Book 4, 24, In The Night Market
Just like that, the crowd surged, and Telus was out of sight. Charlotte looked straight at the seven-foot tall, bare-chested man in a canvas skirt, apparently oblivious to the evening cold that raised goosebumps on his skin, and said, in her firmest voice, “Excuse me, please.”
Then she put her head down to slide under the basket of hissing snakes that levered out over his shoulder, put her shoulder in the gap between the man and the bent-over woman carrying a small bundle of sticks by a hanging strap, like an old-fashioned book bundle, and pushed.
There was, for some reason, a gap behind the man with the basket of snakes, so that Charlotte could stretch up onto her tippy-toes like a ballerina, if a ballerina were as tall as a model. Her horse was still there, hitched to a precarious-looking post, propped up by broken slabs of concrete leaning in its base.
Of course, her horse had used his magic powers to transport himself from the Smith mansion, or wherever he was hanging out right now to the Night Market inside the outer gates of Babylon, so the hitching post was just for show. She gave Telus a glare to let him know that she was onto him.
Telus twitched his tail and tossed his mane, as though to say (although, being a magic horse, he was perfectly capable of talking if he wanted to) that she could try just being grateful.
And Charlotte was. The Night Market was a low-science, high magic zone down by the river. Charlotte pictured growing up in a trailer park outside of Babylon that happened to border on an old-fashioned road, thronging with ox caravans and mountebanks, hedge wizards, barbarians, thieves and banth riders, all coming to try their luck in Babylon. Or tried to picture it, anyway. It was beyond her imagination. Point was, if she was going to chase four supervillains through the Night Market, she could use a horse. And maybe even her own pet bird, for scouting, like in some lame Matthew Broderick movie from the 80s. Not that Ginger was any more a pet than Telus, but there her crow was standing on Telus’s saddle pommel, preening her wing feathers, but with one keen eye locked on Charlotte, as though to say, “And what’s happening with your hair, girl? You know that Scout’s probably watching you.”
Actually, Charlotte didn’t know that at all. What she knew was that that brief glimpse of her animal companions was brought to an end when a man, even taller than the shaved-head giant with the snakes, was brought in front of her by the swirling crowds. He was thin, though, you could tell, under the blanket poncho that draped a jacket and pants of stretched, buckskin leather, under a leather hat so big and floppy that Charlotte could barely make out that he looked –well, he looked completely different from Scout, even granted that Charlotte had only ever seen Scout wearing a bandanna that covered half his face. It was the eyes that told, too close set and beady, though the right, sky-blue colour. What would be the odds of just running into Scout in the crowd, after all.
But the thought wouldn’t go away, and as Charlotte edged past the cowboy-kinda-looking guy, her hand went up, somehow of its own, to the pony tail on her back, to touch and carefully gauge the extent of frizz that the cold and humid night was bringing on.
Way too much. She wished she had a minute, and a brush, but this wasn’t the time. Past the man, she was finally at Telus’s side. Just for appearance’s sake, Charlotte lifted her horse’s reins off the hitching post, catching a glimpse of the cooking tent on the other side of the horse, where a pale-skinned pygmy was flipping sausages off a grill with quick flicks of a wooden tong into a heavy-looking paper tray filled with something hot that Charlotte couldn’t see, but from the smell must include fried onions and cabbage.
Then she mounted her horse with a quick movement. Ginger squawked and took the air as Charlotte surveyed the night market. She was far above the crowd –except for the stilt walkers here and there, and stages scattered across the grounds from which people yelled and sang and ranted. It felt like all eyes were on her, but she was probably imagining things.
With shining sparkles, Kawai appeared next to Telus, as Dora dropped into her rainbow-coloured, unicorn pony from on high. Okay, Charlotte thought, now everyone’s looking at us. But she held her tongue, because Dora was being Dora, and because Telus nickered a friendly and familiar ‘How you doing” at Kawaii. Charlotte gave her horse a squeeze, to let him know that this wasn’t the time to be making time with the lady horses. Telus gave his head a shake, and Kawai darted in, as though to take a nip out of him, to let him know that he was to mind his manners.
Charlotte looked over at Dora as she landed. “Like the sparkles.”
“Me, not so much,” her friend answered. She gestured up at the sky, to the wake of Twelve’s ionic plasma-powered flight. “Why does he get Kirby dots?”
“Because he’s an Empyrean?”
“I’m going to have Kirby dots, you know.”
“Working on it.”
“They are cool.”
“Yeah…” Dora answered, her voice trailing off as though she was thinking of something else. “So, are we still looking for the Brain Trust, or are we just going to hang out at the Night Market? Because there’s a food tent about a hundred feet that way that’s doing deep-fried rattlesnake with Sriracha batter.”
“I, uhm, yuck? We have a mission.”
Rose slowed to visibility in the space between Telus and Kawai. “Besides, those dudes still have Charlotte’s sword. Though if we do stick around, there’s a table past the rattlesnake tent with Burberry bags.”
“Which,” Charlotte pointed out, “We can’t afford. Even at Night Market prices.” She waved at the posted price sign for assorted sausage-and-stuff meals. Babylon was expensive.
“So we borrow from Bruce. I don’t mind giving up my allowance for a few months for a Burberry from Babylon.”
“Speaking of,” Charlotte said.
“No sign of him?” Brian said, beside her. “This is awesome. All my spells are tots working. Invisibility, Dimension Door, phasing. I can go anywhere in this place.”
“Maybe check out the inner gates?” Charlotte waved at the inner walls of the City of Babylon, visible in the distance, which, she assumed, marked the limits of the Night Market.
“Will do,” Bruce said, vanishing. Charlotte looked around. She didn’t expect to see Bruce, but she was still surprised at how worried she was that she didn’t. He could take care of himself, she reminded herself.
She edged Telus forward. The crowd parted in front of them, a fire juggler stepping back so dextrously that he didn’t even break his routine. At the top of its arc, the burning torches seemed to pass in front of the Goblin Moon. Which, somehow, down here in the Night Market, managed to look like the real Moon, and maybe even was.
It was a useful reminder that the Wild Hunt was still on.
Kawai, instead of following Telus’s lead, took to the air. Charlotte felt a moment of jealousy, but pushed it down. Dora had a flying rainbow unicorn pony. Kawai still wasn’t half as cool as her yellow-earth, blood-sweating stallion of the west. Rose took off, too, and, in a moment, it was just Charlotte, on Telus, edging their way through the thronging crowd, while somewhere above, Ginger scanned the crowd.
They came to a corridor, closed off with a thick chain held up by thick bundles of twigs, tightly tied around axes with their hafts sunk in the muddy ground and their iron blades supporting the chains. At each of the bundles, a man stood, in chain mail, with a shield propped against the ground and a long spear in his other hand. The shields bore the logo of the Babylon Police Department, and badges were worked into the metal of their mail.
As Telus stepped up to them, an officer saluted her and lifted the chain from the nearest axhead. “Do you require any further assistance, Justiciar?” He asked.
She looked at him, floored. But, of course, in a place like this, the police would take a paladin seriously. Charlotte just wished that she took paladins seriously, as she urged Telus through the barrier and into the narrow, cleared police path. (Which still managed to have entirely too many hands, feet, and even bodies in it, because the police couldn’t be everywhere at once.) Frankly, as she moved through the crowd, scanning it for familiar faces –or floating brains-in-tanks, whatever—she felt more like the RCMP squad cars that used to ghost slowly through the trailer park, looking for trouble.
Or her Dad. Charlotte pushed down the anger of that thought. It wasn’t the RCMP’s fault that she could never see her Dad. It was –well, it was somebody’s.
At that moment, there was a flare of light in the sky ahead and towards the inner gates. Kirby crackles, alright, and princess sparkles, too. Twelve and Dora had run into trouble. She urged Telus forward, trusting to his unearthly agility to keep from trampling people.
From her left, a broad, fat woman, dressed in bright robes and scarves of fluttering silk, with a transparent veil over her eyes suspended from multiple eyebrow-piercing rings moved aside from an equally fat man in a top hat and Regency-style riding coat and breeches, familiar from a thousand Hope Municipal Library-borrowed romance novels on her mother’s bedside table, except for the part where the man’s white stockings just barely showed above calf-high green, rubber boots.
Between them came a black horse, and, on it, a young man in a white Stetson and a yellow bandanna, wearing a long, green greatcoat that hung down to the worn, brown leather boots. Young man? No, boy, just overgrown, on second thought.
The rider shifted in the saddle, just a little, not urging, because his horse needed no urging. It took the chain without breaking stride and at so acute and angle that he cantering, next to Charlotte.
“Howdy, Miss Wong,” Scout said. “Be obliged if’n I could lend a hand.”
Charlotte risked a glance into those deep pools of eyes that framed that perfect nose-bridge and the spit-curl of blond hair above. Her stomach turned, and for a moment she wondered if she was going to fall of her horse, until a bemused snort from Telus’s direction brought her to her senses.
“The obligation would be all ours, cowboy. Come on!” Telus sped ahead, then checked to make sure that the black could keep up. It was a fine looking horse, and a good horse, but no match for Telus.
“Hunh. My guns don’t work here, and you don’t have your sword. Tricky fight.”
“I’ve still got my kung fu,” Charlotte answered. Scout didn’t say anything, just reached down to his saddle bow and lifted a coiled lariat.
A moment at full speed, and they were at the commotion. It was one of the stages, the one nearest to the middle gate. Twelve was in the middle, locked in a clinch with Ape-Plus. This close, they could hear the genetically-augmented gorilla’s challenging roars. Full-grown ape and half-grown Empyrean clone seemed evenly matched.
Black Mist hung in mid-air, held by a glowing hand. Bigsby’s Grasping Hand? Really? Charlotte thought for a second, before Lynx came leaping over a burning cauldron, landing on Twelve’s back, claws seeking his exposed throat. For just a second before more princess sparkles came from Dora’s outstretched hand as she swooped in on Kawai. A lancing, glittery burst sent Lynx flying back the way she came.
“Get the Hell away from him, Smelly Cat!” Dora yelled.
But where was Rose? Long experience led Charlotte to scan the ground, and, of course, there she was. First to the fight, bit off more than she could chew, as usual.
On the ground, that is, right below a covered wagon that might make good cover for—Before Charlotte could complete even the thought, the shiny, glass dome of the Overbrain burst through the canvas cover. Dora froze in mid-air, and Black Mist fell to the ground, just as Lynx gathered herself to jump back into action.
“Get the Overbrain!” Charlotte yelled as she launched herself off her saddle pommel at Lynx. They met in mid-air, girl and cat-girl, as a lariat loop settled over the Overbrain’s carapace with a firm grip.
Hopefully, the D&D thing would continue, and the Overbrain wouldn’t be able to cast psionically while grappled, Charlotte thought before she focused on the close, tumbling, mid-air battle of grips, locks, and breaks. A moment later, the two combatants landed on the stage. Charlotte almost stepped on the performer, a girl in a long, dark dress that went with her black hair, all that was loose and long and flowing gathered up around her as she sat, legs wrapped around crossed legs, taking in the fight, apparently more amused than frightened.
Not a healthy attitude, Charlotte thought-shouted at the singer as she took up Tiger stance and countered a flurry of open-hand, claw-swipe attacks from Lynx. This couldn’t last long. Charlotte was more nearly matched against Lynx than the male combatants. (Because the Overbrain was a chauvinist pig-disembodied brain and wouldn’t hire a good woman.) But Lynx was still a grown woman, with an edge in strength, durability and endurance.
Besides those stupid claws.
They were five on four (six on four, if she were wrong, and Brian was really here himself, and not disguised as Scout), not counting Telus and Kawai, but they were outmatched by the grownups, Charlotte thought, blocking Lynx’s catlike legs with her own footwork, but they were all outmatched.
Through the crowd below them, a knot of Babylon PD men came pushing. Mill, surprisingly enough, was at their head, now wearing a breastplate and carrying a sword in one hand and a torch in the other. Locking eyes with Charlotte, he grinned and blew on the torch, the blast of breath picking up a bubble of flame that turned into a fireball and lanced into the ground, unerringly silhouetting the Overbrain.
A white flash of nothing passed in front of Charlotte’s eyes. A moment later, it passed. The Brain Trust was nowhere to be seen. Mill was standing next to Charlotte on the stage, grinning.
She looked at him. “What are you doing here?”
Mill held out his hand. He was holding an Auxiliary Officer’s badge. Charlotte glanced at it. It was suspiciously new looking, and blank. Yeah, right, whatever. “Where’s the Brain Trust?”
Mill pulled a monocle hanging on a chain up, and put it on his right eye. “Nice items, hunh? Done a dungeon dive a time or two. They’re trying to escape into the city.”
They’d gone through the gates, somehow, in other words. “Twelve, Dora! Above the gates! Watch for anyone suspicious.” Charlotte shouted.
“A second,” Dora yelled. “I’m getting Rose!” Kawai swooped again, and Dora gathered up a reviving Rose with a glittery, telekinetic hand and dropped her behind the saddle, then began to lift off again, flying right over the stage as she did so.
Only to be picked off by some invisible force and sent tumbling, head over heels. Twelve peeled out of the air to pluck her out of the sky before she could hit anything. Looking down the sightline, she fancied that she could see the Overbrain’s dome glinting in the Goblin Moon on top of the wall. Scout urged his horse towards the clangy-spiky-gatey thing that went behind the drawbridge, and a magic bolt launched itself from the darkness at the Overbrain, but it was all futile. , and Charlotte’s plan was wrecked before it even started.
But then Mill reached up to grab Kawai’s mane and pulled himself into the rainbow unicorn flying pony’s saddle.
“This isn’t what it looks like!” Mill yelled as the pony took off for the gate and the sky, and the city streets beyond. Whatever that meant.
Charlotte jumped down onto Telus, and rode at the gate. She had a hunch –A hunch that came true as the portcullis suddenly rose just as she rode by Scout’s now riderless black horse, into the arch of the gate, and through.
On the cobbled streets beyond, fronted by tall buildings with cream-and-yellow stucco over neatly finished stone, Mill was fencing with Dark Mist, the Overmind was hanging in mid-air, not doing anything, and Rose was flitting here and there, trying to distract. Ape Plus was –yeah, you’re not doing that, Charlotte thought to herself, urging Telus straight into the big gorilla with a satisfyingly solid smack.
At the sight of the involuntarily-flying gorilla, Lynx stopped dodging just long enough for Rose to grab her arm and pull it into a come-along hold. That might not have been enough, had Charlotte not jumped down and grabbed the cat-girl’s other arm.
A moment later, Twelve swooped down to secure Ape-Plus, and Brian materialised next to Overbrain. “Okay, I think between Dora and me, we can keep this guy quiet!” He announced.
Charlotte looked around at the gathering police. A wagon pulled up, and Mr. Taurling got out, accompanied two plainclothesmen, one in a dignified gentleman’s doublet and tights, with a sword at his side, the other in a monk’s habit, except with a leather belt from which hung all kinds of weird instruments.
There was no sign of Scout.
“We’ll take custody of these miscreants,” said the gentleman.
“Yes, Milord,” said the nearest patrol officer.
Then he addressed himself to Charlotte. “I believe the city owes you and your friends a debt of gratitude, on top of the one you earned this morning.” He paused, as though sensing her distress. “But?”
“My sword! The disembodied brain dude stole my sword!”
Turning with an athletic, full body swing, complete with fist on hip, like some kind of swashbuckling movie guy, Milord rounded on the Overbrain.” What have you done with Milady’s sword?”
Charlotte blushed. She was no Milady. She was a trailer park girl. Didn’t mean she wasn’t flattered, though.
The tinny, artificial voice of the Overbrain brayed laughter. “You’re too late! We met a buyer when we were casing the Library, and I’ve already delivered it by teleport!”
“A paladin’s sword is a mighty instrument of good, sirrah. You will pay dearly if anything happens to it.”
“Fah, with the dichotomies of your mindless, Manichaean morality. That blade is a link to ages agone, times before history. It belongs to science, not some gawking, gangly, teenaged, would-be righter of wrongs!”
Charlotte was reduced to glaring at the Overbrain. She was not gawky. And she wanted her sword!
“Ahem,” Mr. Taurling said, hesitantly. “Perhaps I could be of some assistance.”