“Don’t you want to talk this one over,” I said, backing away a little. “I know the other guy said no, but he’s not here. You could stop for a chat, I could explain things….”
“Not interested,” the woman with the fire said. She flexed her fingers, and the fire flared up brighter and hotter.
“Not even a little bit,” the guy added, as another shadowy dog-thing began to weave itself into shape beside him. This time I felt him pulling matter in from the Otherside, infusing the shadows with enough reality to let them take on a physical form that could have some semblance of an independent existence.
“Okay,” I said. “Suit yourself.”
Then I lunged forward and slammed my knife home to the hilt in the nearest construct’s chest. I’d rather have gone for one of the mages, but they were out of easy reach, and likely to be protected against such a simple attack anyway.
But I stabbed the one construct, and then slashed through another’s neck, and in just a couple seconds both of them were collapsing into darkness, dust, and a trace of slime. At the same time I was gathering the cold around myself, and I slipped a thin piece of slate out of my pocket with my off hand. I was already twisting out of the way as the next blast of fire came in, the cold insulating me from any heat that might have managed to hurt me even if it hadn’t hit. I threw the knife as I dodged, in time with the movement, and while it wasn’t half so impressive as it looked in the movies, I at least managed to cut one of the constructs.
All of that happened in just a couple of seconds. I was rather pleased, all things considered. I might be outclassed, but I was still good at this game.
I drew a quick design on the slate, arming it, then threw it at the woman’s feet. It exploded in a burst of sound and noise not unlike a flashbang. She cried out and staggered away, and I was already turning back to the constructs, drawing another knife. One of them bit my left arm, leaving bruises even though its teeth couldn’t penetrate the layers of armor. I stabbed it in the eye and tried to shake it off, but its jaws were still clamped down tightly even as its body started collapsing in on itself. The weight slowed me down, threw me off, and another of the creatures managed to pull my left out from under me.
I hit the ground, fairly hard, and more of them started piling on. I tried to slash with the knife, but they were pinning me down, and one of them managed to knock the knife out of my hand. They still weren’t getting through the armor, but those things hit hard. They were leaving bruises as they bit and slapped at me, possibly even breaking bones, and the woman wasn’t going to be incapacitated much longer.
Then Crimson finally got her bearings and kicked into gear. She pulled a fused loop of rubber out of her pocket and threw it on the ground, stepping into the circle it formed as she gathered her magic. It was a surprisingly quick, fluid series of actions, considering how little time she’d had to practice it.
She threw her power against the world, and tore a hole in it a moment later. From my angle I didn’t get much of a glimpse at what came through, beyond that it was small and red. One of the constructs leapt up and bit it out of the air, and it squawked like a chicken made out of scrap metal as the dog-thing tore it to pieces.
I recognized the next thing she brought through, a barely-present wisp that was visible only as a slight distortion in the air, and smelled like rushing wind and freedom. It was an air spirit, a creature from the Otherside that had only a marginal physical presence. They were weak, but hard to detect and harder to stop; there were few barriers that an air spirit couldn’t get through with enough trying.
The constructs didn’t even have to get involved this time. The man who made them flicked his fingers, and a cord of shadow and force formed in the air to follow the motion, lashing through the air spirit. It dispersed, and by the time it was reforming it was already slipping sideways from the world. It wanted nothing to do with him, and Crimson wasn’t remotely powerful enough to keep an air spirit somewhere it didn’t want to be.
A moment later, the other mage stepped into view. She wasn’t fully recovered yet—she was leaning on one of the constructs to stay standing, and even so she was staggering quite a bit. But she was there, and the fire was burning all around her, sliding across her skin much like it had been the first time I’d seen her.
I grimaced, and got ready to call Tyrfing and just start swinging. I knew I wasn’t supposed to use the sword in this persona, but this situation was getting too real. If it came down to a choice between losing my position with the Guards or dying, it was a pretty easy choice for me to make.
Then Crimson said, “All right, you assholes, you asked for this.”
We all turned to look at her. I wasn’t entirely sure why; there was just something in her voice, a note of confidence that made me take notice.
And then I saw what happened when she opened a door that wasn’t so small.
It started the same way. The air in front of her seemed to warp, and twist, and then there was something else there.
This was just…a rather more impressive something than the last few.
It looked human, in its general shape. Two arms, two legs, and a head, even of more or less the right shape and size. It was about my height, and even thinner than me, which took some doing anymore.
That was about it, though. Once you got past the surface level, the most obvious features, it looked nothing like a human being. Its skin was grey and rough, something like an intermediate stage between skin and granite. One eye was sort of normal, though also rather greyed; the other was a pale, featureless sphere that looked something like bone or ivory. Its limbs were long, and they moved strangely, in a way which suggested something very odd beneath the surface. When it bent its legs, they creaked, in a way that sounded something like stone under strain, and something like the shocks of a car.
And yet for all of that, it was clearly not totally alien. It was dressed, wearing a heavy coat that had been worn to rags, and skins that looked like no animal I could name.
I’d seen some crazy things in my life. I was pretty much more comfortable in the presence of monsters than people. And if I’d seen this thing on the street, I’d have given some serious thought to turning and walking the other way.
The reaction of the mages was instant and violent. The woman blasted it with fire, easily as intense as the first hit she’d thrown at me, and the man directed three of his creations to leap at it.
None of it did a thing to the creature. The fire left some of the clothing smoldering, but that was about it. What good was setting fire to something that might very well be made of stone? Similarly, the constructs had no luck. They were strong, but they hadn’t been able to get through my armor, and I was getting the impression this creature was nothing but armor.
It looked slow and lumbering, with the stony skin and the odd limbs. That impression was dangerously mistaken. When it moved, it was faster than me, and it hit like a freaking truck. Its fist caved in the skull of the first construct in an instant, then it threw the next one against the wall of the alley so hard it splattered, then picked the third one up and shook it, like a dog shakes a rat. I could hear things break inside it, and when it dropped the construct, it was already dissolving into nothing.
As I struggled to get out from under the constructs on top of me, I found myself almost idly trying to figure out whether I could take the thing Crimson had called up. I thought so—I had the advantage of reach, and I was guessing that my armor and natural toughness could take a hit from it more easily than it could take a hit from Tyrfing. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, by any means; if I slipped up, that was a fight that could turn against me very, very quickly.
The woman threw more fire at it, stronger this time, but it didn’t do a whole lot more. The creature’s skin cracked and scorched a little, but it didn’t seem to feel any pain. It wasn’t slowing down, anyway.
The man muttered to himself, drawing more power together into something that felt a good bit more substantial than the dog-things. Before he could finish, though, the creature pulled something out from under its tattered clothing and threw it at his face.
It looked like a lizard, in about the same way as the other thing looked like a human. It was about as big as my head, with scales the brilliant, vivid colors of precious stones. It was clawing at his face, and it was drawing blood. More blood than claws that size should have been able to draw.
He screamed and pulled it off, and it pulled chunks of skin with it, leaving small bleeding holes in his face. He threw it at the wall, but it twisted in midair, hit the wall feet-first, and stuck. It raised a ruff of skin, something like that of a frilled lizard, and hissed. Its teeth were disproportionately long.
More of the constructs jumped at the humanoid creature, some even leaving me behind to go after it instead. They died, insomuch as death was a valid concept for something that had never lived.
The mages started to run. They were understandably reluctant to go past Crimson and her minion, but I was still down, and they managed to get by me. I tried to reach out and grab one of their ankles, but ended up just getting one of the constructs.
I pulled it down and broke it as the others ran away, mostly just to reassure myself that I could. I was feeling a little insecure after watching that performance.
The lizard leapt over to the humanoid creature, who stroked its neck delicately before tucking it back under its clothing. They started after the fleeing mages, with Crimson looking like she was thinking about following.
“No,” I said, standing. “Let them go. You don’t want to chase them.”
I could tell that Crimson wasn’t so sure, but she didn’t fight me. “All right,” she said. “Time for you guys to go back home.”
“No,” the humanoid creature said, startling me a little. It sounded so…normal. There was a hint of howling winds in it, but by and large it just sounded like a person. The voice was feminine, a bit high-pitched, but very human, overall. It sounded more normal than I did, a lot of the time. “I don’t want to go back there.” The lizard hissed what sounded a hell of a lot like agreement, poking its head out from under the cloth.
“You have to,” Crimson said. I could feel her starting to work her magic again, doing something that felt even stranger than when she brought things through. Before it hadn’t taken her more than a moment to dismiss the creatures she brought, but apparently the process was more involved with “larger” creatures.
“Hang on a second,” I said, walking closer. “Who are you? Or maybe I should ask, who were you?”
“I don’t know,” it—she?—said. Her voice had an odd catch, not quite a stutter, though that was the closest word I could think of. It was more like listening to a skipping audio playback; her voice would catch on a sound and repeat it a few times rapidly before moving on. “I forget.”
“But you are a person?” I pressed.
“Give it up,” Crimson said, sounding almost pitying. “It’s a monster.”
“So am I,” I reminded her. “Besides, I don’t think she’s quite as monstrous as you’re giving her credit for.” I sniffed, and got about what I’d expected. Her magic smelled like dust and stone, howling winds and bone, but under that there was just the tiniest trace of human disinfectant. “You were human once, weren’t you?”
She nodded, an odd gesture that didn’t seem quite human. Or at all, really. “I was. A long time ago.”
Crimson reeled like she’d been slapped. The creature—whatever the hell she was; I didn’t have a name for her, but human was definitely a past-tense sort of thing for her—took advantage of the momentary lapse in concentration to bolt. She scrambled up the side of the building at a pace that a human would have to work to match on level ground and bolted for the other side.
“Oh, shit,” Crimson said, staring after her. “It’s a person?”
“Was,” I corrected, though that wasn’t entirely correct. I was guessing she was still a person, at least under a loose enough definition of the word. “Come on, we’d better catch her.”
“Why?” she asked, not moving.
“I’m something of an expert on monsters that used to be people,” I said dryly. “I’m not saying that you have to send her back to wherever the hell she came from, but we probably ought to get more information than this before you decide not to.”
“Right,” she said, nodding. “You think we can catch her? She was moving pretty fast….”
“Yeah, I think we can manage something,” I said. “You can drive, right?”
“Good.” I pulled a set of keys out of my pocket and tossed them to her. She caught them out of the air. “Let’s get moving. Oh, and Crim?”
“Thanks for the save,” I said.
Even behind the mask, I could see her grinning at that. Regardless of what name she was using at the moment, Tawny was obviously desperate for praise.
I almost felt bad about exploiting that need for validation. But I was guessing it would distract her enough that she didn’t ask too many of the wrong questions, which made it worth it.