11. The Raid
Sati sent us downhill, closer to the compound. Her timing was preternaturally exact because from the trail we walked, on its closest approach to the compound, Stu watching through the drone’s camera via his smartphone said “Front door’s open.”
The man who purchased Taylor from Sati two days ago had fallen unconscious in that doorway, blocking it. Taylor, owning him inside and out, must’ve made it happen. Ingrid and I flew ourselves and Stu over the perimeter fence, coming down just outside the house’s magical barrier, and we ran in past that poor bewitched doomed man.
Inside were three men rushing for the door, one of them gigantic and holding a sword. Stu drew his sidearm and rushed headlong without paying attention to the smaller men, which turned out to be a very bad mistake because his gun wouldn’t fire but the crossbows held by those two smaller men could, and one of those bolts pierced his lung.
Ingrid was out of action even more quickly, caught by some protective spell that must’ve been set just for immortals because she was stuck as fast as a fly in amber, so now it was just me against these three guards plus anyone else who might be in the house. I threw up a spell to deflect blades or projectiles, the one we’d learned from my grimoire, then, dodging the other crossbow bolt, picked up a candlestick and threw it true at the giant’s head. It caught him just under one eye and he bellowed, his free hand going to his face, temporarily immobilized.
The other two also had swords, but Callie and Ingrid and Stu and Kelsey had taught me very well indeed with the short staves, and with my augmented body it was like they were fighting in slow motion and both went down within 30 seconds but the giant was still up, now with only one functional eye since the other was already swelling closed. He was even slower, slow enough for me to cast a spell of healing onto Stu that probably saved his life, though he would need more.
The giant had seen me with my staves and was wary and defensive, actually better with his sword than the smaller men with much longer reach—he was well over than 7′ tall and clearly spent time lifting since he was massively muscled—so it took longer to take his measure but in a minute I’d hit his sword hand hard enough to make it useless, and then I was inside his guard with two quick hits to his upper arms and legs which really didn’t do any harm through all that muscle. I couldn’t reach his head past his reaching long arms without throwing something so I dropped one staff and stole moves from Callie and Jess, slipping under and behind, leaping onto and attaching myself to his back like Jess had done to me, and as the massive muscles of his arms interfered with their ability to reach back and detach me, which he probably could’ve done just by crushing my skull between his hands if I wasn’t careful, I used my remaining staff to hammer his head. Three hits later he was wobbling and I got my feet back under me, then with two staves hammered him that much harder until he went down.
I moved back to Stu and began removing the crossbow bolt from his chest, a two-step process, first magically detaching barbed head from shaft, then extracting that shaft and healing the void it left behind, the head still deep within him. I’d just finished that first step when all of a sudden I couldn’t move or see. The mage had entered the room. He pushed me down onto the floor with a thump on his way to Ingrid.
“What have we here?” he asked in an accent that sounded Castilian, already knowing at least part of the answer. And while I couldn’t see, my extrasense was still active so I knew he’d taken her chin in one of his hands. “An actual goddess? I’ve never had one before ... you honor me, my lady. Now tell me who you are. Or do not, but I will find out either way.”
He wasn’t paying any attention to me, that ‘I don’t get no respect’ factor I’d been so fortunate to have working in my favor these last months, so I was free to start working through the structure of whatever kind of freeze he’d cast on me. It took a minute to puzzle it out: it was like curare, a paralyzing toxin once used in surgery before anesthetics found widespread use. Extremely dangerous if too much was taken but also very effective, something I’d learned from my own grimoire because curare came from ice vine, which was one of the plants my however-many-times grandmother had collected in Guyana. The fact that I was starting to have trouble breathing is what tipped me off and is why he’d been able to cast such a spell, since curare has beneficial uses, making his spell a kind of light magic. Clever.
And once I knew what I was dealing with, it took another minute to unwind. My breath came steadier, my sight faded back in, my muscles began responding, and I became aware that Ingrid was now in very serious pain, as what this mage was doing to her fell somewhere between interrogation and magical torture, again using magic that would normally have been used for healing. Clever, maybe, but decidedly evil.
Two minutes after he’d cast that freeze spell on me, I launched myself at his totally unprotected back. I had hajitsa on both my elbows and I put all four inches of both of them into his heart, plus four more inches of the one attached to one knee into his groin, repeatedly. And then, with this mage lying there dying, his heart’s blood flowing freely, I had three priorities. Ingrid locked immobile into enduring agony, Stuart, an arrowhead deep within him that would kill him if not rectified soon, and Taylor I-knew-not-where. I chose Stuart, carrying him in my arms out the front door past Taylor’s still-unconscious buyer, past the magical boundary and to the doorway of the servant quarters on the opposite side of the drive. Because I could sense exactly where we were in relation to Sati’s school, and I could put up an extradimensional portal to the gear barn there and carry Stuart through it. I yelled to the remaining women there to come tend to him, then I returned.
And maybe I made the wrong choice, because by the time I’d re-entered his mansion barely one minute later, the mage was back up.
“You, my young friend, are seriously fucked,” he said in his Castilian accent, and I didn’t even get to relish the fact that for maybe the second time in the last ten years someone had referred to me as “young”. He hadn’t fully healed himself, but was already close enough. For better or worse I made like Stuart and rushed in, screaming rage and lust for battle, and from all the way across the big entrance gallery threw a knife designed for the purpose, as true as it could’ve been thrown.
But I wasn’t the only one who knew how to cast deflection spells, in fact his was even cooler ... the knife I threw deflected, curled around, and came straight back at me even harder than I’d thrown it. I’d closed a quarter of the distance to him when it arrived, and not trusting my deflection spell, I knocked it aside the old-fashioned way, with another knife I hadn’t thrown yet.
I felt another freeze spell come, but I’d already cast its ward and now I was halfway across the room. And then came his knives, probably every single knife in the lower part of his house, flying from wherever they’d been stored, drawers and blocks and sheathes and through the glass of display cabinets, a hundred fucking knives all headed straight at my sternum, but I had an extradimensional portal for that, not a full one, just a simple mirror, so all those knives thrown straight at me were now headed straight back at him.
“Your friend Taylor is now dying a slow painful death,” he announced, that sentence beginning as the knives were released at me and ending as all but two of those knives curled away from him and began turning back toward me. But those two knives, which happened to be directed at the exact center of his deflection spell, hit home. One stuck half an inch deep, stopped from going deeper by his ribs, and the other went three times as far, still not deep enough to do any real damage, but enough to disrupt his deflection, and now I was less than 20 feet away and could easily see the whites of his eyes, and he was starting to think of how the fuck he was going to get out of this, this large fast dangerous person who’d taken out all his bodyguards, roaring battle lust and shrugging off everything he had to dish, and he had that choice to make: fight or flight.
I felt the magical shield drop. He thought he needed to cast dark magic. But he’d forgotten Ingrid, because dropping his magical protection also freed her. Before Ingrid could arrive, I was hurtling into one of his heavy sideboards. Fuck. I busted it up pretty good, and if I hadn’t strengthened my body, what, fifteen minutes ago(?), I would’ve been busted up a lot worse, a heap of broken bones and puddled flesh and blood. Instead I was mostly just stunned, head spinning, bones and flesh largely intact, though there was certainly blood. But I knew how to heal myself.
Ingrid waded in, a warrior despite her agony, far stronger millennia-old magical protections in place than I could’ve conjured in just this past half hour, and she reached him and began pummeling. Hard, eyeblink fast, augmented. Against his own protection(s). And while she wore those down, he was eroding her own immortal guards, so for the moment there was no way to know how this would end. But I was supposed to be out of action and I still wasn’t, so for the second time in the last few minutes, I rushed up behind this dark mage, this time with wooden staves in my hands, and did my worst to his head and neck and shoulders. Not expecting attack (from me) from behind (again), he was vulnerable, and I hit him hard a dozen times before putting my knee-hajitsa deep into his manhood, if that’s what it was, and really even that wouldn’t have been much more than a momentary distraction, but thus distracted, Ingrid had her wakizashi out and vorpaled his head, ran that sword through that severed head deep into the expensive vintage hardwood floor, and then began dismembering him, chanting something I somehow recognized, on my way to the basement stairs, as a dispel.
I followed my extrasense to Taylor, and she was indeed in pain even worse than Ingrid’s but without Ingrid’s long martial experience. She was terrified, and seeing her like this and wondering if I could’ve prevented it tore at me. She was strapped onto a table, nude, and I don’t even want to begin thinking about what had been going on here, but as I cast the biggest heal I could imagine, I undid those straps, and without a magical protection on the house I could create a portal from right here to the gear barn at Newberry, and I carried her through it and there were Callie and Jess and Dani and Kelsey looking after Stu, and they’d already extracted the arrowhead I’d left within him and I knew he was going to be fine, but I didn’t know about Taylor because she was bleeding from every orifice, tears mingled with blood from her eyes, her internal organs turning to mush, and this attempted rescue maybe was doomed from the beginning, and that fucking infuriated me.
For two minutes, on my knees, tears streaming, Callie coming over to hug me from one side, removed the kerchief soaked with what must’ve been my own blood from my head, on her knees next to me, all of us doing everything we could think to, I’d done all I could (or had I?) and Jess-Dani-Kelsey could take it from here as well or better than I could and Callie was coming with me whether I liked it or not. And I did like that.
Coming back upstairs, there was Ingrid, still in the ritual I’d seen her begin, dispelling this dark wizard from this plagued plane. She had the situation in hand and the next job was to find the grimoire we’d come all this way through all these travails for, and it called to me and past half a dozen hallway doors there it was, all kinds of fucking magical protections around it.
It didn’t take long to learn that I could turn pages through that magic, and we had maybe two minutes of riffling pages after that, a quarter of the book, my eyes on every page though I couldn’t know what they signified, focused instead on unwinding those interwoven magical protections, until Ingrid walked in with Sati, who was wearing the same devastating outfit Taylor used on me that last day in Newberry, and, incredibly but maybe not, Sati looked even better.
“Down boy,” Sati told me, her perfect hands cupping her perfect breasts. My eyelids fluttered and my knees trembled.
“Don’t let her,” Callie said to me, urgent, and that was a help, neither of us knowing what Sati was doing right now but it was so incongruous that it couldn’t have been good.
“How are you here?” Ingrid asked Callie, taking a step closer, and even as damaged as she’d been, Ingrid oozed menace.
“Deeper,” Sati said to me, and whatever clarity Callie had lent me wavered.
“Don’t!” Callie shouted, retreated a step from Ingrid.
“Do you really think you have a choice?” Sati asked me, but Ingrid was stalking after Callie, and Callie was more important to me than anything Sati could try to make me do or not do, so I was stepping between them, shaking my head, and Ingrid’s wakizashi was out and my staves were out and these hajitsa I wore might be able to deflect a hit even though the staves might not against a sword that sharp wielded that expertly, but truly, we always have a choice.
“Stand down or die,” Ingrid said to me.
“I will not die,” I said to her, widening my stance, readying. I asked Sati “Did you know what would happen to Taylor?”
“Enjoy what life brings while you can,” Sati replied. “Everything you know can pass.” And she seemed sad again, but not like her sadness would last.
“Last chance, fool,” Ingrid said to me.
Callie came up beside me, her own staves out, took two steps to the side, flanking.
“Look at me,” Sati said softly, but I wasn’t going to. “You have been very helpful, Robert and Calista ... don’t let this be your end.”
“It won’t be,” I said, looking deep into Ingrid’s eyes, seeking her soul, and that actually seemed to make her uncomfortable, a tiny creeping kernel of doubt kindling there.
“We don’t need to fight,” Callie said. “We aren’t here to take the grimoire for ourselves, we’re here to help you bring it back.”
“We aren’t going back,” Sati said.
And that was a puzzle, but then came realization: they’d planned this from the beginning, which explained so much else.
“Then take it,” I said, and took a step sideways toward Callie, away from Sati’s path to the grimoire. I could tell that Sati was angry, from peripheral vision I saw her glaring at Callie, muttering, and while I couldn’t take my eyes off Ingrid even for an instant, I could feel Callie’s agreement, and she stepped farther away and I followed, sideways, until we could angle our way to the door, Ingrid turning to stay facing us, until we were through.
We made our stunned way to the front room where the three guards lay, and one of the normal-sized guards, the one who’d shot Stuart, was awake and gasping.
“Help me, please, whoever you are,” he said, and he seemed desperate.
Callie and I looked at each other.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Mariano,” he said, his voice thick. “I don’t know where I am or how I got here. I can’t move or see. There’s a fire.”
And he was right ... I could hear something from upstairs that sounded like crackling, and I could begin to smell smoke, and the other two guards were already dead, blood pooling from eyes and ears and mouth like it had from Taylor. Mariano spat, and his spittle was tinged pink.
Callie and I nodded to each other, raised him to his feet, supported his dead weight between us, opened a portal to Newberry, walked through it to the gear barn, and closed it behind us.
And as badly as that had gone for all of us mortals, I felt like it could’ve gone much worse if not for Callie.
But then we were back with Dani and Jess and Kelsey and Stu, and Taylor was dead.