Chapter 3, 13: Blackness in the Forest
With the Pearl Harmony pulled down in front of her, it was so dark that Charlotte couldn’t even see where she was going. This was, she thought, distinctly creepy. Reluctantly, she lifted her sword blade above her head again, to cast its deep, white light across the darkened forest.
Just in time, too, because the trunk that she had been climbing was cracked in two right above her. Naked blades of still-green wood thrust into the darkness, and an intense pitch smell almost covered the rankness oozing from the ground below, which was hidden beneath a carpet of waxy leaves.
Charlotte vaulted the crack, landing on the lower half of the fallen trunk, which led downward into the dark forest, but still to the right, where, if she hadn’t misplaced them, the Black Ninja was carrying Rose. But she could have misplaced them, because she ought to on a steep hillside that ended against the sharp cleavage of a rock face, and she couldn’t see anything like that from where she was standing.
Oh, and in spite of her cricket step, the trunk beneath her was lurching and slipping, before giving way in a heart-stopping whip to the side and down.
This, Charlotte thought, should not be happening. She flipped into a forward tumble, aimed to clear the whipping trunk with its long slivers of broken wood, and for the clearest point on the forest floor below.
Damn. Her feet went right through the crusty moss that formed underneath the thin layer of leaves into wetness. She could feel the water in the muck against her Tatammy fatigue boots, like stepping into a mud puddle in rubber boots. The smell of the forest was overwhelming, and now that she was standing in it, the low cover wasn’t low at all. Leaves and dead branches and thorns thrust in her face and poked her sides, and Charlotte couldn’t see anything.
I’ve got to get high, she though, and then, hee, because that was drug humour. But there was nothing funny about what was going on. In the stink of the ooze, slippery under her feet, the forest was full of weird rustlings, and just under her hearing, like the illusion of your ringtone when you’re in the shower, she could almost hear a crow cawing. That was one thing that Charlotte, of all people, shouldn’t be ignoring.
Charlotte brought the Pearl Harmony back in front of her face. Carefully, so that they wouldn’t spring back, she pushed the thorns and branches back. The blade slid down their length, curling little shavings into the air so that the caught the pearl light before falling into the underbrush. Finally, the blade caught in the crook of a limb, and she pressed down. It cut smoothly through the bole of the branch at the base of the mess of foliage in front of her. Cut loose, the weight of the branch, and all of the vines they carried, dragged down into the rest of the mess. Her face was almost clear. Beneath her, Charlotte heard a faint hissing sound, like something hot dropping into water.
Now that she had cleared so much of underbrush, Charlotte craned her head up to scan the trees. Their stark lines were black against the almost-black of the shadowed wood, but her blade cast a pattern of white and black on the scene. If only she could figure out the stupid graphical user interface on this stupid thing, she thought. It was worse than the new Windows!
Well, it was at least good enough to show her a heavy branch reaching out from a lone cottonwood sitting in the midst of aspen. Stepping carefully with her right foot onto the crook of a bush stem far below for secure footing, Charlotte launched herself into a cricket leap, sword leading. Of course, now she had to make her landing on her left foot. Why did Uncle Henry have to be right?
But Uncle Henry’s woeful predictions didn’t come true. The landing was good, and clean, and Charlotte was standing firmly on the branch. It was weird to find a single leafy tree in the midst of all these pines, but not that weird, because the cottonwood looked a little sickly to her. And not “drink a Neo-Citran and burrow under the covers with City of Bones,” either. Above the trunk, where her branch joined the tree, an ugly looking hollow blotched the face of the tree.
Oh, yeah, Charlotte thought, giving the cottonwood what she hoped was a stern warning look, a trick she was trying to learn from her Auntie. You better not turn into some kind of mouth and try to swallow me, tree. That little business taken care of, she looked down at the snarled mess of underbrush below, trying to figure out her next move. Where the Hell were Rose and the Black Ninja? Or Dora for that matter? Or Bruce? And why couldn’t she hear Ginger?
She only had a moment to think that kind of thing, though, before this bit of wood, too, lurched under her feet. It wasn’t bending or breaking, though. It was rising. Charlotte glanced left. Of course the rotten hollow had turned into a deep, fathomless mouth, and she was sliding towards it.
“Goddamn it, you’re so out-of-it you have a TvTropes page, you stupid tree!” And now, of course, she had to jump off her left foot, with no idea where she was going. Charlotte tumbled left, trying to hold her head up under the pinwheeling light of her sword, looking for a place to land. There, just within her reach, was a springy sapling, bent almost double under the weight of yet another fallen trunk. She touched with her right foot, this time, and felt the sapling surge further in the downslope direction as Charlotte fought to get her centre of gravity over it.
For a moment, it felt like she was winning, until the tip of the sapling whipped free of the trunk, and the tree sprang straight underneath of her. Charlotte pushed off with her right foot, this time somersaulting backwards, looking for something, anything, to take her landing.
There! Beneath her and at a just-barely makeable angle, was yet another fallen tree, suspended above the forest floor on a mattress of tangled branches pushed down into the crushed and compacted undergrowth. It was a bad landing to make, because to either side, the tree thrust out more gray, spiky, deadwood branches, but there was a strip of bark facing up towards her, and Charlotte hit it, gratefully, with her left foot extended.
Only it wasn’t rough and ready bark that greeted her boot, but something smooth and slippery. The smell of loss-of-balance and of the reeking forest filled Charlotte’s nose as she went down, ass over teakettle, some would say.
Well, not really, because she was an Eight Spirit Dragon initiate, and she could gather her weight and put her hands down and tumble off the back of the treacherous trunk and come back, at long last, to solid ground.
Above her, the blazing blade of the Pearl Harmony, desperately dropped, wheeled lazily through the air. I’ve got to get my sword back, Charlotte thought. It was dangerous out here. She also tried not to think of the fact that her aunt and Father Asplin’s girlfriend, the one he never talked about, had both wielded the Pearl Harmony, and it hadn’t saved either of them.
Except that an all-too familiar figure with a blaze of red hair and a leopard-print bikini slid out from behind a tree, gliding smoothly over empty air on what looked like a flying skateboard and grabbed the Pearl Harmony out of midair.
“Ow!” Eve yelled, and dropped the blade. Before it had fallen even a foot, though, the magic blade was caught by some unseen tendril of force. It hovered in mid air, its light beginning to dim, as Eve flew forward. “I think someone should have a chance to show how tough she is without her sword.”
She paused for a moment. “I’d also say something like, ‘And how hot she looks without that great outfit,’ but I said enough stupidly wrong things in public last Valentine’s to last me a lifetime.”
Charlotte put one fist to her hip and shook her finger at the flying skank. “That was my brother, and anyway, you totally deserved it!”
Then she thought about it for a moment, and added, “And if you think I’ll have any trouble kicking your cave girl butt with just my barehand moves, you know a helluva lot less about being bareass than you’d think!”
“Oh, yeah, I get it,” Eve sneered. “You’re machisma like some fanboy’s imaginary girlfriend. You’re so tough you’re going to be the star of a Joss Whedon movie. You’re Kickass Kardassian. Chris Claremont steals your shoes when you’re not looking.”
“Who?” Charlotte said, genuinely confused.
“Stupid topical references. They never stay topical,” Eve muttered. “Here. This is better than talking.” She gestured, her hands taking in the surroundings.
And out of the foliage on all four quarters, wolves came lunging towards Charlotte. “Leave enough meat to rise as a were!” Even yelled. “If that’s what happens with you guys. Otherwise, no biggie. Probably can’t eat the whole thing, anyway. Cholesterol, you know. Because she’s fat.”
Charlotte took in the charging wolves at a glance. These guys were a whole different bit of business when you didn’t have a magic sword to back you up. You are the centre, she heard Uncle Henry saying. Take it with you.
Charlotte jumped high, headed for the leftmost wolf, the one with the silver streak through its mane, the one that favoured its muzzle, holding its head down as it charged, as though it remembered something particularly painful. Like any wolf would, it jumped at the apex of its leap, to grip Charlotte’s ankle. Except that Charlotte pulled in her legs and flipped in midair, taking the wolf by its throat.
Together, Charlotte and the wolf plunged into the undergrowth, branches and thorns tearing at both. Charlotte was protected by her Tatammy fatigues, the wolf by its werewolfy hide. She could feel the powerful muscles writhing and wrenching under her arm, bringing the monster’s razor sharp teeth into reach of her face. This wasn’t a fight that she could win.
Fortunately, she didn’t need to, because as she landed, the whole weight of the wold came soaring over her back, and the sound of the wolf’s spine came through as a clean, drywood snap, distinct in the vegetative roar of the crashing undergrowth around them. Charlotte jumped free, grabbing for a tree trunk with her left arm, chinning it to land in crouched, “Avenger of the Night” position, well above the fray.
Beneath her, three werewolves stalked towards the tree, while the fourth lay on the ground, its head weirdly wrenched into a sickening angle. An angle that was already shrinking as she watched. Stupid regeneration powers. Charlotte risked a look upwards. Even still stood on her flying skateboard, cautiously out of reach. The Pearl Harmony hung, equally remote.
“Heh. Treed like a little puddytat. Meow.” Eve gestured at the trunk. It lurched. Charlotte jumped free, to the next tree.
“Yeah,” Charlotte said. “Same trick ain’t going to work twice.”
“Once.” Eve said. “I had nothing to do with your fatass fail over there. I just stepped in to take advantage when you screwed up. Like I do, and you do.”
The new branch was lower, and one of the wolves thought it could clear it, even off the crap bottom below. It jumped at Charlotte, and she had a second to stare it down and think that, familiar as this situation was, she was all out of easy tricks.
Well, easy tricks that were clean solutions as well as satisfying, she thought, as she dodged the flying wolf and gave it a solid roundhouse kick to the head. All they had to do was come at her at once, and all she had to do was come up with a counterattack that would get past their magical defences. Charlotte held her right hand in front of her face, forming a Dim Mak position with her fingers. Black magic to fight black magic, Charlotte thought. That was a TvTropes page, too.
Except, she thought, Dim Mak wasn’t real black magic. Sure, her Dad taught it to her, and her Dad was a black magician. Sometimes. But sometimes he was an Eight Spirit Dragon master, too, and he loved her. He wouldn’t teach her anything evil, would he?
No, Charlotte thought, he wouldn’t. He was her Dad. She formed the Dim Mak with her left hand, too, as the wolves gathered beneath her. This wasn’t like using the Pearl Harmony. She could only channel negative chi for so long. She’d have to make her blows count.
And then, through the stifled forest, came the crack of gunshots. Somehow, Charlotte had been expecting this, and yet the surprise, and pleasure, she felt was so powerful, so real, as one bullet snapped Eve’s head back, and the other snapped off the pommel of the Pearl Harmony and sent it spinning through the air towards her. Scout was here.
To be precise, he was down on the ground, just pushing into sight through the undergrowth that towered around his face until she could barely see more than the crown of his black hat and the muzzle of his rifle. He was blundering straight towards the wolves, Charlotte thought. Of course! He can’t see them, she thought!
“Scout!” Charlotte yelled. “Look out!” Because there was no way he could shoot to protect himself when the wolves were coming right through the undergrowth and he couldn’t see down through it! Charlotte jumped again, scooping the Pearl Harmony out of the air as she went. This time, she went deliberately end over end, grabbing a branch above Scout firmly with her hands, and reaching down, dangling, her face in Scout’s.
This is totally like the Spider-Man kiss, Charlotte thought, and for a moment, her mind irrelevantly flashed to Rose and the Black Ninja, dance fighting under the needfire light, before she realised that she was staring into Scout’s eyes, which were a strangely artificial blue, almost like he was wearing tinted contacts. I want to see your eyes, Charlotte thought. Your real eyes. And then his strong, calloused hands gripped hers, and he pulled himself up like a kid on a swing, before athletically turning and twisting until he was standing on the branch above her.
Just in time, too, as a wolf came plunging out of the undergrowth, only to meet the Pearl Harmony’s blade flicking through the air. It yelped, and turned tail, and Charlotte twisted up onto the branch.
She was facing Scout, only inches away from him. For the first time, she noticed just how much taller he was. She’d already noticed how broad his shoulders were. He smelled of horses. Suddenly, after all of the acrobatics, Charlotte felt truly dizzy. Get a grip on yourself, Charlotte, she thought, firmly. It’s not like you don’t know a lot of hotties. That was the superhero scene for you. Heck, even Bruce probably turned regular girls’ heads.
“Not that I don’t appreciate a rescue as much as the next girl,” Charlotte said, “But do you have any idea where we are?”
“There’s a cut along the side of the mountain here. Elevated block. You saw the highest part at the waterfall, right? It comes down, turns at right angles, continues as a ridge, which you just crossed. This little hollow is on its northern face.”
“So if I want to rescue my friend?”
Scout gestured up the hill and to the south. “Don’t get lost this time.”
“Wait,” Charlotte said. “How do I get in touch with you?” And then she thought, congratulations, Little Lois Lane. This guy is making me stupid!
He looked at her for a long moment, like he was lost for words. Then he said, “CBI,” tipped his hat, and dropped off the tree into the undergrowth. For a moment, the black crown of his hat was visible, but then it disappeared.
He better hope that the werewolves don’t come back, Charlotte thought, as she jumped for a convenient trunk and headed uphill. In moments, she was clear of the gloomy forest and standing on the edge of the cliff that they’d seen from below. Dora was floating in the sky, exchanging energy blasts with Professor Paradigm. Cracks were forming across her needfire energy barrier. Yeah, Charlotte thought, that isn’t going to last very long.
Then, out of the woods, Rose came whizzing in a black and white streak, launching herself into the air at the Professor from behind. Holy crap, Charlotte thought. First the Black Ninja, now me. Everyone has to catch Rose when she falls. If I can, she added, glancing around. But, speak of the Black Ninja, there was the top of his rappel line. Charlotte launched herself towards it.
For a moment, she was falling down the glittery cliff face towards the jagged rocks a hundred feet below. Then, she had her hand on the rope. Her fall stopped with a jerk that felt like it was pulling her arm out of her socket, and Charlotte was soaring through the air, headed straight for the falling Rose. Above them, Dora was taking advantage of the momentary distraction, putting the needfire hammer down on Professor Paradigm’s head. The weirdly armoured mastermind sank low and lower as Charlotte soared.
Rising, she caught Rose, thinking for a moment about making some kind of crack about weight, but that wouldn’t be nice, and, anyway, Rose was skinner than Charlotte. Yeah, a little part of her mind sassed back, but that’s because you’re carrying more muscle. More chunky, butchy muscle. Especially on your thighs.
And, shut up, stupid brain, Charlotte thought back, as she soared, aiming down the Pearl Harmony. Let’s see you good your armour is, Professor. With a bonejarring oomph, the two girls made contact with the Professor at the point of the blade. His armour, it turned out, was good. But nothing could keep the power of the impact out, and like a three dimensional snooker ball, the Professor went caroming off the collision and down, crunching solidly into the rock beside the stream that trickled off the edge of the cliff.
A bola snaked out of the undergrowth at the edge of the stream course, wrapping itself around the Professor. Out of nowhere, Bruce followed it, hurling a flashbang grenade after it. Charlotte came down in Monkey stance, sword out, while Rose spilled on her butt.
“Four against one, Professor,” Bruce said. “Surrender in the Colony’s name.” It was a brave act, but his voice cracked a bit.
“Speaking of which, aren’t we short one of his lieutenants?” Charlotte asked, glancing at Rose.
“I, uhm, got loose when he wasn’t looking,” Rose answered.
Dora landed beside them. “Must have been quite the fight. Is that why the neckpiece on your fatigues is so wrinkled?”
“Shut up,” Rose answered.
“’’Cuz if there’s a hickie under there, we have a whole new strategic situation.”
Charlotte nodded. True that.
“Shut up some more.”
“Bah!” The Professor shouted. Or said, but with massive gain on his suit speakers. “The time is not ripe to deal with your interference!” And, with a pop, he disappeared.
“Yes!” Bruce said. “Who’s the meddling kids? We’s the meddling kids!”
He paused for a moment. “But didn’t this start when the Black Ninja attacked?”
Charlotte just shook her head. She knew from experience that you didn’t talk to boys Bruce’s age about romance and stuff. They just thought it was icky.