“I’m sure you know what this is,” I said, holding the card lightly between my fingers. “I’m guessing most of you know where it came from. So, you know. Who here wants to test their power against hers?”
None of the demons moved, not even to breathe or blink. Even the skinwalker was totally still. You could have heard a pin drop, were it not for the sound of ragged, labored breathing from those struggling to shake off the effects of what the various demons had been doing.
I grinned. “That’s what I thought,” I said. “So let me tell you how this is. I can’t take you three. We all know that. But the first of you that pisses me off right now is dead. And considering the source, I’m guessing this is the kind of dead that nobody’s coming back from. I use this on you and you’re done, permanently.”
Snowflake pushed herself to her feet. She was staggering back and forth, apparently unable to keep her balance, and she was panting hard like she was about to throw up.
“I’ve got no problem with you,” I said, although watching that it was hard to convince myself it was true. “My only quarrel here is with the skinwalker. The rest of you can leave now, and I won’t seek redress for this.”
There was a moment of silence. Then the thin, abstract-looking demon Selene had been fighting folded itself up into nothing. I wasn’t sure how to describe it better than that. Its limbs started tucking themselves up into its torso, collapsing into a much smaller space than they should have been able to fit into. Once the limbs were put away its torso compacted itself down into a single point that then vanished completely.
The horseman grinned at me out of both of its mouths, then slapped one hand against the floor. Thick, oily shadows gathered underneath it, stinking of poison and corruption. It sank slowly down into the darkness, taking its scepter with it, with a slow, sucking noise like a body sinking into quicksand. After it was gone the unnaturally thick shadows slowly evaporated, leaving behind nothing more than a foul-smelling black stain on the floor and a lingering sense of unease. I was guessing nothing short of burning down this entire building was going to get rid of those.
I looked at the third demon expectantly. It grinned back at me, a mouth full of needle-like teeth crisscrossing each other in a tangled net of pointy bits. It didn’t move, but its whip thrashed and snapped with a sound like a dozen firecrackers going off, and the flames crawling over its skin burned a little hotter and more sulfurous.
“Okay,” I said, slipping the card carefully back into my pocket and calling Tyrfing. “I can deal with this.”
Then the moment of calm in the eye of the metaphorical storm passed, and we all went back to trying to kill each other.
It started with the demon’s whip, moving faster than any of us could react. One lash picked Aiko up off the ground again, cutting her air off just when she was starting to get her wind back. Another tried to do the same to me, but I was quick enough to dodge. Snowflake wasn’t, and a third lash wrapped around her neck and pinned her to the ground. She struggled against it, squirming and writhing, but it was pretty obvious she wasn’t going to be able to get loose.
The other six reached out to the people I’d brought, snaking through their legs and tripping them up. Normally I wouldn’t have thought that would be an effective tactic, but people were still dazed and off-balance. More than a couple hit the ground.
I ignored all that, though I wasn’t happy about it. I was pretty freaking upset, in fact, but I wasn’t stupid. The demon wasn’t the main threat here.
I ran at the skinwalker, brushing the whip out of my way. It had been hot earlier, so that wasn’t exactly a surprise, but now it was burning, nasty yellow-green flames flickering along its length. I touched it through my gauntlet, rather than with my bare hand, and it still scorched me.
The skinwalker was gesturing slightly, and the reek of his magic filled the air around him like an abattoir on a hot day. I got the impression that he would have liked more time to work on whatever he was doing, but I was already getting too close, so he unleashed it on me ahead of schedule.
If so, I was pretty damn glad I’d chosen to charge him when I did. Even at reduced power, the magic hit me like a truck. There was no impact, physically, but agony like I’d seldom felt hit me all at once. My muscles jerked and spasmed convulsively, almost like I’d been hit with an electrical current, although it didn’t feel quite the same.
Standing still, I could probably have stayed standing. Moving at a run I tripped over my own feet and went down hard and fast. I landed badly, cutting myself deeply on the shoulder with Tyrfing and cracking my head against the floor. That dazed me for a second.
The demon was fighting now, and it was doing a pretty damn decent job of it. It was using its whip to tangle and trip people, spreading chaos and knocking people down. It had Aiko dangling on one lash of its whip and a human mage on another, and it swung both of them into people, further disorganizing its enemies and making it hard to attack it without risking friendly fire. Aiko was still clawing at the cord around her neck, but her struggles were getting weaker. Her breathing had been restricted for a while now.
But as effective as it was, there was only one of it, and there were a lot of people attacking it. Some of them were getting through. There were ghouls biting, clawing, and kicking at it, growling in pain as they got burned, but not stopping. The jötnar were more effective; with the cold filling the air around them they were hard to burn, and their axes and swords were doing a better job of penetrating the demon’s hide.
I saw that, and then got my head in gear again and pulled Tyrfing out of my shoulder. I was bleeding, but I didn’t think it was life-threatening. If it was there wasn’t a hell of a lot that I could do about it, so I pushed myself back to my feet.
I was a little unsteady, my muscles still twitching and convulsing in ways that made it hard to keep my balance. But I managed to stagger towards the skinwalker, growling under my breath.
He hit me with yellow fire that smelled as bad as the demon’s; I cut part of it out of the air with Tyrfing and endured the rest, wrapping myself in cold. It began to spread, burning across the floor hungrily, but I ignored it. I hadn’t had any intention of leaving this building intact anyway.
He hit me with force, and it was only because I could smell his magic building that I was able to react in time. I dodged to the side, and only the edge of his magic clipped me as it passed. It knocked me down and I rolled ten feet backwards, through the fire. I growled, picked myself up again, and resumed my slow stagger forward.
He hit me with lightning, forking yellow electricity leaping unerringly across the space between us. I couldn’t take much of the credit for that attack not having the intended effect; Alexis had been the one to work a warding spell against electricity into my armor. The skinwalker hit hard enough to overload that protection, and enough got through to really hurt, but it didn’t kill me.
I was getting close now. I could hear shouting behind me, people coordinating against the demon, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to really notice what they were saying. My focus was on getting to the skinwalker and bringing him down.
He threw more magic at me. A too-real shadow grabbed at me and tried to pull me down; I cut through it with Tyrfing and shredded what was left with my own power. A cloud of harsh-smelling brown vapor filled the air between us; I held a bubble of clean air around myself as I pushed through. An odd yellow light spread onto the floor between us, strange almost-patterns moving within the light; I held myself in the air and walked over it without touching it.
The skinwalker should have been getting tired by now. Everyone had limits, and he should have been coming up against his, with how much magic he’d been throwing around. But his resources seemed inexhaustible, and he was still going strong.
I was almost in reach, and he backed away, conjuring up a wall of howling wind between us. But I used magic and Tyrfing to force a way through his wall, and he had been standing near the wall already. He didn’t have far to run.
The skinwalker still looked calm and collected, but he was moving quicker now. He reached into his coat and threw a cloud of dust into the air. I could smell silver, and the magic in the silver, and I pulled up short, not wanting to touch that dust. It was coming towards me anyway, and I grabbed some of the wind right behind me and twisted it so that it blew the silver dust back towards the skinwalker.
He grimaced and touched something else under his coat, his lips moving although I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I felt a surge of power, heavier and muskier than the skinwalker’s norm, and then he worked his signature magic.
It was entirely unlike a werewolf’s change. There was no intermediate state, no prolonged and painful process—no real process at all, really. One second there was a guy standing there, a Native American man who was expensively dressed but otherwise pretty unremarkable. The next there was a freaking grizzly bear, its shoulder damn near as high as my head. It had to be around two thousand pounds, and it didn’t look happy in the least.
I stopped and stared for a second because, really, you had to for that. It was an incredible specimen, and even knowing what it really was, I still had to pause for a second to admire the sheer physical prowess I was looking at.
I didn’t think I’d have been fooled into thinking it was a real bear, though, even if I hadn’t known better. Aside from its size, which was remarkable even for a Kodiak, its fur had an unhealthy, jaundiced sort of yellow tone. Its eyes were also intensely yellow, the same yellow as the skinwalker’s human form.
He roared and lunged at me, jaws spread wide enough to fit my entire skull inside. His breath hit me and I almost gagged, the stink of carrion on it mingling with the foulness of his magic and producing something worse than the sum of its parts.
It wasn’t incapacitating, though, and I dodged aside easily. It felt almost too easy, even; my muscular coordination had still been pretty crappy a second before, but now I wasn’t having those problems. If anything it felt like I was moving quicker and more easily than usual. I felt stronger.
The skinwalker tried to bring a paw into my head as I slipped to the side of his jaws, and I had to bring my mind back to my immediate surroundings. I ducked under it, and slashed his arm with Tyrfing over my head as I did.
I was beside it now, and it was spinning to face me, teeth snapping at me again. I was expecting that, though, and I was ready. Tyrfing bit into his side above the shoulder and hot blood spurted out, spraying my face. His jaws were still a threat, but I was quick enough to get out of the way, dancing back out of reach.
The skinwalker followed me, but he was clumsy. It was kind of hilarious, really. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing in this body. He was all muscle and no grace, no real experience fighting as a quadruped.
He was fast, lunging forward, but I was faster, and a lot less massive. I reversed direction, dropping as I did so to pass under his teeth. I slid under him, again cutting above my own head, opening a long slash from his breastbone down towards his tail. More blood poured over me, getting in my mouth and my eyes, although I didn’t quite cut deep enough to open his abdominal cavity.
He could have stepped on me and probably done some damage, but he didn’t know his body well enough to know that. He kept moving instead, stepping past me and then turning to bite at me while I was on the ground.
Except that I wasn’t. The instant he was passed I was on my feet, and then I was jumping. I normally wasn’t good at jumping, but this time it felt easy as breathing. It was like I weighed nothing at all; for a moment at the apex of my leap I almost thought I was going to just keep going, never falling back to earth.
Then I landed on the skinwalker’s back, sword first.
He screamed, a sound that didn’t remotely resemble a bear. It didn’t resemble a human much, either; the closest I could come to a comparison was screeching metal in a car wreck. It was loud, enough to hurt. Between the sudden pain at the noise and my damaged shoulder, he managed to shake me off. I flew off and hit the ground hard, rolling.
As I pushed myself to my feet, I got another look at the demon. It was surrounded by jötnar now, carving pieces out of its hide. The flames on the demon’s skin were struggling to burn, having a hard time in the cold. Aiko was still dangling by her throat, but she’d stopped moving. As I watched Kyra jumped up onto that lash of the whip and dragged it down to the ground, trying to bite through it. Another of the lashes tried to pull her off, but a pair of ghouls jumped on that one and tackled it down.
Selene wasn’t fighting. Her body still looked not-quite-right, but she was coordinating things, giving everyone directions to make sure they were where they needed to be.
Something hit me from behind before I could get up and turned back around, knocking me sideways to the ground. A second hit sent me skidding across the floor, rolling over and over. This time I was lucky enough not to hurt myself with my own sword, at least.
I managed to get upright in time to dodge the third hit, feeling it coming from the movement of the air, and turned to face the skinwalker.
He’d changed while I wasn’t looking. Instead of a massive bear, he was now in the skin of a truly enormous cat. It was the size and general shape of a tiger, although again, there was something subtly wrong with it. Its fur was yellowed, almost mangy-looking, its frame weighed down with more muscle than it could really support.
He swatted at me again, aiming for the head to break my neck this time. I knew what I was fighting now, though, and I could behave appropriately. Rather than try and get away, I stepped in, getting closer to him. He still hit me, but I was inside the arc of the swing, and he couldn’t do much more than bump me off balance a little.
I, on the other hand, was close enough to be effective. I punched him in the face with my off hand. I hit him hard enough to knock him off balance, and his eyes crossed a little.
That bought me time and space enough to cut him again, a heavy slash on his upper front leg. I’d seen the skinwalker’s healing in action before, but apparently it wasn’t up to overcoming Tyrfing’s effects, because he was bleeding heavily.
I heard a sound like a thousand damned souls screaming in agony, and for a second I thought I saw fire and darkness in the room. Then the moment passed, and I couldn’t smell the blood and shit and sulfur of the demon any longer. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what had just happened, at least in the general sense.
I knew how this fight was going to end, and apparently the skinwalker could see how things were going, too, because he went from fight to flight.
Flight was hard, though. He couldn’t run through me, not without risking another cut that he couldn’t shrug off or heal. He couldn’t get past the entire crowd of jötnar, ghouls, and mages, not now that the demons weren’t there to distract them.
So he did what I’d expected. He bolted for the large window that looked out over the sea. He jumped through the glass and hung in midair for a moment before the cat melted into a dirty yellow eagle.
The eagle flew off. I watched for a second as it flapped off towards the water.
Then the mercenaries I’d brought opened fire.
Bullets didn’t bother the skinwalker. Not really. I’d seen him get shot before, and it didn’t do a whole lot.
But that was being shot once or twice, with a shotgun. This was having ten guys open fire with assault rifles.
It was an entirely different story.
Blood and feathers sprayed, and the eagle tumbled to the street. It hit hard and broke.
I jumped out the window, cushioning my fall enough not to injure myself. I walked over to him, still carrying Tyrfing.
He turned back into his human form. It looked pretty abused; most of the bullet holes were already healed, but his clothing was shredded, hanging off him in rags. I could see the numerous, deep wounds Tyrfing had made, and they were bleeding.
“Not bad,” he said. “I don’t remember the last time someone got me this bad.” He coughed. It sounded painful. “Maybe your mother. She must have bit thirty pounds off me. At least I could heal that.”
“I said this was the last time,” I said. “I meant it.”
He grinned at me as I raised Tyrfing. “I told an army of demons to go wild in your city if I died,” he said as the sword started down.
I didn’t have time to stop, and wouldn’t have if I could.