The instant that thing appeared, the nature of the fight changed. Dramatically.
Before that point, it was pretty much a joke, and one that was played most of the way out. The advantage had been tipped so far in my favor that there really wasn’t any kind of contest.
After it showed up, that had pretty much completely reversed itself. It was still a fight between two wildly different weight classes. But I wasn’t on the winning side.
I’d seen one of these things before, once. It was bad enough that Loki—Loki—had felt the need to bring help to deal with it. I’d gotten a lot stronger, but I was still several orders of magnitude short of Loki’s scale. If he needed backup, I was not remotely capable of winning this fight. Or even surviving it.
I kept running, but changed direction, cutting across at an angle towards the others rather than running straight forward.
I’d already noted that I could run pretty freaking fast in this body. I was a lot stronger and a lot lighter than a normal human, and between the two I could set a pace much faster than anything I’d been able to manage as a human. Add in an edge of raw terror, and I could really book it.
None of them had even started to stand before I reached them. It was that fast.
I grabbed Snowflake and tossed her away from the thing, then kept moving, bowling the housecarls over with sheer momentum. I fell down, and it took me a second to extricate myself from the pile.
When I did, I was glad that I’d prioritized things how I had. The tendrils extending from it had already reached the cafe, writhing slowly in ways that almost—but not quite—formed regular patterns. They left streaks of that same not-darkness in the air behind them, places where things started to seem less than fully real.
It was moving faster than I remembered. The last one had moved slowly enough that I could outrun it, and that had been when I was a lot slower than this. Compared to this one, that thing had been moving in slow motion. If I hadn’t reacted as quickly as I had, somebody would already have taken one of those tendrils to the face.
I could still remember what being touched by one of those things felt like. The scars had gone away with the rest of my body. But my left hand still twitched a little at the thought. That had been a really, really bad day.
If I got very lucky, I wasn’t about to have a worse one.
“Loki,” I said as I pushed myself up. “Loki, Loki…come on, of all the times to not be listening, you picked this?”
“No,” Loki said, appearing out of nowhere right next to me. He didn’t offer me a hand up, unsurprisingly. “I’m watching.”
I noticed that things had stopped. Everything had stopped, with the sole exception of the void-beast, which was still moving, albeit slowly.
How did that even make sense? It had been moving quickly before, but not that quickly. Why was it still moving when Loki had warped time around us?
“You want to deal with that thing, then?” I asked.
“No,” he said, watching it with a cheerful, lopsided smile. “Not particularly.”
I paused. “I thought keeping these things out of the world was kind of important to you guys?”
“Oh, it is,” Loki assured me. “I won’t actually let it get out. For the moment, though, I’m more interested to see what you do about it. This one is considerably weaker than the last you saw. Even in the worst case it’ll only destroy a part of the continent. It’s an acceptable risk.”
I blinked. “Wait, what?”
“You heard me,” he said cheerfully. “Do try to keep up.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do to that thing?” I demanded.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” he said cheerfully. “It’s not like you have to fight it. Just make it go away.”
“Make it go away,” I repeated. “And…how am I supposed to do that?”
“You’ll figure something out,” he said again. “Just remember, the worst case scenario is all of your friends dying horribly, your city being annihilated, and everything you’ve spent your life building being laid to waste.” He grinned. “Oh, and you might want to get ready. You’ve got about…ten seconds before time goes back to normal for you.”
I wanted to scream at him, or plead, or do any number of other things.
But I believed him when he said that I only had about ten seconds before things got crazy again. And I could afford to waste any of that time on feeling sorry for myself.
I wasn’t entirely sure what I should, or even really could, do in this situation. But the first step, at least, was fairly obvious to me, and I figured I could sort out the rest after that.
So while I was waiting for those ten seconds to expire, I took a couple steps further away from the void-thing and drew a quick circle in the snow. It was harder than it should have been, probably because they weren’t in the same reference frame I was for the passage of time. From their perspective, I was trying to move them at an incredible speed.
But after a second, I managed to make it work, and stood in the middle of a circle in the snow. I bit one of my fingertips, drawing something that was…well, not blood. Ice-cold water and liquid darkness and something a little more indefinable just under the surface. It was as close as I was likely to come to having blood again.
I touched that thick, heavy fluid to the circle, throwing power into it as I did. It was sloppy, manifesting physically as a burst of cold, a faint wash of darkness in the air. But it got the job done, and I was in too much of a rush to care about efficiency.
I stood up again as the world wavered and then started to move again. People were just starting to scream and run. It felt like it had been a painfully long time since the thing showed up, but objectively it had only been a few seconds.
It started to move faster as time skipped a beat and then resumed its normal flow. One tendril swept through a car, not even slowing, and then carved a hole in the ground before retracting.
“Aiko,” I muttered, tapping that well of Midnight power in me and pulling. “Aiko, Aiko. Come on, I could really use a hand here.”
I pulled a little harder, and felt something rip. Darkness flooded into me, like a hemorrhage in reverse, and I gasped.
The world went black.