“Before you die, I’ll set you on fire,” she promised. “I will burn you slowly for hours.”
“Promises, promises.” I began backing up again. She followed. Come with me, away from people. Come with me, Erra. Let’s dance.
Darkness raised his arms. Magic pulsed from him like a blast wave after an explosion. The world went white in a haze of panic. I couldn’t breathe. My thoughts fractured and scurried off, leaving me lost and unbalanced. A luminescent haze floated before me, like a thundercloud backlit by splashes of lightning, and beyond it I sensed a gaping void. Nothing but calm empty darkness.
So that was what Darkness meant. Fear. All-consuming, overwhelming fear, so powerful that it tore you from your life and threw you into the void, alone and blind.
Rage reared inside me. I grabbed it like a crutch and pulled myself up, back to reality. My vision returned. I shook myself like a wet dog.
“Is that all? I thought it would be something powerful.”
She raised her arm, showing off the segmented gauntlet. “Where is your blood armor, whelp? Why don’t you cut your wrist and grow a blade? What’s the matter? You can’t do it, can you? You don’t know the secret of molding the blood. I do. All you do is talk and run.”
My family was full of overpowered assholes. I kept walking. We were four blocks from the Mole Hole now. I had no idea what her range was. “No matter what you do or how hard you try, you will never surpass your brother. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”
Magic splayed from Darkness in dark translucent streams, bending back, flooding the Mole Hole behind him and stretching farther and farther, to the decrepit buildings, to the hundreds of people packed like sardines into the concrete shells of the ruins. The enormity of his power shook me.
“Watch,” Erra called out.
The Darkness brought his arms together. No, God damn it, no . . .
A wild howl pierced the night. Another voice joined, another, more . . .
A torrent of people burst from the ruins behind Erra.
People streamed toward me, eyes mad, mouths gaping open, running like crazed cattle. I ducked behind a car. The human stampede thundered past me. Bodies thudded into the metal, making it shudder. Screams filled the air and above it all Erra’s laughter floated, like the toll of a funeral bell.
A blast of magic ripped from Darkness. Reality fractured and I floated among the pieces, unsure who I was or where I came from. Thoughts and words swirled around me, round and round, in a glowing cascade. Darkness beckoned just beyond the chaos. I reached into the cloud and pulled a word out.
Magic bit at me with needle jaws. I shuddered, shaking, the shock of the pain tearing the haze.
A body landed next to me, shaggy with fur. Mad eyes glared from a face that was neither beast nor human. A female shapeshifter. Her body snapped, twisted, jerked, and a coyote stood before me. She leapt up and dashed down the street, galloping after the herd of terrified people.
He didn’t send them after the undead? Not yet. We’d agreed. I jerked upright and saw Erra in the middle of the street, the undead behind her, no shapeshifters in sight. The lone shapeshifter must’ve been hit with a stray blast of power.
Every inch of me hurt from magic spent too quickly.
You’re the distraction. Get up and do the distracting.
I got up and walked into the open, Slayer bare.
She started toward me, and I backed away. Half a block to go. Close enough to the Casino, far enough from the Mole Hole, the perfect distance for the shapeshifters to strike.
“Again you run.”
“Not my fault you walk too slowly to catch me.” Up close her armor resembled scale mail: bloodred scales, some large, some small, overlapping over her frame. Now why couldn’t I do that? What was I missing?
I crossed over the manhole cover. The last of the stragglers dashed by. The street was empty except for me and her, and her three corpses.
She charged. The world ground to a screeching halt. I heard myself breathe, my chest rising slowly, as if underwater.
In the three seconds it took her to cover the distance between us, I heard Voron’s voice from my memories. It said, “If it bleeds, you can kill it.”
She bled—her armor testified to it—and I was better.
Erra smashed into me. I leaned back, letting her axe swing past me, ducked, thrust, and sliced under her arm. Slayer glanced off. She whipped around, but I danced away. She lunged, I ducked and jumped clear.
“You can’t win,” Erra snarled.
Behind her, dark shadows lined the roof. Of the fifty Curran had brought, only half were left. Here’s hoping it would be enough.
“I’m not trying to win,” I told her.
“What are you trying to do?”
Keep you occupied.
The shapeshifters dropped off the roof like clawed ghosts.
A seven-foot-tall scaled monster hit Beast. They clashed in a mess of fur and claws. The primeval deep roar of an enraged crocodile rolled through the street.
I launched a whirlwind of strikes. My sword became a whip, cutting, slashing, dicing, left, right, left. Focus on me. Focus on me, damn you. As long as I kept her busy, she would have trouble coordinating the movements of all three undead at once and keeping me at bay.
Over Erra’s shoulder, Gale rose into the air, clutching Darkness in his arms.
The shapeshifters had missed them. Damn it.
Erra’s axe ground against Slayer. She drove me back.
Gale soared above the street twenty feet in the air, wrapped in a cone of wind. Foul magic pulsed from Darkness.
A chorus of enraged snarls and howls answered, punctuated by an eerie slice of hyena laughter.
Erra kept pushing me back. I veered from the wall and danced back, toward Gale. I ducked and dodged, trying to turn her, but she barreled at me like a freight train.
To the left of me an enormous werewolf crouched on the pavement. She hooked the manhole cover with her clawed fingers, did a 360, and hurled it at Gale. The metal disk cut like a knife through the whirlwind surrounding Gale and smashed into Darkness.
A deep female voice yelled, “Noboru! Sekasu kodomotachi! Noboru! Noboru!”
Red-furred shapeshifters surged up the walls of the buildings—the foxes of Clan Nimble.
Erra elbowed me. I flew back and rolled into a crouch, just in time to swipe her legs from under her. She fell. I struck her twice on the way down and withdrew.
Dark slashes scored her armor, like the strikes of a whip—places where Slayer connected. None looked deep enough to do any damage. Voron had promised me that the saber would slice through blood armor, given enough time, but so far Slayer wasn’t cutting it. If she’d been wearing regular armor, she would have been bleeding like a stuck pig. If wishes were money, the world would have no beggars.