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the Other Night I Dreamt of Knives
by Aadler
Copyright May 2016


Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.



The lizard was back, and Emily kept an eye on it as the two young women worked their way across the plain. Jutta went first, periodically placing a picket stake and driving it into the earth with a brisk blow from the hammer; Emily, following, would unwind enough twine from the spool to let her wrap a loop of it around the picket before moving to the next in line. Every five feet, a bright plastic streamer was knotted around the twine. They had been working for an hour and twenty minutes, and — with two lines of streamered cord to mark each lane — were nearly done with the fifth lane.

Meanwhile, that damn lizard kept coming out every few minutes to perch on top of a flat rock, watching them with black, empty eyes, throat-sac palpitating at unpredictable intervals before withdrawing to some unseen refuge. And Emily was about ready to kill the thing.

She didn’t think it was poisonous. She didn’t suspect it of being a disguised demon scout. She just didn’t like reptiles, of any type. Plus, she was feeling maybe just a bit of tension right now.

With the last lane completed, they returned to where their supplies were gathered under a makeshift canopy, an eight-foot square of cloth suspended from poles and stabilized by more cords and stakes to provide some welcome shade. Each drank a bottle of water from a Styrofoam cooler. The desert wasn’t hot yet, not really (it was only April, and still hours before noon), but it wasn’t cool, either, and neither of them could afford to flirt with dehydration.

Jutta tucked another bottle into a cargo pocket, handed its mate to Emily. “Now we place the mines,” she announced. As her name implied, she was German, but her English was so fluent that only its precision betrayed that this wasn’t her native tongue. She was also such a classic blue-eyed Nordic blonde that just standing next to her made Emily feel washed-out and plain. “It is nearly two hours before anything happens — if it does happen — but we do not wish to leave any element to chance.”

“Oh, no,” Emily agreed, sarcasm heavy in her voice. “We wouldn’t want to take any risks.”

Jutta sighed but made no comment; this was a familiar issue between the two of them, with nothing productive to be added at the moment. She picked up the three cloth bags by their fabric carrying straps, slung two of them from one shoulder, and handed the third to Emily. “This one first,” she said.

Emily felt the corners of her mouth trying to turn down. “You want me to do it?”

“Yes, so that I can see you know how.”

Emily was feeling more than a bit put-upon already, but she knew Jutta hadn’t been given any more choice than she had, so she said nothing. Three more stakes had been driven into the ground in a slanting line that ran behind their canopy and next to the dust-streaked Jeep Cherokee. Emily opened the bag, pulled out the spool of firing wire, and reeled off a double arm’s-length. A strip of red duct tape was affixed to the bag, so she went to the stake that had a matching line of red tape around its top and wrapped a loop of wire around it, tying it off; then, slinging the strap of the bag around her neck and cross-body, she went to the lane marked with red-streamered twine and made a similar loop-and-tie on the stake centered at its beginning. That done, she began walking down the lane, playing out wire as she went. A hundred feet from the end of the lane, a third stake indicated the placement point. One final time Emily wrapped the wire and snugged it securely, then she laid down the spool.

Each cloth bag held an M18A1 claymore antipersonnel mine, a handheld firing device (which Emily knew, though she couldn’t remember from where, that soldiers called a “clacker”), wire to link the two, and a test set to make sure all components were in working order. Jutta had told Emily to read through the instruction manual for claymores during the drive here, and watched now as Emily took out the firing device and the test set, removed the dust covers from the plugs on both, and connected them together. Keeping one eye on the small window in the test set, she took the clacker and prepared to squeeze the handle —

“No,” Jutta interrupted. “The safety block.”

“Oh,” Emily said. “Right.” A thick wire block between the actuator handle and the body of the clacker prevented it from being set off accidentally; Emily rotated the block to the “FIRE” position and gave the handle a quick squeeze. A flashing light in the window of the test set showed proper function, so she rotated the wire back to “SAFE”, replaced the dust covers, and returned both items to the cloth bag.

“You must always remember to switch off the safety,” Jutta said. “Any Slayer is strong enough to break the handle against the block if she is not paying attention, and then we would have a mine we could not detonate.”

“There are two more,” Emily pointed out.

“If we need them,” Jutta returned, “we will need them all.”

If. The odds were that they would wait out the apportioned time without having to act; if this had been a high-probability site, a more battle-proven team would have been assigned to it. Still, they were here, and Jutta clearly meant to run things by the book.

With the testing done, only then was Emily allowed to proceed. She removed the mine from its pocket in the cloth bag, opened the metal scissor legs on each side of the bottom, and pressed the legs into the hard-baked earth, making sure that the face labeled FRONT TOWARD ENEMY was pointed ahead and using the knife-edge sight at the top to align the mine with the desired impact point. That last had been designated by a driveway marker, a thirty-inch plastic stem topped by a bright red reflector. Once she was satisfied, she moved back, and Jutta went prone behind the mine, checking the aim. “It is good,” the older girl said. “Finish this, then we do the other two.”

Finishing was simple enough. There was a blasting cap at the end of the firing wire; Emily unscrewed one of the priming adapters from the top of the mine, and slid the slotted end of the adapter onto the wires right behind the cap. Pulling excess wire through the slotted end till the top of the cap was firmly seated at the bottom of the adapter, she then screwed the adapter — with blasting cap — into the detonator well of the mine. It was still perfectly safe at this point; without the clacker attached, the mine could be kicked, shot, even set on fire without detonating … and they would not attach the clacker till they were safely away from the mine itself.

With the red lane finished, they went back to the Jeep and started again, for the wires had to be unreeled from that starting point. Both times, Emily not only remembered to switch off the safety but made a point of focusing to incorporate that into her awareness, repeating the action in her mind’s eye: safe­off­squeeze, safe­off­squeeze, safe­off­squeeze. This was very different from the more straightforward implements with which she had trained … but, ultimately, it was still a weapon, and Slayers knew weapons. Finished, they returned to the Jeep, where Jutta herself connected the clackers to the firing wire at this end, each firing device marked with colored tape to match the lane for the mine.

They went back under the canopy to get more water from the cooler and relax in folding chairs. Jutta was surveying the results of their labors, and Emily likewise looked it over. The three lanes converged toward the aiming point, radiating outward from it like a giant pie slice with the Jeep at the rightmost corner of the outer edge. The center lane was the one with the red streamers; to its left was the blue lane and then the (empty) yellow lane, to its right the green lane and (likewise empty) white lane …

Jutta gave her a sudden, startled look, saying, “What? Is something wrong?”

Emily shook her head. “No. Nothing.” She’d caught a movement from that friggin’ lizard, and made a near-growl in the back of her throat without realizing she was doing it. “Okay, I told you I wasn’t ready to hear the whole layout, and thanks for giving me time to … get centered, I guess. I’m here because I trust you, because I knew that you … know me, and wouldn’t call me in unless it was something truly vital. I always knew I’d have to get the brief eventually, though, and now I have enough questions that I don’t want to wait any longer. To begin with, why did we lay down five lanes if we only have three mines?”

Jutta nodded. “This is good. Yes, we have two additional fire lanes in the event that we must shift targets.” She paused, thinking. “If you are ready now to hear, it would probably be simplest if I present to you the entire situation, and then you ask about anything you do not understand. This is agreeable?”

Emily shrugged. “Sure, go ahead.”

“There is a demon,” Jutta began. (Yeah, there’s always a demon. Trying to keep them under control is like playing whack-a-mole.) “He is called Kruciak, and styles himself Kruciak the Merciless. He appeared only within the last few years, but his people and their ways are described in the chronicles of the Watchers, so we quickly understood what we were dealing with. The Cuan-atl draw status among themselves from their prowess and success in war and plunder. In that regard you could compare them to what was said of the Apache peoples of the 19th century, and it is clear that Kruciak has set himself to acquire renown.

“Two and a half years ago, he fought and defeated the Slayer Nairi Gersang in the caves around Puncak Jaya; she was rescued by other Slayers before he could carry her away as a prize, but she nearly lost an arm, and it was months before she regained her sight. Violet Knowles has faced him three times, and always defeated but could not capture him; in fact, on the second occasion, he succeeded in stealing a mystical artifact of some power, and on the third he was able to bring it to full operation. As his exploits grew, so has his following. He began as a solitary raider, returned with a few comrades, returned again with a war party, and now commands the equivalent of a small battalion. We do not wish to allow him any further successes, for that would bring a full Cuan-atl army to our world. It is felt that would be unacceptably disruptive.”

Though Jutta didn’t seem to have intended it, Emily was impressed. Some names were legendary; Violet — Vi — wasn’t one of them, but she was certainly trending in that direction, and Emily had even heard older Slayers speculate as to whether the redhead could actually take on the infamous Faith in a bare-knuckle face-off. If this Kruciak character had been able to hold his own in repeated encounters, he had to be taken seriously.

That thought had only taken a moment, and Jutta was still talking. “I spoke of Apaches, but another comparison might be to the Vikings. The Cuan-atl have historically had those among them who could navigate portals, both from their home dimension to others, and within the realities they visit. Kruciak appears to be especially adept at this, which is what has made him so elusive; along with this, he has a mind for strategy, always operating within areas that have enough portals, of enough types, to give him flexibility and unpredictability. That is why so many of us have been mobilized today, so that we can cover all the avenues by which he might travel.”

Emily was shaking her head. “Wait, I don’t understand. Everything I’ve ever heard about portals, I thought they were strictly for moving from one plane to another. You’re saying this guy can portal from one location on Earth to another?”

“Many locations,” Jutta agreed. “Nearly two hundred have been confirmed, though those allow transit only from one point on our world to another; not even the arts of the Red Witch could divine the location of the outbound portal to Kruciak’s home dimension. Still, almost two hundred … such a high number is why a ‘brute force’ approach has been seen as necessary, using every Slayer who can be spared so that there will be someone to contend with him regardless of where he goes.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t go public and bring all the world’s armies in on this one,” Emily said. “If this Kruciak can nip in and do a raid, then cut back over the portal border … he can hit us, we can’t hit him, the tactical situation is horrible.”

Jutta was smiling. “Not so bad as that, fortunately. The portals the Cuan-atl can access, or at least those portals that lead from one plane to another, are all one-way. At the outbound portal, Kruciak can move directly from here to his own reality, but once there he would find it necessary to navigate several different planes — we believe at least ten, and probably several dozen — in order to come here once again. With the on-world traverses necessary to move from one portal to the next, it is a complex and arduous … ‘journey’ … to effect a complete circumnavigation. This difficulty has been our best protection from the Cuan-atl in the past, and should continue to serve so if we can bring Kruciak’s plans to disaster.”

Emily’s head came up. “Disaster,” she repeated. “I think I’m getting it now. You mentioned Vikings … we want to send a message that we’re not an easy, rich target, but a hard, nasty, unprofitable one. So that Earth doesn’t become a regular raiding destination.”

“Yes,” Jutta said, nodding. “An opportunistic demon is unwelcome, but sadly we must deal with many types of those. We cannot allow an entire, aggressive culture to see us as a source of adventure, glory, and booty. Or worse; remember, the Norse tribes did not only raid, sometimes they conquered … and settled. That must be prevented before even the thought can be allowed to form.”

“I see it,” Emily sighed. “So, every spare Slayer on the planet, placed to block Kruciak and his boys wherever they run.” She glanced at the fire lanes for the claymores. “All set up like us?”

“Most have heavier weapons,” Jutta said. “Those will not work against Kruciak — I will explain in a moment — but his troops are vulnerable. We have what could be spared, but then we are a contingency force, covering one of many possible but unlikely avenues of escape.”

That brought a half-twisting smile from Emily. “So we’re sure he’ll be trying to escape?”

“He will,” Jutta replied firmly. “His past raiding patterns have been analyzed, cybernetically and psychologically and mystically; there are four major targets that would appeal to him, and all are covered by heavily armed teams. An invading force is most vulnerable at its point of arrival — remember D-Day? the greatest armada the world had ever seen, and the Allies calculated 50% probability that their beachhead would fail — and Kruciak’s party will face overwhelming firepower. We are here to harry any survivors.”

“Right,” Emily said. “Kill ’em all, nobody goes home alive.”

“Better if some do.” Jutta’s expression was suddenly grim. “Better if a few, only a few, stagger through their home portal, bleeding and dazed, shocked, traumatized and disbelieving, so that the other Cuan-atl can see: this is a place of death. Death without valor, death without gain, death without even the opportunity to fight.” Her fists clenched. “If we can kill Kruciak himself, we will, but it is most important that he be humiliated, and those who followed him all but wiped out. This is not simply a military action: it is to be a lesson.”

“Uh-huh.” Emily looked again at the lanes they had laid out. “With three mines, and no guns.”

Jutta showed no discouragement at Emily’s dubious response; they were here, and now they were talking. “Claymore mines were developed to deal with the kind of massed infantry attacks that American troops faced during the Korean conflict. Each mine is the equivalent of over seven hundred shots fired, all in the same instant. If Kruciak’s party comes here, they will be fleeing, and badly reduced already. Yes, I would rather have two more mines, but three should be enough.” She indicated their own weapons. “And you well know that you and I can do more damage with these than with any firearms.”

If we get close enough, Emily didn’t say. Which means close enough for them to reach us. “Okay. Three mines, each aimed at the same point, slightly different angles. Three different triggers. So you’ll look to set them off in sequence?”

“Most probably,” Jutta agreed. “We know where the portal is, but not which direction they will go when they emerge, and we want to catch them en masse. The two other lanes are for the most likely directions other than the ones already covered, and we may have to adjust even outside that. May, I say, for the greatest likelihood is that we will wait and nothing will happen, and then we will receive a sat-phone call that it is already finished elsewhere.” She looked at Emily with unexpected, startling intensity. “If we must change the mines, you do that while I run to delay Kruciak’s raiders. Shout ‘CLEAR’ once you are done and running back here to trigger, for you must fire from behind cover. I will likewise run when I hear you, the blast of steel bearings from a claymore expands in a sixty-degree cone and I will want to be clear of that —”

“Wait,” Emily said. “You’d trust me on something that important?”

Jutta shrugged it away, as of something obvious. “I would not send you to fight while I remained here. That I will not do.”

Great. No pressure, right? “Okay,” Emily said, already thinking ahead to angles and timing, the necessary steps, how fast she could go and how fast Jutta would have to move … “If that’s what we have to do, that’s how we’ll do it.”

Jutta nodded, studying her with matter-of-fact assessment; then, after a minute or so, she stood. “We still have much time,” she said. “Come.”

Caught off guard, Emily was a bit slow getting to her feet, but it didn’t matter, Jutta just made a few selections from their weapons layout and then strode about twenty feet away. “Here,” she said, turning back to face Emily. “We will spar.”

“What?” Emily stepped in front of the other girl. “Why?”

Jutta’s mien was usually direct, formal, or even grave, but in this moment her smile was actually merry. “I called you out of your retirement. Perhaps I simply wish to see if you have become slow and out of practice.” In one hand she held a katana in a lacquered scabbard; she held out a pair of sai in the other, offering them hilt-first. “Here.”

Emily’s eyebrows went up. “Giving yourself a bit of advantage, aren’t you?”

“Am I?” Jutta shrugged. “I have faced you with sai while you used any weapon you wished; you know the versatility and effectiveness of sai. And do you believe I will fail to precisely control my blade?”

It wasn’t that, more that the sai were essentially defensive, with less reach than the katana; you could win if you were enough more skilled than your opponent, but Emily knew she wasn’t. Still, this was just sparring, and Jutta would have reasons for her choices. Taking a sai in either hand, Emily settled herself into a ready stance, and the two of them began.

Slayer speed and senses were so advanced that only the most skilled of purely human swordsmen could have tracked the movements and techniques of the two women, and none could have been certain that this wasn’t all-out combat. It was not. They not only knew what they were doing, they knew one another, their habits and capabilities, their specialties and minor weaknesses and subtle tricks. In sand, Emily would have been handicapped, for footwork and quick body movement were more necessary to her than to an adversary with a sword. On the hard ground, however, both could move freely, and their match stretched out in a steel lightning knitwork of blade and tines, feints and shifts and probing of potential vulnerabilities, obvious jabs that could be parried easily but had to be parried lest they become a real threat. Emily knew Jutta was better than she was, but also knew that she faced not what Jutta could do but what she was doing. Jutta wasn’t giving it her all, she was holding back just the least bit, and Emily let both sai come up in a double-block — perfectly valid move, but she’d disengage with one and use the other to turn the katana, and then she’d be inside Jutta’s guard with one hand free to strike …

… but Jutta, instead of letting the blade be turned, drove off her rear leg and bent the forward knee, extending the sword past Emily’s block to slide the back of the blade along the side of Emily’s neck, where her carotid artery would have been opened up by the cutting edge.

They held there for an instant, then both women withdrew. “Really?” Emily said. “Really?”

“I gave you an opening,” Jutta said. “You tried to use it, instead I used it against you. This can happen.”

“Can it?” Emily challenged. “Yeah, you tickled me with the back of the blade, just like I’d have only touched you on the jaw with the hilt of the sai when I got inside … but you’d’ve had to turn your wrist just a little to bring the edge around, and I could have caught you and moved you off line in that extra part of a second.”

Jutta lowered the sword. “It is very possible that you could have. I am still more skilled than you, and also more quick, but I think your reaction speed may now be greater than mine.” She stepped to where she had left the weapon’s sheath, returned the katana to it. “You are a Slayer, trained and prepared and experienced. We are here, and we will do what our duty calls us to do. This is enough.”

Emily felt herself deflate a little (internally, she hoped, where it wouldn’t show), and together they returned to the protective canopy. She suspected this had been intended to bolster her confidence, but wasn’t at all sure it had done the trick. Whatever Jutta might have said about her capabilities, the fact remained that this was a seasoned, proven warrior, and Emily the untested novice who had walked away from that same war …

“I’m sorry you got stuck with me,” she said to Jutta.

“I did not.” They had taken their seats again under the shade; Jutta held another water bottle, but hadn’t opened it. “I asked for you. I insisted.”

Emily didn’t understand, though she found that she wasn’t surprised. “Why?”

“All who would come were needed,” Jutta told her without looking around. “I knew you would be called, and I would not see you go to someone else. I would not have this.” Her eyes were focused on where the portal would open, if in fact it did. “You are my responsibility. If you must face this, I will be with you.”

Damn. This just made it worse. “I’m sorry,” Emily said again. “I’m sorry I left, sorry I’m a failure. But I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t.”

Jutta was shaking her head. “You do not understand —” she began.

“I’m not like you,” Emily interrupted. “You, all of you … you face these monsters, you kill them, you bake a big pan of lasagna and order a keg to celebrate …” She waved her hands, agitated. “I’m not like that. I can never be.”

“This … what you describe, much of that is camaraderie.” Jutta had turned to regard her, eyes steady and cautious. “We do these things to encourage one another.”

“Well, it doesn’t encourage me.” Oh, God, she was about to cry. She wouldn’t cry, she wouldn’t. “I had dreams, every night. Nightmares, except they weren’t, weren’t random. They were about all the different ways I could die. Would die, unless I left.”

This time Jutta didn’t try to respond, but waited, listening, while Emily went on. “A kraken wraith going in through my eyes and getting its tendrils into my spine to suck away the marrow. A swarm of vampires, laughing and playing with me, because there were always more no matter how many I killed. A KiłtonRǚq pair, mirroring each other so that one was always behind me, and claws sinking through the back of my skull, starting the flex that would tear off the top of my head …” She heard her voice rising, fought it back down. “All the time you were teaching me, training me, mentoring me, I died and I died and I died in those nightmares. When you called me in for this —” She held up one hand, STOP, when Jutta made as if to protest. “I had to come in, I see that, I’m not blaming you. But that night I had that Tchurisch demon coming at me — you remember him, the insect guy, stood on two legs with four arms to spare for swinging switchblades — and in the dream he sliced me up like confetti, cutting me wherever he liked and nothing I could do to stop it, knives coming at me from every direction.” She shook her head. “That’s what I got away from, and now I’m back in the middle of it … and I’m telling you, I’m gone the instant this is over, because I can’t live this way. I’ve been accepted for grad school, I want to be a marine biologist. I’m sorry to be such a disappointment, but that’s just how it is.”

Jutta was watching her, head tilted just a bit. When she saw that Emily seemed to be done for the moment, she said, “You are not a disappointment to me.”

Emily waved that aside. “Whatever you call it, it’s still the same thing, and I can’t change it. I wish I could, but I can’t.”

Jutta sighed, and looked out over the lanes of streamers and stakes. For a full minute she was silent, then: “I was still not yet sixteen years old when I found my way to Buffy Summers’s house. Several other girls, potential Slayers, were already there, and more kept coming. A few younger than me, some a bit older, but most of them sixteen or seventeen. All of us had been told, had been allowed to understand, that we would spend the rest of our days battling monsters if the mantle of the Slayer fell upon us … but now the monsters were hunting us down and we had no power. We gathered together for support — what else was there for us to do? — but I believe we all recognized that it also made us a single inviting target.” She paused for a second, perhaps finding the memories more vivid than she had expected. “Our deaths were already written. We faced that, we united to fight the darkness around us, because no other path was open to us —”

“No,” Emily said. “Look, I can already see where this is going, and you can skip the pep talk, because it’s not the same with me. You and the other girls you’re talking about, becoming Slayers saved you from a nightmare … but for me, becoming a Slayer was what brought the nightmare. You had no way out, but I do. I’m not cut out for this. I’ll fight, here, today, but I can’t live my life like that. I can’t. I won’t.”

Jutta was shaking her head. “No, you misunderstand me. We were together, dozens of us, facing a fate we could not escape, but at bottom it was the same fate that fell on every Chosen One: fight until you die. We had no choice … but you do.”

“And I chose wrong,” Emily said. “Sorry again.”

“We had no choice,” Jutta repeated fiercely. “It was as it had always been for Slayers, but now it is not. There is no ‘one girl in all the world’ now, there are hundreds, more than a thousand in total. We can share the burdens, support one another. The duty no longer falls only upon one.” She smiled. “And if one of us learns, trains, understands, and chooses to return to her own life, that means we have succeeded.”

“I …” Emily stopped. “What?”

“You will not be a failure,” Jutta insisted. “Not a Slayer who deserted her duty. You will be a graduate student who can protect her friends if ever they are stalked by a vampire, you will be a marine biologist who can recognize the signs of a Diavolus tide and send us an alert. You will be proof that our lives are our own to choose.”

“Even …” Emily swallowed, began again. “Even if I’m still kind of a wimp?”

“You answered the call when the need was dire,” Jutta said. “You are with me now. What else matters?”

Emily felt a part of herself relax, slowly as if it had held tension for a very long time. This didn’t settle everything. She was still afraid, still knew that her fear was greater than that felt by most Slayers, still knew she would be walking away from a duty that others had embraced. But yes, she was here. It would do. For now.

“Well, okay, then,” she said.

“Very good.” Jutta nodded briskly. “So: if it should come to us, these are things you need to know.” And she began describing what was known of the typical Cuan-atl warrior. Individually they were formidable indeed, well beyond human norms in strength and ability to sustain damage. To Slayers, they were simply very dangerous demons, toward the higher end of the scale but nonetheless part of a familiar order.

“Cuan-atl are very individualistic,” Jutta was saying, “very oriented toward personal combat. They can subordinate this to larger organization, in order to acquire enough virtu that they may begin leading groups of their own, but it goes against their nature. If they are fleeing an ambush that has cost them substantial casualties, their unit cohesion will be already diminished, and hitting them with the claymores as soon as they emerge will leave the survivors even further shaken. If we then immediately attack them ourselves, most will break and run, and those who fight should see us as personal opponents rather than responding as a group.

“Weapons will vary — as I said, they are highly individualistic — but a large party will typically use long-bladed scythes for main combat, with something like cutlasses for closer work. Their only distance weapons are short javelins, good range but not impressive accuracy, and a few may have throwing-axes.

“If all has gone well, Kruciak will have been killed in the initial strike, but this is not especially likely. It will not be easy to distinguish him from the other Cuan-atl because, yes, to us they all look alike, so we must be wary in general. He is …” Jutta paused. “He is not typical of his kind. He is physically skilled, wily, unconventional in his tactics: an original thinker, and ambitious, and with a charisma that moves others to follow him. More, he has augmented himself when he could.

“The Qwelian cuirass that he succeeded in acquiring and activating despite Violet Knowles’s opposition … the name describes function more than form, for it is not a breastplate of any kind, but an engraved medallion of bronze-colored metal, perhaps twenty centimeters across. It has been secured to leather straps that allow it to be worn in the center of the torso, and its operation protects the wearer from any missile traveling above a certain velocity.” She shrugged. “This is why firearms would be ineffective against him, and the shrapnel from the claymores as well, but he can be fought with bladed or piercing weapons so long as they travel more slowly than an arrow.”

Emily frowned. “A force field that operates on anything moving past a certain speed … wasn’t there something like that in Dune?” She shook her head. “So he has a defense that means any fight with him has to be up close and personal.”

“And more besides,” Jutta agreed. “In full capacity, the cuirass also has an advanced healing function. I do not know the specifics, but the general effect is that Kruciak will, given time, recover fully from anything that does not kill him on the spot. This, then, we must also keep in mind: if he escapes, no matter how grievously wounded, he will be capable of returning, fully restored, to work further mischief. In addition —”

“In addition?” Emily blurted. “God, isn’t that enough already?”

“What is, is,” Jutta said. “If we must face it, we should know it. So: in addition, Kruciak has a hand-weapon of some type that, if fully charged, will loose up to four black metal bees, as single shots, and one of red metal.” Her voice took on a Pay attention, this is important tone. “A black bee will fly at you in a straight line; its sting would kill most humans, but would only briefly paralyze a Slayer, though she would probably be killed before she could recover. The red bee will circle to choose its moment of attack, possibly under mental control from the caster, and its venom …” Her mouth tightened. “The first effect is intense weakness. A Slayer’s metabolism can push that away after a few minutes, but what follows is a slow, wasting death as her system fights and fights against something it simply cannot overcome.”

“How —” Emily wet her lips. “How do we know how it … affects us?”

“A black bee incapacitated Nairi Gersang,” Jutta explained. “Violet Knowles smashed a red one out of the air when Kruciak launched it at her, and the broken body was analyzed.” She shook her head. “For the red, there is no antidote or cure, so do not allow such a thing to reach you.”

“So … so this girl, Nairi …” Was her voice shaking? Emily couldn’t tell. “Kruciak worked her over as bad as he did after he’d already paralyzed her? Was that rage, or just meanness?”

“No,” Jutta corrected. “He fired the black bee at Nairi because she was about to overcome him despite the damage she had already sustained.”

This just kept getting more wonderful by the moment: an enemy who traveled with his own army, couldn’t be harmed by any swift weapon, and could poison you from a distance. (And something that launched metal bees … hadn’t she seen that in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles? Yet more classic SF imagery.) She hid a shudder — she hoped — and asked, “How long now?”

Jutta looked at her watch. “It is close enough that we should prepare.” She stood and went to the weapons they had laid out, and after a laggard moment Emily moved to join her.

Emily’s main weapon was the kwan dao, the Chinese “dragon head” spear: actually more of a polearm, like the naginata, but with a more massive, ornate blade. Close-in work wasn’t Emily’s style, nor her preference, so she preferred to keep a bit more distance if possible. The katana and paired sai she and Jutta had used in their sparring were hers for back-up, and she naturally had a couple of stakes tucked away as well; it was never a good idea to go anywhere without a stake or some workable substitute, because vampires had a habit of popping up without appointment. Like Jutta, she donned a Kevlar shirt over her top; designed for motorcyclists, it wasn’t remotely bulletproof, but would offer some measure of protection against non-firearm weapons without impeding a Slayer’s speed or flexibility. At Jutta’s urging she had also brought sturdy desert boots, and she shed her cross-trainers now and laced herself into the heavier footgear.

Jutta’s main weapon was a greatsword, longer altogether than she was tall and of such weight that only a very strong man could have wielded it with any kind of effectiveness. Jutta was more than strong enough, and adept at shifting her own weight so that a swing of the massive blade didn’t jerk her off balance. A wakizashi was sheathed behind each of her shoulders, as secondary weapons, and a manriki chain-flail looped diagonally across her upper body. (Things would really be desperate if she was reduced to that, Emily thought … or, perhaps, Jutta was thinking ahead to the possibility of direct combat with Kruciak once his army had been sufficiently reduced.)

Suitably armed and attired, the two women settled themselves into readiness. Emily was glad she had used the portable camp toilet earlier, but found herself wishing she could grab a few minutes for follow-up. How did the other Slayers do this? She was here from loyalty and necessity — several steps down from an actual apocalypse, this situation was still enough to justify calling in the reserves — but the others did this as a way of life. Emily couldn’t function like that; even if opting out made her feel like a coward, she simply couldn’t face what everyone else seemed to take for granted. Dread was thick in her throat at the mere thought of combat, even knowing there were teams at nearly two hundred locations like this and the odds of Kruciak appearing here were infinitesimal. Jutta might not have been willing to see Emily paired with anyone else, but surely Jutta would have been better off with a different partner —?

The satellite phone breep!ed, the sound lasting only a fraction of a second as Jutta’s finger stabbed the CONNECT button. “Yes?” she said, listened for a moment, then added, “Understood.” She keyed another number into the phone, handed it to Emily. “Mass alert, contact at the Petrograd location. They won’t call again unless they overwhelm the entire force.” She picked up the three color-coded clackers, and both women hunkered down behind the Cherokee. “If Kruciak’s forces flee through the portal to here, hit that number to report it while I trigger the mines.”

Emily’s anxiety, already high, spiked at the words. As the minutes stretched out, her bowels felt liquid, loose, her heart racing like a hummingbird’s. Inside herself she scrambled frantically for fortitude, for courage, or at least enough control to simulate the strength that had deserted her. She saw motion to her left, that GODDAMN LIZARD was back out on its rock, and her hand fell on the hilt of one sai in inapt, pointless rage. At this distance she could skewer the little bastard before he ever saw her move, but that would be stupid, that would be crazy, besides which she was so shaky right now she might actually miss. She was thankful Jutta was focused on the projected portal location, convinced the older girl would know at a glance just how shamefully unready Emily truly was. Never mind combat, how disgraceful would it be for a Slayer to die from sheer terror of something that hadn’t even happened —?

At almost exactly the point where the driveway marker thrust up from the earth, a line of brilliant light split the air, widened, and coalesced, and a moment later a mass of gray-orange bodies began pouring through the opening. Jutta blurted, “Ach, scheiße!”, let two of the clackers fall, and triggered the third. The bellow of the claymore was the loudest sound Emily had ever heard in her life, the Cherokee lurched on its suspension and the air was full of gritty dust, and Jutta was sprinting toward the newly-arrived Cuan-atl with the greatsword in her hands, shouting, “Shift, shift, shift!”

Emily sprang out to comply, all her concentration needle-focused on the single task. In the fractured second before Jutta triggered the first mine, Emily had seen and understood: the portal had opened facing away from them, the bulk of the raiders spilling out were shielded by the arcane laws of portational geometry and only one of the claymores had been angled to catch them. Now all Jutta’s preparation and prior planning were coming to bear, Emily running to redirect the remaining mines while the senior Slayer hurled herself at the demon throng in a savage delaying action, the greatsword hewing through them in awful slashing sweeps of spraying ichor and torn flesh.

Even the all-out assault of a Slayer wouldn’t hold them very long, for scores of the Cuan-atl had poured through the portal opening, there had to be over a hundred of them struggling to recover from the deadly claymore blast followed, seconds later, by Jutta’s lethal onslaught. Emily snatched one of the remaining mines from its perch in the earth, hurdled the streamered lane divider to grab the next one. A shutter-blink glance showed her that the rightmost (empty) lane was favorably angled, she jammed the mine into the ground with its orientation toward the mass of warriors. A long leap and she placed the last mine, granting herself an extra fifth of a second to be sure it faced the target now beginning to spread out in an attempt to flank the besieging Slayer, the portal winked out and there was no retreat for them now, they would have to press onward.

Emily flashed back toward the firing point and oh God she’d forgot and “Clear, clear, clear!” she shrieked, her loss of focus had just cost Jutta moments they might not have to spare. Back behind the Cherokee, she caught up the two live clackers (blue and red, Jutta had triggered the green so she needed blue and red), and when she looked up it was to see Jutta streaking away across the plain. Sixty degrees, Jutta had said, a lightning assessment too huge and blunt to be called calculation but more in the realm of brute instinct, and safe­off­squeeze safe­off­squeeze Emily fired one mine and then the other into the body of Cuan-atl who had emerged from the portal, then caught up the kwan dao and cleared the Jeep in one enormous leap, to land already dashing toward the fray.

Jutta was ahead of her, she must have pivoted back at the instant she heard the detonation which was cutting it too fucking close but no, if she hadn’t been hit then that meant she was clear and that ended any argument. Most of the Cuan-atl were down, they’d soaked up more than two thousand steel ball bearings in perhaps half a minute — fourteen hundred in two blasts so close together they might as well have been one — and apparently something designed to stop massed infantry charges could also seriously mess up supernaturally tough but still killable demons. Only a few dozen were still on their feet, reeling and stunned, and Jutta slammed into them in an abrupt cataclysm of whirling steel before Emily had crossed half of the two-hundred-yard gap between the firing point and the milling warriors.

A Slayer could outrun a racing greyhound; even a cheetah, faster at its top speed, took longer to attain that maximum acceleration. Emily reached the Cuan-atl less than ten seconds after clearing the Jeep, five behind Jutta, but every moment was a slow-motion eternity, every stroke and step and flick of movement in the battle ahead of her clear and distinct and interminable as a leisurely chess match. She saw Jutta strike down three, five, eight of the hulking demons, heard roars and howls and gurgles, a basso profundo voice shouting what had to be commands. Nobody was paying attention, most were still too dazed and the remainder were focused on Jutta, though a few seemed to be swinging their attention toward Emily —

Four of the Cuan-atl stumbled into her path, more probably accident than any deliberate attempt at interception. It made no difference, she slashed her way through them in a weaving skein of slaughter, shouldering the last one (split open and dying) from her path as there was an odd phat-phat sound from outside her field of vision. Ahead of her Jutta shifted in instant pre-emptive response, the greatsword coming up, the brief interruption had checked Emily for just a moment but she would be at Jutta’s side in another second, second and a half —

Time was still passing at the same syrupy, agonizing pace, every moment and detail achingly precise. She saw Jutta twirl the greatword to open the throat of a Cuan-atl who had lunged at her in the moment of seeming inattention; she saw the blade flick sharply aside, under perfect control, to split a darting black bee from the air; she saw the red bee loop behind the motion of the blade in that instant of commitment, and then snap in to drive its venom into Jutta’s wrist.

Jutta was falling, and Emily’s scream was louder than even the thunder of the claymores had been. Cuan-atl appeared between the two of them, charging her; they fell like chaff under the fury of her attack, but the kwan dao wouldn’t let her get close enough, and the shaft shattered in her hands as she used it to burst the skull of one who had thought pushing in past the reach of the spear-head meant safety. That was irrelevant, it was nothing, she cast aside the shivered pieces of the weapon and she was with Jutta now and she had the greatsword, and she yanked it around in a huge, cleaving arc that sundered Cuan-atl scythes, spilled intestines, lopped off heads and arms, and bisected two of the doomed raiders entirely.

Then she set to work in earnest.

Jutta was quicker than she was, Jutta was more skilled, but Emily wasn’t fighting now, she was killing everything around her. Those within her reach, died; those who hesitated, died; those who fled … lived, for a bit longer, for this was no Slayer among them but a catastrophe every bit as devastating as the explosions that had already leveled two-thirds of their ranks, and within seconds all were fleeing.

Emily was still screaming, a sound that would have had Faith Lehane herself stepping back with a startled What the fuck?, but as the tattered remnants of the raiders went around her, staying outside the reach of her sword, the scream formed itself into words. “Come and face me, you cowards!” she raged, unable to pursue them because that would mean leaving Jutta. “COME AND DIE!”

None would face her, for that would have been facing a thunderbolt, an avalanche, a cyclone. Instead, converging toward the sound of those booming commands, the Cuan-atl streamed across the plain to a rallying point another hundred feet farther on … and the sky there split, swelled out to form a second portal, the light spilling from it of a garish, actinic cast that Earth’s sun could never have produced — the outbound portal, the one back to their home plane, the one Willow Rosenberg’s magicks hadn’t been able to pinpoint! — and Emily shrieked her hate and fury as she saw her prey escaping.

Several of her fellow Slayers had accused her of thinking too much: dwelling on the perils, the pitfalls, the possible doom lying unseen ahead of any course of action. She wasn’t thinking now, she wasn’t even seeing the whole picture as if in a flash of lightning; no, she was moving in alignment with a vast, unexamined knowledge that had no need of evaluation or decision. Seizing Jutta’s arm, she swung the other girl up across her shoulders, and — even in stiff desert boots, even encumbered by the weight of another person — began to run toward the outbound portal at a speed no human Olympian could have matched.

Jutta stirred on her shoulder, moaning, “No … no, you mustn’t … please —!”

Emily still wasn’t thinking, her mind narrowed to a single, solid block of concept: with her, her friend struck by an incurable poison that guaranteed a lengthy, wasting death; ahead of her, a would-be warlord wearing a mystical artifact that supposedly could cure anything, but who was about to vanish behind a wall of sky. More than that, the reason for Jutta’s plea: a unidirectional portal; no way to return here, or even leave there without the help of those unlikely to offer it; waiting ahead, the enmity and armies of an entire hostile culture. And finally — still unvoiced and unexamined, because Emily was still acting with a total, relentless, driving resolve divorced from anything resembling thought — a deep, faint, iron ghost of feeling:

Too bad for them.

More than a hundred Cuan-atl had spilled into the desert in retreat from the Petrograd ambush. Perhaps ten staggered through the portal to their home dimension, among them (though Emily had never managed to pick him out from the others) the once-renowned war-leader she would hunt to the ends of existence. She was only a couple of seconds behind them, and a headlong leap carried both women the last ten feet through the air and through the portal, half an instant before it snapped shut behind them.

With the vanishing of the combatants, the sounds likewise shut off, and the desert was abruptly quiet again. The dust from the last two claymore explosions hadn’t yet finished settling. A corner of the canopy had been pulled loose by a stray eddy from the backblast, and flapped faintly now in a vagrant puff of breeze. Just past the broken stalk of the driveway marker, demon bodies littered the plain: somewhat more than half of them shredded by the claymores, the rest hacked apart by a Slayer and by something a great deal more terrible. Some were still dying, but only stiffening corpses would remain by the time a follow-up team of Slayers and Watchers came to investigate the satellite phone Emily had never remembered to dial.

Behind the Jeep Cherokee, now even more streaked with dust, the lizard crept from a patch of wispy brush. Seeing and hearing nothing, it ventured out even farther, perching finally atop the overturned Styrofoam cooler and silently surveying the devastation of the battleground ahead.

It had no way of understanding what had transpired here, but neither was it capable of wondering. By contrast, the teams that would arrive in the hours and then days to come … they would do much wondering, and theorizing, and engage in much helpless speculation, but in the end would reach no clear conclusions regarding just what had happened here and what it meant.

On the other side of the sky, however, a race of demons that had thought war to be a great lark, was already beginning to learn exactly what it meant.


end

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