The next several hours passed in a blur. I thought it was several hours, at least. It was hard to be sure. My grasp on time was looser than it often was, or maybe tighter is the word. More focused on the present, on my immediate surroundings. I had to be. Walking though a world that was built to be a deathtrap, there wasn’t room to think about anything beyond that.
Then again, it was hard to say how relevant it would have been anyway. Time could be odd on the Otherside, could flow in ways that didn’t quite line up with the world I came from; that was one of the first things anyone learned about the place. It was what was behind a lot of famous stories, Thomas the Rhymer and Oisin and any number of others.
Usually that wasn’t a problem. As long as you stuck to the safer sections of the Otherside, you could generally rely on time being more or less the same. You might lose a few hours here and there, you might have one hell of a case of jet lag, but in the end things would be more or less what they should be.
Here? I wasn’t so sure. This was Jason’s little private world, and I had no idea how far his control over it might extend. I was hoping he couldn’t bend it too far, particularly with Aiko there; she was a Faerie Queen, and there were reasons that so many of those stories involved people with that role. I was guessing he wouldn’t want to bend it too far, since losing a hundred years in a day of hiding had the potential to hurt him as much as us. But in the end, I couldn’t be completely sure. It was another thing to add to the list of ways this little trip might go really, really wrong.
That was all right. I could deal with it. I could live with this being risky.
But however much real time it might be taken, and whether or not that was even a concept that could be applied to this, it felt like it took hours to make our way to that dark tower. The field was larger than it looked, much larger. I was guessing it was a trick of folded space and distorted perception, and that Reese could explain it in great detail. It didn’t really matter, though. For my purposes, it was enough to know that the field was larger than it should have been.
On top of that, it was slow going. This place was very possibly the single most heavily-trapped area I’d ever tried to assault. It felt like every step, every square foot of space, had some kind of threat waiting. Reese knew where a lot of the dangers were, but not all of them. We had to go slowly, take it carefully, or risk a catastrophic failure.
Of course, none of us was really that good at removing traps. Aiko was good at circumventing security measures–she’d have to be, with how much she’d done it–but not enough for any of us to count on. We could trigger a lot of them with magic, the pressure triggers and tripwires, but Jason had planned for that. Some of them were rigged in ways that we couldn’t reliably trigger from a distance. It made things hard.
The only way we could have gotten through that literal and metaphorical minefield in complete safety was by taking a really, really long time. Enough patience, enough care, and we could probably manage it. But that would also entail giving Jason more time to realize we were here, more time to prepare or escape. That was a risk that we couldn’t readily afford.
So we tried to strike a balance between speed and safety. The result was that it took hours to get across the field, and we had more than a handful of close calls, with everything from sharpened sticks and poisoned darts to land mines and pits of acid.
It was slow, and it was tiring. I was still functioning as smoothly as ever, physically; I didn’t feel fatigue the way I used to. But I felt slow, like the edge on my reactions was dulled. It wasn’t much, but considering where we were and what we were doing here, it was still too much. This was not a good time to be functioning at less than my best. And I could tell that the others, lacking that unnatural stamina, were fatigued. It was not a comforting thought.
Finally, after taking far longer than I would have guessed possible, we reached the destination.
It looked bigger up close. Not that it had looked small from a distance, but…well, tall buildings always had that effect on me. From a distance it was easy to write it off as a landmark, to call it a part of the skyline and leave it at that. Then I stood at the base, and looked up…and up…and up…and got an odd, dizzy sort of feeling, almost like vertigo.
And this was a tall building, easily the equal of most skyscrapers. It towered over the endless field, well over a thousand feet tall. For a steel-frame building built with modern principles of engineering, it would have been an impressive height. Done in stone, it seemed unreal, almost inconceivable. That impression certainly wasn’t hurt by the realization that it cast no shadow; apparently, the definition of this domain hadn’t been complete enough to really cover the laws of optics very well.
Up close, we could see another problem with it. Namely, it was absolutely featureless. The exterior of the building was utterly blank and smooth, lacking any obvious means of entrance.
“The door is somewhere around here,” Reese said, coming to a halt just in front of the tower. “It’s masked when the defenses are up, to help keep people out. We’ll have to look for the entrance.”
“Better idea,” I said, stepping forward and calling Tyrfing. A quick flick of my wrist sent the sheath flying off, and a couple of swings carved out a rough rectangle into the wall. It felt oddly satisfying, letting out some aggression. I had a lot of pent-up frustration from the trip here, and that simple, straightforward solution was an easy way to let it out.
Having cut the outline into the wall, I sheathed the sword and kicked the chunk of stone. It didn’t budge.
I paused, and scowled at it. I kicked it again, harder.
No response. It didn’t even shake.
I snarled, and went to kick it a third time. As I did, I felt a sudden surge of energy running through me, darkness and cold and the sound of howling winds, the sense of everything working in perfect unison in that moment.
I hit the chunk of stone, and it flew most of a hundred feet across the tower. It hit the opposite wall and broke before falling to the floor.
I smiled grimly as I stepped through, ducking a little. Reese paused for a moment first, staring at the stone, and I could almost see him calculating how much force it would take to throw that chunk of the wall across the room that hard.
I knew the answer, and it was a lot. A piece of stone the size of a door, the better part of two feet thick? That was the kind of thing you needed a team of people or a forklift to get off the ground. Kicking it wasn’t supposed to break anything but your toes. A werewolf would have been hard-pressed to lift it.
I tried not to think too hard about what it meant that I’d just done that. It wasn’t hard. There were more immediate things to focus on.
Stepping in, I found myself in a large room, apparently some kind of foyer. From the inside, I could see the door, less than two feet away from the hole I’d cut in the wall. The floor was a mosaic, a geometric pattern in black and white, and the vaulted ceiling was rather impressive. Beyond that and a shallow staircase running around the perimeter of the room, there was nothing of note in the room, no one else present.
“Upstairs, I’m guessing?” I said. My voice sounded harsh and cold to my ears, with the sound of wolves and blizzards just beneath the surface. Judging by their reactions, it wasn’t just me hearing it this time. A landmark moment, truly.
Reese recovered from the apparent shock after a moment. “Yeah,” he said. “All the way at the top, I’m guessing.”
I nodded. “Of course,” I said. Then I started climbing the steps.
Climbing the spire was worse than getting to it. Unsurprisingly, I supposed. This was the location that actually mattered, the one that Jason wanted to keep people out of. All of the stuff outside the building was, ultimately, just the preliminary defense, weeding out the people who weren’t really a concern. This was where it got serious.
And it got very serious. I’d assaulted enemy compounds before, more than a couple of times. This one used a lot of the same defenses as they had, and it used them well. There were magical wards, spells of force and fire and more abstract, less comprehensible things. There were mechanical traps, everything from blades in the walls to a freaking massive boulder that rolled down the stairs at us. There were constructs, whole hordes of constructs in dozens of shapes, each more creatively murderous than the last. At one point we found a chained demon–Selene’s kind of demon, not Legion’s, a vaguely canine thing that smoldered with a sickly green flame.
There were no people, or even anything that closely resembled people. That made sense from a tactical perspective, I supposed. This was clearly an extreme fallback, the kind of contingency plan you make with the hope that you’ll never, ever have to use it. People weren’t great for that; you couldn’t really just set them up and then not think about them again. I was just glad that there weren’t any here. This was hard enough as it was; adding in all the difficulties that brought with it would have just made things worse.
Oddly, though, it was easy. Despite being maybe the single most heavily-fortified location I’d ever attacked, it was easy. The defenses that would have stopped most invaders in their tracks just…didn’t do much to us. Aiko could shatter the wards with dismissive ease, her power simply so much greater than theirs that there was no contest. Reese knew the mechanical traps better here than he had outside, and the ones he didn’t remember didn’t slow us down much.
And I…well. I dealt with my share of the defenses as well. The constructs weren’t any kind of a threat. It didn’t matter how numerous they were. I cut a swath through them, left dozens of them on the ground in pieces, and nothing they did even slowed me down. When we found the demon, I shattered its chain with Tyrfing, and then just stared at it when it seemed like it might want a fight anyway. In the end it slunk off with its tail between its legs, too scared of me to start any trouble.
In a way, it was pleasant. It was satisfying. It felt good to be this powerful, to be so much more than human.
And then I remembered the price we’d paid for this, and any joy in the moment faded.
So we made our way up through the tower, one step at a time. The things we passed didn’t necessarily make much sense. There were laboratories, personal apartments, what looked like a barracks. There were levels that were empty of anything except some abstract statuary. I wondered whether Jason had just run out of ideas for rooms, but had to keep going because he wanted the tower to be so comically tall. It would explain a lot.
Every level had one constant, though. At the edge of the room, hugging the outer wall, there was a staircase. That long, shallow staircase just kept wrapping around, up and up and up.
So we climbed. And climbed. It took another long, interminable span of time. I was starting to worry about whether food would be an issue, for the others. I was starting to wonder whether I was dead and this was an unexpectedly bland, tedious sort of hell.
But finally, we went around the corner and the stairs stopped. No further to climb.
We were on the roof, a sheet of black stone, so high it felt like we were floating. Normally, I would have expected dangerous winds at this height, but there was no wind here, in this artificial world.
My first impression of the area was that it was…plain. It was a very simple space, for someone who had almost unlimited power to sculpt it to his will. The roof of the spire was stone, unmarked and featureless. There was some simple furniture–a few chairs, some small tables. There were a few more abstract sculptures, in the same style as the ones we’d passed earlier. Now that I looked at them more closely, I could see that they were simple, with visible mistakes. Amateur work.
And that was it. No garish displays of wealth, no abuses of the laws of physics for entertainment. I’d seen college apartments that weren’t this plain.
If there were any doubt that this was the right place, though, it was settled when I saw the roof’s occupant. Jason was sitting in one of the chairs, sipping at a glass of water and reading a book. He was wearing his usual cheap suit, black with white pinstripes, and a grey tie. He didn’t look like anything special. An office worker, or a corporate manager. He didn’t look like a terrifying mage who would stop at nothing in his quest for power.
“Hello,” he said as we emerged onto the roof. He closed his book, setting it and the glass of water on the table next to him. “I wondered when you’d find me here. I was expecting it to take longer than this.”
“Jason,” Reese said, in a tone of barely-restrained anger. “You have a great deal to explain.” He stomped forward, hands flexing at his sides.
“And I will explain,” Jason said mildly. “I don’t know what you’re upset about, but I’m sure I can explain.” He stood, walked over to Reese, rested one hand on the space mage’s shoulder. “I’m sure this is all just a misunderstanding,” he said.
I realized what was happening, started to shout a warning, too slow, too late. No one else had even realized what was happening.
I’d realized that Reese was a decent guy. I’d exploited that. I should have realized that I wasn’t the only one who could capitalize on that particular weakness.
I wasn’t sure what magic was on the knife, to let it get past all of Reese’s defenses. But the blade went in smooth and clean, so fast you might not even see what was happening until it was too late.
Reese stared down at the knife in his guts. I could smell magic, feel him trying to bend space and get away.
Nothing happened. That was what Jason did, after all. He altered magic on a basic level, one that didn’t have much in common with the obvious physical manifestations most mages used. He could make magic stronger, make it easy. Or he could shut it down entirely.
“I’m sorry, old friend,” Jason said. “But I couldn’t take the risk.”
He twisted the knife, and pulled it out. Reese sagged as blood followed the blade out of him. Jason slammed the knife home again, then shoved the other man away.
Now the magic worked, but twisted, not quite as intended. Reese moved through space, out past the edge of the roof.
He fell. I didn’t think he was going to be getting back up. Being stabbed twice with a magic knife and then falling off a skyscraper tended to do that to a person. There were things that could survive it, of course…but at the end of the day, for all his power, Reese was only human.
“I’m sorry,” Jason said, as the rest of us were still trying to adjust to what had just happened. “Where was I?”