Anyway, I used to be into Remembrance Day, back before it was cool. This year, I just sat at home and got ahead on my writing.
And put together a tribute to one of the scarier villains to come out of the obscure and excessive flood of science fiction and fantasy literature of my youth, whose like we will not see again, unless this country gets its family policy in order.
Book 4, 26: To Trouble
“You know I like to think of myself as sassy, right?” Charlotte glanced at Dora, and then around herself, cautiously, trying out the vision through Bruce’s infrared vision glasses. Even through them, the pavement of the hidden tunnel looked fresh and clean and black, and a white lane-divider strip in the middle was as fresh as the day it was painted. It was a road, all right, but it didn’t look like anyone had ever driven on it, and it was clear ahead up to a gentle curve leading slightly upwards and out of sight.
Well, so that was that. Charlotte turned to Dora. “So do I. So does Rose.”
“Nah,” Dora answered. “Rose is a nerd, and you’re kind of in between us.”
“Got that right,” Brian snorted.
“Thanks,” Dora said. “Twelve?”
“You shouldn’t let yourself be guided by stereotypes. You’re Dora, and you’re going to grow up to be a special person, but right now you’re a teenager, and basically just like every other teenager.”
“Figured you’d say that, Square-Man. Anyway, another way of saying ‘sassy.’ Is that you’re trouble. A troublemaker. So my point is, I’m looking down that road, and I suddenly appreciate what real trouble is, and I don’t want no part of it. Twelve’s got a point. Is what I’m getting at.”
Rose was suddenly beside them. “What’d I miss?”
Charlotte looked at her. “You’re the one who scouted down the Tunnel O’Doom ™, and you’re worried you missed something?”
Rose shrugged. “Sure,” Rose answered. “Nothing down there but empty pavement ‘till the road goes through another portal and hits Route 13 Uptown. Whereas from your expression, I think I missed some juicy gossip here.”
“Nah,” Charlotte put her hand to her eyes, like shading the mellow, not-too-bright orange light of the tunnels was going to let her see the invisible. “Just more politics from politics guy, and Little Ms. ‘I Have Misgivings About This Situation.’”
Rose wrapped her arms close around her body. “Misgivings? She’s not the only one, Char-Char. I heard a rock roll down the side of the tunnel about halfway down, and I pretty near tripped over my own feet. Which is not something you want to do when you’re busy holding it subsonic.”
“Halfway, you say. Hmm.” Charlotte waved the Pearl Harmony Sword. “That’ll be where the cannons are, then.”
“Don’t we need a plan?” Rose asked.
“Charlotte has a plan,” Twelve answered her. Wow. Charlotte thought. Some support. “What Twelve said.”
“But you can’t tell ….Oh,” Dora said. Charlotte would have corrected Dora, who had obviously finally remembered that Bruce was worried that they were being overheard, if it weren’t that her plan was so desperate and dumb.
On the other hand, there was no sign of Ginger, who would show up if Charlotte was really in danger. Unless migdalar magic were too much for Charlotte’s spirit guide.
And that was how they came to advance down the road, or shortcut, or maintenance tunnel, or whatever it was. With her team confident that Charlotte had a plan, and Charlotte confident that she was going to be in so much trouble when they got out of this. When. Not if.
Now, a race car would have taken the tunnel in fifteen seconds, but they weren’t race cars, so it was three minutes before they were around the first curve and in the middle of a very gentle chicane that coincided, according to Rose, with the middle of the route. Which is to say, the place where Rose heard the rocks falling was a block ahead, and they could see it easily in spite of the gentle curve of the tunnel walls, and then another block further before the curve cut off their vision.
Again Charlotte looked around, this time a desperate glance at the roof, in case the lights were down on supporting struts, or there was an information sign, something that would give a high route forward for someone of an acrobatic turn, who desperately wanted to be anywhere but down on the ground, walking straight forward into a trap.
Just at that moment, Charlotte’s phone began playing “The Way It Is.” Mill.
She picked it up. “Hey.”
“That The Redeeming Daughter?”
“Yeah. Busy superheroing right now.”
“You got shares of that hot superhero action? ‘Cuz the goddamn autobot you guys put down just got up and started shaking down those armoured cars.”
“Crap. We’ve been suckered.” She should have figured. Thief Handeln had been around for at least fifty thousand years. You had to figure that she would have a little experience in these things and some tricks up her sleeves. Why fight a bunch of superheroes when you could just lead them away from the action? I might have something for you.”
Charlotte turned to look at Brian. “Who can you teleport besides yourself?”
Brian shook his head. “Just me.”
Great, Charlotte thought. I might be splitting up the party, but at least it was into small groups. And, of course, emphasis on “might.” “Okay, Brian, teleport back to Mill, see if the police can use a few spells. Soon as Booker and Jamie and the rest of the team show up, point them at us.”
Brian vanished. The pieces were falling into place, Charlotte thought. Might be falling into place.
And that was when Ginger came swooping out of nowhere, flying down the left edge of the wall just as a series of stone niches spun open. Yellow talons reached out, and in the infrared vision of the goggles, a spume of impossibly bright, impossibly red fluid sprayed from behind the obscuring mass of the nearest of the spinning stone doors.
“Scatter!” Charlotte yelled, calling up her qi to speed her motions and form a shield in the air in front of her.
A hot wave of air, so powerful as to boost her on her way, pushed Charlotte on her way, and filled her nose with the sharp smell of electricity acting badly. Ozone, Charlotte thought. Air stripped out its electrons and superheated by the force of a powerful pulson blast. Thanks, superhero physics class!
You didn’t need equations to know you needed to get the lead out when someone was firing some kind of portable pulson gun at you, of course. Charlotte dodged again. Twelve flew by to her right, Dora to her left, making the kind of fast crossing target that drew missed fire.
A deep, slapping sound filled the tunnel, if that wasn’t the wrong word when it was one of those sounds that was so loud that your stomach felt it. As Charlotte finished her dive by tumbling to her feet, all her momentum towards the niche, the smell of ozone was replaced by the meaty smell of hot tar. The pulson fire at Dora and Twelve must have missed and hit the pavement behind them.
She hoped. That meant it was coming at a sharp angle downwards, of course, and, in front of her, Charlotte could see that one of the niches had opened high on the wall of the tunnel. The ones lower down were…
Charlotte twisted, dived, flipped, getting out of the way of the much smaller blasts being fired by whoever or whatever was behind the lower doors. They were dangerous, too. ‘
They also must have been spooked by how quickly Charlotte was making up ground, because both the bursts went well over head. Finishing her tumble with a sharp push-off, Charlotte went for the niche to furthest left, and was pushed on her way by another hot wind.
And she was there. The Pearl Harmony Sword’s blade sheered through the barrel of a pulson blaster that, at this range, she could now see sticking out from behind one the massive, hinged, concrete barrier, and then buried itself in the stone.
Except that it didn’t. As the glowing, oricalchum blade bit into the space that, to Charlotte’s eyes was heavy, present concrete, the stone vanished, and Charlotte was staring at a migdalar holding the butt of a mangled pulson blaster. In the infrared goggles, the monster’s massive, pallid body was streaked by thick, venuous tubes that blazed with the heat of migdalar blood.
A fresh splash on the thing’s shoulders showed where Ginger had struck. And, now coming out of the darkness, the little crow struck again. The thing’s hand went up in spastic reaction, and the useless weapon fell to the ground.
Down the line of the narrow walkway that edged the tunnel, Charlotte could now see a dozen migdalar, eight firing pulson guns at the elusive teens, the other four gathered round the Piper & Norton drivers, who were now staggering under the weight of big, cardboard boxes, presumably the ones taken from the truck.
Charlotte put both hands on the hilt of the Pearl Harmony, and gave the wounded migdalar nearest her the flat of her blade, pushing the power of the Eight Spirit Dragon Fist through the metal, sensing with some unearthly vision the power of her qi filling the crystalline matrices of the ancient metal, and pouring out as a purifying power into the frame of the migdalar.
Charlotte’s mental defence band, under her uniform, gave a sudden pulse of heat, and, distantly in her head, she felt the migdalar’s psionic scream of anguish at the involuntary lustration. Pallid flesh toppled behind her as the next nearest migdalar raised the muzzle of its pulson blaster towards her, only to recoil, unbalanced, a disconcertingly human-like foot probing desperately for the roadway beneath the narrow walkway as it was put off its balance by Rose suddenly grabbing the blaster, which now emptied itself at the speed of thought into the wall behind the exposed ambush, throwing pinpoint pricks of molten metal and much larger shards of stone shrapnel into the back of the migdalar.
Human screams mixed with the mental anguish of the telepathic subhumans. The truck drivers weren’t immune. Charlotte gave a silent prayer that they hadn’t been badly hurt as she jumped, her feet finding purchase on the wall of the tunnel halfway up to the niche where the big blaster was still dangling, frantically trying to get a bead on the teens who had gotten too close, too quickly. Then she was at the level, and the Pearl Harmony Sword was cutting through another barrel.
Unfortunately, once the illusion was swept away, it was obvious that there was no “niche,” no comfortable space up here for Charlotte to stand on, just a portable pulson cannon and its operator, tied to the wall by some kind of cradle of cables. So instead of staying to finish the job, Charlotte took the operator with a hard back-hand flat of the blade, ignoring the squawk of protest at the purifying power of the Pearl Harmony Sword, kicked off the wall and back flipped to the ground.
Her phone pinged: Charlotte looked at it.
[Brian]: Crazy out here. Got Esme Choker. Teleporting it and Mill back to Treasury.
As she collected herself, Charlotte had a good view of Twelve banging the –not the heads, shoulders?—of two migdalar together, and Dora using the telekinetic power of the Maid of Gold to pluck another monster away and throw it into the far tunnel wall. A white blur surrounded another, visibly wilting under the high-speed blows delivered by Rose.
This was too easy, Charlotte had a moment to think, before her band got almost too hot to hold, and then went cold. Uh oh.
Charlotte reached for a jammer grenade. She still had the Pearl Harmony Sword, and if the migdalar tried to mind control her friends, the grenades would probably take care of that.
Dora, Twelve and Rose suddenly fell to the ground, or, rather, it looked like they were pushed, by some massive, invisible hand.
“Charlotte! We’re pinned!” Twelve shouted in a strained voice.
Fortunately, they weren’t fighting a massive, invisible giant. They were fighting the six remaining Migdalar, who stood, frozen in place in rapt concentration, insofar as you could figure out the expressions of some weird little Krang-head set in the middle of an El Disgusto body. They were using telekinesis to hold down her friends. Neat trick, but presumably one that wouldn’t work on the bearer of the Pearl Harmony Sword. Not to mention her bracelet, whatever it did.
Charlotte shook her head. “You know, this is the problem with psionicists. You guys always have a few more tricks if the first one didn’t work out. The catch is, they aren’t very good tricks. Look at you, all concentrating away like that to hold my buddies out of action. Meanwhile, I’ve got a sword. Do you like being cut? Is that your idea of a good time? Because, frankly, I’ve never really seen myself as Miss Stabby Murderer 2012. I’ve got a, well, you can’t call her a friend, but an acquaintance who is probably gunning for the title, and it’d do her good to win it.”
Charlotte paused, bent down, and picked up an abandoned pulson blaster. “Well, not Miss Stabby Murderer, Madison’s more the ‘Miss Energy Blast Murderer’ type. But, hey, look, now I’ve got an energy blaster, too. So, what I’m saying is, let’s talk: about your needs, about our needs, about how you see this coming out, in a way that doesn’t involve me shooting you. Because, right now, seems to be your call.”
Ginger cawed, and Charlotte had a moment to fall into position. Not that it was going to do her any good, but you had to try.
A powerful, painful hands gripped Charlotte’s right arm, immobilising her sword, while another crashed through the receiver of the pulson rifle, shattering it. A musty smell, mixed with the sewer and wood gas undertones of rot, filled her nose. It was exactly how you’d figure that a guy who looked like Mr. Shabby Trenchcoat would smell.
“Hello. I’m the Tattered Man, and you are a girl who should have finished things when you had the chance.”
Charlotte spun, pulled with the thing’s grip, blocked low, flipped the thing. It lost its footing, fell forward, heavily.
But it didn’t lose its grip on her arm, unfortunately, and they ended up face to face.
Or “face” to face, because underneath that fedora –dirty, too, with an ugly grease blob on the rim—the thing’s face was as near-featureless as a CPR dummy. Her goggles picked up no heat off it, except, disgustingly, a residual ring like someone’s lips around the hole that passed for Tattered Man’s mouth.
“I couldn’t,” Charlotte said. “I was waiting for you to make your move.” Charlotte put the strength of her qi into matching the Tattered Man’s grip, moved quickly into a breaking move. Let us see, Charlotte thought, if dirty snapped as easily as real ones. Once free, she could see if this horrid thing could withstand the Pearl Harmony Sword
They didn’t. They didn’t need to, because the Tattered Man easily matched her strength and blocked her moves. Exactly, Charlotte thought, like someone who’d fought Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu before.
The Tattered Man’s face was too rudimentary, too immobile, to show satisfaction. “And you thought that you would be a match for me?” It pulled, and although Charlotte resisted with all of her strength, she was helpless to prevent herself from being drawn closer to the thing. Two yellowing fangs began to ease out of the thickness in the rim around the Tattered Man’s mouth-hole that some particularly creepy DeviantArt page would probably call ‘lips.’ If it weren’t that there had been as yet no sign that the Tattered Man’s mouth worked like a real human mouth, Charlotte would have sworn that she could see saliva gleaming on the fangs.
The Tattered Man made a sucking sound, and the saliva-like stuff disappeared. “Oh, I can just imagine what your Father will do when I tell him that I’ve tasted your blood, so young, so fresh, that I have taken you for mine. So sweet after the sick-sour corruption of migdalar blood, oh, yes.”
Well, Charlotte thought, here’s to a stupid plan, as she flowed into a ‘soft’ move, let the strength of the Tattered Man pull her right through and behind so that he was whirled around, the dirty, ragged back of the trenchcoat he was wearing, and whatever was beneath it, facing down the tunnel towards the spot where Rose had heard the rocks.
A rifle crack sharp, surprising, for all that Charlotte was expecting it, echoed down the tunnel, and the Tattered Man jerked, staggered. Another shot exploded the fedora off of his (its?) head, exposing the full head, so that Charlotte could see that it was finished in back with the same rubber imitation of flesh that made CPR dummies so creepy, but with scabrous areas of flaking rubber, yellow stained, with the irregular, cloudy edges of natural rot.
It looked a lot better with the .50 cal-sized hole that had just opened in the middle of it. More shots echoed.
The Tattered Man let go of Charlotte, fell back. She lifted the Pearl Harmony Sword above her head to strike, as he emptied both of his pockets on the ground.
Charlotte hesitated. She’d seen this act before. But it wasn’t little robots that the Tattered Man was throwing. It was . . .handkerchiefs? She looked at the one that had come out of the Tattered Man’s left pocket for a moment, and was rewarded by actually catching a glimpse of the moment in which it grew to giant size, like a giant, stained blanket, only reaching out with pseudopod-like, stained corners.
Charlotte parried, and was rewarded by a crunching feeling and a crunching sound, as though something stiff and impregnated with organic matter had turned into a weapon directed at her.
From the corner of her eye, she could see that the other one was headed down the roadway, in the direction that the shots had come from. Bullet holes appeared in it, before she had to turn and parry again.
Now the lower corners came at her, blocking, low, tripping, while the main body of the thing held, suspended in the air, not like it was flying, but rather like a piece of paper that was too light to fall to the ground. Charlotte dodged the first, then parried another attempt to wrap up the Pearl Harmony Sword, but could not evade the next move, another creepy slide along the ground that tangled her feet and put her down on her side.
Charlotte rolled, tried to recover. But it was too late. The blanket loomed over her head, then lashed downwards, wrapping her round.
Crusted fabric wrapped around Charlotte’s chest where she lay, driving the air out of her lungs. She felt that moment of panic you have when the breath is knocked out of you, and you don’t think that you can breathe.
And then her eyes were filled with golden light.
Dora was standing over her. “Stupid teleport crap. Next time you’re making plans, Char-Char, can you make a plan where the bad guys don’t have Get Out of Jail Free cards?”
Charlotte looked up at her friend. “The Tattered Man teleported away?” She wanted to talk to him at some point. About her Dad.
“Yeah,” Dora nodded. “And the migdalar, too.” Then she turned her head to look down the tunnel. “Ooh! Don’t touch it, Twelve! You don’t know where it’s been!”
A third of the way down, Twelve was tearing the other blanket-handkerchief thing apart with his bare hands, apparently not caring very much where it had been, or with who.
Charlotte stood up. “How’d you guys get free?”
“Remember those eight shots a moment ago? Eight bullets, eight migdalar. Scout’s a good shot.”
“If it’s Scout,” Charlotte answered. Please, please let it be Scout. “He killed them?”
“Rubber bullets.” Rose was there, standing beside her girlfriends, holding a huge, blunt bullet, the kind that might come out of a .50 sniper rifle in her outstretched hand. “I wouldn’t shoot these at a regular human, but at least he tried not to kill the freaky underground monsters. And the bullets bounced off, which hopefully counts for something. Also makes them hurt more, just FYI. Want to talk to the police? They’ll be here in a minute.”
Charlotte limped back to the ambush site as a patrol car came rolling up from the direction of Route 89, feeling the bruises from her collision with the road for the first time. Obviously, whatever had happened back at the ambush site a moment ago had finished happening.
The drivers were still there, sitting, looking scared, although less so now that the patrol car was there. But there was no sign of the boxes. Charlotte picked up her phone. “What happened to the boxes?”
“Thief Handeln,” Rose answered. “Showed up the moment we were immobilised, and you were tangled up with that lame dude in the trench coat and fedora.”
Charlotte reached the patrol car and looked down at the officer with his elbow at the window. “Hey, officer. Saved the drivers, anyway.”
“Redeeming Daughter?” The officer answered. Charlotte nodded. She had to get a shorter nickname at some point.
“Yeah, don’t sell your team short. You saved the Esme Choker, too.”
Charlotte nodded. She would have felt a lot better about that if she thought she had a grip on what Thief Handeln was up to, or the Tattered Man.
She looked down at the officer. “Think we can catch a ride to the Treasury with you?”
Scout would have to find his own ride. If he were coming. Charlotte needed to find Bruce, and see if he had any ideas about how the Tattered Man had figured out her secret identity.