Chapter 2, 40: Light in the Darkness
They walked through the front door, of the same kind of deeply polished dark wood that they had seen everywhere in Lythrum into quite a different room. Oh, Chris recognised it, all right. It was a little school gym, complete with confusing lines on the floor for sports he didn’t know how to play, and a stage at the end. But the lighting came from overhead chandeliers that dipped dangerously low, you would think, for a room where people threw balls around, and it was the warm glow of flames. The polish on the floor they walked on picked it up and shimmered so that it just barely leaked through to the painted wood below. The lines were all deep and dark colours, forest green and indigo, a deep purple that was almost red, and a red that was almost purple. As always in Lythrum, the colours were brighter and crisper than they had any right to be, and Chris could see the banners on the wall so clearly that he could almost feel their texture.
There were seats, and very Earthly microphone standsd set up on the stage, and busy people who looked more like roadies, or possibly a garage band than citizens of the Evening Land were taping cables to amplifiers along the edge of the wall. Black Rose, Talantassar the Grey, Dr. Cambridge and Auntie Ma were standing in a group at the front of the gym, just below the stage. They stopped talking as the group came up.
May began talking as soon as they were in ear shot. “Black Rose! Black Rose! We were followed from Earth!”
The Black superheroine, elegantly dressed in a black jumpsuit with high collars and a belt of opals, held up her hand. “I’ve heard, Ms. Wong. It’s just a petty court intrigue. I’ll just put a memory charm on them and send them back. The tricky part will be finding a way to deal with the idiot courtier who decided it was a good idea in the first place.”
Auntie Ma’s mouth gave the faintest signs of a frown for a second, but said nothing.
Black Rose looked down at her paper. “Okay, the band looks to be set up. I’ll send them up to the hospitality suite, and the girls can start decorating.” Chris’s expression must have been obvious, because she added, “Oh, sorry, Chris.”
Despite his determination to be cool, Chris blushed. The Black Rose knew his name. She was team leader of the Sentinels! . have the deal with it as soon as the party is set up.”
“Who got this band? I’ve never heard of them. I mean, ‘Hedley?’ Is that a name?”
Auntie Ma nodded. “A ghost town. They happen to be pretty good, and they owe the Wongs a favour or two. Husband’s side.”
May whispered, “Grandpa Henry won a bar fight there once. Beat up six rednecks with bowie knives using a rice bowl and a pair of chopsticks.”
Chris had heard about that fight. “Isn’t that where he met Grandma?”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Next you’ll be telling me that he whipped them to death with his queue.”
“No,” May whispered back, “You’re thinking of Eight Tiger Kung Fu, now. Completely different.”
“They’ve got cat class and they’ve got cat style,” Jamie explained.
“Traitor!” May whispered back.
“Guys?” Auntie Ma said, sharply. Chris looked over. While the girls were whispering to each other, the Black Rose had drawn off into a corner and was talking on her phone. Wait. Lythrum had cell phones? Were they magic cell phones? From what Chris could see of her face, she was not getting good news.
The Sentinels leader closed her magic phone with a click and walked briskly over to the kids. Standing in front of them, she announced, “Bad news. This whole weak-as-water conspiracy is on already. The Earth people didn’t report to the waiting area, and I need some foot soldiers to help me go find them.”
“Yay, action!” Charlotte said, stepping forward, the Pearl Harmony in her hands like some Game of Throne dude’s. “My blade is yours to…” But Auntie Ma cleared her throat, very loudly, and Charlotte finished, “Oh, drat!”
Ginger looked straight at Auntie Ma and cawed, as quietly as she could, but Auntie Ma just looked back, and, after a moment, Ginger tucked her beak down into her wing, as though she had found just one feather that she absolutely had to preen that very moment.
“Okay, the rest of you who are at least in high school, with me!” Black Rose said. A swirling shadow surrounded them, and they were somewhere else. Oh, just teleportation again, Chris thought to himself. When am I going to get to ride in a spaceship for a change?
The new here that they had teleported to was the familiar gardens outside the dance/gym place. The ground under Chris’s feet had suddenly changed from hard to soft, and he instinctively looked down. You always started with your footing. It was soft loam, the curls of dirt almost like black pearls, but moistly soft. Black Rose spoke her orders in a soft but emphatic voice, gesturing forward, past where the beds they were standing on turned into lawn, black-green in the twilight, and then a walkway of strangely shimmering marble to the beginning of a series of allees, where flowering trees spread shadows, and pollen that filled the air thick as good wine must be.
(Chris had to leave the qualifier in, because he’d been to one or two bush parties where they had box wine. He also noticed that he was getting to know a fair bit about gardens, for some reason.)
“Head down to the allees, and then spread out and take one each. No one has flown or teleported out of here since you arrived, so they probably moved the minivan into one of the allees. They must be here somewhere!”
As they walked across the lawns, Jamie asked, “So a Grade Eight shouldn’t be in the fight, but a Grade 10 is totally okay?”
Rebecca answered, whispering in a professional way. “Keep it down. They could be right out here, invisible. We can use at least one magic sword. Remember the summer? Werewolves everywhere? Be just the ticket for Lythrum.”
“That or vampires,” May answered. “I hope it’s vampires. Vampires are cooler.”
“No way! Team Jacob 4eva!” Jamie whispered back. “Besides, I brought some silver rounds.”
“I thought most of your solid rounds were radar jammers and anti-magic, for the road? Team Edward.” May replied.
“Brought some silver, too.”
“But not many,” Rebecca pointed out. “Because your guns are huge.”
“The .50 cal barrels are easier to push needfire through. That’s my main ammo, anyway. As I figure out new needfire tricks---“ Jamie shrugged. “Okay, that’s it.” They were at the allees.
Chris took the middle one. The girls were older and better at this stuff, so he should be between them. Made sense. “Okay, I’m going in,” Chris said. He walked under the trees, trying to ignore the way that his neck prickled as he passed under the first branches overhead. It was true. Someone could be watching him from overhead. Or through the sharp-leaved hedges from which the trees rose, or even hidden as tendrils in the manicured., thick, flat-bladed grass below, or even unfolding sinuously through the ground underneath the gravel path in the middle of the allee, made of rounded alternating blue and gray pebbles set in what almost seemed like a pattern, as of a Go game just a little too well played for Christ to unravel. All that he could do was trust trained perceptions, and as he realised that, his mind settled into its own formless meditative pattern. His senses reached out. There was danger here in this garden tonight, but also peace, spoken in the faint rustles of leaves and branches in a warm breeze that tickled the left side of his face. Always there was one, and the other, absence and presence.
Chris thought of his mother, and, with a sudden explosion of black feathers, Old Crow appeared, perched on a branch ahead of him. “Nice to see you finally show up to help me in an actual fight,” Chris said in that silent way when you talk without speaking, and Old Crow looked back at him quizzically, and Chris could have sworn he heard an answer spoken the same way: “Why would you think that that was what I was doing?”
Chris stepped under the tree in which Old Crow was standing, and the old bid took wing to the next tree down towards the road on which they had arrived in Lythrum only half an hour before. He held the Blue Tranquility extended in front of him, blade naked, a faint cerulean light coming off it that turned, in Lythrum, into the purest and richest blue that he had ever seen. In its light, Chris saw that the leaves of the hedge were a little ragged in one place, and the darkness in them became more one of the unlit spaces behind than of their light-drinking, waxy surfaces. If there were just a few more leaves gone, it would almost qualify as a hole in the hedge, he thought.
He strode forward. Under the next tree, he saw fresh loam sprinkled in the middle of the grass on one side, almost like worm cast. The next tree had a line of sap visible on its bark down the side, almost like a scratch that had just started oozing blood. Hanging from the higher of several branches that criss-crossed the allee at the next tree, Chris caught sight of something light and airy, dangling and blowing in the breeze.
Chris reached up and touched it, letting his wrist brush the lowest branch as he reached. It was a tuft of hair.
In one smooth move, without even turning his neck, Chris brought the Blue Tranquility up behind him. Only when it bit, and the blade was almost torn from his hand, did he turn around. In the adjacent allees, Chris heard the twang of May’s bow, while the needfire lit the sky to the other side, and a blackness of Lythrumite magic flared behind, as the team reacted to his surreptitious touch to his signal watch.
He turned round. A pitch black panther with weird, thrusting tentacles sticking up from its back was crouched behind him, growling angrily. Scarlet blood poured out of a deep slash that extended from its forehead to its cheek, dripping into its eyes.
“Serve you right for leading with your face, Kitty.” Then he moved to the left while presenting the sword to the cat. At the last moment, though, he lept up in a bicycle kick, full qi in the move.
A massive weight, heavy as a big cat, shocked his legs, as the invisible monster took the blow and went soaring into the air. The illusory presence of the cat crouched on the walkway vanished, while suddenly-visible blood splattered from the monster that Chris had kicked as he jumped, soaring after it to plant himself in the branches above. “Look, it’s not my fault that you’re in the Monster Manual,” he apologised. “Displacer Beast. Looks to be somewhere, attacks from somewhere else. What else you got?”
Instinct warned Chris, and he dodged to one side, cutting down as he did. Wicked claws barely missed his thigh as he moved in, throwing an improvised trip-block against the magic cat’s flank. Obligingly, it fell out of the tree.
“Hey, look at me, I’m the fire department,” Chris muttered, but the cat didn’t land on four feet. It didn’t land at all, but this time it wasn’t enemy action. In the same moment it vanished, Rebecca appeared in the allee below with Jamie and May at his side, and the first of three solid yet soft thumps told him what had happened to monsters that tried to attack a teleporter. Better you should be able to fly before you try that, Chris thought. Didn’t anyone on Team Evil turn out to see X-Men: First Class?
Chris jumped down, and Rebecca acknowledged him with a nod. They jumped again, this time to the lawn behind the allee, to where a black bubble of reverse light kept out a whole pack of prowling cats, all black hided, but only a few of them recognisably displacer beasts.
“Hello, Kitty!” Rebecca said, as one in the middle vanished, while needfire illuminated ones to either side, and another sprouted feathers. Chris jumped at a big one, with the white and black stripes of an albino tiger, and swung his blade, just as Old Crow came swooping down at its eyes. The tiger thing instinctively raised its paws, so quickly that Chris couldn’t believe that Old Crow would be able to avoid it.
“Oh no, you don’t,” he was muttering as he stepped forward, swinging the Blue Tranquility and hoping that the big cat didn’t turn into a person the moment he cut off the paw.
Fortunately, he didn’t need to worry about that, because, a) it didn’t happen, and b), the tiger’s bones werer made of steel, or something like that. The Blue Tranquility did not cut, although there was a spurt of bloodm not that that ever mattered when you were fighting Wolverine.
“Their wounds are healing,” he heard May shout. It figured, Chris thought, but his tiger’s slash didn’t stop pulsing, and the tiger’s eyes went round, whites showing, and it vanished, leaving a hole in the air.
“Okay, magic sword, I’ll give you that one,” Chris said, as he spun to take the cat that was trying to pounce on him from behind, but it distorted and stretched like some weird modern painting of a cat, and suddenly both claws were coming at his face around his blade, and Chris had to improvise a sacrifice throw.
No sooner was Chris’s back on the loam than he was rolling up and over. As he came up, he caught a glimpse of the stretching cat, burning and bubbling on the bubble of Black Rose’s wards.
Fine for her, Chris thought, but the rest of us are still dead. There’s too many of them, and they’re too fast. He was glad that Charlotte wasn’t here, and also puzzled, because the cats that surrounded him weren’t leaping at him. They were picking their claws up gingerly, as though the ground below them were brambles and vines, and not well-mannered grass.
Oh, well, he thought, I won’t question my advantages, as he ran at the left edge of the circle, just over from another circle that held Jamie, May, and Rebecca back to back to back. This time Chris let the power of the Eight Spirit Punch flow through his sword, and like some impossibly sharp kitchen knife that could only exist on the kind of late night TV show that Chris got to watch when he was hanging out with Billy Tatum, the Blue Tranquility went through the necks of cats to left and right. Wow! He thought.
With qi power flowing through him, Chris actually ran over the backs of the cats facing the girls to drop down and complete their diamond. “That was a bit dramatic,” his cousin pointed out.
“Yeah, like we’re going to win on style points against a posse of cats?” He answered.
“Okay, new tactics,” May barked. “We’re going to go backs to Black Rose’s wards and when she’s finished her magic duel, we’re going to roll forward and we’re going to explain to Fluffy that he’s an outside cat till he learns what the little box of sand is for.”
It took them a moment to form up, but as they did, the screen behind them went clear enough that they could see the Black Rose inside. “Good tactics,” the veteran said. “And whoever was trying to hex me just gave up.”
Tendrils and blasts of black light reached from the ward and began to pick cats up. Others were pierced by the needfire, and May’s arrows began sprouting again, while a steady rain of falling cats told Chris that Rebecca was in action.
There was little for Chris to do except watch as the girls tore into the ranks of the enemy, and as Old Crow hopped along the grass behind them, eyes down as though he saw … a worm.
Abruptly, as Chris realised that, something yellow and putrid with its own weird light that somehow fought the essence of Lythrum’s twilight reached up out of the grass. Only his instant readiness allowed him to get the blade of the Blue Tranquility into the sparse gap between the tendril and his throat and save him from a chokehold.
Only a chokehold wasn’t what the tendril was after. Instead, its just-not-warm-enough-to-be-flesh touch fell on the back of his neck, or, partly on the back of his neck, because there seemed to be something in its way. Through that touch, the wormy, effervescent yellow light with black spots that he remembered so well came flooding out of the basements of his mind again, and, once again, it seemed as though he was going to drown until he remembered himself and whispered the words: “Saint Elizabeth and the Holy Sangha, be with me now.”
“Will I have to kill you now, Chris?” He heard. For a moment, he thought it was the person –the being?—who had sent the flood at him. But, as he calmed down, he realised that it was the Black Rose talking to him. He reached around to the back of his neck and picked something off his skin as he answered. “It looks like not.”
“Good,” she answered. “That was a dark, dark magic I smelled.”
“Elder Worm stuff,” Chris answered. “I hear that The Slug uses it, and that Istvatha V’han hates it.”
“One thing that bitch might just be right about. You have good protection, son.” The Black Rose answered.
Chris brought the thing from his neck around and took a good look at it. It was a leaf, black and stained on the surface, but still oozing one clear drop of sap through puckering, awful scars. “Better protection than I deserve,” he answered. I’m beginning to think, he added silently, as Old Crow landed, surprisingly lightly, on his shoulder, perching just like Ginger always did on his sister’s.
“I hope you’re house-trained,” Chris muttered as he walked to follow the firepower-throwing crowd, who were coming up on a minivan sized cocoon of spidery silk in the one-left-from-centre allee. Somehow, Chris knew that it was empty, and he was beginning to realise who must have been in it, even before the rubbing of the branches above him suddenly cleared up into comprehensible speech, and, somehow, very clearly, a girl’s voice in a beautiful contralto that made tears of longing start in his eyes. A voice that asked, “Who was Mr. Vezina, Chris?”