They're in for a tough fight against Black Fang, is what I'm saying.
Chapter 24: Weaving Webs
<Okay, everyone. Rafe wants you to set your communicators as clients to hers.>
John had figured that was coming, even before he heard Amy in his mind. Once Rafe set a comm channel for them, it would be virtually impossible for an outsider, even one with a Legion communicator, to listen in. Well, not really; a computer could quickly figure out the timeshift of the pre-selected frequency skips if it had access to the generating algorithm. That could be found on the communicators. The interesting question, given that Black Fang was probably not much of a coder, was what kind of search you would want to use, and what kind of programme might be able to select one. John began to sketch one out in his head…
<John?> John jumped. Oh, right. Set his watch communicator to client. John did so, sheepishly.
Rafe was leading them down what still looked like a perfectly natural, albeit suspiciously regular cave. Presumably, though, that’s why they were called “lava tubes.” John shivered. The volcanic feature they were exploring was supposed to be the earliest eruption on Ascraeus Mons and 3.8 billion years old. That could be wrong. NASA had exactly two geographical/archaeological workers on Mars, and they were digging a genuine old Marian town up in the northern ice caves right now. This feature was dated by reference to Late Heavy Bombardment hypothesis, theory piled on theory. If all of the theories turned out to be right, meant that this might be the oldest surviving geological feature in the inner Solar System. Way older than intelligent Martian life…
Rafe’s voice came through his communicator, subducted along his bones to his ears. “John? You’re our resident Mars nut. What are we doing here, besides getting clear of the crazy werewolf?”
“Looking for Martian remains?” John asked back.
“Cool. Will they help us tactically?”
“Maybe. Captain Chronos says that the Martians were pretty high tech before the end of their civilisation. The NASA archaeologists and Mars probes haven’t found any evidence of that where they’re working, but the obvious place to look is in very old caves. Like this one.” John didn’t try hiding his excitement at the last.
“But Chronos is a crazy old coot. His time machine broke his brain, and he’s a time traveller. He might be lying to us to preserve the timestream.”
John shrugged. “Look at it the other way. Pretty weird thing to be lying about. More to the point, he showed up at Cape Canaveral summer before last and just plain dropped the file in Victory’s lap. He obviously wants us looking. This is the obvious place to look. Maybe we’re guaranteed to find Martian high tech here.”
“So we look for a leftover ray gun, or at plaque on the wall: ‘in case of werewolf, press button?”
Amy broke in. “No, we look for a large space with plenty of places to hide. Then we ambush Bad Doggy’s waggly butt off.”
Emily crowded the end of Amy’s comment. “Did Martians even have werewolves? You’d think they were more of a Moon thing.”
Old Red Aeon for an old red planet, John thought to himself. The Valdorian Age was also the age of the Scarlet Gods. Maybe they should be more worried about ancient lich lords? And why did that thought scare him?
“I don’t even know if they had magic. See, thing is, the Martians lived before there ought to have been any intelligent life in this solar system. And that’s not all. The Mandaarians say that the oldest civilisations in this galaxy are only thirty million years old.” But the Mandaarians didn’t have all the answers. That thought depressed John. Would he ever find a family?
The lava tunnel led downwards into the depths of the great lava shield. Emily cast a white light over the cave, showing rough walls with no signs that anyone had ever passed this way before. Even the dust that drifted through seemed lonely. There was no sound, no smells through John’s respirator. The Martian air was far too thin. Could a werewolf breathe it? Probably; they followed the rules of magic, not science. At least they didn’t have to worry about the light, Martian gravity. Amy held them down to the rocky surface. That might, or might not, be an advantage in the fight to come.
For all the boring Earthiness of so much of what they’d seen, John could not help being amazed. Again; this place might be over 3 billion years old. In Emily’s flickering light, he took to looking for movement on the sides of the tunnel. Shadows might be the first sign of something indigenous and sinister, or of the werewolf that was tracking them.
John reached out to trail his hand along the tunnel wall. The dust seemed thin and powdery. Ahead of him, the team had slowed and bunched up. Move, he wanted to yell. He was at the back, his shields raised, because Jason couldn’t manoeuvre the lifepod and protect himself at the same time. In the movies, the wudan master was never surprised from behind. He always knew. John wondered how that worked in real life. Somewhere behind him, a creature that moved far faster than human was barrelling after them. His neck crawled. And for a second he thought that he felt movement along the wall.
Ahead of John, Rafaella led the team through a narrow, dark opening in the tunnel wall. John followed Jason, taking up the rear of the five teens as they entered a vast space. He could tell that it was vast, and empty, because a soft, reddish light broke from the walls of the cave. It was in that dim and serviceable light that John took in the disappointment of an ancient, artificially shaped, but empty room. No high tech gadgets, just an empty tile floor with thick drifts of dust carved in wavy shapes by the thin Martian wind. The walls decorated in a strangely familiar tessellated pattern, but, before he had a chance to remember just where it was familiar from, Black Fang came bursting through the entrance of the corridor behind them. John, his back already itching, levitated out of the way, shoving down and forward at the werewolf to put him off his stride.
Throwing Gyre’s life support pod to one side, Jason put his shoulder into the wolf-man’s side. The impact sent Black Fang skittering across the tiled floor, sounding almost like a dog that had lost its grip on linoleum, then bouncing high to hit the ceiling high above as Amy did her tricks. As he came to rest, the villain was illuminated by a soft, white light, and thrown back again, this time with the solid forcefulness of Earth gravity. Emily and Amy for tricks, Jason, Rafaella and John were brute force. He hoped they could do it.
Black Fang bounced against the far wall, and came back at them as fast as he’d been thrown. Jason, John, and Rafaella spread out, covering Emily, giving her a second to think about spells that might save the day. They really needed more ranged fighters for a situation like this, but John’s telekinesis wasn’t strong enough, and his power reserves needed charging. If only Black Fang had been dumb enough to use a flamethrower on him. Oops. Surely Rosa’s robots had welding torches. John winced inside. He was so stupid! If they could get to grips, though, they might engage the werewolf long enough for Amy to get into position for a flank attack.
The werewolf went for John this time, the only one of the three frontline fighters that he hadn’t measured yet. At least, recently. John brought up his telekinetic shield and set his feet. Again, the were overbore him, and drove his breath out, but this time without getting through the screen, and, again, John found himself with a snarling werewolf looking down at him, lunging towards his barely protected throat. Lying on the floor, John couldn’t help but feel the same squirming that he felt on the tunnel wall. This was a heck of a time to get the fancies!
It was only a second before Jason grabbed the werewolf off his body and threw him up for a full body stroke from Rafaella’s sword. This time, the sword scraped silver sparks from the werewolf’s armour, but it was no better than hitting the monster with a cricket bat. Enough to once again knock Black Fang back across the room, but not to pierce his flesh with the poisonous silver edge of Rafaella’s blade.
Positioned just to the left and behind Black Fang, Amy emerged from invisibility to strike with her mind lance and a grenade that went off on the other side of the werewolf. Unfortunately, the silver fragments from the grenade couldn’t penetrate Black Fang’s enchanted armour, either. Her lance seemed more effective. The werewolf froze in place for long, ticking seconds, its hungry, yellow gaze crossing theirs. At last, it spoke, its growling voice vibrating up John’s arm from his communicator on the guest channel. “You know, if you scatter, one or another of you might even get away. Frankly, I’m a lot more excited about the chance to take out one of my hated master’s lieutenants than any of you.”
And if they scattered, and lasted just a few minutes more, surely Rashindar would have arrived, John thought. And then he thought again, about the stagey sound of Black Fang’s little speech. Of course the werewolf hated being constrained by the Demonologist. Werewolves were like demons that way; dangerous servants. Yet… and then he knew.
“Rafe! He’s playing for time!” John said, urgently.
“That much I figured, John. But why?” Rafe said, not taking her eyes off the monster, her sword extended in point as though she could cover him like a man with a gun.
John wasn’t taking his eyes off the wolf, either. “Jason! Why does your uncle want to kill the boyfriends and girlfriends?”
“I… Grandmère’s crazy inheritance rules, I think.”
“That’s what I thought,” John said, as Black Fang leaped at Amy with blazing speed. Once again, though, John had guessed where the attack was going, and this time, his telekinesis was more focussed. Hey, karate werewolf! Let’s see you handle a telekinetic leg sweep!
It worked. Black Fang’s idiosyncratic karate could be effective, but a wolf didn’t have the mind for the deep game. John’s teacher had taught him a move that could sweep a dinosaur’s leg. John’s kung fu wasn’t nearly that strong, but he would settle for a werewolf. His move was accurate and strong, and Black Talon went tumbling into the tiled wall in a puff of exploding Mars dust. John could feel the healthy headache of mental exertion coming on, and he knew that he couldn’t keep this up for very long. Emily was the team’s Swiss Army Knife; hopefully, they’d given her enough time to come up with a magic rolled-up newspaper.
On cue, Emily spoke from the side. “Bad Doggie. Sit! Stay!” A slightly less soft light, now the gentle white of Earth, pulsed from one corner of the room. The werewolf looked at it instinctively, and John’s eyes followed. That was where the decorations were familiar from. What a nasty trick! He hastily looked away, shoulder checking as he did so. Amy and Rafe had figured it out, but Jason’s accelerated vision probably didn’t even have time. John reached over and shook his shoulder.
“What?” Jason said, shaking his head like someone who’d been playing video games too long. So, really, John and Jason every evening before they started their homework. “It’s one of those pattern traps that Telantassar showed us.” Black Fang, almost involuntarily, squatted down as he continued, helpless, to stare into the weird pattern in the tiles on the far corner. The wall abruptly grew out into a chevron pointed at Black Fang; then one end broke free and pivoted on the corner, and Black Fang was trapped in a cell. A door, barred by close-set bars of deepest jet appeared. Black Fang, apparently freed from the pattern trap, hurled himself against them, howling, and was thrown back into his cell.
“Elves. Space elves.” Jason said. “Figured.”
“Well, a Warhammer player would obviously expect there to be space elves, but I’m not sure that’s the explanation.” John said.
“Of course it is. Been around three billion years, and still not willing to actually do anything. ‘Hey, little guy. Take this ring to Evil Central throw it in a live volcano for us. We’ll pack a lunch. Love to actually, you know, do something, but free will blah blah.’”
“Still might be Dumbledore instead of elves,” John pointed out.
“True.” Jason admitted. “But smells more like elves than wizards.”
“Whatever.” Rafaella shook her head. “We have more important things to worry about, John said?”
John started. How much time did they even have? “So it’s about inheriting the family farm, not Uncle Kwan being all ‘bwa-ha-ha?’ Like, he’s your, uhm, great-grandfather’s younger son? So he can only inherit it you guys are all dead? But the rule is that you guys can only inherit your family farm if you have boyfriends or girlfriends?”
“Or whatever,” Emily said.
“Yeah, something like that,” Jason said.
“And that includes the Neilsens, right?”
“I guess ….Wait. Booker.”
“Yeah. Though I’m more worried about Theera.” John replied.
“Why? She’s not in any….Oh crap. Oh crap. On crap. Rashindar’s coming here. That means the most powerful member of the Indian Superhero Division is on the wrong side of the Solar System from Wellington Cantonment for as long as this bad teleportation weather lasts. Emily, can you…?”
Rosa’s voice broke into the conversation through their hearing implants. “Calling the Division now. Calling…Okay, the Duty Officer has picked up.” There was a long, anxious second for them all to imagine Takofanes’ sorcerous armies overrunning the fortress base, high in the Blue Mountains, where the Indian Army had held the forces of the Shadow Destroyer in 2005. “They’re going to recall Rashindar to base.”
“Thank you, Rosa.” Rafe said.
“Oh, no need, Captain. I’ve met Rashindar. He is a very …passionate man. I do not want to imagine what he might be like if he were to have his charges massacred while he was out chasing his wounded pride.”
“Of course!” John shouted.
Rafe looked back at John. “Of course the what now?”
Amy had come back across the room to stand with them, her eyes big. “I knew that your big brain was good for something besides Dwarf Fortress, John. See if I get this: the big question in all of this from the start was, why we had Takofanes in the mix, and the Demonologist? Takofanes is much bigger than the Demonologist. He could just swat him down. Why didn’t he? Because he was going to, like, turn Rashindar to the Dark Side.”
“I knew Rashindar reminded me of Hayden Christensen. Except for my sister not slobbering all over him.” Jason hadn’t changed any.
“I thought it was you; Jar Jar,” Amy answered.
“But the rest? How does it make sense? And what about Book?” Rafe asked, looking at John.
“Simple: plans within plans. Remember what Telantassar told us about how Takofanes worked in the old days. He was the big guy, in charge of the big picture. The everyday action was left to his lieutenants. He kept a tight leash on his lieutenants, but he also wanted a piece of any action. Uncle Kwan could work his action, as long as it helps Takofanes’ plans. So the big prize is Rashindar. Or maybe the Basilisk Orb? But Kwan gets to kill and eat his nephews and nieces squeezes. If he delivers.”
“Bwa-ha-ha-ha.” Amy added. “And it looks like he’s got pretty much everybody. He thinks he got May and Jenny’s boyfriends last summer. That leaves Booker and Theera.” That last puzzled John. He had a hard time imagining Jenny with Agent Byrne, but that was because he knew Byrne. The guy was at least alive enough to go on selling out UNTIL from his seat in a washroom cubicle. Jerk.
“What about Henry and Nita?” John asked.
Rafaella interrupted, her comm voice carrying a note of impatience. “Wolf traps are for wolves. Before you go for tigers, get tiger traps.”
Amy added, “Henry’s a big boy. He can look after himself. If Kwan was dumb enough to try for him with the same move that did for us, we wouldn’t be figuring it out on Mars. We’d be hearing about it from Henry at White Castle.”
John could hear Jason in the background. “Why do we always have to meet Henry and David at White Castle? The food’s not even that good.”
Plus there’s Amy, John, maybe even Emily. Or me.” Rafe said. Her voice was thick and low, even on the communicator, again.
John blushed. They didn’t have boyfriends. Or girlfriends. Or whatever. Well, he didn’t. He didn’t have the time or the stomach for all that stuff. Just as long as Amy wasn’t bummed out. He couldn’t stand it if that happened. But, still… if it happened. Would it be that bad? John thought to himself about all that girlie stuff again. It was just …you know. So grown up and stuff. He couldn’t… but he could? Why couldn’t he think about this stuff, all straight to the end like he did with a geometry proof? Why did his body do this to him, turning him so hot that he could barely stand to be inside his costume? John dug his finger into the neck of his Tatammy fatigues to break the seal and let a gust of hot air out. Even in the moment that he held it open, the Martian cold penetrated into his armpits, and John became aware of how cold and wet and clammy they’d become in just a second. He hoped no-one noticed.
Emily answered, her voice as strangely squeaky as Rafe’s had been low. “Could be bad news for anyone who’s got the eye on Amy. Or me. You can haz trouble! And, you know, I think some people do.” She let her blue, Neilsen eyes linger on John’s for a long second.
Wait. Some guy was making a play for Amy? John didn’t even have to think about it for a second. Jameel. Of course it was Jameel, so slick and cool and funny. He hardly even had acne. And Jameel had a car. I mean, sure, it was a ten year-old Beetle, and everyone joked and said that he should give Cory a ride, but, still, it was a car. Jameel was the organic avatar of a Galactic Federation battleship. What did John have? His stomach lurched. A pain that he’d never even imagined before bloomed there. It was the single most awful thing he could ever imagine, ever. Amy and Jameel. But he didn’t have to think about it. He could make himself think about other stuff. It didn’t have to bother him.
“We don’t have to worry about that right now,” he said. Only it came out of him half-strangled, high and wheezy and everyone looked at him funny. He went on, not thinking about Amy and Jameel. “We need to find and rescue Booker. Now. And I have a plan.”