Given his choice, I knew that Carraig preferred to fight up close, with his sword. He enjoyed it more that way. But this was business, not pleasure, and he would be trying to kill us in the most practical and efficient way he could, not necessarily the one he liked. That meant a barrage of arrows from the darkness, too many for me to bat them away like I had earlier. He’d be using silver arrows, and he’d be using poisons.
I dealt with that attack the only way I could think of, with a trick I’d only used a couple of times before. I conjured up a wall of ice, blocking the hallway from edge to edge and thick enough to stop an arrow without any difficulty.
Or, at least, that’s what I tried to do. The ice was slow in coming; I felt like the cold was far away. I called it and it came, but it was slow and clumsy, the frost spreading across the stone as lazily as if it were a summer day in the sunshine. There was no way it would be fast enough to keep us from resembling a group of porcupines.
Kuzunoha saved our asses. With a gesture and a quiet word, she filled the hall with a curtain of white-hot fire. The little frost I’d been able to spread burst into steam in an instant just from being near the flames, and the stone of the walls was glowing, but I couldn’t feel the heat from where I stood; it was very tightly controlled, unnaturally so.
A handful of arrowheads made it through the flames. But they were misshapen, no longer anything like as sharp as they once were, and they were tumbling through the air without much in the way of direction. Most of them bounced off my armor harmlessly; one hit Kuzunoha, but as expected, her clothing was a great deal more than it looked like, and the arrowhead had no more luck there than it did with my armor.
I started to turn, knowing what Carraig’s next move would be, but Aiko beat me to it. She spun and snatched the arrow coming from behind us out of the air with one hand, making it look effortless. She twirled the arrow in her fingers once before flicking it aside.
“Damn,” she said. “Winter, that trick is a hell of a lot more fun than you make it look.”
“Focus, please,” I said, stepping away from the doorway and looking around. The entry hall was dim, but Scáthach’s vanity was working against her now. The illusion of the night sky overhead gave me something to work with.
There. A patch of stars was occluded by something that looked suspiciously like a person pressed against the ceiling. He would be lining up his shot carefully this time, hoping to take us down with surprise and precision now that the initial barrage had failed.
I pretended that I hadn’t seen him, walking back towards the center of the room a little. That took me closer to Carraig, but not directly towards his position, hopefully keeping him from suspecting anything.
Then, once I was close enough, I suddenly pulled out one of my few remaining stored spells and threw it at him. At almost the same instant, he loosed the arrow at me.
The spell detonated on impact and shattered most of Andromeda, but Carraig was long gone by then. His arrow hit me, but clattered off my armor without doing any real harm.
A no-score game, except that I had a very limited number of those spells. I had a strong suspicion that his ammunition wasn’t limited in that way.
And now we needed to find him again.
Before I could even try, I felt another stirring in the air, and barely managed to slow the passage of the arrow enough to reach out and knock it down.
We couldn’t keep this up. Sooner or later, we’d miss one, and he’d get lucky enough to hit a weak point in the armor. Once that happened, it was all over but the crying.
“We need to light the room!” I shouted to Kuzunoha, barely slipping aside from another arrow. “Bright as you can get it!”
The kitsune nodded and gestured. She began to burn with a pure silver light again, within seconds brighter than the false moon overhead. For my part, I pulled out a couple more stored spells from my pockets. These weren’t weapons, and normally I would never have wasted pocket space on them, but it hadn’t exactly been a surprise that we’d want our own light within the sanctum of the Maiden of Midnight. I threw the crystals into the corners of the room, where they cracked against the walls and began to emit a bright light of their own.
I felt an odd, creeping despair as I did. We could light the room, but we couldn’t kill the darkness. Every spell we cast, every light we made, they just made the shadows that much deeper. In addition to being a depressingly apt metaphor for reality as a whole, that was distinctly unfortunate for our immediate future. Carraig walked through darkness, and to my knowledge the only way to stop him was to take away the darkness.
I growled to myself. This wasn’t working. We were fighting Carraig’s way, and we were losing. We would inevitably lose, if we kept this up. He was built to fight this battle, everything about his powers and his training designed to hunt and kill his prey from the shadows. We couldn’t win against him. It just couldn’t be done.
“So much for honor,” I shouted, backing up until my back was against the wall. The others came with me, until we were all pressed against the edge of the hall. He couldn’t appear behind us, at least. “Shooting at us from the dark? Is that really the best you can do?”
The only answer was another arrow. I thickened and pushed the air it was traveling through, slowing it down, and Snowflake bit it out of the air.
Shit. He wasn’t interested in talking. That made it hard to lure him in.
Another arrow came in, and this time it was easier for me to catch it. I looked at it for a moment, and then an idea occurred to me.
“Take this,” I said quietly, handing it over to Aiko. “Everyone get something to throw. On my signal, aim for the areas of darkness.”
I waited long enough to grab another arrow out of the air. It was bizarrely easy. I remembered the first time I saw Carraig, catching arrows in flight had been incredibly hard, such an achievement that I had been shocked and disturbed that I was capable of it. Now, it felt almost casual.
The next time, I focused less on being ready for an arrow, more on finding Carraig before he could shoot. It was a risk—if he got the shot off, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop it—but a calculated one. I had to do something to change the nature of the fight, and if that meant taking a risk, so be it. It wasn’t like I had time to think of a better plan.
There, I thought, focusing on one of the patches of darkness between the various lights. It was a little too dark, it had a little too much substance to be just a patch of shadow.
I didn’t hesitate for an instant, snapping my arm out and throwing the arrow I was holding at that spot. It wasn’t a spectacular throw, certainly nothing near actually shooting someone with a bow, but it wasn’t terrible.
In the same instant, Carraig sent an arrow back at us. I couldn’t react in time to slow or deflect it with magic, and as fast as I was, I couldn’t grab an arrow out of the air without some kind of assistance. I twisted desperately aside and it slipped past me, missing by less than an inch.
Carraig vanished before the arrow I’d thrown reached him, of course. That had been a pitiful attempt, unlikely to connect even against a normal person; against a champion of the Courts, it was about as serious of a threat as a falling anvil.
But I wasn’t the only one who threw something. Instants after I threw my arrow, at about the same time he disappeared, all three kitsune hurled their own weapons, a mixture of knives and arrows.
Normally, that would have been an idiotic move. But just now, the number of places Carraig could reappear in was sharply limited by the intensity of the lighting in that hall. With three people throwing two sharp things each, the odds of someone getting lucky and aiming for the right spot started to look pretty reasonable.
And not even Carraig was fast enough to reappear, realize that he was in danger, and vanish again before the weapons reached him.
There was a brief, pregnant pause. Then Carraig said, “Nice trick.” He sounded somewhat pained.
I fully expected that to be a deception, and for more arrows to follow the words as soon as we got complacent. But a few seconds later, Carraig walked out into the light, holding the bow in his left hand. One of Katsunaga’s knives was embedded in that shoulder, almost to the hilt. If it was an act, it was a damned good one. I could smell the blood.
“Have it your way, then,” Scáthach’s champion said. He let the bow drop to the floor, and shrugged off a quiver of arrows from his other shoulder, letting that hit the ground as well. He’d shot more arrows at us than that quiver should have been able to hold, but it was still full. Typical fae bullshit.
He drew a short bronze sword with his right hand, and a nasty-looking iron dagger with his left. He spun each weapon once and then started pacing forward. If the knife in his shoulder bothered him at all, it wasn’t immediately obvious.
Well, we’d gotten him out to fight directly. That would have been more comforting if I hadn’t seen him fight before.
I stepped away from the wall, drawing Tyrfing. I could see the others moving with me in my peripheral vision, spreading out to surround him. None of us looked to be injured, which was a nigh-miraculous piece of good fortune. I’d been sure that the arrow I dodged had hit someone behind me, but apparently it just shattered on the wall.
I had Tyrfing. Aiko had her wakizashi, which I’d carried in; she had her tanto too, but her hands were still a bit unsteady, and I wasn’t surprised that she’d decided not to use two blades at once. Kuzunoha was holding her katana in both hands, and Katsunaga had a pair of long knives. Kyra and Snowflake both bared their teeth eagerly, hungry.
Taken as a whole, it seemed like a ridiculous degree of overkill. Way more than could be necessary for one man.
But Carraig was hands-down the best fighter I’d ever seen, full stop. There were no qualifiers there, no maybes. He’d spent the last few thousand years dedicating himself to violence, and he carried the mantle of Scáthach’s champion, making him stronger and faster and tougher than a person had any right to be.
There were six of us, and we were all practiced and lethal fighters in our own right. But I had the sinking feeling that we were still the underdog here.
He reached us and cut at my head. It was a simple, brutal sort of attack, without any subtlety or artistry to it, and if it connected it would be lethal, instantly, even with my armor. That, more than anything else, convinced me that this was a real fight. There was no playing around, no striking to wound so as to make the fight last. Carraig wanted me dead, right here, right now.
I blocked his attack. I’d gotten stronger since the last time we fought, and I knew exactly how hard he could hit. I still barely managed to keep my grip on Tyrfing. He pulled his sword back and cut at me again. This time I knocked the blade up and away, rather than trying to block it outright, and even so I had to give ground under the sheer force of his swing.
At the same time, with his other hand, he fended off the others. All of them, with one hand. I watched it happen, and I still wasn’t sure how the hell he did it. He parried Kuzunoha’s katana with his dagger, in such a way that it fouled Katsunaga’s movement, keeping the younger kitsune from closing in far enough to attack with his daggers. One foot snaked out and tripped Aiko up, and at the same time he sidestepped both Kyra and Snowflake, their teeth closing on empty air.
For my part, I wasn’t even considering attacking. It was all I could do to stay alive in the face of his assault. He was stronger than me, he was faster than me, and he was so much more skilled than me that it wasn’t even funny. The only advantage I had, and the only reason I wasn’t dead in the first two seconds of the fight, was that I wasn’t alone, and he had to put some of his attention to keeping my allies off him.
He kept attacking me, moving through the crowd so easily it seemed like it wasn’t even there. They slashed and cut and stabbed and bit at him, and he slipped aside from every strike without even really seeming to notice it. I kept deflecting his attacks, but I was still giving ground, and there was no question of a counterattack. If I took the time to so much as look at him funny, I’d get stabbed, and I had the nasty suspicion that my armor wouldn’t do jack shit here. His sword was comparable to Tyrfing. Armor, even world class armor like what I was wearing, wasn’t something you wanted to rely on against a weapon like that.
I was still uninjured, but I was getting dangerously close to the wall again. Earlier having my back to the wall had been a blessing, keeping him from coming at me from behind, but now it would be a death sentence. I was barely keeping myself alive with a full range of motion, where I could retreat before almost every attack. Take that away, and it would only be seconds before he gutted me.
The rest of my group was behind him now, and they should have been taking him to pieces. But he was just so freaking quick. He was in constant motion, bobbing and weaving, never still for even a heartbeat. It made him a damned hard target. A couple of times they managed to hit him, grazing him with a thrust or slash, but none of it was affecting him any more than the dagger still stuck in his shoulder. Kyra looked like she was going to take a bite out of his leg at one point, but he casually punched her in the face with his off hand and she hit the ground, dazed. She was up again in seconds, but the opportunity was gone.
It was unbelievable. He was alone, outnumbered and surrounded, already wounded, and yet he kept fighting, unwilling to abandon his oath to a queen he didn’t even agree with. In a way, it was admirable, almost heroic.
In another way, of course, he was about to kill me, and odds were good that he would then proceed to kill everyone else here. The last I checked, that was an undesirable outcome, so I had to do something about it.
And that meant I had to take another risk.
Up to that point, I’d been fighting a strictly defensive battle. I hadn’t so much as taken a swing at him. I’d relied on my allies to take him down. And it wasn’t working.
It was time for a change of plans.
Against a lesser foe, I might have left an opening, lured them into overextending to take advantage of it.
Against Carraig, that was suicide, plain and simple. Any opening was too much opening with him.
Instead, I just took one moment to counterattack, slashing at his chest. He slipped forward in the instant I was vulnerable, and thrust his sword in under my ribs.
Against a lesser foe, that might have been the end of it. He stabbed me, I cut him, and the fight ended there. Against Carraig, that wasn’t how things worked. Even while running me through, he had plenty of attention to spare for blocking my attack with his other hand.
But, and this was the essence of my plan, in order to do so he had to be focused on me. For that one instant, he wasn’t paying attention to anyone else.
And they, unlike me, could make him pay for it.
Snowflake lunged in and bit down on his leg, breaking and tearing it. Bones crushed under her jaws, and flesh shredded between her teeth. He screamed at that, and started to fall; apparently not even he could ignore that degree of damage. Aiko’s blade batted his dagger away in the moment of shock, while her father darted in to catch his other wrist between two knives. They snapped shut like a pair of shears, and suddenly Carraig was missing a hand.
The champion of the fae hit the ground between Snowflake and Kyra, disarmed and crippled. The rest of the fight was quick and messy, and at the end of it you’d have been hard pressed to identify the remains as belonging to a human being.
I didn’t pay too much attention to that. I had more pressing matters to occupy myself with, most notably an acute case of stabbing. More specifically, the one I should have had, and inexplicably didn’t.
Carraig had had a clear shot at me, and his blade had slipped through my armor without slowing at all. I should have a nice big hole in the liver, pouring blood out onto the floor fast enough that even I couldn’t shrug off or recover from the wound. Instead, all I had was a thin red line, barely even parting the skin on my flank, just under my ribs.
“He missed,” I said, looking at the little bit of blood on my fingertips.
“Carraig doesn’t miss,” Aiko said instantly.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know. But the fact remains that I’m not actually dying, over here.”
I looked back at Carraig. He was dead. He had to be dead. You couldn’t lose that much blood, you couldn’t be missing that many pieces and not be dead.
But for just an instant, I’d have sworn that Scáthach’s champion winked at me from his ruined face before his eyes closed for good.
So died Carraig, a man with more honor than sense, who gave his life for a Queen he never loved, but who in the end proved himself to be more than just a champion of the Midnight Court.