Authors: Terry Kroenung
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy
“Jolly good show!” cheered Ernie. “You’re a natural, lovey.”
Natural? I just swung a magick sword through a shape-shifted sorcerer and now I’m bein’ congratulated by a spellbound talkin’ mouse. How natural is that?
Fifty yards from the river Romulus slowed to let us pass him, waving for us to keep going. He stood like Horatius at the bridge, ready to do battle against a whole army to keep us safe. It seemed to me that a hand mirror wouldn’t serve as much of a substitute for a sword and shield or, even better, a regiment of infantry, but what did I know?
“Ernie,” I panted, slowing and tightening my grip on Morphageus, “go with Eddie.”
The fat mouse dashed down my left arm a ways so he could look me in the eye. “No, you’ll need a seasoned fighter.”
I saw a quick image in my mind of Ernie on a plate while a Bully salted him. “I don’t wanna lose you in the scuffle,” I told him. “Get to the river and, uh, reconnoiter. Report back, soldier.”
“Will do!” he barked, snapping to attention and saluting like a crusty old sergeant-major. For all I knew, that’s what he might have been once. Scampering down to my hand, he jumped onto Eddie’s head.
“Hey!” my friend yelled, brushing at his hair. “What gives? Your mouse is---“
“He’s takin’ you to the water. Go find out if there’s anybody there to help us.”
“Where are you going?”
I set my jaw and turned back toward our pursuers. Romulus had vaporized a couple more of the boys, but there were too many. They were about to get behind him. “I’m tired of bein’…Bullied. Gonna go see what this sword can really do.”
Horror twisted Eddie’s face. “Verity, you’re not a real fighter. All you can do is make-believe stuff.”
Don’t I know it.
“Can’t explain now, but the sword makes you better than you truly are.” I smooched him on his beautiful sweaty cheek. “Get goin’, boyo. I’ll be right behind you.”
He started jogging west. “Don’t get yourself bewitched again. And don’t leave me.”
“Not a chance. No matter what happens, I’ll find you.”
We parted. As I turned away I mulled final words to Eddie.
I’m still trying to make good on them.
8/ Sorry, Eddie
Raw sewage bubbled up in geysers which settled into eight rude man-like shapes, about nine feet tall.
The things started staggering and stumbling toward us, their oozy arms outstretched.
Rushing back toward the Bullies, I felt dizzy and weak. This was no pretend fight, with Verity the Valiant guaranteed to defeat all her opponents without even breathing hard. What would I do when someone--something--attacked me with no script? I had no training in actual battle. Awful things might be about to happen to me…things worse than getting bones busted.
“Jasper,” I thought, “what do I do? How do I fight these things?”
“They’ll try to spell you,” he said, “so don’t look into their eyes, of course. If they can’t do that, they’ll try to get behind you. If those horrid hands fasten on you, your soul will be bound to them.”
“That sounds bad.”
“It is. Just remember, you’re the chosen Stone-Warden because of your have natural gifts. Use ‘em. Don’t think too much, just move. I’ll be with you.”
“Thanks.” I started running, sword raised.
“One last thing…don’t let ‘em take the Stone away from you. No matter what.”
“That’s bad, too?”
“Well, it’d end life on Earth as you know it and usher in a new Age of Darkness and Despair.”
Ain’t that just peachy?
“Is there a set of directions for this thing?”
“Sure. Written on the wall of the sword chamber. You couldn’t be bothered, remember?”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
Ahead remained over fifteen Bullies, swarming around the mighty Romulus. In a second they’d bring him down. The idea of those mushroomy little monsters crawling over him, doing who-knew-what, made my fear of them blow away. Instead of being all terrified of the buggers, I felt something else now.
With a roar I cut two down two Bullies at once just as they were about to latch onto Romulus from behind. Sprinting through their death-vapor, which smelled like rotting flowers, I thrust the sword into the face of another. Each time I felt the same icy shiver in my arm. I grabbed Morphageus with both hands, swinging it like a bat.
I hadn’t lied to Eddie. Jasper truly did make me better, stronger. I could never have been that fast and that graceful otherwise. Another Bully went down minus a leg. His life leaked out through the wound as he lay on the grass, then a few seconds later he exploded in the usual colored cloud. The other dozen attackers backed away from me and Romulus, staying just out of reach. I stood next to my friend. Both of us took a moment to catch our breath, standing back to back. I gasped, he panted.
“Sho’ glad to see you, chile,” he said, grinning despite the circumstances.
“I don’t think these fellers are so happy about it.”
Verity the Valiant, always ready with a snappy quip. This hero stuff ain’t so hard.
Right then something invisible smacked up the side of my noggin. It felt like I’d been kicked by a mule. I flew ten feet and landed hard, the wind knocked out of me. Rolling to a knee, I saw that the same had happened to Romulus. Several of the Bullies had joined hands. A sort of bluish shimmery bubble surrounded them, then faded.
Must be that magick-focusing that Ernie warned me about.
Why hadn’t they done that before now?
“Magick’s like havin’ a bank account,” Jasper told me. “You can draw on it, but it depletes your funds until you can make a deposit. They were savin’ theirs for when they had to have it.”
“What about me? I’ve been usin’ magick non-stop tonight.”
“Your natural soul-store is huge. That’s why you’re the Stone-Warden, remember. Plus, my master put me into the chamber with a great store of force. We’re okay for a while yet. Go get ‘em.”
“I have an idea about that.”
“I know, I can see your thoughts. Let’s do it.”
I helped Romulus to sit up. We had to hurry, the Bullies were advancing again. They might blast us one more time, just to make sure. Another one of those and I might not have a clear enough head to resist. And who knew what else they were able to do? Ernie had hinted at some very scary things. We couldn’t give them time for that.
“Your job’s done,” I told the Marshal. “Get to the water.”
He shook his head. “I’s sworn to protect you.”
“And I’m the Stone-Warden, givin’ you an order, Marshal.”
Romulus jumped up and nodded. “Yes’m.” With that he ran off full-speed after Eddie.
Well, that was easy. Hope this next bit’s as simple.
I shook my aching head. The Bullies were giving me that cackling laugh again as they rushed me. From their side they saw a scared girl in her first magick fight, out of her depth and ready to fall with only a slight push. And her bodyguard had just run away. That blue bubble built up around the six hand-holders. They were about to win.
The force blast came at me hard, but this time I expected it. Morphageus flowed across my arm into a broad circular shield again, the same as when I’d faced Venoma. But now it swelled to twice the size as that one. It hid my whole body as I crouched.
Jasper was a giant mirror this time.
All the Bully magick sucked into the shield like water up a straw. My chest burned as the Stone turned red-hot. I slid back a step, then braced myself. With a shout Jasper and I sent the spell straight back where it came from.
I hoped that the next month’s Independence Day fireworks looked as spectacular. All the Bullies who still held hands detonated in a fiery violet tornado. The others scattered like ninepins, knocked off their feet. One popped right back up, but vanished from looking at the mirror. All the rest struggled upright, covered their eyes, and charged again.
Time to go!
Every muscle I had felt like Army wagons had driven over it. As I ran back to join the others, sword in hand again, I seemed to run in slow-motion, like those dreams you have where you’re being chased by monsters but can’t escape. Boy, I can’t tell you how much I wanted to wake up from that one and find Ma hugging me, saying it’d be okay.
That didn’t happen, of course. The monsters kept coming. Ma no doubt paced our parlor, all frantic and begging every policeman and soldier in Washington to go find her little girl. I almost laughed at the idea.
What would they do if they were here? What help could they be?
The Bullies would just trance them and make them into mindless allies who’d join the attack on us.
As I passed Washington’s Monument I saw that that my friends were huddled together at the river’s edge. I could hear Ernie and Romulus arguing about something. Eddie scanned the river, as did I, but there was nothing to see but some gulls. We were supposed to get to this spot. The Marshals had insisted safety would be found here. Far to our left, the Long Bridge ran across the Potomac to Virginia, but heavy mobs of Federal infantry and artillery guarded it at both ends. Not much help there, even if we could drag our exhausted selves down to it.
“I told you Pitcairn wouldn’t show!” Ernie shouted, standing in Romulus’ dinner plate of a palm. “Can’t trust a bloody pirate.”
“He never left us befo’,” said Romulus. “Sumpin’ must o’ happened.”
“Oh, somethin’ happened, all right. Our brave buccaneer decided to take his money and run, that’s what happened. Too concerned for his precious ship to be worried about our welfare.”
I staggered up to them, dropping to my knees and sucking air. Glancing back over my shoulder, I saw that the Bullies had stopped chasing me.
Guess they figure they have us now. No sense in rushin’. They’ll hold hands and conjure up some nasty thing for us.
“Who’s this Pitcairn?” I asked.
Eddie said, “Blockade runner, Romulus says. Hates the Merchantry with a passion. Lives to bloody their noses. Why he thought the Union Navy would just let him waltz up the Potomac to rescue us is beyond me.”
Ernie made a rude sound. “I’ll have yer know that Commander Aloysius Pitcairn could sail the
up Pennsylvania Avenue into a forty-knot headwind if he were so inclined. Which…it looks like he ain’t.”
“Well, this’d be a swell time for it,” I told him. I punched Eddie on the arm. “I remember my mythology. Ain’t Penelope supposed to be eternally faithful?”
Eddie rolled his eyes. “Irony, I guess.”
“All we can do is wait and hope he earns his gold,” Ernie told us, gazing at the river.
Romulus plopped the mouse onto his broad shoulder. “No time to wait. If they brings help, we’s stuck. Gotta bust outta here now.”
“And go where?” Eddie wanted to know. “Where do we hide from these things? I’m betting there are more of them, if this Merchantry you’re all so afraid of is as strong as you claim.”
“Has to take that chance. They’s pinned us here. Pretty soon they’ll---”
‘Pretty soon’ became ‘now’. All five remaining bullies linked hands and started building their magick. As their hazy glow sprang up I threw out my mirror shield. I sniffed an ozony smell, like after a lightning strike. A tremor bumped our feet, but nothing smacked into us this time.
Okay, now what? Did they miss?
“You know more about ‘em than I do,” I said to Ernie. “What’s up?”
The mouse spun around in all directions, looking for signs. “Don’t know, duckie. Usually by now something’s happened. Fireballs from the sky or meltin’ skulls or---”
Eddie tapped me on the shoulder, pointing north. “Or manure monsters.”
We all snapped our heads around and looked. Boiling and smoking, the Washington Canal, which had offended my nose ever since I’d started carrying Jasper, now brought out a new indignity. Its raw sewage bubbled up in geysers which settled into eight rude man-like shapes, about nine feet tall. The things started staggering and stumbling toward us, their oozy arms outstretched. A just-visible blue aura, and lots of flies, surrounded them.
“You know, I thought this night already stunk about as bad as it could get,” I sighed.
“Tryin’ to get us away from the river,” said Romulus. “They mus’ still be ‘fraid we’s gonna cross.”
“Then they know something we don’t know,” grumped Eddie.
“Romulus, can we fight those things?” I asked.
He shook his bald head. “Nothin’ there to kill. No life. Morphageus can cut ‘em up, but they’d just re-form and keep a-comin’.”
“Have to break the spell, then,” Ernie said. “That means chargin’ the Bullies.”
I frowned. “Won’t they just blast us?”
“No, they can only discharge one witchery at a time. The Proprietor don’t trust ‘em with all of the skills of a true battlemage. If they abandon the animation to defend themselves, the muck’ll just plop onto the ground.”
Shifting the shield back into a sword, I said, “Let’s go, then. Only five of ‘em left.”
Romulus gave me a dark chuckle. “Only five Bullies! Like sayin’ they’s just five brigades.”
Eddie stepped up next to me. He had the same look in his eye he’d had that afternoon when he’d drilled his dagger into the stage floor. “If Verity says go, then we go.”
With a shake of his little head Ernie said, “Warrior children. Strange times we live in.”
Romulus joined us, mirror in hand. “That’s true enough.”
“Anyway,” I mumbled, “I’d rather get covered in spells than poop.”
Sure enough, no sooner had we begun to march toward the quintet of Bullies than they began to creep back. As we hadn’t attacked them yet, they kept their magick up. The foul things from the Canal still pursued us, lurching along like something from a touring show of
. No miraculous pirate ship appeared on the wide Potomac to rescue us from our fate. Why did they want us away from the river, then?
I broke into a trot. Romulus and Eddie did the same, staying even with me. Our enemies front and rear changed their speed, too. I wondered how fast magickally-animated manure could move. The whole bizarre scene—evil blonde children, intrepid heroes, and loathsome muck monsters—moved as one unit up the small rise where Washington’s Monument stood.