- Age: 40+
- Species: Stained (Obsidian)
- Weapons: IonBlade
- Special Attack: Being bigger and badder than you
- Enormous & physically powerful
- Stoic and wise
- Skilled with his blades
- Devotion to his sister
- Age: Early 20s
- Species: Human
- Weapons: Pistol, sharp tongue, honestly, growing migraine, airborne zombie virus
- Special Attack: Truth-telling
- Has outsmarted countless zombies & political enemies
- Has a huge digital audience
- Knows her way around a firearm
- A chronic case of retinal Kellis-Amberlee
- No real powers to speak of
By Seanan McGuire
The fall seemed to last longer this time, maybe as a consequence of my last battlefield—can you really call it a battlefield when you’re trying as hard as you can not to have a fight? My last encounter, then, for the sake of precision of language—having included an entire fucking forest. More and more, I was starting to feel like there was a book of rules somewhere out there, something detailed and complete that all these other people had been given access to, while I somehow had not.
The giant. The woman with the mom purse. The dirty teenager with the wolf and the wood, like a pre-Rising fairy tale gone weird. All of them were behind me, and someone else was presumably somewhere ahead of me, as the infinite, featureless plane unspooled from the impact of my feet and sketched its flat arena on the world. Someone else who had, if this system was even remotely fair, already presumably defeated three opponents, and would be looking to make it four.
I already knew this system wasn’t even remotely fair. It couldn’t be. If it were, we would all have been volunteers, and I wouldn’t have been within a thousand miles of this adolescent power fantasy of people—good guys, based on the behavior of everyone I’d encountered so far—beating the snot out of each other for the amusement of an unseen audience. And I sure as hell wouldn’t have been going up against someone with a pet wolf and a talking forest.
The girl with the wolf had mentioned a woman, one who had been direly hurt before their battle had begun, one she hadn’t been able to save. Which meant that people could die here, if they decided that talking things out like sensible adults was no longer on the table. What was that pre-Rising horror movie that said if you died in a dream, you died in real life?
It doesn’t matter. If I die and this isn’t a dream, Shaun burns the world down. If I die and this is a dream, and dying in a dream kills you, Shaun burns the world down. No matter what, the only way I’m saving my entire reality is by navigating whatever the hell this is without losing hope that the people I’m supposed to be fighting will continue to listen to reason.
Again, the soft ringing sound suffused the landscape, seeming almost to vibrate the air. This time, it didn’t come with the sudden appearance of a ridiculous forest: instead, without preamble, there was a man standing somewhere near the horizon.
His head turned. He looked at me. He was not, I realized, anywhere near as far away as I had originally assumed. No: he was just big. Like, really big. Like, the kind of big that made the giant who had greeted me upon my arrival seem positively reasonable.
“Okay, so this is where I get turned into paste,” I said, more to myself than to anyone else. I spared a brief, almost wistful thought for turning tail and running, but dismissed it as quickly as it had come. There was nowhere for me to run. Wolf girl had taken her forest with her when she left, and now I was alone in the nothing, looking at a mountain that seemed to have decided it wanted to be a man in its spare time.
I had never been murdered by a landscape before. What an educational day this was turning out to be.
“All right, think, Georgia, think,” I muttered. The mountain didn’t seem to be in any hurry, possibly because he knew that there was no way I was going to present a challenge. Again, this was someone who had defeated at least as many enemies as I had—although that was still going on the theory that I was still here because I was winning, and not because this was some sort of horrible Loser’s Bracket that would never end, only go on forever like a terrible comic book crossover event.
Only one way to deal with this. Only one way to finish it. Wishing I had an exit, or a plan B, or best of all, Shaun, I raised my arms over my head and waved them, catching the mountain’s attention. Then I stood my ground, and waited.
It wasn’t a long wait. When somebody’s got a stride like that, it never is. Far too quickly for my tastes, the mountain was close enough for me to see the grim set of his mouth and the easy fluidity of his stride. He was comfortable here.
I was not. “Hey!” I shouted, lowering my arms. “Can you stop there for a second? We need to talk.”
The mountain stopped. The mountain frowned. “Now is when we fight,” he said, as if I somehow might have missed the memo. Which, to be fair, I could have done. I am very good at dodging paperwork I don’t want to do.
“Okay so, see, that’s what I want to talk to you about. Please forgive me for making this assumption, but I’m going off the last several people I’ve met out here. Are you a hero?”
The mountain looked nonplussed. “I am the Shield of Tinos,” he said. “I have always endeavored to do well by my people.”
“I was afraid of that.” Everyone I’d met here, in this place that wasn’t a place, had been a good guy of some kind. Good enough, anyway. “I’m a good guy too. I’m a journalist. I make sure people can learn what’s real and true about the world, and I try to keep bad people from getting too much power and hurting everyone else.”
The mountain’s frown deepened. “That is an admirable thing to do.”
“Yeah, and here’s the thing: I really, really don’t want to die here.” He was far enough away that I didn’t feel like I needed to tell him about the infection risk yet. There was always the chance that he wasn’t strictly mammalian, given his size, and I didn’t want to seem like I was threatening him. “Can we just…not, please?”
“Not fight. Not give the bastards who dropped us here the satisfaction of seeing good guys go up against each other. We don’t have to do this. Please. I just want to get home to my brother, before he realizes I’m missing.”
The mountain’s expression softened. “I have a sister,” he said.
“So let’s make it back to them. Okay?” I took a step backward. “If we wait, this will all go away, and neither one of us has to get hurt.”
“If this is a trick—”
“If this is a trick, and the battlefield doesn’t disappear, you’ll win easily.” I shrugged. “Try?”
“I will try,” agreed the mountain, and sat, taking up what felt like half of the horizon. I did the same, and we looked at each other across the gulf of everything and nothing.
Battle ended, declared the voice from nowhere.
This time when I dropped into the dark, I did so without making a sound. The biggest question I had seemed fated to go unanswered until I landed:
Who the hell had won?