Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Book 4, 16 Out of Our League

Arnim Zola.

Book 4, 16 Out of Our League 

Charlotte gasped for breath, flying through the air, grasping the hilt of the Pearl Harmony Sword. If she lost it, she was lost, too. And Bruce, a thought that bothered her strangely. Or maybe not. He might have a mouth on him, but he was a nice kid who didn’t deserve having his brain eaten by a bunch of Arnim Zola-lookalikes. 

Desperately, she twisted her feet under her, hoping that the migdalar who had blasted her had overreached. 

Yes! Her feet slammed the solid wall of the building chimney a moment later. Not satisfied with knocking her out of the fight, the monster had tried to ram her into something solid. It seemed as though the impact took forever, long enough to watch Bruce fight for his life. 

Fast, athletic, kung fu moves brought his truncheon in line of the invisible swords of the ninjas again and again in a blur of motion. Oh, he was good, Charlotte thought. Good at stuff, always. 

But he couldn’t see behind him. Out of the darkness, Ginger stooped on black-feathered wings, razor sharp talons raking at empty air. Charlotte’s Eight Spirit Dragon-enhanced night vision saw blood spray. 

Then an invisible club came down on Ginger, and a lump of black feathers dropped to the rooftop.

Oh, that was it. Charlotte launched, landed, her back to Bruce, her sword flashing, edge to sword-blades sensed but unseen, flat, as hard as she could to invisible heads. 

This was not, unfortunately, going to last long. She had a moment to consider whether she really had to use deadly force, then something nudged her, hard, on the back. 

Charlotte switched to a one handed grip on her sword, parried a spearthrust, which, she wished she could mention to the average martial arts movie director, was way harder than it looked, and reached back, pulling – 3D glasses?—away from Bruce’s hand. “Put them on!” He shouted. 

Charlotte did. The lenses sucked up against her fatigue hoods like they were vacuum cups, and now the light falling on her face was strange and red. Neat! A

nd, suddenly, she could see a rooftop full of ninjas all around them, standing oh so close, probing and pushing, not too hard. Except for the one coming at her, stealthy and low, holding his sort ninja sword ready to disembowel her right now. 

Charlotte landed a solid kick in the woman’s face. She folded. Charlotte took a long, appraising look at the others. “Peekaboo!” 

The nearest ones had just enough time to get clear of the sweep of the Pearl Harmony Sword before it landed. As she planned.

She brought up her weapon in an ironic salute. “Scared, guys? You should be. This is my magic sword, and it is very, very sharp.”

“Stop clowning and text—“ Bruce hissed.

“So five microseconds ago,” Rose announced as she finished coldcocking the ninjas. “Ow. Concussions for everybody! Thanks for the infrared goggles, by the way, Bruce.”

“Why did give Rose a set and hold out on me?”

“Not just me,” Rose said, gesturing at the sky in the direction of Queen’s Hill, where the needfire and Twelve’s energy pulse lit the night.

“Because I-, I-“ Bruce stuttered.

“Probably wanted to surprise you. You’re the one who fought the invisible girl, and Bruce, you know, prepared, always wins the second fight, etc, etc.”

“Well, I couldn’t beat Eve if I didn’t have the freaking goggles!”

Strangely, the migdalar had not moved, or even tried to retreat. That was kind of freaky. Didn’t they know who they were dealing with? 

One of the pallid freaks held up its hand. Way too few fingers, thought Charlotte. But it seemed confident. 

“Never mind,” Charlotte answered. And then the pressure on Charlotte’s head came back, even harder. Rose and Bruce dropped to the ground, holding their heads. The lit streaks in the sky winked out. A moment later, as Charlotte clung to her sword and willed the pain out of her head, two bodies slammed the concrete around her. Dora and Twelve. In the same moment, Brian winked into the air, 

“By the Third Binding of—“ he had time to say before he slumped to the roof in his turn. 

That was the moment that the concussed ninjas stood up.. Or, in the case of the one at Charlotte’s feet, surged onto her knees and thrust upwards with her ninjato. 

Charlotte’s parry was so slow and clumsy that he actually drew blood, though on the bright side it was well-enough delivered to disarm the woman. She sidekicked, hard enough with focussed qi this time to physically lift the slight woman and throw her back out of easy range. Charlotte knew that the kick was hard enough to break a dozen ribs –but the woman would live. The problem was that if the will of the migdalars still animated her enough to get her on her feet, the sharp bone fragments would go right through her lungs, and that would kill her.

But the woman did not stir, just slumped where she was. One enemy dealt with, quite neatly, Charlotte thought. 

Or maybe not so neat. Maybe she’d done so well because the blow had been so clumsy. The standing ninjas were not acting like ninjas, lurching forward and waving their weapons uncertainly. “Oh, great,” Charlotte muttered. “My first zombie walk, and I can’t enjoy it because I have a migraine.”

Charlotte knew people with migraines. Strike that, Don had migraines, because of course the poor guy did. He said that sometimes he saw things. Right now, Charlotte was seeing things. Specifically, she saw letters of fire in her vision. “Your shields are strong, veal-calf. We know that sword of old. It will give us great pleasure to seal it in the secret places of the Earth, after we have feasted on your soft and tender mind.”

Ginger stirred at Charlotte’s feet, and the pain relented a little. She found the strength to parry the clumsy thrust of first one ninja, then the next. 

They left themselves completely open to counterstrokes, she noticed. They weren’t real TV zombies, she knew. A well-delivered routine and she would put down all the migdalars’ sharps brigade. 

Instead, she crossed her blade across the mask of the nearest standing ninja. The zombie comparison had been better than she knew. The face staring back at her was unfocussed and slack. Not so slack that the ninja couldn’t raise his short spear and bring it down towards a prostrate Twelve, though.

Betting that Twelve’s hide was strong enough to resist, Charlotte instead lunged out in a sweeping cut that would parry blows to both Brian and Dora. That succeeded well enough, but another ninja reached down and caught Dora by the heel of her boot, and pulled, as though to drag her out of range. 

Crap. Charlotte thought. The letters of fire in her mind’s eye changed. “We will eat you all, and there is nothing you can do about it, veal-calf. Are you ready to bawl for your dam yet?”

At her feet, a filthy aura lit the stirring Ginger, and the bird lapsed to lie still. 

More crap. Now, Charlotte felt a soft tickling from her arm. She looked down. The engraved Elven runes on her bracelet, the one that Scout had given her, were lit with the soft and familiarity of the needfire. Whole lot of auras going on, Charlotte thought. 

Gouts of fire from a nearby rooftop lit the migdalar where they stood. One went down forward, while a second was knocked off the parapet backwards into the dark. The rest seemed frozen in place. A mindless scream of rage split the night –and Charlotte’s head. Well, that was a new tactic, Charlotte thought. “Good to see you up, Dora,” she announced.

“Credit where credit is due, Char-Char,” Jamie Neilsen announced as she dropped onto the roof, her two absurdly large Colt Desert Eagles clenched in her fists as she delivered needfire-enhanced .50 calibre bullets into pallid, translucent torsos. 

Booker Crudup landed beside her, sword in one hand, and his magic pistol in the other. He snapped off three rounds as he landed, and a green, flowing, lenticular fog formed around the fallen and frozen migdalar. “That should hold them,” he announced. snapping rounds off steadily.

Then, without so much as a “We would have got away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids,” the migdalar vanished, and the ninjas collapsed back to the ground.

“Or maybe not,” Booker said, holstering his pistol. “Looks like they were holding out some kind of device of recall. Just what we need. Migdalar with tech support from the V’hanians.”

“Could be magic,” Jamie pointed out. “Works pretty good in Rivertown.” 

“Same diff,” Booker answered.

Charlotte looked at her friends, or, even more crap, rescuers. She hated feeling so helpless. “Thanks, guys. I think we were kind of in over our heads there. Where’s May and Beckie and the guys?”

Jamie just shook her head. “It’s just me and Booker, Char-Char. Had word that some new guys were muscling in on the things-fall-off-the-back-of-trucks business in Rivertown. With the hijackings last week, Booker figured that it might be V’han’s people.”

“Was it?”

“’Bout to find out. Now stay back for a second. There may be more of them down there.” Jamie stepped up on the parapet, and just stone cold jumped off, the duster that she and May both wore over their Tatammy fatigues fluttering up around her.

Jamie, Charlotte knew, couldn’t fly. 


Charlotte waited a moment, while her team recovered, and Ginger settled on her shoulder, and then flew down on Dora’s platform. Jamie and Booker –she’d never even seen him move—were standing at the bottom of a high, concrete platform that edged the back end of a warehouse. The delicious smell of baking brad fill the air, tinged with the smell of engine fumes, sharp gasoline and meaty diesel. Twelve trucks were backed up against the high bank, almost like boats at a dock. Eleven of them carried the “Homebake” logo in a subtly comforting design of warm blues, whites and reds. The twelfth was the Soul Kitchen.

Which was probably what was going on here. It would be awfully easy to load the trucks with something from the top of the concrete deck. Maybe fresh bread, Charlotte thought? Brilliant deduction! Most of the trucks had bread company logos, so that was the first clue. 

On the other hand, the other was driven by Mill. Charlotte looked around. There were ten or twelve people slumped on the ground, or in the drivers’ seat of the trucks, and more besides, awake, dressed in blue overalls and wearing orange hard hats, except for one in white, now gathered at the back of the dock. Those ones were awake, looking desperately curious about what was going on, but at the same time, not inclined to push forward and find out, if it meant getting their minds eaten. 

No-one likes getting their minds eaten. 

Finally, it seemed, after a long pause, the guy in the white hardhat stepped to the edge of the dock and looked down at Booker. He was fat, with the kind of slumped body that guys who were tired all the time got. Charlotte remembered it from her Mom’s boss at the diner. “What have we got here? Supers running a hijacking?”

Booker looked up at him. “You the manager here?”

“The manager starts at 9. I’m the Assistant, and you’re lucky I’m here. Is there any reason we shouldn’t call the police? I mean, except the part where we’ve got to ship a thousand trays of bread by 7?”

Booker thought about that. “No, there is not.”

“Excuse me, sir?” Charlotte asked.

“Yes, ma’am?” The assistant manager said.

Charlotte blushed, fortunately, under her mask where he couldn’t see it. She wasn’t a ‘ma’am.’ “Is the driver of the food truck here?”

He looked at her sharply. Booker looked at her sharply. Bruce just nodded. Well, it was his theory that this whole thing was staged to get at Mill. Or maybe them. Or was that just paranoid?

“No. Mill was a bit late, got pipped by the Homebake fleet. We were going to fit him in before the Piper & Norton corporate contract, next up. He’s across the street at the gas station, having a coffee.” 

Mill walked out from under one of the doors into the warehouse. “Not any more. Did I miss much.”

Booker looked up at him from the pavement. “You could say that. Any idea why migdalar might come ou tin the open and try to hijack you?”

Mill shrugged. “I have the wrong friends?” His gaze swept the youngsters gathered around Booker, from Brian to Dora. “Don’t worry, just kidding. You guys stick close to me, you’ll be alright.”

Booker looked back up at Mill for a long moment. “Yeah, probably,” then down at his watch, a more sophisticated version of the Tatammy wristphone. “Damn. ‘Nother hijacking uptown. Dollars gets you donuts this is a diversion, but we have to check it out, anyway.”

“You want us to come with you?” Bruce asked.

Jamie’s face took exactly the expression she had when she was looking after the preschool class that sometimes met in the Yurt. “No, you guys have important things to do at the Library, and maybe this is business for—“

“We get it. No time for babysitting.” Brian interrupted, scowling.

Booker and Jamie did not exactly rush to correct the apprentice Elven sorcerer. “We’ll talk to you guys later,” Booker said, “and you, Mill.”

“Anything else?” Mill asked. 

“Yeah,” Booker answered. He held out his hand. In it was a handful of simple, silver rings with signet plates on top with a rune picked out in the tiniest gemstones Charlotte had ever seen. Spare no expense! “Take these –guys.” There was a bit of hesitation, to let you know that what Booker really wanted to say was, ‘kids.’. “If you see migdalar again, twist the signet and pray. It’s got a built-in psionic shield, a homing beacon. You guys should be able to hold out until we get there. Watch it, though. Actual migdalar are a lot more dangerous than their mind thralls, if they lower themselves to fight humans hand to hand.”

And that was that. One of the factory workers led them through the storage area in the back and then the wide factory in the front, past forklifts moving loaded skids of flour one way and stacks and stacks of bread trays going the other. Pretty soon they were in a dingy corridor leading past a tiny, glassed-in-office that was, as far as Charlotte could tell, mostly filled with electronic stuff, some of it blinking the steady lights of working computer stuff, others half-disassembled, with the slightly chunky look of old-fashioned gear. In the corner of a wide desk, there was a tiny little work space, as though the secretary’s job had shrunk while the amount of old gear had expanded.

Or something like that. Frankly, Charlotte was going more on Uncle Henry’s stories about his office, about the difference between the “good old days” when he rated two secretaries, and the place crammed full of computers that never worked right, that he was only too glad to leave. Past the office, the corridor led to a door that was locked shut by a bar that didn’t look like it had been moved in a while, and, right next to it, a side door that looked like it had saved the company five dollars by being nearly not a door at all.

The worker pushed it open, and the wet, cold air of outside, driving back the smell of baking bread just a little bit. 

Charlotte led her team down onto the wet, slick pavement. It was time to head back to Queen’s Hill, to breakfast, and to the library. 

Because that was all they could handle.

As though reading her mind, Bruce muttered, “At least we’re allowed to follow up on Mill.”

“Worry about following up on those damn migdalar if the show up again,” Rose said. “I think we might be a bit out of our league.”

Ginger pulled lightly at Charlotte's hair, combing it with her beak, the way the bird had last year, when Charlotte was little.


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