The nice thing about being reduced to a slow, half-dazed stumble was that it gave me plenty of time to think. Admittedly, thinking was hard right now, a struggle to get words through the ringing bells and screaming voices in my head, but I was motivated.
The problem was that I had no idea how this demon was doing this. Not even a little bit. Selene was the only demon of this sort I’d ever interacted with, and I was reasonably confident that this kind of thing was well outside of her repertoire. I supposed I could have made more of an effort to learn about them, but I hadn’t wanted to go anywhere remotely close to that topic. I was already in too deep with Loki, Coyote, the Conclave, and the Courts; adding Hell to the list was a step I wasn’t in any hurry to take.
Except the skinwalker hadn’t asked me.
The only thing I could think of to do to figure it out at this stage was to look at who was being affected the worst, and who was getting off light, and see if I could find commonalities. So that’s what I did.
Selene, I thought, I could safely dismiss. She was a demon herself, a succubus, and Coyote’s granddaughter to boot. She was probably damn near as powerful as I was, and presumably her origin made her more resistant to the powers of other demons.
Similarly, I didn’t want to base anything on myself. I was reasonably confident I was still suffering as badly as ever, and probably should have been curled up on the ground shaking and throwing up. It was just that my mind had fragmented, one part taking most of the brunt of it while the other was free to act. Probably it was my more bestial aspect, the wolf inside my skin, that was really hurting.
That left Aiko, who had managed to reload by now and was firing quick, measured bursts at the demon that actually looked like the pop culture image of a demon. The bullets didn’t seem to be doing much, but the sound was helping, loud enough to break up the literally Hellish noise I was still hearing. Kyra was on her feet, but not accomplishing much right now; Snowflake was managing forward motion, although it looked like she’d have had an easier time if her intestines were dragging on the floor behind her than she was now.
The housecarls were doing better than the ghouls, by and large, and both were doing better than the mages. One of the humans was still on his feet, doing better than anyone other than Aiko, but most of them were solidly down.
I growled a little, the sound lost in the noise. This wasn’t getting me anywhere.
Okay, I thought to myself, taking another slow, dragging step forward. Change tack. Look at differences within groups, not between them.
I didn’t know the mages or the ghouls well enough to really say much, so I focused on the other groups. Kyra was doing a lot better than Anna, who was lying on the ground and throwing up with her paws over her ears. Of the jötnar, Vigdis seemed to be doing the best, with Kjaran and Signý close behind. I wasn’t sure whether that last one counted, though. That might just be her magical protections showing; seithr could do some crazy things, that much was obvious even to someone with my extremely limited knowledge. Admittedly it hadn’t helped the rest of us much, but presumably she had more powerful defenses on herself than she did on the rest of us.
So. What did the people who were least affected have in common?
Looked at like that, it was pretty straightforward. I loved Aiko, but she was pretty unhinged at the best of times. Snowflake was worse, a violent psychopath who got off on hunting things down and killing them. Again, I loved her dearly, but I didn’t let that blind me to the fact that she was pretty nuts.
Kyra and Anna had a lot in common. But Kyra was brutalized pretty severely when she first made the change to a werewolf; Anna wasn’t.
Similarly, looking at the jötnar, what did Vigdis and Kjaran have in common that the others didn’t? They were totally nuts. I mean, Vigdis was even more psychotic than Snowflake, and she had no morals whatsoever. Kjaran was…actually, I had no idea what the hell was going on inside his head, but it was safe to say that Kjaran the Silent was not a mentally healthy individual. Even Aiko thought he was creepy, and that took some doing. Hell, that might explain Signý, too. From what I’d seen of seithr, a lot of it revolved around rituals specifically intended to break down certain barrier’s in the practitioner’s mind. Even approached carefully, that kind of thing left a mark.
Taken as a whole, the people who were suffering the least from what the demon was doing were those that were already broken on some level. They were the people who were already mentally damaged to one extent or another. They—we—were the people who were already fucked up.
In a way, it made a sick sort of sense. It was typical of the supernatural, the sort of Morton’s fork I expected from the fae. The demon was driving us mad; the only way to avoid this was to already be mad.
I found myself grinning a little. It was funny, in a not-funny-at-all sort of way. We were almost literally damned if we did and damned if we didn’t.
But I couldn’t think of a way to use that. I couldn’t make the people who were out of commission more messed up, or at least not any faster than being exposed to this already was. Given time I could maybe have come up with some kind of way to protect against it, or disrupt the effect, but I didn’t have that time and I couldn’t have managed to focus enough for that kind of work if I did.
All I could really come up with was to cut it off at the source, and hope they recovered fast enough to help against the rest of the monsters in this room.
I kept moving forward, staggering and stumbling. Another particularly strong wave of stench hit me and, even through the buffering effect keeping the experience to a minimum, I gagged and had to spend a few seconds keeping myself from going into dry-heaves again.
Ten feet between me and the demonic horseman now.
Selene had reached the thin, abstract-looking demon by now, and the two were facing off. I couldn’t really process what I was seeing, there. Selene’s formfitting black armor seemed to have merged with her flesh, making her look almost like she had through the Second Sight, a void in the world that devoured the light. There was a hint of wings to the shadow, and it wasn’t just my imagination saying that.
The thing she was fighting was just as alien, if not more so. It reached out and grasped at her with its long stick-figure arm, a limb so crooked in so many places that it almost looked like more of a tentacle. She cut at it with her dead black knife, cutting deep gashes that didn’t bleed at all. The thin demon’s flesh was blank and undifferentiated without skin or muscle or bone, like cutting into a mushroom.
The demon missed Selene, hitting the wall of the building instead. Where it touched, the wall began to decay and fall apart, wood rotting away, concrete crumbling, metal rusting into nothing.
I kept moving forward. The noise redoubled itself again, like a dozen noise metal songs being blasted into my ears at a volume far in excess of anything healthy. The demon was spinning its scepter at an unbelievable pace now, the metal not even visible except as a blur. Its long fingers were flickering and dancing like a video of a pianist played at double the normal speed.
Five feet now.
Aiko put a bullet into the red-skinned demon’s eye. Apparently this annoyed it, unlike the other bullets, because it finally moved. Its arm moved slowly, almost lazily as it cracked its whip at her. The nine lashes moved through the air independently, and not in a natural way; it was almost like each was a living creature, directing its own movements like a striking snake.
It should have been too far away from her for the whip to reach. Somehow, it wasn’t. Four of the lashes wrapped around her carbine and ripped it out of her hands. Two more twined around each ankle and pulled her feet out from under her; the last caught her by the throat before she could fall and held her up, choking off her air.
I took one last step forward and I was within reach of the demon. I brought Tyrfing around in a slash at its head, the strike coming so slow it seemed almost like I was moving underwater.
The thing snapped that rod into the path of the blow, and Tyrfing bounced off it with a sharp, pure chiming sound. The chime felt good, cutting through the noise in a way that even the gunshots hadn’t.
The horse bit at me, and I saw that its teeth were as sharp as those of the creature riding on it were blunt, a shark’s teeth in a horse’s mouth. I ducked away, and then had to dodge further to avoid the rider’s fist. I had a nasty suspicion that I didn’t want that thing touching me, not even when I was wearing armor.
I cut at it again and again, and both times it put the scepter in the way without even pausing in its spin. The noise continued, howling and screaming and ringing in my ears, but it seemed like it was getting quieter every time I landed a hit on that scepter. I could think straight again, and my movements were coming quicker.
The demon reached out with its other hand, grabbing at me. Again, I ducked aside, but this time it was a feint, and I’d bitten hard. I ducked to the side, and I ducked straight into the horse’s rising hoof.
It hurt. A lot. I got knocked down, and when I hit the ground I didn’t move for a couple of seconds.
At least it hadn’t kicked me in the head. I hadn’t put my helmet back on after I took it off to vomit, and even just knocking my head on the ground when I fell was enough to hurt. If it had actually kicked me in the face, I was pretty sure I’d be wheezing my last few breaths out through a broken face.
To my left, Selene screamed. It was a short and ugly scream, rising towards the end into a sort of breathless shriek before fading out entirely. I couldn’t see what had happened to her, but it didn’t take a genius to figure that it wasn’t good.
To my right and behind me, there was an even more ominous silence from Aiko. There wasn’t the sound of a scuffle, not even whimpers or gasps as she fought for air. Not that I would necessarily have heard them if they were there, between the ringing in my ears and the background of screams, moans, and whimpers from the rest of the people in the room. Still, the silence was not a good omen.
I saw a bolt of yellow fire pass over me, leaving the stench of rotting meat in its wake, reminding me that the demons were only the appetizer here. Even if we could beat them, and that was looking less likely with every passing second, there was still the skinwalker to deal with.
For a second, I almost did something rash. It was very, very close.
Then I convinced myself that things weren’t quite that desperate yet, and pushed myself back to my feet instead.
The mounted demon was still sitting—or standing; it looked like horse and rider were actually fused together, confirming my initial suspicion that they were actually a single conjoined entity—right where it had been. It was spinning that scepter, as fast as ever.
I staggered forward, almost tripping over my own feet, sword raised as though I was planning to cut at it again. It raised the rod to block, still spinning it through that madcap dance.
This time, though, I’d gotten a little smarter. Rather than slash at the rider again, I went after the horse, dropping into a thrust with the weight of my body behind the sword.
Tyrfing slipped into its flesh like it was cutting paper. This one bled, at least, although it was freaking weird blood, silver in color and too thick.
The horse staggered to the side, but didn’t fall, though I’d run it through where the heart should have been on a real animal. Further confirmation that this wasn’t really a horseman.
I hadn’t even seen her get close, but Snowflake was next to me, her teeth anchored in the horse-thing’s other side. She set her feet and began pulling; I braced myself, gripped the sword more firmly, and pushed. Between the two of us we managed to topple the horse-thing.
It hit the ground, not as hard as it should have. From how it landed I’d have thought it weighed almost nothing, as though it were hollow and made of paper. It had been as hard to push over as a real horse, though.
I could really get to hate these things and the way they just didn’t make sense.
The horseman went with its mount, not even trying to get away. The horse glared at Snowflake, while the rider glared at me, the exact same expression on both faces. Despite that, though, it was the horse that attacked me, lashing out with two hooves.
I barely managed to duck aside, and Snowflake jumped on the rider, biting at its hand. She tore a couple of fingers off, recoiling at the taste of blood, and it dropped the scepter to the ground.
It hit the floor with a ringing clang, and the noise in my ears cut off, as did much of the vile scent and the nausea, the strange appearance of the shadows.
It growled and reached for the scepter with its healthy hand, swatting at Snowflake with the maimed one. It hit her and she hit the deck, writhing in agony.
I grimaced. I’d scored a victory there, but it would take time for the people who had been put down by the mental assault to recover, and I was guessing it would be able to resume what it had been doing the second it had that scepter in its hand again.
Past it, Selene was losing the fight with her demon. I thought she was, anyway; it was hard to tell. She was moving more slowly, clumsy, and while it had lots and lots of chunks missing it didn’t seem to care. It was hard to say at a glance, but I thought that what I could see of Selene’s body was warped, twisted and distended in much the same way as that of the demon that she was fighting. Aiko was still worryingly silent; Snowflake seemed to be the only other person in the room who’d recovered enough to fight, and direct contact with the demon had put her right back down again.
Then the tendril of the third demon’s whip twisted itself around my ankle, and tugged my foot out from under me. I went down instantly. The whip felt unpleasantly hot and slippery, even though it wasn’t actually touching me, and it was strong, maybe stronger than I was.
I growled. It still wasn’t working.
It was time to do something rash.
Another lash of the whip was wrapping itself around my throat and hoisting me into the air, but I ignored that, fumbling in my pocket instead. I found what I was looking for and held it up, making sure that they could see it.
Everyone stopped. Everyone.
I’d had that reaction from Tyrfing, in the past. It was like when the cursed sword entered the fight, everyone had to take a moment to appreciate that fact.
This was a little like that. Except that this time they didn’t start again.
“Put me down,” I said, wheezing a little.
The lash around my throat lowered me to the ground, very, very slowly, and then unwrapped itself from around my neck.
I got my feet steady and then looked around again, checking on things.
Selene and her guy had stopped fighting, and both of them were just staring in my direction. The horseman had the scepter in its hand again, but it wasn’t spinning it, and it wasn’t trying to stand up.
The third demon was standing dead still. Even its whip was just floating midair like a frozen frame out of a particularly odd film. Including the tendril holding Aiko in the air, where her struggles to get free were getting noticeably weaker.
“Put her down,” I snapped at it. The demon responded instantly, lowering her slowly to the ground.
“How did you come by that?” the skinwalker asked. For maybe the second time I’d ever heard, he actually sounded scared. “You don’t even know what that is.”
“Oh,” I said lightly, grinning. Rash, maybe, but I’d definitely shaken his control of this fight. “I think I have a pretty good idea what this is.” I twirled the blank black card in my fingers, and the demons and the skinwalker alike flinched away a little.
“Death,” I said. “But not for me.” I grinned. “I’m sure I can think of someone else, though.”