Had I been alone, I would quite likely have died in the first few seconds of the fight. I was in rough shape, and my reflexes were slowed by injury and exhaustion. I was guessing the leader of the rakshasas could literally tear me to shreds if he got those claws on me, and I wasn’t going to be doing much to stop him.
Kikuchi, on the other hand, was still fresh, and he hadn’t gotten his position by being nice and persuasive. Before the rakshasas had taken three steps he was right up in their faces, fighting three or four of them at least and making it look easy. He was fast, faster than me, but more than that he was good. He had the skill to make every action count, moving just enough to get the job done, and often serving multiple purposes with a given movement. He moved out of the way of one attack and it also put him into place to strike another rakshasa from behind; he moved into the swing to put power behind it, and it put him just beyond the reach of a third attacker.
The other two tengu spread out to fight the rakshasas attacking from the sides, from behind us. They weren’t as good as Kikuchi, not by a long shot, but they were still deadly quick and skilled. They were holding their own against several rakshasas, not winning, but not obviously losing either.
It gave me enough time to think for a second, anyway, and that was enough to save me for the moment. My first priority was getting back to the group. Kjaran and the two kitsune would be able to contribute a great deal here, and I needed the help.
I’d come loaded for a serious fight, this time. I hated to do it, hated to burn through my very limited resources, but it wouldn’t do me much good to have my arsenal if I got killed here. So I reached into a pair of pouches I was carrying on my belt, grabbing handfuls of the tiny glass spheres inside, and then threw them into the crowd of rakshasas.
These particular toys were one of my newer ones, something that Jimmy had worked up. He didn’t have much in the way of a talent for making things with his magic, certainly not enough to bind the kinds of power I was accustomed to working with into his creations. In a way, though, that had been an advantage for these. They were easy to make, taking him maybe half an hour each once he’d gotten the hang of them, and the fact that they were less impressive also meant that they could be used at closer range without needing to worry.
I threw maybe twenty of the things into the front ranks of the rakshasas, and I threw them hard. Some of them hit armor, or they hit the pavement, and the glass shattered. As each one broke, it went off like a large firecracker or a small bomb, a sudden burst of heat and force. Where they were packed together, and I’d thrown enough of the things that they mostly were, each one that detonated managed to break others, triggering something of a chain reaction.
Individually, the explosions weren’t that impressive. They wouldn’t have killed a normal human, or probably even hurt that much. But there were a lot of them, and it added up.
The front rank of rakshasas pulled up short, screeching in pain and surprise. Several of them stumbled or fell, and even the ones that didn’t were slowed, burned or blinded.
The creatures pressing against them from behind had no such handicap, and kept running at full speed. Suddenly rakshasas were tripping over each other, falling to the ground in tangle of limbs, which naturally just slowed the next group even more.
I glanced around as they were trying to recover, making sure that I wasn’t about to get mauled from behind. Kikuchi was still handling his side of things admirably, holding off close to a dozen rakshasas on his own. I noticed that he was avoiding engaging their leader, though, and I had a strong suspicion that the creatures he was fighting were cannon fodder, sent to die in hopes of just tiring him out a bit.
The other two tengu weren’t faring as well. To my right, the rakshasas were pressing closer, pushing the tengu back. The bird-man was bleeding from a gash on his right thigh. It wasn’t a light injury; blood was running freely down his leg, splattering the ground with every step. It was the sort of wound that could easily kill if left unchecked, and we didn’t exactly have time to fix it.
The other tengu, to my left, was doing even worse, bleeding in several places and surrounded by enemies. As I watched he went down under a warped mass of fur and claws that looked something like the mutated offspring of a tiger and a grizzly, with a little bit of kangaroo thrown in for style.
I turned in that direction, drawing Tyrfing. There was no question of saving the tengu that had just gone down. After a second or two under that rakshasa, I was basically certain that he wasn’t going to be getting back up. But we couldn’t afford to let that flank collapse; if they could move in and surround us, getting between us, we’d be done.
That meant I had to handle fully half of the circle, keeping the rakshasas out. Under normal circumstances I’d have said I had a passable, but not great, chance of doing that. I was more than a match for most of these things, from what I’d seen, but they had numbers, and I wasn’t really that great at dealing with large groups.
Now? Things were…not looking so great. I was in bad shape, moving slowly, and I knew I couldn’t take anything like the damage I normally could before going down. Unless I handled this just right, things were about to get ugly.
I turned and charged them, roaring and waving the sword around like a maniac. The rakshasas turned to face me, many of them snarling and brandishing weapons or claws, several of them falling back a step or two. I pulled back after a short rush, though, well out of their reach. I was really just doing it to make them hesitate while I repositioned, moving into a position closer to the center of the area I was now supposed to be dealing with.
To the side I started to hear gunfire, carefully spaced bursts. That would Aiko and Kimiko, I was guessing, and I knew from experience that they were both quite good shots. This was nothing like the spray-and-pray fire my people had employed against the vampires.
The first of the rakshasas were starting to get their feet under them again after I’d tripped them up and burned them. The other rakshasas, the ones that hadn’t been knocked down, were starting to press in again. I brandished Tyrfing again, screaming incoherently, but they didn’t seem inclined to slow.
I glanced at the tengu, barely visible under the rakshasa ripping at him. Sorry about this, I thought. But you’re done anyway.
Then I plucked a grenade from my cloak, pulling the pin and tossing it in one motion.
I threw it a fair ways, behind the enemy. Most of them didn’t seem to have any idea what I’d just done, which I supposed made sense. They weren’t exactly natives of this world, after all. There was no particular reason they should be afraid of grenades, and they weren’t. They just kept advancing.
That changed a few seconds later, when the explosive went off. The force of the explosion made them stagger towards me, off balance, and knocked a couple off their feet entirely, but that was nothing compared to the real damage. That came from the shrapnel, hundreds of tiny pieces of metal propelled into them from behind.
I’d put the grenade far enough away that I wasn’t affected much, the force not noticeably worse than a moderate headwind, the shrapnel absorbed by the layers of rakshasas in between. In the moment of opportunity that afforded I charged forward again, and this time I didn’t stop before I reached them.
Tyrfing came down and cut cleanly through the first rakshasa’s spine, almost chopping the thing in half from shoulder to hip. I wrenched the sword back out and the thing fell, giving me room to keep cutting, wide slashes that opened bloody gashes in their flesh or lopped limbs off entirely. I wasn’t trying to put any one of them down, so much as I wanted to hurt a lot of them, debilitating them and keeping their attention firmly focused on me.
Of course, that had the entirely predictable effect that they were attacking me, and not just a little. They came at me with fists, claws, axes and blades, and I wasn’t exactly in a great position to be defending myself. The grenade, coupled with the sheer brutality of my initial attack, bought me a bit of time and space to work with, but I was still dangerously vulnerable.
My armor did a lot to mitigate the damage, and I managed to fight through the rest, ignoring it. It was a hindrance, don’t get me wrong; the injuries made me slower, weaker, clumsier. But I forced myself to keep moving anyway, keep fighting.
That lasted for maybe four or five seconds, until one of the less humanoid rakshasas got its claws on me. They hadn’t been having much luck penetrating the armor to that point, and maybe this one realized that, because it took a different tack. Rather than try to slash at me, it put one claw on either side of my torso and squeezed, crushing me between them.
I can ignore a lot of pain. More than is healthy, really.
Having my already-broken ribs squeezed by four hundred pounds of superhuman muscle?
That was a bit much even for me. Tyrfing hit the ground, and I’d have screamed if I could get the breath for it.
A moment later I found myself being flung through the air for the second time in the past day.
The rakshasa didn’t—couldn’t, probably—throw me anywhere near as hard as Katrin had. When the vampire had done it I’d flown through the air like a fastball, and hit a wall hard enough to break bones. This was more of a lob, and while I did still fly into a wall, it was more of a gentle slap than the crushing impact of earlier.
Not that it mattered too much. My ribcage had been in bad shape already, and that squeeze had been hellish. It hurt to breathe, and sitting up was almost beyond me, even with a wall to lean against. That rakshasa’s attack hadn’t been all that impressive, really, but it had been almost perfect for exacerbating the injuries I already had.
Looking at the fight, I wasn’t sure whether what I’d done had made enough of a difference or not. The kitsune were putting a lot of bullets downrange, and some of the rakshasas were obviously suffering for it, bleeding or stumbling. Kjaran had also reached the crowd, and was currently laying waste.
Kjaran was the odd duck of my housecarls, in a great many ways, and one of those was showing up now. He wasn’t all that great of a fighter, not that skilled, not that quick. But he was insanely strong even by jötnar standards, and in this situation, up against a crowd of brutes even less skilled than he was, that was enough to tip the scale.
He was carrying an oversized club that one of the rakshasas had dropped, and swinging it in wide arcs, crushing rakshasas and tossing them aside with each motion. Occasionally one of them got close enough to tag him, and I was pretty sure he’d taken a couple of rounds from the kitsune, but he didn’t seem to care. His sheer bulk made the wounds almost inconsequential by comparison, the equivalent of taking a knife to a grizzly, and he was stoic enough to just not care about them.
Kikuchi had also fallen back a few steps, until he was standing beside the other tengu. The two of them were a marvel to watch, every movement perfectly in sync with each other. It was beautiful, more like ballet than a fight to the death. The contrast with Kjaran was…impressive, although I wasn’t sure who was winning that particular contest. The tengu were beautiful to watch, but the jotun was dominating the battlefield.
Regardless, one thing that was certain was that the fight was going better for us than the rakshasas had anticipated. They’d caught us by surprise and they’d had the advantage of position, but now that we’d weathered the initial onslaught, things weren’t going so great for them. They weren’t having much luck cracking Kikuchi’s defenses, Kjaran was demolishing their weaker soldiers, and they’d only managed to take one of us out of the fight permanently. I supposed they could turn and come at me next, but I was a good distance away. To hit me in any kind of numbers they’d have to turn their backs to the tengu and the giant, and I didn’t think that was a very good idea.
So naturally that was when they chose to change the nature of the game.
All at once, around half of the rakshasas still standing seemed to disappear. I could tell that they weren’t actually gone—I could still smell that spice-scented magic, and I could feel the disturbance in the air when they moved, sort of—but for all practical purposes they were invisible.
I noticed that the ones still standing were all those that looked more human, less monstrous, and cursed myself. I’d thought that Kikuchi was avoiding their leader earlier, but it had been the other way around. This whole time the stronger rakshasas had been biding their time, waiting for the opportunity to strike and make it count, and they’d just seen it.
I tried to track them, but it was hard. Following somebody by keeping track of the air they displaced when they moved was hard enough when it was calm and I was feeling good. At the moment I was a mess, physically and mentally, and there were a lot of people moving around, making it hard to get a read on things.
I pushed myself to my feet, leaning heavily against the wall, and lifted Tyrfing again. I knew it was a waste of time, though. It was almost impossible to fight back when you couldn’t see the thing you were fighting, and in the state I was in I wasn’t going to be intimidating much of anyone.
They weren’t coming after me, though. A moment later a deep wound appeared on Kjaran’s leg, slicing halfway through his leg at the back of the knee. Blood poured out and he hit the ground instantly, but he didn’t make a sound, and he didn’t stop. On the contrary, the injury seemed to provoke even more ridiculous heights of strength from the giant. He lashed out with that club two-handed in a broad semicircle, and I could hear the crunch of impact from where I was standing.
I was guessing he’d hit more than one of them, but only one appeared, flying through the air. The side of its chest was crushed in almost to its spine, and its arm was flopping around like a length of rope, it had been broken in so many places.
I stared. With damage like that, no wonder it couldn’t maintain its invisibility. Even for a rakshasa, that blow must have been almost instantly lethal.
They wouldn’t have stopped there, though, and Kjaran didn’t seem to be taking any more hits. I followed the direction of travel the rakshasas must have taken, looking past the giant to the two kitsune.
Just in time to see Aiko lifted into the air and thrown by an invisible force. They’d learned how to deal with our armor, it seemed. They couldn’t penetrate it, couldn’t cut it, but they were strong and the armor didn’t make the person inside any tougher.
Aiko was lighter than I was, and the throw was correspondingly harder. She hit streetlight hard, and the way her body wrapped around the pole made me terrified that this throw had done what I’d thought Katrin’s had, and broken her back.
A moment later, before I could so much as take a step, a set of holes appeared in Kimiko’s abdomen. It was the strangest thing; I couldn’t see the rakshasa that had done the damage, but the injury itself was easily visible, meaning that I could clearly see inside her as it happened. Five holes, evenly spaced in a way that suggested a claw, and they punched deep enough that I could see them punching into her intestine. Kimiko cried out and doubled over, almost falling.
The wounds started to bleed a couple of seconds later, suggesting that the claws had been removed. It wasn’t a whole lot of blood; the claws were narrow. It didn’t matter. Her intestines were clearly perforated, in multiple places, and that was the kind of injury that killed slowly, painfully, and reliably. It was an ugly, ugly way to die, and even in a working hospital there wasn’t necessarily all that much they could do about it.
The leader of the rakshasas appeared next to her, still in his monstrous form. He was holding her up with one claw, but he waved at us with the other, sending droplets of blood flying.
Then he picked Kimiko up and slung her over his shoulder, eliciting a scream of agony from the kitsune. He took off down the road, moving at a pace that I doubted I could match even if I were in good shape. Snowflake could probably have caught him, but she wasn’t going to be doing any running any time soon.
Well, that went bad quickly.