|In Sacramento, I'm told.|
Book 5, Chapter 19, Second Sword
Block! Parry! Thrust! Spin! In Charlotte’s mind, the sequence of moves had a very definite ending. Which was Daffy Duck’s beak going sproinging up.
That was not how Charlotte wanted this to end. She and the Fourth Sword of Aphasium weren’t fighting with cartoon staffs. They were fighting with swords. Very, very pointy swords. The kind that punch holes in people. You know, the holes that led blood out. I need that stuff to live! She protested to herself.
Oh, sure, be glib, she thought to herself, as she barely took a high slash in bind, and summoned all Eight Spirit Dragon discipline to give her the strength to throw the Fourth Sword off. If something doesn’t happen soon, the Forth Sword’s unbelievably fast, unbelievably skilled attack would get through, and Charlotte would fall, and so would her friends.
As she thought that, the Fourth Sword came in low to the left, very fast. There was probably a technical name for the move that she couldn’t remember right now, but point was, it was one of Cousin Henry’s favourites, and Charlotte knew a parry that set her up for a riposte.
Needle sharp, the Pearl Harmony Sword sought the Fourth Sword’s guts, right through his bare blue skin, and his bare, blue, very nice sixpack.
Only to stop, blunted, by something.
Worse, blinding pain. The Fourth Sword saw it coming, because, all of a sudden, his sword was standing out of Charlotte’s left shoulder.
Charlotte looked at the blood-covered blade, looked at the Fourth Sword’s expression of grim triumph, and, very deliberately commented herself to the Bhaisajyaguru, the omniscient physician Buddha who relieves all injury. Blessed Mother Mary, preserve this poor sinner.
And, very deliberately, all heedless of the pain and damage it would do, she tore herself off the blade.
Blood spurted, pain almost beyond control, perhaps actually beyond it, had she not lost some nerves. And, yet, through it, the help that she could never deserve, a soothing, rectifying effect. The blood stopped. The wound closed.
“Paladin, eh? I’ve seen that trick, and beaten it, too.” The Fourth Sword circled the tip of his bloody blade.
“You cheat, too,” Charlotte pointed out. “You’ve got some kind of force field going on.” Well, to be honest, she did, too, part of the esoteric technique of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu.
Without saying anything, the Fourth Sword patted his belt, and grinned.
But she was fifteen, and fighting a grownup! And then Charlotte was whisked away from her fight by a strong but gentle arm that reached around her hips so quickly she almost couldn’t sort out the experience.
“This is not going well,” Dora pointed out. I’ll say, Charlotte thought. She was standing, blood still dripping, on the slightly-too-icy-for-comfort ramp of the Price Rite’s loading dock under the weak, Philadelphia winter sun of January, over the unconscious bodies of three of her friends. The ones who were still up weren’t looking much better, either.
“So this is what it’s like to be one of the last ones standing, instead of the first one down,” Rose said.
“By Luathon, luminous liege!” Brian shouted, and a flash of light turned into a tidal wave of illumination that rushed down the ramp towards the fast-advancing skirmish line of blue-skinned warriors, before breaking around them, apparently without effect.
“Every offensive spell I know, they’ve got a counter,” Brian said.
“I know the feeling,” Charlotte said. Turning to Rose, she asked, “Any reinforcements inbound?” And then she focussed on not feeling bitter and angry at the way the world kept stacking the deck against her team.
“Some help could be along any moment, if they’re answering their phones. If not, Rosa says that Thundrax is in town, doing something secret-identitywise,” Rose said. He’s inbound, three minutes, should be able to handle these guys.”
“I thought he retired years ago?”
“Apparently, the Thundrax form is immortal, so even if the guy is past it, all he has to do is say the magic word, or whatever.”
“Well, that’s nice,” Charlotte answered. “We’re not going to make it three minutes. I wouldn’t want to go another minute against the Fourth Sword.” Although, as she said it, she thought to herself that, while Henry was a mighty warrior, he was not that good a swordsman. It was a bit odd that the Fourth Sword would use a trick out of Henry’s book.
Also, something was tickling the part of Charlotte’s mind that was good at trigonometry. It wasn’t a big part of her brain, but she spent way too much time in math class trying to get it to come off the wall and get down and dance –and, never mind, Charlotte thought, I’ve officially used that metaphor up—Anyway, point was, that part of her brain actually wanted her attention for a change and. . .
“So instead of throwing useless spells around, can you do your stealth cloak again?”
“They know where we are,” Brian did as much gesture as he could at the blue warriors, who were only not engaging yet because they were spreading out to make sure that Rose couldn’t pull her buddies out of the fight again. But he shut up and did it.
Just in time, too, because the familiar feeling of a space-altering teleport became too obvious to ignore a moment later, and the world began to fade away.
“Not so fast!” The Fourth Sword of Aphasium announced, as he jumped through the curtain of hazed reality created by the combination of the cloaking spell and the teleport. The Pearl Harmony Sword rang as Charlotte moved into an instinctive counter.
Rose and Brian moved to counter, but before they could, the Fourth Sword threw three –no, four coils of wire down on the pavement. As soon as they touched the damp surface, they turned into cobras of curving metal, and lashed around Brian, Rose, and someone just out of sight. Very quickly, too, to beat Rose, Charlotte thought, impressed, even if it meant that she was fighting the Fourth Sword alone, and was probably going to die.
Thrust! Parry! Spin! Once again, swords flashed, as Charlotte, as conscious as she dared be, watched the silvery nothingness of the Astral Plane give way to black, wet asphalt of a much milder and wetter day.
They’d teleported, and they’d taken the Fourth Sword with them. Darn! Another oddly sloppy, low cut. Charlotte had to be fast to repress the impulse to exploit with a counterthrust.
“What are you doing?” Rose asked, somewhere behind. “You had him.”
“He has a shield belt!” Charlotte gritted out.
“Oh. Like Dune.”
Dune. Dune. DUNE! In that book, the shield belts only allowed slow movements through, and swordsman had to learn different instincts to fight people with and without shield belts. Was that what Charlotte was facing? No reason for it to be, but no reason not to try it out.
Parry, block, block. Another edge past her guard, another grazing wound, this time to her upper right arm. This time, the healing did not come, and Charlotte knew that between blood loss and stiffening, the Fourth Sword had put a clock on the fight. Then he came in again, this time in the middle, in one of those sloppy and slow moves that Charlotte now thought might be just the thing for getting through a flustered opponent’s shield belt.
Heck, the guy even knew about her Eight Spirit Dragon Shield. Maybe he thought that it did work like a shield belt. (It didn’t.) Point was, Charlotte countered, and this time, with a slow and steady thrust that—
--Sliced through the blue flesh of the Fourth Sword’s shoulder.
“Fourth blood!” The Fourth Sword said, his voice light and even amused. “I thought you were just a tyro, but I wouldn’t give up fourth blood to anyone less than the Sixth Sword of Aphasium. Or the Second Sword of Vale,” he said, and grinned at the awesome burn he’d delivered at wherever Vale was.
“Don’t quite get the reference,” Charlotte gritted, out, as she parried another quick thrust against her stiffening side.
“Child!” Now there was a third side in the fight, a warrior in a costume of blue and metal, with a helmet that came down in a half-mask, a cape that didn’t come down even as far down the combatant’s back as Charlotte’s hair, blue on the outside, red on the inside, and a kilt of metal scales.
The newcomer’s sword came down in a decapitating sweep, casual, yet so fast and powerful that it was everything that Charlotte could do to get a parry up against it, and the might of the smash still took her off her feet and threw her through the rainy darkness, feet over head.
Charlotte tucked in, rolled into the fall, and was rewarded by the winding blow of a low, crumbling curb that marked the edge of this probably-a-parking-lot, digging into the small of her back. It was either the most painful thing that had happened to her tonight, or the memory of the sword thrust was already fading away. In pain, she watched the fight, as the blue-steel-and-red stranger took on the Fourth Sword with one savage blow after another, ignoring Charlotte’s five friends, unconscious or bound, on the ground.
And that one stranger, dressed all in white, with a white mask, white, billowing sleeves, white bell bottoms over cool, white boots with golden heels, and, in fact, silver and metal loops and coils of jewelry everywhere, with bands just above the sleeves stated to billow, each something between a bracelet and a watch, with crystal dials and clear, crystalline gemstones in them.
Charlotte thought she recognised the style, if not the costume, and tried not to feel angry about the blow she’d just absorbed, the one that had so nearly taken her head off.
“Do I recognise a familiar style?” The Fourth Sword asked. “Are you the little pretender?”
“You can feel the strength of my arm, and you doubt that I am the rightful Subadar of the White Fleet?” Rafaella King replied from behind her metal mask.
“Anyone can be strong,” the Fourth Sword replied.
“With this much technique?” Rafaella asked, as she bound the Fourth Sword’s blade, and disarmed him with a twist.
But the Fourth Sword was ready, and backflipped away athletically, catching his flying sword in mid air, and then elevating his second flip to land on the back of a car parked on the far side of the lot, before flipping again, to land on a lamp post over the street beyond. There, posing like a superhero channeling Errol Flynn, he threw a flourishing sword salute at Rafaella, before vanishing into the darkness.
“Damn!” Said Rafaella. “Now I’ve got to get a new hangout.” As she said that, her sword cut the bonds on Rose, Brian and the girl in white.
“I thought this place was picked in the first place because it was totally mediocre and anonymous? The girl in white said, in Emily Neilsen’s familiar voice.
“But I’ve grown accustomed to it.” Rafaella sheathed her sword and gestured, like a prince showing off her palace. A typical, , three story residential block, with the external balconies they only ever put on the kind of motels you find along an interstate, and a block behind a beach where cheap people vacationed. One scorner was featureless, with a big door on it marked “Exit.” Without even being able to see through it, Charlotte could guess that the motel restaurant and bar was on the other side, and her imagination pictured boring tables and booths in the back, upholstered in, she wanted to say, orange. Some colour that had been fashionable a long time ago, anyway.
“Well, no help to it. We’re going to have to get the message out to my supporters that from now on we’re going to meet at a boring hotel with an awful chain restaurant in a different part of Babylon.”
That was the thing about the City of Man. It was the quintessence of all human cities, and that meant it had boring motels, and suburbs full of houses that looked the same, and strip malls and Seven Elevens, as well as the Library and the Forbidden City, and multi-lane expressways that ran entirely through tunnels as big as anything in Lego Racer. Charlotte had even been in some before. Not a bar, though, and she really wanted to go in and see if Grimjack was sitting at the counter, nursing a blended scotch or a straight vodka, or a boilermaker, or whatever it was that the cool guys drank.
Probably not, though. This looked more like the kind of place that had a kid’s menu that featured a hamburger served on a paper pirate ship.
“Now, as for you guys,” Rafaella continued.
“Oh, thanks for asking,” Charlotte said. “We’re totally fine. For example, my head’s still attached to my neck.”
“If you couldn’t counter that blow, you wouldn’t have still been in that fight, Wong. So don’t get prissy with me.”
“Whatever. You got in over your head, brought me a babysitting problem, and I’ve got no time for it. Now, how am I going to get you kids home without leading the White Fleet to your dimension?”
“Is that something that will happen?” Rose asked, while Emily assembled something like a particularly glittery pocket watch in a cat’s cradle in her right hand, and began to swing the watch, which responded in an odd way that made Charlotte aware that, for it, gravity was optional. As it bobbed over each of her friends, they began to stir.
“Yeah,” Rafaella said, without further comment.
“Uhm, what?” Bruce said.
“The White Fleet’s pretty good at tracking people through the dimensions. We need to erase your trail. We could send ‘em to Vale, Rafe. The Valies’ll put them through the Door when it opens tonight, they can walk through, think of home, and they’ll be there. Completely equipotential emission. No tracking allowed.”
“Yeah, and get us in trouble with Mr. and Mrs. Wong. You know these kids are supposed to be home before dinner!”
Emily shrugged. “I’ve been in trouble with the Dragon Lady so many times I can’t count. I’ll just pull the thing about how my Dad doesn’t understand me, and—“
“I can’t believe that you’d even try to manipulate Mrs. Wong.”
“What manipulation? It’s true. Sure, it’s my fault, but can you bear to treat me worse than life already has?” Emily sounded sad.
Rafaella shook her armoured head. “Yeah. Okay, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Her voice changed, got louder. “Okay, kiddies. After school trip time. You’re going to the Old World. In fact, to the oldest of all, to Vale of the Thin Mountains. Hope you packed something warm and oxygenated.”