I showed up five hours early. Somewhat to my surprise, I was the first one there. It was pretty early, even by my standards, but I’d sort of been expecting someone to be there waiting for me. It was…bizarrely comforting when there wasn’t.
I had, briefly, considered bringing an army, and just burying the place in bodies. Numbers were, in the end, a hell of an advantage. But there were too many reasons not to. I wasn’t sure how Reese would react if I showed up with that kind of force, or whether this window of opportunity was even long enough to get an army through the portal. Even if they could get in, it sounded like this hideout was the kind of hostile environment that would rip a group of less experienced people to shreds, which meant that bringing them was pretty much just throwing lives away for nothing.
And then there was…another consideration. Jason, apparently, knew how to rip someone’s magic out and use it for himself. That was a trick that I didn’t have much of a way to deal with, and it meant that cannon fodder was not a great idea on this trip. It was, potentially, an extremely bad idea.
So I was leaving the thugs at home, this time around. It was going to be just me, Aiko, and Snowflake–plus, of course, Reese, since I didn’t really see a way to leave him behind. It would almost have felt like old times, were there not quite so many things that could never be the way they had back then.
I knew that this was liable to be a long wait, so for once I’d actually brought something to do rather than just sit there. In this case, that something was dice. Snowflake still cheated, and I still didn’t know how.
We’d been sitting at the assigned departure point for close to four hours, and Snowflake was several hundred imaginary dollars ahead, when a portal opened in the air next to us. Reese stepped through a moment later.
I was more than slightly jealous of that. The departure point, in this case, was a seemingly random patch of scrubland in the middle of Mexico. Getting there had entailed a portal, a bus ride, and a lengthy hike. Being able to just step through and be there as simply as that sounded incredibly pleasant by comparison.
“You ready?” I asked, looking him over. He did not look like he was ready for a massive, life-or-death invasion of an extremely fortified private world. He looked more like he was getting ready for a day hike. All he needed to complete the image was socks with sandals, rather than heavy boots.
He was carrying a pistol, though. And I’d learned a long time ago not to underestimate people on the basis of their appearance.
“I’m ready,” he said. “You?”
I shrugged. “As I’m going to be,” I said. “I don’t really know what to expect.”
He paused, then shrugged. “It’ll be about what you’d expect,” he said. “But worse.”
“Delightful,” I said dryly. “Nothing to do but get it over with, I guess.”
Reese nodded, and then sat down with us to play dice. I was a little surprised by that, but I didn’t want to actually turn him away.
As I learned over the next thirty minutes, he cheated, too. Not as well as Snowflake, who still had a sizable lead, but he did better than me. I was several thousand imaginary dollars in the hole by the time the next portal opened. This one smelled like fae magic, sharp and sweet and touched with darkness; presumably, Aiko had gotten one of her minions to open it. As far as I knew, she didn’t know any portal destinations anywhere near here.
It was her, though. She stepped through the portal and hit me with a flying tackle that promptly turned into a forceful hug. Once she was satisfied with that, she turned to Snowflake and spent a while scratching the husky’s ears. Finally, a solid five minutes after she showed up, she turned her attention to Reese and said, “Hi.”
The space mage glanced at his wristwatch in a rather exaggerated way, then looked at Aiko. “Cutting it a bit close,” he said, in a tone that conveyed disapproval more clearly than any words he could have said.
She shrugged carelessly. “I’m here on time, aren’t I?” she asked. Then she looked at me. “You’re wearing the armor,” she commented.
I shrugged. “I wasn’t sure whether there would be anything to make a body from where we’re going,” I said. “It seemed like a good idea to put a bit more thought into keeping this one intact.” I was wearing my cloak of shadows, too, and carrying a fairly substantial set of physical kit. The weight of the armor, the feeling of the cloak moving with me, was…oddly comforting.
“Makes sense,” she said. “But mostly I meant that you’re wearing the armor here. In the desert. I just showed up and I’m already too hot.”
“Funny thing about that,” I said, grinning. “You know how I can make an area colder? Well, this armor’s almost airtight.”
Hang on, Snowflake said. You have air conditioning in there?
Pretty much, I confirmed.
The husky stared at me for a moment. I hate you so much right now, she said.
“If you’re done, we are on a tight schedule here,” Reese said dryly.
My smile faded, and I nodded.
I was already kitted out. But Snowflake wasn’t wearing her armor yet–it really was hot out here, and Siberian huskies were not exactly built for the desert at the best of times. I spent the next several minutes helping her into the armor, while Aiko put on her own set. She was carrying a lot of weapons, including quite a few that I didn’t recognize at all, odd-looking things that smelled like Midnight.
Reese, meanwhile, drew an elaborate diagram in the sand, frequently referencing that wristwatch, as well as a small leather-bound book. It started out simple, a couple of equilateral triangles and a circle, but he kept adding lines, and the figure rapidly grew intricate and complex, the precise nature of the geometry seeming to shift depending on what angle I looked at it from. There were a lot of formulae written out with it, describing what looked like a hellaciously complex system of equations. I could just about follow along with it to start with, but the diagram quickly moved beyond my comprehension.
And the best part? That was just the reference for the actual spell. The geometric figures were a skeleton for the magic to fill in, the formulae just a reference and definition for him to use as he established the portal. The actual spell would be far more difficult.
I no longer had any doubts about whether this hideout was secure. If the guy that made the thing, a certifiable expert on this kind of magic, using a backdoor that he built in to the system so he could access it if necessary, had to work this hard to get there? Yeah, my chances of pulling it off would have been nonexistent.
The rest of us were finished well before Reese, and just stood there watching him finish. Finally, less than ten minutes before the point in time we were aiming for, he stopped, standing at the dead center of the enormous figure drawn on the ground.
“Hurry up,” he said at that point, not looking at us. “And don’t disturb my circles.”
I looked at the diagram. It was, at this point, one of the most elaborate I’d ever seen, sprawling across an enormous chunk of desert. There were so many things going on there that I wasn’t sure how to get to where Reese was standing without messing something up. At best, the thing was a maze. At worst, even stepping between the lines could push a grain of sand out of position elsewhere, and I wasn’t sure how much disturbance the diagram could take without something going wrong.
I looked at the sky, where the sun was just starting to drop towards the horizon. Then I looked at Aiko. “Can you get me a patch of darkness in the middle there?” I asked.
She shrugged and gestured slightly. I caught the scent of fox and spice and darkness, and a small patch of the desert in the middle of the diagram was suddenly, inexplicably dark.
“Thanks,” I said. I took her hand in mine, grabbed Snowflake with my other hand, and stepped into the shadow of a nearby mesquite tree. It wasn’t all that much of a shadow, but then, I didn’t need a whole lot.
It was possible for a champion of the Sidhe Courts to bring people along on that not-quite-teleportation trick. I knew it was possible, because I’d been the one to ride along when Carraig did it once. I didn’t quite know how it was done, but I was guessing it wouldn’t be too hard. Most aspects of the champion gig so far seemed to be more a matter of instinct than formal training.
As it turned out, it was mostly just more difficult. If most of the time standing in a shadow felt like I was pushing against the surface of gelatin, trying to bring Aiko and Snowflake with me made it more like…wet sand, or half-set concrete. It didn’t want to let me in, and I had to push to make it.
After a few moments, though, I managed it, and we stood in that empty, dark world again. A step and an effort of will carried us to the next shadow, and we stepped out through Aiko’s darkness next to Reese.
That’s really an awesome trick, Snowflake said. We should do that more often.
I just nodded, most of my attention on the magic around us. We were standing in the middle of a large, open circle at the center of the diagram, surrounded by it. I could smell the magic moving around, an impressive amount of it. He had to be tapping something, some external source of power, to empower that large of a magical construct for this long. Probably something localized, a ley line or something like one; that would explain why he’d been so insistent that we do this here.
I didn’t ask. He was obviously deep in concentration, and we were all counting on him getting this right. You don’t pester the bomb disposal technician with questions while they’re elbow-deep in the explosive.
Minutes rolled past. Reese stood there, eyes closed, expression blank, breathing slow and regular. I thought the structure of the spell was finished now, ready to go. He just had it in a holding pattern until the timing lined up.
Finally, the assigned moment rolled around. Reese let out a breath, lips moving in a word I couldn’t make out. I felt a surge of magic, as the diagram came to life around me, power running through it like blood through a living thing.
And then the entire circle we were standing in–the entire thing–went to something beyond black, and we were elsewhere.
The last time, I’d been impressed with how smooth Reese’s portals were. I’d thought he was one of the best I’d ever seen at making them, so talented that the transition was almost seamless even for those who hadn’t been inoculated.
This portal was not like that.
It felt, to me, something like riding in an elevator which had the cable snap suddenly. There was the same instantaneous sense of plummeting, going from stationary to freefall in an instant. There was no vision, but I still had the impression of seeing vivid colors without names blurring past me. There was no sound, but I got the sense of hearing wind roaring past me.
We landed what felt like a small eternity later, and we landed hard. I hit the ground with a painful crash, not quite hard enough to injure, but plenty hard enough to be unpleasant. If I had to breathe, it would have knocked the wind out of me. Aiko let out a sharp oof next to me as it did knock the wind out of her. Around ten feet away, Snowflake was dazed, semiconscious, and vomiting. Reese looked a little better off, but only a little.
I was the first to recover, at least enough to push myself to my feet and look around. A perk of not having much of a physical presence; physical harm just didn’t really faze me.
At first glance, we were standing in a slice of paradise. It was a grassy plain, stretching out to the horizon in all directions. The sun was just warm enough to be pleasant for a human, and it smelled like summer and growing things.
On closer examination, though, it felt very…artificial. The grass was perfect, yes, but it was too perfect, too regular. It took me a few seconds to realize that it was the same patch of grass repeated endlessly, right down to duplicating individual blades of grass. Artificial turf had more personality. The ground was perfectly level, without any of the slight irregularities and bumps that natural ground should have. The air was perfectly, impossibly still. While the plain stretched out to the horizon, that horizon was too close, things just fading to a blur when they should have still been clearly visible.
On the whole, it was still beautiful. But it was a very fake, deceptive sort of beauty, the kind of thing that existed to be looked at rather than to be experienced. Spend any real time here, and the mask slipped.
Turning in place, I saw the only notable feature here. A tower–a bloody tower, how cliché could this guy get?–rose from the plain. It looked like featureless black stone, and it was impossibly tall, enough that I was guessing Jason had fiddled with the laws of physics in this domain to make it happen.
I felt an odd sense of foreboding as I looked at that tower, a feeling of menace. It was hard to explain; it felt almost like déjà vu, the same inexplicable conviction that I should know this situation, without any real idea of what it meant.
“Well,” I said, once I was satisfied that there were no immediate threats. “We made it.”
“Nice place,” Aiko said, standing and walking over next to me. She still sounded short of breath, but it didn’t seem it was anything serious.
“He’ll be in the tower,” Reese said, ignoring the small talk. “It’s his stronghold.”
I nodded. “No sense waiting,” I said, taking a step in that direction. I didn’t plan to go far–we still had to wait for Snowflake to recover, after all. But I wanted to be moving, if only to shake that feeling of menace.
“Wait,” Reese said as I started to move. “Watch your–”
My foot hit the grass. At the same instant, a large blade, something like an oversized scythe, swung up out of the ground and hit me in the chest. It punched straight through the armor, through my body, and then through the armor again.
“Step,” Reese finished, rather lamely. “Everything outside of the entrance area is trapped.”
“Huh,” I said, poking at the scythe. “That actually hurts a little.”
“You were expecting it not to?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“I’m mostly a spiritual entity at this point, apparently,” I said. “Most of the time I don’t even notice physical damage.”
“Ah,” Reese said. “Jason probably arranged for this domain to force more overlap between the spiritual and physical, to make you susceptible to things.”
I blinked. “You can do that?”
He shrugged. “It’s true everywhere on the Otherside, to some extent. But if he knew it would make you vulnerable, he might have done something to enhance the effect here. He has an enormous amount of control over this domain.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered, pulling the blade back out through my chest and dropping it on the ground. It only took me a moment to patch up the wound, fitting ice and darkness back into the hole. Repairing the armor would be more difficult. “So we just have to navigate the massive field of traps to the tower, get in, deal with all the traps there, fight anything Jason has to keep us out, and then deal with him. Piece of cake.”
“Sounds like fun,” Aiko said. I could practically hear her grinning.
“That’s one word for it,” I sighed. “Well, nothing to gain by waiting. Let’s do it.”