As it turned out, I was wrong.
The reality could be a lot worse than vague fears.
It had taken almost an hour for the person we were waiting for to arrive. I wanted to call them a man, but I wasn’t entirely sure the term applied; they looked like an anorexic teenager who was way too fond of body modification. Not just a little bit, either; their face was warped out of shape until it was as close to a cat as a human, one of their ears was completely gone and the other had a hole in it I could fit two fingers through, and one cheek had gaping holes in it, letting me see their jaw moving up and down as they chewed bubblegum. They wore their trench coat open, the better to show the mass of scars, piercings, and subdermal implants covering their torso.
Calling someone human who so enthusiastically left humanity behind seemed almost rude. To pin them down to one gender or another was an assumption I couldn’t confidently make.
“Hey,” they said, walking up to us. “Guessing you two are the pickup I’m supposed to get to the front?”
“That’s us,” I confirmed.
“Cool,” they said. “Gotta fag? I haven’t had anything to smoke all day.”
“Sorry,” I said. “No.”
They grunted and turned to Aiko. “What about you? Anything?”
She shook her head. “I don’t smoke,” she said.
They frowned, the expression made darkly comic by the way I could see their muscles moving inside their face. “That’s not an answer,” they chided. ”Don’t like it when people dodge around questions.”
“Sorry,” she said, sounding somewhat exasperated. “Didn’t realize it was such a touchy subject for you. I don’t have anything to offer you.”
They grunted again. “Damn. Ran out yesterday, and the pills they’re handing out just don’t cut it. Come here, then. Let’s get this over with.”
They moved us into a domain I’d never seen before, a vast dim space that stank of smoke and gasoline fumes, filled with the noise of constantly grinding machines half-seen in the darkness. It was so loud that it was hard to think, impossible to talk, the noise a physical pressure against me. The acrid stench of the place was offensive, nearly toxic; I started coughing with the first breath I took, and didn’t stop. Worse than all the rest, though, was the inexplicable certainty that this place was alive, that the domain itself was aware and, if not precisely malicious, certainly alien, hostile simply by being so very far removed from anything we had ever been designed for.
Our escort seemed quite at home there. I tried not to think too hard about that.
And then we stepped out of that mechanical hell, onto the highway south of Saint Petersburg.
On the whole, I thought I might have preferred the Otherside.
My first impression was one of madness. It was the middle of the night, and while the moon was full, the cloud cover got in the way, made it darker than it might have been. It smelled like smoke, a mix of woodsmoke and nastier things, scorched rubber and burning hair. The noise of battle was quieter than the Otherside had been, but still distracting, confusing and disorienting.
The instant we appeared, we were attacked. The creatures attacking us were humanoid, sort of, but they looked even less human than our escort. Their limbs were too long, twisted in odd directions and tipped with claws, their skin an ashen grey that looked unnatural even in the darkness. They had glowing red eyes, literally.
Two of them jumped me, one swinging a crowbar, another just clawing at me. Another one tackled Aiko to the ground and started trying to bite her. The last of the group rammed what looked like a sharpened golf club into our escort’s chest. It was placed for a lung shot, and given that they were wearing their coat open, there was nothing stopping it from punching into their flesh.
They looked down at it and sighed. “Bastard,” they said. “You’re supposed to still be a quarter mile back.”
Then they reached up and pulled the piece of metal out of their torso. No blood emerged from the hole it left behind. A fluid did dribble out, but it was thick and black, more like oil than blood, and there was no real pressure behind it.
They slammed the golf club into the pavement we were standing on, accompanying it with a burst of magic, scented with car exhaust and gasoline, burning rubber and hot asphalt, and just a hint, a touch, of motor oil. The typical human scent of disinfectant was all but lost in that.
And the asphalt reacted to the magic, moving to their will. It lashed out at our attackers, moving with a speed and fluidity that startled, and pulled them to the ground, even pulling the one off Aiko without actually touching her. Once they were lying on the road they were pulled down into the pavement and crushed.
“Not in the forest anymore,” the mage muttered. “Bloody stupid bastard. This is my kind of place.”
I looked at them with new respect. “That,” I said, “is one of the stranger pieces of magic I’ve seen.”
They grinned, a lopsided sort of grin that showed teeth only through the hole in their face. “You should spend more time with urban druids,” they said. “You might learn some things. Now come on, our command post is this way.”
They led us up a nearby hill to where another tent had been set up, along with some floodlights. People were spaced regularly around the perimeter of the lighted area, maybe eighty percent of them carrying assault rifles, the last twenty armed with more exotic weaponry.
They didn’t challenge us. I wasn’t sure whether we were expected, or it was our escort that got us by the defensive line. Or maybe it was just that, for maybe the first time I’d ever seen, everyone was on the same side here.
A small table was set up within the tent, a large map spread across it. The map was marked with a mixture of colored pins and tape; I wasn’t sure what any of it meant. The only person in the tent was a man in a plain white robe, carrying a long wooden staff.
“Prophet,” I said, eyeing him. I’d only met him once before, and it hadn’t left the best impression. When people vote for your execution, it tends to have that effect.
“Jarl,” he replied. “A moment. Metro, do you have anything to report?”
“Not really,” our escort said. “Things are getting pretty close, though. My input point was overrun.”
“I know,” he said. “They’re traveling faster on the road than we anticipated. Try to slow them down if you can.”
They nodded to him and walked away, spitting their gum out on the ground and pulling another stick out of their pocket.
“Not terribly useful at the moment,” Prophet said, watching them go with cool grey eyes. “But she’ll be key to our defenses if the fighting reaches Saint Petersburg.”
“Is her name seriously Metro?” I asked. “Because that seems like a ridiculous name.”
Prophet smiled thinly. “I would think it would be easy to recognize that Metro would not keep the name she was born with.” He then looked back to the map on the table. “Watcher has great confidence in your ability to contribute in this battle,” he said. “I do not. I will not bother giving you instructions, as it is a waste of my time and you will not listen anyway.”
“Great,” I said dryly. “You mind at least telling me what we’re fighting?”
He pointed behind me without looking up. I turned around to look where he was pointing, and then gulped.
The funny thing was that I’d already seen it. I just hadn’t quite grasped what it meant.
The cloud was hard to see in the dark; there wasn’t much light to begin with, so the area where there was none was harder to distinguish. But once he’d pointed it out to me, I realized what I was looking at.
The effect was maybe a mile across and half that in height, a broad dome shape through which light simply didn’t pass. Anna couldn’t see the ground on the other side, or the skyline. Even the moon was blocked, invisible when the supernatural darkness got between her and it. The leading edge of the effect was still over a mile away, but it was moving steadily towards our position.
I frowned, and shifted my consciousness out, into my surroundings. I skipped over a handful of wolves, a dormant brown bear, and what felt like some kind of seal before settling on an owl. I asked her to swoop in and take a look, and found a surprising amount of resistance. I might not know what was going on, but she had an idea, and she wanted nothing to do with it.
Eventually I managed to convince her, although she wouldn’t go close to it, let alone into the area of darkness. It didn’t matter. I was still able to get a decent look at things.
The edge of the darkness was the site of maybe the most intense fighting I’d ever seen. Most of the combatants were the same warped humanoids Metro had taken out, although there were quite a few things that had four legs but were otherwise similar in appearance. There were a lot of them, more than I could really grasp. I could only see a small section of the fight, and I still estimated that there were probably more than a hundred thousand of them there.
Fighting them was a force that would have been terrifying under almost any other circumstances, but which was simply overshadowed by the sheer numbers being brought to bear against them. I could see werewolves, whole packs of werewolves fighting as a unit to hold down a section of the line. In another spot, the three vampires I’d brought in from Romania were crushing the twisted creatures like they were made of cardboard, sometimes felling a dozen of them with a single blow. It didn’t seem to matter. There was always another dozen ready to go.
Further back, away from the close-quarters combat, were all manner of ranged attacker. There were mages, of course, using every kind of power imaginable and quite a few that I couldn’t identify at all. In another location what looked like an entire battalion of soldiers were shooting into the thick of things without apparent concern for friend and foe. This wasn’t small arms fire, or sniper rifles; far from it. They were spraying indiscriminately with assault rifles, and when the guns ran empty, they reloaded and kept shooting. I saw at least one truck-mounted machine gun.
After a moment, though, I realized there was something odd about the fight. No one went into that area of unnatural darkness. The most blood-mad werewolf, chasing his prey beneath the light of a full moon, turned away when it ran under the cover of that darkness. When it moved forward and buried one of the few close-range mages, his comrades abandoned him without a second thought, fleeing at full speed.
That was about all I could get before the owl got absolutely fed up with me and went back to her nest, a safe distance from the warzone.
I frowned and tried to move to something within the area of the darkness.
Nothing. Not just nothing I could use. I literally couldn’t feel anything, not so much as a rodent in the whole of the area.
I returned to my body and opened my eyes, then frowned and shifted part of my attention back to Anna’s senses. Blindness was really getting old.
Prophet was still looking at the map. I was pretty sure he was doing something important, but I needed more information, so I decided to interrupt him.
“Where are the monsters coming from?” I asked.
He didn’t look up. “The first thing he did after the gods lifted their restrictions was go to the mass graves from the Battle of Stalingrad. He’s added some more since, but we think most of them are still from there.”
“Wait,” I said. “He raised the dead? We’re talking about a literal necromancer?”
“Not precisely,” Prophet said. “Raising the dead is impossible. We call them necromancers, but that isn’t entirely accurate. Mages such as this have power over life, not death. There just happens to be enough lingering life in corpses to provide them with something to work with.”
I opened my mouth, then paused as I realized something. There had been no animals in the area of darkness. What if that was because there was nothing alive in that area, except Viktor?
“Blood magic,” I said. “He’s using blood magic. Taking the life from everything near him and using it to power his magic.”
Prophet looked up at me like I’d done something interesting for the first time. “Correct,” he said. “Right down to the bacteria. That’s why this is so problematic. He’s got enough stolen life to recover from anything we can do to him. His creatures aren’t much threat, but he can bring them back as fast as we can put them down. Everyone he takes makes him that much stronger. Now, if you don’t mind I do have work to do here, so if you can’t be useful, at least be silent.”
I thought for about ten seconds, trying to find something I could do. I wasn’t coming up with much. He was almost invincible, insanely powerful, and surrounded by a cloud of death that would probably wipe me out within a couple of seconds. I only had a couple of weapons that could plausibly even hit him, and none of those was likely to do any good when everything they’d thrown at him thus far had failed.
I reached a decision, and then hesitated a few seconds more, trying to talk myself out of it.
Fuck it. This wasn’t a time for small guns.
“Loki,” I said. “Loki, Loki, Loki. I have a question for you.”
“Yes?” he said to me. I’d turned around the instant after I spoke, so naturally this time he showed up in front of me.
I turned back to face him, scowling. “You know what’s happening here,” I stated.
“Of course,” he said. “It’s quite interesting. I really thought this was over when the military carpet bombed him. Evidently he was further along in his ascension at the time than I realized. An odd miscalculation on my part. I wonder whether he’s drawing power from another source as well, something to supplement the lives he steals?”
“Whatever,” I said. “Priorities. How do I stop him?”
“Is that your question?” he asked, pacing around me. Aiko was watching warily, standing at a safe distance. Anna didn’t seem to realize the danger, and stood right next to me.
“You said I didn’t have to worry about exact phrasing,” I reminded him. “So yeah. Tell me what I need to do to deal with this.”
“The obvious answer is that you need to kill him,” Loki said, circling a little closer now. “But that would be unsporting. The next answer is that you need to kill him quickly enough that he can’t heal. That’s slightly more informative, but doesn’t really provide a useful how-to guide. While I could tell you what the most efficient ways to solve the problem are, I know for a fact that you won’t pursue any of them, which makes the suggestion somewhat disingenuous. So instead, I think I’ll say this.”
He then stepped forward, quick as lightning, his hand reaching out to my arm. He reached through my armor and the clothing beneath it like they weren’t even there, and opened a long, shallow cut in my arm with nothing more than the touch of his finger.
When he pulled his hand out again, it was dripping with my blood. “My name is Winter Wolf-Born, jarl of the Peak,” he said. His voice was a perfect mimicry of my own, right down to the sound of wolves and wind hidden beneath the surface, replacing the mad laughter that usually lurked under his voice. “By this offering of my blood, I call on the Wild Hunt to ride beside me. I call myself the Lord of the Hunt this night, and let my life be forfeit if I am not so great a hunter as this.”
I opened my mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean, then felt an odd, familiar sort of tickling sensation. I looked down and saw pale fog forming around my armor, bringing with it a dusting of frost.
“You asked how to stop him,” Loki whispered in my ear, leaning close as a lover beside me. “My answer? Think hungry thoughts.”