Vigdis had been fairly close to the mansion, clearing out some stragglers from the hunting group. That was both a good thing and a bad thing. On the bright side, it meant that we could get to the site of whatever was going on pretty quickly. On the other hand, it also meant that whatever it was, it was uncomfortably close to the center of my power.
In some ways that didn’t matter. This was the modern era of decentralized communication and distributed networks, after all. The mansion was heavily enough warded to act as a fortress, and it was where people were used to thinking of me being, but losing it wouldn’t really cripple us in any practical way. The place was pretty much just a symbol.
But one of the things I’d been realizing lately was that symbols mattered. A symbol had meaning, had significance. Taking that mansion would be seen as a major victory for the Daylight Court, and so it would be a major victory for the Daylight Court. The perception of the event was all that really mattered.
We weren’t sure what was happening, exactly–Vigdis had been ominously silent since that last communication.
But with how ominous it sounded, I wasn’t taking any chances with it. The armored truck we took over to Vigdis’s last known location was loaded with some of my best thugs, the people I’d been keeping back specifically in case a crisis arose that needed my best. I had Kyi, Haki, Jibril, Lackland, Jack, and a couple of independent mages who I knew were pretty skilled. Selene was staying back at the mansion to coordinate the ongoing battle, but other than that most of my top minions were here.
I would have preferred to scout things out a bit, try to get a better idea of what we were dealing with. But that ended up being logistically impossible. Vigdis and Kris were both occupied elsewhere, and I didn’t want to wait for Kyi to sneak in and report back. I could have looked it over through a bird or something, but I was still getting the hang of doing that without my body collapsing into slush, and that would be inconvenient with how much equipment I was bringing this time.
So we were charging in blind. It was an uncomfortable feeling, and not one that I was accustomed to. I was usually obsessive about gathering information before charging in; as a rule, I at least knew more or less how far over my head I was. Knowing pretty much literally nothing about what was going on was a novel and unpleasant feeling.
The atmosphere in the back of the truck was tense, people making their last-minute preparations on the way other. Since we were already pretty well prepared, this mostly just consisted of checking and rechecking things that we knew perfectly well didn’t need checked again. I was right there with them; I’d always been fidgety before a big fight.
It was funny how some things didn’t change.
I’d been concerned that we’d have a hard time finding the issue, since we hadn’t exactly had a precise location for where Vigdis was when things went bad.
That turned out not to be a problem, which was something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it meant that we didn’t have to wander around the streets for an hour chasing shadows, which was nice. The reason it wasn’t a problem, though, was a bit less pleasant.
I stared when we saw them. Kyi said something under her breath in Norse; I was guessing it wasn’t a particularly polite thing to say. Even Lackland seemed impressed, to the extent that I could reliably identify an expression on a Sidhe face.
The ogres were by far the most noticeable of the bunch, and the main reason we could notice them so readily from down the street. There were two of them, and they were easily the largest ogres I’d ever laid eyes on, close to fifteen feet tall and so layered with muscle that they looked almost squat. Either of them could easily bench press a truck, I was guessing.
Despite their impressive size, though, they were the ones I was least scared of in this group. There were half a dozen humanoid figures, looking almost like children next to the ogres, whose equipment strongly suggested that they were high-ranking Sidhe. It was hard to be sure, especially at a distance, but the way they moved was too graceful to be human, and even if they weren’t nobility, the Sidhe were nothing to take lightly.
And then, finally, there was a single figure in heavier armor, carrying a knife in one hand and a submachine gun in the other.
That one didn’t look like much. It was a bit short even compared to the Sidhe, let alone the ogres. It looked more human, too, the way it stood and moved less graceful than the Sidhe, the equipment more in line with what the mortal world used.
But the light reflected too brightly off that armor, the air around the figure seeming to catch it and throw it back purer than it was. As if that wasn’t enough, I felt an inexplicable tension looking at it, sudden anger boiling up inside me and making me draw my lips back in a snarl.
So. It looked like I’d get to meet Aoife’s champion after all. I had to admit, I was a bit curious who she’d been waiting on all this time.
“Stop here,” I said, about a block away from them. The driver, a man I’d hired specifically because he had professional experience driving armored cars, obeyed silently, coasting to a halt.
“That’s a pretty impressive group,” Kyi said, looking at the Daylight forces. Her one eye was calm and cold.
“Yeah,” I said. “Kyi, rooftops. Get a view overlooking them. If you get a clear shot take it, but don’t leave yourself exposed. The rest of you, spread out here and get ready to hit them hard and fast when they run past. Jack, you’ll be keeping them contained; Jibril and Lackland, keep them off the mages. The rest of you are artillery. I’ll go in and alone and try to lead them back here for the ambush. Questions?”
“No, jarl,” Kyi said, inclining her head in something that wasn’t quite a bow. The rest just shook their heads.
“Good,” I said, opening the door. “I’ll give it thirty seconds for you to get in positions and Chris to get the car out of here, then I’m going in. Move.”
It felt like a very long thirty seconds, waiting to start that fight.
It didn’t seem like they’d noticed us yet. They were standing in the street, ambling around aimlessly. Occasionally one of the ogres grabbed something, which might mean anything from picking up a bicycle to ripping a streetlight out of the ground, and toss it at a building. The rest didn’t bother.
I stood silently and watched them, thinking. It felt strangely quiet, with everyone else gone. Peaceful, in a way. It was the calm before the storm, but it was still calm.
I called Tyrfing with an absent thought, but for the first time in a long time, I didn’t just draw the sword and go to work. I just held it for a moment, looking at it. The scabbard, with its delicate designs of cold and death, was beautiful, in a way.
I stared at it for a moment, then undid the catch and pulled the blade out. The steel was mirror-bright, and I spent a few seconds looking at it, looking at my reflection. The snarling wolf’s visage of the helmet I wore was easy to see, the image marred only by the runes written on the blade.
I still remembered when I first got the sword. It was hard to believe that had been only five years earlier. It felt like a lifetime had passed since that day.
That first time, a single Sidhe noble had been an overwhelming enemy. I’d fought him, and I’d lost, badly.
It was funny, looking back. At the time, you didn’t notice things. Things didn’t happen all at once; it was gradual, one step at a time. It was like looking at a gradation of color. One side might be white, and the other side might be black, but it darkened so slowly that you could never quite put your finger on where it changed. But then you looked back, and you realized that you’d changed to the point that you didn’t even recognize the person you used to be anymore.
Thirty seconds were up. It was time.
I walked forward, slowly, the steel of my boots clinking against the asphalt. “Hey,” I said, once I was close enough to be heard. My voice sounded like wind and wolves and breaking ice, and nothing like a human being. “You’re in my territory.”
One of the Sidhe–I wasn’t sure which one–said, “This is your territory no longer.” I could practically hear the sneer in his voice.
“I figured you’d say something like that,” I said, continuing forward. I was pretty close to them now, less than a hundred feet between us. “But I had to say it. Give you your warning, your one chance to leave in peace.”
“This could only ever end one way,” the man I’d pegged as Aoife’s champion said. And it was a man; the voice was very clearly male, and it sounded familiar. I couldn’t put a name to it, but I was sure I knew the speaker.
No surprise there. I’d have been more surprised if I hadn’t known the person she chose. That was how the game worked, wasn’t it? Nothing just happened, it was all connected somehow.
“Yeah,” I said, sighing. “That’s how it goes, isn’t it?”
Then I threw Tyrfing at one of the ogres.
Throwing your sword isn’t a great move, in any fight. Swords aren’t made to be thrown, aren’t weighted for it. Even if you hit the target, chances are it won’t hit in a way that can cut effectively, and most people can’t throw a sword fast enough to do much even if it hits properly.
That’s most people, and most swords.
Somebody as strong as I was, throwing Tyrfing? That was a whole different story.
The cursed sword hit the ogre around the shoulder, and it hit hard, the incredibly sharp edge of the blade slicing through the ogre’s tough skin like it was nothing. It kept going for a ways, lodging itself in the thing’s shoulder joint.
The ogre reeled back, expression turning to one of shock and pain. Blood started to spray from the wound, sparking with an eerie pale green flame as it came into contact with the steel.
I felt like things were moving in slow motion as I reached into my cloak. I could see the expression on the ogre’s face changing, the people just beginning to react. They’d known that the fight was starting, that it was inevitable, but they hadn’t expected it to go quite like this.
I pulled a grenade out of my cloak with each hand, flicked the pins out with a bit of air magic, and threw them both forward, then turned and ran.
The explosion came sooner than I had expected, and threw me to the ground. It did some structural damage as well, shattering the body I’d built for myself. It took a few seconds for me to get the compressed snow and ice to fuse back together, though at least the armor kept me together to that point.
The fae were…not so lucky. Two high quality grenades loaded with iron shrapnel were pretty significant weapons, as such things went.
It used to be that being that close to major explosions would have left my ears ringing. Now I didn’t really have ears; my ability to detect sounds was completely unrelated to my physical body. And as such, I could clearly hear the screaming in the wake of the grenades.
I pushed myself to my feet and turned around to look at the scene.
One of the ogres was down, having apparently had the bad luck to be standing directly over one of the grenades. It was…the term “mincemeat” seemed to apply. Between the force of the explosion, the shrapnel, and the iron, there wasn’t much left of it. It wasn’t moving.
The other ogre was still up, still alive, but it was badly wounded, one leg mostly destroyed. Most of the Sidhe were still standing, but they were also mostly injured, blood and fire leaking from various wounds. At least one of them was struggling to stay standing. Aoife’s champion was seemingly unfazed.
Well, not as much as I’d hoped for from my opening salvo, but not terrible.
I turned and started running back the way I’d come, at top speed. Top speed was, for me, a pretty impressive speed.
At that point, the Daylight forces had two real options. They could let me go, in which case it would look like they’d lost the first round, and they’d have to worry about me just wearing them down with hit and run tactics. Or they could chase me.
As I’d expected, they chose the second, and started running after me.
I was vaguely aware of magic behind me, and then a few seconds later a streak of light shot by just over my shoulder and carved a chunk out of a house. A bullet bounced off my armor a few seconds later, and then the ogre threw a chunk of concrete and clipped me. It knocked me to the ground, but didn’t do any real damage, and I bounced right up and kept running.
It delayed me a bit, though, and then I had to start moving more evasively, keeping them from drawing a bead on me. It slowed me down, just a bit, and they started closing the gap.
They were just about on top of me when we reached the ambush I’d arranged.
The opening assault there was even more brutal than the grenades. A blast of fire came from the alley on one side of the street; an odd magic that just dissolved what it touched speared out from the other. The Sidhe retaliated with magic of their own, turning the street into a chaotic mess, and then the ogre caught me with a solid blow and sent me tumbling down the road.
When I pushed myself back to my feet, stumbling a bit as I had to get my leg back into functional condition once again, I was greeted by a madhouse.
Three of the Daylight Sidhe were down in flames, another simply missing a head where the erasure magic had wiped it away. One more had Kyi’s arrow sticking out of her throat, and two more arrows had taken out the ogre’s eyes with incredible precision. Lackland and Jibril were each dueling with another of the Sidhe, both fights looking more or less evenly matched.
I started towards the fight, stumbled again, and had to take a moment to repair my body further; that ogre had done more damage than I’d initially realized. In that moment, Aoife’s champion put a burst from his submachine gun into Jibril’s torso, then brought the knife down with the incredible strength of a Sidhe champion, splitting the ghoul’s skull in half.
Ghouls were tough. They were preternaturally tough, in fact; they could take one hell of a beating and, eventually, recover from it. There wasn’t a lot that could really kill one.
Cutting Jibril’s head in half was enough to do the job.
I wasn’t entirely sure what happened next. One moment, I was twenty feet away from the fight. The next, I was standing right in the middle of it, Tyrfing thrust clean through one of the Sidhe, my teeth bared in a furious snarl.
I ripped the sword back out and the Sidhe fell, blood pouring from the wound. I didn’t care, barely even noticed. I was already stepping forward, moving on to the next. This one raised her sword to block, but it didn’t matter; my swing was strong enough to knock the blade out of the way and just keep going, cutting her literally in half from her shoulder to the opposite hip. One of the Daylight Sidhe hit me from behind, and managed to stab me through the armor, but he was only cutting snow, and it wasn’t enough structural damage to even slow me down. I spun, and smashed my free hand into the side of his head, and his skull caved in easily under the blow.
That was enough to clear a bit of a space around me, enough to see. The mages were in full retreat now, running down the street; Jack was trying to cover them, keep the Sidhe from following, but he was obviously struggling. He had a gift for kinetic barriers, and that was enough to keep them at bay and keep the mages alive, but they were still following, and the Sidhe were too fast to lose them easily.
Lackland was down, unconscious or dead. Kyi was lying in the street not far way, having apparently fallen from the rooftops; one leg was visibly and badly broken, and her face was covered in blood. She wasn’t moving.
That was all I saw before the ogre reached for me. It was blind, and clumsy, but apparently able to operate reasonably well by hearing or scent or something, because it had more or less the right target.
I dodged its hand and then jumped onto its arm, running up it. I wouldn’t have guessed I could actually do that. It was less than a foot wide, and slick, and moving, and my all rights I should have slipped right off. But I was still operating more on fury than logic, and I was in no mood to listen to reason.
It worked. I sprinted up its arm and jumped straight for its head, Tyrfing leading. I cut completely through its neck, and we hit the ground at more or less the same time.
I landed in a crouch and then stood, sword still in hand. I wasn’t even breathing hard. Then again, I wasn’t breathing at all.
It was quiet now, again. The last of the Sidhe were chasing after the mages, but here, now, it was quiet.
“Just you and me,” Aoife’s champion said, echoing my thoughts.
“Was the only way this could end,” I agreed. “So you going to tell me who you are now?”
“What?” he said. Then, a second later, “Oh, right. The helmet. Forgot.” He reached up and took it off, and I got a look at his face.
I was right. I knew him.
“You?” I said, a bit incredulously.
“Yeah,” Ryan said, a bit self-consciously. “Me.”
I just stared. “Wow,” I said. “Of all the…you know, I was genuinely not expecting this. Of all the people that could have taken the deal, I don’t think I’d ever have thought of you.” I shook my head, and when I spoke again my voice was bitter. “Why?” I said. “After everything I went through to save you from a deal with the fae…why the hell did you do this?”
“Unna,” he said simply.
“Right,” I said. “Your wife. The selkie. I thought you said she was unaffiliated.”
“She is. But Aoife had something on her. Leverage. It was either this, or she used it.”
I sighed. “You know that she probably doesn’t care about you, right?” I said, feeling very tired. “This whole thing was a setup to get you to agree to this. It was never real.”
“I’ve considered that,” Ryan said quietly. “It’s possible. I don’t think what she feels is an act. At first, maybe, but not now. But yes, it’s possible.” He shrugged. “Does it matter? What I feel is real, either way.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s true.” I paused. “It can’t end well,” I said. “You and her. I mean, it never had great odds. But this choice, doing this…it can’t end well.”
“With all due respect, sir, I don’t know that you’re in a place to throw stones on that topic.”
I had to chuckle at that. “Good point.”
We stood in silence for a moment, then he said, “I didn’t know I’d be going up against you, sir. I don’t know that it would have changed anything. It’s not like I had a lot of options anyway. But I…well, I didn’t know.”
“That’s how it goes,” I said. “Back down?”
He shook his head. “Can’t,” he said. “Forfeit this one?”
I grunted. “Can’t,” I said.
“That’s how it goes,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I sighed. “This one isn’t your fault. You ready? If I’ve got to kill Kyra’s friend, I don’t want it to be by surprise.”
He grinned, though it was brief. “Ditto,” he said, putting his helmet back on.
“Let’s do this, then,” I said, calling Tyrfing once again. I raised the sword in a quick salute, and then I charged.