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
The door they were standing watch over looked awfully complex, even for the high fae. I mean the fae weren’t exactly cavemen when it came to tech, but this kind of thing wasn’t usually their specialty. Plus, it was a steel door: cold iron, which is deadly to the fae. It’d make a helluva barrier against other, unwelcome creatures of the Endless Wood, but a human would’ve had to install that puppy. No doubt about it.
On the chamber walls and floors were sigils of power, old and complex things I didn’t understand, containing some serious mojo, though I couldn’t tell their purpose without a proper examination. What I could tell, however, was that it wasn’t the work of some low-talent ice gnome. Sure, the pintsize jerks had some freaky fae power, could manipulate water and ice—that sort of thing. But this? No way. They couldn’t do this anymore than a goldfish could grow a pair of wings and fly to the friggin moon. Not even the high fae could do this … well, they could’ve achieved the same effect, but not in this way. Most of the high fae had power leaking right out the wazoo, but it wasn’t the same as what us magi have.
The work before me was topshelf—shit, probably more complex than anything I could throw together. Definitely a mage. And with this caliber of workmanship? Probably someone with the Guild.
The sound of a foot stepping on tightly packed snow. It came from in front of me. I pressed myself up against the wall and dipped back into my well of power, drawing from the Vis, shaping flows of air into a concentrated javelin of wind.
. A sharp intake of breath.
“Yancy. No!” More feet shuffles, a flourish of movements, and suddenly Ben stood by the tunnel wall, just before the entrance to the chamber. “It’s just me, don’t … don’t shoot!” His hands were up, chest rising and falling with the rapid pace of panic and adrenaline. Ben is a good guy, but Mad Max he ain’t—no nerves of steel there. Although, he
down here, in a dark and dangerous ice maze, facing monsters despite his natural disposition. I guess that had to count for something.
With a glance back over my shoulder—one last check to make sure Stumpy was still attending—I walked up to Ben and threw an arm around his narrow shoulders.
“Boy,” he said, “almost gave me a heart-attack … you feel soggy. And cold.”
I stared at him, blank, unamused. “This place has a great indoor pool,” I said. “Decided it might be nice to take a little dip—the water looked so inviting.”
He winced. “Sorry. What’s up with the gnome? He looks strangely …”
“Compelled?” I offered. “Yeah, that’s because I compelled him.”
Ben frowned at me, lips pulling down at the corners. “This is why you’re always on the wrong side with the Guild. It’s illegal, Yancy.”
“No it’s not. Gnomes aren’t human, and why do I give a hell about what the Guild says? I’m out.”
His frown deepened into a grimace, he was part of the Guild after all, a member of the Junior Council, even.
“All I’m saying is—”
“I know, you’re looking out for my best interests, making sure my potential doesn’t go to waste, blah, blah, blah. Whatever. There’ll be plenty of time to morally berate and lecture me later.”
He blanched. “That’s not fair. You know I respect you too much for that.”
“Yeah … later, okay? Right now, there’s a roving band of murdering ice toddlers heading our way. So let’s save your grandson and beat feet. Then we can chat and feel all warm and fuzzy.” I nodded toward the chamber. “So how do we get past this deathtrap?”
“Right, right.” He turned back toward the room and absently passed a hand over his head. “Well … I’m not sure how we’re going to do that, actually. I’ve been here for fifteen minutes maybe. The room was easy enough to find—”
“Easy to find,” I muttered, thinking back to my snorkeling expedition. “I want to punch you in the face right now.”
“Right. Well. First, let me say thank you for not punching me in the face.”
“You’re welcome, but don’t push your luck. Now, you were saying?”
“Well, I was saying that this thing”—he waved toward the room—“is quite … formidable. The whole room’s a binding construct, multiple layers of protections and failsafe mechanisms. Very formidable.”
“Alright, give me a sec. I want to get a looksee.” Using the Vis still pumping through my body, I formed a wispy probing construct of spirit. Power trickled out and into the room. Spider-web-thin strands of energy swept the space, alighting on the various sigils, the metal door, and the statues.
. Serious Mojo, with a capital M. Some kind of strange barrier lingering at the room’s entryway. If we stepped over that invisible threshold without the proper … keycard, maybe … things would get real ugly, real fast.
Like Ben said, the sigils were binding constructs, holding captive the two spriggans guarding the fancy-pants door.
One toe over that barrier and those things would spring to life all Pinocchio-like, unleash all that pent-up fury, and turn us both into little red smears on the floor. There wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it, either. There wasn’t any way around these bindings: they were too complex for me to make heads or tails of. Maybe in a couple hundred years I’d be able to put something like this together.
“So,” Ben asked, “what’d you think?”
“In my professional opinion, we’re screwed … unless—hey, Stumpy.” The gnome bowed at the waist in acknowledgment. “You got a keycard for the door and the Guardians?”
He shook his body no and began to jabber.
“Tell him to slow down,” Ben said.
“You’re kidding right. You seriously speak friggin’ gnome?”
“No, High Fae, but this has similar features. Syntax, gender, some vocab.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. You heard the man, Stumpy, slow it down and start over.”
Another painful couple of minutes passed, the little guy speaking his gibber-speak both too loud and too slow, like someone talking to a particularly dense and partially deaf foreigner. Ben bore it patiently, nodding enthusiastically in places, asking for repetition in others.
“Okay,” he said, “so our friend here—Razelfran, not Stumpy—says only a few of them have access to the chamber, something akin to their military officers, I think. Razelfran’s just a low-level private. The guards will attack if he crosses the entryway.”
“Right,” I said, “so we’re screwed.”
As though to emphasize my point, the approaching pack of ice gnomes chose that moment to send up a war-cry. Close now. Too close. They’d hemmed us in; gnomes behind, death trap ahead, and no way to backtrack. The shrieks came again, and I could hear foot-falls in the snow.
“Can you make a veil good enough to hide us from the spriggans?” I asked.
“Probably? I need a yes or a no here.”
Ben shrugged apologetically. “Probably is the best I can give you.”
I sighed. Just perfect. “Okay,” I said, “longshot’s better than no shot, I guess. Look, I have a plan. Sort of. Get the weaves ready for the veil, and be ready to move when I tell you.” He looked a little green, but nodded his head in understanding. “And Stumpy”—I turned toward the gnome—“you stick close to my side. No noise, no unnecessary movement. ‘Kay? ‘Kay.”
I sent my probing lash back out, searching the intricate sigils again. Swirling strands of spirit and air all bound together in ice and reinforced with cables of dark energy—the unwilling sacrifice of something formally living. A delicate, pulsing lace extended up from the strange markings and fed into the fae guardians, carved with similar markings.
“Yancy, they’re coming,” Ben whispered, lips nearly pressed against my ear. “They can see us!” he squealed, voice tight with barely restrained panic.
Laughter, sharp and crazed, followed by a round of crooning hoots and the shuffle of feet over ice.
“Oh my God, I think I know which one has the keycard.”
I glanced back, just for a second. Bringing up the rear, a beastly creature three or four times the size of his brethren, easily the world’s tallest gnome. Coarse white fur running over thick muscle, built for tearing apart lesser creatures—like puny humans, maybe. Blue face with the same wispy hoarfrost beard, though its lower jaw hung open revealing rows and rows of crooked, yellow fangs. A massive set of curling ram’s horns protruded from either side of its shaggy head. And, of course, a pointy gnome hat, which really kinda ruined the killing-machine badass thing it had going. Still, I bet no one would knock this guy over if he was sitting on the front lawn.
Right, double screwed, so back to work.
I found the strand responsible for the primary directive. Basically, the sigils and runes carved and painted around the room summoned and held the spriggans in place, but they also supplied the creatures with a rudimentary set of orders. Namely, smash anything that doesn’t have the correct keycard. I couldn’t dispel the working, but I could disrupt the programming. Shove a stick into the bike spokes, so to speak. Sure, I couldn’t make something like this, but busting it up? Yeah.
something really intricate is a lot easier than
something really intricate.
I hardened my probe into a scalpel of spirit, and, with surgical precision, severed the minuscule strand responsible for the basic orders.
I pulled Ben into the chamber, Stumpy trailing behind.
“Now, do it now!” I hollered.
Several things happened at once:
First, the gnome death squad tore into the chamber a few steps behind us, beady eyes focused, clubs and rough ice-sickles—not the same as icicles—swinging back and forth in anticipation.
Then, Ben’s illusion snapped into place with a barely audible
and the world around us became a little hazy and slightly distorted, like seeing through a dirty fishbowl.
Finally, the spriggan guardians lurched into motion, giant wooden feet carrying the monstrosities forward with loping strides, crashing into the gnomes, scattering them like so many bowling pins. The first two or three gnomes went down easy, shock evident on their crude, icy faces. Huge knotted fists smashed into weaker flesh, caving in a skull here, turning an arm to mush there. The gnomes scrambled to react, scattering throughout the chamber, a mad rush to put distance between themselves and their traitorous Summer allies.
Ben’s face was painted with terror and horror in equal measures, the reaction of one not accustomed to violence. “What did you do,” he whispered, voice trembling.
“Corrupted the basic guard command—instead of
smash anything without the proper access card
“Smash anything,” he said. “If they see through the veil they’ll smash us too.”
“Yeah, maybe, but I don’t think so. spriggans are Summer—no friggin’ way do they like waiting hand and foot on some Winter goons. I’m guessin’ that they’ll go for the guys with the pointy hats.”
We fell silent as the carnage unfolded. A pair of gnomes clung to the back of one of the creatures, trying to cleave into its torso with blades of frost. The spriggan spun in response, charging backward and throwing its hulking shoulders against the chamber wall. The unlucky stowaways let out screams as gore—chips of blue flesh and black blood—erupted in a stream on either side of the guardian. The other spriggan picked up a gnome by the head—its hat toppled to the side—and shook its little form in a terrible grip before repeatedly smashing it into the floor. A perfect ad for the gnome version of
Don’t Shake a Baby
The massive horned gnome lumbered into the brawl, throwing a wrecking ball punch into the spriggan’s face. The Summer Fae stumbled back a step. The gnome advanced—a booted foot flashed out, colliding with a knee, which broke away with a
. The spriggan crashed to the floor and the room shook and rattled with the impact. The gnome commander hurled his beefy body through the air, a linebacker making a reckless tackle.
The other Guardian caught the beast midflight, pulling it from the air like a pop fly, tree-root arms snaking around its neck. The gnome struggled, throwing spiny elbows into the spriggan’s center to no effect.
The downed spriggan reached over and grabbed its amputated leg, pulling it in place while fae power knitted the limb back together, little vines and branches merging and twisting. It stood up, lips drawn back from crude blunt teeth, as it advanced on the brutish gnome. It wrapped wooden hands around the gnome’s horns and pulled. The horns came away, a gout of blue blood spraying into the air, and the gnome howled in anguish. Not for long though, because the spriggan promptly shoved the horns inside the creature’s skull. The howl cut off and the creature twitched for a moment before growing still.
The last surviving gnome turned and fled back down the hallway, abandoning his dead or dying fellows to their fate. The spriggans weren’t having it, no sir. Dropping the broken body, both shambled down the hall like a friggin’ mudslide, the chamber rumbling with their passing. Bloodied and broken bodies lay around the room, heads crushed, limbs absent, guts burst open and smeared against the walls. Better them than us, but still … brutal.
“Let’s go,” I said, walking free of the illusion and over to the formally horned gnome commander. I surveyed the fresh corpse from a couple of feet out, one hand over my mouth and nose to block out the stink. Nasty scene, and I wasn’t too keen on rummaging through his blood-soaked pockets if I could help it. Thankfully, I saw the keycard—just a rectangle of hard black plastic with a sigil painted on the back in orange—tucked away in his boot.
I pilfered the card and walked over to the card reader. “Come on, Ben.” I ushered the other man over. “I don’t think those things’ll come back, but they could. Best to scoot our happy asses along. Hey, that means you too, Stumpster. Keep close, but don’t get in the way.” The gnome shrugged its shoulders and bowed, as though to say,
Whatever, dude, let’s just get this over with.
We wound our way through the corpse-littered floor, careful not to touch any of the bodies or the puddles of sickly fluid.