“Shut up, Stephen,” Tremblay scowled at me. “You must think you’re some hot shit or something? I have scars older than you.”
It’s like that, huh. “So you must be easy to hit. Lucky for me.”
“You listen to me.” Tremblay pointed to Saiman in the cage. “One word from me and you’ll be picking up your friend’s brains from the bottom of that cage.”
I leaned forward slightly and pulled the lower lid of my left eye down.
“What the fuck?” the stocky, muscular woman behind Tremblay murmured. Not a melee fighter. She stood flat on her feet, planted like a tree, and carried no weapons.
“She’s asking you if you can see the care in her eye.” Saiman offered helpfully.
“Cute,” Tremblay said. “You’ve just signed his death warrant and your own.”
I peered at him. “You sure you should be mouthing off, Tremblay? Because I’m not scared and your service record’s kind of spotty.”
“Do you have the money?” a tall dark-haired man asked, exasperation vibrating in his voice. A long slender sword hung from his waist. A katana user.
“Do you see the money? Do I look like somebody who would have that much money and be dumb enough to give it to you?”
The dark-haired man looked at Saiman. “What are you trying to pull?” He sounded indignant, like his feelings were hurt.
“I’m not trying to pull anything,” Saiman said. “In case your powers of observation have failed you, I’ve spent the last few hours in this cage.”
I glanced up at Saiman. “Are you going to pay me to kill them?”
“I think they should pay me to go away.”
Tremblay stared at me, eyes bulging.
“If they pay you, are you going to take me with you?” Saiman asked.
“Depends on how much they’ll give me.”
The four ex-Guardmen stared at me.
“Wait a minute,” the shorter blond man said. “She wants us to give her money to take him with her?”
“Stephen, keep your mouth shut,” Tremblay growled.
“Yes, that’s it.” I nodded at Stephen. “You give me money, I take him with me, and everybody’s happy.”
“This isn’t what you said would happen,” Stephen looked at Tremblay.
“Shut the hell up!” Tremblay was actually shaking. There was no way he could salvage this.
“Losing your job is hard,” I said. “But you guys need to find a different line of work, because holding people for ransom isn’t your forte. You’re not very good at it. Why don’t you take off before your fearless leader gives himself a coronary.”
The dark-haired man was thinking about it, I saw it in his eyes. Stephen looked confused.
I pushed a little more. “Cut your losses. It’s time to go.”
“Fuck it, fire the flare!” Tremblay snarled.
The stocky woman looked at him.
“Fire the fucking flare!”
She clapped her hands. Magic pulsed and a bright yellow spark, shot from between her clasped fingers into the sky, blossoming into a fiery dandelion. The four ex-Guardsmen tensed, anticipating a shot.
“Go home,” I repeated.
Tremblay snarled. “Kill the stupid bitch!”
I backed away, giving myself room to work.
Stephen turned light, electric purple. His skin sprouted hard bony bumps. He stumbled back, clutching at his head. Tremblay and the mage backed away.
The dark-haired man marched at me, drawing the katana as he struck. Good fast draw. I parried, letting the flat of his blade slide off Slayer, and punched him in jaw with my left hand. He staggered back. Blood swelled along my forearm. He’d nicked me. I’d surprised him and he still nicked me. Fast bastard.
Derek dropped out of the darkness into the Mole Hole, raised the crossbow, and fired. An arrow whistled past me, missing the thing that used to be Stephen by an inch. Derek looked at the crossbow in disgust, raised it…
He wouldn’t throw away a perfectly good crossbow…
Derek hurled the crossbow at Stephen. It broke over the man’s armored head.
Derek’s clothes exploded, and a monster spilled forth. His limbs grew, bones thrusting out, forming new long legs and powerful arms. Muscle coated the new skeleton, clinging to bones. Skin sheathed it, dark fur grew, claws cut through the flesh, and a new creature landed on the glass. Neither man, nor wolf, but a lethal hybrid of both, a human predatory intellect locked in a savage body. Derek grinned, displaying a mouth of nightmarish teeth, and crashed into the purple armored creature that used to be Stephen.
The dark-haired man recovered, approaching. The right stance, responsive but firm, good balance, katana pointing at my eyes. Step, another step, smooth, sliding his foot along the ground so every move ended in a proper stance. He would lunge, and when he did it, he would commit completely. He was classically trained, and it would be all or nothing.
The sixty four thousand dollar question was, would I be fast enough to parry it.
Our stares crossed. It would be over for one of us in a second.
Time stretched into infinity.
I focused on him, absorbing every single detail: the angle of his leading foot, the dark eyes fixed on me, the minute tensing of muscles in right arm, the rise of his chest…
He lunged, striking at my midsection in a horizontal stab, driving the blade with both hands.
I saw it a fraction of a second before it began and stepped back with my right foot, dodging, turning. Even as the blade came toward me, I knew I wasn’t fast enough. He saw it too and twisted the blade, the sharp side toward me.
The katana’s edge grazed my ribs, slicing skin along my side.
For a fraction of a second, his arms stretched rigid, parallel to the ground, as he drove the blade forward. I cut across his wrists, carving flesh and tendon with my saber. Blood swelled on his skin. His fingers opened, as the severed flexor tendons refused to obey. The sword fell. He caught the katana with his left hand and backed away, hot scarlet dripping on the ground.
The swordsman looked at me, a question in his eyes. He was done. We both knew it. I could cut him down right there and he wouldn’t be able to do much about it.
I nodded and took a step back.
He straightened, turned, and walked away.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Tremblay yelled. “Get back here! You fight for half a second and you’re done?”
“He can’t hold his sword,” I told him. “Saving his sword hand is more important to him than you are.”
Tremblay swore. The woman behind him was chanting, eyes closed, pulling magic to herself and winding it like cotton candy on a stick. Not good. I didn’t want to taste what she was cooking.
I started toward Tremblay.
Magic pulsed, its impact slapping my skin like a blast wave from an invisible cannon. A naked Tremblay lunged at me. What the hell?
I hammered the pommel of my sword in his face. He crumpled to the ground. I backed away. A second Tremblay, also bare-assed, grabbed at my forearm. His fingers crushed my arm like steel pinchers. My bones groaned. I yanked my arm to the side, exposing Tremblay’s armpit, thrust, and withdrew. He dropped to his knees, his mouth oddly slack. A guttural groan echoed from the right. Tremblay’s body crumbled into pale red dust and swirled into the wind.
The real Tremblay, still fully clothed, stood by the magic user, his face shaking with effort. As I watched, an outline of his body peeled off, forming another naked clone, who staggered toward me. He was a one-man army. Awesome. Was there a finite number of them, because I was bleeding all over the place and if he made enough of them at once, they would overwhelm me.
“Hey, Tremblay, ever think of starting your own boy band?”
His face jerked. Another clone peeled off. Another. A third.
The woman behind Tremblay was chanting, pulling the magic to her and winding it like thread on a spindle. Not good.
The three clones advanced toward me. I backed away. Tremblay could’ve been one hell of a bodyguard – he was a whole detachment all by his lonesome. Too bad he’d chosen to sell his clients’ lives instead.
A fourth clone joined the line, followed by its twin. Five now.
The Tremblays took a step forward, moving in unison. Controlling clones took concentration. I’ve piloted vampires before and sending them in the same direction was much easier than trying elaborate tactics. The Tremblays didn’t need elaborate tactics. Between the five of them, they had a thousand pounds of muscle. If all of them were as strong as the one who grabbed me, I couldn’t let them get a hold of me. They could just pile on me and that would be the end. Throwing knives at them wouldn’t do enough damage. I could use a power word, but doing that announced my power and ancestry to anyone with a bit of knowledge. The least I showed in front of Saiman, the better. Given a half a chance, he would sell me to my biological father faster than I could blink.
I ran. I dashed along the Mole Hole’s wall, Slayer in hand. The clones followed me in a line. I picked up a bit more speed. Clones or not, geometry still worked the same, and the outside perimeter of the circle was longer than the inside one. To the left of me the real Tremblay flashed by, the magic user woman still chanting with her head bowed. Derek and Stephen grappled with each other. I smelled blood. Stephen might have the armored skin, but my money was on Derek anyway.
I flew along the wall, my legs pumping. Two thirds of the way around the crater, I glanced back. The clones had started in a line running at the same speed and now that line was nicely staggered, about six feet between them. Not as much as I would’ve liked, but it would have to do. Any closer and I’d be too close to the real Tremblay and his magic user buddy.
I spun around and charged the first clone. Tremblay had no time to react. I swung Slayer in a classic diagonal stroke, putting all of the strength of my arm into it. The saber cut across the first clone’s throat and chest, right to left, slicing flesh and cartilage like butter. The clone went down. Before he fell, I reversed the stroke, drawing a flat eight and sliced the second clone left to right. He dropped like a cut weed.
The third clone jerked his arms up, trying to shield his chest and throat. Tremblay had finally reacted, but a body in motion tends to stay in motion. The clones had been running full out trying to catch me and like a horse in gallop, they couldn’t come to a dead stop. I stabbed my sword into the clone’s exposed gut, jerked the blade to the right, scrambling the organs, if he had any, and kicked him off my blade.
The fourth clone bent down, aiming to ram me with his shoulder. I dodged and ran straight into the fifth clone’s punch. I saw it, I just couldn’t do anything but turn into it. Given a choice of ribs or shoulder, I took it on the left shoulder. Pain erupted in my arm. I staggered back. Ow.
The fifth clone’s fist was speeding toward my face. I leaned out of the way. Arms clamped my legs in a death grip – the fourth clone anchored me in place. My legs screamed in pain. They had me.
The fifth clone lunged at me, fingers like talons reaching for my neck. The fourth clone twisted, trying to turn my back to the attack. I reversed my sword blade up and thrust sideways, parallel to the ground. The fifth clone impaled himself on my blade. I let go of my sword, pulling a throwing knife, and rammed the short blade into the base of the fourth clone’s neck. He broke into red dust.
The fifth clone collapsed on me, his forearm across my throat like a bar. The world dimmed. Suddenly there wasn’t enough air. I wrapped my freed legs around his and stabbed him in the side, one, two, three, my hand slick and wet with red. The metallic scent of blood filled my nostrils. Four, five, six, seven… Red dust rained on my face. I coughed and rolled to my feet just in time to see Derek hurl Stephan across the crater. The armored man landed on his back, clutching at his leg. It was bent the wrong way and the white stab protruding from it had to be his shinbone.
Only Tremblay and the mage were left. I picked up my sword and marched to them. I had to get to the real thing, or this could go on forever.
Tremblay was bent over, breathing like a runner after marathon. “What the fuck are you?”
He was done. Across from us, Derek made a beeline for Tremblay.
“It’s over,” I said.
“Not quite.” The female mage clapped her hands. The magic she’d gathered sparked. A high-pitched chime, like the toll of a large crystal bell, sounded through the night, coming from a point above the woman’s head. A pale glow unfurled, like an incandescent fog billowing from one small point into a yellow cloud, illuminated from within. Something long and sinuous stirred within its depths.
I accelerated. Whatever the thing in the cloud was, it wouldn’t be good, and I wanted the mage out of commission before it emerged. I was twenty yards from the woman when the cloud tore. A glowing creature slipped into existence, hovering above the mage’s head. About two feet long, it resembled a woodlouse, wide and flattened. A shell of translucent overlapping segments radiating pale yellow luminescence shielded its flattened body. Seven pairs of thick, segmented crab legs hung from underneath the shell, moving in a flowing rhythm, as if the creature was swimming. Glowing eyes, like two orbs sheathed in metallic foil, looked at me.
“Stop,” the female mage said.
My body stopped. Logically I knew I had to keep moving, but something deep in the core of my brain refused to obey. I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t close my eyes. I could only stare at the glowing bug-crustacean apparition.
“Don’t look at it,” I barked.
“Too late,” Derek called out, his voice shredded by his oversized teeth.
“Drop your sword,” the woman said.
The command pulled on me. I clenched Slayer. No.
“Drop your sword,” the woman repeated.
A low, steady ache drained down my arm in a viscous wave, all the way into my fingers. The grip of my saber burned my skin like fire. It would be so easy to just let go. So easy.
I clenched my teeth and took a small step forward. Magic anchored me. It felt like I was dragging a semi behind me. Another step.
“Her will is too strong,” the woman said. “You’ll have to go and finish her.”
“No problem,” Tremblay said.
I couldn’t look away from the glowing bug, but I heard the sound of his steps. I had to lift my sword. My arm refused to obey.
“Settle down, you’re next,” Tremblay said.
The glowing creature stared at me, its eyes empty and endless at the same time. My whole body shook with effort. I could use a power word, but doing that in front of Saiman was extremely unwise. He already saw me use one. If I demonstrated any more power, he would dig deeper into my background. Above all else, Saiman loved secrets, he gathered and guarded them the like a dragon’s hoard. The only difference was that for the right price Saiman would sell your secrets to the highest bidder. The less he knew about me the better.
I could do this. I just had to lift my sword.
Tremblay’s steps were closer.
I would lift it, damn it.
My arm obeyed. It felt like the muscle and ligaments on my arms were ripping apart, but I could feel the balance of the sword shift in my hand. The point of my saber was slowly creeping up. Not fast enough. Tremblay would cut me down.
Well, wasn’t this a lovely predicament. Kate Daniels, rescuer of kidnapped sexual deviants, chopped down by some has-been bodyguard. If Tremblay didn’t finish me, I’d die of sheer embarrassment.
Tremblay got close enough that he swung into my field of vision. His face was grim, his mouth a hard flat line. He hefted the gladius as he walked.
I took a deep breath. Saiman or not, the power word was my only option.
Tremblay raised his sword.
Something snarled, too sharp to be Derek. The crustacean creature dimmed. Its legs flailed helplessly. The hypnotic glow blinked and vanished. The hold on my body broke.
I lunged forward, breaking into a sprint. Tremblay swung the gladius to parry. I batted his sword aside, buried Slayer in his left lung, sliding it between his ribs, and withdrew. Tremblay’s mouth gaped in a shocked o.
A werewolf leapt into view, sailing through the air as if he had wings. His claws scoured the creature. Magic boomed, nearly punching me off my feet, hurling the werewolf and the dying creature to the ground.
Tremblay coughed, dropped his sword, and clamped his hand to the wound. The veins on his neck began to bulge. Probably a collapsed lung. I shoved him aside.
Ahead the female mage lay on her stomach, her hands in the air. An enormous black hound stood over her, his teeth on the back of her neck. A ghostly light rippled over his sable black fur.
Ha! About time.
To the right, Derek’s prone form sprawled on the glass. The magic creature lay next to him in two glistening wet piles. He must’ve torn it in a half. That’s where the blast I just felt had come from. Don’t be dead. Don’t be dead, Derek.
“I give up,” the woman croaked. “I give up, don’t hurt me.”
“Derek!” I called out. Please be okay, boy wonder. “Derek!”
He sat up slowly and shook his shaggy head.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Head hurrrrts.”
I exhaled and walked up to the woman. Grendel looked at me and growled low.
He didn’t move.
“Trash, Grendel. Drop it.”
Grendel opened his jaws and sat.
I pulled a plastic tie out of the pocket on my belt and wrapped the mage up. “I feel a shiver of magic from you and I’ll cut your head off. Do we understand each other?”
She nodded frantically. “No, I’m done. I wasn’t wild about this kidnapping plan anyway.”
But she went along with it. And when Tremblay told her to give the signal that would’ve exploded Saiman’s head with a charged arrow if Derek hadn’t taken out the shooter, she gave that signal without a slightest pause. If she was looking for sympathy, I was fresh out.
“You dog transforms,” Saiman said.
“Brilliant deduction, Mr. Holmes.” I petted Grendel’s huge head. He was a black dog, a mystic hound. Trouble was, he transformed only when he felt like it.
“I can’t help but point out that I’m still confined,” Saiman said.
I glanced at Derek. “Will you let him out, please? He’ll just keep whining.”
He scrambled the slope of the Mole Hole, up the building, and along the beam, running on his oversized feet, his shaggy body silhouetted against the moon and ruined city.
I checked my side. Katana’s blade had left a shallow gash. It bled quite a bit but my shirt had absorbed most of it. I pulled gauze from my pocket, pressed it against the wound, and pulled my shirt over it. I took a flask with kerosene from my belt and backtracked, pouring it on anything resembling blood. Once blood was separated from the body, I could no longer hide its magic.
Derek reached the end of the beam and crouched, untangling the chains.
I struck a match. The trail of kerosene caught fire.
“No hurry, what a curious ritual, Kate” Saiman said.
Derek raised his clawed hands. The cage plummeted twenty-five feet to the ground and bounced, chipping the glass. The metal door popped open.
“Seriously?” Saiman shouldered his way out of the cage. He towered over me, full eight feet tall. “I don’t suppose you’ve brought anything nutritious with you?”
You’ve got to be kidding me. “Slipped my mind.” Being a polymorph, Saiman needed huge amount of calories for his metamorphosis. The fight with his kidnappers must’ve drained him dry.
Saiman sighed. “Regrettable.”
“You owe me.”
“I’m well aware of that, thank you. Although in light of recent events, I believe the dog should get the lion’s share of the reward.”
“The dog is my employee. I mean it, Saiman. You owe me a big favor. One day I will call to collect.”
“Suddenly I feel less secure than when I was confined,” Saiman said.
I grinned at him and walked away, leaving his kidnappers to Saiman’s tender mercy. Some men might have killed them in revenge. I was pretty sure Saiman would contact the cops and then sue the lot.
Derek caught up with me. I held out my hand and he low-fived me. Let’s see, some would-be kidnappers diverted from their life of crime, an otherworldly monster killed, and one sexual deviant rescued. All in all, not a bad night.
“A hundred grand is a lot of money,” Derek said.
“A favor from Saiman is worth more.” Eventually it would prove useful. I was counting on it.