“Okay,” I said, moving towards the door. I didn’t like the idea of being trapped in the confined space of the hallway during a fight, but it beat the vulnerability of standing by the window while people blasted at me. “What kind of threat are we talking about?”
“Newton is a sorcerer with a knack for force spells,” Shadow replied, darting through the kitchen to what was presumably her bedroom. “He’s a clumsy brute, not the type for fine control, but nasty in a fight. Get in the way of a full-power hit from him and you’re looking at broken bones or ruptured organs.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered. Then, louder, “Is there anyone with him?”
“I didn’t see anyone,” she called back. “But I’m guessing he’ll have brought his close friends. That means a wizard who focuses on fire magic and a witch that likes to manipulate people. Maybe also a shapeshifter.”
“Freaking wonderful.” That ruled out my first impulse, which had been to jump out the window and charge them, hoping to take them by surprise. If they had two serious ranged attackers, that made that plan basically just suicide by another name. I’d been on the receiving end of serious fire magic before, and while I sincerely hoped these bozos didn’t have anything like that kind of power, it was still ugly.
A moment later Shadow returned. She’d put the mask back on, and I noticed that she was carrying a knife as well. No gun, and no magical foci that I could detect. She was either very good or very overconfident; from what I’d seen thus far it could go either way. “You about ready to go?” she asked, grinning behind the mask.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s do this.”
In the hallway, people were milling around, unsure what to do. A handful were making their way to the emergency exits; the rest seemed to have come to the quite reasonable conclusion that the emergency was outside the building, and going closer to it wouldn’t help their odds much. Snowflake and I pushed our way through. We didn’t have to push very hard; most of them took one look at us and decided of their own accord that not being close to us was a very good idea.
I took the stairs three at a time, jostling the handful of people in the stairwell. A couple of them might have fallen down; I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t take the time to care. I had to get outside soonest.
Ground floor, moving through the lobby. I could feel Snowflake, her shoulder bumping my hip every few steps, hunger and anticipation burning in the back of my mind. There were a handful of people in my way, but they didn’t slow me down. The guy behind the desk turned to stare at me as I passed. He was on the phone, probably with the cops.
Outside, the parking lot was almost empty. The sky was overcast and the sun was barely up, leaving things dim. Most of the light in the lot came from a trio of burning cars, casting deep, flickering shadows. The air stank of gasoline and burning rubber and melting plastics.
I stopped just outside the door, slinking to the right and sticking to the shadows. It was just me and Snowflake, against three mages, any of whom might have been a match for us. That meant we had to fight smart, not hard.
Of course, that would have been considerably easier if I’d known where they were. They’d done a decent job of making that hard, although it was probably unintentional. The bright, flickering light made it hard to see anything lurking in the shadows, the stench from the burning cars made tracking them by scent impossible, and the fires made the air so turbulent that trying to track their motion that way was a waste of time.
I had to do something, though, so I moved out into the lot. There were maybe a two dozen cars, with lots of open asphalt between them. I stuck close the vehicles, staying in their shadows and moving low to the ground. I could have done more to conceal myself—summon a cloud of fog, for example, or thicken the shadows around myself—but my strongest asset at the moment was that they had no way of knowing anyone was here to fight them.
I stopped and waited near the right-side edge of the lot, listening for anything that might tell me where my prey were.
Nothing. If they were making any noise, it was covered by the crackling of the fires.
And then there was another explosion from the other side of the lot, loud enough that it hurt, the force enough to send me staggering to the side. A moment later I looked around, and saw a fourth car burning.
I grinned and started making my way in that direction. I had to move across a fairly broad expanse of open ground to do so, but that was the way it was. I stayed low and scurried across as quickly as I could; between that and my cloak, it was unlikely that I would be noticed. Snowflake was still moving with me, but she was about twenty feet to my left, where we couldn’t both be hit by a single attack.
Unless it was a really big one, I supposed, but if these guys could hit that hard, we had bigger problems.
I moved closer, watching for movement. And then I saw it, a figure around twenty feet from the latest automobile victim, moving away from the burning car.
I hesitated for a moment. It was awfully suspicious to be that close to the explosion when I hadn’t seen any other people in the lot up to that point. But it wasn’t proof, not really. I didn’t know that this person had anything to do with it. They might be totally innocent.
They might be. But it didn’t seem likely. And I would only get one chance to take them by surprise. I had to make it count.
I hadn’t really been planning on a battle today, but it would have been foolish not to expect some kind of trouble, and I was carrying a decent arsenal. Knives, guns, garrotes, a variety of stored spells—I had enough kit to deal with a reasonable range of threats.
Sometimes, though, the simplest answer is the right one. Almost the instant I saw the figure, I drew a grenade from its place in my cloak, pulled the pin, and tossed it at the figure, all in a single motion. I bolted away from the car I was hiding behind a moment later, not waiting to see what happened.
A couple of seconds later, there was a boom that made the previous explosions sound pretty insignificant. I was a good forty feet away and taking cover behind another car, and that was the only thing that saved me. I’d used these grenades a fair amount, and I knew I was inside the shrapnel radius. Armor wouldn’t do jack shit to protect me, either.
In the wake of the grenade, my ears were ringing. My healing rate would ensure that they recovered quickly, but for the moment I was functionally deaf. The guy I’d thrown the grenade at might have been lying on the ground screaming at the top of his lungs, and I wouldn’t have been able to hear it at all.
Or they might be sneaking up behind me with a shotgun.
For a few seconds everything was still, as everyone involved tried to figure out where everyone else was and what was going on.
Then the car I’d been hiding behind when I threw the grenade suddenly flipped over, as swiftly and easily as a child flipping a toy car. It hit the ground with a scream of tortured metal and shattering glass that I could hear even over the ringing in my ears.
He’s still standing, Snowflake said a moment later. Looks like he threw the grenade far enough away that he only had to worry about the shrapnel, and he managed to stop it. I’m about thirty feet behind him, and he hasn’t noticed me yet.
Don’t attack, I sent back instantly. He’ll swat you out of the air before you get close.
She didn’t say anything else, but I didn’t get the impression that she was going to do something stupid right away.
A moment later another car flipped over, a little closer to me. Newton’s work, I presumed, and a little intimidating. I knew he specialized in big, flashy force magic, but that kind of display was still impressive.
I had to do something to change the game. If I kept hiding like this, eventually he would get around to the car I was hiding behind. I was tough, but I didn’t think I’d fare well if a freaking car got flipped over onto me.
So I did something that might have been a little foolhardy. I stepped out into the open space beside the car.
“Hi,” I said, loudly enough to be sure that he heard me.
There was a pause, then he stepped into view, about fifty feet in front of me. He was standing in the light of one of the burning cars, giving me my first good look at him. He was a little short, and wearing the same style of mask as….
Damn, lost my train of thought—a valuable reminder that they had a witch with them, although I doubted I was in danger on that front. I was hard to affect with mental magic. Anyway, Newton was wearing a black mask that covered his whole face, making it hard to say much more about his appearance. In any case, I was more concerned with the cloud of small objects floating around him. I saw bits of cars, chunks of asphalt, spare change even a few bits of shrapnel that had probably come from my own grenade.
Most of the force magic I’d seen had focused on pure kinetic energy, the sort of magic that only sort of interacted with the rest of the world. Newton seemed to prefer telekinesis, actually moving objects rather than just blasting things with force. It was an unusual approach in my experience, but potentially just as deadly—as evidenced by the whole “flipping cars” bit earlier.
“Hi,” he said. “You got a problem with me?”
“You started blowing things up while I was in the middle of a meeting,” I said, tensing my legs to jump aside if he attacked. “So yeah?”
There’s another one approaching from your left, Snowflake said.
I glanced that way, trying to keep it from being obvious, and saw that another mage was indeed coming closer. This one was female, judging by her body shape, but wearing the same sort of mask as Newton. Her magic smelled sharp, biting, and hot; the fire mage, most likely.
Not good. Their two serious attackers were both in play now, and they had the advantage of position on me. If they both attacked I’d be hard pressed to avoid both threats.
“So you threw a grenade at me?” Newton said, sounding amused. “Hypocrite much?”
“All the time,” I sighed. “But in this case I think it’s justified. You’re causing trouble, and it’s kind of my job to deal with that in this city.”
“Is that so?” he asked.
Then, with no warning at all, a dozen projectiles flew from the cloud around him at me, moving fast enough that they would hit more like bullets than baseballs. I managed to dodge in time to avoid being hit, but they hit the ground hard enough to shatter the pavement. If one of those things hit me, I thought it very likely that it would punch right through my armor.
He sent another wave at me, and this time I had to roll to the side to avoid being pulverized. I managed to come to my feet as I did, but almost immediately had to dive back the way I’d come when I came to close to a car and he flipped it over, trying to crush me.
To the side, I saw that the woman had her arms raised in front of her, and a ring of pale blue fire was forming between them. It was taking a while to form, but I could smell that there was a lot of power bound up in that spell.
Well, that wasn’t good. I wasn’t especially worried about Newton’s toys, but that fire spell was another story. Wizards had a reputation for being able to gather and control ridiculous amounts of magic. It took a while for them to do so, which normally meant that they weren’t really all that threatening in a fight—but at the moment I was too busy dodging to take her out quickly.
Then, before she could finish, a blur of white fur and metal teeth streaked past from my right, moving almost too swiftly to see. Snowflake leapt at the wizard, jumping through the fire, and hit her in the chest. The fire scorched her fur, adding a new and unpleasant scent to the mess already in the air, but the wizard fell hard on her back, and the fire dissipated into a gentle wave of heat.
Newton threw another wave of shrapnel at me, but this time I wasn’t content to just stand there and take it. I ran forward, ducking under the attack. He could stop anything I threw at him, which meant that grenades and most of the stored spells I was carrying were a waste of time. Tyrfing could probably cut through whatever defense he used, though, if I got close enough to use it.
His next attack was a wider cone, less focused but also a lot harder to avoid. I couldn’t dodge them all without completely sacrificing my position and momentum, so I sidestepped the worst of it and took a handful of quarters to the chest and thigh. As I’d expected, they were small enough and fast enough to penetrate the armor easily, slipping through the seams and punching into my flesh.
I was getting close now, though, and Newton was falling back, looking scared. Another masked man had appeared behind and to the side of him, presumably the witch. I almost grabbed a stored spell to throw at him as I ran, but I was distracted by a yelp from behind me and the sudden surge of pain I felt through my bond with Snowflake. I felt a rush of concern at that, with the part of my mind that could process emotion right now—she’d lost her eye under similar circumstances, and I remembered that pain with a visceral intensity that made it hard to put out of my mind.
The rest of me was still running forward. Tyrfing was in my hand and unsheathed, though I didn’t clearly remember calling it. Newton launched something larger at me this time, the mirror from a car door. I slid to the side on my next step, just a little, and batted it away with Tyrfing. I wasn’t trying to oppose his force—I wasn’t remotely strong enough for that—just redirecting it a little, knocking the mirror to the side so that it missed me by a couple of inches. I had a strong suspicion that he was about to whip it at me from behind, but I couldn’t take the time to worry about that now. I was within reach.
I slashed at him overhand, the kind of strike that starts at the shoulder and ends around the opposite hip, but he stumbled backward and the blade fell short. I didn’t slow down, taking a step forward and bringing Tyrfing back around at about his knee level.
He reached out with power, trying to tear the weapon out of my hand, but Tyrfing could slice through magic as easily as material objects, and it was hard for him to get a grip on the sword. He could slow my attack, but not stop it. He moved a chunk of asphalt into position to block the strike, but Tyrfing sliced through it and kept going.
His attempts did some good, I had to give him that. The blade was moving slower when it hit his shin than I’d wanted, and as a result it only cut to the bone rather than chopping the limb off completely. Blood still started pouring out of it almost instantly, and he fell.
I grinned. He wasn’t going to be walking on that leg any time soon, never mind running away. I stepped closer, raising the sword for the finishing blow.
And then I suddenly realized that my real target was still standing. My gaze snapped to the witch and I snarled, suddenly remembering how much I hated it when people screwed with my head. This bastard used that kind of magic, and if I gave him half a chance he’d use it on me. The peculiar mix of anger, bloodlust and excitement that I always felt when I was using Tyrfing sharpened suddenly, focusing on the witch, and I was grinning as I ran at him.
Suddenly I pitched sideways, pain screaming through me. My left leg didn’t want to work properly, and I tripped the next time I tried to step, hitting the ground and rolling.
It wasn’t until I smelled roasting flesh that I remembered the wizard. Sloppy of me, but there was just so much to keep track of that she’d fallen through the cracks. And anyway, taking out the witch was a much higher priority. I looked back at him and forced myself to my feet, snarling through the pain.
And, thus, I was in a perfect position to see a fourth masked figure materialize behind him. It was the oddest thing; the second I saw her, I realized that I’d watched the whole time as she calmly walked up behind him, knife in hand. I just hadn’t recognized it or paid attention to it.
Suddenly I understood exactly what Shadow’s particular talent was.
She swung at his throat the second she became visible, but somehow he managed to dodge in time, and she caught his shoulder instead. He cried out in pain, and the magic clouding my mind broke, letting me focus on other things.
For example, I could focus on the fact that the fiery wizard was still active behind me, and she’d made a pretty decent attempt at cooking me. Given the chance, and with me standing still, I thought she’d probably do better next time.
I spun around, and sure enough she was around fifty feet straight behind me, with more fire gathered around her hands. I instantly pulled another grenade out and chucked it at her, not even bothering to pull the pin first.
She reacted just as fast, instinctively blasting it with fire. Those grenades were designed to be stable, but this went well beyond what it had been intended to handle. It went off.
I hit the deck in time to avoid most of the shrapnel, and I’d been far enough away to avoid the worst of the actual explosion. I picked up some more bruises, but nothing serious. She looked unharmed, but she’d also lost the spell she was planning to immolate me with. Overall, it was a wash.
The wizard looked at me, then at Shadow, who had just withdrawn her knife from the witch’s shoulder. Behind the wizard, I could see that Snowflake was picking herself up. She was a little singed, and she was still a little dazed from whatever had taken her out of the fight to begin with, but she didn’t seem harmed.
Outflanked, with Newton down for the count and bleeding from several bite wounds, the wizard apparently felt that her position wasn’t as good as it had been a few minutes earlier. She bolted, torching another pair of cars behind her to cover her escape. The witch did similarly, taking another slash from Shadow as he did so. I turned to check on Newton but the force mage was already putting distance between us. I’d been right that he couldn’t run, but apparently that didn’t stop him from levitating a chunk of asphalt and using it to carry himself.
I debated chasing one of them, but decided against it. I thought we’d come out on top in that encounter, generally, but I was still injured. Better to let them go, deal with Shadow, and catch up to the rest of the gang later.
“Okay,” I said, sheathing Tyrfing. “That was fun.”
“You aren’t going to ask what I was doing?” Shadow asked lightly. I noticed that she didn’t sheathe her knife.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I already know. Your magic makes people not notice you, right? You aren’t invisible, they can see you just fine, but there’s a block that keeps them from consciously recognizing or remembering you. I figure you turned that on the second I was out of your apartment and followed me out, waiting for a chance to take out one of us without being killed by the counterattack. That about right?”
She glowered at me. “About.”
I grinned. “Cool. Nice trick, by the way. So do you want to continue that conversation we were having? I could go for some breakfast.”
“What’s stopping me from just disappearing and walking off?”
I grinned a little wider, a little more manic. She would hear it in my voice, even if she couldn’t see my face. “I am,” I said. “You can hide from me. We both know it. But if you do that now, right after I bailed you out of that mess, I’d think it was rude. And we both know that you can’t keep your concealment up indefinitely. If I bring everything I’ve got to bear on you, you won’t last long.”
“Are you threatening me?” she asked. “I just want to know where we stand.”
“Nah. I don’t need to threaten you. The way I see it, your crew just declared mutiny with style, and you haven’t exactly made a lot of friends with your lifestyle. Your former associates are going to want your head, and the other factions aren’t going to be terribly supportive in your time of need. Like it or not, Shadow, I’m the only game in town right now.”
She glowered at me, then sighed and pulled the mask off. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s get some breakfast.”