Deep in the dungeon of Baliwick’s keep, the man who called himself Edward dangled from links of metal set into a stone wall. Just a few, slender links, endowed by nature alone with the strength to hold him to the ancient masonry, even as it was nature that suppressed his strength too much for him to break away.
Nature, he thought. He had long since stopped trying to decide where nature ended and where science began. Magic itself was merely a manipulation of natural forces, controlled in the form a science most people would never understand. In truth, there was no distinction. It was nature, not Baliwick, that was his jailer.
And unlike Baliwick, if he sweet-talked it enough, it would be nature that would set him free.
There were shouts outside the cell. Guards scrambled and shrieks echoed down into his dank chamber. In the other chambers he could hear those prisoners not completely broken begin to whisper, then to cheer. Something was happening, and that special little girl was most certainly at the center of it.
Edward allowed himself to smile just for a moment before he began to recite his nice, simple magic words.
* * *
“Kevin, where did you come from?” Gene shouted as they scampered down the lucky thirteen steps to the grandstand.
“Forget that!” Gail shouted. “Why can’t we see you?”
“A little present I picked up from your friend Elmer!” Kevin’s disembodied voice shouted.
“Elmer? You found Elmer?”
“Aye, lass,” said a second ownerless voice. “I told ye I’d keep an eye out for your friend, didn’t I?”
“Emily?” Linda called as she made it to the bottom of the stairs. She was probably the first one down, but she couldn’t be positive, considering she didn’t know where Kevin or Emily actually were. She got off the stairs and prepared to run, but only wound up running right into a furious Baliwick.
“I don’t know what you or your new friends did to Harridan, girl, but I assure you, it won’t work on me.” He flashed his hands in front of them and, with a sound like a knife being drawn against flint, all ten fingernails shot out into long, glittering claws. His eyes were orange again, but this time with heat rather than power, and when he shouted at them, Linda could see tongues of flame licking the back of his throat.
“What are you?” she said.
“Your death, child!” he roared, and he lunged forward, slashing at the children. Gene grabbed Gail and pulled her aside, Linda rolling in the opposite direction. The dust around Baliwick rose up in a cloud about his feet and unseen hands grabbed the trail of his long coat, pulling it up and over his head. He roared, slashing his arms blindly back around his own body and failing to hit anything.
“Geez, Linda, what did you go to get this guy so mad?” Kevin asked.
“We dug up his flower bed, what do you think?” she asked. She grabbed the flapping end of the coat and wrapped it around Baliwick’s neck, yanking him back towards the support beams for the grandstand. “Somebody help me pin him down!”
“Done, me girl,” Emily said. The tail of the coat drifted through the air against the wood. There was a thud and a knife appeared, sticking the coat to the post like a butterfly pinned under glass. “How long will that hold him?”
“About long enough for him to untangle his arms and pull it out!”
“Well, then, we’re not running nearly fast enough, are we?”
Emily’s invisible hand grasped Linda’s painfully opaque one and pulled her towards the tunnel to the stables. Behind them, Kevin was leading Gene and Gail in the same direction. As they crossed into the courtyard, Linda was surprised to see that all of the “orange” guards were standing motionless, scratching their heads as if unsure what to do. Without Baliwick’s direction, they were completely helpless.
“Whoa, where are we going?” Linda asked.
“The stables,” Emily said, “unless you know another way out where we won’t be wading through Baliwick’s thugs!”
“We can’t leave yet!”
“Why not?” Gail shouted.
“Benny’s still here!”
“I don’t suppose I can talk ye into saving your own skin and coming back for him another time,” Emily said.
“Then let’s pretend we’ve already argued about it and cut to the part where ye tell me where they’re keeping him.”
Linda smiled with gratitude. “Deal. The top of that tower.”
“Kevin, boyo, get the others to the moat.”
“Way ahead of you!” his voice called from the direction of the stables. Gail seemed to be pulled along by an invisible rope, and Gene was just trying to keep up.
“Linda, ye’re with me,” Emily’s voice said.
“Really? I barely noticed.”
* * *
Gail was scared, but had enough of her wits about her to be offended that Kevin was dragging her through the courtyard while Gene was allowed to run free. As they made it through the tunnel to the stables she jerked her arm loose and they heard Kevin’s feet scuffle forward a few steps, losing his balance upon losing the extra weight.
“What? Why are we stopping? Did you guys develop a death wish while I was gone?”
“Where have you been?” she shouted.
“Do we really want to have this conversation now?”
“Works for me,” Gene said. “I was starting to think the Macana got you.”
“I got lost, all right? I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and I wound up in Lewiston again. Once I rested and patched up my leg, I went back through Evertime and found the bar, then Murphy gave me Linda’s note. You want to know what I had for breakfast or is that enough?”
“You had breakfast?” Gene said.
“How long are you going to be invisible?” Gail snapped at the air.
“I don’t know! Elmer said the potion would last an hour, I drank it maybe 20 minutes ago…”
“How did you meet Elmer?”
“Emily brought me to him.”
“How did you meet Emily?”
“Look, I didn’t have a camcorder with me, okay?”
“What were you doing all this time?”
“I took your advice!”
“I read a book.”
He shouted a few garbled syllables that reminded Gail of Latin and, with a pop, the grate that led to the drainage pipe they crawled up to enter the castle fell open into the dust.
“How did you do that?”
“A handy little tome called Exomancy For Dummies,” Kevin said. “I used a shrinking spell on the bolts. The trick is shrinking them enough so that there’s a crack and air can get into the hole – otherwise you’ve got a vacuum and it’s that much harder to pull it off.”
Gene and Gail looked around dumbfounded, having no idea what direction they should technically be looking in. “You’ve been studying magic?” Gene said.
“A little, yeah. Mostly defensive spells. Easy enough stuff, but if the guy you’re squaring off with doesn’t expect them, they can be very effective.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I’m quoting from the introduction. Look, I knew you guys would go on without me, and evidently my athletic skills weren’t all they were cracked up to be.” Gail flushed at that, but Kevin ignored her and kept going. “I wanted to be able to help when I found you.”
“Well, you’ve sure as heck done that. Hasn’t he, Gail?”
“Yeah, yeah he has.”
“It’s wonderful that we’re all friends again,” said Kevin. “Now can we please cement that friendship by crawling down a hole that smells like butt and swimming for our lives?”
“Just like the good old days,” Gene said. “Let’s move.” He ran to the pipe and peered into it. “Hey, was there anyone else with you guys?”
“We’ve got some folks on the edge of the forest,” Kevin said. “Why?”
“It looks like – gurk!”
A hand came out of the pipe, clad in white, stained green by the filthy moat water. It grabbed Gene around the throat and shoved him into the dirt. The hand was followed by a body – a dripping, odiferous, blue-skinned body, with angry, hate-filled eyes.
“How wonderful,” said Lareil of the Macana. “Two of the insects that escaped us before.” He climbed out of the pipe, holding on to Gene, and Llaeli came out after him.
“You have a choice to make, boy,” Lareil said. “You can show us where your friends are, particularly the girl, or the one friend you’ve managed to hold on to can pick up your vertebrae from the dust.”
* * *
“When do you think Baliwick will get himself out of his coat?” Linda asked as she and Emily ran down the halls of the keep.
“About half a minute ago, actually.”
“Great. Well, nothing like working under pressure. This way.”
Linda hit a turn in the hallway and started up the stairs that led to Benny’s room. It was like watching a movie with a broken audio track – only Linda could be seen charging up the stone staircase, but the pounding of her shoes seemed to echo enough for two people. Linda half-wished she could run past a guard just to see the surprised look on his face. Of course, they were all pretty much mindless husks anyway, except for Baliwick’s own people, and after Harridan’s display, she didn’t think that would be worth it.
“Hey, Emily? I know this isn’t exactly the best time, but exactly how much do you know about Baliwick and his guys?”
“I don’t follow. What are ye askin’ me, girl?”
“You saw the execution, right?” Linda asked. The just passed up another window – she’d lost count, but she thought it was the last one before Benny’s room at the top of the tower.
“Well, I saw the attempt. I flatter m’self by saying it wasn’t a particularly successful execution.”
“You saw how they wanted to kill us, then? Harridan was spitting fire!”
“Aye – and that surprised ye? Linda-girl, I thought ye knew what ye were dealin’ with! If I’d have known I’d have never let ye into this keep by yourself!”
None of this was adding up to Linda. Andro, Emily and Kevin all used magic, and they came across as purple in her Third Eye. But Baliwick and his goons were black, so whatever they were doing wasn’t technically magic, at least, not the same kind of magic. This was assuming, of course, she had any idea how this was working, which was debatable, considering the quality of her on-the-job training.
“Is that the room Benny’s in?”
“Only room up here,” Linda said. “Nice to see Baliwick left it guarded.”
“Halt!” the guard yelled, staring blankly ahead with orange eyes. He lowered his spear at Linda. “Surrender!”
“Aye,” Emily said. The spear popped out of the guard’s hands and clattered to the staircase. The guard doubled over a second later, grabbing his stomach, then falling forward like he’d been kicked.
“This is so much easier when they can’t see you coming,” Emily said.
“I’ll bet.” Linda lifted a heavy bolt from across the door and shoved the door open. “Benny? Come on, Benny, we’re leaving! Now!”
“I don’t see him anywhere, Linda.”
“Well, you’re even with him, then. Benny!”
A sudden weight slammed into Linda’s back and she slammed into the ground. A pair of tiny fists rained blows down onto her shoulders and neck. They barely hurt, at least physically.
“Where’s Baliwick?” Benny’s voice howled. “What have you done with him?”
Emily grabbed Benny with invisible arms and pulled him off. “Is this your brother, Linda? He’s certainly an agreeable chap.”
“You should see him at bedtime,” Linda groaned. “Benny, calm down. I know you’re in there somewhere – try to stop this stupid, ugly creature that’s in charge right now so we can save you, okay?”
“I don’t need saving!” he screamed. “Baliwick! Baliwick, help! It’s just like you said! They’re trying to take me! They–”
Benny’s voice got muffled and, a few seconds later, a handkerchief appeared in his mouth.
“Sorry, Linda. He was getting on my nerves. Hand me the belt on that robe, will ye? I’ll tie him up.”
“How do you do that, anyway?” Linda asked, picking up the rope. “That bit where you make things appear.”
“It’s how my grandfather’s potion works. Ye drink it and your body and everything within an inch or two of your skin turns invisible. Ye can’t wear big cloaks or anything, but it’s a lot better than his old potion that only made your body disappear and ye had to run around starkers. Of course, when I let go of something it reappears. There – he’s tied up right nice.”
“Wrapped up like a Christmas present,” Linda said.
No Christmas in Nogard, Linda thought. “Boy, it must be rotten to live here in winter.” Linda hefted up the struggling Benny over her shoulder – he seemed lighter than he used to. But that didn’t make sense, she knew Baliwick had been treating him well — physically, at least. Did that mean she was getting stronger? “Let’s get out of here before Gail’s halfway back to Evertime.”
Emily held the door open for Linda, then closed it behind them. They didn’t get very far down the spiral staircase – perhaps one circuit of the tower – before they stopped, turned, and started running back up.
“Half a minute, you said?” Linda said.
“Aye. We probably tarried a bit too much in Benny’s room.”
“We should have thought of that before.”
Fire scorched the tunnel behind them, and now Linda wondered if her increased speed was because she was growing stronger, or if the fact that Baliwick and what appeared to be an entire regiment of orange-eyed guards were screeching only a few steps behind them was just one major source of incentive.
“Come back down, Linda-girl!” Baliwick roared. “Come back down and we’ll all play nice together!”
* * *
Hundreds of feet below them, Edward’s chains were rattling against the wall of his cell. His fingers traced the air, making intricate patterns with careful precision, each motion of his fingers matching the mumbling syllables he was reciting as fast as he could.
“En-doh-eggs-oh, en-doh-eggs-oh, en-doh-eggs-oh,” he was humming.
Above him, he heard commotion, guards racing up stairs, angry shout and cries of rage.
He started talking even faster. “Endo-exo-endo-exo-endo-exo!”
The shackles around his wrists began to vibrate. If Linda had been there, the wash of purple she saw in her Third Eye would have been blinding.
* * *
“Where is the girl?” Lareil shouted, shaking Gene as hard as he could. Gene choked and clawed at Lareil’s hand, not breaking the thick skin of the vacuum suit. He kicked at the Macana, but Llaeli grabbed him by the legs and held him in place. “Tell me where she is, boy, and I may spare you.”
“Get – cough – bent!”
“You may as well tell us, child. Your sort is so predictable.”
“For-ghaa!” Gene’s voice was strained. “Forget it!”
“You’ll tell me, or I won’t kill you. I’ll kill your little friend here while you get to watch.”
Gail screamed and fell back. “No! Don’t!”
“I will kill you, girl…”
“Don’t tell him, Gene!”
“What?” said Lareil.
“What?” said Llaeli.
“Wh-haaat?” croaked Gene.
“I can’t believe you jerks chased us all the way here! Don’t you have some innocent bunnies to blow up or something?”
Gene stared at her, too busy being surprised to remember to suffocate. Lareil, likewise, gaped in amazement. “Well, well! You’ve been feeding this one for a change, have you boy? Maybe I should go ahead and strangle you anyway – unless she’d be willing to tell us what happened to your other friends.”
“One of ‘em is right here!” Kevin shouted. Lareil’s legs jerked together and he fell face-first into the dirt, dropping Gene on the way. Gene, hitting the ground, threw himself over Lareil’s chest to hold him down. Invisible hands gave him a length of rope which reappeared a few seconds later, tied around Lareil’s legs. “Tie him up, Gene!”
“Who’s that?” Llaeli asked. “Who said that?”
Kevin shouted a succession of three quick syllables, and Llaeli balked in pain, falling over next to Lareil on the ground. He clutched his stomach even as a thin fluid, a darker color blue than his skin, trailed from his nose and the corner of his mouth. Another invisible blow struck him across the face and he fell backwards unconscious.
“What was that, Kevin?” Gail asked.
“Cantrips For Self-Defense,” Kevin said, “my new favorite book, after Grey’s Sports Almanac. The first spell let me hit him faster, the second spell let me hit him harder, and the third spell let me know where to hit him to make it hurt the most.”
“He was bleeding from the mouth because you hit him in the stomach?” Gail asked.
“I don’t think that’s his stomach.”
“For – ghe – forget them,” Gene said. “What the heck happened to Gail?”
“What do you mean? I’m fine.”
“Yeah, but you… you… did something.”
“Kevin told me to.”
“He whispered for me to distract them so he could tie them up.”
“Aha!” Lareil shouted. “Base treachery and deceit. Foul – oof!”
Kevin kicked him in the side. “Yeah, and you were willing to torture and kill 11-year-olds. Spare us the lecture, okay?”
“Gail,” Gene said, clearly impressed. “That was… you were good.”
“Thanks,” she said. “It felt good. Maybe I’ll try not freaking out a little more often.”
“So what do we do with Dingus and Dorkus here?” Kevin said. “We can’t just leave them.”
“Why not?” Gail asked. “Let Baliwick roast them like he was going to do to us.”
“Baliwick?” Lareil said. “What’s a Baliwick?”
“A big, ugly guy with sharp teeth and major halitosis,” Kevin said. “Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Kevin said. “He eats babies for breakfast and middle-schoolers for lunch. I’ll bet a skinny blue alien would be the perfect appetizer for dinner.”
“And he can sharpen your bones and use them to pick his teeth,” Kevin continued. “I bet you guys are really stringy.”
“What, Gene?” Gail asked.
“Is that tower supposed to be shaking back and forth like that?”
The others looked where he was pointing and saw the tallest tower in the castle quaking like it were hit by a localized earthquake. Stones fell away from the sides while gouts of flame and thick billows of black smoke belched out of the windows.
“Is that the tower where Linda and Emily are?” Kevin asked.
“I don’t know,” Gail said.
“Of course it is,” said Gene. “Otherwise, it might mean something was going right.”
* * *
* * *
Linda, with Benny slung over her shoulder, burst back into the room he’d had in the top of the tower. Unfortunately, that turned out to be as far as they could run. Baliwick and the guards followed them into the room before they could shove the door shut.
“This has gone far enough, Linda!” Baliwick erupted. He’d pulled his arms out of the sleeves of his coat, but left it fastened around his neck with a cord so it hung heavy about his frame like a cloak. The dark grey fabric of his tunic quivered back and forth as his chest rose and fell. Each breath had more weight to it than the last, and Linda was afraid he would explode there in the staircase.
“It’s not far enough until we’re out of here,” Linda said. Benny shrieked against the gag and flailed against her, hitting her even harder and never causing any pain. She tossed him onto the bed and clenched her fists, raising them in a boxing posture.
“You’re going to try to fight me, Linda? You?” He laughed and puffs of smoke spilled out of his cheeks.
“If I have to,” Linda said. She popped open her Third Eye and saw Emily, dazzling violet, creeping behind Baliwick and avoiding the phalanx of orange guards. She reached out for Baliwick’s cloak, ready to pull it against his throat, when he pivoted around and grabbed her by the invisible shirt, hurling her into the wall. Her left arm smashed against the stone and she shouted on the way down.
“You don’t trick me twice, girl!” he said, sniffing at the air. “Too much wind, too many people, I couldn’t sense you in the courtyard, but here you’re so clear to me I can almost see you.”
“Leave her alone!” Linda punched out into Baliwick’s stomach. It was like punching a steel light post. Her thumb cracked and she shouted in pain. Towering above her, Baliwick laughed. His skin was slowly changing before her eyes. From beneath his clothing crept a sort of dark, black, glassy substance, coating him like a second, impenetrable skin.
“What are you?” Linda said.
“Your ending, child! I’m going to tear this tower apart with you in it!”
“You do that and you’ll get Benny too!”
“Stupid, sightless girl. You’re not what I’m looking for, Andro confirmed that. I don’t need you or your petulant brother anymore!” Benny howled, flailing around the bed, panicked to hear his perceived “friend” talk in such a fashion.
Baliwick’s tunic ripped apart beneath flexing muscles, the shreds falling away from his torso. His skin was now black with armor except for a lighter patch along his chest and stomach like the belly of a lizard. The guards, even in their blank state, turned around and ran out of the room in an orderly, if terrified fashion.
“What are you?” Linda repeated.
“Obsidian Clan,” Emily moaned, clutching the arm that slammed against the wall.
“Obsidian Clan?” Linda said. “What does that mean?”
“Please,” hissed Baliwick, long, black tongue flickering against her face. “Allow me to show you.”
Baliwick bent over, his body expanding, and he roared with a burst of flame and smoke from the pit of his stomach. His entire body was covered with the black armor now – smooth and hot like obsidian glass. His hair pulled into his head, leaving him bald, and his nose elongated. His limbs twisted and his fingers turned into razor-sharp claws. From behind, his pants ripped apart and a gigantic tail flapped against the floor. His entire body continued getting larger and larger, and when his tail flailed against the walls the entire tower shook. Finally, he reared back on his haunches, tearing the roof off to make room for his 20-foot tall form. A horn sprouted from his nose and, from his back, opened a pair of enormous leathery wings. He fired a torch from his mouth into the sky and Linda grabbed her brother, pulling him under the bed. Giant claws hurled the four-post oak furniture through the air and beyond the realm of the castle and Linda, shaking, found herself staring into the blazing eyes of a giant Obsidian Dragon.
The claw grasped Linda, then, picking up Benny with her, and looking at the arc the discarded bed took, hurled them both into the air outside the tower. Benny was still gagged, so Linda’s scream was much louder.
* * *
Edward’s body was washed with a cascade of pure light and, for a moment, it was impossible to see inside the cell. The light faded again, except for his eyes, which flashed blue in the darkness. He gripped the chains that bound him to the wall and twisted them around his hands, getting a tight grasp as close to the wall as possible. With a mighty shout, he jerked his arms forward. The metal links of the chains creaked and squealed against each other, but did not break. Finally, the stress proved too much for the wall itself and the stone blocks the chains were bolted to exploded, showering Edward’s bare back with rock and dust. He stood up straight against the falling stone without a mark against his skin – no cuts, no bruises, not even a smear of dirt. The chains fell by his side, their rattling drowned out by the shrieks of the other prisoners.
“I’m comin’, Linda-girl,” he said.
With a single jump, Edward pulverized the ceiling of his cell, ripping his way through the floor of the level above his. There were five more levels before the surface. He didn’t even slow down.