Of course, in the Champions Universe, we also have to fit in a few thousand years of Totally-Not-The-Forgotten-Realms-RPG-Setting Turakian Age goodness.
Weirdly, this time, cutting-and-pasting into Blogger has preserved my paragraph indents, which I prefer as a means of indicating, uhm, paragraphs to line breaks. So that's today's formatting choice. Tune in next week for the next installment of "Computer illiterate struggles with HTML default settings!"
Chapter 3, 12: Light in the Forest
Not that Charlotte didn’t trust Dora, but there was something about being carried through the air by another girl’s powers.
Or maybe it was the fact that Dora was riding a sparkly flying unicorn from the other side of space and time, while Bruce and Charlotte had to stand on some geeky needfire-energy platform, watching Long Lake rush underneath of them, and the white plume of water rising on the lake in the wake of Rose’s hypervelocity feet, actually running on the water.
Okay, she was jealous. Charlotte could admit that to herself. Dora could bring a horse through the needfire, and Bruce actually smelled of the horses he’d been riding when Dora went to go get him. All that Charlotte had to show was a hopefully-not-stained blouse and a scolding from Kieran for letting Tellus get off his reins. She wasn’t going to start crying again.
Just like that, and they were over Long Lake, watching the slope of the mountain rush at them. Charlotte’s eyes followed the Forty Mile Road. The ranch that had been attacked was just over the rim of the hill, near where they’d had lunch, only three days ago. It seemed like forever.
The disc came shooting up the slope and suddenly left the ground behind as it went from climbing to a plateau. Dora levelled it off and banked to the right. There, nestled under the first of a set of hills that rose out of the plateau, were the buildings of a ranch.
They were burning. “Cats with fire?” Bruce asked. “Opposable thumbs next?”
“Probably not,” Charlotte answered. “If they could open their own Tender Vittles, they wouldn’t need to attack ranches.”
“Except for fun,” Bruce said.
Charlotte gestured at Dora to get her attention. “Hey, can Shiny Sparkle there fight, or is he just for show?” The words were almost whipped away by the slipstreaming wind.
“She. No, she’s a lover, not a fighter.” With that, Dora dove her mount, pulling up at the last moment to touch hooves down. The ground, Charlotte noted, glittered where the flying pony’s hooves touched.
Charlotte hopped off the disc at the same moment, letting her knees flex lightly as she struck the ground, sending the piney, familiar smell of the forest up once again. How could this planet smell so much like Earth? From the corner of her eyes, she watched Bruce make the same move, making a three point landing and pulling some kind of gadget out from his utility belt as he landed. He glanced at it and shook his head.
Reminded, Charlotte drew the Pearl Harmony overhand from her shoulder scabbard. The diffuse underwater-white glow of the blade was almost impossible to detect in the late afternoon light, and there was no sign of the black line that she’d seen yesterdays. “No sign of the Old Red Gods,” Charlotte said.
“I still think that this colony is more likely to date from Atlantean times than Old Ambrethel,” Bruce answered. “Atlantean magic-science was far more powerful than Turakian, and the Atlanteans could get off Earth. And according to the Landing College Zoological Field Reports Series, ships headed down to the Northern Islands have seen Saharan Mousterian proto-camels. That’s 50,000BC, tops. The Old Red Eon ended with the 70,000BC interpluvial. ”
Dora walked over. Her unicorn followed. Charlotte noticed that its mane sparkled, but she didn’t care. Tellus was way more impressive, and he was all hers. If she could just manage to ride him. No, she did care. She was still jealous. Damn.
“I thought that the Old Red Aeon ended with the fall of Kal-Turak.” Dora said, tentatively.
Bruce shrugged. “When Takofanes fell, the sacrifices and dark magic that held the glaciers back ended. Along with the magic that kept our ancestors above Stone Age levels. Mostly. Not taking into account the Valdorian Age, when the Drindrish elves took over.” Charlotte noticed that Bruce was careful to use the monster’s curse-name, and not his reign name. Let the very Earth forget you, Oh, King of Ivory, Father Asplin would say. And now he was back from the dead, and her own Dad served him. Charlotte shivered to think of the man who used to bring her Barbies and toy ponies when he visited as a sere lich.
A streak of black and white ground to a halt on the field in front of them. Speaking of didactic info-dumps, Rose had arrived. But she only said, “I’ve searched the grounds. No sign of trouble.”
“That’s dangerous,” Charlotte scolded. “We need to stick together!”
“Don’t you know/You never split the party!” Bruce sang. Bruce was a good singer, of course. Whenever they practiced kung fu together, Bruce always said that he was trying to get better than just good at one thing in his life. What was it like, Charlotte wondered, to be “just” good at everything, without ever having to try?
“Oh, don’t be a stick in the mud, Char-Char. That’s my job. I’m fast enough to stay out of trouble.”
“Shhh, secret identities,” Bruce hissed.
In front of them, a group of men were advancing across the open paddock from the direction of the burning buildings. The lead man was wearing one of those leather jackets that TV sheriffs wore, complete with a star badge on the lapel. He was holding a pump-action shotgun by the barrel, like he was getting ready to flick-load it. “You’re the superheroes the CBI said was comin’.”
Charlotte stepped in front of her team. “We are.”
“Kind of young for superheroes, aren’t you?”
“We’re what you’ve got, Deputy.”
He nodded. “True that. After what we’ve been through today, we’ll take it.”
“Such as?” Charlotte asked.
“Bald guy in weird armour and lights shining in his face like crazy orthodontic braces firing energy beams at us?”
Charlotte glanced at Bruce, who nodded. Professor Paradigm!
“We hear he seemed to be cooperating with some sabretooth cats?” Charlotte continued.
“Uh, yeah, no, maybe. It was weird. The cats herded some cattle up that draw like they were cowboys or something, and then the bald guy rooted around the ranch for a while, put together a big force bubble of furniture and stuff and just vanished.”
Charlotte nodded, and Bruce whispered, “Did Mike Suzuki ever stay here? Wait, no, don’t ask that!” Charlotte nodded. She wasn’t about to ask. That was something they could find out later, and as Mr. Piccolo always said about investigations, ‘Leading questions get you led answers.’
“Okay, we’ll have more questions, later. The CBI’ll want to see the crime scene undisturbed as soon as they get here, which should be an hour or so. We’re going to go after the cats.”
Dora pouted. “I guess can’t drag my pony through the forest.” She slapped its flank lightly, and the shiny sparkly pony disappeared in a sparkly flash that sparkled. With sparkles.
The team crossed the paddock and began to climb the draw that the deputy had pointed out to them. It was a steep, v-bottomed gulley that carried flood water down off the brooding, three-summit mountain above them, and the wet bottom, combined with the regular floods, left it choked with bushes. Long strands of cow hair showed where the sabretooth cats had driven the stampeding cattle up the draw towards the ambush that must have been waiting for them uphill.
Charlotte pushed through the thorns, Pearl Harmony out. It continued to glow, lightly and evenly. There was some danger about, but it wasn’t serious, and it wasn’t close. Bruce had his gadget out, again, too.
“What have you got there?” Charlotte asked.
“Broad spectrum EMF detector with an alogorithmic filter. Should pick up radio communications or ground radar, even if it can’t decipher them or pick up the emitter.”
“No dice. Wasn’t expecting it. Most of our likely enemies are way past using radio.”
“Whose your list?”
Bruce began ticking them off on his fingers. “First, Professor Paradigm. He uses science magic. Second, that Malvan dude Dora was describing. Malvan tech might as well be magic. Third, Eve the Cave Girl’s Dad, who has been around since they started terraforming this place, and who probably kidnapped Mike Suzuki here in the first place. The only problem is that we haven’t actually seen him use Mandaarian-level technology, which is what he’d need to spring Professor Paradigm. Although he’s probably got it. Fourth, Mandaarians—“
“Mandaarians are good guys!” Dora interrupted.
“Yeah, but no,” Bruce answered. “You know that John Roy is cloned from a Mandaarian renegade, right?”
Charlotte nodded her head. It wasn’t precisely cloning, because Cousin Amy’s boyfriend was a hundred percent human, but whatever created him, it was like cloning. Unless Mandaarians were secretly human.
“But he’s from the future, right?” Dora objected.
“Mandaarians are long-lived. He’s alive right now. And hiding out with his followers and scheming right now, because thanks to time machines the Mandaarians know that he’s going to be a supervillain in the future.”
Rose looked over her shoulder, her face cloudy. “In one future. The future can always be changed.”
“True,” Bruce said. “Also true: that someone foxed the Mandaarian sensors that were monitoring Professor Paradigm.”
“Which was more likely to be Mr. Diavolo,” Charlotte said.
“That’s why he’s Number 2, and purely hypothetical Mandaarian renegades are number 4 on my list,” Bruce answered. “Anyway, Number 5: holdovers from the Atlanteans or the Valdorians or whoever who colonised this place. They’re only on the list because they could be around, and I have no idea what their motives were, so they could care about whatever’s going on. Number Number 6: Teleios. He’s involved with this place, but he doesn’t have the tech, and his motive, as far as we know, is not caring what happens here at all as long as it sends gold back to him. Number 7: Everyone else.”
“That’s a big category,” Charlotte said, as she edged sideways past a big thornbush that grew out over a pond in the bottom of the gulley floor that actually had some water in it. It was hard to keep her balance walking over the rough, uneven stones. She glanced at the Pearl Harmony. Was it glowing a little brighter?
As Charlotte turned the thornbush, she broke out into open sunlight again. Here, the creek had gone over a shelf of rock too hard too corrode. She was facing directly into a cliff of dark blue stone, pocked here and there with patches of shadow where there were little hollows in its surface. In one or two of them, tiny aspens clung for life. To the sides of the cliff at the edge of the gorge, the aspen forest tumbled right to the level of the pebbles and stones of the creekbed. It would be a long, steep climb to go around the cliff to either side.
Charlotte cranked her neck back to look at the top of the cliff, where a thin rivulet of water tumbled over the edge and down to a little pool at the base of the cliff, raising a spray that, at its top, caught the very edge of the sunlight and made a faint, three-colour rainbow. Through the haze, Charlotte could see golden specks and sparkles in the rock of the cliff. They were realer, somehow, than the sparkles of Dora’s horse, but they cast the light of the needfire back so brightly that they almost seemed to amplify it.
“Let’s see what’s on top!” Rose zoomed ahead along the rough stone creek bottom, a black-and-white streak again by the time that she hit the wall, going so fast that she could literally run right up the side.
“No!” Charlotte shouted.
But it was too late. As Rose crested the top of the cliff, a flare of blue light silhouetted her. Rose stopped dead, the blur resolving into Rose, suddenly limp, her feet folding out from under her right at the edge of the cliff. She toppled backwards.
“No!” Charlotte, Dora, and Bruce shouted together, as Rose began to fall, boneless, towards the rocks far below. Almost as if in answer, one of the shadows on the cliff side budded a smaller shadow, human-formed, which swung out from the face in a bold rappel that intercepted a falling Rose at the apex of its bound.
The Black Ninja grabbed Rose and slung her body over his shoulder in the moment before his feet struck the wall again. This time his bound carried him sharply to the left, and instead of finishing against the wall, he disappeared into the trees. The last that Charlotte saw of her friend, sprawled across the Black Ninja’s broad, cloth-covered back and steadied by his massive left hand, was a flash of white.
White? Charlotte thought for a second, only to be interrupted by the flare of the Pearl Harmony. Oh, now you tell me, she thought, crossly. “Let’s go!” She shouted, waving at the wooded hillside to the left of the gorge. “Dora, stay low! We don’t want to be picked off one by one! Bruce? Can you keep up, or should Dora lift you?”
“I guess I’ll have to,” Bruce answered. “don’t want to give ‘em any group targets.” Bruce swung a line to snare a tree and pulled and leaped at the same time, soaring over the thick brush that marked the edge of the wood and into the darkness of the slope under the tree.
Fair enough, Charlotte thought, as she jumped after him, twisting into the fall to land on a tree trunk lying almost vertically downslope, Pearl Harmony outstretched in her right hand. It was an easy ladder leading her deep into the woods, and up straight towards Rose. She ran it, Bruce making his way up on her right, and Dora’s golden flare above. They might be running into an ambush. They were probably running into an ambush. But they were running together.
At the top of the trunk, Charlotte stepped off onto the stump where it had shattered. She was five feet off the level of the steep and brush-choked slope, but there was another trunk, just ahead, and she jumped over to it. Manly grunts told her where Bruce was, and Dora’s golden glow burned steadily, almost matching the Sun, above her. Charlotte ran up the second trunk, then sidestepped to a third. At its end, she found a fourth, a thick pine, almost branchless, that aimed up the slope towards the place where Rose had vanished.
In here in the woods, where the creek had not cut through the soil, it was harder to tell where the shelf of rock was, exactly. But Charlotte figured that it was where it got even steeper ahead of her. She held her phone up and thumbed the locator. Rose was just over there, not ten feet away, where an opaque rise of wood and brush screened her sight.
“I’ve almost got her in sight,” Charlotte said into the phone. “I’m going in!”
“Wait!” Dora said.
“But you’ve got me in sight!” Charlotte said, as she cleared the rise. And found the ground going out from under her, as the slope began to fall, instead of rise. Somehow, she had left the gorge. The hair on her neck rose. This was not how the hillside was supposed to lie.
“Something’s wrong!” Came Dora’s voice over her phone. Now Charlotte noticed that the sound of Bruce’s panting was no longer coming over the team wrist communicator. And it was suddenly a lot darker in the forest, as though the Sun had passed behind clouds. Or had set below the mountain.
Fortunately, the Pearl Harmony was casting more than enough light to see by. Charlotte looked at it.
The black streak in the middle was back.