When you summoned something, there was always a certain amount of uncertainty regarding how it was going to appear. With formalized rituals, you could usually make some reasonably confident predictions. When you were just inviting something and hoping it came, it was harder to predict quite what would happen. Sometimes it was huge and dramatic. Sometimes it was closer to Loki’s favorite approach, and they just showed up without any flashy effects at all.
Aiko appeared in a wave of darkness. For an instant everything went dark, like a curtain had been drawn over every spark of light in a three-block radius. I could still sense things, still function, but vision–normal vision, the sort that was based on the perception of light–was utterly impossible.
The darkness lasted for a solid three heartbeats, and then faded, leaving Aiko standing right next to me, close enough that I could feel her breath and she could feel the lack of mine.
She looked like herself, still. But maybe that was me, because the housecarls were staring like they’d seen a ghost. Or, I supposed, a Faerie Queen. Probably I’d had a similar expression the first time I saw Scáthach.
“What’s up?” she said, grinning.
I pointed at the monster and said, “Kill it.” Not my most articulate moment, but it got the point across.
She looked at it, and for an instant, I saw a flicker of fear cross her face. She knew what this thing was. She hadn’t seen the other one the way I had, but she’d seen enough to know just what kind of danger it posed.
Then she went back the cavalier grin she’d shown up with. “You’re really good at getting in trouble,” she said. “You know that, right? All right, let’s do this.”
Then I saw Aiko use her newfound power for the first time.
I loved her. In spite of everything that had happened to both of us, I still loved her.
But even I thought it was freaking terrifying.
The one and only time I’d seen Scáthach fight, she’d gone for a very straightforward, physical assault. That might have been because she’d been fighting Skrýmir at the time, but I thought it probably had more to do with who she was. From what Aiko had said, and what I’d felt myself, taking on a role within a Faerie Court entailed a sort of mutual adjustment. The role bent you into shape to fit into it, but it also bent itself to fit around you.
For Scáthach, being the Maiden of the Midnight Court had meant being swift and aggressive, embodying the predatory hunger and aggression of the Unseelie fae. But Aiko had always been more inclined to misdirection and trickery, and it was in that that the power of the role found its expression in her.
She flicked a finger, I smelled a burst of magic scented with fox and spice and darkness, and things started getting crazy.
It started with ropes and patches of darkness materializing all around the thing from the void, tangling it up. It devoured them in instants, but as many as it eradicated, there was always another waiting. There were sparks of scarlet light scattered through the darkness, casting an eerie crimson light through the area that was just bright enough to see. Not that I really needed the light, since this darkness, born of Midnight power and sculpted by the person that had given me mine, stood out even more sharply to my senses than natural darkness did.
At almost the same instant another burst of power went the other direction, flooding into the people who were standing and watching in shock. As one, in total unison, they stood and started walking away. There was something stiff and mechanical about it, something artificial. It looked like they were puppets, somehow. All things considered, that might have literally been the case. Only Snowflake and the housecarls were unaffected. They were still standing and staring at the unfolding scene.
One of those tendrils of manifest nothingness stretched out towards Aiko, shredding the barriers of darkness and power between them. Without thinking, before I had time to think, I was bolting towards it, moving to intercept it before it could reach her.
Probably a dumb move, given that she was more than fast enough to get out of the way before it could get near her. But I’d always been sort of dumb in some ways.
As I got close, I did another dumb thing without thinking, on reflex. I called Tyrfing to my grasp and brought it over in a sweeping cut at the tendril. I wasn’t really sure why, beyond the fact that a quick cut with Tyrfing had gotten to be my default response to attackers. I knew that this wasn’t really something that could be cut, after all. It was a hole in the world, the concept of void given shape and form. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that a sword wasn’t going to do much against something like that.
Which, in turn, made it even stranger when the thing recoiled from the blade, the tendril snapping back in to its core. It looked slightly ragged, too, the clean edges of the absolute nothingness wavering slightly.
Tyrfing looked as smooth and bright as ever after passing through the abomination. It gleamed bright and hungry in the crimson light, looking like it was drenched in blood though blood had never left a mark on that sword.
I stood there staring in shock, trying to process what had just happened. As such, I was just standing there as two more tendrils snapped out from the abomination and hit me in the chest.
I hadn’t thought that I was really capable of feeling pain anymore.
I was probably right. This wasn’t pain, as such. It was just an overwhelming feeling of wrongness, something vile, spectacularly wrong. It was an alien feeling, something I couldn’t quite grasp or process.
My body collapsed in an instant, ripped to pieces. I was left in an incorporeal state, lacking the means to directly influence what was happening.
“Keep it still,” Aiko said, her voice echoing strangely. I almost heard it more mentally than physically, the meaning of the words reverberating through the bond between us.
Keep it still. Great. Because that was totally a thing I could do. Really.
It seemed like she had a plan, though, and that was a lot more than I could say. So I figured I had to at least try.
There was snow around, but I didn’t have time to form a decent body. Hell, I probably didn’t want to. This thing was terrifyingly fast to retaliate, and I did not want to let it hit me again. I was mostly invulnerable, but considering just what I was dealing with, I didn’t think it was a good time to put that mostly to the test. That meant that staying in one body for more than a few instants was a bad idea. I couldn’t trade hits with something from the void; that left hit-and-run as the only viable option available to me.
So rather than the snow and ice, I reached for darkness, slipping into the cords and sheets of Midnight power Aiko was throwing around.
I found them to be a surprisingly good host. Or not surprisingly, maybe. I still didn’t have the best grasp on how this champion gig worked, but it seemed clear that the Midnight Court’s name wasn’t just an affectation. It sort of made sense that tying myself so closely to the Court would leave me with a connection to the dark magic it used as well.
Only a few seconds after I collapsed, a vaguely humanoid form stretched out of the darkness behind the abomination, nothing fully real about it except for the shining blade in its hand. I swept Tyrfing through another of its tendrils, then ceased concentrating and let my body dissipate into a few wisps of shadow. The sword fell to the snow an instant before it ripped that patch of darkness apart, a few seconds too late to catch me.
The next minute or so was a tense, fast-moving stalemate. I jumped from one shadow to the next, occasionally even sculpting a loose body out of snow, always slashing at its tendrils with Tyrfing. Every time I hit one it recoiled in what seemed to be pain, reabsorbing that tendril into its core, although since it was constantly absorbing and extruding tendrils anyway the effect was rather minimal. I could do a bit to slow it down, but I wasn’t really affecting it in a meaningful way. Cutting the core might have done more, but even if I’d been willing to get that close to it, there was nothing there to manifest out of.
Meanwhile, Aiko was throwing out a constant stream of darkness, replacing the shadows as fast as the abomination could remove them. She took a moment to throw up a wall of darkness just past the housecarls, as well, keeping any well-intentioned morons from rushing in and getting themselves killed. Occasionally she tried something else, flinging blasts of magic at it. I understood about half of them–force, lightning, dark fires–while the other half were more abstract, fae magics. Or, hell, maybe kitsune magics; it wasn’t like I’d understood what Kuzunoha did all that much better. Regardless, nothing she did seemed to be having an effect on it, beyond the minimal slowing effect that the solid darkness had. Again, she could inconvenience the thing, maybe, but that was all.
For its part, the abomination seemed to be focused on me. For a while it tried to hit me before I could cease manifesting, but after a few tries it seemed to figure out that it couldn’t react quickly enough to reach me before I abandoned a body and moved on. Instead, it started lashing out wildly in all directions, cutting through large swaths of the darkness and hoping to catch me by chance.
It worked a few times. I took some more hits, shattering bodies before I could do anything with them. More than that, though, they seemed to be having a cumulative effect. It was getting harder to manifest a body for myself, and slower. I was getting clumsy. The last two times I’d missed when I went to cut at it.
I wasn’t sure how much of that was the damage from the abomination adding up, and how much was just me getting tired. I hadn’t felt fatigue in the physical sense for a long time, now–hell, even before I’d lost my real body, I hadn’t had much of a fatigue response. But I could still get tired, mentally, and there were still limits to how hard I could push myself.
I hadn’t done this before, hadn’t tried to weave together anywhere near this many bodies in such a short time. As it turned out, there were limits to that as well. I didn’t think I could manage very many more without a long rest.
This wasn’t working.
I tried to think of something, anything else that I could do in this situation, and took a tendril to the face for my distraction. I shattered again, and this time that feeling of wrongness lingered for several seconds. It was something like an intense nausea and a splitting headache, except that it was a purely mental thing, like someone dragging their nails over the chalkboard inside my head. I transitioned to another patch of shadow, and even that took a couple seconds of concerted effort.
I couldn’t keep this up much longer.
I gritted my teeth–well, metaphorically, but teeth were engrained enough in my self-image that I still had them even when I existed only as a concept waiting to find expression–and prepared myself for another attempt.
Then I suddenly heard something. “Winter!” Aiko shouted, her voice coming to me in a strangely warbling, almost unreal way. If I hadn’t had the mental and emotional echo from my connection to the Midnight Court I might not have understood at all. “Get out of there!”
It took me a second to grasp what she meant, and then a couple more to actually do it, shifting my focus to a patch of snow in the shadow of a building. Or half a building, at least. It seemed like the upper half had largely been obliterated by a stroke from the abomination.
As I was lying there, trying to work up enough energy to build a physical shell to inhabit, I finally saw what Aiko had been planning.
All that time while the abomination was swinging at me, it had been leaving those trails of nothing behind itself. They didn’t seem to be permanent, but they lingered.
What neither of us had realized was that Aiko hadn’t been throwing that darkness around at random. On the contrary, they’d been very precisely placed. And as it kept trying to hit me, it had been unwittingly following the path of that darkness.
It had, in essence, been duped into drawing an enormous and elaborate geometric diagram around itself, one which still hung in the air as a three-dimensional image in the form of those trails of nothingness.
Now, Aiko threw her hands out, and once again I smelled a burst of incredibly powerful magic. Ropes of darkness spiraled along those trails, outlining and somehow feeding off of them in a way that I couldn’t quite grasp.
She twisted that magic, leveraging it, and the entire space inside the diagram–including the entirety of the abomination–shifted, turning into utter blackness filled with sparks and streamers of light in every color I could imagine, and some I couldn’t.
It took me a second to realize what I was looking at, and when I did I wanted to laugh.
It was the void. Or rather, the void as Coyote had shown it to me, with enough buffers that mortal eyes could look upon it without the mind behind them being rendered into confetti. We weren’t meant to look at something that fundamental.
Things stayed that way for the space of a long breath. Then Aiko clapped her hands together, and with another surge of power, the hole she’d opened in reality sealed itself shut again. The void, and the eternal chaos that danced within it, were gone.
So was the abomination, leaving nothing behind but the slowly fading streaks of nothingness that it had carved into the world.
We’d done it. Unbelievably, we’d actually managed to drive the thing off.
I almost wanted to laugh as I slowly, painfully began assembling another body from ice and snow and darkness.