Chapter 3, 19: Horseplay
“So, what?” Charlotte gestured at the ground. “Ready to go down and fight?”
Rose sighed. “I just don’t know how much help I’m going to be. There’s too much bush down there for me to move fast. Dora?”
Their wristcomm answered. Dora sounded paniced. “I still can’t call the needfire!”
Dr. Cambridge’s voice came through now. “Charlotte, Rose. You’re still up in a tree, right? I want you to stay there. Bruce is coming down from the ridge. He says he ‘ll be there in five.”
Charlotte counted to five, like her uncle said to do when you were tempted to explain to someone just how stupid they were. Then, “It’s nice of him to try, but this fight will be over in five minutes.” She clicked the Home button to turn off the comm. If Dr. Cambridge or Dora had anything new to say, they’d push a message through.
“What would Bruce do if he was here, anyway?” Rose asked.
“I don’t know. What’s he doing up on the ridge, anyway?” Charlotte gestured at the massive hill that came up to the shore of Long Lake just to the south, pinching off the wide and tumbling terraces on which Geithner’s Strike and the surrounding farms had just begun to sprawl.
“I don’t know,” Rose answered. “Surveillance?” She gestured down into the pit. “Was it Scout or Bruce who was supposed to be following Brittany’s red-headed boyfriend? The one we spotted working down in the site?”
Rose’s mouth quirked like she already knew the answer, but Charlotte answered anyway. “Scout.”
“Do you suppose we should call them for help?”
Charlotte shrugged. “What help would they be?” More importantly, Charlotte thought, the construction workers would have to somehow climb the side of the excavation to get at them. And, in fact, the two CBI agents were already hurrying around to the girls. Already they could hear distant rustling in the brush.
Too bad, Charlotte thought, as the tree lurched again, that they wouldn’t be anywhere near in time. Charlotte looked down at her hand, experimentally forming the dim mak posture. It was just a technique, and it could save their lives. So why was she so reluctant to tell Rose that she might just be able to stop the cave bear with the methods her father had taught her?
Because it meant channelling negative ch’I, that’s why, she thought. Dad had warned her that people got superstitious about that kind of thing. It made Charlotte angry to think that she might have something that could save their lives, and she couldn’t say anything. And, with that thought, the tree cracked and began to fall. Charlotte jumped free in one direction, Rose in the other. The cave bear went for Charlotte.
Its mistake. This wasn’t a situation where Charlotte was confident of landing a carefully constructed dim mak blow, but that didn’t matter. Twisting and swinging as she flew, Charlotte wrapped herself around the forearm of the mighty creature, letting the full, falling weight of her body turn its forearm against the elbow joint. A crack like a rifleshot slapped the leaves of the little glen as Charlotte let go and somersaulted to the ground.
She looked back. The cavebear’s left forearm hung, boneless, from the joint. The cave bear screamed. And then its brutish right hand went to its side, and pulled shaggy hide aside in a rapid motion.
A drawing motion. Charlotte just had time to realise what was going on and dodge desperately before the cave bear’s blaster sent a lance of plasma through the air where she had just been, to chop right through a three inch sapling behind her. The smell of smoke trickled into Charlotte’s nose. Oh, great, she thought. That’s just what we need. A forest fire. As though to underline the point, Charlotte heard the crackle of a branch breaking as fire went through it. That was quick, she thought.
The cave bear lifted its oversized pistol-thing and whipped it back and forth in the air. It left a line of plasma behind it, and at the end of its backswing, the monstrous creature cast the gun forward like it was fly fishing. A whip of plasma, glowing a hot red, trailed after it and then broke free, like the lash of a whip.
Charlotte was fascinated, but not too fascinated to dodge. Once again, it was just in time. Unfortunately, the lash of the whip struck a log behind her with explosive force. Splinters sprinkled Charlotte’s back. She felt sharp pain as some went in. This could not go on.
Rose shouted. “B2!”
Charlotte took a second to remember the move. Mr. Piccolo didn’t spend much time coaching tactics. That was for high school. But she remembered the dual flank, and went at the cave bear from the right, as Rose moved from the left. The plasma whip lashed overhead, just missing Charlotte, as she moved in. Charlotte ducked and adjusted her attack from dim mak touch to a spinning side kick against the cave bear’s knee. Maybe its other joints were as weak as the elbow.
Nothing. The cave bear seemed to flinch, ever so slightly, shaking a branch or too, but no more than that. Even that might have been an illusion born of a gust of wind. Without the momentum of her flying body behind it, and perhaps even with it, the cave bear was just too strong to take a real hit from anything Charlotte could dish out. It wasn’t fair, she thought. This was her second, no, third fight in a week against some solid bruiser without the Pearl Harmony Sword. At least it wasn’t fast.
And then it was. The cave bear turned away from Charlotte and reached out, just at the right time and the right place, and tripped Rose. Rose skidded along the ground with the remnants of her super speed to fetch up, head first, against a log, with a heavy, hollow sound. Well, that’s one way to knock sense into her, Charlotte thought.
Then, she thought, I hope Rose is alright. But shock went to horror when the cave bear jumped after Rose. With horrifying speed, it landed on its hindlegs, hirsute body tangled in a solid screen of brush. The paw holding the plasma whip was caught by a snarl of blackberry vines, and the monster snarled. It pulled back, and the whip dug into the ground. An explosion of dirt and steam erupted from the forest floor right beside Rose, and then the light and whining noise of the whip vanished as though the “off” switch had been thrown.
Overloaded, Charlotte thought. Finally, some good news. That did not deter the bear, though. It turned round and dropped onto all fours, pushing its great, hairy behind into the wall of brush, ignoring thrusting branches and thorny vines so that it could get its bestial head down, ready to tear Charlotte’s friend apart. Charlotte screamed and leapt at the monster. “Let her alone, you bully.”
The cave bear turned. The sound that its body made as it turned in its cocoon of brush was deafening, like the whole world tearing. Apparently, though, it didn’t care, because it moved quickly and measuredly, and this time, Charlotte couldn’t dodge.
Now it was Charlotte’s turn to feel the hot stench of its breath, as the bear wrapped both its right paw around her in an awkward, one-armed grip. The metal of the plasma whip was hard against her back through her tee. Despite the unevenness of the grip, the cave bear still had the strength to draw her in.
Never grapple with a brick, Charlotte had time to remember her uncle saying, before the oversized fangs closed on her head. But she wasn’t afraid, as her right hand formed the dim mak posture again. She was angry.
Instead, the brush behind the bear exploded, this time in the bear’s direction. A massive body of rippling muscle under shiny, earth-yellow hair thrust through the gap, and two massive hooves hammered against the bear’s shoulder, making a sound like an old pumpkin splitting against the ground. The cave bear went flying, and Charlotte grabbed a branch, using the momentum to twist free of its crushing grip.
The cave bear fetched up against the same log that had taken Rose out of the fight, but it had a little more left in it. Tellus came through the stallion-sized hole in the wall of underbrush, shaking his head and baring his teeth with the glory of battle. Charlotte grinned, and couldn’t help singing aloud. “For soon 'tis known from whence we came/ Where'er we go they dread the name/ of Garryowen in glory.”
The cave bear gripped its plasma whip frantically in its mouth and worked a slide on its top with its good paw.
Oh, oh, Charlotte thought. She jumped to Tellus’s side. He didn’t even flinch as she drew her sword from its scabbard. “I’ve been looking for that all over,” she said, and lunged at the bear, just as the plasma whip trickled into life again. The merest touch of the whip scorched Tellus’s hide before Charlotte brought the Pearl Harmony Sword down on the whip handle, shearing right through the metal and into the cave bear’s paw.
Bright red blood fountained as Tellus screamed, reared, and spun. The wound could not have been that serious, considering how quickly the big horse disappeared, but, Charlotte knew, horses, even big, brave stallions, did not deal well with fire. Their instinct was to run, not fight. If it weren’t for instincts, a scrapper like Tellus wouldn’t even need a rider.
Charlotte grinned. Say, a rider with a well-forged sword outstretched. She took the Pearl Harmony’s tip in her left hand and flexed, so that it bent just a bit. Perlescent light shone from it. Charlotte was reminded of swimming in the lake in the hot days of summer, with the bright sunlight coming down through a foot or two of water. The light was untainted by red and black. Apparently, the Big Bad used science-y bad guys, too, and they didn’t’ warrant the Pearl Harmony’s magic warning light.
She spoke, casually. “Oh, hey, cave bear dude. Wanna see what happened to Vorrakes the Lich Lord on the field of Doomspire when this sword split his skull?” It was just a bluff, of course. For some reason, just holding the sword was a comfort. Things would work out okay. Even for Rose.
Underneath Charlotte, the bear was scrabbling at its equipment belt again. Charlotte brought the sword down quickly, but before the tip could intercept the lunging paw, it found what it was looking for.
The bear disappeared. Of course, Charlotte thought. The science bear has a get-out-of-jail teleporter. That, or a ninja-style disintegrator.
Charlotte stepped over to Rose and kneeled down. The girl from the grim dark alternate future of sad clowns and everyone-having-eyepatchs was breathing slowly and strangely. Oh, no, Charlotte thought, but comfort radiated from her blade.
Now, let’s see, Charlotte thought. There was a trick that her brother said he’d pulled with Kumi, channelling positive ch’I instead of negative.
The whole religion thing was a big part of it, too. It always was for her goofball brother. Reluctantly, Charlotte knelt down beside her friend and made the sign of the cross over her while muttering the familiar phrase. “Nā mò, hē lá dá nà…”
Something happened. It wasn’t anything like the draining experience her brother had described, but the light of the Pearl Harmony got brighter with every syllable of the Great Compassion, and something flowed through her.
Rose’s eyes opened. “Hunh?”
Charlotte looked down, and the sight of her friend looking back at her brought tears to her eyes. Rose bent upwards, taking Charlotte in a one-handed hug, just like the bear’s as Charlotte began to cry outright. With her free hand, Charlotte noticed through her tears, Rose gingerly touched her head.
“This is stupid,” Charlotte sniffled after a second. “I shouldn’t be crying. You’re okay, Rose.”
“Of course I’m okay. I’m not even tender. Which is a little weird.”
Rose let go of Charlotte and pivoted, putting her left elbow on the forest floor, then reachined out to touch the log where her head had impacted.
Rose looked at her hand and then turned it so that Charlotte could see. It was bloody.
“Eww,” Charlotte said.
“Yeah, thought so,” Rose answered. “All better now. Say. How many uses of lay on hands do you get at your level?”
“I don’t know. What’s my level?” Charlotte asked.
“Well, none of us has been killed by a housecat, so we’re probably, what, at least level 3?”
“You’re such a nerd, Rose. And it wasn’t lay on hands, because I’m not a paladin.”
“Yes, you are, Charlotte. Admit it. Holy Avenger, lay on hands. I’ll bet Tellus is going to be your mount.”
Charlotte gritted her teeth. “Next time I lay hands on him, it won’t be to cure him.” Which wasn’t really fair, since at least Tellus had come back and rescued them.
“Lay on hands,” a familiar voice said from behind them. “Heh.”
Charlotte turned back so quickly that she almost got whiplash. “Don’t be such a creep, Bruce! How long have you been back there?”
Bruce blushed. He was breathing heavily, Charlotte noticed, like he’d been running, and he took a second before answering, defensively, “I’m sorry. I never know what to say.”
Which somehow made Charlotte even angrier. “Then don’t say anything. You know, that’s not nice.”
“Yeah. . .” Bruce said. “I already figured that out. It’s like how my Dad’s mouth is always getting him into trouble. So don’t do what your Dad does. . . . So, uhm, how’s Rose?”
“I’m fine, Bruce. Thanks to our number one Buddho-Catholic paladin here. I’m glad you came, though. I bet Little Miss Snarkypants is, too.”
Now it was Charlotte’s turn to blush. “Yeah, I’m, I’m glad you came, Bruce. But I’m not a paladin! I’m not even religious!”
“You say that,” Dora said, as she pushed through the brush behind Bruce. answered. “Whatevs. I thought this was going to be an all-girl party?”
“It was,” Rose answered. “We didn’t need a boy to rescue us. Charlotte beat the monster.
“Actually,” Charlotte answered, “Tellus rescued us. And he’s a boy. A boy horse.
“Least he could do,” Rose said. “He’s the one who took your sword in the first place.”
“Good point,” Charlotte answered. “We don’t count as damsels in distress if we’re only in trouble because some guy screwed up first.” She glared at Bruce, but it was a mock glare, now. She hoped that Bruce could figure that out.
“Hey!” Bruce protested. “Not all guys are alike. For example, some are horses. And some are, well, guys.”
Dora grinned and slapped the back of Bruce’s head. “Technicalities.”