I was grinning as I ran through the forest. It was wide, predatory sort of grin, but strangely enough it was the product of actual entertainment, rather than aggression. This situation was horrible, in every way, but at least it was clear. I knew what I wanted to do. There was no politicking to deal with, no worries for the long-term consequences of every move, every word.
There was just killing the people between me and Aiko, until there was no one left to kill.
The forest was thick and trackless. Almost none of the moonlight penetrated the thick canopy overhead, leaving the ground pitch black. That was fine; I could smell my way forward, I could choose my path based upon how the air felt as it moved through the branches and brushed against my skin.
Something rushed at me with a spear from the side, counting on my blindness to cover its approach. It was utterly silent, but I could smell the thick, heavy reek of swamp coming off it, and I could feel the air parting before it. I turned just as it came within reach and started to thrust at me, and Tyrfing flicked out to take its head off. I kept running, barely even breaking stride.
The next creature dropped out of a tree as I passed underneath. This one genuinely did surprise me; I had smelled it, and felt it in the air, but I’d thought it a piece of the tree. It smelled like sap and wood, and it moved like a branch swaying in the wind. Even when it hit me, it was like being hit with a living tree.
It slammed into my armor, and wood splintered and shattered against the metal. The transmitted force of the blow cracked a rib, but I still came out considerably better in the exchange. The wooden thing jerked back as it broke itself against the steel, screaming with a sound like a piece of lumber fed into a wood chipper.
I elbowed it hard, knocking it the rest of the way off of me, and turned to stab it while it was down. I might as well not have bothered, though; Katsunaga was already there, putting one of his knives through its throat. The screaming stopped instantly, and the knife came out dripping thick red sap. Kuzunoha was holding her katana in both hands before herself, and it was dripping fluid with a wide variety of scents and consistencies, though I hadn’t noticed her getting into a fight.
The two kitsune moved beside me as I continued to run. Kyra and Snowflake were running in circles around us, now in front, now behind, now slipping between us on the way from one to the other before turning sideways. I was moving fast now, much faster than a normal human, but they still put me to shame.
More creatures were attacking now, and I wasn’t bothering to pay attention to their nature. They were fae; that was all I needed to know. Tyrfing cut broad arcs through, laying them on the ground in pieces. Kuzunoha’s sword moved faster and with a great deal more precision, picking out vital targets rather than slashing through the crowd indiscriminately. Katsunaga was even faster, his knives moving in a blur. He stabbed and slashed like an angry cat, all aggression and offense, not letting up enough for the enemy to get their bearings and counterattack. Whenever he had a breath between enemies he threw a knife into the crowd, with the same inhuman precision and power as before. One of them slit a throat on its way past to sink into an eye socket. It was the throw of a lifetime for any human, but barely more impressive than average for the kitsune.
I wasn’t sure how long he could keep that up, even with all the knives he’d been carrying. Then I happened to glance at one of the corpses, and realized the knife was gone, just an empty hole left behind. Of course he didn’t have to worry about running out of knives. He was a seven-tail.
The fighting wasn’t particularly intense, but it was incessant, almost every step seeing a new enemy. We slowed from a run to a jog, and then to a walk, not because we were tired, but because we had to stop every couple of seconds to kill something.
Some part of me wondered whether Scáthach would run out of minions at some point, or they would lose their morale. The rest knew it was a waste of time to even ask. She was a Faerie Queen; she had an army, and they would rather die than court her displeasure.
We had already put probably a hundred of them on the ground, though, and in some ways it was actually helping us. Most of them burned where iron touched them, bursting into bright pale fire that didn’t spread to the grass or trees, and didn’t seem to give off any heat. Between the various burning corpses, the forest was bright as day, if rather more garishly colored. All of the pyres were bright and pale, but beyond that the colors varied wildly.
Snowflake and Kyra had given up even bothering to bite them. It was more efficient to just run through the crowd, knocking them to the ground and slamming into them with the steel armor. It didn’t actually set them afire unless it cut into them, apparently, but it left them rolling around on the ground in agony, easy prey for the slower members of the group.
We were winning. Undeniably, we were winning. We’d put whole swathes of the fae down, and as far as I could tell none of us was even scratched beyond my cracked rib.
But these were cannon fodder, and every one that we took the time to kill was time for the real defenses to be initiated and strengthened. It didn’t matter that we were slaughtering them in droves; this wasn’t the real threat, and every moment we spent here made that threat harder to deal with.
I grimaced and threw myself forward, into the middle of the crowd. I lashed out around myself with Tyrfing. Flaming blood sprayed out all around me, thick and blueish, and that entire group of the fae went down. But almost instantly more of them pressed in around me, filling in the narrow window of space I’d cleared for myself. It reminded me of scooping a cup of water out of a lake; you could take out a cupful, but it won’t take long for the lake to even itself out again.
Which, in turn, gave me an idea.
“You can handle ice, right?” I asked the kitsune, between strokes. It was surprisingly hard to come up with the words; I had to grope for them, struggle to associate meanings to sounds.
“Sure,” Katsunaga said, throwing another knife. The blade flicked past not three inches from my nose and slid into a throat, putting another of the fae on the ground.
“Good,” I said, and reached out for the cold inherent in my blood. It came slower than usual, more reluctant to answer my call, but I pushed harder and brought it forth, covering the grass in frost. Then I sheathed Tyrfing and started walking carefully forward.
Snowflake and Kyra had the right idea, although I was too out of it to realize that in the moment. This wasn’t a fight, not really. They couldn’t beat us, and beating them won us nothing. This was a delaying tactic, a distraction, an annoyance. Every second that we spent fighting them was a victory for the real enemy.
So I stopped fighting them, and just walked through them. They kept throwing themselves at me, but they couldn’t get much leverage on the slick ground. Even when they did reach me and manage an attack, they couldn’t get much purchase on the armor; it was too hard, too slick, and above all else, too steel.
I ignored them completely and kept moving.
Only a few minutes after I changed my tactics, the trees started thinning out. I quickened my pace, almost running again. It should have been slick, with the frost under my feet, but it wasn’t. If anything it made it easier, since the frost made it slightly harder for the fae to get underfoot.
From a distance it had seemed as though the forest led right up to the base of the mountain, but as it turned out there was close to a hundred feet of open space in between.
I stopped and stared in dismay as I saw that space now.
It was filled, from a few feet in front of me to the base of the mountain, and as far as could be seen in either direction, with monsters.
Out in the moonlight again, I could see them more clearly. There were trolls and Sidhe, shadowy wisps that seemed almost more visual artifacts than anything, barghests and great cats with jaws that dripped flame. Ogres dotted the ranks here and there, ten-foot-tall monstrosities that could have picked me up in one hand. And finally, on the opposite side of the open area, was a giant. Not a jotun, but a true, Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-style giant.
I looked at the massive creature, and then I looked up. And up.
Fifty feet tall if it was an inch, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the actual figure was closer to a hundred. It was fully as tall as the cliff behind it, the beginning of the mountain. It looked unreal, inconceivable; my brain refused to process it on a basic level. This thing wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. It could pick up an elephant in one hand. It could have given a blue whale a run for its money in sheer size. If it stepped on a building, the building would break. There was just no way this thing could actually exist. Everything I knew about the laws of physics said it shouldn’t be possible.
But this was the Otherside, and here the laws of physics were more guidelines than hard rules. Guidelines which, with the power of a Faerie Queen, could be ignored entirely.
Kyra and Snowflake caught up to me, and both of them stared out over the field for a long moment.
Wow, Snowflake said at last. That’s big. That’s…really, really big. I feel a lot less confident all of a sudden.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m with you.” I stared at the giant some more. “Normally I would aim for the knee against something bigger than me,” I said conversationally. “But I can’t reach that thing’s knees. I’m not sure I can even reach its ankle.”
I vote we kill the other ones first and hope that a nine-tailed kitsune can bring down a giant, Snowflake said.
“Seconded, motion passed,” I said, nodding. That was still a rather tall order, but at least it was a problem I’d come here expecting. Dealing with massive swarms of faeries was well within what I’d anticipated when attacking Scáthach in her house. Dealing with something that could look down on a lot of trees was…not so much.
I tried to look away from the giant, reaching into my cloak. I didn’t have any grenades—they were pretty damned unlikely to work, this far into Faerie—but I’d been saving up stored spells for years. I’d been stockpiling weapons in case of a rainy day.
If things got much rainier than this, I’d need a freaking ark.
I picked through my selection carefully, sorting out the items that were most useful against a large group. The army of fae on the open field didn’t seem to have noticed us yet; the fae in the forest were still attacking, but Snowflake and Kyra kept them off me while I made my choices.
It took maybe thirty seconds, and then I threw my hands out, flinging two full handfuls of small objects out over the crowd. They reached the apex of their various arcs. Metal, glass, and various crystals glittered in the moonlight, and the world seemed to freeze for a moment, the weapons hanging in the air in the endless tipping point just before they began to fall.
And then the moment ended, and the stored spells I’d thrown started downward. “Trial by fire!” I screamed, as loud as I could, throwing magic out at the distant spells.
I almost thought I could see the pea-sized silver spheres in the mix spark with light as I said the words. I couldn’t, but I almost thought I could.
Then they all went off in a burst of force and fire that laid waste to the army.
I’d used all of these spells before, or ones very similar to them. But I’d never seen how they interacted before. I’d never seen what happened when all of them went off at once.
It started with fire, white-hot fire like a magnesium flare, unimaginably hot. Intense colored light followed a moment later, green and blue spreading and overlapping. I caught the scents a few seconds later as the hot air hit me in the face, cooking flesh and superheated stone.
The earth cracked apart under their feet, literally. The force and the fire tore through the ranks, shredding them. It didn’t toss them aside, not really; this wasn’t that kind of force magic. It didn’t knock people around, it broke them.
I couldn’t see the other spells, the ones that sent waves of force through the sacks of nails they were enclosed in. But I could see the results. I could see the fae fall, ogres laid low as quickly and easily as lowly goblins. I could see the pale fire break out where the iron was embedded in their flesh. I could hear them scream.
I stood and watched as the fae burned, and broke, and screamed, and I felt…nothing.
Thick, heavy fog poured out a moment later, fog and shadows hiding the scene. I could still hear them screaming inside.
“Right, then,” I said, drawing Tyrfing again. “Let’s finish the job.”