Illumination 2.8: Tainter

Neither man had a chance to cry out. The murderer was that fast and that strong. But Natalie thought the horrible little gasp from one of the cops would stay with her for the rest of her life. It was the sound of helplessness, and it made her dizzy with rage.

As she sprang forward, the murderer stepped on the bodies of his victims then rolled across the hood of the patrol car. A heartbeat later, he stood on the top of the car, grinning.

“Those poor men! I must be some kind of bastard. Oh, you didn’t like that, little girl? Why didn’t you stop me?” He waved his weapon in glittering trails and it changed, bulging at the top and middle as it extended.

Linc’s gun boomed behind Natalie and the murderer wasn’t where he’d been. He stood behind the car. He stood only a yard away, a flail in his moving hand. He was too fast.

Still dizzy, Natalie wildly threw herself to one side as Linc took another shot. She wondered if the murderer was that fast or something was wrong with her own body. Then she hit the ground harder than she expected, and bounced, and rolled.

The murderer’s laugh bounced off the building. “You can’t hit me with your bullets. Not now. You might hit somebody else, though. And now I’m very close to you. And now–”

Natalie scrambled to her feet and stumbled. Her body wasn’t responding in ways she was used to. It was like she’d been carrying a hundred pound weight her entire life and now it had dropped away.

He was standing right in front of Linc, reaching out. Then Linc smashed him in the face with the barrel of his gun.

The murderer leapt backward, a spot of blood on his face, laughing again. His weapon vanished. He reached down to the bumper of the patrol car and tore it off. Then he hefted it in one hand and swung it at Linc. Linc ducked, but he was so slow.

The bumper clipped Linc on a shoulder, knocking him down. Natalie threw herself at the murderer, swinging her sword low. She was still off-balance, and he casually bent sideways to avoid her. He swung the bumper at her legs, sweeping them out from under her, then stepped on both her wrists. He looked down at her, his mouth open like a grinning dog’s.

“Who are you?” Natalie gasped.

“Seems like I’m you’re bad dream, doesn’t it? The monsters call me Tainter.” He paused and said reflectively, “Monsters see the world in a different way.”

Natalie wrenched at one of her hands and he ground his foot into it in response. Tears of pain sprang to her eyes. “Are you Malachi’s friend?”

“Him? We’re not friends, oh no. We’re something else.” He leered. “Would you like to be something else?”

Natalie rolled backward, kicking him in the chin so hard he staggered off her hands. Natalie finished the roll, pushing herself onto her hands then springing to her feet.

“Ow,” said Tainter, outraged. “That hurt!” Linc appeared behind him and hit him again with the gun. He staggered, then turned the stagger into a clumsy cartwheel, putting his back against the patrol car.

“You know what?” Tainter said, “It’s unfair. Two against one! But I do have a friend.” He whistled, low and breathy, then confided, “I had a dream once. I had a little puppy dog. He was so cute! He drooled and barked and jumped on me. And when I woke up, it was true!”

A low-slung dark shape appeared around the side of the vehicle. At first Natalie thought it was a dog but she realized that if it was based on any mundane animal, it was a wolverine, molded from shadow and stink and blood, and as large as a wolf. It snarled.

Tainter stood up, cupping his hand to his ear. “Listen to that little voice. Now, who will Rend play with?”

Linc leveled his gun at the Cambion, then twitched his hand and fired again at Tainter. The bullet shattered the patrol car window, but Tainter wasn’t there. “It’s like a rubber band,” said Tainter. “Before you even finish pulling the trigger, I’m not there. Maybe if you had one of those rat-a-tat-tat machine guns…” He pointed a finger-gun at Linc. “Fire that into a crowd and look at ‘em run. But you’re no fun. You wouldn’t do that. It’s got to be you.”

As one, the Cambion and the killer moved to Linc, that fast, flickering movement. Tainter pushed him forward as the Cambion lunged, and Linc’s gun fired once, twice, three times. Natalie saw the bullets pass right through the Cambion, trailing some shadow stuff but not slowing the monster down.

Then Linc was down, but Natalie was swinging her sword at Tainter’s exposed back. The blade bit into his shoulder with an ugly, unpleasant jolt, even worse than when she’d killed the Cambion hunting Ajax.

He screamed and threw himself away, the sword vibrating as it scraped against a bone, then twanging as he pulled himself free. Thick blood, shockingly red, dripped off the blade.

“How’d you get there?” Tainter rasped. He backed away. His Cambion backed in a different direction, dragging Linc, who was struggling feebly.

Natalie darted after Linc and the Cambion, and almost fell flat on her face. Tainter stood over her when she rolled, holding the bumper he’d torn off once again. His face was smeared with blood from where Linc had hit him in the nose, and his hair stood out in blood-slicked spikes. The blood from his shoulder ran down his arm to his hand, and dripped off the bumper.

“Oh, so cold,” Tainter rasped. “The cold shoulder.” He laughed hysterically and summoned up his strange, changeable weapon again just in time to block Natalie’s upthrust sword.

She made herself go still for a moment, stretching her toes and her fingers. She was stronger and faster now, just like him. She had no idea why. But if she could use it, rather than fighting it, stumbling over it—

He brought the flail down toward her stomach. She pushed a single hand against the street, bringing her whole body up in an arc. Almost delicately, she placed her foot against his injured shoulder and shoved.

He fell backward, rolling head over heels. When he came up again, he was grinning. “Learn fast, do you?” He jumped backward, and then up to a ledge on the building behind them. “Oh well. Next time we’ll have to change the game. Toodle-oo, pretty girl.”

He jumped up another ledge, and another. Natalie watched him until he was out of sight, fully expecting a trick. But when she could no longer see him, she turned and raced after Linc.

She found him a block down, near a small cluster of frightened, gabbling onlookers, clinging to each other for support. The Cambion had abandoned him, racing down the street, snarling at everybody it passed. The Prowler was a wreck, savaged across the face and throat and torso. Reason declared he had to be dead.

But he wasn’t.

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