I was not much of a fighter. I knew that.
Oh, I’d been in a few, and I’d survived them. But I had no illusions about how. I’d lived this long because people underestimated me. I’d run when I could, fought back with more ferocity and ability than people anticipated, and only attacked those weaker than myself. In an outright fight, without cheating or distractions or a place to run and hide, I was not that remarkable.
Hideo, on the other hand, was an alchemist.
In the camps, I’d learned an important lesson that everyone who lives on the edges of society learns sooner or later. I’d been fortunate in having it explained to me rather than having to learn firsthand how it worked. I’d heard it over a small fire and a scrap of bread from a woman who’d looked like she was made of shoe leather and gristle. She’d clearly been living on the edge far longer than I had, and it showed.
The way she’d put it to me was very simple. There were some people in this world, she’d said, about with whom one did not fuck.
A legionnaire was one thing, and bad enough. They were trained, in most cases veteran, soldiers. They were armed and dangerous and the simple fact of the matter was that if you weren’t similarly trained and equipped, and if they wanted to kill you, you would probably die. But at the same time, the strength of the legions wasn’t in individual brilliance. They’d made it as far as they were, won the battles and crushed their enemies, because they were numerous and coordinated. Alone, many of their strengths didn’t apply; they were still dangerous, but they could be beaten.
A channeler was worse. Someone who was trained in using channeling in combat was an absolute nightmare in a fight, with the potential for sudden, massive destruction. One act, just a single thought on their part was enough to lay waste to a whole crowd of people. But still, it had its limits. As I was acutely aware, channeling was only a fraction as effective inside imperial wards. Even outside that, they could be outthought, outmaneuvered. It lent itself very well to big, flashy things, and not nearly so well to the small and precise.
An alchemist, though, was another story entirely, a story best left well alone. They weren’t always that impressive–it was an extremely versatile art, after all, and there were plenty of alchemists who’d never so much as been in a fistfight. Even if they were practiced at violence, there wasn’t a lot of alchemy that you could do on the spot, as I understood it. If they weren’t ready for it, they might not be any better off than anyone else.
But for all that, an imperially trained alchemist was generally regarded as the single worst sort of person in the world to pick a fight with. Because while they might not have anything on hand that could simply annihilate you, they also might. There was, essentially, no predicting what an alchemist could do, what they were capable of. If they had the knowledge and the materials there was almost nothing an alchemist couldn’t do. And an alchemist who had been trained at one of the great academies in Aseoto, who had the backing of the legions, had the knowledge and materials to do a great deal.
I’d known that Hideo used alchemical weapons. The fact that he’d blinded me with one earlier had been a bit of a hint for that. But there was an enormous difference between having alchemy and being an alchemist. I’d known that he couldn’t be just a surveyor, at this point, but I had not come here ready for an actual alchemist.
Short of actually running into one of the Dierkhlani, it was hard to imagine anyone I was less equipped to fight than an imperial alchemist. Had I any choice in the matter at all, I would never have voluntarily put myself in a position where I had to.
But I didn’t, and here I was.
All that being said, he wasn’t one of the Dierkhlani. He wasn’t even Changed. Hideo was, beneath everything else, human. And he was as fragile as any other human.
So I didn’t say a word, didn’t do anything to give him warning of what was about to happen. As he looked down at his work, as he looked away from me for that critical moment, I struck. It was the best, and usually the only, way to beat an alchemist. If I could kill Hideo before he knew there was a fight, he wouldn’t have a chance to use the weapons he’d prepared.
I tossed the coin into the air, watching as time stretched out. The coin hung there, balanced on nothing between us, catching the cold light of the alchemical lamps and throwing it back at me.
I felt like I was balancing on the blade of a knife, standing over an abyss. Whatever I did in the next few seconds, I would fall to one side or the other, and there would be no turning back.
Then I reached out, seizing the coin, and the moment shattered. I channeled magic into it, as hard and fast as I could, and the bit of metal shot across the room. It wasn’t a terribly large projectile, but it was moving fast, more than fast enough to blast straight through Hideo’s skull.
Or, alternatively, fast enough that when it swerved aside at the last moment, it slammed into the stone wall of the cellar hard enough to shatter almost into dust.
He looked up at me and sighed, his expression not so much angry as disappointed. “Did you know,” he said conversationally, “that you can make an alchemical shield of sorts that deflects channeling? It’s a fairly simple feedback mechanism, actually relatively cheap to make–wolframite, an alchemically active pewter alloy, charged magnetite for metal.”
I grimaced, snatched out another handful of coins and threw them at him. Every single one swept aside without even getting close.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,” Hideo said over the sound of metal clattering to the floor. “But I would have been a fool to ignore the possibility. I do apologize, Silf, it’s nothing personal.”
That was all he said before producing a small ceramic vial from his pocket and tossing it at me.
I was already moving, running towards the edge of the room, and it was the only reason I lived. When that vial hit the floor, it didn’t just break, it exploded, spraying a thick, oily liquid in a cloud. It had barely come into contact with the air when I saw a shimmer run over the surface of the liquid that was just slightly too bright to be the reflected light of the lamps.
Then, without warning, it burst into flame, a bright yellow flame that was more intense than it had any right to be.
I avoided the worst of it, but some of the oil got onto me, on my back and my arms. It ignited with the rest, a bright hot shock of heat on my skin. There was no pain, not at first, just heat.
I dove forward, helped along by the rush of hot air from behind me, and hit the ground in an awkward tumble. It put out the fires, at least, though it seemed that they were already dying all around. This wasn’t fire-oil, then, not the flames that clung and would not stop; this was something far shorter lived. Which made sense, if Hideo had been planning to use it down here; Corbin’s fire-oil would kill him, too, in this enclosed space.
The pain was hitting, now, making me gasp. But I tried to ignore it, pushing myself to my feet and stumbling forward, blinking back tears from the pain.
I couldn’t use channeling against him. That was a very, very big problem. I’d been counting on killing him with that first coin, or at the very least on having a weapon I could use against him.
I realized that I’d reached the edge of the room, and stumbled to a stop, turning to face Hideo. The hard, vicious side of me was taking over again, harsh and logical and brutal.
I was guessing that he’d used fire specifically because he knew that I was spooked by it, and he wanted to keep me from thinking rationally. If so, he’d made a mistake. He’d seen me panic at fire, but there was nowhere to run, and even a rabbit will bite if it’s cornered.
So. Consider, and plan. Hideo was holding that scalpel, but no other obvious weapons, not of the traditional sort. He was larger and stronger than me, most likely more experienced, but largely unarmed. I didn’t have to worry overly about that.
More concerning was what he was holding in his other hand. It was a bit of glass that had a spark of light caged inside it, along with some brilliant blue liquid. I’d seen something very similar right before a burst of light and sound and poison that had incapacitated me for several minutes, when I’d confronted Hideo in the night.
That time, he’d just left as I was lying moaning on the ground. I didn’t think I’d get as lucky this time if he incapacitated me again.
I looked around, trying to think of something I could do about it, and saw that I was standing right next to the spilled barrel of potatoes. It must have been largely empty already, because while there were only around a dozen potatoes on the floor, the barrel itself was virtually empty.
Not the best weapon I’d ever seen, but it would do. I heaved it off the ground, channeling enough through the metal bands around it to take some of the burden off my arms, and threw it at him at the same time as he threw his alchemical weapon at me.
I got lucky, and the two lined up how I’d hoped that they might. The bit of glass sailed into the barrel, and shattered there, rather than continuing on to me.
I heard a loud screech that made me want to curl up and whimper for a while, and saw bursts of light through the openings between the barrel staves. But I was spared from the worst of it by the obstacle between me and the detonation’s source, and it was only uncomfortable rather than debilitating.
The same could not be said of Hideo. The alchemist stumbled back a step with a shout of pain, raising his hands. The barrel crashed into his upraised arms–I wasn’t actively channeling through it since I’d thrown it, which seemed to be enough to keep his defense from deflecting it. Off balance as he was, it carried him straight off his feet and they crashed to the floor together.
I could have taken the opportunity to run. But that wouldn’t have settled anything, and this might be the most vulnerable I’d ever have Hideo.
I had to capitalize on this chance.
There were dozens of half-made pieces of alchemy around the room, and odds were good that many of them were weapons I could have used. But I didn’t know what they were, and using them without knowing that was just a fancy way to commit suicide. Better to rely on what I knew I could trust, and hope it was enough.
Hideo wasn’t affected anything like as badly as I had been. He was operating on merely human senses, after all; where the noise and light had crippled me, he was only inconvenienced. He was still coughing from whatever vapor was in that thing, shaking his head and blinking back tears, but he was standing as I reached him, tossing the barrel aside.
I dropped low and hit him at the knees, slamming my shoulders into his legs. It tore the freshly burned skin there, drawing another gasp of pain from me, but it worked, knocking him down again before he could finish standing.
I drew out the hatchet Black had given me and swung it at Hideo’s head, as hard as I could, as he was lying on the ground.
But I was off balance myself, and without thinking I channeled more force into the swing, putting just that little bit more behind the axe than muscle alone could provide. It was enough to trigger that protection, sending the hatchet swerving to the side. It still hit, biting into his shoulder rather than his skull, but it wasn’t anything like the decisive blow I’d hoped for.
Worse, that change to the direction of the swing caught me off guard, pulling me further off balance. I stumbled past him, and then my trailing foot caught his shoulder and I fell, hard. My grip clenched convulsively around the haft of the axe, and my fall had enough force to pull the weapon out of his shoulder, but when I hit the ground my hand slammed into the ground.
My hand went numb, and my grip went loose, and the hatchet spun off under one of the tables. I was unarmed with anything more impressive than a knife, and flat on my stomach on the floor.
Hideo was quick to capitalize on the sudden shift in fortunes. He was on his knees, still, but he had one hand in a pocket of his robes, likely pulling out some other bit of alchemy that would finish the job. I didn’t think I would be able to dodge this one, not in my current position.
If I’d been what I once was, just a normal human girl with a normal human life, that would have been the end of me.
But I wasn’t, and that mattered. My body was close enough to quadrupedal to fake it, at least a little. I got all four limbs under me and literally threw myself at Hideo, not bothering to stand first.
I was smaller than he was, but I had the advantage of momentum. I bowled him over, and the thing he’d been retrieving rolled away under another table. It looked like a bit of glass, but there was something wrong about it; it was twisted in ways that hurt to look at, like I couldn’t process everything I was seeing.
We rolled across the floor, locked together, and I ended up on top by pure luck. I drew the old legion-issue dagger I’d brought, and thrust it at his ribs.
Here, though, Hideo’s greater strength and experience showed. He twisted aside from the blade, and it did nothing more than graze his skin. Then he pulled some wrestler’s trick, easily overpowering any resistance I could muster, and ended up straddling me, pinning me to the floor. He was holding my knife hand down with one hand, and with the other he reached over and easily plucked the blade out of my grip.
I tried to squirm out, but he obviously knew this game better than I did, and he had no difficulty blocking any movement I could make. He took the dagger and drew back to thrust it into me. His teeth were bared in a snarl, any pretense of civility or humor shed now.
In doing so, though, he left an opening, one which the unusual articulation of my spine left me in a position to take advantage of. I lunged up towards him, teeth first, biting at his face.
My teeth weren’t as obviously inhuman as many of my other features. But they were still heavier and sharper than a person’s ought to be, somewhere between those of a human and a dog. They ripped into flesh and started tearing away chunks as I bit and bit again.
Hideo shouted in pain and surprise, caught off guard by that particular tactic. He tried to cut at me, but he didn’t have the position to do more than lightly slash at my back–wounds, certainly, but nothing that would kill me in a hurry. And all the while I was tearing at his face with my teeth. I could taste blood, and feel it flowing over my face, getting my fur wet.
He grabbed me and pulled me off him, slamming my head back into the floor hard enough to make me see stars.
But I’d seen worse, and now we were in my kind of fight. I squirmed again, and now he was too shaken up to stop me as I twisted and brought my arm up. My claws raked along the inside of his arm.
My claws were not as impressive as those of, say, a mountain lion. But they weren’t just decorative, either. The first stroke tore away the sleeve of his robe, ripping another of my claws out when it tangled in the fabric and I wasn’t willing to wait long enough to work it free. The second stroke, even without that claw, was enough to shred the arm underneath, cutting into the veins and tendons there.
He tried to cut my throat, but the damage I’d just done was enough that he could barely keep a grip on the dagger, let alone use it. I reached up and twisted it out of his hand as easily as he’d taken it from me, earlier. I took it, and set my feet on the floor.
When I stabbed him, I did it hard, arching my back up off the ground and pushing with my legs to put more force behind the blade. The dagger slammed home between his ribs, sinking deep enough that my hand was pressed tight to the blood-soaked fabric of his robes.
Hideo gasped and collapsed on top of me. But I didn’t stop there. I kept stabbing him, pulling the dagger out and slamming it back into him, again and again and again.
I wasn’t sure how long I spent like that. The next thing I was clearly aware, I was lying on the floor under the surveyor–the inquisitor’s–body, absolutely drenched in blood. He was most certainly dead, had likely been dead for some time now. My arm was tired from stabbing him so many times, and I hurt everywhere. It stank of blood and shit and smoke.
I was crying, a steady stream of tears running down my face. I thought I’d probably been crying for a while, too.
It felt like it took a year to lift my arms and slowly push the body off me, at least enough that I could slip out from underneath it. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so tired, or so filthy.
And then I heard a very clear voice say, “Stop right there.”
I looked up through tired eyes, blurred by tears, and saw Marcus standing over me. He was wearing full legion armor, and had his sword drawn. He was looking directly at me, lying on the floor soaked in his commanding officer’s blood. And he did not look pleased.
I should probably have done what he told me. But it didn’t seem to matter. I was already exhausted, and hurt. I wouldn’t have bet on myself against a child at the moment, let alone a legionnaire. If he decided to kill me, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. So rather than stop, I slowly, painfully pushed myself to my feet.
Marcus snarled, and drew the sword back to swing at me. It was an overdramatic sort of strike, slow and obvious and far more than was necessary for someone like me. It didn’t matter, since I was far too tired and clumsy to dodge right now anyway.
And then there was a very simple, quietly threatening sort of click behind him. “Drop the sword,” Aelia said. I couldn’t see her from my angle, but from the sound of it she had to be a few feet behind him.
Marcus froze, but didn’t lower the blade. “She just killed an officer of the Crown,” he said, sounding more furious about that than Hideo had.
“And saved all our lives,” Sumi said from next to Aelia. “You heard the man. He was going to throw all of us away to cover his exit. If anything you should be thanking her for killing him before he could.”
Marcus grimaced, but didn’t argue.
“Drop the sword, Marcus,” Aelia said. “I won’t ask again.”
Marcus sighed, and threw the sword to the ground. The ring of steel on stone was shockingly loud. “Someone will have to answer for this,” he said, gesturing at the mangled corpse of the imperial inquisitor on the floor.
“Later,” I said in a thin rasp. “After.”
“We can settle all of this later,” Sumi said firmly. “Assuming any of us are alive to worry about it. For now, we have work to do.”
“I’ll get Silf patched up,” Aelia said, stepping around Marcus into view. She was carrying what looked like a lighter version of an arbalest in her one remaining hand. It should have been difficult, but her arm looked rock steady. “You two go get the village leaders. We still need a plan if any of us are going to make it out of here.”
They didn’t argue. I could hear Sumi’s crutches thumping on the floor as they left.
Aelia waited until they were out of earshot, then sighed and carefully returned the light arbalest to some sort of holster on her back. “Come on,” she said, offering me her hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
I didn’t argue as I let Aelia lead me up out of that cellar. I didn’t look back.
We left the broken body of Hideo Azukara, of His Imperial Majesty the August Emperor of Akitsuro’s Inquisition, forgotten on the ground behind us.