Revenant took a defensive stance while the fog rolled in. The storm of black lightning began to call up the Wild Hunt, while Revenant’s ears twitched, turned to face the echoing laughter of the monsters hiding out of sight.
He was afraid of what was to come, as he should be, or perhaps I was projecting my own emotions on him. He didn’t know what was to come, but I did. My heart hammered, my stomach was in knots.
“There’s nothing I can do to stop them, now.” I said for Glen and Revenant’s benefits, as well as my own. “They won’t stop for anything until their target is dead, not even killing me.” I didn’t know if that was true, if the Hunt could outlive me, but I said it anyway. “I’m sorry.”
I call myself a pacifist, but when it comes down to it, I’m not ready to die for my beliefs. I let others die in my stead.
The first of the beasts rushed forward, one of the Black Hounds. It looked like a wolf, if wolves were four feet tall at the shoulder and black as tar. It snarled and growled in its charge, while Revenant braced himself for impact against the monster.
It wasn’t the wolf-beast which was the true threat. A pair of meat hooks shot out from the fog behind Revenant. He was alert, and fast enough to step out of one’s path, and deflect the other with the back of his hand. He was not prepared when the hook that went past him reversed direction, and came around to catch him by the shin.
“Grah!” The hook now caught in his leg pulled him off balance at the exact moment the half ton wolf landed on his chest. He remained standing, a testament to his strength and how close his power came to being everything he believed it to be. He grabbed the wolf by its back, pulled it away from his body. Tattered, bloody flesh that belonged to Revenant’s throat came off with it.
He brought the arm holding the monster up, then slammed the creature into the ground with enough force to leave cracks in the frozen ground.
Pain shot through my head, the consequence of the wolf’s death. At this rate, he might be able to win.
“S-so, looks like you do got limits.” Revenant wasn’t looking at me, too busy glancing around for the next attack from the fog. If he wanted to win the battle, he would have tried to attack me directly, not that it would have done much good. Instead, he was trying to test his strength against mine. “You’re gonna break before I do.”
The chain of the hook on his leg went tight, trying to pull him back, only for him to kick forward as hard as he could. He overwhelmed the strength of the hunters, each of which was at least as strong as the strongest of normal humans. Two of the creatures came sailing from the fog, still clinging to the chain hook.
I’m not certain what to describe the monsters as. In theory, my my power’s internal ‘instruction manual’ considered them elves, but they appeared more like the folklore of goblins. Green skinned little imp-things with cruel curved teeth and claws far too large to be practical. They were the Dökkálfar, the dark elves, and while they were not the most powerful of my summons, they were by far the most sadistic.
Revenant positioned himself to attack both once they got within reach, while the Dökkálfar sailed forward like they anticipated their own deaths with the same joy that they would inflict it on others.
Another chain shot from the fog, wrapped around the first, and pulled it tight, which halted the chain midair, while pulling the hook still embedded in Revenant’s limb outward.
“Fuck!” Blood sprayed from his torn arteries, coloring the ground with crimson so hot it left steam in the frigid air. Distracted as he was, Revenant still caught both monsters in air, then slammed his hands together in a brutal rendition of a clap.
I dropped to my knees with the death of both summons, more power than I cared to guess at sacrificed in the blow. I wasn’t even certain how I remained conscious under the circumstances. The death of Valkyrie cost me more strength than I realized.
Through fogged vision, I saw that Cassandra had begun dragging Laura away from the battlefield. Buy time, I have to buy time.
“Four down!” He bellowed toward the sky, which did little to soothe my splitting skull. He held his arms up, the Hunters latched to his wrists like oversized, morbid bracelets. “Is this the best you’ve got?!” He gestured toward the girls with his head. “Or do I have to add a little more persuasion? I bet even Sapphire would give me a better fight.”
What! I jolted, and earned another jolt of pain behind my eyes. No, he doesn’t know anything, he’s just taunting me by bringing up the region’s most famous hero, that’s all. I looked up at him, trying to focus myself.
“Not quite my best.” I’d never imagined I’d be in a fight which could, let alone would, force me to go to such extremes. I never thought anyone would try. “Crimson Regalia, Sanguinesti.”
I shivered as portions of it my armor melted away, exposing much of my thighs, my arms, my stomach and my back, and what remained shifted from white and gold to various hues of pink, leaving little more than the proverbial chain mail bikini, with knee high boots and elbow gloves. My costume would have been quite at home in a swords and sorcery movie from the 80s, or a porno, or an 80s fantasy movie based on a porno.
I would have cared more about my modesty if I wasn’t so concerned about freezing to death. Eufron’s defensive features were now replaced by the pure offensive power of Sanguinesti, and now I had frostbite on my everywhere.
“You are just full of surprises.” Revenant looked at me, then tilted his head. “Does that costume come with a whip? Damn, now I kinda regret wasting my charm on your friend back there.”
He can’t be serious. Leaving aside the absurdity of the situation, or his presumption of having ‘charm’ to waste, even this armor’s methods of hiding my imperfections while exaggerating what passed for my assets wasn’t enough to let me to compete with Laura’s figure.
He took a step toward me, pulling the chain in his leg with. “Or we could dispense formalities.” His tongue, now forced into three thick, black, snakelike tendrils, ran over his lips. “Maybe get down to business here and now?”
No! “Get away from me!” I scrambled away, fighting the pain and cold.
Screeching echoed through the fog, a pair of wolves rushed from the mist with Hunters riding on their backs. The Hunters themselves carried cruel, hooked blades that had more resemblance to serrated shark teeth than proper knives.
“As I thought.” His smile widened, revealing large, flat teeth, more a grazing animal’s jaw than the fangs I’d expected. “If I upset you, your pets go ballistic.”
Revenant jumped into the air, moving in the direction of the chain still caught in his thigh. This took him away from the Hunters, and gave him slack so he could maneuver. Two more bladed chains launched toward him. He brought an arm up to catch the incoming attacks.
“Even in death, you are mine! Rise up and serve your queen!” Yelling out the spell hurt, a lot, but I didn’t have time or power to do a quiet cast. I needed to replenish my strength, and there was only one way to do that, but I had to use a strategy to get the most out of the situation. I couldn’t afford to mess up. Not here, not now. More than that, however, I wanted to win. I hated that part of myself, hated to admit I could be like that.
“Eh?” Revenant was exactly as surprised as I’d hoped he’d be when the pair of maimed Dökkálfar reached out, gripped each other by digging their claws into each others’ rib cages, and pulled each other together along with his arms.
The pink color of my armor faded further, now to a soft rose color. Now! I would have liked to call out Sagitta for an extra layer of damage, but I didn’t have time. “Feast upon the blood of your victims! Vampire Claws!” One of the Sanguinesti armor’s unique spells wrapped around all of my summons.
“GAAAAH!!!” Now he howled in pain rather than whatever sick thrill he was getting of the battle moments ago. The faded pink of my armor darkened while the pain in my head faded, Sanguinesti drawing in strength from Revenant for each wound inflicted upon him.
Both chains struck, one catching his shoulder while the other locked into a hip. All three chains now went tight, pulled by the creatures hiding in the darkness. And still, Revenant stood, resisting the multiple direction onslaught.
He half stomped, half kicked, one of the black hounds by the face with his clawed bird-like toes. Power was stripped from Sanguinesti upon the crushing of the hound’s skull. Meanwhile, the other Hunter shoved its dagger between Revenant’s upper left ribs, not far beneath his armpit. For a normal human being, this would have pierced the heart, but I didn’t expect that to be enough to bring him down.
Nor did the Hunter, who twisted the knife inside his ribs, turning it so that the serrated edges were now firmly locked within Revenant’s ribcage, like a key. It wouldn’t kill him, but it would slow him down if he tried to pull the dagger out, or force him to rip his own ribs apart taking it out.
This is insane, how am I thinking so fast? What is this feeling? I should be terrified and disgusted, I am terrified, but more than all of that: this is fun! I always valued Dad’s words, when he told me that strength didn’t matter half as much as a adaptability and good planning. Did my power help me there as well, or is this natural talent that I always had, that my power was keyed in on? Is my inner nature like Revenant, getting off on the challenge? The difference being that my challenge is one of mind rather than body?
My questions went unanswered, and I had more important things to concern myself with at that moment. A glance confirmed that Laura and Cassie were away from the field of battle, retreating the half mile or so toward the nearest intersection of this more or less deserted strip of road. Laura’s car would be over there, and then they’d be able to get to safety. Zach and Flux were nowhere to be seen.
The surviving hound bit into Revenant’s haunch, then ripped a good chunk of his upper thigh out. He fell screaming, though he had the presence of mind to turn even that into an advantage for him. He managed to twist himself enough to land on the monster and its rider, crushing them both under his incredible bulk, which at this point had to be well over a ton.
Sanginesti dimmed again, the cost of two more constructs added to the ‘bill’ being paid by every injury inflicted upon Revenant. He’d beaten more of them than I’d imagined anyone could; without the Vampire Claws, he might have been able to force me to sink into the deepest pool of my power, where monsters more horrific than The Hunt dwelt.
Revenant rose, his expression changed. Before, he’d been excited, thrilled at the promise of the hardest battle of his life. Now he was alert, aware that his victory was not assured. It was no longer a question of when in his mind, but if.
His belief was flawed; he’d already lost. The Hunt had gone on too long, there was nothing left but the struggle.
The remaining hunter moved in, ducking under Revenant’s guard, then stabbing him in the Achilles tendon. It rolled back, avoiding Revenant’s punch.
While Revenant was busy pulling his fist out of the ground, the Hunter delivered a pair of shallow cuts on the inside of the elbow. Three more of the sadistic creatures stepped out of the fog, born from the black lightning.
The four circled him, their laughter like that of jackals as Revenant struggled against the hooked chains in his body. He was holding up incredibly well considering the venom of the black hounds was pumping through his veins, slowly coating his insides with the same tar-substance that comprised their bodies.
Were he normal, he’d have long ago been paralyzed by the poison, a living statue that the Hunters would have carved up piece by piece while he still lived. By now, they would have been extracting his bones one by one while he lay there, unable to scream.
That might have been a mercy compared to what Revenant would experience before this night was over.
He got a lucky swing in, embedding his claws into one Hunter’s chest, then continuing the momentum to clip another. He pressed his hand down into the pair, crushing them into gore beneath his claws.
“Don’t think I’m done yet! I will never surrender!” Despite the countless wounds, the poison, and the brutal weapons buried in his flesh, he stood larger than ever, coated in his own blood and the fluids of my constructs. “I can take everything you throw at me and a thousand times more!”
Pain lanced through my head, the last bit of pink faded from Sanguinesti, leaving behind leprous, sickly white behind. Revenant was justified in his confidence; his regeneration could overcome even the Wild Hunt’s attacks. If this battle continued as it was, he would win by adaptation and durability alone. Were they the limit of my power, he would have overcome me in a couple more minutes or so.
I looked to the sky. “Is Zach ready?” I was answered by silence. “Did I buy enough time?”
Revenant stepped forward, dragging the chains and their holders along, advancing toward the hunters he could see. I didn’t have long left, before half of my trap would fail, then it really was me who would die. I didn’t have strength remaining to set it second time.
They abandoned me, just like everyone else in my life. My tears burned for a moment, before freezing on my cheeks. Fuck you, and fuck me for believing you were ever my friends.
“You’re right, you can’t surrender now. Not even if you begged.” The remaining Hunters fell back; as parts of my power, their programs anticipated what was to come. “Know the scars of your sins. Blood to Acid.”
Screams impossible for any throat, human or animal, tore through the night. Blood to acid didn’t convert the victim to acid; no, that would have been too straightforward and merciful. Instead it converted the corpses of summons like the Wild Hunt which left corpses, into something similar to microscopic fluid razor blades, shredding everything it rubbed against at the cellular level.
Sanguinesti’s pallor became pink, then rose, then red, then crimson, then kept going until it became the darkest color that could still be identified as red instead of black. Warmth returned to my limbs, the heat of Revenant’s lifeblood became my own, though I felt nothing but cold inside.
I looked at the skeletal remains of Revenant, coated in the black ooze of the so-called acid, as well as the reds of his own blood. The resemblance in that color to Sanguinesti itself was appropriate for a monster like me.
Now I’m a murderer in both deed and intent. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
One of the limbs pierced from the pool of death, the soft yellow bone shining like ivory against the red-black background. The skeletal claws sank into the earth, pulled itself forward. Half the body came out, scoured of all flesh.
The dagger left in his ribs, no longer held in place by skin and muscle, slid down the ribs following gravity until it fell to the ground where the ribs stopped. Tissue regenerated from the joints around his elbows, wrists and jaw, in a way that resembled nothing so much as toothpaste coming out of the tube.
I stepped back, horrified and overjoyed in equal measure. On one hand, his survival meant I wasn’t a killer. On the other, this didn’t mean he was going to survive, only that his suffering was prolonged.
A dozen more Hunters, with six more black hounds, exited the fog; with Sanguinesti at full strength and beyond, I could lose all of these and still have strength enough to bring forth twice again as many in the next wave, but this swarm seemed to be all the guiding force of my power needed.
They brought with them their hooked chains, tossing them over his body, and through it in some cases, pinning him before he was strong enough to resist. Some of the little bastards began taking their knives to the joints, carving away cartilage in an attempt to either sever Revenant’s limbs or prying them off.
Can he decentralize? Evolve into something that’s pure fluid? It wouldn’t save him, but it would delay the inevitable better than his current paths were holding up.
“Kuh.” His face still more bone than flesh, and he had no lungs, yet somehow he was able to speak. “Ku in. Uh loo. Ih uh.”
He couldn’t speak well, mind, but he could talk. It took a moment to parse what he was trying to say. “Are you saying you surrender?”
“Uh.” Revenant nodded his head. It was sluggish, and I’m sure every moment brought him indescribable agony. One of those sick little games of healing powers; not a single one did anything to help with pain. If anything, regenerators suffered more, regrowing nerve endings as they were being destroyed.
Dammit, Revenant, now you get the message. After it’s far too late.
“I can’t.” He looked up at me, while struggling against the chains holding him down. “I wasn’t lying before. Once the Wild Hunt has a victim, it cannot be stopped. Even I can’t make it quit until you’re dead.”
A hulking monstrosity stepped out of the fog, towering head and shoulders above me. Its body shape and size was a rough match for a large black bear, but its head was an elk’s skull, with a massive pair of antlers twining out, curving back, and reaching almost to the small of its back. Or where the small of the back would be, if its back were human in shape. In its hand, it carried a weapon that combined a glaive and battle axe, with the axehead itself made of a forest of elk antler.
Woden, the Master of the Hunt.
It brought its axe up above Revenant, like an executioner, while the one eye Revenant had regrown looked up at the creature. “Oh. Uhk ee, eh.”
I didn’t look away, I wouldn’t allow myself the luxury of turning from what I’d unleashed. Nor, it seemed, could Revenant. Together, we watched as Woden brought all his strength down on Revenant’s skull.