“Okay,” I said, sitting down across from Tawny. “So tell me about these demons.”
She grinned and set the book she was reading back on the table. At a glance, it seemed to be some sort of pop science book, less rigorous than an actual textbook but still much more inclined to educational than to entertaining. “Finally,” she said. “Thought you’d never ask.”
“Things have been busy,” I said, shrugging. “So what do you do? Are you actually summoning things from somewhere else, or is it more like a construct or something?”
“I don’t know the right terms,” she said, shrugging. “But it’s like…there’s always things wanting in, you know? Wherever you go there’s going to be something that wants to come through there. So it’s not like I have to bring them here or whatever. I just have to open the door for them.”
“Would you mind showing me?”
Tawny grinned again. “Of course not.” She stood and rolled back the rug under her chair, getting at the tile floor underneath. She pulled a couple of little packets of salt, like they had in some restaurants, out of her pocket and tore them open, pouring out a line in a rough circle on the floor around her. “I don’t actually need to draw a circle,” she told me. “It just makes things a lot easier.”
I didn’t bother telling her that was true for most kinds of magic, not just hers. I could already tell that I wasn’t going to be passing myself off as being as new as most of them, but I was supposed to be seeming at least a little clueless. If I let on how much I already knew they’d start asking how, and that was a topic that would pretty much inevitably lead into discussions I was definitely not supposed to have with them.
I felt her power pushing on the world as she started to do whatever it was that she did. It smelled sort of similar to opening a portal, but a little less focused, like the difference between a knife and a needle. It was also surprisingly strong. Not, like, ridiculously, but Tawny wasn’t a pushover in the sense of how much raw power she could throw around.
A couple of seconds passed without anything much happening, then the air in front of her sort of twisted. It was hard to say quite what I was seeing; it was almost like a heat haze, but there was also a sense of the image warping, something like I was looking through a pane of thick glass. For just an instant I got the impression of lines stretching off in directions that didn’t quite make sense, dimensions beyond just the usual four converging onto that point.
Then the moment passed, and things went back to normal. Except now, rather than air, there was a creature in front of Tawny. It was small, no larger than my head, and it looked like the stereotypical conception of an imp. It had red skin, black batlike wings, and a thin barbed tail. It opened its mouth and hissed at me, and its jaws seemed to open wide enough to swallow its own head. Its teeth were heavy and triangular, like a shark’s, but much smaller relative to its mouth, almost like it just had serrated jaws rather than actual teeth.
“Damn,” I said, staring at it. “I’m impressed.” I was, too. I hadn’t seen anything quite like this before, either the creature or the summoning of it. That wasn’t a magic to take lightly. I was guessing I could take the imp-thing, but I couldn’t help but think of all the scarier things she could have summoned instead.
She beamed. It only lasted a second before she covered it with the tough-girl facade again, but I saw it. “The little ones are harder to bring through,” she said, holding her hand out. The imp-thing flapped over and perched on her finger, glowering back at me. “They don’t push as hard to get in. But they’re easier to control once they get here. I like to use the smallest I can and still get things done.”
“You mean physically smaller?” I asked.
Tawny waggled her hand equivocally, causing the imp-thing to flutter its wings for balance and hiss again. “Sort of?” she said. “The size isn’t what matters, but it tends to line up with what does. This guy’s a great example. I don’t think he’s really intelligent, maybe not even as much as a dog. There’s no real thought there, just a whole bunch of emotion. I don’t even have to try to make him do what I want. The bigger ones tend to be smarter, and a lot harder to keep a grip on.”
“Huh,” I said. “So you mostly use the smaller ones, then?”
She shrugged. “When I can get away with it,” she said. “The bigger ones are stronger too, so sometimes I need more than one like that can do. But I try to stick with the smallest I can and still get things done.”
I nodded, mostly looking at the imp-thing. Something about the way she’d said that made me think she’d summoned a really big one once, and it hadn’t ended well for her. When she’d first started developing her magic, maybe, before she’d figured out the rules.
“That isn’t a demon, though,” I commented. “It looks a little demonic, but it isn’t a demon.”
Tawny looked at me curiously. “How do you know?”
“I’d recognize a demon,” I said. “I guess you conceptually could bind a weak enough demon, but this isn’t one.”
She looked at me for a moment longer. “You know, Jonny,” she said, “somehow I’m getting the impression I should be a little scared of you.”
“I feel the same about you,” I said dryly.
Tawny laughed at that. “Well, I’m glad we’re on the same page, then,” she said. “It’s about time for sparring, though. This should be fun.” She closed her hands around the imp-thing, and I felt another burst of magic as she sent it back to wherever it had come from.
Tawny and I were the first to show up for the sparring session, which gave me plenty of time to look around.
The training area was on the fifth floor, with the other work areas set aside for the Guards themselves. It wasn’t a huge room, but it wasn’t small. The room itself was roughly square, around thirty feet on each side. A circle was painted on the floor, almost touching the walls on each side; one of the corners this left had a few chairs in it, while the others held various targets and dummies.
The space felt comfortable and familiar, which was interesting, because I couldn’t remember having been in a similar room…pretty much ever, actually. But the intent of the room, the feeling of it, was one that I was very much familiar with.
Tawny didn’t seem interested in small talk, so I wandered around the room while she sat and went back to her book. I walked around, getting a feel for the texture of the tile floor and the amount of space I had to work with. If I had to participate in this little sparring exercise, I wanted to be able to do so at least somewhat competently.
The others trickled in over the next five minutes or so. Derek came first, wearing a set of police-style riot gear that he didn’t look at all comfortable in. I could smell the magic on the armor, reinforcing and strengthening, but it was somewhat simplistic. David followed a minute or so later, with Elyssa right behind him. Another five minutes passed before Tony finally walked in, yawning and scratching his ass.
“All right,” David said, once everyone was there. “Let’s get started. Jonathan is new here, so how about we let him start.”
I shrugged. “Fine with me. What do you want me to do?”
“We’ll start by having you spar with Tony,” David said, giving me a significant look. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was supposed to signify, but it was clearly supposed to be significant. “Remember, this is just practice. Don’t do anything that might really hurt your sparring partner, and if they or I say to stop, you stop, immediately.”
“Got it,” I said, stepping into the painted circle. “I’m ready whenever.”
Tony grinned, a brash and overconfident sort of grin, and walked to the other side of the circle from me. “Let’s do this, then,” he said.
“All right,” David said, stepping out into the spectator area with the others. “On my mark. Ready? Go!”
Tony started cautiously. He wasn’t sure what I was capable of, not really, and it showed in his behavior. He started gathering power, getting ready, but he didn’t do anything aggressive right away.
I did. The instant David said go, I took off, sprinting straight at Tony. I didn’t know any more about his capabilities than he knew about mine, but I knew enough to want it over fast. He’d said he was good with fire and electricity, and I knew from experience that hanging back and trading blows with someone who had that skillset was unlikely to end well for me. Instant and decisive aggression was the best tactic for me to take.
He managed to get an attack off, throwing a fistful of fire at my head, but he wasn’t used to being rushed and he hadn’t accounted for how quickly I could move. I didn’t even need to dodge to be perfectly safe as I kept moving in.
He started to get more fire together, but I was already on him. I threw him to the ground with more muscle than skill—they’d been told I was a werewolf, so they knew I was strong, but they didn’t know I was skilled and I had no intention of telling them if I didn’t need to. He hit the floor hard enough to knock the wind out of him, and he lost his grip on the power he’d been collecting.
Before he could get his bearings again, I was sitting on his chest, holding a knife against his throat. “We good?” I asked calmly.
He froze, and then very carefully nodded. I got off of him and stood up, folding the knife closed and tucking it back into my pocket. “That was embarrassing,” I said. “That was literally shameful. You guys are supposed to be fighting serious bad guys, and if that was a serious fight, you’d just have gotten murdered by a guy with a cheap knife.”
Tony flushed. “You caught me by surprise,” he said defensively. “That wouldn’t have worked if I’d been ready.”
“Okay,” I said. “Prove it. I’m ready to go when you are.”
Tony hesitated, but he couldn’t say no without losing face, and it was already quite obvious that he wasn’t willing to do that. I wondered idly whether all fire mages had the brashness and the ego, or it was just the ones I knew. It seemed like too much of a common trait to be entirely coincidence.
“All right,” David said as we went back to our positions. He caught my eye and nodded a little. Approval? Maybe, but why?
Then I caught on, and almost laughed. Of course. He was a real Guard, one with serious power and experience. Odds were good that he was at least as experienced as I was, which meant that he knew how dangerously overconfident Tony was. He knew damned well that these kids weren’t remotely prepared for the kind of threats they were supposed to be dealing with. They were still riding the high of having magic, of being special, and they hadn’t yet processed that they were still very definitely not the top of the food chain.
And they needed to have that bubble burst. Of course they did. As long as they went in with their current attitudes, they were more liability than asset. They’d get slaughtered in their first serious fight.
But David couldn’t be the one to actually do it. He was supposed to be their leader, and that meant that they had to like him. This wasn’t like my relationship with my housecarls; David was obviously trying to set himself up as first among equals, rather than an absolute ruler. That was probably the best approach with these kids, since they weren’t accustomed to the more old-fashioned modes of government that most of the people I dealt with used. But at the same time, it meant that he wasn’t able to smack them around and call them morons.
No wonder he’d set me up to fight the most overconfident of the bunch first. He was using me as his bad cop. I was intended to convey the stuff they didn’t want to hear, so that David could go on being their buddy.
For a second, I almost didn’t want to perform, just to make a point. I didn’t like being used like this, especially when he hadn’t even had the decency to tell me first.
Then I had to laugh at myself. It was a good plan. It was scheming, manipulative, and underhanded, but it would work I could recognize that it needed to be done, and I wasn’t likely to be their friend regardless. I just didn’t have a lot in common with these kids. And, if I was being entirely honest with myself, I didn’t want to. I already knew that this line of work, this entire world, would suck any youthful innocence and optimism right out of them, leaving them as bitter, cynical, and psychotic as the rest of us. I’d seen it before. Knowing them better would just mean that I had to care.
So when David said, “Go!” the second time, I didn’t hesitate. I sidestepped the blast of fire that Tony instantly and predictably threw at me, drawing cold around myself to mitigate any heat that might have otherwise reached me. As I moved I pulled a flashbang out of my hip pocket, pulled the pin, and threw it in his general direction, turning my own head away as I did. The whole thing looked like a single smooth and practiced motion, mostly because it was. I usually preferred to keep the grenades in my cloak, but this wasn’t the only place I couldn’t wear it, and I’d practiced with a simple pair of pants as well.
Even with my head turned away and my eyes closed, ready for what was going to happen, the detonation of the flashbang was intense. It was deafening and disorienting, leaving me with little more than afterimages and ringing ears to work with.
Unlike the rest of them, though, I knew how to handle that situation. I knew generally where Tony was, and I knew the feel of the floor, the small irregularities that I had to be careful of. I could run at him almost as quickly blind as I could with full vision. I could track the motion of the air well enough to have a decent idea of his movements, and adjust appropriately.
Again, it was a matter of experience. Being blinded was a common, basic tactic, and one that anyone should be ready to deal with. A more practiced mage would have had some way to detect me without vision, or at least been ready to blast at random, hitting me by random chance or at least keeping me at bay.
Tony didn’t, and he wasn’t. When the flashbang went off he was disoriented and stunned, and he didn’t recover before I reached him, literally jumping on him and dragging him down to the floor.
Once I had my hands on him, it didn’t really matter that I couldn’t see. Working by feel, I quickly secured him in place and put one hand on his throat. I didn’t actually apply any real pressure, just made him very aware that I could.
I didn’t have a knife out this time—too likely to go badly when I couldn’t see where he was with any confidence. But I didn’t need one. Again, they knew I was a werewolf. It wasn’t a secret that I was stronger than a human. I could break him in half and everyone in the room knew it.
“We’re good,” he said, sounding just a little choked. It might have been a mental thing, or I supposed I might have put a little more pressure on his throat than I thought. I’d only meant it to be a threat, but I might have gone a little bit too far.
I wasn’t used to working with humans. They were so…fragile.
I took my hand away and got off him, sitting down to wait for my vision to recover. It wouldn’t take long. Those flashbangs were intended for instant but brief incapacitation, and I healed faster than a human on top of that.
“You cheated,” Tony said. “You threw a grenade at me.”
“What, and you think other people won’t?” I snorted. “Please. Those things are pretty standard. Human beings are dependent on sight, and everyone knows it. If you want to put a mage down without killing him, flashbangs are one of the first things you’re going to go for. So if I were you, I’d get used to it, because I won’t be the last one to use them against you.”
“I’m with Jonathan on this one,” David said. “It’s a valid tactic. The only rule for this match was that you couldn’t do permanent harm, which this shouldn’t, correct?”
“Nope,” I said. “It’s just a flashbang. You should all be fine in a few minutes. They use these things on civilians.”
“It’s a valid tactic,” David said again. “If you weren’t prepared to deal with it, that’s on you, not him. Now, I think you could both use a bit of a rest, so when everyone can see again we’ll have Elyssa and Derek go a round.”
I was expecting to think that the new Guards were rather pitiable and useless. And, in all honesty, I did think that, but I was actually fairly impressed with them, on the whole. They were new, and it showed, but they did have potential. They were even making strides to develop that potential, which was even better.
Tony was all offense, all the time. I couldn’t really blame him for that, though; when your gift is in fire and your only real backup is a little bit of a knack with electricity, you don’t have a lot to work with defensively. He was overconfident, but he seemed like he wanted to make that confidence justified. After I thrashed him, he was pretty quiet for a while, and he gave the impression that he was really pushing himself for the rest of the sparring session.
Derek was almost the opposite, as far as attitude went. He was shy, reserved, and desperate for approval. He practically glowed from any compliment, even halfhearted or mixed ones. In terms of talent, or what role he would play, I couldn’t get much of a fix on him. He was the only one aside from me who’d brought any equipment, which made sense if his primary ability was to make things, but he didn’t seem at all confident when it came to actually using that equipment. There was still a lot of potential there, but he had the furthest to go until he was really functional.
The two females were definitely more of wild cards. Elyssa could blur someone’s attention to a degree that was actually a little scary. She snuck up on me and almost had me beat before I took my own advice and just started swinging wildly. Eventually a gust of wind tripped her up and she lost her focus when she fell, and from there out it was my game. She took it well enough. She didn’t really seem to have much of an emotional reaction to anything, or what she did have was a little bit off. From what she’d said she routinely used her magic on herself, focusing her attention beyond what a human mind could do unaided or spreading it out so that she was aware of her surroundings to a preternatural degree. If that was the case, I wasn’t surprised that she seemed a little nuts. I of all people should know that prolonged use of magic to alter your own perceptions and thoughts could make you more than a little strange. I was glad to have her on my side, but at the same time, both her magic and her personality were a little bit creepy, even by my standards.
And then there was Tawny. In terms of magic, she was an almost total unknown. From what she’d said, I got the impression that what things were available to her to let in was dependent on a lot of different things—everything from location and time of day to what mood she was in and who was around. She wasn’t willing to summon up anything but the smallest of creatures for sparring, things so fragile and weak that even the other newbies had no trouble taking care of them. At the same time, though, we were all acutely aware that she could probably come up with something that none of us could easily handle if she were willing to face the consequences of doing so. As far as attitude went, she was willing to admit how inexperienced she was, and enthusiastic about changing that. She hadn’t even fully recovered her vision before she was asking me about where she could get some flashbangs of her own, how expensive they were, how they could be used, and so on.
David didn’t participate in the sparring at all. I still had very little idea of what his magic was, beyond a vague sense of movement. Nothing much of his personality showed through the generically pleasant and genial mask.
The sparring went on for several hours. I paired off with everyone other than David at least twice, and then started fighting them two at once when I kept winning. I made sure to be pleasant about it, not doing anything that would make them really hate me, but I didn’t throw any of the matches. That would have been bloody stupid, since I might be depending on these people to cover my ass in the future. I’d rather they not like me very much than that they think they were competent when they weren’t.
Finally, just when David was calling it good and the last fight was wrapping up, he got a call. The senior Guard answered his cell phone and listened for a few minute or so, then hung up with a grin. “Well,” he said. “Looks like we’ll be getting a little more exercise after all. There’s a real-life situation going down a couple of blocks away for us to use for practice dealing with real threats.”
I sighed. Of course there was.