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Chapter 4, 40, Grind It
This was not the kind of fight that Charlotte liked. She was unarmed, and Eve had a spear and shield. Fine, Charlotte thought. There were techniques to counter that, and Eve was an unskilled fighter. Unfortunately, she was Empyrean. That meant speed and strength. Not speed like a Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu adept, but speed, and far more strength than any human. Plus, there were the rest of the Paradigm Pirates. Madison was down, but there were still Mario, Mike Snow, three werewolves, and the grownups who might show up, too.
Charlotte missed her sword, but there was no point in worrying about it. She faced off against Eve, who was feinting with the spear. Now, she thought. Here it comes! To the right, too. Going for Charlotte’s dominant side meant a feint, right? Lashing down with her right hand in open palm style, Charlotte guided her hand across the lashing wooden shaft.
That, Charlotte knew, was what was expected. With the side of her eye, she examined the space beyond the line of the thrusting spear. They were fighting in an alleyway behind a Victorian bar. Inn, she guessed. Sounded better. Point was, rain-slick, cobbled pavement, overflowing trash bins. Facing them was Eve’s shield. Out of place for where Charlotte was, perfect to crush her into the grounded halls and up against the smoke-blackened, brick wall of the Galloping Goose.
That was where Eve wanted her. So. . . What was the move the girl imagined Charlotte making to get her there? Easy-peasy, put it that way. Charlotte wasn’t dumb enough to grip the shaft, anyway. Instead, her hand was on it, lightly, like when you were trying to push through a crowd with kids in it, and you put your hand to their heads, so gently they couldn’t even feel it.
So when the spear jerked back and to the left, the blade of the point didn’t cut through her fingers. Instead, Charlotte was already somersaulting, her touch going firm just long enough to toss her leaping body up. For a moment at the top of the arc, she was upside down and eye to eye with Eve. Charlotte had her shot, and took it, a quick left jab.
Not quick enough to beat Eve’s shield, but that wasn’t the point. As the Empyrean girl was still jerking her shield upward to cover her face, Charlotte was landing on left hand and foot, then launching into a low, spinning, blocking kick that caught Eve’s instinctively shifting left foot.
Just like that, a tall girl was falling, spasming in panic, red hair a floating cloud, and spear and shield both soaring through the air as Eve instinctively put her hands down to break her fall.
Bonus, Charlotte thought, jumping to retrieve Eve’s weapons. Her left hand slid through the band of the shield in midair, her right grasped the spear, and her fighting instincts brought the shield slashing down into the attack that Mario thought was going to be a surprised.
The massive blast of yet another Empyrean’s energy burst was enough to send Charlotte flying towards the wall of the Galloping Goose, but that was old news for the Redeeming Daughter, and Charlotte knew to bring her legs up to meet the wall.
And Mario had his own problems, was bouncing off his own set of walls, across the alley, but with a much more solid impact that seemed to shake the air. “Time to talk implicit privilege,” Twelve growled, a satisfied smirk on his face at the force of his flying tackle.
Charlotte dropped to the ground. “Watch it! There’s still the werewolves!” Charlotte shouted.
“Yeah, like I’d let Red Barricade here get bushwacked by some puppies!” Dora said from above. Charlotte looked up just as the Maid of Gold let her nimbus flare. Floating in mid-air, limned in needfire lights of gold, three over-sized, baffled-looking dogs hung.
In the light, Miss Smithe, young Master Goethe and Dr Smythe could be seen, tied up and gagged, leaned against the walls of the far buildings, their fashionable, heavy wool clothing probably pretty uncomfortable as it soaked up the rain.
Speaking of this thoroughly screwed up heist, Charlotte thought, she turned her attention back to Eve. Unfortunately, Eve hadn’t actually hit the ground. Stupid Empyreans, she thought. They can all fly. Charlotte would like to fly. Oh, well.
Eve sort of floated into an honest-to-gosh sitting position and gave Charlotte the ol’ stink eye without making a “Fight now!” move.
Okay, so truce. Weird, but Charlotte was thinking about talking, anyway.
Since Eve seemed to have recovered enough for a conversation, Charlotte looked her in the eye. “Ready to talk, girl? Met your Dad last weekend.” Okay, she thought, like this was an explanation that needed an explanation, like some rando on the Internet who couldn’t stop putting brackets in his brackets. This has got to sound strange, Eve,. She would say to the Eve in her head. We had all week at school, and I didn’t tell you this. But. .. Hoo-boy, Charlotte thought. I can’t say that I just didn’t want to talk to you. It would sound all Mean Girls. And, truth is, I di didn’t want to talk to Madison, and why do you hang out with her? That would be worse somehow.
Eve was staring at her, Charlotte noticed. Long pauses while you had conversations in your head would do that. And let’s not mind the fact that Eve might be able to read minds to start with. Charlotte shook her head. “Okay, start again. I’m worried about you, girl. Your Dad is an Empyrean, so he’s older than you. Well, I guess that’s pretty, like, obvious. But, I mean, your whole screwed-up family dynamics things goes way back. You’re supposed to be 90,000, right? Your Dad’s lots older, like, 200,000, or something? One of the second generation of Empyreans, anyway. So, point is, you were way grown up, you know, back when you had your memories” –back before your Dad wiped out your memories, Charlotte meant, and tried to beam that thing she wouldn’t say straight out her eyes at Eve, because it would just get her all defensive and stuff—“When he got your Mom killed.” Oh, you go, girl, Charlotte was thinking, like, drop the mike and boom, walk away.
Good thing she didn’t actually say that, because Eve didn’t react, just stared at Charlotte. Kind of like what happened when most people tried the whole drop the mike thing, actually. “So? Figured something like that. Dad’s got a plan, you know. A big plan. He’s going to save the world. And that takes sacrifices. Bet Mom was fine with it.”
Now Charlotte wasn’t trying to beam Deep Thoughts out her eyes. She was just googling. And not the looking for info on the Internet googling, either. Like when your eyes go big because you just cannot make words come out of your mouth that sound like what you’re feeling. Another long pause, then, at last, because you had to say something, “You can’t believe that. You’re just telling yourself that because you’re so in the tank for your Dad!”
“Yeah, takes one to know one! My Dad’s working on his plan, so you call him a supervillain. Your Dad is a supervillain. No plan, just suck up to whoever’s more powerful for the money and the chicks. I hear he’s even trying to kill you so he can inherit some family land? Maybe had you kids in the first place to set it up?”
Charlotte was sucking wind. How? No, wait. Noatar had spent decades creating a deep cover as her Grandfather’s neighbour, Mr. Sinclair. He probably heard all kinds of local rumours up there in the Okanogan in the years when he was setting it up to buy the slough back of Chinese Bar. False rumours, Charlotte told herself. They had to be false. But aloud, she said, “That’s not true.”
“Oh, not little Ms. Counsellor-Girl now, are you? Maybe you didn’t just lose your sword last week! Maybe you lost your groove, too. No more super-excellent advice!” Eve smirked. “Oh, hey, you ever wonder why we’re not fighting right now?”
Charlotte’s phone vibrated. Trouble. Bruce. But Bruce was still inside the Galloping Goose!
Oh. Oh. This was a diversion! “Wrap it up, guys!” Charlotte yelled, then turned, grabbing the open kitchen door of the Galloping Goose behind her in one hand and the jamb of the door with the other, two fingers each so that she could keep her grip on spear and shield. She kicked forward with one foot to put it on the inside latch, then launched off it to do a smooth aerial through the crowded kitchen, slamming through the swinging doors of the restaurant (right for out, like a restaurant girl knows) coming in fast, vertical, and four feet off the ground to give the minimal profile to a shooter, although she had her Eight Spirit Dragon energy shield stacked on top of Eve’s shield leading.
A massive impact, and a bang that filled her senses told her that she’d made the right call. Peering over her shield, she could see the gunman, a guy in Bill Murray’s massive Christmas hat from Scrooged, wild hair spraying out around the brim, and the rest of the outfit all Victorian formal wear but with a beard so big that she actually couldn’t see his chest. Bizarre. But, then, you expected bizarre when you were dealing with Avant Garde.
The shield planted itself firmly in the Avant Garde form. The heavy, clunky, revolver went flying. Charlotte landed. Bruce was fighting, billy club to blades, against four waiters with giant cleavers, the kind that Charlotte’s Grand-Dad had used for everything from cutting joints to mincing garlic. The waiters had all grown faux Victorian beards, all –dyed? Charlotte guessed that that was the right word-- in the colourfully awful floral fabric patterns of the furniture in Smythe House. That was Avant Garde for you. He’d be a lot more dangerous if he could just manage to take a form that blended in.
The other thing that didn’t blend in was the four guys who surrounded Brian, so that one even faced Charlotte. Brian was warding off their magic with a shield of his own. The enemy were fat guys, with the lumpy kind of fat that came out in places that just couldn’t be healthy, with strand, unkempt hair sticking out under Santa Claus hats. The one facing her was actually leaning on a walker, his mouth open to show broken, snarly teeth, and a weeping sore on his forehead. His eyes glared with madness, and a brown, ugly energy spiralled off him to probe at Brian’s shield.
Which seemed to be wavering. There was exactly as much screaming and running and huddling and hiding as you’d expect when a fight broke out in the middle of a tavern, and for a moment Charlotte couldn’t place all the guests from what had just been an engagement party.
Then, Bruce gestured to the front. There, the sixth and, according to their briefings, last Avant Garde form, this one done up in a sailor suit like the guy playing an overgrown child in some stupid comedy, had Assistant Vice Director Nazfre slung over his shoulder. He had the front door open and was about to leave through it.
Well, Charlotte thought, on the one hand, crap. On the other, if anyone deserved being slung over a kidnapper’s shoulder and taken as a hostage, it was the Assistant Vice-Director.
Bruce dodged a massive cleaver sweep and jumped onto a table, kicking the off-balanced waiter-impersonator in the jaw as he did so. “Go! Follow him! I’ll help Brian!” He shouted.
Charlotte took a look at Bruce, trying to figure out exactly how she felt about that, but she could hardly disagree with the advice. With a hop, she jumped from table to table and, leading with the shield, right through the framed window beside the now-closed door, rolling on the street below, coming up. . .
Ready for a long chase, it looked like, because in the moment she’d taken to get clear the Galloping Goose and back out into the evening rain, Avant Garde had managed to get onto one of those silly old big-wheel bikes, in spite if still having the tiny Assistant Vice-Director over his shoulder. The bike, with an audible creaking, was pulling away down the street.
Charlotte threw the spear after him. Not at the guy, which she figured probably wouldn’t work, even if she was down with actually killing an Avant Garde duplicate, which she wasn’t, but at the spokes of the big wheel. Charlotte patted herself on the back in her head at her own smarts.
Only the spear just blew up in mid-air. Oops. The spear was sabotaged! Someone was even smarter. Charlotte eyed her shield for a moment, but, there being no railing to ride down on it, Orlando Bloom-style (sexy Elven young Orlando Bloom style), she didn’t have much use for it, anyway, and who knew if it was going to explode. So, she threw it down and hoofed if after the bad guy on the bike, channelling her qi through her legs to boost her running speed.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Worse, at the first corner, Avant Garde skittered by a coach, scaring the horses, and headed directly for the mouth of a street leading downhill. Seriously downhill. This part of Queen’s Hill, Charlotte knew from walking to the bus and back, was seriously steep.
Charlotte, vaulting the horses, sprinted so hard her lungs ached, trying to keep the shapechanger in sight. Because the moment she lost him, he was going to change his looks, and probably hide Nazfre in some kind of weirdo-approved suitcase or something, and this heist would be one for the books. Probably end up with the Professor springing his kids, again, too.
That was when the familiar clatter of a board hitting the road came behind her, along with the hint of a grind. “Heads up, Char-Char!” Bruce shouted.
Charlotte hopped, let the longboard pass under her, then landed on it, let gravity take her. Boards, even longboards, weren’t a match for bikes. Except on a hill, maybe, so she got low, crouching forward, let her arms trail behind her to balance the wobbles of the board as it hit the cracks in the cobblestones.
“Bike’s not geared at all!” Bruce shouted behind her. “He can’t peddle!”
No, Charlotte thought, but he can turn. She leaned for the curve at the bottom of the street, the fingers of her left hand dabbling at the road. Then the buildings at the bottom of the weirdly sinuous street were on her, and she carved hard, feeling the gees coming up at her through her legs. Bruce slid in behind.
She couldn’t help herself. “Come on, Boy Wonder!”
And then he slid by her, leaning into the curve even harder. “You come on, Kung Fu Girl!”
Hilarious. Charlotte leaned forward even harder, trying to nurse every last bit of the momentum from the slide down from the top of the hill. Avant Garde was almost close enough to touch, it seemed, but nothing cracked the too-cool-to-care expression on his face.
Worse, the street was levelling out, and the distance began to open up. Avant Garde began to peddle furiously. He was not, Charlotte suspected, going to hit another hill. They were not going to catch him, unless traffic—
A guy came out of a sidestreet pushing a wheeled cart stacked with loaves of bread. A familiar guy, Charlotte thought, as she watched Avant Garde desperately brake and swerve to miss the sudden obstruction.
Charlotte didn’t see the need, instead going flat low on the board to shoot right under the cart. “Hey!” the guy pushing the cart yelled.
“Is for horses!” Charlotte yelled. Neener neener, she thought, carving left, dragging hand, pulling up left and around to come at the bike from ahead, if it went the direction she figured.
It did, and, suddenly, she was heading directly at the bike, Bruce still right behind her.
Charlotte had a moment to figure the angles, think it through, before she jumped off the long board into a flying kick, foot on a collision course with Avant Garde’s hunched over body. Bruce better be on his toes, she thought. This impact wouldn’t kill Charlotte, and it wouldn’t kill Avant Garde, whether or not he could be killed by losing a duplicate, but it would be hard on the Assistant Vice-Director. Teach her a lesson about taking a paladin’s magic sword away, maybe, but still. . .
Charlotte was in mid-air by the time she realised that she’d thought of herself as a paladin. Kind of distracting, really, not that she needed distracting or anything from any uncomfortable thoughts about recent conversations in the moment before her foot slammed directly into Avant Garde.
There was a clatter behind her as the bike fell while she and her victim were still in mid-air with the momentum of speeding boards and bikes and jumping people. I am, Charlotte thought, in mid-air and going very, very fast. I really should start thinking about how I plan my second date with Mother Earth. Maybe not let it get to third base? But who ever had dirty thoughts about the ground?
Then she hit the ground in her tuck roll, and it was like every moment she’d ever been in a roller coaster or a carny ride or on skis when she hit the bottom and speed turned into impact. She couldn’t help it. She was grinning and giddy as she came out of her landing tuck roll, feet firmly planted, looking at Avant Garde as he bonelessly skittered to a stop. Above her, swinging in a neat pendulum from a lamp post by his line, was Bruce, with Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre in his arms like a classic Forties girl-in-distress in an old Batman cartoon.
A dull sense of impact suggested that Charlotte might have some bruises when the adrenaline wore off, but it didn’t matter. She walked over to Avant Garde. “Nice try,” she said.
Avant Garde managed to pull himself up into something approaching a sitting position. His hat was long gone, and the bow at his neck was half-untied and skewed all the way round to his shoulder. A great rip rent the fabric of his blue jacket, and his leg stuck out at a weird angle that made Charlotte sick to her stomach just to see it.
He didn’t say anything.
“So what’s all this, then, anyway?” Mill asked as he came up beside her.
“Kidnapping attempt.” Bruce answered as he dropped from the lamp-post.
“Among other things.” Avant Garde’s expression finally broke. Into a very unpleasant grin.
The familiar wrinkling in space that let you know that someone was doing that teleport-in-at the-last-minute to make some trouble was the only warning Charlotte had before the weird, fat guys who’d been fighting Brian in the Galloping Goose appeared around Bruce, Charlotte, Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre, and Mill.
“The Belly Bottom Boys,” Mill said, in a tone of recognition. He nodded his head at Avant Garde. “You have an interesting taste in friends for an out-of-towner.”