Chapter 4, 47, And Opened the Gate
Charlotte plunged her phone into her pocket as she hit the turf, forcing the walk-light cam image of Chestnut and May and Jamie, back-to-back, firing at an encircling mass of orcs at 41st and Chestnut out of her mind. So help her, if Takofanes’ I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-a-Barbarian-Horde wrecked Saigon Cuisine, she’d feed the dried-up old creep Auralia, herself.
Not the time, though. So not the time. Across the green, across the wide street, she was looking at a hunched figure draped in a wrinkled, oversized, grey raincoat that clashed with a shapeless Tilly hat clamped to what might, arguably, from the fact that it was holding up a hat, if not from its shape, a head. But not because it was shaped wrong, or because it was a walking(?) fashion crime. No, because it was holding the Roman guy who’d come to the door off the ground by the throat, movie Big Bad-style. Said innocent(? So many assumptions!) dude was trying to breathe, and the rasping pain was going right through Charlotte’s body to her feet. Every cell of her body yearned to do something about that right now, and the fact that the guy doing the Darth Vader impression (Darth Vader, right? Or did he just do the choking thing with the Force?) was backed up by a bunch more heavy-set dudes in slightly less awful overcoats mattered not the slightest to Charlotte. Qi flowed in her, and she was on the scene only slightly after Rose flashed by, bowling the heavy-set guys aside with a high speed move.
So Charlotte went high, leading with a foot, going for the head. Unfortunately, the moment she made contact, she wished she hadn’t. What was beneath was the texture of rasping, school toilet tissue paper with something sticky on it you didn’t want to know anything more about, and it gave before her foot, but with tacky clinging to her Tatammy All-Weather Fatigues trouser legs.
With no resistance, her foot did not stop until it contacted the solid stone of the wall of the Casa di Cola di Rienza. Fair enough, Charlotte wasn’t exactly surprised, and the move was familiar enough by now. She doubled up on her flexing leg, then bounced, somersaulted, and came down in Crane mode, snapping a Snapping Rope kick with Eight Spirit Dragon speed as she came down. Anything but get her hands on the Tattered Man, whom she expected this to be.
Unfortunately, the kick, like the last, landed on something too dry and scratchy to be nothing, but no target worth hitting. And while she was unbalanced, an arm detached from the mass of the raincoat and clenched itself around her throat, in a grip as impossibly strong as the rest of the Tattered Man was impossibly tenuous. “Silly girl. You need to come up with something better than that,” came the Tattered Man’s crumbly voice.
Ginger settled on the top of the Tilly hat, and raked with her talons, bravely but ineffectually. The grip on Charlotte’s throat tightened. A roaring headache blossomed in her forehead as her vision narrowed.
Fortunately, it didn’t break her concentration, and the inner power of the Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu could be seen even to normal eyes as Charlotte slammed one hand into the Tattered Man’s elbow from below, the other into his biceps from above.
Not surprisingly, the ancient creature’s arm tore rather than broke, although on the joint just as it would for a normal man. The Tattered Man lurched back, almost as though he could feel pain, and the hat went flying in one direction as Ginger went in the other, talons raking down the exposed, mummified face of the villain. A green and mucilaginous fluid welled in the gashes, while a slow, almost Monty Pythonesque spurt came from the torn flap where an elbow should be.
Charlotte kicked the Tattered Man’s feet out from under him. “I did, actually. Figured with your attitude, you’d misunderestimate me. Go figure.”
If the Tattered Man got the incredibly clever, totally political reference, the tumbling, twirling rags gave no sign of it. Meanwhile, the liberated resident of the Casa di Cola di Rienza was by now running in the square, shouting for the “Polizia.”
At the end of his (it’s?) tumble, the Tattered Man stood up, and waved its remaining hand. The awful, stiff, sticky limb-thing in Charlotte’s hand vanished with the gesture, and the ruined things in the eyesocket holes of the wrinkled apricot that was the Tattered Man’s head gave just the slightest hint that he’d rethought the idea of giving his big villain monologue just right now. Then he faded through the door, just as an invisible force picked Charlotte up and threw her backwards.
When she landed, clear on her feet, Tiger stance, beside her friends, there was no sign of the Tattered Man, nor of most of his burly followers. Three, however, remained, bulky, strong, and now visibly headless. Dora gestured at them. “Hey, look, Migdalar. Glad you could join our fight, by the way, Char Char.”
The three of them were holding things in their hands. Glittery things, of lenses in holders and wires stretched taut in frames of mirror-finished springs. Charlotte recognised the gadgetry of technomagic. “Great,” she said. “We’ve got psionic shields, so they’ve got amplifiers.”
“Ahem,” Brian said. “In Untouchables, everyone knows that Sean Connery said something about bringing a knife to a gunfight. But that’s a call back. Earlier, he said something about how if one side brings psychic powers to a fistfight, you bring psionic shields. They bring psionic amplifiers. . . “
Migdalar didn’t have heads, nor eyes, so they couldn’t exchange meaningful glances in the moment before a solid wall of sound tried to pick Charlotte up and throw her down again. And since it originated behind the Migdalar, it hit them a lot harder.
And their amplifiers, even more so. Shards of glassy stuff and metally stuff and lensy stuff flew in the light of the Roman dawn.
“A sonic grenade,” Brian finished.
In the nacreous light of dawn, Charlotte launched herself forward with a shout. But before she could connect, Twelve, shrouded in a familiar light, stepped forward and landed a punch on the nearest Migdalar, a punch that levelled it and turned it briefly metallic gold.
“We’ve been practicing that trick,” Dora announced.
“Oh, so that’s what the kids are calling it these days,” Brian commented.
“Because sucking face is so fifteen minutes ago,” Rose explained.
“You guys are just jealous,” Dora snapped.
“Gonna sap your strength if you keep that up,” Brian observed.
Dora reached over and slapped Brian on the head.
Charlotte took a moment to realise that it hadn’t been Bruce who’d gone blue on that one.
The other two Migdalar, who apparently had no taste for pop culture at all, turned and ran through the open door of the Casa di Cola di Rienza.
“I can just feel the love,” Twelve muttered, as he heaved the fallen Migdalar up in a Mr. T. overhead grip and threw him through the air to land, very heavily, at the foot of the just-appearing Roman SWAT team, or whatever they called them in Italy.
Charlotte led her team through the doors and into the building that no-one other than the owners’ family had apparently been allowed into for four hundred years.
It was depressingly ordinary. The furniture did look old, but not expensive old, and neither did the few paintings on the wall, which were otherwise bare, and had just a few decorations. At the far end, on one side, was a kitchen nook, and, on the other, an old stone staircase leading up.
“Looks like the kind of place you might stay in when you were in Rome,” Rose said.
“As in?” Charlotte asked.
“Do we know anything, Rose?” Brian asked.
“No. Just speculating. Like, I’m imagining some old country house like in a BBC miniseries, and lots of wacky, aristocratic people. . . ”
“—Downton Abby,” Dora interrupted.
“Only in Italy,” Charlotte answered.
“—And they’re, like, ‘I’ve got to go down to the City for the weekend, so I need the keys to the old house.’ Because even though they’re incredibly rich, they’re too cheap to get a hotel room.”
Bruce shrugged. “It’s a theory. Now where the flying something is the Tattered Man and the altar of Mater Matuta and freaking Auralia.”
“Calm down,” Rose said. “I found a secret door—“ Rose disappeared and reappeared across the room just to the left of the breakfast nook. “Right here.”
Charlotte walked over to it. “I guess we’re going to smash the door down and fight more. Everyone ready for a boss battle?”
“Uhm, shouldn’t we get something to read, or something?” Bruce asked. “There’s probably going to be a five minute cut scene.”
“Point,” Charlotte said. “Okay. Let’s hope this isn’t the boss battle. Everyone remind me that we’ve got to stop off at a comic shop sometime today.”
“Actually,” Bruce began, “Comixology—“ And Charlotte smashed the door down.
Stairs. Oh, great. Catacomb. Rose had said there wouldn’t be a catacomb. But it figured, Charlotte thought, as she launched herself right off the spiralling stair into the darkness below. Fortunately, her fall was broken by the comfortable softness of a Migdalar’s headless shoulders. It crumpled under her, and she gave it some more heel as it went down.
Teach you for eating brains, Charlotte thought. And not the nice, zombie way, either.
The nacreous light of dawn blossomed over the scene as Charlotte stood up.
“Like it?” Dora asked, as she settled next to Charlotte. “Figured we’d go with your signature illumination for a change.”
“Thought you were mad at me for grandstanding back there,” Charlotte said.
“Nah. Trash talking, is all, Char Char. Look, light is my schtick, Maid of Gold all the time, and I know you’re missing your sword. Besides, Aurora. . .“ Charlotte stopped to focus on using a golden fist of light to swat down two Migdalar racing at them.
Charlotte went right through the bowled over forms, came up against two Migdalar, these wielding swords, duelling Bruce at the foot of the stairs, while, behind him, sorcerous casting discs of downright Ditkoish style illuminated the weird, sculpted finger shapes with which Brian was casting direct at the Tattered Man. The wizard in the middle, Charlotte thought, to shed some light.
More light, the Empyrean pulses, showed where Mario and Twelve were fighting above. “Pick on someone your own size,” Dora shouted, and gold light flashed upward. It was hard to imagine Twelve as small, but compared to Mario, he was, with his two year’s edge in age. Charlotte was amazed all over again that her brother never even paused before going after him.
Speaking of, Charlotte could now see her nemesises, nemeses, ,whatever, Eve and Madison, stood at the centre of the all-too small room that must be the sanctuary of the Mater Matuta. It was a low altar on the flagstones, surrounded by four stone columns, and one, oddly curved, of wood. Eve was holding –pan pipes. And in her other hand, not her usual spear and shield, but the Pearl Harmony Sword! Charlotte felt anger rising, a rude word she really shouldn’t use, ready to be spit out.
So this was probably an old subway tunnel, Charlotte thought, complete with annoying buskers. She put her annoyance into another foot sweep, coming in under the last-minute defensive sword parry of the Migdalar to Bruce’s left. It took a rap of Bruce’s truncheon on its unfortunately-not-vulnerable-at-all shoulder as it went down.
Bruce jumped down to stand beside Charlotte. The remaining Migdalar, instead of guarding the bottom of the stair, was backed into a corner. “Not a boss fight, I think” Bruce said.
The shrill sound of the pipes blew in the room. “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” Rose muttered. Charlotte glanced over, caught sight of Bruce doing air guitar.
“What?” She asked.
“Pink Floyd!” He sounded hurt that Charlotte didn’t recognise it. “Come on, you’re a Seventies girl!”
“I was more thinking Wind in the Willow,” Rose muttered.
“That was last summer! I’m so over last summer,” Charlotte protested.
The keening of the music somehow blended with the light of dawn. “Wait! Where’s Auralia? There’s no reason for it be hidden, I mean, no-one comes down here. . .”
“The pillar,” Rose answered. “It’s an aniconic idol.”
“A what now?” Brian asked, coming up beside them, his fingers still flickering through battle magic. “So. Do we kick butt, now?”
“In a minute,” Charlotte said, lunging at Madison, and letting her Eight Spirit Dragon Shield come up to take her chaos blast. Charlotte slid into it, ending up against the pillar, and striking the wood. The old, rotten wood, through which her hand passed like butler, to find something solid and metal, glowing orichalchum.
A sword. Like the Pearl Harmony, but vastly beyond it. And as her hand wrapped around the hilt, she heard a gentle, woman’s voice in her head.
“Oh, darling, this is not for you.” It was a voice of sadness, of regret, of not making the team. Like a magnet slipping away from another, Auralia slipped from her hand.
NOW. The malignant mental voice of a Migdalar sounded in the mental space of the room, and the lone Migdalar disappeared from his corner to appear beside Eve as she dropped the pipe and held out her hand to grab Auralia.
YOU MAY NOT WIELD THE SWORD, BUT IN THIS MOMENT YOU ARE BECOME ITS SQUIRE, DAUGHTER OF THE FIRST MORNING.
The Tattered Man squawked. “If you think this treachery is unanticipated—“
IT IS NOTHING OF THE KIND. I KNOW YOUR POWER, VARAKES THE ARCHLICH. YOUR MASTER WILL HAVE THE SWORD, AS SOON AS YOU DO AS YOU PROMISED.
The Migdalar vanished, and, along with it, Eve, Madison and Mario.
In the suddenly silent room, the Tattered Man –no, wait, Varakes—put down his hands. “It looks as though I have some more paperwork to do before I close this deal. You children wait here. I’ll be right back.”