The cloud of fog limited my vision as badly as anyone else’s. But I’d always had some talent for functioning without vision, and I’d recently had a great deal of opportunity to practice.
The ground was surprisingly hard to navigate safely. It had been uneven and rocky beforehand, but the detonations of the various stored spells had worsened things considerably. There were cracks and craters in the ground, places were earth and stone had been removed as neatly as scooping ice cream from the container, places where they had been shattered.
On the whole, the terrain was treacherous, in some ways as dangerous as the creatures on it. A false step, a stumble, could mean disaster. I was forced to move more slowly than I would have liked, feeling around carefully through the air to be sure that I didn’t make a mistake. Kyra and Snowflake both stuck close to my side as I walked into the fog. Neither werewolf nor husky was totally dependent on sight, but this sort of situation wasn’t what their other senses had been designed for; hearing and scent couldn’t necessarily warn them of an upcoming pit in the ground.
But they followed me in, trusting totally in my ability to keep them safe.
I could feel heat in the air ahead, coming off a lingering fire, and reached out to quench it. The cold flowed through me, and the fire died, the corpse it fed on blanketed in frost instead.
There were still fae moving around in the fog; as dramatic as my initial barrage had been, it hadn’t directly hit more than a small fraction of the crowd. There were still plenty more that were up and moving.
I had nothing against them, but I couldn’t guarantee that they wouldn’t continue to hunt us if we simply slipped past them in the fog, and not all of them were blinded by it; many were still moving with deliberate purpose, navigating by some means that didn’t depend upon sight as I understood it.
So rather than guide us to the less traveled areas, the route we could have walked without running into opposition, I deliberately turned our path towards the pockets of resistance.
The first group couldn’t see, and we closed in on them in perfect silence, ensuring that they didn’t notice or react to our presence. I couldn’t see them, either, but I could feel the air stirring around them as they moved, and I could smell the canines smelling them, a reek of swamp and night and ugliness that burned foully in the back of the throat and left the sinuses clenched against the stench.
I stepped up and ran one of them through with Tyrfing, smashed another’s face in with my armored fist, then drew the sword out and swept it in a broad arc parallel to the ground. Beside me Snowflake and Kyra both bit and tore, the blood tasting foul in their mouths.
The others could feel the spraying blood strike them, could hear the bodies hit the ground, but still didn’t see us, didn’t know where to look. I stepped up to the next, feeling its mindless terror burning in the back of my mind, hot and frenetic. The blade lashed out again and the fear ended, the flickering candle of the creature’s life extinguished.
It took only moments longer for the last of them to fall, and we kept moving, padding silently through the fog.
I could hear bellowing now, the giant’s voice loud enough to be painful even from the opposite side of the field. The massive creatures was above the fog, but it didn’t seem able to see what was happening within the cloud any better than the rest.
It was swinging at random, though, apparently uncaring of how many of its own allies it crushed. At one point I felt the air stirring and stopped just barely in time as its club smashed into the ground in front of us. The earth shook, literally shook for twenty feet around the impact site with the sheer power behind the blow. I managed to keep my footing, but it was an effort, and I watched with respect and fear as the club was lifted again.
Any conception I’d had that I could fight that thing vanished in that moment. One hit from that and we were dead. Period. There was no room for argument, no chance to intervene. That was enough to pulverize us beyond all hope of recovery.
I waited for the giant to lift the weapon again, and then led us onward.
We ran into several more groups of fae and dealt with each of them in much the same way we’d removed the first one. Some were more of the swamp-creatures, but there were others, goblins and redcaps and hags and all manner of other foul things that I couldn’t name. There were a handful of Sidhe in the mix, but I avoided them carefully. I knew the Sidhe intimately enough to have an acute respect for their power, and I did not want to fight them when I couldn’t see.
It took a few minutes for us to reach the other side of the field and step out into the open air again. Our armor, and fur where it showed through the armor, were stained a dozen colors, as though we had swam through the blood of a dying rainbow.
But Tyrfing’s blade shone brightly with the reflected light, clean as always.
The giant towered above us, close enough now that I could count the individual hairs on its legs, each as thick as ropes. It didn’t seem to have noticed us yet, but that couldn’t last, and I still hadn’t come up with any way to take it out that wasn’t just a cruel and unusual way to commit suicide.
I gritted my teeth and started forward, gripping Tyrfing more tightly. This needed done, and if that meant taking a gamble with my life, so be it.
Then I paused. It seemed too bright for just the moonlight.
I turned, and saw that there was a light coming from the fog. It was brilliant silver in color, almost the same tone as the moon, filling the entire fogbank with pure vivid light. The giant swatted at the brightest point repeatedly, but it didn’t seem to be doing anything.
The light got brighter and brighter, and then Kuzunoha stepped out of the fog.
She had her game face on again, nine tails spreading behind her in a shifting, weaving mass. Her blades dangled casually from her hands, both of them literally dripping the same multicolored blood we were soaked with. Silver light poured from her, casting shadows from every rock and blade of grass, so pure and bright it was hard to look at.
The giant roared and swung again, moving faster than anything that size had a right to be. Its club smashed down on the kitsune over and over, shattering and crushing the earth beneath her. Standing twenty-five feet away, I was still tossed to the ground.
But the kitsune wasn’t affected. At all. The club passed right through her, and she kept walking on empty space as the earth was cratered and broken underneath her feet.
I stared for several seconds before realizing that I was looking at an illusion. It had to be an illusion.
I looked up just in time to see a speck leap from the cliff above the giant. It dropped straight down for a second and then swung into a fast, steep arc to the side, passing just under the giant’s chin. Blood poured out in its wake, a ridiculous amount of blood, almost comical.
The speck reached the end of the arc and started back down, then dropped back into a downward fall. It rode the tide of blood that rushed to the ground like a scarlet waterfall, and slammed into the ground not thirty feet away from us.
At the same time, the illusion of the kitsune winked out like it had never been. The light, the blood dripping from the blades, everything just vanished.
Katsunaga stood, not seeming to have any trouble with the weight of the blood pouring down onto him, and walked over to us. He had a long sword in his hand, apparently what had just opened the giant’s throat. “You’re slow,” he said casually. “And…three, two, one, move!”
On the final word, he suddenly darted forward with incredible speed. His shoulder caught me at the waist, flipping me up into a fireman’s carry, and he grabbed one of the canines in either hand. He carried us forward to the edge of the cliffs like that, moving as fast as a vampire, fast enough to make me look slow.
Instants later, the giant’s corpse slammed down into the fog with a crash more appropriate to falling buildings than anything alive. One hand hit the ground where we’d been standing, and just its hand was huge enough that I had no doubt that we’d have been crushed if we were underneath it.
I slipped off the kitsune’s shoulder and hit the ground, and he grinned down at me, dropping Kyra and Snowflake as well. The sword had disappeared at some point, although I wasn’t sure when or how.
“Seriously, you guys are slow,” he commented casually, walking back out from the cliff. “We’ve been waiting up top for like five minutes now.” He whistled piercingly, and a moment later a coil of rope fell from above, hitting the ground with a thunk.
I stared. “How?” I asked.
He grinned at me. “That would be telling,” he said. “Now get over here. It won’t be long before the reinforcements get here.”
I walked over in something of a daze, with the others following a few feet behind. Katsunaga clipped the rope to Kyra’s harness with a carabiner and then wrapped the rope around one hand. He scooped Snowflake up with the other, grabbing her around the abdomen. “Might want to grab on,” he said.
I stared, then shrugged and grabbed the rope. The kitsune tugged the rope, and then we started rising into the air.
How much weight was on the rope, I wondered? Two people, a werewolf, a husky, three full sets of armor…it had to be more than a thousand pounds.
But the rope was rising past the cliff at a dizzying pace, far faster than I could have climbed.
We reached the top of the cliff and clambered over. Kuzunoha was standing there, holding the rope. Apparently she’d just pulled us up hand-over-hand, easy as that. Though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at that, given that Katsunaga was holding his weight and Snowflake’s both with one hand and didn’t seem to be straining at all. Elder kitsune obviously had some pretty ridiculous strength.
“Let us proceed,” she said, dropping the rope and turning towards the mountain. “There will be more of them to come.”
I nodded and then started forward, running. Apparently the kitsune were more than fast enough to keep up, given that they’d been waiting for us at the top.
The rage simmering inside me had been dulled a bit, pushed out of the way by surprise at the kitsune’s antics. But as we ran, it came to the forefront again. It wasn’t getting milder as time passed; to the contrary, it was just getting stronger and more overwhelming, driving me harder and harder.
The path leading up to the castle was clearly marked, leading through the trees. I hesitated for a few seconds, looking at it. On the one hand, they would be expecting us on the path; I had no doubt there would be heavy resistance. On the other, running through a forest in the heart of Faerie without a path was one of the stupidest ideas I’d ever had, and that was a strongly contested position.
Fuck it, I thought, starting up the path. Resistance was okay. Resistance was just fine.
The path was gravel, fine and pale, almost glowing in the moonlight. It should have been good footing, but it wasn’t; the stones turned underfoot, always at the worst time, and small irregularities in the path conspired to make every footstep an inconvenient one. We weren’t welcome here, and every part of this island was working against us, trying to keep us out.
I grinned and kept moving, fast. The path led steeply uphill, and I was breathing hard, but I didn’t slow, didn’t pause. I slipped on the gravel and fell, but I was up and moving again almost before I hit the ground.
Now there were people in front of me, and this wasn’t the disorganized mob from the base of the cliffs. This was an organized, disciplined group, standing in tight formation. Many of them were Sidhe, with all that entailed. Every fourth space was occupied by a faerie hound; in every third rank, these spaces were occupied by an ogre instead.
I smiled at them and then moved in.
I walked right through them, the wrath boiling up inside me into action, driving every motion faster, harder. Tyrfing lashed out again and again, drawing blood and sparking fire. The werewolf and the husky were close beside me, teeth gleaming in the moonlight, growls and snarls bubbling forth. Further out the kitsune were moving with us, blades out and ready, but I was only dimly aware of them, my world contracted to myself and the enemy in front of me. Even the canines close against my sides were only vaguely remembered, more presences than people.
I was not a gifted swordsman, not even close to being a match for the least of the Sidhe. That didn’t matter. I was stronger, faster, and far angrier than they could hope to be. I was wrapped in steel and I carried a blade that was more than a match for any of their defenses; brute force could serve here where skill was hopelessly overmatched.
Their weapons got through, opening numerous cuts and gashes in my flesh, puncturing deep into muscle, shedding my blood freely onto the gravel. That didn’t matter either. I was beyond pain just now, and damage just drove me on, fueling the wrath that was carrying me forward.
I pushed myself further, faster and harder, and I wanted to laugh at how easy it all was. I was faster, stronger, I was so much more than merely human. Everything I tried, every strike, every parry, every smallest movement I made worked. The air around me danced and glittered with snowflakes and moonlight, knocked out of the air by the spraying blood, brought up and dancing again moments later by the wind of my passage. It almost felt like running at the heart of the Wild Hunt, but this was all me, something taken rather than given.
In a strange way, it was almost meditative. I’d always thought of meditation, of that state of mind, as being something calm, but now I was approaching the same location from the other direction. The wrath was so intense that it became the sole focus of my existence, driving any other emotion, any thought from my mind. In that moment, violence was not so much something I did as something I was, a state of being rather than an action.
At some point, I became aware that there were no more enemies before me to kill, and something made it through the red mist of anger, a sort of vague disappointment that it was over. I pushed that feeling away and continued onward, running along the path. My footsteps now were light, though I was bleeding, heavily from a stab wound on my thigh and more lightly from a hundred other cuts all over my body.
I laughed and laughed, and when I ran into more of the fae on the path, I cut them down as well, not even pausing in my run.
I blinked, shook my head, looked at the voice. From her tone, I was guessing it wasn’t the first time she’d said it.
“What is it?” I asked. I expected to be slurring, from how far gone I felt, but if anything, the opposite was true. My words were crisply enunciated, my voice calm and cool.
“We’re there,” Kuzunoha said, pointing past me. There was an odd tone in her voice, an odd note in her expression. There was something deeply worried there, something disturbed on a basic level.
I looked in the direction she was pointing and saw the castle, right there, standing up from the mountainside. It had looked smallish before, but that had been a trick of distance and perspective; up close, it was huge, towering overhead, a keep the size of a town. We were separated from it by a broad dark moat, with a single stone bridge across it. I didn’t for a moment think it would be that simple, but I needed to get to the other side, so I started for the bridge.
I could feel the concern, the worry, the slight edge of fear from the others. Even Snowflake, who was as viciously aggressive as anyone I’d ever known, who was literally addicted to the rush of violence, felt disturbed and frightened, and I knew it was me she was scared of.
I ignored it. There was always a price to pay.