In a fight, there is rarely room for tactics, or strategy. Strategy is for wars. Tactics are for battles. In fights, what you use are instincts.
Each of Black’s blows fell like a sledgehammer. He’d been made strong by his pact with the Fetch, bodybuilder strong maybe. Now he was monstrously strong. Each blow sent puffs of white salt into the air. My armor would protect me to an extent, but blunt weapons are the bane of armor. Those blows could bruise flesh and break bones through the armor. It would be painful for him, too, but Black could take it. If he could hit me.
In close quarters, landing a telling blow is difficult. Blows skid off the body, are dodged, are missed. I writhed like an eel, a lifetime of lessons and experience making it difficult to land a strike anywhere that did real damage. The illusions writhing around my body made it even worse. They rose from me in rippling patterns, obfuscating which way I was moving, and keeping him off his guard. For the moment, I needed to keep him from landing a brutal blow on me long enough to regain momentum, and defeat him. And for that, I needed to understand him.
He was stronger and tougher than me by a substantial margin. He had been empowered by fate, if the wild tales from New York were true. He If he’d been fighting with everything he had, I’d probably be dead already. He only needed to pin me down and strangle me to death. He had something else in mind that was interfering with my death.
He grabbed at my face, trying to poke his fingers into my eyes. I grabbed his wrist and twisted it into a pin, locking it under my armpit. He strained, but for the moment, leverage was overcoming raw strength. I thought about the mirror. I had excellent control. I’d been intending to hold the sword at close distance, threatening, in case it had been Ailbe. I was not here to murder Black if I could possibly avoid it. If he’d been meaning to break my concentration by accusing me of such an act, it had been a failed gambit.
But if he was truly frightened for her safety…
Jack raked at my chest with his free hand. I caught it in mine, and wrapped my fingers around his pinky, pulling it back hard. He howled in protest. I could hear the gasp from Ailbe. It confirmed my suspicions. I reared my head back, and hammered my forehead into Jack’s hard enough to throw him onto his feet, stunned and dazed. In sixty pounds of mail, I threw my legs into the air, rolling back and landing on my feet, drawing both weapons. “I think I get it now,” I said, smiling.
“You couldn’t possibly,” hissed Jack. He lunged at me, lightning fast. This time I was ready for him. I wavered to both sides, illusions bedeviling him as my broadsword flickered out. His hand flapped through the air and struck hard on the ground. He screamed, shivering and shaking, holding his arm. A few long gouges of blood splattered out before the end covered over, leaving him shaking.
“Yes, shapeshifting. A wonderful ability. Great for healing yourself, because most of the time, people are killed by small wounds to vital areas. When you can fix those damaged places so easily, it doesn’t matter much. But a pound of flesh hurts.” I squared my shoulders. “Yield.”
He threw himself forward at me, screaming wildly. Too wildly. His attack was clumsy, and not just from pain. He was leaving an opening. Regeneration often did poorly against decapitation. He was baiting me. I didn’t know why, but you could play these games of mental chess in your head all day long. My blade flickered out, and slashed off his ear. It landed in the salt, and I squared off again.
“Come on, Jack. It’s over. You can’t beat me. You know that.”
Jack’s teeth gritted, his expression terribly feral. It was him, I realized, after a moment. It had been so long since I’d seen his face, and I hadn’t processed it at first. It was him as he had been before he’d begun to change his form. Before he’d melted and flowed like wax. He still remembered what he looked like.
The salt flats stretched out around us. Pale grey in the moonlight and the starlight, the darkness and the arch of the milky way above us. “You thought I’d kill Ailbe,” I said, my broadsword sword hanging loose in one hand. “You thought I was dangerous. That I wanted to kill you, too. A world of black and gray. I thought you were a villain. I imagine you have worked very hard to fulfill that idea in people. But the real hell of life…”
“… is that every man is everyone has his reasons,” said Jack, his eyes turning aside, narrowed, hard. “Do you know what it’s like to be powerless? With the blessing of your mother, have you experienced true despair?”
I opened my mouth, and paused. The instinct was to empathize. To say that of course I had. But in all the world, had I ever had a moment when I believed I was truly helpless? Had I ever believed that I wasn’t able to do anything at all? I’d fought terrible things, and I’d always won, or at least gotten away. I had been promised that when the risk was great enough, I would be strong, and while I doubted that, I had never truly lost that belief. I stared at Jack’s blue eyes, his maimed body. His flesh sitting in the ground. There was a soft rushing sound, and water began to spread from the east. The rain, spreading out thin across the salt flats. It rushed and muddied the ground, but was so thin that it barely felt like it was touching us. Even the mirror simply sat in the water, barely submerged, moving no more than an inch until it settled into a more stable position.
“I guess I don’t, Jack. I can’t imagine seeing something that would change me as much as you’ve been changed. I thought you were decent. But you’re acting like a monster. Were you always that way? Or did something happen?”
“I-” began Jack, and then he was cut off by Ailbe’s voice.
“I saw something. A reflection of the future.”
The water spread slowly out around us, and gradually stopped moving. It was a mirror of tremendous size. Spreading out from horizon to horizon, it reflected the sky almost perfectly. Jack and I were dark shadows against that perfect reflection, while the stars were mirrored in their high and bright places. It was gorgeous, and stark, and sent a little shiver down my spine as I turned my head towards Ailbe. “And what did you see?”
The water seemed to drain away. Then I realized that it was the stars that were draining away. One by one, slowly at first but then at an increasing pace, they winked out. No fanfare. No flash of light. Just going out like lights in an auditorium. The blackness spread across the sky, randomly placed. No point of origin, no wave of movement. Just the lights blinking out. Soon, all that was left was the moon, shining, a bright full circle in the sky.
“We live in an entropic universe,” I said. “The lights are going to go out eventually.”
“This is soon,” murmured Jack. “It’s not just the world. Everything will come to an end. I saw this, and I realized. We’re doomed.”
“We are not,” I said, even as the moon began to fade. Like a great arc was being cut across it, covering it over, as though it was becoming new. But there was not even the hint of light on it once it was gone, no sign that it was still there. The darkness that fell was absolute. There was no light in the world at all. Nothing but the shadow. I closed my eyes, and it made no difference. I shifted, and could feel the water rippling around my feet. And I stood tall, unafraid. “If the night falls, we will make our own light.”
I raised my hand, and a light flickered forth. Pale foxfire. It lit up the night for a moment, then stuttered, and died, plunging us back into darkness. The haunted look on Jack’s face was left etched into my mind as vision faded once more.
“I wanted to be strong enough to save Ailbe. I wanted to be able to protect her from this. Not forever. Nothing can stop this, nothing can hold it back. But the stronger I was, the longer I could protect her. We all die eventually. But power lets you put it off for a little bit longer, doesn’t it?”
“You made a deal.”
“I sought it out. And it let me touch her. I killed the innocent, because that was what I needed to do. It was the price I paid to be strong. To protect her. In this world, the strong can’t be neutral. They must be monsters, or they must be heroes. I couldn’t be a hero. I could never be like you, Alfred.”
“So you decided to be a monster, instead.”
“I gave them chances. They never succeeded. Because they were meaningless. Because they were weak. I toyed with them, to have an excuse to let them go. But in this world, so many people are nothing but… props.” He was silent for a moment. “But the villains, the monsters, they always lose to the heroes, don’t they? Ailbe needed someone to protect her. So I decided to put her life in your hands.”
“Die to me. Make me feel guilty.” I chuckled softly. “You could have just asked.”
“You are a hero, Alfred. You are defined by the monsters you kill. I needed you to be strong. I need you to be as strong as possible, because it’s the only way to protect her for just… a little bit longer.”
“Turn back from this, Jack. You’ve done unforgivable things. They can’t be undone. But you can still turn to a better way. You wanted to be strong. Use it for something better.”
There was silence. “Some people don’t deserve another chance.”
“Nobody deserves another chance. We don’t deserve anything from this world. And yet, we are offered them anyway.”
“Maybe it’s not about good and evil.”
I smiled. “Yeah.”
“Maybe it’s about the light, and the darkness.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe the problem was I was trying to be a reflection. The reverse. A mirror always loses something when it reflects. The light becomes just a little paler. Evil is just a reflection of good, isn’t it? But the darkness… That’s strong. It wins in the end, after all, doesn’t it.”
I lifted my broadsword, and screamed as it was wrenched from my hand, the pain running through me like a lance. My scream disappeared into the darkness, consumed utterly. Another blow tore my rapier away from its place on my belt, the darkness rushing around me, almost tangible. “Jack!” screamed Ailbe.
“I’ll protect you, my darling. I’ll touch you. In the darkness, there’s no barrier between here and there. We’ll watch the world end, but we’ll continue on, in the darkness.” Jack’s voice rang through the darkness, resonating with it, making it sound as though it was coming from everywhere around me at once. “You try to light up a mirror, Alfred, you make it more like you. Good makes evil like itself. But the darkness… It just eats everything.”
I fell to my knees. Now would be a fantastic time to tap into some forgotten memory, to be saved by some small and helpless creature I had preserved in an earlier time, to find a surge of heroic willpower that allowed me to fight back in this hell of darkness. But the world, it seemed, was not like a story. Hands wrapped around my throat, and began to squeeze. I was going to die alone, in the darkness, murdered by a man who had once been my friend. What a terrible ending.
Blinding light spread out, and Jack screamed, his hands smoking as he pulled away, darkness rushing out of the mirror. The sun blazed brilliantly to the west, a shining ball of fire.
The world was not just like a story. It also had a sense of timing. I laughed, my voice rasping, as Jenny rose up out of the mirror, driving back the darkness. Her arms spread, and the leathery cape snapped in the air as she flew forward, landing between us. The darkness streamed and boiled off of Jack Black, filling the air. It was being driven back momentarily, but the light was growing dimmer, streamers of darkness tearing into it, making it diminish. She shuddered a bit, gritting her teeth. “Alfred? What the fuck is happening?” Her voice was very strained.
I lifted my eyes from my hands, my fingers stinging painfully, blood trickling from the places where the grip had cut my palm open. “I think Black is having a very bad day, and he intends to share it,” I said. “He’s going to kill me. I think he’s probably going to try to kill you, too.”
“He’s really getting kind of close,” she said, “And I can’t hold this up for very long, how do we stop him?”
“I don’t know,” I said, my eyes dropping. “I think I can’t. I think it’s something you-”
“Don’t give me that shit! I’m not the hero, Alfred! I don’t know how to handle this kind of shit! I’m an English major with a few months of on-and-off training in the idea of fighting! You have been a hero since you were in diapers! All I can do is hold him back, and- Shit!”
The light was flickering, fading, becoming dull and lifeless as the darkness kept advancing. Jack followed the wavefront of darkness, his blue eyes so dark they might as well have been black. “You can do this, Jenny.”
The light flickered out. There was a sound of the cape snapping in the air, and something wet ran across my palm, where the blood had dripped down my fingers. There was a moment of silence.
Then I felt the sunlight inside of me. Bright, cheerful, warm. I closed my eyes, and reached for it. Light ripped through the world, so bright I could see it through closed eyes, turning the world white. In my hand, there was the shape of a pure white sword, burning like a cross so bright that my eyelids provided no protection from the fierce light. There was a moment’s silence, as the darkness dispersed. Jack lay on the ground, panting, gasping, eyes hollow, expression stunned. He clawed at the ground, his eyes wide at me. The stars were visible again, and the moon.
“You bastard,” he murmured, his voice thready, weak, barely able to make itself heard. He lay in the salt and the water, his body shifting slightly. “I thought I finally got it.”
I stared down at him. I stared down at my hand, where there was no sign of the sword I had seen before.
“What are you going to do to him?” asked Ailbe, her voice very soft, very frightened. I closed my eyes. Love was such a pain in the ass. It made people cruel, it made them angry, it caused so much pain. But its absence was even worse.
“I can’t let him go. He’s twisted. He’s a broken person. I don’t know if he can ever be right again. I don’t know if it’s worth trusting him.”
“So you’re going to kill him.”
“If I have to.”
Jenny frowned at me. “Then why are you hesitating?”
“Because I want to see if there’s another way.” I stared down at him, holding the sword against his chest. He looked up at me with dull eyes. “Darkness makes up most of the universe. But it’s awfully easy to push back, Jack.”
He chuckled softly and I rolled my eyes. Then he opened his eyes again. “But the dark always wins in the end.”
“Maybe,” I said. “A comedy ends in a wedding, a tragedy ends in a funeral, and every story is a tragedy if you follow it long enough. But we haven’t reached the end yet. So how’s this going to go down?”
“I should die,” he said. “It’s fitting. Alone. Nobody would miss me but Ailbe. And…”
“Well,” said my mother, “There’s always another way.”
I turned, as did Jenny. Ethniu stood there, a smile on her face. “Well, son. You managed to win again.”
I smiled at her. “You had doubts?”
“No. But you did.” She looked over towards Jenny, and bowed at the waist. “A pleasure to meet you, Kinich Ajaw.”
“I prefer Jenny,” she said, though very politely. She seemed slightly intimidated. I smiled at her bracingly, and then frowned, turning towards my mother.
“You said you had another way.”
“Oh, yes. Death is a terrible punishment. It does not make anyone whole. All it does is stop that person, forevermore. Turn them into nothing. It does not let them experience the suffering they inflicted on others. It doesn’t make them hurt the way they have hurt others. All it does is stop them.” She crouched down, picking up the mirror. “There’s no sense of symmetry.”
“Mom,” I began. Then she swiped her hands through the air, the mirror blurring in them.
A young woman, pale all over, lay on the ground where Jack Black had been. She opened her eyes, and gasped, running her fingers across the muddy mixture, sitting up, her pale white body stained with mud for the first time. She blinked slowly, and breathed in sharply. “I… can feel.” Ailbe stared up at Ethniu. “What did you do to Jack?” she asked, her eyes nervous.
“There are worse things than being powerless. The greatest pain in this world is experiencing power, having power… And being unable to use it.” She held up the mirror. Jack’s face was visible in it, haunted, the horror of his situation becoming visible. “This seems an appropriate fate for him. You could destroy him. You could leave him in a dark place, forever, to be alone. You could place him somewhere where he is reminded of his misdeeds every day.” My mother placed the mirror in Ailbe’s hands. “But it’s your choice.”
“I was the one who showed him those things. This is all my fault.” She looked up, squeezing the mirror tight to her chest. “How can you punish him for my crime?”
“Nobody made him do what he did. Alfred saw the same thing, was subjected to the same kind of despair, and he didn’t break. Not everyone’s good,” said Jenny, her face hard.
“I think,” I said, “that this is the best way.” Ailbe looked up at me, eyes widening. Ethniu shot me a warning look, and I grinned at her. “Come on, mom. We both know why you did this. Ailbe would never want to hurt Jack. And now, he can’t hurt anyone else. The two of them will be together. Being separated like that is hardly something new to them. And you’re leaving him the chance of redemption.”
Ethniu let out a long-suffering sigh. “It defeats the point of the sadistic punishment entirely if you point out the mercy in it, Alfred.”
“Well, you know me, mom. I like to see the good in everyone.”
She shook her head. “You just sassed yourself clean out of a ride back home. You can hitch-hike home, young man.”
Then she was gone. So was Ailbe and the mirror. And so was the water. Jenny stared down at the dry ground. “Did she just strand us in the middle of a massive salt flat desert?”
“Isn’t that a problem?”
“No,” I said, smiling. “Things have a habit of working out for me.”
“I… That sounds deeply ir-”
There was a soft whirr of tires, and the sound of an approaching engine. We turned, to find a range rover approaching us.
“-responsible,” Jenny murmured, and sighed. “It’s going to be a long way back to Binghamton. I think I can cover the price, though.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, an eyebrow raised.
“I know you don’t have that much money, Alfred.” She smiled. “What’s the good of having a fortune if you can’t use it to get where you need to go?”
“Hey! You folks okay? Did you get split off from your tour group?” The man’s accent was British.
I gave Jenny a warm smile, and then nodded to the man. “Why, yes, we did; We’re lucky you came along, we’d been walking for quite some time!”
The next three days were busy. Taking the range rover out of the salt flats, the long bus ride to the air port, and the complex pattern of flights we had to take to return home. We could have chartered a flight or gotten there directly, but I convinced Jenny to take the slow path. Partially because it was cheaper, and I couldn’t abide costing her money. And partially because I was genuinely enjoying her company.
“Should I break the pact? I mean, won’t people know?” she asked, nervous, as we stepped into my Honda. Atina had been kind enough to drive it there when I’d gotten in touch with her. Edwin Link, ghostly patron of Binghamton Airport, had greeted us, and seen us on our way.
“We didn’t just spend an illicit romantic weekend somewhere, Jenny. We went on a quest, fought a madman, and made a pact in order to live through a very violent experience.” I looked off to the side, and saw Jenny’s expression grow somewhat more relaxed. “And what happens on a quest, stays on a quest.” Her cheeks flushed.
“You’re messing with me.”
“Nobody’s going to think we had sex because we made a pact, Jenny. It was mutual respect and the pressure of a life-threatening situation that drove us to it.”
“Jesus, Alfred. You’re actually making it sound worse each time you said it.” She leaned back in her chair, and bit her lip. “I’m glad we got a chance to talk. I hope it happens more often. I want to make SURE it happens more often.” She smiled. “I’d like to do this again some time. The next time you’re following a quest into the dark pits of some hellhole, remember me. It was…” She smiled. “Interesting. And if you’ll let me… I’d prefer to keep the pact with you. Never know when you might need a light in the dark, right?”
“Hah.” I looked down at the wheel.
“And who knows? Your blood was awfully tasty.” She smiled, and I tried not to let anything show on my face. From her laugh, I suspected I had failed. “What’s the matter? You seem so melancholy.”
“I was just thinking. My mother said… Three calls for aid, three fair maidens, three foes in the darkness. I think that I got the three calls for aid, even if I wasn’t the one making them, and while my mother isn’t quite a maiden, I wouldn’t say that to her face, but…”
“One more foe in the darkness?” she asked, frowning.
“Yes,” I murmured softly. “Maybe it’s nothing. Prophecies are unpredictable at the best of times. It could just be, you know. A mistake.” I shook my head. “Either way, you helped me through all of this. And if I need protection, well, I’ve got that pact with you.” I smiled.
I dropped her off at her apartment, and kept driving, returning to my humble apartment. It had been a long trip home. My body still ached from the experience, and the memories of the day. But I’d made it through another quest. I’d take the chance to have a feast when I’d slept in my own bed.
I pushed the door open, and realized that the lights were off. I froze, and my broadsword was drawn in a second. I carefully pushed the door open, letting illusions veil me, surrounding me. The illusions went first, offset so that anyone that attacked them would be leaving themselves open to me. And then, I began to walk forward into the dark apartment. Perhaps it was some foe from my past, some enemy for the future. Either way, I knew that I would have to deal with them. It was frustrating, the way my mother could always be proven right by the world. Maybe someday I would take her at her word. Probably the day that the world ended.
I gently stepped forward. Then I spun, and held the sword at the throat of the intruder.
“Wail, I know that I was a wee bit harsh with the breakup, Alfred, but I didn’t think that you’d take this quite so hard.”
I stared. Bright red hair, bright as blood. Dyed. Glowing green eyes. Phosphorescent color lenses. A rich irish brogue that was faked. She was from Boston. And though she wore so many things to hide her, I still thought she was beautiful. I met Polly’s eyes, and lowered the sword. “Christ, Polly. You scared the absolute dick off me.”
“Oooh, promises, promises.” She smiled, and stepped closer to me. I took a step back.
“Polly…” I stopped, the words catching in my throat. “I never wanted to hurt you. You know that, right? I loved you. I didn’t ever think you were too small for my story. When it came to that-” She held up a finger, placing it gently against my lips. Her skin was as sweet as ever, and there was a warm, easy smile on her face.
“I told you, Alfred. I just needed to find a way to matter. To feel like I was worth being… with you.” I took a deep breath, as she stepped even closer, her warm, tough body close. Her eyes flashed with excitement. “And I found something.”
“Atina was researching swords to help Jack Knife. Looking up information. She picked up a reference in the Danish news, this last month. A sword was found there. I looked into some more of her files, didn’t want to tell anyone, but I found something there that suggested it to me.” Her eyes blazed ferociously, a grin spreading across her lips. “I think I found Excalibur.”
My legs shook, and I leaned back against the wall. She frowned. “What’s the matter? I thought you’d be pleased.”
“It’s… That’s incredible,” I said, shaking my head, giving her a weak smile. “We should find it. I may have to take a leave of absence, but…”
“Yeah.” She grinned. “We could do it together. I thought…” Her fingers interlaced with mine, as she leaned in closer, her smile warm, and predatory at the same time. My heart pounded in my chest as those glowing green eyes met mine. “I could help you. This is something I can do. The Earlen Wen’s willing to help me too.” Her fingers twined with mine, and then she was pressed up against me, her breath warm. “See if we can recapture some of the old fire.”
If Excalibur had reappeared, it was because it was needed. I didn’t know whether I was even the right person to wield the sword, but regardless, it fit with the world. It fit with what Jack Black had said. It fit with Fang Fen’s experiences in New York. It meant worse was going to happen, and soon.
It was almost enough to distract me from the hooks in my heart. Love can be a terrible thing.