An executioner would have shown some finesse, perhaps aimed for the neck for a quick, clean kill. Woden was not interested in such niceties; he brought his weapon straight down on Revenant’s over-sized skull with enough force to shatter it and the ground beneath it. Sanguinesti returned to its darkest state, contrasting with my pale skin in the frigid night. I noted the cold only as a bit of trivia; as much power as the armor now held, I wouldn’t feel physical discomfort for several hours.
I wished the same could be said for my emotional pain. I struggled to keep composure. The second the dam on my horror broke, I’d be useless. I also fought a losing battle with my gag reflex; part of Sanguinesti’s quirks was a sense of fullness, as if I’d ingested the blood of the victim rather than accumulated some abstract concept of life force through the ‘magic’. It was a small wonder it didn’t add a metallic flavor to my mouth, for added disgust.
“As you commanded, so we have done, my Queen.” Woden’s voice was dry and hollow, the echoes of an empty mass grave waiting to be filled with a thousand unnamed corpses. “Have you any further orders?”
Destroy yourselves and take me with you. I almost gave the command. I was fairly confident my power couldn’t do such a thing no matter my orders, but I couldn’t bring myself to test it. “You’ve done enough.”
“Very well.” Woden broke apart into the mist that was the Wild Hunt’s true form. The Dökkálfar and Black Hounds followed, returned to the bolts of black lightning. Moments later, the fog was gone, leaving me alone with the skeletal remains of the man I killed.
The corpse exploded into a rainbow of yellows, blues and greens, then rushed eastward. What? Even Revenant’s blood spatter, spread out across the battlefield, was removed in the same moment. All that remained to prove a battle occurred was the burned grass, impact craters, footprints and claw marks. Also, a scent that reminded me of motor oil in the air.
He didn’t! He couldn’t! Relief washed over me, my guilt and regrets vanished along with Revenant’s corpse. He did!
“Valkyrie, heed my call!” The near black of Sanguinesti lightened to a deep crimson, drawing upon its power rather than my internal well. All my excess energy would be lost when I dismissed the armor, so it was more efficient to draw from it while I had it, rather than wasting personal strength.
The summoning took more power than usual, but Sanguinesti had power to pay for that deficit a dozen times over. The rider appeared in a swirl of white smoke, as unnaturally pristine as it always was. “You have need of me, my lady?”
It showed no indication that it understood it had been destroyed not long ago. Does it have the ability to remember its own death? Can it even remember the events of its prior summonings? “I need you to take me that direction.” I pointed toward where the sparkle of Revenant’s deconstructed mass went, then jumped up on the back of the Pegasus; with Sanguinesti bolstering my strength and speed, I probably classed a two or three in the Brawler category. “Blessings of Talaria.” Double the speed for eight times the energy expenditure wasn’t usually worth it, but I was in a hurry and had power to spare.
Maybe I should get into a workout routine, so I can be in shape without eating people. The Pegasus took off with a single flap of its wings, already moving at well over thirty miles an hour. I lost my train of though while clinging to Valkyrie like my life depended on it. It took me around a minute to spot Laura’s car on the otherwise abandoned streets. “Take us near that vehicle.”
“As you command.” Valkyrie dropped, and so did my stomach once the effective weightlessness hit me. I wasn’t afraid of heights, per se, but I wasn’t a big fan of roller coasters, either. I may have let out a less than dignified cry of surprise.
Considering the gunfire and inhuman howls and screaming, I assumed that someone would have called the cops by now, but that didn’t appear to be the case. A good thing for me, since Sapphire would have been the one to show up, and I did not need that drama right now. Nor did Laura, given that nobody was in the driver’s seat of her moving vehicle.
The car kept driving, but Glen’s familiar rumble came to my ear. “Laura’s alive, Cassandra’s catching up in her own car, and we’re going to pick up Zach. Flux has him, and is on his way to meet us.”
Of course Glen went with her instead of staying with me. It still stung to be abandoned while fighting for my life, fighting for their lives, but it made more sense now. “Is he alive?”
“Alive, breathing, and conscious,” Glen said. “So we know his power’s not as depleted as it’s been in the past. Frankly, I think Flux is in worse shape. He sounds like he’s about to have a panic attack.”
Not who I meant. Oh, fuck, I wasn’t even thinking about Zach’s wellbeing, I only cared about making sure I didn’t kill anyone. No wonder I can count the number of friends I have on one hand. “That’s good news. I’ll go on ahead, just in case Revenant comes back for a rematch.”
“We’ll be right behind you.”
“Bring us up, Valkyrie.” Now, the opposite sensation from before; Valkyrie defied physics as we understood the concept, but I was still beholden to the laws of gravity and acceleration. Spotting Zach and Flux, both of whom wore darker colors and were trying to avoid attention, was more difficult by far than finding a car. Still, I knew the general direction they were headed, so I caught sight of them after a little while.
I clenched every muscle in my body, in anticipation of the next Telaria-assisted plummet. “Valkyrie, land next to them.” The ensuing ride was as stomach-turning as I expected it to be.
“Zach!” I jumped off the Pegasus and ran toward the pair. Zach was busy leaning on Flux’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
He looked more dead than alive when he lifted his head up. His eyes met mine for only a moment before trailing down to my state of dress, or lack thereof. “Well, I was gonna say hangin’ in there, but now I know I’m dreaming. One of the good ones, by the looks of it.”
Great, now he’s checking me out. Now I’m blushing because he’s checking me out. I crossed my arms over my chest. “Right.” If he had enough energy to make jokes like that, he was fine, save for the brain damage. “What happened to Revenant?” Is he alive?
“Dropped him off the Chain Bridge,” Zach smiled at me. “He called me a couple words not fit for polite company before hitting the water. I figure if he can take a deep freeze from Cassie, he can handle a swim in the Potomac. But if any of the fish give him AIDS, that is totally not my fault.”
“Zach, that’s Cleveland with all the AIDS fish.” Flux sounded winded, but after running to the river, then coming back this way, all the while carrying Zach with him, I’d have been surprised if he wasn’t tired.
“A common mistake.” Zach did a David Attenborough impression that would have been terrible even if he wasn’t half unconscious. “While it is true that all of Cleveland’s fish have AIDS, it is not the sole location experiencing the phenomena. The Potomac’s at sixty percent, maybe seventy.”
“You’ve put way too much thought into this.”
I started laughing, part of it may have been the joke, but more was the relief I felt in knowing that I didn’t kill Revenant. Permanently, at any rate. “That is so stupid!” It was, too, but it felt good to be able to a laugh at something stupid, instead of fretting over literal life and death.
Headlights cut off any further conversation, heralding the arrival of Laura and her vehicle. It drove past us, then its tires squealed as it pulled a U-turn, then came up next to us. The rumble indicated that Glen was involved. I hadn’t thought about it before, but Glen’s ability to generate TK over a wide area would give him incredible control over something like a car. “Is everyone alright?”
“Nothing that going home and sleeping for three days won’t cure,” Flux said.
“What about Laura?” Zach stepped toward the car, still supported by Flux. “Is she?”
The back window rolled down. “My sides are gonna be purple as fuck tomorrow, but I don’t think anything’s broken. Think he’ll be coming back?”
I looked toward the river; we couldn’t see it from where we stood, but the Washington Parkway was visible. “I’m not certain.” Shit. “If he does, he’ll be coming for me.”
“Or me,” Zach said. “I’m the one that dropped him in the river to stop the fight. He strikes me as the type who’d be pissed about cheating him of his big showdown with Anima or whatever bullshit.”
“He’ll leave us alone, once we’re out of costume.” Despite Zach and Laura taking the bulk of the beating, Flux sounded worse off than either of them. “Baseball rules: home is safe. He won’t go after us in civies.”
“Fuck!” Zach shouted. “There is no way I’m sneaking back in like this. Mom is gonna flip her shit so hard she’ll go back in time and tell her younger self to get an abortion.”
Where do they get these metaphors?
Laura grunted, shifting in the seat. “I’ll take care of it. Say some asshole started shit with me when I was out, and I called you for help. What’s she gonna do, accuse me of punching myself in the ribs a million times to cover for you?”
“Are you sure we’re talking ’bout the same woman?”
“We’ll figure something out,” Laura said. I couldn’t help but notice she didn’t disagree with Zach. “Now hop in, we need someone to act like they’re driving, and I’m out of the question.”
Zach looked back toward the water. “I… I’m not sure that’s a good idea. We think Revenant won’t come after us, we don’t know.”
And he’s about ready to pass out, too. He just doesn’t want to admit how bad he’s hurt in front of Laura. “I’ll take Zach with me, if that’s alright.” I owed him that much of a chance to save face, after saving Revenant from me. “If he does want revenge, we’re the targets, and we already know that I can beat him in a one-on-one fight.” If he comes back for a rematch, it’s more assisted suicide than murder.
I could only see Laura’s silhouette inside her vehicle, even with the low-level night vision granted by the empowered Sanguinesti, but she was looking at me. “Yeah, good idea. We’ll touch base in the morning. Flux, you need a ride anywhere?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Flux looked over at me. “Need a hand with him?”
“I’m stronger than I look.” I moved over to Zach, who was tall enough that I didn’t even have to duck under his arm to hold him up. Why this costume of all options didn’t come with heels, I couldn’t begin to guess. Perhaps it was more intended to be ‘sexy ninja’ than ‘sexy warrior’ in nature. “Let’s get out of here before we all die of hypothermia.”
“I’d ask if I have a choice in the matter.” Zach drew himself up some, trying to walk under his own power. “But we all know I’m not gonna turn down a chance to go home with a cute girl dressed like this.”
“Uh huh. Keep talking like that and I’ll send you to the hospital.” To check for blindness, or a concussion, or mental illness.
“Harsh, but fair.”
It was a little tricky for Valkyrie to carry both of us; he had to ride in her lap, and by the time we got to my apartment, he’d fallen asleep and my armor had dimmed to rose red. Now I was at the default point of the armor’s strength, having expended all the excess I’d taken from my battle with Revenant. Valkyrie stopped in mid air in front of my window, as if the Pegasus stood upon solid ground rather than the air.
I got off, now reduced to more or less human strength. I reached out, accepting Zach from Valkyrie’s arms, and grunted at the unexpected weight of him falling into my arms.
“Wha?” Zach woke up, still sitting in Valkyrie’s lap with me holding his arm and shoulder. “Don’t worry, I got it.” He leaned forward, grabbed Valkyrie’s arm, then tumbled off of her into my living room. It wasn’t the most graceful of landings, I think he broke his own neck, but his power kicked in and had him standing a moment later.
“I’m okay! You totally didn’t see me look like an idiot!”
Oh, to have his power instead of mine. Strong, healthy, able to bounce back from anything, no matter what it was. Oh, who am I kidding? I’d probably sit around moping about how everyone I know and love will die before me like some even more pathetic emo vampire. I lost my train of thought when I realized Zach was silent, and staring at me. “What?”
He tore his eyes away, looking toward corner of the ceiling. “So, I wasn’t dreaming. That costume’s a thing that exists and you have.”
Oh, right, the outfit. “It’s… one of the ones I don’t like.” That was putting it mildly. Unlike my other armor, this one existed only to kill with. Also, it had a habit of destroying clothing that might otherwise cover the parts it wanted to display. “But I needed the offensive power against Revenant.”
“Yeah.” He still wouldn’t look at me. “Umm, sorry about putting you through all of that. It was the best plan I could come up with at the time, and I wanted to tell you but I didn’t know if that would ruin it or not. Sorry.”
The awkwardness faded a little; I still resented him some for the fight out there, even if his plan did work out. “What part are you apologizing for?” Why should I still trust you after all of that?
“A lotta things. First, I didn’t know if you could beat him.” He looked back at me, very deliberately keeping his eyes on my face. “Everyone says you’ve got all this power, but it’s kinda hard to believe until you see it first hand. I was just hoping you could keep him distracted until we made it to the river. We’d come back for you while he was swimming with the drug needles, plus he’d be at the strength when Cassie was fighting him, instead of whatever he got from your attack.”
I tried not to feel too insulted that he thought I would lose. It wasn’t the apology I was looking for, however. “And then?”
“And then you were winning,” he said. “Flux put up a couple spycams when we were on the way out, so he was watching the whole time. I figured, if you won, then Revenant would probably not come after us again. I mean, I hope at least. He got his fight, and maybe learned his lesson.”
Much as I didn’t want to admit it, he had a point. “And not telling me the plan was supposed to accomplish what, exactly?”
“Well.” He looked away again. “I don’t know how your power works. You told me the Wild Hunt doesn’t stop until it kills. So… what does that mean with my power? If I use my power, will yours think Revenant’s been killed? What will it do if the target dies, but it didn’t do the killing? Would it come after me, and Revenant? Is there a range limit? A time limit? If it kills someone I bring back, does that still count or will it kill the same person a second time? And if I told you the plan, would it also know the plan?”
“I… don’t know…” I hadn’t bothered to consider any of those possibilities, in all the time I’d known Zach. I put some thought into what others’ powers could do, but I spent most of my time trying to convince myself summons like The Hunt didn’t exist. “You’ve put a lot of thought into this. Like, a lot, a lot.”
“I think a lot about everything.” Zach smiled, looked back at me, then away again. He was having more trouble with my outfit than I was. “I’m convinced that sleep is nature’s way of keeping boredom from driving us insane. So I spend a lot of time thinking about tricks my power could be used for, or possible Power Interactions. Sometimes, I even study, as crazy as that sounds.”
I stayed silent long enough for him to glance at me again. “Heh, sure you do.” At this point, it was clear he’d be thinking about me, or Sanguinesti at any rate, for a long time. It was a surprisingly fun thought. I’m not used to people finding me attractive, but I think I like it.
“So, yeah, I’m sorry for everything on you like that. It was my fault he was there in the first place, and you had to save my ass.”
Huh? “How was it your fault?” That seemed irrational to me, but Zach was smarter than he gave himself credit for. “He made it quite clear that he wanted the ultimate fight, and that was me. Not only did I fight him, I kicked his ass! He probably didn’t even know who you were until we were on the news together.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t go after civilians,” Zach said. “You’ve been famous for years, but he left you alone until I talked you into playing hero. And it was my Power Interaction with Muwth that led us right to his trap in the first place.”
He has a point. I stepped closer to him, reached out and touched his elbow. “I think it would have happened eventually, anyway. Phony honor code notwithstanding, he’s still a violent criminal, and an adrenaline junkie.” And possibly a suicidal masochist. “He couldn’t have ignored me forever. Without you, there wouldn’t have been a reset button. I… I would have…” Oh to hell with it.
I stepped in closer, wrapped my arms around him and squeezed as hard as I could. I cried for a minute, glad that it was all over and I wouldn’t have to kill anyone ever again. “Thank you.”
“Well, not the reaction I was expecting.” His arms moved around my back, with a notable and awkward attempt to avoid touching skin. “But you’re welcome? I guess.”
We stayed there for a moment, then a thought occured to me. I looked up at him. “Umm, you know, I bet there are people who’d pay money for you to do that trick with Revenant for them. Like, consequence-free murder. Or suicide.”
“Trust me, I know. The full power of rule thirty-fo…” He looked down at me, then smiled in his usual boyish way, as if the weight of the world meant nothing to him. “Know what? Let’s just say the Internet is a dark and terrible place, and never speak of it again.”
“Alright.” I kept looking at him, a warm feeling forming in my stomach. I pushed my tongue against my lips for a moment, then pulled him toward me. He had to know, and he could have stepped back, but he didn’t. I got closer, felt the warmth of his breath. The first two kisses were surprises to both of us. This time, the opposite, we both knew what I was about to do, and I for one anticipated it.
This time, I kissed, and he kissed back, and for a number of seconds that felt like forever it was perfect. Maybe he was an amazing kisser, or maybe it was a combination of my inexperience and the emotional roller coaster of the last few hours, but I couldn’t imagine anything better. Sadly, like all good things, it had come to an end, and I drew back. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“I can’t believe you’re doing it, either.” Zach gave a short laugh, but even though he smiled I could see the worry in his face. “This another of those ‘between friends’ kisses?”
No. “Do… you want it to be?”
“There should be a law against answering a question with a question.” His smile got a little more convincing. “But, to answer, no, I don’t think I do.”
“Neither do I.” I pressed against him, kissing him again. More passion, less apprehension, but just as wonderful as the last time. And I really can’t believe what I’m about to do now. I broke the kiss one last time. “Crimson Regalia Sanguinesti, you are dismissed.”
Valkyrie closed the window, then spent the rest of the night standing guard.