Our first few seconds on that island were one of the most brutal, decisive openings to a fight that I’d ever seen. They hadn’t seen us at all, didn’t have a clue that the shit was about to hit the fan.
The mercenaries were on a boat, in the middle of landing, at moving targets. It wasn’t a situation that lent itself well to precise marksmanship.
But there were quite a few of them, and they were good at their job. The shots were mostly on target. The Lighters’ body armor stopped a lot of it–that stuff really was high-quality–but enough hit vulnerable spots or just got lucky that it had a visible effect. People started falling.
As they started to react, the gunfire stopped. That wasn’t a particularly good thing for the Lighters. The werewolves–loners, who for one reason or another wouldn’t or couldn’t be in a regular pack, but were willing to work for me–were the first to reach them. As was the usual approach for werewolves in a mixed group, they didn’t really concern themselves with injuring the enemy, as such. They focused on chaos and disruption, knocking people down and tossing them around, moving too quickly for the counterattack to land. The jötnar and the ghouls, following close behind them, could capitalize on that. The mages I’d brought would, hopefully, be able to counter any tricks the Lighters pulled out, and the mercenaries could shoot anyone who ran.
That left me, Snowflake, and Aiko to take care of the enemy mages. That was about what we’d planned. They were the real threat here, the same as Aiko and I were the meaningful power on our side. The mages I’d brought were good, but I wasn’t expecting them to be the match of the people we were fighting. Everyone else was…largely irrelevant, basically.
They weren’t unconscious from the portal. That was the first thing I noticed, as I approached them, running forward and then sidestepping into and through a patch of shadow. None of the four were unconscious. They didn’t even seem discomfited. I could only think of a very few explanations for that, and none of them were good.
I got to them fast–faster than Snowflake, even, and that was saying something. They were already reacting by that point, though. One of them, a pale blond man with a nice suit and a smile that probably cost more than a lot of cars, looked in my direction, and then golden flame blossomed in the air between us.
I could have blocked it. I was reasonably confident of that. It should be straightforward; cold and darkness to counter the flame, making it a straightforward contest of power. I was probably considerably stronger than he was, considering the well of Midnight power I could draw on. If any of it did get through, I could cut it out of the air with Tyrfing.
It should be straightforward, simple, and relatively safe. But I was used to thinking of myself as weaker, in terms of pure magical power, than a competent mage. And then again, there was a chance that my estimate was wildly wrong. I kept thinking about how they weren’t affected by the portal, and then there was the fact that the whole reason I’d gotten into this was that someone had summoned something from the void. The implication was…disturbing.
So rather than try to block it, I dodged. A quick sidestep, a jaunt through the dark place that I could find behind any given shadow now, and I was on the other side of them, with the Atlantic at my back.
It was already getting to be second nature. I didn’t really even have to think about the process, didn’t have to make a conscious effort to do anything. It was just a matter of intending to be somewhere else, and then letting action follow intent.
I was stepping out of the other shadow while the fire was still fading where I’d been a moment earlier. I saw them start to relax, thinking that they’d gotten me, that the very first thing they tried had been enough to kill me. And I saw the sudden fear in their eyes as they realized what had actually just happened.
Snowflake didn’t have freaky teleportation, but she was still fast. Faster than anyone had a right to be, really, and it had a definite tendency to catch people by surprise. These guys were used to things that were supernaturally fast, though, and they were ready for it. Even though she was reaching them just as the fire died, they were still able to react in time. One of them, an Asian girl with a serious face whose magic smelled like smog, threw out her hands, and Snowflake flew backwards in midair.
It was not, I thought, just a blast of force. It looked more like it had reversed her momentum, reversing her direction of travel. She was good, to do that on the fly; that kind of spell was fairly standard in permanent wards, but it was too complex for most people to do without a lot of setup. I had to admit, I was impressed.
I did not, of course, let that stop me from stepping forward and shattering it with Tyrfing.
She fell back, while the blond guy threw another fireball at me. Once again, I dove aside, into and through a shadow, and then I was approaching them from another direction.
The inconsistent illumination here was good, at least for me. It meant that there was lots of darkness, places that the shadows were thick enough to act as doors. It also meant that their vision was impaired, made it harder for them to spot me again. Needless to say, the darkness wasn’t a problem for my eyes. Not anymore. This power might come with a hefty price tag attached, but damn, it was useful.
And that was when Aiko got there.
She wasn’t running, wasn’t even walking particularly quickly. She slouched lazily, her weapons still sheathed, hands hanging loose at her sides. One of the Lighters managed to focus on her long enough to get a shot off before being dragged back into the fray; she didn’t even react as it ricocheted off her armor.
And yet for all of that, she still looked…scary. Once you looked close enough, she looked scary. Her shadow was too tall, and crooked, managing to look strange and inhuman while still somehow lining up with her proportions in every particular. She didn’t look like she was moving fast, but it only took her a few seconds to walk across the island.
The fire mage tried to set her on fire. The flames just sat on her armor for a second without doing much of anything, and then blinked out.
“You guys are kind of annoying,” Aiko commented mildly.
“What are you doing?” Reese asked. Unlike the rest of the mages, he wasn’t moving, didn’t seem to have reacted to the fight at all.
“I’m giving you a chance to back down,” Aiko said. “See, normally I’d just murderize you. But at the moment my frustration with having to be responsible and do a job outweighs my annoyance at not just annihilating you, and I’m pretty sure that the ‘murderize’ option is more in line with being the Lady of the Midnight Court. So you get a chance to not die. Guess it’s your lucky day, huh?”
“I meant, what are you doing helping them?” Reese asked. “This is an unprovoked assault on a neutral party. I expect that kind of thing from a lot of people, but not from the Courts. This isn’t your fight.”
“You made it my fight,” she said. Her tone was still light and cheery, but there was something about it that wasn’t pleasant at all. A couple of the mages actually shivered when they heard it, and I couldn’t blame them. If I were on the receiving end of that voice, from her, I’d probably be pretty terrified too.
“Hang on a second,” I said, walking up next to her. “Do you actually not recognize me?”
Reese frowned. “Should I?”
“Well, seeing as you killed me, maybe just a little,” I said dryly.
He stared for a second. Then he said, “Oh. It’s you.”
And then things started getting crazy again.
Generally mages had abilities that were based around some specific, tangible thing. You could learn to do other things with magic, but it was harder, and there would always be some connection to the trick that came most naturally to you. So you got fire mages, and force mages, people that specialized in wind or electricity. Sometimes people favored more abstract concepts, like shamans or a lot of witches. Sometimes that focus was something that wasn’t so easy to define.
I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen someone who specialized in space before.
What Reese did then wasn’t teleportation, as such. I’d always been told that genuine teleportation took power on the level of a deity, and as far as I knew that was accurate. This was more a matter of folding space so that two points were closer together than they ought to be, and then simply stepping from one to the other without interacting with the space in between.
The practical result, though, was much the same. In less than a second, he was on the other side of the island. And all the rest of the mages had scattered, too, leaving behind nothing but some lingering fires and the scent of magic.
Again, I had to admit I was impressed. I’d never really looked into that sort of trick, but it couldn’t be easy; the only people I’d seen who could do something similar were the champions of the Faerie Courts, and even then it was rather limited. Doing it for four different people at once was…well, it was a hell of a trick.
I started to head for the closest of them, a Middle Eastern woman who hadn’t really done much yet. Before I’d taken more than a couple of steps, Reese pulled out a shotgun and pulled the trigger.
I should have had plenty of time to dodge, at that distance. I thought I did. That hadn’t been accounting for the fact that he did the same thing in reverse, convincing the universe that A and C didn’t really need a B in between long enough for the shotgun to effectively go off six inches from my head.
I collapsed back into a pile of snow, before I’d even realized what happened. Luckily, this island was pretty thoroughly covered in snow as well, and the spiritual representation I saw had almost no dark spots. I shifted myself to another patch of snow, just behind one of the female mages, and started to manifest another body.
Before I’d managed more than an arm and a half, a burst of fire came down and turned that entire drift to steam, shunting me right back into the spiritual side of things.
Well. That could be a problem.
“Okay,” Aiko said, her voice echoing strangely to me from across that divide. “You want to do things the hard way? Fair enough. Should be fun.”
She grinned, and every light on the island died, all at once. The fires went out, the electric lights exploded into sparks, and in seconds it was pitch black. That didn’t last for more than a few moments before it was lit with sharp crimson light, constantly shifting and dancing. The lights didn’t stay in the same second for more than a second at a time, leaving the island in a constant state of flux. It was more disorienting than pure darkness; you could get used to darkness. This? Not so much.
After that, the fight got crazy. Crazier, even. Reese was bouncing all of his people around like crazy, to an extent that I wouldn’t have thought possible. None of the mages stood in one place for longer than it took to get a shot off, and while the space mage was visibly tiring after just a few repetitions of that, he kept going. Meanwhile, I was stepping through shadows or reassembling myself from snow and darkness every few seconds, between trying to catch them in one of those moments of stillness and getting hit hard enough to necessitate a new body.
In spite of that, though, I was grinning wildly. This was a real fight, a real challenge; I hadn’t quite realized how much I missed that. Since I came back as…this, the only fights I’d been in had been against the Lighters or the thing from the void. The first were no challenge, and the second was nothing that I could really oppose. This was…somewhere in between.
They were still losing, though. They could annoy me, and slow me down, but nothing they were doing could really stop me; short of melting all the snow on this island and lighting it up so bright there was no shadow for me to occupy, I could just keep coming back. Snowflake was too fast to hit, and Aiko was…well. Out of their league was putting it mildly.
And that was just on this side. The other fight, which was taking place in exactly the same space, was going even more poorly for the other guys. The Lighters were outnumbered, surrounded, and utterly out of their depth in this kind of fight. Most of them were down in the first few moments, and the rest weren’t doing a whole lot better.
Snowflake, oddly, was the first person to land a decisive blow. She got lucky, or Reese was distracted at a critical moment, and the fire mage landed a little too close to her. He tried to run, and he tried to set her aflame, but he was too slow and Aiko caught the fire and snuffed it out before it ever got close.
Then Snowflake jumped on him. Metal claws and teeth flashed in the crimson light, blood flowed, and the mage was on the ground with one arm in Snowflake’s jaws. She kept mauling him for a second before the force mage did something really clever involving redirecting the energy of a shotgun blast from halfway across the island into the husky and tore her loose. Snowflake went flying and landed ten feet away, but the fire mage was still lying on the ground and bleeding heavily.
The first person to react to the development was the last mage, the one who hadn’t really done much. I thought she was a witch of some sort, the sort of person that did mental or emotional magic. She smelled like it, and I thought I might have felt her trying to trip me up a few times in the fight. But I’d never been easy to affect with that kind of attack, and somehow I didn’t think it had gotten any easier since I took another step away from humanity.
She shouted something in a language I didn’t recognize, and I braced myself for whatever she was doing.
But nothing happened, and I didn’t smell any particular magic, and after a second I realized that she wasn’t pulling out some terrifying piece of work that I hadn’t expected. She was just shouting.
The response was still very noticeable. Reese did his thing again, and they were all standing over the maimed guy. It was the first time they’d bunched up since this whole thing started.
Reese looked exhausted. He’d managed a hell of a lot, but it had clearly taken something out of him. He looked like he could barely stand, and the rest of them weren’t a whole lot better off.
Huh. It hadn’t occurred to me that this fight had really gone on that long. I wasn’t tired, wasn’t breathing hard–hell, I wasn’t even breathing. But I could feel that Snowflake was feeling it, too.
Reese gestured, and a portal opened next to them. I’d noticed that he was ridiculously fast about opening them in the past. It made a lot more sense now that I knew what he actually did.
None of them seemed happy about running, but they didn’t argue. The Asian girl, the one who had such a knack for redirecting kinetic energy, was the first to go for it, stepping into the portal.
Then Aiko snapped her fingers, and the portal…wasn’t. That patch of absolute blackness, the hole Reese had pulled open in the world’s fabric, wasn’t there.
I’d heard a lot about how dangerous those portals were. I’d never actually seen what happened when one failed, though.
The girl had only had one arm and one leg through when Aiko closed the door. Those limbs weren’t there anymore. They didn’t look like they’d been cut off, as such. It was more like looking at a diagram in an anatomy textbook that decided to use a really odd angle for the picture. Just below the knee and elbow, respectively, the limbs just…stopped. It was perfectly smooth and straight, slicing through flesh and bone impossibly cleanly.
She fell straight forward, her leg simply not there to bear her weight anymore. And then the bleeding started.
It stopped an instant later, after a single dramatic arterial spurt. Caps of solid darkness wrapped themselves around the ends of the limbs, sealing them off before she could bleed out.
“Better stop now,” Aiko called to them. “Even if you manage to run, it’ll only take a couple seconds for her to bleed to death without those. Surrender and you might all make it off this island alive.”
Reese didn’t look happy about it at all. But at the end of the day, he was a decent guy. He didn’t want to condemn a friend to death.
The fact that half his team was now incapacitated, the Lighters were done for, and Aiko demonstrably had the ability to close off his escape routes probably played a role, too. But I really thought that the other would have been enough on its own. Even when he’d been trying to kill me, I’d always gotten the impression that he was basically an all right guy.
“We’ll surrender,” he said.