Authors: James Hunter
Tags: #Men&apos, #s Adventure Fiction, #Fantasy Action and Adventure, #Dark Fantasy, #Paranormal and Urban Fantasy, #Thrillers and Suspense Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mystery Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mage, #Warlock
My breath misted in front of me as I struggled against the dragging weight of my clothes and the tempting embrace of cold surrender. I pushed my body, one arm, then the other, feet fluttering below, fighting against the water’s pull. Took me a minute or two to reach the lake’s edge, though that little dip seemed to last a couple of life times.
At last I pulled myself up and onto the narrow strip of shore. I just lay there for a moment, gasping and coughing out still more water, too cold to even shiver. A particularly violent bout of hacking brought up my breakfast: an energy drink and a fast food ham-and-egg sandwich. I was too cold to care. Hypothermia couldn’t be far off. A small fire would give away my position, but if I didn’t get warm and quick, those little shit-eating gnomes would stumble across a mage-cicle. Warmth and shelter; these items were on the top of my things-to-do-to-not-die list. Everything else came second.
I drew in power, held up my left hand, palm out. A wavering tongue of flame, thick as my leg, burned into the icy cliff face. The wall let out a crack
and a groan
as thin fissures shot up its surface and steam, deliciously warm, flooded the air. The work was slow going, the ice and cold resisting the fire with an almost-living awareness. Ultimately, however, the fire won the day and I had me a cozy ice bunker, four feet high and four feet deep, gouged right into the wall.
I dragged my soggy, frozen ass into the shelter and conjured a floating orb of flame, six inches or so in diameter, which hung in the air across from me. Believe it or not, the space heated up awfully quick. Ice and snow are actually pretty amazing insulators. The air outside was well below zero, but the snow and ice stayed at thirty-two degrees even—no warmer, sure, but also no colder—which meant I could get the inside of my fort all nice and toasty. Relatively speaking anyway. My revolver was damp, but in its holster. I checked my pockets … good, still had a couple of spare aces in place for when things really got rough. Doubtless there would be some badass hard-charger running this show, so it’d be wise to have a few surprises standing by.
I cast an illusion across the narrow opening of my impromptu shelter, making it appear like a dark, unbroken wall. Wouldn’t do me any good to make a hidey-hole only to have the Midget Death Squad stumble across me while I was still too incapacitated to defend myself. Next, I wove thin strands of air, heat, and latent electricity into my pants, shirt, and jacket, wicking the remaining moisture from the fabric, drawing it out so my clothes could dry right and proper.
After a handful of minutes, I was warm enough to shiver again, teeth chattering in my head like a gossiping schoolgirl. Oh, the glamorous life of a supernatural fix-it man.
No-good, self-serving jerks in the Guild. This was all their fault. Should’ve been one of those bathrobe-wearing clowns down here, trudging around in frigid tunnels, falling off cliffs, doing laps in subarctic water, fighting crazed ice midgets.
Ben was a friend, and the little Gnomish fiends had kidnapped his grandson, Michael. So of course I’d agreed to help.
Ben was also a guild member, which meant the Guild had responsibility for him and this mess. It should’ve been them down here, dammit. But no. The Elder Council said there “wasn’t enough evidence of wrong-doing,” that it was just an “isolated incident.” Complained about not wanting to “initiate an inter-dimensional incident on Sovereign Fae territory.” For Pete’s sake, they called Ben’s grandkid “an unfortunate casualty.” Blah, blah, blah, so on and so forth. Really, it all amounted to a bunch of cheap, copout horse crap.
So naturally, Ben came to me. He knew I’d understand, which I did. The Guild had pulled the exact same bullshit when the Morrigan—Irish goddess and general badass—took Ailia from me years back. They’d even handed me the same company line. So yeah, I knew what it was like to be in his shoes. To lose someone. To be all on your own, shit outta luck and without a glimmer of hope in the world.
No worse feeling in the universe. And Ben … well, Ben had stood up for me in my dark hour, called the council on their hypocritical shenanigans. It hadn’t amounted to anything, but he’d stood for me, so I figured this was the least I could do in return. Still, here I was, not even a friggin’ member anymore, doing their dirty work. Again. Just like the old days. Irresponsible swamp-donkeys, the whole lot of ‘em.
At least Ben was good enough to come down here with me and put his own ass on the line, even though he wasn’t a fighter, not by any stretch of the imagination. I was worried about him; those living lawn-ornaments had ambushed us, separated us like a pride of lionesses separating the vulnerable prey from the herd. Ben was a grown man, though, and had lots of talent—admittedly, more in the way of illusion and healing—so I figured he could handle his business. As things stood, he was probably doing a fair bit better than I was.
After about ten or fifteen minutes, everything was mostly dry and I no longer felt like a frozen TV dinner. It was high time I made preparations to get sweet, sweet revenge on the sadistic gnomes skulking around these tunnels, hunting me, and otherwise causing mayhem.
I’d teach ‘em a thing or two. There was a single tunnel connected to the narrow strip of land curving out from the cliff face—perfect for setting a trap. I pulled in more Vis and wove another small orb of fire
my shelter, about halfway between me and the tunnel, where it was sure to be seen by any searching eyes. Then I crafted a rough simulacrum, basically an illusionary double of myself, sitting near the fire with its back exposed to the tunnel opening.
The simulacrum wasn’t a great piece of work, just a crude, unmoving mannequin, which kinda, sorta resembled me from a distance. An average-looking guy, about forty—even though I’m actually in my mid-sixties—with short, dark hair and unremarkable height and build. A pair of blue jeans (though I had long johns on underneath), some sturdy winter boots, and a thick fur-lined coat. Yeah, it resembled me all right, at least if you had bad eyesight.
Listen, I’m not the best with illusions. Glamours are more my thing.
Now in a lot of circles, the terms “glamour” and “illusion” are used interchangeably, and understandably so because they achieve nearly the same effect: they deceive. Even though they get similar results, they aren’t the same thing by a far stretch. Illusions, or veils, fool people by actually creating a different image, which is projected over a person, object, or scene. Illusions exist, in a manner of speaking, in real time and space; they work by tricking the optical nerves in the eye. Glamours, on the other hand, deceive not by tricking the eye, but by tricking the mind. A glamour doesn’t create an image that the eyes see and send back to the brain. Instead, a glamour suggests directly to the brain that something appears to be different than it really is.
But my illusion would work fine as bait. I mean, the thing was sitting out in the open, silhouetted by a fire, with its back exposed. Plus, gnomes aren’t terribly bright.
Then I hunkered in and waited, letting the sparse warmth in my shelter settle into my bones.
After another few minutes, I heard the soft and unmistakable sounds of garbled gibberish, which is what passes for the ice gnome language. They were closing in. I mentally patted myself on the back.
Well played, Yancy, well played
I wanted to pull my pistol and level these jerks, or maybe roast the whole lot of ‘em with a column of fire—sort of my specialty—but both options were out. My gun was mostly dry now, but there was a small chance the bullets were still wet. Normally, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem since, contrary to popular opinion, most firearms will work even when wet. But potentially wet rounds combined with
temperatures? Bad idea all around. At arctic temperatures, the action could seize, the ignition powder could cause a hang fire, not to mention the gunmetal itself would be brittle as old china. Better to play it safe.
And tossing around flame here was as tricky as trimming lawn hedges with a set of plastic scissors. It’d get the job done eventually, but it’d be a helluva slog. I’d manage, though. I’ve always been good winging things on the fly.
I spotted a pair of the stumpy, blue-skinned creatures emerging from the tunnel, just at the periphery of the firelight’s reach. Squat and broad, like living chunks of ice, with fat legs and arms completely covered with crystalline spikes. Thick craggy beards of white hoarfrost (both the men and women have these, which is strangely disturbing) and the trade-mark conical cap, though razor-tipped. Little shits could head-butt like no one’s business.
They didn’t advance, however, but rather stood motionless, lingering, waiting. Maybe they could tell something was off.
The fire crackled lazily while I waited, biding my time, playing it cool.
With an effort of will, I made the simulacrum twitch, just a slight shift in posture—stretching out, cracking his neck, before settling back into place. The fire continued to dance, kicking up shadows along the walls, and at last the evil little bastards padded forward.
Not even a whisper of sound as their feet shuffled across the narrow strip of ice bordering the indoor pool. Close now, maybe only twenty feet. The stocky gnome in the lead raised a jagged club of ice nearly as long as its body. Little bastard was going to club me in the head. Sneaky, tricksy sons of guns, these gnomes. No honor in pushing someone off a cliff or clubbing them in the back of the head, which I’m totally cool with—fair fights are for suckers. Basically, I was about to pull the same trick on them. I almost wanted to chuckle in evil joy.
I shaped the energy raging through my body into something useful, intertwining thin strains of radiant heat and water, all wrapped about in flows of compressed air. A small smile split my face. These pointy-hat-wearing chumps were about to get some serious comeuppance. About ten feet out—close enough that I could see the firelight glint off frosted skin—I let loose a barrage of sharpened ice-quills, hurled with the force of a tornado. The foot-long spikes of frozen doom ate up the distance in a heartbeat, ripping into rigid flesh like a barrage of frozen bullets.
The one with the club issued a yelp before tumbling over into the artic pool, thrashing and flailing, trying to swim free. Though the gnomes looked a little like ice cubes, they didn’t float. Sons of bitches weigh as much as a boulder, and swimming isn’t exactly their strong suit. After a few seconds his desperate splashes grew faint and his head dipped below the surface with a final bubble.
Several of my missiles protruded from the torso and arms of the second gnome, though they didn’t seem to bother the little fella too terribly. He rushed forward, thick legs swishing back and forth, a slick dagger of glacier-blue raised above his head for a killing blow. He brought the blade down on the head of my illusion, which guttered and disappeared, leaving behind a very bewildered-looking gnome.
Like I said, not too bright—the guy would never win the Nobel Prize in physics. Shit, he’d be lucky to tie his shoes in the morning on his own.
I bolted from my hidey-hole. Drawing on air and fae power, I created my own club of ice, which I promptly smashed into the confused gnome’s head. Lots of better ways to take this guy down, but I couldn’t risk killing him outright or losing him to the water—I needed a guide to make it out of this maze, so better to just beat the little shit into submission. My crude weapon knocked the gnome back a few steps, but otherwise seemed to have little effect. In fact, the blow seemed to jar him back into action.
The creature shuffled forward a step and lashed out with his dagger. My club, too heavy and ungainly to maneuver with anything resembling grace or skill, was practically worthless against the quick blade. I lifted my arm just in time to intercept the slash; white stuffing bled out in tufts from my winter jacket.
Normally it’s not a terribly bright idea to stick your arm in front of a blade’s edge—unless, of course, you’re wearing ring mail or something else you might find at a Ren Fest. But beneath my bulky winter coat, I was sporting my leather jacket, a custom piece that handled the job, no problem. Imbued with Vis and lined with ultralight Kevlar and slash-resistant fabric, it’s quite a bit more resilient than it looks, though damn if the blunt force trauma from the blow didn’t smart.
With an awkward twirl, I smashed the club into the gnome’s outstretched wrist—there was a crack, like a tree exploding in winter’s cold, and his knife clattered to the ice. The creature’s arm hung at a strange angle. The energy of the impact reverberated through my arm; my fingers couldn’t control the weight of the icy bludgeon any longer, and it slipped free from my hand. I shot out a quick jab on instinct, connecting solidly with its bulbous nose. Terrible idea, that—blocky creatures made out of ice do not make good punching bags, so throwing down with a good ol’ bout of fisticuffs wasn’t a solid game plan.
Somehow, though, I’d managed to scare the dumpy Disney movie reject enough to get him to retreat. He was on his heels now, shuffling back toward the tunnel, away from me and well away from the pool. I love it when a plan actually comes together. I called up a gale of wind, which arched out from my hand and sandblasted the pint-sized tyke into the far wall, pinning him in place. Throwing around a column of hurricane force isn’t exactly a surgically precise procedure—had I tried the ploy earlier, I might’ve accidentally sent him right into the drink with his buddy, which was
since I needed him to lead me to the kid.
I redirected a trickle of my power into the frozen wall behind the gnome. The ice boiled and oozed outward creating thick restraints of hard packed snow that surrounded the gnome’s hands and feet, securing them in place and leaving the little guy hanging on the wall a good three feet from the ground. He struggled fitfully, writhing against the wall, jerking arms and legs in a bid for freedom.
The whole while, he chattered at me incessantly. Unfortunately, he spoke only Gnomish. Since I don’t speak a lick of gnome, grilling him for intel was going to be as tricky as teaching a tiger to play the piano and drink good booze. Hey, on the plus side, I couldn’t understand all the hateful, four-letter expletives the guy was probably yelling at me.