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
I darted around Old Man Winter’s flailing form, barely avoiding the wild and random zaps of energy from his staff, angling toward the frozen cage containing Michael on the other side of the throne.
Old Man Winter continued to howl, raking at his skin, desperate to beat the iron specks away. “Stop them!” he shouted, though damned if I knew who he was talking to—
A giant fist, all snow and ice, collided into my side like a friggin’ Mack truck, lifting me from my feet and launching me back toward the entryway.
Ben’s wall of fire leapt into my vision as I reeled through the air, its heat pressing up against my chilly skin. At the last moment, the wall parted, allowing me to pass through unsinged, before melting back into place. I crashed into the floor near Ben, and though the snow wasn’t exactly freshly fallen soft powder, it was still a damn bit softer than concrete or granite. My face-first landing hardly hurt at all. Nothing compared to the fire in my ribs.
I pushed myself back to my feet, shaking my head to clear the specs of white floating in my vision. Must’ve knocked something loose there, because I was seeing things. Flanking either side of Old Man Winter lurked a pair of abominable snowman, presumably conjured up to beat Ben and I into meat paste. Great. And these fellas weren’t your typical yetis, and absolutely nothing like the brooding and tragically misunderstood Bumble, who might just help you hang the star on the Christmas tree.
No, these guys were mindless fae war machines. No thought or feeling. Just big, mean, ugly, fearless, sons of bitches. Towering beasts of solid snow and razor-honed ice—not to mention they were probably immune to most types of Vis attacks. True, out in the real world, I could probably turn these fellas into a couple of tepid puddles, but at the heart of winter? Naw, my fire wouldn’t do so good here—I wasn’t slinging fae power like Ben.
Ben kept up the wall of Spring flame containing the baddies on the other side, while the orb in his other hand—a token of the South Wind, and the Springlands—gusted out, blanketing the room in an unnatural heat, making sure Old Man Winter and his cronies weren’t operating at full capacity. So at least there was that.
“You okay?” I shouted to Ben.
He nodded, eyes still locked on Winter. “Just get Michael.”
“On it,” I said.
Looked like it was up to me. Also looked like we were gonna have to do this the hard way—because, let’s face it, my life sucks and I always end up doing things the hard way. I slipped my hands into my pockets, pulling on my second ace in the hole: fae beat-down gloves. Really, they were just fingerless biker gloves, with a bit of padding along the fingers and knuckles. I’d added a few extras though—a little steel plating crafted into place over the finger padding, short silver studs protruding from the knuckles. These puppies were perfect for tangling with fairies or shape shifters.
Kind of like Lex Luthor’s Superman-killing kryptonite gloves … well, Lex’s gloves if he were a gambling degenerate instead of a highfalutin corporate billionaire. And fighting fairies instead of spacemen … yeah, kinda not the same at all, I guess.
I wiggled my hands into place, the gloves cold and rigid, iced over in spots and fighting against me. Damn it, why hadn’t I put those in a Ziploc too?
This would’ve looked a lot cooler in the movies—hands go into pockets and come out decked in spiked-gauntlets of badassery. Instead, I just stood next to Ben and spent a good five seconds wiggling the things into place over my winter gloves, feeling pretty stupid the whole while.
At last, I got my gear into place. “Cover me, Ben,” I shouted as I ran toward Winter, toward the abominables, toward Michael.
Ben just grunted his response, his face stiff with concentration. The shifting wall of orange opened once more to admit me into the fray before snapping closed. I had to give the guy props, keeping a group of ice fae at bay in the middle of their seat of power wasn’t small beans and birthday balloons.
As I waded back into the thick of things, the first abominable—Frosty the Unfriendly Snowman—swung a colossal fist which I ducked under with ease, darting in and throwing a series of quick jabs to the creature’s midsection. Bright flares of light flashed with each blow, the
of a static burst, followed by the scent of ozone.
I danced under another sweeping blow, keeping in tight, circling toward the outside, keeping my gigantic sparring partner squarely between me and the second abominable. The creature lashed out with a low kick that took me in the shins, sweeping my legs out from under me. I crashed down onto my side, and immediately barrel-rolled right, avoiding a crushing, though cumbersome, stomp from my frosty foe.
I rolled back left, passing right beneath Frosty’s upraised foot as a set of vicious ice spikes sprouted from the ground I’d occupied a split second before. Old Man Winter, tossing around a little power. He must’ve nearly recovered from my dirty face-full-of-iron ploy. Damn, like taking out Frosty all by my lonesome wasn’t tough enough.
I pushed myself into a crouch before launching myself back toward the snowman. Another massive kick. This one I avoided, stepping inside the strike, pumping my fists as fast as I could throw ‘em, working Frosty’s torso and kidneys—not that this thing had organs, mind you—like Rocky Balboa going to town on a side of beef.
The creature fell back from the onslaught, pieces of his conjured body falling away with each blow. An elbow the size of a dinner plate zipped past my face. I ducked low and grabbed hold of the passing limb like a little kid hitching a ride on Papa’s oversized arm. The creature tried to shake me loose, but I held fast, scampering up hand-over-hand until I could wrap an arm around its neck in a sleeper hold.
I wasn’t gonna try to choke him out, more like I was taking a little piggyback ride. Frosty twirled and shook before backpedaling toward a wall. I’d seen exactly how well this particular maneuver had worked for the gnomes who’d tried the same trick on the spriggans: smashed flat, guts and gore decorating the cavern wall like some grisly art deco piece. So I needed to be quick before I met the same fate.
I conjured a flow of fire around my gloved hands—my fists suddenly surrounded with an uncomfortably warm pocket of air—and began to pummel the creature’s exposed neck and skull with my free hand. Snow and ice gave way like butter in a hot skillet, sizzling and melting. A fist-shaped trough formed in the creature’s neck.
Still, Frosty streaked toward the cavern wall, speed accelerating with every step. A final blow punctured all the way through its neck—I’d punched its head off, kind of a cool trick, actually—and the body went limp, falling into a pile of snow and ice chunks. I tumbled down, landing with a
in the powdery corpse of my former enemy. I’ve been around the block a few times, and this was still a new one to check off the bucket list.
I slogged free of the snow pile, readying myself to repeat my stunt again with Frosty Number Two—
Revenge of the Snowman—
but Ben had things well in hand. In fact, he was doing a helluva job handling both the abominable
Old Man Winter. And here I’d been worried about him, thinking I’d have to baby-sit. Sure, he was using the borrowed power of some ancient fae beings of Spring to get the job done, but still. Go Ben.
What had once been a flickering wall of flame was now a pair of fire serpents, each with a long body, covered in flashing emerald scales of flame, and monstrous snapping jaws. The tails of both creatures led back to the orb floating above Ben’s outstretched hand. One of the serpents twined around Frosty Two, encircling its legs, torso, and arms, melting thick, coiled grooves into the creature while simultaneously sinking fangs into Frosty’s thick neck. Nice.
The second serpent-of-awesomeness harassed Old Man Winter, striking from one side and then the other, always moving, always harrying. Grandpa’s crook flashed out with a surprising amount of vigor and strength, turning each blow before the serpent could land a strike. Maybe the snake hadn’t closed the deal yet, but he was sure keeping Old Man Winter on his toes, leaving absolutely no time to think about little ol’ me.
I called up more Vis, pulling power into my body as I constructed a quick illusion to mask my movements. This little number made me into an amorphous white blob that kinda sorta blended in with the snow. Hey, better than nothing, and with the Old Man so distracted I probably didn’t need it anyhow.
I sprinted forward, muttering “
” under my breath, bringing forth my Vis sword—a thin, single-edged, azure blade, about three feet in length, and looking as fragile as lace.
I couldn’t kill Old Man Winter—like literally not possible—but I
end this. Just needed one solid blow, quick and decisive. I raised the sword to waist level, elbows slightly bent, blade canted to the right of my body, legs still pumping, breath too loud in my own ears.
The old man thrust out his crook to turn another strike, his twig-thin wrist stretched out. A perfect target. With a heave, I twisted the blade through the air, throwing my hips and shoulders into the attack,
. The horizontal side-slash technique was meant to disembowel an opponent, spill their guts onto the floor, but it would do just fine for Old Man Winter’s bony wrist.
Grandpa was so preoccupied with Ben’s fire snake that he didn’t even notice until my blade passed through his arm with a slice and his staff clattered to the floor—hand still firmly attached. I let my blade disappear, dismissed my rough illusion, and dove through the air, snagging the staff from the floor and rolling back to my feet. I pivoted bringing the crook to bear. Old Man Winter had fallen onto his throne, legs sprawled out, amputated wrist held up as he looked on in bewilderment.
The wound should’ve bled—cutting off someone’s hand is major surgery—but no blood flowed, not even a trickle. Just a frosty rim of red coated the end of his arm.
The second snowman crumbled to the floor, gone as quick as it’d come.
“What have you done?” He suddenly sounded his age. Gone was his cackling merriment, and I knew why.
The loss of a hand wasn’t such a big deal to a fae being—he’d regrow the appendage in a couple of months. But losing the crook? That was big. It was a friggin’ portable powerhouse of energy. Fae power pumped through the reedy stick, which pulsed with cold life, waiting to be used, eager to freeze and kill, to bring on the black and cold. The thing was alive, possessed by a sort of shark-like sentience, a thing of living purpose, and it didn’t give a rat’s fuzzy ass who it served.
The sentience reached out toward my mind, offering me scenes of endless winter: frozen spires reaching up to the sky; the whole Earth carpeted in thick, flawless snow; a field of endless white sparkling in chilly sunlight; bodies without number, petrified in perfect crystalline stillness. The world a mimicry of life—all of the beauty and none of the mess. No child would ever laugh there, but no child would ever cry. No one would smile or be warmed by a hug, but neither would anyone starve or feel the gnawing pain of cancer. Everything and everyone, beautiful forever. Everything and everyone, surgically sterile.
The shepherd’s crook wanted these things, and it urged me to want them. It bartered with the things it knew I wanted, calling to the darkest part of my heart.
The power to crush the Morrigan who’d wronged me, who’d robbed me of Ailia years ago.
You could have her back
, it whispered. It could show me how.
The power to crush the Guild of the Staff, exact retribution for people like Ben who’d been denied help and justice because it would’ve been too messy, too difficult.
A kingdom, the crook promised, all mine for the taking … and when I grew weary of reigning? Endless Winter. It could be patient, helpful, until I grew bored.
It appealed to my pride and vanity, my hunger and lust, my anger and vengeance, my sorrow and pain. Thing sure as shit knew how to manipulate the human heart—would’ve made a killing selling time-shares.
I pushed it all down, away, back into a little box in my head for later examination. Right now I had a mission—ice the old man and get Michael back. The crook nearly quivered in my hand, all too eager to turn on its former master in exchange for freedom.
I raised the staff, Old Man Winter’s stiff hand still clinging tight, and let out a burst of raw power, trusting the crook to shape weaves I’d never used before. Thick fetters of thorny black ice burst from the old man’s carved throne, wrapping around arms and legs, torso, neck, and head, pulling him tight against the chair. Not killing him, of course—the fae couldn’t be dispatched so easily—but tying him down for a good long while, I’d wager.
“I will get free,” he said as though reading my thoughts. “Eventually I will be loose and you will pay. Perhaps I will rot for a thousand years, perhaps you will be but dust in the ground when I escape, but still you will pay. I will hunt down your offspring until your seed is wiped from the face of the Earth. I swear it true, I swear it true, I swear it true. Thrice have I sworn it, so mote it be!” And then he laughed, an echoing whisper in the quiet room. The crook pulsed in my hand; a gag of ice filled Old Man Winter’s mouth, cutting off his laugh fest. I could still see it in his eyes, though—the promise of death.
“Yeah well,” I said, “you’re gonna have to take a number, pal. Lots of folks already have dibs on wiping me out.”
This was different, I knew, though I wouldn’t say it out loud. I’ve made a lot of enemies in my days on this hunk of rock—other mages, the Guild of the Staff, even some minor godling types—but Gramps meant business. The fae are implacable, dogs worrying ceaselessly over a bone. When they hold a grudge, it’s for keeps. For humans, most grievances dim and fade, diminished by the passage of time and the failing of memory. The fae have lots of issues—a friggin’ fleet of dump-trucks’ worth—but flagging memory isn’t one of ‘em. Old Man Winter would remember, would feel the anger as sharply as he did right now, and he’d do something about it. He’d sworn so thrice. An unbreakable oath of power.