Mage Among Superheroes 37

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All sorts of normal people were afraid of snakes. When the snakes got bigger, they got more afraid. It would then follow that halflings would be even more afraid of snakes that were relatively twice as large. But Izzy wasn’t afraid. If halflings were afraid of things being bigger than them, they could only spend their lives in constant fear. That was simply no way to live.

So she wasn’t afraid. Just cautious. She wasn’t going after a normal snake, after all. Not a simple viper or a giant constrictor that could eat a cow whole. No, her target today was a phase constrictor. As a magical beast it was much more intelligent than a normal animal, so it wouldn’t choose just any prey. It would avoid people with certain qualities. Too much magic, too large, too much armor. The latter seemed to apply to magical equipment in general, which was why Izzy was perfect for the job, apparently. Given her career path she hadn’t really gathered up a lot of magical items that she relied on. It was mostly her own two feet. 

That made her think that maybe she wasn’t the right person for the job, because she also had somewhat limited combat experience. She had some, but mostly she made her living as a runner, going from place to place. She was specialized in speed, unlike other scouts who might use their speed to augment their attacks. 

But she owed Zentha, and this would get her closer to her goal as well. So she just had to keep on the lookout for an invisible snake. Except if it was actually invisible it would be easier to find. 

She held her shortsword at the ready, a weapon name that for the sake of humans wielding it. In her hands- with a properly sized hilt- it was closer to being an arming sword, and could even be used in two hands when necessary.

Then the snake appeared, coiling around her. It wasn’t as if it had leapt out at her and she failed to react, it simply hadn’t been there until it was, squeezing in on her from all sides. Even before her bones began to creak, Izzy was activating her ability. She absolutely wasn’t going to allow herself be crushed to death, and instead she squeezed out the top of the coils with a *pop*.

Even as she swung her weapon down the snake was fading away, becoming transparent and then entirely disappearing even as her sword began to cut into its scales. 

“Why did I agree to come alone?” Izzy looked around the cave she was in, trying to find a good position. The snake could show up at any time, but it couldn’t overlap with the structure of the world when it appeared. She raced up against a wall, but realized that the creature wouldn’t attack her like that. “I should have at least asked for backup. What do diviners know anyway?”

Zentha might have been one of the best diviners in the world, but she couldn’t be a hundred percent accurate. There were just things about the world that were unknowable, and the future was in that category. Even if it was only partly unknowable. 

No snake yet. What else did she have besides cave walls? Stalactites, stalagmites, a pool of water… she’d like to have a bunch of spikes somewhere, but that simply wasn’t available. The stone formations didn’t count, as they were hardly sharp by any definition.

Izzy skittered over to a stalagmite, her halfling legs working like mad. A little sprint like that wouldn’t use too much stamina, at least it was nothing compared to running between towns. It was unfortunate that she was slower to begin with because of her size, but that was what had prompted her to go in that direction anyway.

The snake appeared again, but this time it was wrapped around Izzy and the stalagmite. Because of her positioning it wasn’t quite tight the moment it appeared, though it began to squeeze a moment later. That left exactly enough time for her to angle her sword to stab into its coils as it squeezed inward. Unfortunately her strength couldn’t hold the weapon steady, and it only sliced along the outer scales instead of piercing straight through. Then Izzy was pinned against the stalagmite, and it hurt.

Then she was out again, having slipped down beneath the creature. Her focus on movement instead of combat and wilderness crap allowed her to be more mobile than her level would otherwise suggest, but it was sore comfort in a battle like this. She could escape, but it wasn’t as if she was unscathed.

The phase snake hesitated a moment, beginning to slide towards her to coil around her before ultimately deciding to fade away once more. But that hesitation allowed her to jump at it with her belt knife drawn, stabbing at its eye. It once again faded away before she could inflict serious damage, but she at least scraped it along its face.

Her belt knife was quickly sheathed as she rolled and picked up her sword. She doubted it would immediately repeat the same thing, so she stepped out away from the cave walls. Some might have taken a ready stance, but it was important for her to keep moving. Dodging and weaving with no visible opponent seemed silly and was definitely tiring, but it paid off when the creature appeared coiled in an awkward oval around her. She bounced off the lower coils and vaulted into the air, kicking off a convenient stalactite to shoot her back downward where she stabbed with her sword. 

The creature’s coils were as wide as her weapon was long, with thick scales- so the couple of inches she managed to stab into its side was both satisfying and disappointing. But at least it was bleeding from a few places now. 

Izzy twisted her sword, trying to unstick it from the back of the creature. If it had realized that she couldn’t withdraw her weapon it might have bitten her- it would hardly matter if the creature was venomous with teeth as big as it had. Instead, it faded back into the phase plane or wherever it was that phase snakes went. Monster studies weren’t high on the list for a competent messenger.

She took a few breaths to steady herself, the frenetic exertion of combat overwhelming her compared to the steady pace of running the road. It seemed she took one too many breaths, as she was suddenly starting face-to-face with fangs.

The bad news was that the jaws snapped down on her before she could do more than twist her body. The good news was its fangs were set wide enough that neither of them impaled her. The best news was she still had her sword. The creature was attempting to swallow her, not a difficult task for something that could eat a human or orc, but quite a bit more difficult with a sword lodged in its throat.

The snake started thrashing wildly, and Izzy wondered why it wasn’t just phasing away. She held tightly onto her sword, because she either wanted to pull it out with her or not subject herself to the creature’s biting and crushing. The first was the end result, but as she flew out of the creature’s mouth she didn’t fall to the ground. Instead she found herself in the air, her momentum randomly stopping.

And the whole world around her was wispy and indistinct. That was… probably bad. Also bad was the fact that her back was to the ceiling as the creature lunged at her once more.

Izzy discovered some very important things. First, she could fly. Or at least, her body moved where she told it to go. Second, the ceiling literally didn’t matter. Being inside of it made it difficult to see, but she slid out of it and around the snake.

It wasn’t coiled up on the ground either, its body floating freely through the air. It had the advantage of being used to that form of movement, but Izzy was fast and it was no longer able to strike from where she couldn’t see it. Ultimately, the victory went to Izzy not because she managed to land another blow, but because somehow she was still faster than it. Sure, she wasn’t running along the ground but she moved her legs anyway and they took her wherever she wanted to go. There was no time to complain about it not making sense… until she had all the time in the world, as the few wounds she’d caused eventually made the creature slump to the ground.

After stabbing the creature a few times to make sure it was dead and not pretending, Izzy sat down in the air. It was kind of fun, and it helped keep her mind off the fact that she seemed to be stuck in whatever plane this thing hunted from. She could still see some of the cave, but beyond a certain distance it just… didn’t exist. And she still had to get the phase core from the beast, which would mean cutting it apart and getting blood all over her.

For a moment she thought that the weird gravity situation would help, but instead it made the red blood with glowing splotches linger in the ‘air’ around her where she inevitably ran into it. But at least she cut out the gemlike thing she was pretty sure was the phase core. Now how was she supposed to get back to Zentha? Hopefully she’d foreseen it and would be sending help, but Izzy didn’t see anything. Was she supposed to wait?

—–

I walked into my apartment to find a rat sitting on the counter. I knew that cats liked to eat live animals, but I honestly hadn’t thought Midnight had the capacity to hunt. Had he just learned? Because he was pretty incapable of taking care of himself when we first met a few weeks prior. Ugh, and a green goop was leaking out all over the counter.

“Midnight… could you not leave dead rats here? At least put it in the bathroom or something.”

Midnight trotted out of the bedroom, which was basically open to the kitchen. “That’s not a rat,” Midnight explained.

“Mice and other rodents count the same,” I pointed out.

“That’s not what I mean,” he said patiently. “Look at it carefully.”

So I did. Did normal rats have red blood? Absolutely, but I wouldn’t put it past New Bay to have ones with green blood. I’d heard about the mutant rats in the sewer system. The tiny little screws, however, seemed to indicate something more. I poked it, finding it was quite cold. And metallic. “Hmm. Is this… a robotic rat?”

“That was what I was wondering. I saw it sneak in and wanted to remove it like the other rats, but then I noticed this one was special.”

“Other rats?” I asked. “Regular ones?” Midnight nodded. “… I want to move somewhere else.”

“That seems reasonable,” Midnight said. “I am considering taking the job with the Power Brigade, which will occupy my day. I am concerned the rats will eat my tuna.”

“I’m pretty sure they won’t be able to get to it in cans,” I said.

“Except for the robot rats,” he countered. “Even if they don’t eat the tuna, they might eat the can. They could be working with the normal rats.”

I was unable to find a flaw in his logic, shaky though it seemed. “I’m more concerned about why there are robotic rats to begin with. Have you seen others?”

“No, only this one.”

I sniffed. “And what’s burnt?”

“Probably the rat. It kept moving after I caught it, trying to claw at me, so I used Shocking Grasp.” Midnight turned his head to show me his shoulder. “It scratched me right there. Though… I did have Force Armor, so it didn’t really cause damage. But its claws were quite sharp.”

“I wonder what it’s for,” I looked at the robot. “Think the Power Brigade would be interested?”

“They might be. I would assume it is made for spying, given its ability to squeeze in through small areas.”

“I guess I should bring it in tomorrow.”

—–

The next morning I brought it down with me to breakfast. I didn’t want to have to go back up to my room after that.

“Is that … metal rat?” Khithae asked. She was still working on English, but a couple weeks wasn’t enough to fully learn a language, even if you were cheating with magic.

“It is, yes,” I held it up, switching to her language. “A robotic rat. Midnight found it in our apartment.”

“I saw one too!” she said. “On the ceiling at work! I tried to catch it but it squeezed into a vent before I could get my shoes off.” After that, she grumbled about shoes for a while. “Then my boss walked in on me when I was on the wall and complained. I think… he might be thinking about firing me.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I said. I hadn’t had a job I didn’t like, so I couldn’t really empathize. I liked studying at Master Uvithar’s tower even if I didn’t get experience for it, and other than that I’d worked in a warehouse for like a week. And my current job involved a lot of fighting, so it was pretty great.

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