“Akane, stay with Adam,” I ordered, my voice thick. She’d pull him somewhere out of the way, keep him safe. “I’ll handle the Composer.”
“Handle me?” Elizabeth said, giggling like a loon, her blood-drenched dress ruffling in the night breeze. “Little Huntsman, you and the freak together could barely keep up with me. And now…”
She flicked the lighter in her hand—where did that come from?—and a bolt of fire zipped past my ear, into a ‘scraper behind me. What was she…
Then the building exploded.
Every window in the first floor belched forth fire and smoke, enough to completely vaporize every wall and support beam on the inside. It was too much for that little flame; she must have planted explosives in there beforehand. Or maybe the fey did, and she was just taking advantage.
It didn’t matter how. The important thing now was that the building was falling towards me, like some massive gray tree felled by a lumberjack with a grudge.
“…now, you have other things to worry about.”
Silver moon and golden sun, what was I supposed to do in this situation? The structure was easily fifty feet across and a couple hundred tall. I couldn’t dodge—or maybe I could, but the panicking civilians with no where to go would still get squashed. I couldn’t—I couldn’t—
My mind was locked into panic mode.
My body was not.
I moved instantly into horse stance, instinctively spreading my legs to a wide but stable position, grabbed every drop of power in my reservoir, and—
Not a millisecond too soon, the falling skyscraper crashed onto my glowing blue shield.
At fifty feet wide, it was easily the biggest shield I had ever created. It hovered ten or twenty feet above my head, raining down soft wisps of azure mist onto both me and the awestruck bystanders.
Then the strain hit me.
I fell to one knee, cursing under my breath, holding my hands above my head as though physically keeping the shield in place. It certainly felt like I was doing it physically. The weight of the shield pressed on my entire body, compressing my spine and making me break out into a cold sweat.
At least the civilians realized I couldn’t protect them forever. They scrambled to escape from the crash zone, clambering up buildings and even riding away on the fey monsters that had been fighting them only ten or twenty minutes before. A distant part of my brain noted the oddity of the monsters’ behavior, but this was not the time to focus on that.
Because my reservoir was empty.
Not emptying, empty. It simply hadn’t been deep enough to keep a shield this large going for more than a second or two. I didn’t even know how I was keeping the thing in place now, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
The pressure was increasing. I had to do something soon, but I couldn’t just drop it. Killing myself wouldn’t do anyone any good, and Elizabeth had already casually strolled out of the crash zone. If I could somehow get both of us at the same time, that might be worth it, but otherwise…
Wait. Maybe…I squinted my eyes, trying to confirm what I thought I had seen. Maybe…
Yes! I had a plan! And it didn’t involve dropping a couple hundred tons of concrete and rebar on my head!
It was simple, really: I tipped my shield at an angle, causing the massive weight to simply slide off it.
And land directly on top of Elizabeth Greene.
It was a close thing, but my eyes were good. The bystanders had been giving the Composer a wide berth, so she was the only one in the crash zone. Well, her and a few monsters, but that was definitely an acceptable price to pay.
I collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily, not even caring that every gasp of breath filled my lungs with the concrete dust billowing up from the crash like smoke from an explosion. I didn’t have time to find fresh air. I needed to recover as quickly as possible, before—
The skyscraper exploded.
Well, okay, not really, but it certainly looked that way at first. A good ten-foot section of the well burst out violently, sending shards of concrete and rebar out like shrapnel from a frag grenade, while pushing back the existing dust in such a wide radius that it created the illusion of a much larger explosion.
Elizabeth Greene strode out of the hole in the ‘scraper, none the worse for wear.
Well, not completely. Her white dress, previously stained dark red, was now nearly black from dust and grime mixed in with the blood. Her bronze skin was gray, covered as it was in pulverized concrete, and her hair wasn’t much better. Her arm was broken in multiple places, but even as I watched she pulled it back into place and let it heal itself.
The only thing unchanged were were eyes. Gold, predatory eyes, narrowed in raw and unfiltered hatred.
“You are fast taking the fun out of this, Huntsman,” she hissed, her voice carrying far in the cold, dust-filled night air. A nearby streetlamp, one of the few that had survived the building’s impact, cast diffuse light on the scene. “I am going to enjoy cutting you into sashimi.”
I fell into a fighting stance. “Let’s see, huh?” Then I blinked and stared at my arm, at the spot where I typically conjured one of my shields, the kind I could carry around with me or attack to my arm.
It wasn’t there.
What? I concentrated harder, but my only reward was an increase in the coppery taste already in my mouth.
“Aw, what’s wrong?” Elizabeth said mockingly, grinning from ear to ear. “Is the little director having trouble with his Song?” She giggled. “You overspent yourself on protecting the rats, you stupid little hero. Your reservoir’s gonna take hours to recover. You taste that blood in your mouth? That’s from your organs liquefying, trying to supply power anyway.”
I glared at her even as she slowly stalked forward. “I don’t need it.”
She burst out laughing. “What? You don’t need a power to fight a composer? Oh, you really are insane, aren’t you?” She giggled again as she summoned those glowing orange swords of hers. They left orange streaks in the air, like the mist was clinging to the dust for a moment before dissipating. “Well, sure. Let’s see what you’ve got!”
The Composer rushed forward, closing ten feet in the space of two heartbeats, her eyes alive like fire, her blades held back at her sides for easier running, and her grin so wide I thought her jaw might fall off.
She swiped with the right blade first.
Dropped down to one knee, letting the sword miss me by inches. Before she could recover and counterattack with the second hand, I grabbed the wrist in question, held it away from me, moved inside her guard, and kneed her as hard as I could in the gut.
She stumbled back, hissing wordlessly, but before she could recover, I followed through with a massive kick to her sternum. It was something of a clumsy blow, but the risk proved worth it when she was sent sprawling on the ground.
“I was on the wrestling team,” I called out to her. “Back when we were kids. Signed up near the end of elementary school, you remember that?”
“STOP TALKING!” She tried to take advantage of my perceived complacency, but despite my casual demeanor, I was watching her very closely. When she tried to slash me from the ground, she telegraphed her strike. I moved inside her range again, grabbed her arm, planted my foot on her shoulder—yes, shoulder—and twisted the offending limb behind her back, breaking it, while simultaneously shoving her face into the street with my foot. She screamed in rage and pain, but her cries were muffled by her position.
“In my first practice match, one of the middle school kids—there was only one practice room for all ages, you know—challenged me. Decided to take the newcomer down a few pegs.”
Using her other arm, Elizabeth tried to roll away. But I grabbed one of her legs in both hands and snapped it, bending it backwards at the knee.
“The older student said some things I didn’t like,” I continued as her screams subsided for the moment. “You know how bullies like that are all trash talk. Said some things about my mom, about Akane. But you know the thing that really riled me up?”
Once again, Elizabeth tried to dodge away, this time by using her super speed to run past me, a direction she probably assumed I wouldn’t anticipate. But I had fought fey before, I knew how immortals thought. It probably would have worked anyway, but her broken leg slowed her down. Slowed her down enough for me to grab her neck—grinding my teeth when my shoulder nearly dislocated from grabbing something moving forty or fifty miles per hour—and slam her down into the street again with all the force I could muster.
“The thing that really riled me up was when he said things about you.”
Elizabeth wasn’t interested in reminiscing. From her position on the ground, she planted both legs—the one I had broken had healed enough by now—and shoved me off her. I kept my feet, but she was free now. Rather than fleeing again though, she howled in rage, summoned her swords, and came at me again.
“That guy died, you know.”
I dodged her first sword strike, then the second. She was angry, and making mistakes, but she was still far too good a swordswoman for me to get close. The first time had been mostly luck and good timing.
“Two of his friends, who were watching, tried to help him.”
Elizabeth switched up her tactics, moving from broad slashes to lightning-quick jabs. One of those would get me soon. I couldn’t dodge forever; she was backing me up against the wall of the fallen ‘scraper.
“They died too.”
I tried to feint under her guard again and get a few quick blows in, but her earlier berserk rage had cooled, and she was being much more careful now. One false move would get me skewered.
“I got thrown off the wrestling team, of course. I paid my retribution fee and started slaying monsters.”
“What do I care?” the Composer snarled, as she pushed her attack with renewed vigor. “What should I care about a bunch of mortal brats!?” She hopped back, giving herself more space. “I am ELIZABETH GREENE! The homicide, the GENOCIDE! Ender of men and worlds! You are just a stupid nameless HUMAN!” She charged forward, both blades held before her, ready to run me through.
I let them.
The Composer blinked, in genuine surprise, as her glowing orange blades punctured my gut, cut through my organs, and burst through the other side.
“Wrong,” I hissed, as I grabbed her delicate throat and squeezed, crushing bone. “I am Derek Huntsman.”
I kicked her in the chest, sending her sprawling to the ground—and disrupting her concentration enough that her blades faded into nothingness—before stomping over and systematically breaking both her legs.
“I am the first Paragon of Domina City!” I yelled over her screams. “The first man to fight Tecumseh to a draw!” She tried to summon a single sword; I stomped on her wrist and broke her hand. “The man who faced down Asmodeus, and Thor, and and the Beast himself!” She tried to summon a blade with her other hand; before it could finish materializing, I grabbed the offending limb, planted my feet on her body for leverage, and ripped the entire arm off her body, the sound of tearing flesh and breaking bone nearly drowned out by her blood-curling screams.
“I fought Cinder, and Halifax!” I cried as I tossed the bloody limb away carelessly. “I turned down offers from Dispater, and Obould and Io and the Erlking! I was a legend by the time I was fifteen years old!”
Elizabeth tried to crawl away feebly, using the arm that was still attached to her body, gritting her teeth against the pain of a broken wrist and hand that had barely even started healing.
I leaned down close to her ear, even as I placed my hand carefully on her back, on the spot where Laura had showed me the base of her abnormally weak spine would be.
“I am Derek Huntsman,” I whispered. “Remember that name.”
Then I thrust my hand into her back, through the dress, and physically ripped out her spine.
It wouldn’t have worked on a human. Most of our fight wouldn’t have worked on a human, actually. But Elizabeth wasn’t human. Laura had been quite clear on that. She still didn’t know what she was, but she was frail. Her bones were weak, as though designed by someone who knew she would have healing abilities. Why go to all the extra effort to strengthen her skeleton when lighter bones were faster, and she could heal away any injuries anyway?
It took a minute, but I eventually finished ripping the spine out of the body, taking Elizabeth Greene’s skull with it. It was like some grisly, blood-drenched trophy on the end of a stick, but I knew it wouldn’t last if I wasn’t careful.
I tossed the spine and head to Akane. She had appeared about halfway through the fight, but wisely decided not to interfere. “When Necessarius gets here, put that on ice. Liquid nitrogen, I think Laura said was best, but if there isn’t enough of that, a frozen warcage might slow her down. She starts healing, snap a few vertebrae.” Speaking of Laura, she was walking up, flanked by two changelings—
And Simon (limping along with his girlfriend’s help), Seena, the winged fey (being supported by Seena), that Dagonite, Delphie’s nephew Leon, and Eccretia. All looking at me, as shocked as if…
Well, as shocked as if they had just watched one of their oldest friends dismember one of their other oldest friends with his bare hands.
Silver and gold, this was not going to be fun to explain to anyone.
I sighed. First things first. “Eccretia. You mind keeping an eye on this?” I indicated the headless, spineless corpse of the Composer. “I don’t think she’ll heal from it, but you never know.”
The changeling warlord nodded. She didn’t say anything, but Laura’s bodyguards moved forward to police the body. Good men.
Laura nodded to something behind me. “There’s also him to consider.”
I turned to see what she was talking about.
Oh. It was Ziba Brannigan, the Blackguard ‘sarian general. He was on his knees on the street, staring at his boss’s corpse in dull shock. He wouldn’t be any danger any time soon. But still, with that healing ability of his…
I sighed. “Flynn, if you would.”
Flynn came up behind the last Blackguard and sliced his head off with a single stroke.
I smiled—well, grimaced, really, my everything hurt too much to really smile—at the swordsman. “How’re your wounds?”
He clutched his side with a shrug. “Slapped some bandages on it, popped enough stims to pickle a gargant. I’ll live long enough to get to Clarke.”
As I nodded approvingly, Laura strode forward purposefully. “We should burn Brannigan’s body, just in case. He’s a healer, after all.”
I blinked, then nodded. “Right. Yeah, sure. You guys do that. I’m just gonna sit down for a minute, okay?”
I don’t remember anything after that. Laura later told me that I was unconscious and snoring before I even hit the ground.
Behind the Scenes (scene 209)
This is another of those I’ve been waiting for for a long time.