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16: End Game

Tinker was sick of keeping Chiyo out of her head. Working on the various mathematical and mechanical problems of the gate had provided automatic protection for the first two weeks, but the last few daysas much of the work resolved down to grunt work, little fiddles and small fixesshe had to switch to solving random math problems. More annoying was that she hadn't been able to share with Pony anything she didn't want Chiyo to pick out of his head. The level of trust that her bodyguard had in her was unnerving; if their places were swapped, she'd be climbing the wall to know "the plan." Pony, however, seemed content to wait and see what she pulled out of the hat.

The first step of "the plan" was simply to finish early. Tomtom would be on hand during the twenty-first day, so she slaved everyone unmercifully to hit the twentieth. Stunningly, they actually managed to finish early in the morning, but she dawdled, going so far as creating minor glitches. She wanted the cover of nightand confusion on both ends of the gatewhen they activated it.

But what if it didn't work?

She tried to ignore that worry. Dusk grayed the sky as the dinner bowls arrived. As usual, afterward it fell to Chiyo to clear the dishes. Sexism, got to love it sometimes. Tinker gave Riki the chore to start moving the heavier tools and equipment to the second gate site.

For a few spare seconds, she and Pony were alone with a handful of guards that didn't speak Elvish.

"I've finished the gate, and I think it works," she murmured to Pony. "We'll see in a few minutes. I kept my promise. We go as soon as I turn it on and we can slip away."

"The other gate?" He nodded his head in the direction of the second gate, currently being wired without her guidance.

"If we don't get away, it's what will keep us alive." But not intact. She shoved the thought away, and pulled him over to the rack that used to hold the wiring spools. "These." She twisted and pulled the middle pole far enough out to show that it wasn't attached. "They're a weapon for you. It's the best I could do."

The poles lacked the magically sharp edge of the sekasha's ironwood swords, but they matched the blades in size and, probably, weight.

Pony's eyes widened at the long stout poles of ironwood. "They will do nicely. Very clever."

"We'll see how clever I really am."

With her stomach squirming like a nest of snakes, she walked to the huge red-painted switch and threw it. It started the sound and light show on the gate, drawing the guard's eyes while she moved back and kicked the secret power switch on. If she was right, the gate would exist between both dimensions while operating, and thus be impossible to damage. Hopefully no one would discover how to turn off the power until too late.

Oh merciful gods in heaven, and the five spirits of the world, let this work.

The air around the gate shimmered and distorted, a massive confusion of particles as space was folded. Almost immediately she could feel the feedback pulses, but still so slight that she hoped no one would be able to notice them. Visibly, the area through the center of the ring looked no different, just oddly distorted, like water over glass, with the back of the workshop still discernible. No wonder natural gates were so hard to find. One might think the gate wasn't working, except the entire structureincluding the ironwood framework but luckily not the ramphad also phased out, becoming ghostlike.

The sudden blaze of lights brought Riki and the guards with him back.

"You turned it on?" Riki cried.

"It's the only way to see if it works." Tinker stood with her hand on the big red button, hoping to implant the wrong impression in the tengu's mind.

"Does it work?" Riki peered at the shimmering area inside the gate, keeping well back of it.

"I merely build these things, I don't test them." Tinker raised her hands, warding off any attempt to send her through. That would totally mess up her plans. "But it looks like it works to me. Why don't you get one of the guards to test it?"

That triggered the debate she hoped for. Trying to be all-so-unnoticeable, she walked back to the wire rack, took down the dinner-plate-sized spool of lead wire, and pulled free the pole. That she handed Pony, and removed another for herself. Us? Just moving wire. Nothing to see here.

The smallest of the construction workers was drafted to be first through the gate. Every eye was on him as he crept nervously up the ramp. The poor thing was trembling violently as he scanned the entire gate, arching around him. The others shouted at him in Oni, encouragements, commands, and curses.

As the oni stepped forward, vanishing into another world, Tinker and Pony slipped out the side door into the darkness.

The oni warriors were too well trained to let the gate totally distract them. The four assigned to Tinker tore themselves away, and the one who spoke crude English said, "Where go you?"

"The other door." Tinker motioned with the spool of wire. See, harmless. "Build next door?"

He glanced back to the brightly lit workshop, where everyone waited for the vanished worker.

Tinker didn't wait for him to decide, but headed slowly into the darkness.

Twenty days of playing construction demon goddess paid off; the guard followed without trying to stop her.

She had made only one trip to the second site, early last week, learning its location under the disguise of having to sign off on the exact orientation of the gate. Tomtom had taken her at her word and placed it at the complete opposite end of the mile-long warehouse, where the garage had once been. They passed through the gazebo room, and then through the kennel. The little dogs instantly launched into barking fits, but the warg merely eyed them as they passed.

Oh, gods, let this work.

The second workshop was empty of oni; the work crews had already left for the night. A handful of low-wattage bulbs threw pools of light down into the cave dark. Their footsteps echoed as they walked toward the gate; wrapped in shadows, it loomed over themtheir insurance plan in ironwood.

"This part of the plan is nebulous," Tinker whispered to Pony in High Elvish, while pretending to examine work done. Without her slave driving, only the wood framing had been completed. Table-sized and smaller spools of wirelike the one she carriedsat waiting for the wiring to begin. "Do you think you can kill our escort?"

"Yes, domi zae," Pony said, paused, considered, and then asked, "Now?"

"Yes." She stepped behind him to give him room to work. "Now."

Pony took out the first two oni before the guards even realized he was attacking. One moment he was standing with the pole in his right hand, and the next he was driving the pole through the eye of the oni to the left with a motion that had his full body strength behind it. He shifted his grip, and swung the pole back to the right, like a baseball player hitting a line drive. The pole hit the oni's nose with a crack of shattering bone; the guard crumpled to the ground and lay still as death.

The third oni actually managed to dodge Pony's lightning swing, as the fourth pulled out his sword.

"Shit!" Tinker flung her spool of wire underhandlike a horseshoeat the dodging oni. The spool hit him mid-chest, knocking him off balance, and Pony's pole struck him hard. The oni continued to move, though, while the last oni charged Pony with his sword ready. "Get the sword warrior, Pony, I'll deal with that one."

Yeah, right. But Pony was already engaging the last oni, meaning she'd better act. She gave the two fighters a wide berth as she dashed toward the crawling oni. She'd kicked a lot of people, and punched, and hit, but she never struck to kill. It'd been so easy to tell Pony to do it. The oni looked up, read her intent, and lunged at herand she stopped being afraid to hurt him. She jerked backward, out of his reach, and swung at him as hard as she could. He threw up his arm, caught her pole and, laughing, wrenched it out of her hands. Cursing, she stomped down on his foot. He backhanded her and it was like being hit by a truck. The blow knocked her across the floor and up against the tanks of the acetylene torch. The taste of blood filled her mouth. Growling something in Oni, the guard flung aside the wood pole and came after her.

She twisted both gas lines wide open, snagged the torch, aimed it at the oni, and hit the igniter button. A foot-long lance of white-hot flame shot out in a deep woof of rapidly expanding air. It struck the oni full in the face.

He screamed in agony, stumbling backand then went suddenly quiet as Pony cut his throat.

"Domi, are you hurt?" Pony asked, dropping the oni's body.

She shook her head, panting, staring at the blood rushing out of the still body. This was soooo not her.

"We should go." Pony came to lift her up, making sure for himself that she wasn't hurt. "Can you shoot a gun?"

"I've done it once." To save Windwolf from the oni to be exact. "It's not that hard. Point and pull the trigger."

He held out one of the onis' guns. "This is an Uzi. This is the safety; it will not fire with the safety on. This is a single shot. This is a three-bullet burst. This is rapid fire." He left the safety on, the gun set on rapid fire. He demonstrated holding it while firing it. "Brace yourself, it jumps in your hand and you quickly find yourself shooting into the sky. The bullets go until they hit something, so never fire with someone you don't want to hit standing anywhere in front of you."

"Good safety tip." Especially since it would most likely be Pony.

"It eats bullets fast." He showed her that the ammo clip slid out and another could be locked into place. "It takes about three seconds of continuous fire to go through a clip, so be selective."

He let her pocket the three extra clips before handing her the gun. It was cold and heavy. It felt like death in her hands, and she didn't like it, but there was no way she was going to stay helpless.

Pony took one of every weapon available; tucking away knives and guns, here and there, making them vanish on his solid frame.

Still shaky, she crossed to the windows and peered out. During her visit the week before to select the building site, the oni hoverbikes and cars were still parked in this section of the warehouse. She had hoped that the oni hadn't moved them, but the vehicles were gone. Damn, they weren't even outside. Much as she'd love to steal a pair of hoverbikes, they didn't have time to search blindly for them. Change of plans.

"Where might Windwolf and the other sekasha be at this time of night?" Tinker headed for the door. "At the hunting lodge?"

"Unlikely." Pony followed, her second shadow. "We were staying at one of the enclaves while the site for the new palace was cleared, and then we were to move into tents at the work site until temporary housing could be made."

"Where is that?"

"Between here and the enclaves, but much closer to the enclaves."

The steel mills were closer, but it didn't make sense to bring the oni down on unarmed humans. She'd love to call the EIA, but the oni had infiltrated it. A call for help might only bring disguised oni down on them. Windwolf and his bodyguards were the only ones that probably could deal with the oni.

"Let's head there." She bypassed the security alarm on the door and cracked it open. One would think that the oni would have gotten a better security system after the last time. Oh well, their loss, her gain.

There were no guards in sight. Quietly, they slipped out into the night. They moved cautiously through the compound, listening carefully and moving slowly to keep quiet. In the stillness, she could once again feel the feedback from the gate. Good, her gate was still on. Perhaps the oni couldn't feel the faint pulse; maybe she could only feel it because she was domana.

Minutes later, they made the safety of the forest and started to run.

"Domi, what is wrong with the air?" Pony matched her stride despite the fact he probably could outrun her.

Okay, it wasn't just her then. "I realized that the veil effect would link this gate with the one in orbit. By designing this one to be on the same proportions, I set it up to be a harmonic, in order to amplify the resonance."

"I don't understand."

"Every object has a frequency at which it will vibrate if disturbed. When an outside force with the same frequency as the natural frequency of the object causes the object to vibrate, it's called resonance, or sympathetic vibration. I can't believe Riki didn't realize what I was doingalthough I kept him as busy as I could."

"I still don't understand."

Tinker had to check the impulse to stop and explainwith little pictures and lots of hand waving. "Oh, sweet lords, Pony, it's not easy to give physics lessons at a full run! When you have resonance, a small force can increase the amplitude of the object's vibration substantially."

"Talk plain Elvish," Pony groaned.

"Do you know that if a singer hits a certain note loud enough it can break a crystal goblet?"

"Yes."

"That's resonance. The note the singer is singing is the same frequency as the glass, which makes it literally vibrate itself apart. The gate I made is on the same frequency as the orbital one."

"The orbital gate will shake itself apart?"

"It should, as long as the as-built drawings are correct. Structurally, the one on the ground is much sturdier. Either my father wasn't much of a structural engineer, or he never had time to go back and add supportsand the oni never corrected the design weaknesses."

Pony checked at that point.

"What?" Tinker glanced back into the valley. The second workshop was now lit up as brightly as the firstsomeone had found the dead guards.

"We should go back," Pony said. "Make sure that they don't turn off the land-based gate."

"I rigged it so it's not easy to turn off, and we're now escaping, which hopefullyI thinkwill distract them long enough."

"Ah, yes. I see. We should hurry then."

Minutes later, a flare of magic behind Tinker made her stop and look back. The valley was now out of sight; there was nothing but trees and moonlight. For the first time she realized that, while the woods were dark, she was seeing quite well. Ah, built-in night visionhow handy.

"What is it?" Pony stopped beside her. He wasn't even breathing hard to her panting.

"I don't know. I felt something. Magic, I think."

"A powerful spell then."

"There it is again."

"We've got another mile to go. Come."

She was starting to wonder if everything she'd experienced at the palace had been by design. Certainly if the oni had captured her three weeks earlier, then she wouldn't have risked everything to save Pony, who was nearly a stranger at that point. Obviously she needed someone of his abilities to make an escape attempt feasible. And the exerciseall the hiking, jogging, and horseback riding she did keeping up with the bodyguardswas the only reason she was able to run as far as she had. But she was slowing down, and she didn't think she could run for more than another mile.

Oh, Windwolf, please be there.

"Run," Pony commanded suddenly, although he dropped a step behind her.

"I am running."

"Something is coming."

"What?" She risked looking back, but there was only forest behind her.

"Something large. Run."

She could hear it then, something big, coming through the forest; padded feet beat a fast cadence, and the harsh breathing of a big animal grew louder as it closed.

Oh god, not a saurus, was her first thought,not now. And then she realized what it had to bethe Foo dogs. Riki had told her that they kept the dogs small to make them easier to hide and to handle. He also mentioned that they could be expanded as easily as his wings.

"Shit! We should have killed the dogs."

"We didn't have time," Pony said.

"You have to hit the dog inside the construct." What else should she tell him? How did her Uzi work again? "The spell form protects them from sword swings; it will also affect the speed and path of bullets."

The forest ended and they were suddenly in a clearing of torn earth. Thirty acres had been thinned down to a scattering of trees on a wide hilltop. The trees left seemed to be all elfin oak, squat toadstools against the tall ironwoods, but still the lowest branches were at least twenty feet up. Stacked logs, survey markers, foundation stones, and large tents of white canvas cluttered the building site, but it was without activity or light. No one seemed to be there.

She stumbled to a stop, panting. "Oh shit."

There were two roads cut into the surrounding forest, but she was too disoriented by the shortcut through the trees to know where the roads might lead.

"Here it comes," Pony warned.

She whirled to face the oncoming animal. It was twice as massive as the constructs she had fought with Windwolf. Somehow the flattened face and mane were more recognizable as a lion's, although the body still seemed built on a bulldog design with the same odd poof tail arched over its back. As big as a horse, the Foo dogno, make that Foo lionrushed toward them.

She yanked up her Uzi, flicked the safety off with her thumb, and braced herself against the reported kick. When she pulled the trigger, it seemed like she was suddenly holding a living thing, intent on getting out of her hands, spitting smoke and fire. The noise of each bullet firing blurred into a prolonged rolling thunder. If the damn Foo lion hadn't been nearly on top of her, she might have missed the beast completely. As it was, though, hitting a barn would have been as easy.

As the first bullet struck the lion, its appearance transformed to the deep violet spell form, a polygon rendering of a lion done in magic. The runes flared with each rapid hit, flashing like a strobe light, the small dog writhing inside the monster puppet. The spell form slowed the bullets until she could actually see them flying through the magic like a swarm of angry bees. The first bullets missed the important dog core, but they acted like tracers for her aim, even with the kicking gun. The construct was smashed backward, and at least three bullets struck home. Once dead, she expected the lion to revert back down to lap dog, but the massive body remained, showing no sign of what killed it.

Three seconds. Her gun was empty, her ears were ringing, and the beast was dead.

Then the second Foo lion hit her from behind, bowling her over.

Its massive jaws closed on her shoulder and she was jerked upward, off her feet. She screamed in surprise and fear. With her dangling in its mouth, the lion bounded back toward the oni compound. Shit, it was fetching her like some rubber play toy!

"Pony!" she cried as she thrashed, trying to squirm free. The teeth didn't seem to be piercing her skin, but it had a firm hold on her. She clawed at its face, but it didn't seem to be feeling pain from her flailing at it. How was it seeing, she wondered, and clamped both hands over its eyes.

The Foo lion stumbled to a stop and shook her hard; its teeth sank into her shoulder, and she screamed in pain and sudden fear of being mauled.

The construct's pause, though, had given Pony a chance to catch up. He slammed the oni sword deep into the lion's side. The length of steel shifted the lion into spell form and revealed the dog within. The blade struck not where the real heart of a lion would lie, but farther back, to unerringly pierce the dog. The lion roared with pain, dropping her, and then collapsed.

"Domi, are you hurt?" Pony crouched beside her as she crabbed backward away from the unmoving lion.

"No." With him between her and the beast, she felt safe enough to stop crawling and actually consider if she was hurt. "At least not badly, but I'm getting tired of hearing that question."

"Forgiveness," Pony murmured, and lifted up her shirt to examine the puncture wounds.

"Pony!" she whined.

"Sometimes one is wounded more than one knows." Pony eyed the puncture wounds, then glanced about, as if looking for a light source. "I can not tell how deep they are. We need to stop the bleeding. Come, there will be supplies in one of the tents."

"I'm fine." She stood by herself to prove it. "I just want to get someplace safe. And I want my gun." She swayed as she looked down, trying to see the matte black Uzi on the ground, but the dark was making it impossible to see.

"I'll look, you just walk to the tents."

So she teetered off ahead of him as he went slowly, searching the ground that the Foo lion had covered while carrying her. It was a surprising amount. If she'd been feeling up to a faster pace, she would have told him to forget the gun. As she reached the tents, delayed reaction was setting in and she came to a complete, trembling halt. Why couldn't she get her breath? Was her lung collapsing? Oh, no, that's right, she'd just run like three miles.

Oh gods, oh gods. She desperately wanted Windwolf, a hot shower, and a comfy bed with him in it.

"Here it is, domi." Pony handed her the Uzi, considered her, took it back, searched her pockets for a fresh clip, reloaded the gun, put the safety back on, and slung its strap over her head, settling it on her back. "I'll find a first-aid kit. Sit down."

She sat on a pile of massive foundation stones between two tents, panting and shaking, as he went off. Now that she was still, she could feel the feedback again. It seemed stronger

Okay, get a grip. Two roads. Which one should we take?

When built, the palace was going to have a great view of Pittsburgh. From where she sat, she could see out over the top of the surrounding elfin forest to the barren cut of the Rim and the bright human city beyond it. Both roads, however, led downhill into dark unknown. The left road would be the more direct waybut in Pittsburgh, that usually meant a need for a bridge. She doubted that three weeks had been enough time for something as ambitious as a bridge to be builtbut hey, she built a gate that folded dimensions during that period. Still, if said bridge was unfinished, they'd lose valuable time backtracking.

On the left-most road, a shadow moved against the blackness, perceivable only as motion. Tinker froze in sudden fear that it was another Foo lion, and then realized it was humanoid. Friend or foe? Human, elf, or oni? Tinker got the impression of tall, slender, and graceful, realized it was an elf, and had started forward to greet the elf when she suddenly recognized the female. By then it was too late. Suddenly the tents and stones became sides of a trap.

Sparrow was in black leather pants and a black shirt, only her white skin and long pale braid glinting in the moonlight. The elf pointed a pistol at Tinker, the barrel hole seeming massive. "They must be complete twits not to be able to keep track of one little girl. Where is Stormhorse?"

"The oni sent Foo lions after me." Tinker indicated the nearest dead lion and the dark forest beyond. She could feel the Uzi heavy on her back. Could she get it swung forward and the safety off before Sparrow shot her? She let all the weariness and heartache of the last three weeks bleed into her voice. "He told me to run"

"How convenient. Tomtom wants you back. Make no mistake, you're too dangerous for me to let wander back to Windwolf. One false move, and I will kill you."

"You've already lost, Sparrow. I'm the pivot. I've made my choice. There's nothing anyone can do about it."

"You're still thinking like a human," Sparrow tsked. "I've got the rest of time to figure out another way of doing this. The beauty of all this is that I only lose if you live to tell Windwolf what I've done."

Guessing what was coming next, Tinker threw herself sideways, but still Sparrow's bullet smashed into her side, knocking her off her feet in a violent half turn. Pony was suddenly there, catching Tinker before she fell against the stone. He shouted something and Tinker felt magic surge up, rushing like hot floodwaters. The blueness of his magical shields flared around them.

Sparrow's gun thundered again and again, the muzzle spitting flame and smoke.

Tinker felt the bullets strike Pony's shieldsexpending energy into the system with a hard kick that transmitted through the spell and Pony's body to herand then ricochet harmlessly away.

When Sparrow hit the end of her clip, Pony drew his oni swordthe steel blade disrupting his shieldsand thrust the sword deep into Sparrow's chest. "Die, you traitorous bitch," he growled and shoved it on through her.

Sparrow had cried out when the sword first penetrated her. She looked surprised at the blade buried in her own body, and then concerned as she tried to gasp for breath that wouldn't come. Sparrow slumped backwards against the tent wall even as Pony yanked the sword back out of her chest, her eyes going unfocused. The canvas cradled Sparrow gently, bowing under her falling weight so she slid elegantly downward, leaving a smear of blood on the white canvas.

Tinker stared at the dead elf. She thought she'd be happy to see Sparrow dead, but she could feel no joy in the killing. Maybe she hadn't hated the female as much as she thought.

"Tinker domi! Where did she hit you?"

"In the side." Tinker realized she was holding her side. She lifted up her hand and found it covered with blood. "Oh shit."

Pony sat her back on the stones, activated a light sphere, and examined the wound. "It is not bad. The bullet merely grazed you. I feared the worst; I thought she had killed you."

"I'm still alive and kicking."

"We must stop the bleeding. Then we must get out of here." He took his hands away as if he expected her to topple without his support. When he saw she could actually sit by herself, he went to fetch the abandoned first-aid kit.

"Sparrow came up the left road," Tinker told him when he'd returned. "She probably left the Rolls somewhere close by."

Pony sprayed the wound with a cool antibiotic and then pressed three large artificial skin patches into place. "You need a healing spell."

The kit was human-made, so there would be no spells in it. She was surprised he knew how to use the skin patches, but she supposed that knowing all sorts of first aid would be handy in a bodyguard.

"That looks good," Tinker lied. "Let's go."

Pony raided Sparrow's body for weapons, coming away with a pistol, two clips, a light bow, a quiver of white fletched spell arrows, and a sword and dagger of ironwood, which would allow him to keep his shields up. He left the oni sword where it lay, covered with Sparrow's blood.

Tinker felt light-headed and odd as Pony guided her to the road, saying, "We need to get to the enclaves or the hospice."

The road cut a narrow path through the forest, only twelve feet or so wide. It went straight down to a gorge; wooden scaffolding provided a temporary footbridge across while stone buttresses indicated that the future bridge would be built on an impressive scale. On the other side of the bridge were the enclaves and human civilization gleaming just beyond.

Pony, however, pulled her to a halt, and drew his sword. The shadows moved all around them, and oni warriors merged out of the darkness.

"Oh, fuck," Tinker whispered.

Magic surged in around them as Pony activated his shields, a scant comfort in the face of so many guns pointed their way. How much could the spell stop? Five bullets? Ten?

"I have played lightly with you." Tomtom's voice came out of the night, and he shifted into view directly in front of them, flanked by two of his largest warriors. Gone were the kimono and any pretense of being anything but a large dangerous animal. Spell tattoos covered his skin, starting at his collarbone and flowing downward over muscled thighs and calves. He wore only a loincloth of black silk hung on a diagonal cut from right hip to left shin and a sword belt. Like Chiyo, he had a tail to match the inhuman ears; it flickered behind him in agitation. "My claws are out." He lifted his left hand to show that indeed his claws were extended, showing off three inches of needle-sharp points. "One false step, and I'll content myself with whatever the tengu can do to salvage your work. This is not your battle, femaleyou are truly human under that skin. You owe them no alliance. My people are crowded and starving while the elves greedily hoard this vast wilderness. We only want what they do not use."

"I'm not going back with you. I'm not going to betray them."

"Submit now, and I will show mercy."

"I've seen your mercy with Chiyo." She was surprised that he was even bothering to talk to her. By oni mentality, she needed to be punished, something she was highly resistant to submitting to. There was no way she'd agreeso why wasn't he just ordering an attack? She glanced to the right at Pony, sword ready, his shields gleaming softly blue like an aura around him.

Of course. Pony's shields sucked down large amounts of ambient magic. On a ley line, he could maintain them indefinitely. Where they stood now, though, it was only a matter of time before the shields drained the area and failed. Tomtom was stalling.

"I gave the kitsune a choice of punishments," Tomtom was saying. "Drop your weapons, surrender yourself, and I will go lightly on you too."

Screw this. Tinker leveled her Uzi, flicked off the safety, and emptied the machine gun at Tomtom. Even as she pulled the trigger, though, the oni lord flicked up his left palm, growling out a spell, and the tattoos along his left arm flared and a haze appeared between them. The bullets spat out of the muzzle of the machine gun, struck the magic barrier, making it flare and, weirdly enough, gleam brighter. She actually felt it sparking up levels with each bullet hit. The bullets didn't pass through, nor ricochet, but instead dropped to the ground, inert. Damn, somehow the oni shield translated the kinetic energy of bullet back into the spell, fueling it.

Too late she thought to spray the warriors to either side of Tomtom; she'd already run through the clip and now worked the trigger to be rewarded only with a series of clicks.

Tomtom pointed at Pony and uttered a word, and then indicated Tinker, and gave a longer command. Tinker didn't need to know Oni to know what he'd said. Kill him, take her alive.

"No!" she shouted as the oni warriors surged forward, some with swords and others with hands outreached.

She tried to reload the Uzi only to have clip and gun wrenched from her hands, and then her arms held and she was lifted off the ground. She screamed wordlessly this time, kicking at the oni holding her, and her legs were caught. Hoisted upwards by the four oni, she saw Pony, shields blazing blue, desperately fending off eight oni warriors with sword and knife.

He was never going to be able to hold them off. They were going to kill him.

"No! No!" she cried, trying to wriggle free of the warriors' hold, but it was like being held by steel bands.

With a deep roaring soundlike an oncoming trainthe wind suddenly blasted across the bridge and up the road, pouring over them, strangely hot. Her skin seemed to crawl as all her hair stood on end. She recognized the massive influx of active magic, but there was moresomething like static electricitythat rode piggyback upon the magic. Judging by the startled outcries around her, the oni felt it too.

"To me! To me!" Pony shouted and went down to his knees, crossing sword and dagger over his head.

"Pony!" she screamed as he dropped his guard.

With blinding whiteness, lightning struck.

She'd never been this close to lightning before. It split the air with a deafening crack, and the boom of thunder was instantaneous in a wave of heat and pressure that vibrated clear through her bones. It was there, and then not there, but its brilliance remained burned into her sight. The bolt had splintered, forking all around Pony, striking the eight oni attacking him. The warriors flew backward to land deadblackened and smoking from the lightning.

It seemed an impossible miracle, and then she realized the truth.

Windwolf had arrived, summoning the magic of the Wind Clan spell stones to call down lightning.

Pony came off the ground now, blades flashing, and launched himself at the oni holding Tinker. Tinker struggled harder to get free, cursing at her captors. Tomtom shouted in Oni, pointing toward the bridge, correctly identifying which of the three elves was the most dangerous. Another lightning bolt hit close at hand, striking into a knot of oni warriors attempting to attack Pony from the rear.

Two of the oni holding her decided to face Pony rather than die keeping her captiveand a hard kick into the face of the third left her dangling in one warrior's hold. There was a knife in his belt; she yanked it free and stabbed him in the stomach with it. The blade slid in to the hilt with stunning ease, and blood poured hot over her hand. The oni howled and punched her in the face.

Darkness washed in, and when it retreated Pony had her over his shoulder and was running for the bridge.

Had they won?

The crack of rifles and whine of bullets verified that no, they hadn't.

Lightning struckand as it flashed all vision to whitePony stumbled and fell. It seemed as if he'd tripped over something. He started to fall to the left, which would have smashed Tinker under him. He dropped his sword, tucked her close, and rolled in mid-air to hit his right shoulder first. They tumbled through the mud of the road, Pony taking the brunt of the damage, as he protected her with his own body. They stopped when Pony slammed against the stone abutment at the end of the bridge.

As Pony lay unmoving, Tinker glanced back toward the pursuing oni.

She had one glimpse of Tomtom standing approximately where Pony had stumbled, a vicious grin on his face, before the oni lord stepped back into the shadows, completely vanishing from sight. She flashed to his first appearance on the road, he and his guard suddenly appearing as if teleporting. How was he doing it? Was he actually teleporting? Was he going invisible? Or like Chiyo, was he projecting what he wanted them to see into their minds?

Maybe the reason Chiyo had been so sure she could become a noble was because Tomtom had the same talents.

"Tinker?"

Windwolf still had his great sword sheathed, and he moved down the bridge in a stylistic stalk, like dancing in slow motion. She could feel the power he had gathered around him, the wind thrumming in his hold. He wore black leather pants, and a white silk shirt that blazed in the moonlight like a target. His long black hair was unbound, and it flowed out on the wind.

Of the sekasha, there was no sign. He was all alone.

"Is Pony alive?" His voice was quiet but loud, like a whisper over a microphone.

Pony was breathing, so Tinker said, "He's unconscious."

"Get him up," Windwolf commanded. "Get him to the other end of the bridge. The others are coming."

Tinker glanced down at the still unmoving Pony, a foot taller and easily fifty pounds heavier than her. How the hell did she move him? And where was Tomtom? What could the oni lord doespecially if he could throw illusions into Windwolf's mind?

Pony had dropped his sword, but he had other weapons on him. The guns were useless; the bullets would only feed energy into Tomtom's shieldassuming that wasn't an illusion. The knives placed her too near the much larger and better-trained oni. That left Sparrow's light bow and spell arrows. The arrows were all fletched white, which meant the same spell was marked onto the shaft and activated by the sound of the arrows' flight.

As Tomtom surely planned, Windwolf moved to the end of the bridge to cover her and Pony. He spoke a word, shifting his right hand with fingers cocked in stiff positions, and his shield extended out to cover the full end of the bridge.

"Go! Leave Pony if you have to." Windwolf commanded as the oni opened fire from the cover of the trees. The bullets deflected off his shield, but Tomtom could walk through it.

She didn't spend the last three weeks protecting Pony to leave him now, not even to save Windwolf. Tinker nocked an arrowand looked for the factors of 73931. She could keep Chiyo from reading her mind by doing math, but that hadn't kept Chiyo from deluding her. She'd foiled Chiyo by noticing something that the kitsune had forgotten to disguise. Surely if Tomtom had two people to affect, there would be something he'd overlook, but what? The darkness itself would erase most of his errors. She lifted the bow, drew back the arrow, and tried to find a target.

"Tinker, what are you doing?" Windwolf growled.

"Trust me."

I can outthink him. I know I can.

Tomtom could fool her eyes. The gunfire covered his footsteps. What would he miss? His shadow? His smell?

Then it came to herTomtom would never think of hiding magic from a domana, since he couldn't feel magic himselfand she focused on the active magic in the area. There, passing through Windwolf's shields and nearly on him, was Tomtom's own shield spell.

She guessed the location of Tomtom's heart and loosed the arrow. As the arrow leapt from her bow, its whistling passage through the wind activated the spell written down its shaft; the kinetic energy of its physical form was transmuted into coherent lighta bolt of pure energy. There was a faint ripple as it passed through Tomtom's shield spellapparently designed only for solid projectiles. Then it lanced its way through the oni lord, and he appeared with a gurgling scream. He was only six feet from Windwolf, sword upraised and ready to strikewith a neat hole burned through the right side of his chest.

Windwolf shouted, lifted his arm straight out, fingers splayed. The wind slammed Tomtom backwards thirty feet. Windwolf growled a spell to summon another bolt of lightning, moving his hands in interweaving circles, his fingers flicking through complex patterns. The brilliance struck Tomtom as the oni lord started to rise.

He didn't get up again.

There was a sweep of headlights on the far side of the bridge, and the sekasha spilled out of two of the Rolls and charged across the bridge.

Windwolf flinging lightning bolts, the arrival of the sekasha, and their own lord dead made the oni flee into the forest. The sekasha met no resistance as they passed beyond Windwolf's protection. Only when the sekasha had set up a line of defense did Windwolf loose his hold on the magic, letting it drain away.

He triggered a light orb as he walked to her, bathing them in light. People surrounded them, but he seemed to be the only one in focus.

"You're alive! My most wonderful, clever, little savage!" He lightly traced her face. She'd never seen him smile so widely. He blinked away a threat of tears, and glanced toward the waiting sekasha. "I must go and fight, but I will be back."

"Kiss me at least once," she complained.

"If I start, I will not be able to stop."

"Bullshit." She grabbed hold of his collar and pulled him down to her level.

He hadn't been exaggerating. Someone had to catch the light orbhe let it fall in order to crush her to himand she had to finally push him breathlessly away after the third "dame zae, the oni" from the sekasha.

"Go," she said. "Deal with oni. Come back to me."

He kissed her fingertips and reluctantly left to chase after oni. Tinker slumped down beside Pony, quite willing to let them fight without her.

"Domi?" Pony croaked.

"Oh good." She took his hand. "You're awake."

"Yes." He frowned as she checked his attempt to get up. "Is it over? Did we win?"

"Yes, we've won."

Hospice elves arrived, first-aid kits in hand. "Domi, are you hurt?"

"No, no, see to him first," Tinker lied, motioning to Pony.

There were, however, more than enough healers to treat them both. One inked a healing spell onto her side and triggered it while the rest dealt with Pony. In the desperate fight, he'd been hit more times than she realized. As the healers stabilized him, enclave elves moved into the forest to deal with the oni dead.

Sparrow's body was found and carried to the enclaves, along with news of her betrayal. Apparently in an effort to keep searchers from the Turtle Creek area, the female had planted evidence in the South Hills: articles of Tinker's clothing, items from Tinker's pockets, Pony's beads, scraps of paper with Tinker's handwriting. Windwolf and his forces had been at the farthest point in Pittsburgh from Tinker when she escaped, but the reports of gunfire at the construction site had brought Windwolf literally flying back, out ahead of his bodyguard, to save her.

The fighting had now moved far off, heading back toward Turtle Creek; Tinker could track it from the sound of gunfire and the occasional bright strokes of lightning.

That is so cool. "I'm really going to have to learn how to do that."

Or did she? Now that she was once again still, she could feel the feedback, definitely stronger. According to the models she ran, the orbital gate would soon shake itself to pieces, permanently returning Pittsburgh to Earth.

Which world did she want to be in?

Earth? With Oilcan, Lain, all the neat gadgets, the Internet, colleges full of like-minded people, and the possibility of returning to Elfhome anytime she decided to build a gate back?

Or Elfhome? With Windwolf and Pony, but no humans or techno toys, and the grim possibility that even if she could find the supplies, she might be denied the permission to build a gate back to Earth?

On the surface, all logic seemed to say that she should get up and walk into Pittsburgh proper before Shutdown. Go back to Earth.

But it wasn't that simple. In truth, she'd never been to Earth. Every Shutdown, she'd clung to her scrap yard and waited for Startup. She disliked the dirty air, the noise, the confusion, and the crush of people that Shutdown brought to Pittsburgh. Oilcanwho knew her bestpredicted she'd hate Earth for those very reasons. It was a foreign other place she always resisted visiting.

Becoming an elf didn't make Elfhome her homeit only strengthened her tie to it. She grew up praying to elfin gods, practicing elfin morals, and celebrating elfin holidays. What did she know about being human besides beer, bowling, junked cars, and advanced science? On Earth, she wouldn't be a human with fancy ears; she'd be a displaced elfjust like Tooloo had been.

What's more, Pittsburgh was filled with oni disguised as humans, and by now, all of them knew she could build a gate. She'd never be able to trust anyone again; every new friendship would have to be endlessly questioned. Oilcan and Lain would be in danger of being used as leverage against her.

"Oh this sucks." Much to the healer's dismay, Tinker started to pace.

The feedback was becoming a hard pulse, as if the ground and the sky beat out the word "decide, decide, decide."

There was another crack of lightning, and she looked in that direction, but it was already gone and all there was to see was the dark primal forest of Elfhome. Trees. Magic. Sekasha. Windwolf. That kind of summed it up. The world she considered home, the people she trusted, and the male she loved.

But Oilcan, Lain, her datapad, the hoverbikes, people that understood physics, clever little gadgets, pizza, and pierogies

She found herself at the far end of the bridge, a city block from the Rim.

Was she so shallow that she'd give up everything she loved for stuff?

Without the stuff, though, she'd been bored to tears at Aum Renau.

But she could have spent her time learning the complex magic of the spell stones. Windwolf had said that he'd teach it to her. She'd ignored itin what now seemed like childish spite. In hindsight, she certainly could have used the power in the last twenty days. And the oni magic opened up a new realm of possibilitiescreating solid temporary matter.

She paced back to Pony, the feedback beating on her even harder. Any minute now, she'd lose the chance to decide. She wanted to stay on Elfhome, right? It felt more like her home than Earth, with or without Pittsburgh.

Except there was still the problem of Oilcanif she stayed, she'd lose him forever.

The hospice elves had moved Pony onto a stretcher. They piled all the various guns and knives on beside him, and then checked at the light bow, obviously not a sekasha weapon.

"Domi, your bow and arrows."

It was simpler just to take the bow and quiver than to explain they were Sparrow's.

She trailed slowly behind Pony's stretcher as they started for the enclaves, trying to decide. Go or stay. She got as far as mid-bridge before coming to a complete stop.

She didn't know what to do, and she was running out of time.

"You're still thinking like a human."

She hated to admit it, but Sparrow had been right. She was thinking of tomorrow, next month, or next year. If she stayed, she wasn't going to lose Oilcan forever. Humans knew Elfhome was here. They had all the technology needed to build a gate. They had the oni desperately cluing them in. Sooner, more probably than later, another land-based gate would be built.

She'd stay.


* * * | Tinker | * * *