It’s been said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Ours didn’t even survive that long. We went around a bend in the road, and then there, right in front of us, was the tower, maybe half a mile off to the north. I could see it pretty clearly because it was backlit by the pillar of light, which appeared to be maybe thirty yards behind it and off to the left a little. The tower was less than a half-mile off and atop it was a big glass orb that flashed a bright yellow as soon as we came into view. A bright bolt of energy flashed out and flew towards us, and the only reason it didn’t hit us is because I stomped hard on the gas. It hit the ground behind us, kicking up a bunch of dirt.
I jerked the wheel sharply to the right, pulling the handbrake and trying to do one of those skid-in-a-curve things like you see in movies. That probably would have worked better on smooth pavement instead of rough, uneven dirt, but it did kind of work: it got us turned around quickly, at least. I looked in my mirror and saw the orb flash again, and I quickly headed back for the trees and around the bend, turning on the headlights and just barely avoiding the pothole that it had left in the road.
“What was that?” Hill asked, sounding worried.
“I don’t know,” Gerald said. “I haven’t seen a device like that before. “Clearly it was placed atop the tower to keep intruders away, but–“
“It’s a turret,” I said. “Ken’tu Kel borrowed the idea from my world.”
“A turret is a small tower built as part of a wall,” Hill said.
I nodded. “We sort of changed the word. In my world, in this context, it means a machine that acts as a guard: it is able to watch for intruders and attack them by throwing things at them. This looks like a magical version. We’ll never get close to the tower, let alone around to the other side of it, with that thing throwing spells at us.”
“And,” Aylwyn pointed out, “if Ken’tu Kel is paying attention, he almost certainly knows that we are here.”
I nodded. “Sarah, can you blow it up?”
“I probably could, if I could see it clearly,” she said.
“Which would mean it can see you as well,” Patrick objected.
“Gerald, can you shield her against it?”
He frowned. “I’m not sure. Shielding is simple in concept, but that does not necessarily make it easy in practice. A shield opposes energy with energy, and if it is stronger, it holds. It’s like two fighters grappling, trying to push each other off balance: all other things being equal, the stronger of the two will win. But those bolts were quite powerful.”
“What about diverting it?” I asked. “It’s a lot easier to bounce something off in a different direction than to bring it to a stop, for physical objects at least. Can you enchant the carriage so it will reflect spells?”
He shook his head. “A thing this large? If I had a week, perhaps.”
“We have minutes, if that,” Aylwyn spoke up in a tense tone.
Suddenly I had a crazy idea. Those bolts came right at you… “What about your staff? It’s a lot smaller.”
He nodded slowly. “That I could do, but a staff is no shield. It would be madness to expect to strike a fast-moving bolt of magic like that with a staff.”
I grinned at him. “I know a way. Come on.”
He looked a bit perplexed, but he followed me around to the back. “Do you know something about magic that none of the rest of us know?” he asked as I got the staff out.
“Not magic,” I said. “It would take too long to explain; we need to do this quickly. Just… trust me.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” the archmage said hesitantly as he began waving his hands over the staff.
“I do,” I said. “I promise you that. I just hope it works. Sarah, come with me.”
“It’s ready,” Gerald said as Sarah got out.
“Let’s test this.” I held the staff out away from me. “Sarah, stand off at an angle, and project a very small bolt of energy against it.”
She did, and it struck the staff and ricocheted off and down into the dirt. “Perfect. Come with me, quickly. The rest of you, get ready. We’re about to have a fight on our hands.” I ran as quickly as I could while holding a big, long wooden staff, and Sarah stayed at my side.
“Stay behind me,” I said. “I’m going to be swinging this around, and you need to be far enough back that it can’t hit you. When I deflect the magic away, blast the orb.”
“Finally, something fun to do!” she grinned.
I reached the bend in the road and ran out as fast as I could, taking a proper grip on the staff, turning my body to the side, and holding the staff up over my shoulder in a pose I hadn’t adopted in a decade.
In the distance, the orb flashed, and a bolt of energy sped towards me. Big deal. It was half a mile away; I was used to doing this from sixty feet. I waited, watched, tightened my grip, and then swung for the metaphorical fences.
There was no crack, just a bit of a hiss, and the yellow bolt flew off randomly up into the sky. “NOW!” I yelled.
Sarah raised her arm to point at the orb, and she conjured up a bolt of power of her own, which flew straight for its target, shattering it. It had enough time to fire off a second bolt before being destroyed, but with the way it was sending perfect fastballs at me, I batted it away as well. This one went off into the dirt, gouging up a long, narrow trench in the ground.
I turned and saw the others standing behind me. “What an odd combat stance,” Aylwyn remarked, observing the way I stood and held the staff. “What is it called?”
I grinned and straightened up, tossing the staff back to Gerald. “It’s called Batter Up!” He tried to catch it, fumbled a little, then managed to grab it and hold on firmly. “The turret’s gone. Let’s get back inside; we need to cover some ground very quickly!”
“It’s too late for that,” Aylwyn said. She held out her hand, and her sword of flames appeared. Then she closed her eyes, and the soft white robe that was the only thing I’d ever seen her wearing began to shimmer brightly for several moments, and when the light died down, she was covered in a suit of plate armor that shone in the reflected light from her sword. I had no idea what it was made of, but it shone brighter than steel, brighter even than polished silver. “There are creatures coming this way.”
“Demons?” Gerald asked.
Great. First he conjures up a missile turret, and now he sends a bunch of magical robots after us. I sure hoped they didn’t have any Wands Of Being Analogous To An Assault Rifle!
Gerald called up a much larger ball of magelight than anything I’d seen before, directing it up to the treetops where it projected a bright, somewhat harsh glow over a wide area. I could see them now. It looked like ten or so creatures made of what appeared to be animated clay, loping towards the treeline, each carrying a big, scary-looking club of stone.
Aylwyn charged. Sarah let out a whoop that I supposed was intended as some sort of battle cry, and threw lightning bolts at them. She blew one apart, then a second, in a shower of crumbling clay, but then Aylwyn closed with them, and I placed a hand on Sarah’s arm as she raised it again. “Wait,” I said. “You don’t want to hit Aylwyn.”
The angel was moving surprisingly gracefully in the plate armor, the sort of thing a human could never pull off. Her sword seemed to be everywhere at once, which was good because she was surrounded by a pack of golems, each swinging clubs at her from all angles. Two of them broke off and came running towards us. Sarah blasted one, then made the ground explode beneath the feet of the second. It flew into the air, and she projected force against it, shattering it into a thousand pieces.
Gerald stepped up, holding out his staff and pointing at the melee, unleashing some sort of bolt of energy. To my horror, it struck Aylwyn right in the back, but then I saw that that was what it was meant to do: a golden glow surrounded her briefly and there was a loud thunderclap, and the golems were all forced back by a few feet. The angel leapt forward and struck with her sword, slicing an arm off of one of the golems and then striking low, severely cracking one of its hardened clay legs. It tried to take a step back, and the weight on its leg caused the whole thing to crumble. It fell over onto its back.
Sarah picked off another of the golems. I didn’t wait to stick around and watch; our side was clearly winning. Time to worry about whatever came next! I turned and sprinted for the car, getting the box with my crossbow out and tossing it in the back seat, then getting in and doing my best to turn it around on the narrow dirt road. It took several turns, but I got it facing the right direction, then pulled up and put the window down right as Aylwyn was walking back over, having taken down the last of the golems.
“Whatever’s next,” I said, “we need to close the distance, quickly. Everyone get in.”
Everyone did, except Aylwyn. “I’ll call for Wyntaf,” she said, moving several steps away and starting the light show she usually did when calling her horse down. I looked away. “All right. He knows we’re here. Time to shake him up a little. Gerald, do you have any spell that will stop up my ears?”
“Make it so you can’t hear? Why would we want that?”
I grinned at him. “Because I’m about to make a lot of noise.”
Just then, the archmagus sent a lot of noise of his own our way. “You seek to turn my prophecy against me, Paul Twister?” a booming voice echoed through the night. “You bring a warrior of neither world, and the technology of the Drift? But still you cannot succeed; nations will tremble before me! Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’“
Wow. Even Gerald, who had never liked the guy, described Ken’tu Kel as being mostly honorable and decent, even if there was something suspicious about him. But give a guy just a bit of oracular awesomeness to guide himself by, and the whole thing just seems to instantly go to his head.
On the other hand, that was after he had already locked up April, presumably stolen her magic, and ripped the Twist out of me. Maybe he just had everyone fooled all along, including Gerald.
“What was that?” Hill asked when the voice stopped.
“It’s nothing,” I said as I put the car in Drive and hit the gas. Aylwyn was already mounted up. “He’s just taunting me, trying to rattle me.”
“Was there more to the prophecy?”
“Don’t worry about it. He just doesn’t know he’s already lost. Gerald, I need that spell. You don’t need to deafen me, but mute my hearing by a good bit if you can. Not right now, but I’ll need it as soon as we get around the tower.”
Gerald looked dubious, but he nodded. “You’ve been right enough so far…” he said, though his tone implied that that was not quite as reassuring as it probably should have been.
I turned off to the right a little, aiming for the opposite side of the tower from where the pillar of light was. Aylwyn charged off to the left, further off than she would need to come directly at Ken’tu Kel. Looping around him, maybe? It looked like that. I put the tower between myself and the wizard. “OK, I need the spell. Then everyone get out. I’m going to blind and deafen him, if I can.”
“You have music to deafen someone?” Hill asked.
I grinned. “Watch and learn.” Everyone got out, and Gerald quickly wove the spell, and suddenly it sounded like someone was holding pillows against both of my ears. I waved them away from the car, then checked my phone one last time. It was ready. So I rolled down all four windows, turned on the music again, and cranked it as high as it would go. Drums rattled, a low-pitched drone issued from the speakers for a second or so, and then they began to roar with the cacophony of a Scottish pipe band as I hit the gas and charged out away from the shelter of the tower.
So much for staying out of sight! I guess I had to try the opposite tack: If Aylwyn was going to attack from the west, I was going to make the best dang “clamor in the east” I could.
I figured Gerald and Sarah were going to come out behind me and start slinging spells, with Patrick hanging back to coordinate things. I was wrong. In the rear view I saw Gerald with his staff held high over his head, and the three of them were floating up into the air, apparently preparing to appropriate Ken’tu Kel’s turret strategy.
Then a snarling demon strode into view and I didn’t have time to get distracted by flying people anymore. The crimson-skinned creature was vaguely humanlike in appearance, but its facial features were badly misshapen, like someone had taken a mannequin made of plastic and held its face over a fire just long enough for it to get all melty and run a little. There were no horns, no tail or hooves or bat wings, but it did have claws, its fingernails perhaps three inches long and glinting dully, reflecting the light radiating from the pillar.
It was also apparently capable of running at over thirty miles an hour, closing on me even as I tried to maneuver out of the way. I saw a flash of light in my mirror, and it stumbled and fell. Thanks, Sarah, I thought.
Then I heard Hill’s voice, directly in my ear. “Turn right, now!” Well, I’d suggested he take the role of coordinator, so I might as well do as he suggested. I turned the wheel hard, and a fireball came hurtling past the driver’s side window.
I got a quick look at the field. The three magic-users were atop the tower, Sarah playing sniper and sending out spells to pick off the demons that Ken’tu Kel had called up, Gerald throwing various spells all over in between trying to shield the tower against retaliatory magic, and Hill darting back and forth along the crenelated wall, trying to see everything at once.
Aylwyn had a pack of four or five demons on her, and she was striking in all directions with her sword, while Wyntaf reared and kicked at them.
Sarah tried a few times to throw spells directly down upon the pillar, but they hit some sort of magical barrier and fizzled away. She pointed, and the ground just outside the barrier erupted in a geyser of dirt and stones, which got whipped around the circle by swirling currents of wind.
One of the demons broke away from Aylwyn and came sprinting at me, leaping into the air. “Dodge left!” came Hill’s voice, and I turned hard left and stepped on it, bagpipe music still blaring from the speakers. Suddenly the ground erupted off to my right, just where I would have been, right as the demon landed there. It was thrown back into the air again, and I drove off, trying to put more distance between myself and the chaos of the fighting, for the moment at least.
“Turn around!” I swerved hard in a half-circle, and was horrified to see that Wyntaf had gone down. Aylwyn still had a bunch of demons on her, and she was fighting desperately to keep from being overwhelmed. Then, from the center of the circle, a massive energy bolt flew up, blowing the top off the tower. Everyone up top went flying. I really hoped they still had those easy-fall foci Hill had passed around! Even so, they’d probably be hurt. Maybe even seriously injured.
I felt a growl of frustration building deep in my throat. Ken’tu Kel was not going to kill my friends, not while I was around. Stolen power or no, I was still Paul Twister, and staying out of sight was not what I did best.
Breaking magic was.
Gerald had said that magical shielding was a matter of energy versus energy. Well, kinetic energy is based on mass times the square of velocity. Time to see how it holds up against the force of two tons of metal moving at highway speeds!
I floored it, turning the wheel to point directly at the pillar of light. The archmage seemed to notice; he threw a fireball at me. I swerved right to avoid it, then back left. He threw another one, and I swerved left this time, then had to check my urge to swerve right as he threw one off to the right.
Trying to anticipate me? I wondered if a head-fake would work. I got lined up straight towards him again, still accelerating, getting up past 50 now, then flipped the turn signal to turn left. He fell for it, throwing a fireball off to my left, and I dodged right, the wheel canceling the signal. I tried again, signaling left, and this time he threw one to the right, but I was already turning left, lining straight up with the source of all the fireballs.
There was a sickening crunch as a demon leapt at me, hitting the hood, spiderwebbing my windshield before rolling off. I held my course, pushing the speed higher, past 60 now, the circle getting closer and closer. I dodged right as another fireball came in, then jerked the wheel back to the left to line it up with the wizard in the middle, and kept accelerating. My hand reached down, quickly undoing the buckle of my seat belt. This was gonna be tricky…
And then the circle was right in front of me. I hit the cruise control, locking the speed in, twisted the wheel a little to the right, and opened the door, leaping out as hard as I could, trying to get clear.
That’s a really bad idea when the car you’re in is doing almost 70 miles an hour. It’s a somewhat less bad idea when you’re carrying a spell enchanted by an archmage to make falling hurt less, but it’s still a bad idea. Time seemed to slow down as the ground came up at me, I felt myself decelerating, and then suddenly I hit and was bumping and rolling all over. I felt a horrible crack go up my left arm as the bone snapped, making me cry out in pain, and I think I broke a rib or three as well. But it could have been a lot worse. It could have been a whole lot worse, in fact.
For example, I could have been inside the car. Or in its path.
It hit the barrier and crunched, as it was designed to do, but there was still plenty of momentum behind it, and as the back part of the car continued pressing forward, it only took a fraction of a second before a brilliant flash of light lit the area and the barrier shattered. The car ended up turning sideways, then rolling over three times, getting bounced around a little when it hit the pillar of light, spinning out while it was rolling, and crashing into the tower. Somewhere along the line, it also ran down Ken’tu Kel.
The demons attacking Aylwyn suddenly turned and charged for the pillar, beginning to claw at it like feral beasts, trying to claim its magical energy. My head was ringing, my vision blurring, as I saw bolts of magic fly in and blast the remaining demons. Sarah must have had a softer landing than I did.
I used my good arm to push myself up, wincing as I slowly got to my feet, groaning and holding my side. I limped over towards the wreckage of my car. As I got closer, I saw Ken’tu Kel laying nearby. He was trying to reach for his staff. I ran up, wincing from the pain, and kicked it out of reach, then stepped on his hand just for good measure.
Ken’tu Kel looked up at me, his face twisted with pain. He was hurting all over, in far worse shape than I was. Afterall, a car vs. person collision usually hurts a lot worse than getting thrown out of the car. Both of his legs and one arm were broken and badly mangled, his face was a bloody mess, and there were enough spots of blood soaking through his robes that I was surprised he was still alive at all.
“How?” he managed to gasp out. “Nations from the Drift would tremble before me… how can I have failed?”
“Despair thy charm,” I said slowly, doing my best to sneer down at him when I wasn’t wincing from pain. “And let the demon whom thou still hast served tell thee…” I heard something and looked over my shoulder, and saw Aylwyn coming over, her flaming sword in hand. So I turned back to him and shrugged. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. “…that antagonizing the oracle you were depending on for guidance is a really dumb move.” And I walked away. I didn’t want to watch what happened next.
There was no scream, though, no execution this time. She broke his staff, then knelt over him, both to heal and to restrain the mage. I saw bright flashes of light all over as a handful of other Paladins finally arrived to help clean things up. Gerald walked over to the pillar of light and began working on some magical something-or-other that would shut it down.
Then Aylwyn came over and laid her hands on me, and I felt warmth and relaxation wash over me, soothing the agony of my broken bones as her power coursed through me. As the adrenaline and the pain died down, and endorphins began to kick in, I sighed softly, and slowly drifted off, letting myself slip into unconsciousness. We’d won. It was safe now.