9) Thunderstruck

There was one long, awful second while I was falling where I thought I was going to have to kill him, and I was suddenly uncertain. It hit me that I wasn’t really sure if I could. I wasn’t having a fit of sudden sentimentality, I actually wasn’t sure if I had the ability to kill him.

I landed on my back in cold mud. My head hit something hard; a rock, maybe, or a wooden spar. In that second, when the sudden pain and surprise had me off balance, the shadow swelled in my mind. I felt her power, her emptiness opening vast and endless inside me. She could do it. All I had to do was let her.

The pertinent question here was, if I took the leash off her and let her do whatever she had to do to destroy the bastard, would I ever get her back under control again? I really didn’t know. I’d never tried. There was always the chance that I wouldn’t even be around to make the attempt.

Above me, Irish caught a spinning car door by the edge and flipped it aside with all the effort I might put into catching a frisbee. I jerked in surprise, blinking, while my head tried to make sense of that. Car door? The hell? My head had been in the projectile’s path half a heartbeat ago.

I rolled over onto my stomach and elbows as Irish stepped over me.

“Suddenly this garbage makes more sense,” Jada said, and I peered between Irish’s legs to see her standing there, arms crossed, scarred Frankenstein face furrowed into a heavy, angry frown. “Alice Frye, in cahoots with the Irishman. You set us up, you little bitch. Did you bring him here?”

“I wouldn’t call it cahoots,” I said, waving a hand like I was trying to brush the accusation away. “Cahoots is a strong word, lady. Maybe like one cahoot. A little cahootlette, tops.”

My mouth was running, but my brain had shut down in shock. The shadow was squealing with wrath and fear, drowning out my own thoughts. We were caught! We were dead! I could feel her lunging against my will power, trying to rip her way free. She wanted to kill them both, hell, Damian too, while she was at it, and maybe toss Benny and Pardell into the mix just for safety’s sake. Wipe the slate clean, devour the witnesses, escape, flee, hide, stay safe, destroy them all –

Jesus, it felt like my ears should be bleeding, she was screaming so loud in my head. I ground the heels of my palms into my eyes, grinding my teeth as I fought her back down. While I was busy trying to save the world from a terrified sentient black hole, Irish decided to make things worse.

“She’s got nothing to do with it,” I heard him say. “Let’s have an end to this.” Thank you, Irish, because having you defending me is just the thing to make me look innocent, here. Sheesh.

I managed to spit “Wait!” through my clenched teeth, but no one was paying any attention to me. I wrapped the shadow up in chains of solid will power and hauled her back, and the effort left me dizzy and shaky. Christ. I shoved myself up to my knees.

It happened so fast it didn’t seem real. When you see a fight like this at the movies, they always slow it down for you, jazz it up with all that fancy “bullet-time” cinematography, so your eyes can follow the action. In real life it leaves your head spinning and your eyes strained while they try to make sense of what just happened.

I’d been watching Jada, and she lunged forward – Irish sidestepped, catching her and swinging her around into a metal support strut. She jerked free, and suddenly Irish was fighting with a dark blur. Jada was fast, a lot faster than Irish, but somehow he was always ready, always waiting when she struck. In the time it took me to scramble to my feet again and move to the shelter of the nearest rack, Jada had come at me at least twice, and every time Irish had either blocked her or plucked her out of midair.

When the sky lit up with that eerie greenish lightning, the glare flashed down the edge of his sword, and shit, had I actually snickered at him when I saw it the first time? I had, hadn’t I? Because who carries a damn sword these days? Nobody. It’s stupid.

The low hum it made when it cut through the air wasn’t stupid. Neither was the way it cut clean through a metal support on the rack opposite me, when Jada managed to duck out of the way. He parried her strikes with it, leaving deep slices in her arms in the process. I decided I would never make fun of his sword again.

I leaped aside as Jada came flying my way. She slammed into some junk behind me and grunted, and as I dove into the shadows in the lee of another pile, Irish sailed after her. There was another strobe-flash of green lightning high above, and I saw his blade arcing into the air, and the light glistening off the rain of blood that flew up into the air.

Jada made an ugly, guttural noise and shoved herself off the metal racks. She was holding her guts in with one hand, blood streaming down in a sheet. She was exhausted. I could tell, because the wound wasn’t sealing itself.

She staggered and dropped to one knee. Irish drew the sword back, intending a long swing that was going to take Jada’s head clean off. The sword whistled as it cut air, and Jada lunged, up inside his strike, driving her fist towards his face with all the considerable strength in her legs. Irish snapped his head aside and the punch whistled past his ear. He brought his hand back and drove the butt of his sword into the side of Jada’s face. Bones crunched, a sick, wet noise, and she staggered away.

Irish grabbed her shoulder and flung her behind him. She slammed into the stack behind them, the one Irish had just taken a chunk out of his with his sword. The impact bent the lower half of the shelf’s support, leaving the upper half pointing down at her chest like a dagger. Just as fast, he was right there. He seized the edge of the rack and pulled. The shelf buckled under the weight of the scrap and crates, driving the strut down through Jada’s torso. The whole rack groaned and shuddered, more debris sliding down to where the shelves had bent, and slowly, the whole thing collapsed down onto her. Metal screamed, but despite the fact that I could hear her bones being crushed one by one, Jada did not.

I waited until the last of the garbage had settled into place, and the rack, though collapsed in on itself, seemed to be staying put. I approached Irish, and lleaned past him to look for myself, and found Jada glaring up at me. My mouth fell open. The rack had come down, piercing her body center mass and crushing into pulp everything below her breastbone. Despite all that, she had both hands braced on the shelf and was straining to lift the whole mess off herself. Her arms trembled with effort, her dark coffee-colored skin stretched tight over taut muscles and bulging veins, but it was too much weight, even for Jada.

“Jesus Christ, you’re tough,” I said, with real admiration. Irish grunted in agreement.

She met my eyes. Her face was carved in furrows of pain, and was warped out of shape – lopsided and distorted where Irish had dislocated her jaw and maybe worse.

“Traitor,” she managed. Her voice was a barely a breath of sound, and I read her lips more than heard her.

“I’m not,” I said, serious, mind racing as I tried to come up with the words that would salvage this situation somehow. “We didn’t know you’d be here, honest.”

She spat at me, a wad of blood and spit, and I was too late jerking back. The gob would have hit my face, but the shadow was on the ball. The spit froze and, now hardened, bounced harmlessly off my chin. I shuddered all over, breaking out in a fresh sweat. Gods only knew what kind of souped-up mutant Ebola she’d cooked into that wad of phlegm. If it had hit me …

Metal flashed in front of my eyes and Irish grunted and I flinched again as Jada’s misshapen head rolled away from her shoulders. It bumped my boot and stopped face down. I was okay with that; I had no desire to watch her eyes glaze over. “God have mercy on ye,” Irish said, and crossed himself.

Holy fuck, he’d killed her. My mouth was hanging open. I couldn’t get my head around the idea. Jada was, in my mind, very nearly the definition of un-killable! Even after all that, all she’d needed was some rest, and she could have pulled herself out of the scrap metal, magiced herself whole and beautiful again, and … and now she was dead.

And it hadn’t happened in the heat of a fight, either. It hadn’t been self-defense. She’d been beaten. She was helpless.

“Alice –”

I dropped back two terrified steps and pulled my gun without thinking. It was still loaded with the dragon’s breath, but Jesus, I didn’t know if that would stop him. Hell, I didn’t know if it would slow him down.

“The fuck are you?” I demanded, unable to believe it was me asking someone else that. I was pleased to hear my voice, hard and steady, and glad to see my hand wasn’t shaking.

“Just a man, Alice,” he said, holding his hands out in the universal “harmless” gesture. That would have been a lot more effective if he wasn’t still holding his sword. Also if I hadn’t just witnessed how goddamn fast he was.

“My ass.” I took two more steps back just to be safe. The gun was hissing in my hands, and a flicker of greenish golden light was shining from the round I’d chambered. I made myself calm down, lest I overload the magic in those bullets. They wouldn’t explode or anything; that’s what they do when they’re working right. I just didn’t want them to fizzle when I needed them.

“It doesn’t have to be your turn tonight if you don’t make it,” Irish said, just as calm and amicable as if we were hanging out having that beer I’d mentioned earlier instead of possibly about to throw down.

“Yeah? When is it my turn?” I was horrified to hear those words come out of my mouth, all snide and challenging. I struggled to get a hold of myself and the shadow before our fear and anger got me killed. Put the gun down, Alice, I told myself, but I couldn’t seem to make my hand lower the gun. By God, if he moved, I was getting at least one shot off. “Jesus, Irish, she saved lives.”

In my head, I was comparing Jada to myself. She saved a lot of lives. Probably not as many as I had taken, though. And she’d been so strong, so… relentless. I’d often thought that if I ever succumbed… ever lost control of the shadow and became just another rampaging hollowman, that it would be Jada who stopped me. And if he had killed Jada just as easy as that, what chance did I have against him?

Now my hand was shaking. Awesome.

“Easy, Alice.” Irish was watching my eyes, not my gun. Smart man. “It doesn’t have to be tonight,” he repeated.

I felt the shadow straining to be loose, egging me on. She wanted Irish dead, and bad. She pointed out that there was a lot of power in the area, now. Damian was calling it in, spinning it into the storm above our heads, to do whatever it was he was doing. She could latch onto that, siphon it all away, to aid us both against Irish. It would be so easy.

I looked up, and my eyes widened. The storm above was practically vibrating with potential energy. Good lord, how much power was up there? Damian must have been hoarding energy, building a supply bit by bit for years! There were only a few kinds of magicians who were even capable of that- artificers, geomancers, thaumaturges… but once you had a storehouse of power that big, handling it became really dangerous. In my head, the shadow purred. Easy, she seemed to say again.

With extreme care, I put my gun back into my holster. The movement was slow and very deliberate, because I was paying all my attention to the gun, and making sure my hand didn’t get away from me. It wouldn’t be the first time the shadow had got her way by pulling the old bait-and-switch on me. I felt her hissing her displeasure.

She said she could consume that much power? Use it? I’d never let her feed that much. I didn’t much like thinking about how hard it would be to control her if I ever did. I pushed my soggy hair out of my eyes with both hands, staring at Irish, who was staring right back at me. He grounded the tip of the sword between his feet, and smiled at me.

“Now, what’s that other bastard up to?” He glanced up at the storm, completely at his ease. Like we hadn’t just stepped back from a classic Mexican stand-off.

“I don’t know,” I said, still holding my hair back with both hands. It kept the wind from whipping my hair across my face, and my hands occupied, so they didn’t get to my gun again. “I really don’t,” I added as Irish gave me a chilly look. “I didn’t get a good look at what he was doing.” I pointed upwards and was about to mention that whatever he was doing needed an awful lot of power if he’d called down a whole storm, and just as I pointed up, I felt all that power pause, and then come hurtling down.

I dropped to my knees in a duck and cover, pushing all my strength into my shield belt while the world lit up hot and green. There was a tremendous, deafening roll of thunder that went on and on, and even through my closed eyes, with my head ducked down and my arms covering it, I could see the glare. The ground shook under me, and all around I heard metal snap and pop with energy, water sizzle and flash into steam, and the ‘fwoosh’ of sudden random fires. It hadn’t hit anywhere near us, but just  the backwash of Damian’s spell sent feelers of lightning spilling and crawling across the whole yard.

As the thunder eased, and the ground settled into stability again, I could still feel the raw power like a tingle through my shields. The shadow was giddy, gleefully drinking in and consuming every scrap of power that leaked through my defenses and I knew, knew, that if it hadn’t been for the shadow absorbing the overflow, I’d have been cooked like a Christmas goose.

Silence fell just in time for me to hear Irish say, “That bastard.” I glanced up, and saw Irish standing up from where he’d been kneeling a few feet away from me. There was smoke trailing up off his clothing, and the sword, stuck in the dirt in front of him, was entirely blackened. He turned on his heel, snatching the blade out of the ground and started striding back towards Damian.

“Wait!” I exclaimed. “He wasn’t aiming at –”

Too late. Irish was gone. I clapped my hands over my mouth, pulling them down my face and shaking my head in utter exasperation. I have participated in some amazing clusterfucks in my day, but I have never encountered one this titanic. Hollowman in Detroit, vampirism run amok, Jada dead… and was he actually striding off to tackle Damian, now? And if so, exactly what was I going to do about it?

Not a damn thing, I told myself firmly, even as I stood up and headed after Irish. Telling myself I was going to go home and forget about this mess before I got my stupid ass in even more trouble was all well and good, but if Irish managed to kill two Knights tonight, the Arcana would flood Detroit with battle mages. If they got even a whiff of my involvement in this, there was nothing in the world I could do to get myself out of it alive. My shadow played out behind me as I broke into a jog, fanning out to increase her surface area. Listening.

No sound of a battle – maybe Damian had gone? I could hear voices, but not fighting. I inched towards the edge of the row, nestled myself back in the shadow of that dilapidated wheel-less forklift, and peeked up just a hair, for a better view. There. Perfect.

Damian stood in a circle of light cast by a floating Edison bulb. It was one of mine, of course. Irish stood right in front of him, holding his sword which he had plunged through Damian’s chest, right up to the hilt. It didn’t appear to be bothering Damian at all.

“You killed Jada, I assume? She never would have let you approach me if she lived.” Damian spared a glance down at the blade, mouth twisting into an annoyed little grimace.

“Aye, I did,” Irish answered. He glanced down at the sword, too, looking even more annoyed with it than Damian.

The two men stared each other down for a moment. They were eye to eye, about the same height, but Irish was definitely in a heavier weight class. Damian was more slender. He was also the better looking of the two, having got the best features of his Greek father and Arabic mother. All the local Arcana women had a soft spot for Damian. He had this dusky olive skin, and big beautiful brown eyes, wavy black hair that you just wanted to tangle your fingers in. Oh, and when he smiled… he had the cutest little dimples when he smiled.

He wasn’t smiling, now. He was looking pretty damned grim, glowering back at Irish.

“We’re going to hunt you down for that.” Damian’s tone was off-hand. He was just saying. Pointing out the obvious, as it were. “I’ll hunt you down.”

“Haven’t managed to yet,” Irish said, just as unconcerned and off-hand. He twisted the blade, and see-sawed it back and forth. The blade moved really easily, like Irish was sawing it through butter, but Damian didn’t even seem to feel it.

“True enough, Orderman. But then, I haven’t really tried all that hard before today. It’s true that you have some kind of protection – scrying you has been difficult.” Irish grinned, and with his left hand he suddenly pulled his gun and shot Damian in the face three times. “But then again, all you ever seem to do is kill the malcontents, the misfits. Nobody useful, nobody powerful. Nobody who matters. Before today,” Damian continued, as though nothing had happened.

I realized what was going on, and relaxed. Irish wasn’t the only one who was hard to scry. Being half outlander made me pretty slippery in that respect myself. As long as I didn’t draw Irish’s attention, I was out of danger. From Damian, anyway. I settled down on one of the forklift’s fenders, and lit another cigarette, while I watched the show.

“Witch,” Irish growled, “you have no idea what sort of evil I have defeated in battle. You? You’re not even a workout.” A good line, I felt, but it would have had more gravitas if he hadn’t tossed his useless handgun over his shoulder while he said it.

“Now you’ve made yourself a priority, Irishman. Now you’re a dead man. Jada was a workout, wasn’t she? Jada made you bleed.”

“Aye, she did. What of it?”

They both sounded quite civil. Almost friendly, even. Just two gentlemen having a slight disagreement, that’s all. It put a chill down my spine. “Your blood,” the Knight of Pentacles continued, “is somewhere in this yard, and I’ll find it. I’ll use it to find you, and then I’ll kill you.”

“You might,” Irish agreed, and his voice hardened, picking up just a bit of an edge. “And I might kill you, first.”

“Race you,” Damian said, and now he smiled, and it wasn’t cute or dimpled at all.

Irish jerked his sword to the left, pulling it free of Damian’s chest and cleaving the man literally in half. As he did, Day’s illusion wavered and popped like a soap bubble, and for a split-second, Irish was staring down a weedy scarecrow in a very expensive suit. The scarecrow burst into flame and blew apart, scattering to ash and straw as it drifted down.

I shook my head, and flicked my ash while Irish spun to gape at me. It was a homunculus, of course. Like a big voodoo doll, but with the polarity reversed. What Damian acted out, the doll actually did. Add an illusion to make it look lifelike… and that was Damian through and through, right there. He never left his apartment if he didn’t have to. The witchlight sputtered out and dropped out of the air, and I winced as it hit the ground and broke. Those things were a pain in the ass to make.

“Fuck,” Irish said. He sounded tired. “He wasn’t even really here, was he?”

“Nope.”

“I hate witches!”

“Hey!”

Table of Contents / Chapter Ten >>

Marci Sischo & James Agle

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