I recognized Derek’s plan immediately. It was one we had used on gangs of street thugs several times. While he was busy fighting the champion, I’d handle the support. Simple enough.
Except we didn’t know enough about the vampire triplets to know if the tactic was even viable. They had somehow made a dozen Mals commit suicide; I didn’t want to get anywhere near them. At least Flynn was out of this fight due to an injury he received while fighting the fey monsters.
But orders were orders, even if they were merely implied. My path was clear.
I cranked my speed up as high as it would go, slowing the world to a crawl, and rushed past Elizabeth to attack the triplets.
They weren’t there.
Neither was anyone else.
The entire crowd had just…disappeared.
I wheeled back around, but Derek and the others were gone too. The entire street—which up until a second ago had been packed with men and monsters—was completely, absolutely, bare.
Not only was the crowd gone, but there was no noise. The constant din of the city, the distant car alarms and gunshots that provided a steady undertone to anything and everything, was gone.
Okay, I needed to stay calm. If I assumed this had something to do with how the Mals had committed suicide, then panicking would probably just end my life faster.
First things first, I sheathed my sword. Call me stupid, but I figured that if I wasn’t waving the thing around, I had a better chance of not being made to stab myself with it.
Next was what?
How should I know what was next? I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. The fact that I wasn’t dead yet seemed like a good sign, but I had no way to know for sure. If this was some kind of illusion, my body was probably lying helpless in the real world. Derek and Adam would be trying to protect me, but against Elizabeth and four of her Blackguards, what could they do? I could be only moments away from death I could—
I took a deep breath.
No time to panic.
My dad had always said that meditation was good for the soul. And when you feel angry, or scared, that’s when you need it the most.
I drew my sword, slowly, savoring the sound of it sliding out of its sheathe. Eyes closed, I held it in front of me with two hands, in the most basic of stances.
Deep breath. In, and out. Deep breath…
Everyone meditates a different way. My dad was pretty traditional: Sit down on the ground with your legs crossed, and concentrate on emptying your mind.
That had never worked for me.
I took a step forward and slashed, a simple diagonal downward attack that I had done a thousand times. A second step and a follow-up strike, bringing the blade up high again. Then another diagonal slash…
Spin, a hundred and eighty degrees, a full about-face. Slash, stab. Step forward, slash again.
Spin again, this time just to the side. Step back once, step back twice, then step forward, riding the stab. Slash the blade out—
And suddenly a vampire, blood dribbling from her mouth, was in front of me.
“Bitch,” she whispered. “How’d you know I was here? I had you trapped in a dreamworld.”
“Didn’t know,” I admitted. I brought the sword around again, slicing deeper into the wound in her gut I had already made. “Just exercising.”
The vampire’s marble-black eyes rolled up into her skull as she fell over. “Bitch.”
Then everything came rushing back.
The crowd, the monsters, the blood on the ground, the Composer battling Derek and Adam, and Brannigan staring at me in shock.
The sound came back a second later.
It hit me like a wave. Like a physical wave of force. The screaming crowd, the roaring monsters, even the background noise of the city…it all came rushing back, all at once.
I stumbled, nearly slipping over the corpse of the Blackguard vampire I had just killed. Brannigan looked like he wanted to rush forward and see if he could heal her, but realized that was a bad idea. I didn’t know how strong he was, but I doubted he could bring back someone with her guts spilled across the sidewalk.
But he did remind me of an important detail: He was a healer, and he needed to die.
I readied my sword and prepared to rush forward—only to find I couldn’t move.
What in Musashi’s name—
No, I could move, but only barely. It felt like someone was physically holding me back. Telekinesis, maybe? I glanced at Ritter, but he was still dead on the street a few yards away. Besides, with his power, I could feel a physical force attacking me. This felt more like…
More like my own muscles were fighting against me.
I turned my head to see one of the vampire triplets with her hands held out in my direction, and eyes closed in concentration. She looked pale, paler than five minutes ago I mean, and the third triplet was still on the ground screaming.
Oh. They were podbrains. Like those demons from the alley. Interesting.
It also explained a lot, like how they had made the Mals commit suicide. The first triplet traps them in a dreamworld, and the second takes control of their bodies while they’re distracted.
But that meant she couldn’t fight me for too long while I wasn’t distracted. I released one hand from my sword, hoping that her control would slip a little if she couldn’t see what I was doing. I reached for a knife; I only needed a second of speed—
My shoulder screamed in pain.
I stumbled again, cursing as I dropped the knife I had been going for. At least I kept a grip on my sword.
But my shoulder was still throbbing. Clarke had rebuilt the thing completely, put me in the toy box and knit the shattered shards of bone together piece by piece, but it still hurt. How could it not? Nine days ago, my shoulder had hit a window so hard it exploded.
I didn’t have time for this. I needed to concentrate, to finish off this second vampire before someone decided to take advantage of my helpless state. Derek and Adam still had the Composer busy, judging from the sounds behind me, but what about Brannigan? Was he fighting them too? But there was still the third vampire to contend with…
Then there was the echoing crack of a gunshot, and the podbrain who was concentrating on me fell to the ground, little more than a bloody mess where her head used to be.
My body was my own again. I used the newfound freedom to glance over to where the shot had come from. As far as I could tell, considering the light differences making it hard to see too far, it had come from the cafe where Laura and the other noncombatants were holed up. Clearly she had found at least one combatant. One with what seemed like an Olympian Nike, judging by the amount of damage the shot had caused. Goddess of victory indeed.
I didn’t know what the third podbrain’s power was, and I wasn’t in the mood to find out. She was still weeping on the ground; without a shred of hesitation, I zipped forward and sliced her head off, not even waiting for her body to start to fall before looking around for new targets.
Brannigan was a little bit too far away, past Adam and Derek fighting with Elizabeth, and my reservoir hadn’t replenished sufficiently to reach him. I guess I needed to help Derek, then, since there was no way I could dodge around the swirling whirlwind of glowing orange blades that was Elizabeth Greene.
And she was a whirlwind. Not literally, of course, but as close as a swordsman can get. She moved like lightning, using one sword to fend off Derek from getting too close while using the other to harry Adam and keep him from fleeing to a range he felt more comfortable with. She moved so fast, switching between offense and defense, between parrying Derek’s shield bashes to striking at Adam’s poorly-armored limbs, that she really did look like a whirling dervish.
I needed to help. If I jumped into the fray, that would give Adam the leeway he needed to fall back and shoot her. It wouldn’t kill her, but at least it would actually slow her down enough to do something.
Before I had a chance to close the distance, however, the choice was taken out of my hands.
Something slammed into the street in front of me, hitting with enough force to throw up a cloud of dust and shattered asphalt. I coughed, waving my hand in front of my face in a futile effort to clear the air so I could see what was going on. My hand didn’t help, but in a few moments, the wind shifted, revealing…
Robyn Joan Clarke, sitting in a small crater in the street and breathing heavily.
It took me a second to realize she was covered in more red than usual.
I scanned the impact site, searching for clues—and quickly found them. A scrap of a silk suit there, a scattering of red flesh around the crater…it was obvious what had happened.
Robyn had used her power in the same way as back in G’Hanir, stacking a few gravities on top of each other and forcing Elizabeth’s demon butler into the ground at speeds he simply was not equipped to deal with.
Nor was she, now that I thought about it. Her legs were likely broken, and she’d be lucky if that was her only injury. But why wasn’t she screaming? It had to hurt, and I doubted she had any reasonable painkiller buffs. Plus, there was the fact that she grew faint at the sight of blood…
She threw up on her own feet, then collapsed onto the street with a dull thump.
Ah. Delayed reaction. Shock, probably. Right, she’d keep for the moment. Now onto the Composer—
Elizabeth’s glowing orange blade erupted out of Adam’s chest.
“Silly little boy,” the monster shaped like my childhood friend hissed, grinning broadly from ear to ear. “Never let your guard down around an enemy.”
She pulled out the blade, kicking Adam aside carelessly.
Behind the Scenes (scene 208)
The podbrains (Andreea, Eugenia, and Rodica Dalca) are actual triplets. That was part of the reason they were chosen for the experiment. Andreea is the one with the illusion powers, Eugenia the one with the ability to control bodies, and Rodica has a powerful variant of telepathy that links the three together very effectively.