by Brian K. Asbury
There was a flurry of snow on the mountain breeze, making the citizens of the small village pull their topcoats closer about them as they went about their business. Firebrand felt distinctly underdressed and seemed to be attracting more than her share of attention from locals who were clearly curious as to why she wasn’t shivering.
That was one of the drawbacks of her powers, she knew. She generated her own heat, so she never felt cold — which, in turn, made it easy to forget that other people did.
She was beginning to regret agreeing to this reconnaissance mission, anyway. She didn’t speak a word of the local language — in fact, she wasn’t even sure what the local language was — and so far she had not been able to learn a single thing from wandering aimlessly around this village. It was very tempting just to transform into energy and fly up to the castle. This kind of cautious pottering about wasn’t her style.
“Chilly, isn’t it?” The words made her start. She turned to see the Knight standing there, holding something out for her. “Here, have one of these. It’ll warm you up.”
“I’m not actually cold…” she began, accepting the pastry, which was steaming in the chill air. “What is it, anyway?”
“A local recipe,” the Knight said. “Sort of a cross between a Cornish pasty and a vegetable samosa. Very hot and spicy.” He took a bite out of his. “It’s good — honest!”
Firebrand sniffed hers doubtfully, then took a tentative bite. It was good. “Where did you get these?” she asked. “We haven’t got any money — any local money, anyway. Did you steal them?”
The Knight smiled. “No, I traded. I brought some of these with me, knowing they’d be better than hard currency here.” He reached into his duffel bag and produced several cassette tapes.
“Springsteen? Madonna? U2? Simple Minds? Has anybody even heard of those artists here?”
“Heard of them? They lust after Western music here, Firebrand. It’s better than gold on the black market. A Michael Jackson tape got me not only these pastries and a couple of bottles of the local beer, the baker was practically willing to throw in his daughter, too!”
“I sincerely hope that was a joke!”
“Not entirely. These people leave very drab lives. They’ll do anything to enliven them.” He finished off the last crumbs of his pastry and produced one of the beer bottles he had mentioned from his bag. Taking a swig, he said, “Back to business, though. Have you discovered anything?”
“Not a bloody thing. And neither will you, the way you’re knocking back that stuff.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. This is pretty weak stuff. And anyway, I have a lot of resistance to alcohol. I’m only half-human, remember. My body metabolizes it in a different way to how yours does.” He offered her the bottle, and she took a small sip.
“Fortunately,” he said, “I have had some small success. The local language is a derivative of Serbo-Croat, and I can understand the local dialect fairly well if they speak slowly.”
“You speak Serbo-Croat?”
He nodded. “They say there was a lot of activity up at the castle last night, with vehicles coming and going. Even an aircraft, so they say.”
Firebrand mulled this over. “I wonder if that means our birds have flown the coop?”
“It’s possible. They know we defeated Vertigo and the rest of you, so they must recognize the possibility, at least, that we’d know where to come looking for them.”
“So what now? There seems little point in messing around down here. Let’s go up to the castle.”
“Not so fast. If the Dominators have evacuated, they’ve undoubtedly left booby-traps.”
“I’ll take that chance if…” Firebrand suddenly stopped in mid-sentence.
“What is it?” asked the Knight.
She pointed. “That woman over there — I know her. She was in Vertigo’s castle while I was there!”
“Are you sure?” said the Knight.
“Positive. She was dressed as a nurse at the time, but I never forget a face. She was the first person I saw when I woke up in Vertigo’s castle. They had me on a couch under some kind of machine — presumably the thing they used to make Vertigo control me.”
The Knight nodded. His eyes followed the woman as she moved down the street, looking straight ahead as if fixed on a particular purpose. She looked as if she was breathing heavily, not through physical exertion but through nervousness.
“Let’s get her and ask her a few questions,” said Firebrand. She started forward, sparks playing about her clenched right fist.
“No, wait,” said the Knight. “There are too many people about. We don’t want to attract undue attention. She doesn’t seem to have noticed us. Look, why don’t you follow her, and I’ll see if I can get ahead of her. She might recognize you even with dark hair, but she’s never seen me before.”
“We see where she’s going first. And if an opportune moment presents itself, we grab her and see if we can get any information from her.”
With clear reluctance in her eyes, Firebrand nodded assent. She started off after the woman, with the Knight hurrying off at an angle to join a parallel street and get around and in front of her. However, the pursuit did not last long; this was, after all, not a large village. At the other end of the street, she stopped at a sign bearing a picture of a bus and simply stood there.
Firebrand halted. The woman still did not seem to have noticed her, but what now? There were fewer people around now, but they could still not pounce without being seen. Then she saw the Knight appear on the other side of the bus stop in a gap between two houses. He suddenly doubled up and groaned, clutching his stomach.
He shouted something incomprehensible. The woman looked momentarily startled, then replied in the same language and moved toward him. As she approached, he staggered back into the gap. Firebrand wasted no time in closing the distance to the alley. She saw the Knight slumped on the ground, groaning. The woman was bending over him.
She quickly moved up behind the woman, twisting her arm back and clamping her free hand over the woman’s mouth. The Knight leaped to his feet and helped her drag their quarry farther into the alley.
“It’s all right,” the Knight said in English. “We don’t intend to hurt you. We just want some information.”
“But on the other hand,” said Firebrand, “it’s going to piss us off mightily if you try to raise an alarm against us. Recognize my voice?”
The struggling woman nodded.
“Thought you might. Then you know, I’m sure, that if I tell you that I’ll burn your face off if you scream, I mean it. Nod if you acknowledge.”
The Knight glowered at Firebrand disapprovingly but said nothing. The woman nodded.
Firebrand slowly moved her hand from the woman’s mouth. “What — what do you want?” the woman asked in accented but clear English.
“Information,” said the Knight.
“You won’t get it!”
“By hook or by crook, we will…” said Firebrand. Flames danced between her fingers as her hand hovered just inches from the woman’s face.
The woman flinched away from the spectral flames flickering around Firebrand’s hand. “That won’t be necessary, Firebrand,” said the Knight. “I’m sure this lady will be only too happy to cooperate with us once I’ve explained the situation to her.”
“What are you talking about?”
The Knight moved directly in front of the woman and looked straight into her eyes. After a few seconds, Firebrand felt some of the tension in the woman loosen. “They call me the Knight — and my companion, as you know, is Firebrand. What’s your name?”
“M-Magda,” said the woman.
“Well, Magda,” the Knight said smoothly, “we have a problem. You know that Count Vertigo’s little adventure in England failed?”
“Well, as I’m sure you must realize, it was an unwise venture in the first place, and one which your Count would not have entered into if he hadn’t come under certain… influences. Do you understand what I mean?”
“You’ve hypnotized her!” breathed Firebrand. “How did you do that?”
“A Cairnian mental technique practiced by the Sons of the Wing,” replied the Knight softly. “It does come in handy from time to time. Now be quiet, please. Magda, what do you know about the people who persuaded the Count to attack England?”
“Not people…” said Magda. “Monsters. Not human.”
“Dominators?” said the Knight. “Is that what they’re called?”
“And where are the Dominators now?”
“Gone. They left last night when they learned the Count had been defeated.”
“Gone where, Magda?”
“I don’t know. But not far. Heard the Count say once, their ship is not far from here.”
“Ship?” said Firebrand. “They have a ship here?”
“Well, how do you think they got here?” said the Knight. “Interesting that it’s grounded, though. I’d have expected it to be in orbit.” He turned to Magda again. “Where were you going, Magda? To join them?”
“No. I don’t know where they are. But we were told to leave. To get out of the village altogether.”
“Who’s ‘we’? Vertigo’s staff?” Magda nodded. “Why is that, Magda?”
“The Count told us. If he were to fail to return, we should get out. Get far from this valley. It would not be safe to remain.”
Firebrand’s expression was grim. “Looks like you were right about the castle being booby-trapped, Knight. It sounds as if there’s something up there that’ll flatten this whole valley if we set it off.”
“That’s what I was thinking, too,” said the Knight. He looked back into Magda’s eyes. “All right, Magda. We’re going to let you go now. Go and catch your bus. But you must forget you saw us or that we had this conversation. Do you understand?”
Before they could release her, however, there was a commotion from the street side of the alley. Both heroes looked around to see a knot of angry-looking people standing there. Many were carrying stones or sticks. A couple even had knives. One of the men yelled something.
“What did he say?” said Firebrand.
“He said ‘Look! I told you they had Magda!’ And several of them are crying ‘witches’ and ‘evil.’ They may have seen us using our powers.”
“I think it’s time we made an exit,” she replied, releasing Magda. They turned around, only to see more angry villagers blocking the other end of the passageway. Then, suddenly, both halves of the mob broke into a run toward the two heroes.
As several stones struck him to rebound harmlessly off the chain mail under his clothing, the Knight reached out his hand, and his sword appeared in it just in time to use it to fend off a particularly fast local swinging a spade at his head. The sword thrust snapped the wooden implement in two, leaving the villager startled. A well-aimed punch sent the man staggering back.
“What the hell’s got into these people?” he heard Firebrand say. There was a crackle of energy. “Stay behind me, whatever you do!” He also felt Magda drop to the ground, whimpering.
There was no time to look behind, anyway, as he found himself swinging his weapon in a wide arc to deter his would-be attackers. It was having the desired effect in that their advance had slowed to a cautious crawl, but more stones were pelting him, and he found himself using the sword to protect his head. His helmet was, of course, still in his duffel bag, but there was no opportunity to reach it, much less put it on.
There was a sudden roaring sound and an inrush of air, and cries of surprise and pain mingled behind him. Firebrand was suddenly at his side, electricity crackling from her upraised palms. Lightning arced from her fingers, striking the wooden walls of the houses on either side and sending hot splinters raining down onto the heads of the attacking villagers. Some of them thought better of it and fled; the rest stopped in their tracks, suddenly very unsure of themselves.
A stone whistled past them. Firebrand gestured, and another bright bolt of electrical energy struck the ground immediately in front of the mob. “The next one of you to throw a stone will be on the receiving end of one of these!” she growled.
The Knight took advantage of the temporary lull to glance behind. The mob back there were lying in a muddled heap at the entrance to the alley. Some were regaining their feet, but they suddenly looked a lot less determined than they had been.
“What did you do to them?” he asked Firebrand.
“Just used a massive kinetic energy blast on the air between us,” she explained. “It literally blew ’em over. You OK?”
The Knight looked down. Magda was curled up in a ball against the nearest wall, but she looked as if this action had been out of fear, not because she had been hit by a stray stone. “She’s OK, too, I think.”
“Good. Get your bag. We’re getting out of here.”
“Look, Ivanhoe, I’m not going to argue with you. You might have declared yourself in charge of this little expedition, but I’m not one of your team, and I don’t have to take orders from you. Now you either come with me, or I’ll leave you to bond with the friendly natives. Up to you.”
The Knight sighed. “I make a point of never arguing with determined women.” He hefted up his duffel bag onto his shoulder. “All right.” Firebrand touched his arm.
And suddenly he was no longer in the alley between two houses but standing on a stone floor, still in the open air but much higher up. To his left was a stone rampart. He whirled around, taking in his new surroundings. “The castle? You flew us to the castle?“
Firebrand, whose peasant clothes had been suddenly transformed into her costume, said, “We had to go somewhere. And it’s only the battlements.”
The Knight fished inside his bag for his helmet. “This was not a good idea, Firebrand. You heard what Magda said. And you said it yourself, the place is probably booby-trapped with something big enough to take out the whole village.”
“I didn’t see anything when I was flying over here. It’s quiet as a graveyard.”
“Something it could well end up being if we’re not careful,” said the Knight. He had placed the helmet on his head and was stripping off his coverall, revealing the surcoat and chain mail of the original Knight underneath. “Let’s just be careful. We don’t touch anything, and we don’t try to gain entry, all right?”
“Yes, boss,” she replied sarcastically. “Anything else?”
“Let me just check in with Perry…” He adjusted a control on the helmet. “Knight to Rook. Are you receiving?”
There was a brief delay before a familiar voice answered, “Rook to Knight. We were beginning to get worried. Are you all right?”
“I think so,” said the Knight. “We had a bit of a run-in with some locals who weren’t very pleased to see us, but we have found out some information.”
“Perry, you were supposed to be reconnoitering only!”
“I know, I know. Best laid plans and all that. Listen, Percy, we’ve discovered that the Dominators have flown the coop, but they apparently have a ship nearby. I doubt whether they’ve had a chance to move it yet. The immediate worry is the castle. They’ve somehow trapped it in a way which endangers this entire locality. I feel we have a responsibility to deal with that before anything else.”
“Why?” said Firebrand, a look of disgust on her face.
“It goes with the uniform,” the Knight said. “Listen, Percy, how soon can the others join us here? If nothing else, I need the sensory equipment built into my armor.”
There was a slight pause before Percy Sheldrake replied, “The others are as keen to join you, my friend. However, we’re still waiting for Godiva and Cameo to return, and the… ah… transport I sent for hasn’t arrived yet, either. But I’ll get them to you as soon as I can. In the meantime, please try to stay out of any more trouble. We’ve had some disturbing news ourselves about what the Dominators have planned for Britain, and believe me, we don’t want to provoke them into bringing their plans forward.”
“Understood. Firebrand…?” Perry looked around. Firebrand had moved a few metres away and was peering over the battlements into a courtyard. “What is it?”
“I don’t think we’re alone, Knight. I think I just saw something move down there.”
“Then let’s get out of here for now. We can come back when the others join us.”
Firebrand turned to face him and nodded. “All right. It’s just that — what was that?” She whirled back to look down again.
“What is it?” said the Knight. He followed her gaze. “Oh, my…”
And then there was silence.