—we found a set of double doors. It wasn’t anything like the vault door, though. Where that was designed for security, this was meant to impress. Eight feet tall and almost as wide, there were made from rich brown wood and bound with what I really hoped was brass. Gold would have been just too much—which meant that was probably what it was.
They didn’t seem to be warded, which was odd. Zhang must have known what we were doing here, and he’d had plenty of time to slap up some defenses while we got this far. I was guessing that meant that he had some other kind of trap ready.
With that in mind, I drew Tyrfing and slashed vertically through the door. As I’d expected, it met resistance about halfway down. They’d barred the door, with a timber or a metal rod or something. Fortunately, since I’d expected it, I was swinging hard enough to cut through it without stopping. I pulled Tyrfing free and, with two more quick slashes, took out the hinges. I kicked the door as hard as I could.
I’m pretty strong, especially when I’m actively feeding the werewolf extra magic. The two-hundred-pound slab of wood flew a couple of feet in and then slammed to the ground with a sound like fifty dictionaries hitting the table at once.
You would probably expect me to charge in at this point, brandishing Tyrfing and screaming something about death and glory. For precisely that reason, I did no such thing. I mean, come on. The bad guys have seen those movies too.
I ducked aside instead, behind the door that was still standing. That turned out to be a wise decision. Immediately after the door hit the ground, some sort of magic flashed by me. It was invisible, but I smelled it, a sort of grey and dusty smell. I was pretty sure it was some kind of witchcraft, meant to target the victim’s mind. That wasn’t a very good tactic to use against me—werewolves are naturally resistant to most mind-affecting magic, and Tyrfing’s wrathful bloodlust was excellent insulation against other effects. A strong enough spell could still put me down for the count, though, and it seemed safe to assume that this was a strong spell.
I dove through the opening as soon as the magic passed, before anyone on the other side could adjust to the fact that they’d missed. I rolled to my feet, seeing Aiko rushing in out of the corner of my eye. Snowflake and Kyra were directly behind her, snarling and growling.
Somewhat to my surprise, it wasn’t Zhang behind the door. I know I should have seen that coming, but somehow I didn’t. It was, instead, the woman who had accompanied him to the first meeting. I could smell her magic, and was surprised at how weak it was. She wasn’t as strong as Brick, I didn’t think, and possibly not even as strong as I was. An apprentice, perhaps.
“Get out of the way,” I said, glancing around the room. It appeared to be a living room, much more opulently furnished than the one upstairs—lots of velvet and silk, mostly red and gold. There were tapestries covering the concrete walls, although I didn’t look at them very closely. It was the first room we’d seen since descending the stairs that was lit, a dozen or so oil lamps casting a cheery glow.
“No,” she said. I was a little surprised at that; I honestly hadn’t expected her to respond in any way that didn’t include a weapon.
“Do you know what your boss does?” I demanded.
Something that might have been shame flickered across her features and was gone. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’s my master.” She raised her hand and I felt her gathering magic for another attack.
Aiko shot her in the face.
Apparently she hadn’t been expecting that. Her head jerked sideways, blood and less pleasant things splattered the wall and floor behind her, and then she dropped to the ground. I don’t think she ever felt a thing. Aiko’s carbine was a relatively light caliber, but she’d just taken a burst to the head and that was the kind of thing that killed a human more or less instantly.
“What?” Aiko said. I must have been staring at her. “She turned you down. It wasn’t like we could leave her behind us.”
“I know,” I sighed. “It’s just…I worry about us, you know?”
“Don’t,” she said, surprisingly fiercely. “She knew what was going on here, and she stayed. That makes her as bad as Zhang. Worse, maybe. He at least accepts the responsibility.”
“I know,” I repeated. I couldn’t blame her—I would have done the same thing, after all, and we couldn’t exactly risk a fight at this point—but I still felt strangely, inexplicably sad.
That did not, of course, stop me from decapitating the mage as I walked past (not that she had much head left, but it’s best to be sure). There’s sad, and then there’s stupid.
The next door we opened led into a bedroom. It continued on the same theme as the living room, and was similarly extravagant. It was dark except for the light coming in from the other room (it wasn’t until then that I realized that Aiko had let her light fade). The king-sized bed was rumpled and the closet door was hanging open. We’d caught Zhang sleeping, then. That was a stroke of luck. There was only one other door leading out of the bedroom. It was locked, a situation I remedied easily with Tyrfing.
On the other side we found ourselves back in the harsh, utilitarian design Zhang seemed to favor, outside of his personal quarters. There was a short, unlit hallway with concrete walls and ceiling—no trace of opulence here. We found two layers of wards, the same design we’d found earlier, and got past them the same way, earning me a few more burns. Being burned on top of a burn always sucks, but we were so close now that I could smell it, and that took some of the sting out of it. At the end of the hall was another door, this one a heavy steel model. I chopped through the lock with Tyrfing and pulled it open.
The room on the other side was brightly lit by the first electric lights we’d seen since coming down here. The fluorescent lights were harsh, and uncomfortably bright after the relative darkness of the hallway. The room itself was circular, perhaps fifty feet across, with a nine foot ceiling. The blank concrete theme was continued here, giving the place a stark, grim look.
Zhang was sitting in a comfortable armchair in the center of the room. A second circle was delineated around him by a wide ring of silver set into the floor, leaving a strip ten feet wide around the edge. I could feel the magic humming in the ring, probably a kinetic barrier. I didn’t think it was a deliberately anti-werewolf measure, but concentrating magic in silver always makes it more unpleasant, and even being in the same room with it set my teeth on edge.
The circle was both good and bad news. On one hand, it would make his barrier much stronger if it was anchored by a circle. However, it also made him relatively incapable of attacking us without dropping that barrier—it’s incredibly difficult to project power across an empowered magic circle, especially one designed to prevent that from happening.
“Mr. Wolf,” he said, sipping what looked like wine from a fancy crystal glass. “I must admit, I didn’t expect you to be so stupid as to try something like this.”
I considered him for a moment. “You know what?” I said. “I’m really not interested in talking to you.” I took a step forward, rolling Tyrfing casually in my grip.
“As you wish,” he said calmly, gesturing slightly. A moment later, the walls cracked open at eight points, evenly spaced around the room. Golems stepped out, their bodies seemingly made from steel. Each of them had four arms, all of which ended in blades. I wasn’t sure whether they were solid metal, or just a coating over concrete. Either way, it wasn’t good. There weren’t very many of the golems, but I was confident that they would be Zhang’s best work—and considering how dangerous his worst work had been, that wasn’t good.
This was a problem. Tyrfing could probably damage even magically-reinforced steel, but the others weren’t so well off. I mean, they hadn’t done so well against concrete golems.
I immediately turned toward the nearest golem, barely five feet away. It turned to face me, insofar as that phrase can be applied to something without a face, all four arms coming up into a guard position. I stepped cautiously closer, and then immediately had to back away again as one of those arms passed within a few inches of my face. Damn, this thing was faster than it looked. Snowflake and Kyra raced past the thing while it was focused on me, and in my peripheral vision I saw Aiko starting around the circle the other way.
The next time it swung for me I stepped into the attack, meeting its arm with Tyrfing. The cursed sword bit most of the way through the limb, but the force involved tore it from my hands, and the golem didn’t even hesitate as it stabbed at me with another arm. I barely managed to reverse direction, moving with the blow.
It probably saved my life. Instead of punching straight through the armor, the tip of its sword-arm barely clipped me. It still knocked me sprawling, and I was definitely going to have a bruise.
I scrambled to my feet and recalled Tyrfing to my hand. The golem advanced and I gave ground before it, trying to think of something to do. I heard an explosion behind me, probably one of Aiko’s grenades, and the there was a loud crash of metal against stone where another had fallen, probably tripped by Kyra and Snowflake.
Fighting this thing was an unusual challenge, one I wasn’t sure how to approach. I’ve killed a lot of things using Tyrfing, but generally speaking they’ve had two arms each. Trying to get through four of them at once without leaving myself open to a counterattack was tricky, and given how strong these things were I didn’t think just taking the hit and trusting my armor was a good idea.
It was faster, stronger, and tougher than me. That meant I had to be smarter than it. I also had to do it quickly; the next closest golem was twenty feet away and closing, and I couldn’t handle two of these things at once.
I circled around the golem, then attacked as it turned to follow me. I didn’t even try to seriously harm it this time, just cut at it and immediately retreated. I barely nicked the arm I’d already damaged, but I dodged the counterattack entirely. Three more repetitions of this had that arm on the ground, where it stopped moving. The golem was, it turned out, solid steel, with no trace of concrete or stone to be found.
That made things easier. I circled to its weakened side, forcing it to reach across itself to attack me. It did, and I ducked under the swing, moving back to its other side. Another slash with Tyrfing, harder this time, cut through its leg at the ankle, and it was a simple matter to knock it over with a gust of wind. It hit the ground with a sound like half a ton of steel smashing into concrete, probably because that’s exactly what it was. It immediately started to push itself back to its feet, but before it could I stepped up behind it. It took me three swings, but I managed to cut its head off. Like the golems we’d fought before, it dropped lifelessly to the ground when that happened.
I straightened, breathing heavily, and looked around. Aside from the golem I’d taken out, there was one other lying on the ground, hit by Aiko’s grenade. One of its legs and two of its arms were little more than slag, clearly too damaged to use. It was still animate, though, dragging itself toward me with its remaining limbs. The golem coming around the circle from the other direction had nearly reached me, too, and the next wouldn’t be long.
My attention was largely captured, though, by another golem, one which was currently fighting both Kyra and Snowflake. And if it wasn’t clearly winning, well, it hadn’t lost yet, either. The two canids were circling around it, just out of reach, occasionally darting in to nip at it. They weren’t doing any damage, but they were distracting it, and the thing wasn’t smart enough to figure out that it could just ignore them.
Granted, that would have gotten to be fairly difficult anyway when Snowflake launched herself through the air, landing on the thing’s back and ripping at it with her claws. The steel sheaths didn’t rip through it like they would have flesh, but they scored the metal noticeably, which was more than either of them had managed to that point.
A moment later, bellowing loud enough to make me wince across the room, it knocked her off with one hand, hard enough to knock her into the wall. It didn’t feel like she was bleeding, and I doubted the impact had done serious damage, but it took her out of the fight for a moment. Kyra was left circling the golem, clearly unsure what to do alone, and there were more closing in on her.
That was all the time I had before the next golem was closing in on me. I went on the attack immediately as it got within reach, launching light, quick cuts at its head and legs. None of them would be enough to take it out, but every one was a threat, and it wouldn’t take many to damage the golem until a single solid blow would be devastating. It had to parry each strike, and Tyrfing cut slivers from its arms each time they connected.
The golem had enough limbs to attack at the same time, of course, and it did so. I twisted aside from the strikes, danced in and out of range, deflected its blows by critical inches with gusts and blocks of hardened air. It was a difficult, tiring way to fight, and while it was undeniably effective I wouldn’t be able to keep it up indefinitely.
It also meant that I had to be absolutely focused on what I was doing.
I’m not sure what tipped me off. Maybe I felt Zhang’s circle, and the barrier it was powering, collapse. Maybe I smelled him gathering magic. Maybe I just got lucky. Whatever the reason, I jumped back without quite knowing why, and the lance of force Zhang threw only clipped me rather than striking me directly.
That was good. It meant that, rather than being turned into so much canned meat, I just got the delightful experience of breaking most of the ribs on the left side of my body, as well as dislocating the shoulder. I hit the ground hard, wheezing painfully. The golem, structural integrity already weakened by my attacks, pretty much went to pieces. The blast of force continued on to hit the wall, shattering maybe ten square feet of concrete into dust, to a depth of around six inches.
Holy shit. I didn’t think I’d ever seen even Alexander or Brick throw a punch that hard.
I could hardly breathe and it hurt to move, but I managed to force myself back to my feet. Zhang was standing, and looked coldly, calmly furious. As I watched he drained his wineglass and tossed it aside to shatter on the ground. He gestured calmly, and a blast of white-hot fire rushed in my direction.
I dove aside, biting back a scream at what the motion did to my ribs. It wouldn’t do me much good to avoid the fire and be roasted alive, though, so I also wrapped myself in cold. Frost formed on the concrete, and immediately melted again as the fire rushed through, the heat reflecting off the walls. Even with my countermeasure, the air was oven-hot, and I got some more burns.
The wall where it had been directly struck by the flame fared worse. It literally exploded from the heat and force, sending shrapnel flying. Most of it went away from me, but a few pieces hit me in the back, punching through the armor. The good news was that they were hot enough to cauterize the wounds as they made them, and they didn’t penetrate deeply enough to hit organs, so I probably wasn’t going to die. The bad news was, it really freaking hurt.
I staggered back to my feet, feeling somewhat dizzy. I couldn’t just let Zhang keep blasting away at me. I can survive a lot, but attacks on this scale was so far beyond that as to be laughable.
I managed to grab a grenade from my belt and chuck it at him before he could throw another spell at me. It didn’t get within ten feet of the mage before he knocked it back at me with another blast of force.
Fortunately, I’d anticipated that. I hit it with a gust of wind before it could move far, sending it in a sweeping curve through the room. For once I got the angle and force exactly right, and the grenade bounced off the wall toward one of the golems. The same one that had already been crippled by the first grenade, to be specific. It was moving slowly, and another golem had caught up to it.
The grenade went off at around head height, and two golems collapsed to the ground.
On the other side of the circle, Aiko had joined in against the golem that Kyra and Snowflake were fighting. She was quick enough and skilled enough to make it look fairly easy, and she’d managed to scratch it about the head and shoulders quite a few times. Between that and the damage that Snowflake had inflicted, the next time Kyra tripped it something broke, and it didn’t get back up.
I expected Zhang to make some quip or something, but apparently he took me at my word when I said I didn’t want to talk with him. Apparently he’d gotten tired of me dodging, too, because his next attack was a wall of fire that was about fifteen feet wide and filled the room from floor to ceiling. It swept forward like a broom wielded by a pyromaniac giant, not as quickly as his targeted blast of fire had but much too fast for me to get out of the way.
I stared, my eyes undoubtedly taking on the wide, glassy-eyed stare more commonly associated with deer on highways. I don’t care how badass you are, the first time you see that you’re going to be scared witless. Then I snapped out of it and realized that there was only one thing to do. I grabbed all the cold I could find, wrapped it around myself until my armor glittered with frost and my breath could have frozen water. Then I sprinted forward (well, insofar as I could sprint at the moment) and dove through the fire.
You know how I talked about things being unpleasantly hot earlier? Well, that was nothing. This, this was fire. I don’t know how hot that fire was, and I don’t want to. It was bad enough having to do it; knowing just how insane it was would only make it worse.
I hit the ground on the other side, screaming. It takes a lot of pain to impress me, but this pulled it off. I rolled along the ground, putting out any lingering fires. I pushed myself back upright, swaying dizzily on my feet. Between the pain and the exertion, I was running on empty. I just didn’t have much more left in me.
At least Zhang had to lean on his chair to remain standing. Even he couldn’t keep throwing around this level of magic indefinitely.
I must have missed hearing another grenade, because two more golems were lying on the ground in various states of disassembly. Neither of them were actually destroyed, but neither one was really a threat in its current condition. That left just one golem still standing, which was currently fighting Kyra. She couldn’t really damage it, but she could keep it occupied, and she did.
That left Snowflake with no immediately pressing task, a state she took advantage of. She ran full-tilt at Zhang’s back and leapt. I felt her feral, savage rage in the back of my mind.
Zhang heard something at the last second and turned. He fell back a step, clearly surprised, and then gestured slightly with one hand. A rush of force took Snowflake in the face and sent her flying backward, where she landed with all the grace and poise of a ragdoll and didn’t get back up. She wasn’t dead—I was confident I would have known if she was dead—but I thought she might have been knocked out.
While Zhang had his back turned, I threw my last grenade. It rolled to a stop at his feet. He glanced down and then took a step forward, and I smelled a massive surge of power as he threw up a barrier.
A moment later the grenade went off. He managed—somehow—to withstand the explosion, and while it tossed him to the ground it didn’t seem to actually hurt him at all. He had to struggle to stand, though, and I could hear him panting for breath.
Aiko had dropped her blades at some point. Now she lifted her carbine to point at Zhang, where he was still lying on the ground, and opened it up.
Stopping bullets is relatively easy for a kinetic barrier. They’ve got a lot of velocity, but not much in the way of mass, and a light-caliber bullet is unlikely to penetrate a competent shield.
But Zhang had been burning through incredible amounts of magic. The attacks he’d thrown at me were terribly dangerous, true, but they’d also required enormous power. On top of that, he’d also just survived a freaking grenade, while standing virtually on top of it. The energy involved in that had to be astronomical.
Bottom line, he could still stop bullets. But it took all of his focus to do so—meaning that he couldn’t hit back and he couldn’t move. It wouldn’t last long—Aiko’s gun did not have infinite ammunition—but while it did it was a priceless opportunity.
I couldn’t get close enough to use Tyrfing. That barrier was ricocheting bullets in all directions, and even if I’d been willing to trust to my armor to keep me alive I couldn’t move fast enough. I checked my other weapons, and came up disappointed. Knives were useless, and the shotgun wouldn’t penetrate his barrier. I didn’t have any more grenades, and I’d used my only silver sphere getting into the house. I was still carrying one of Alexander’s demolition spells, but they really weren’t meant for combat. It might be fatal if you were touching it when it went off, but short of that it was unlikely to do lethal harm. Besides, using kinetic force to batter down a kinetic barrier was a losing proposition.
Suddenly I saw the answer. I grabbed the glass sphere, biting my tongue hard. My mouth filled with the taste of blood and I spat on the sphere before tossing it. Not at Zhang.
At the ceiling.
A stray bullet hit it before it could quite get into position, and a spark of blue light blossomed a couple feet below the ceiling. The force was invisible—the light was only an identifier—but I almost thought I could see it as a faint ripple in the air.
Alexander’s spell was a lot stronger than mine. Twenty feet away, it was still strong enough to knock me on my ass. I landed badly—no surprise, given how tired I was. Honestly, considering how much I’d been using Tyrfing, I’m lucky I didn’t shoot myself or something.
But I still landed badly. Really badly; I distinctly heard my right wrist snap, and pain lanced up my arm. That was pretty much the end of me fighting for today, then; with both arms injured and little magic remaining, there wasn’t much left for me to do.
I wasn’t the only one affected. The two remaining golems staggered sideways, interrupting a slash that likely would have removed Kyra’s leg. Aiko fell to the ground, the last few bullets going wild before the magazine ran empty. The wave of force washed over Zhang’s barrier and dissipated harmlessly.
And it also washed through the concrete ceiling.
Kinetic force is an interesting thing. There wasn’t enough power in that sphere to bring down the roof, not even close. But when part of a solid moves and the rest doesn’t, there’s an enormous stress on it. Concrete is strong stuff, but it’s also relatively brittle, disinclined to bend and sway.
Rubber wouldn’t have been affected much by the force. But the concrete broke apart, and once it started gravity finished the job, bringing it down in large chunks. The effect didn’t spread too far; the force was too diffuse for that. But for a circle perhaps ten feet across and two feet deep, the ceiling fell to pieces.
Zhang probably could have held it up, if he’d been fresh. Even tired, his barrier could have protected him; he was at the edge of the circle, and only a couple of the chunks of concrete hit him.
But he’d intended it to stop bullets. A kinetic barrier can stop either large masses moving slowly or small ones moving quickly, but it’s hard to make one do both at once. I didn’t know exactly what adaptations were necessary—in my world barriers are pretty much something other people use—but I knew that, if you wanted to stop an object efficiently, you needed to adapt it to what you were doing.
Zhang hadn’t had the chance. His barrier was still incredibly strong, mind you. It held up under the first impact, and the second. But when the third chunk hit it, it wavered and then collapsed. The concrete continued falling unimpeded, and landed on his abdomen.
That alone might have been lethal. I mean, that piece of concrete probably weighed a couple hundred pounds, and having things like that fall ten feet and land on your guts is bad for you. I didn’t feel like taking chances, though, so I summoned Tyrfing again. Then I grabbed it with my right hand, biting back a scream at how that felt to my broken wrist, and lobbed the sword toward the center of the room.
Aiko, who had recovered her feet almost instantly, darted toward it. She snatched the sword up and brought it down in a single motion, never pausing in her run. Zhang’s head hit the floor, and that was that.
It took Aiko only a couple of minutes to finish off the last of the golems. Between her skill, Tyrfing, and Kyra’s assistance, it never stood a chance. She carved it up like a Christmas goose, and it never even got close to her.
She stood there for a second and then sheathed Tyrfing and dropped it. I didn’t think she’d been injured, but she looked very tired as she made her way around the room to where I was currently slumped against the wall. Kyra limped along beside her, her left foreleg badly cut. I could smell the blood.
“Are you all right?” she asked, looking at me with concern.
I smiled beatifically. “Don’t think so,” I mumbled. Then I passed out.