[I’ve been skipping around the past few days, so there are a couple chapters missing, but here’s the climatic confrontation for your enjoyment.]
A little girl was screaming and crying, but the wide open prairie around her simply absorbed the sounds in the black of the starless night. All about her the normal life of the plains was crushed into the lifeless sod. High above her, barely heard in the distance, sounded the alarm call of a raven, black in the black, calling to her, calling for her, and a low rumble could be felt as a vast herd of bison started moving from beyond the horizon to her aid.
Hutton led Patton to one of the older industrial districts in the city, a mix of buildings from any time between the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century. Brick and stone construction limited the architecture to strictly utilitarian designs, with any ornamentation restricted to those buildings along State Street, the main drag in that part of town. None of the buildings were especially large, parking was haphazard, and the twisty little streets limited truck access to mostly smaller, local vehicles.
Their destination was a couple blocks closer to the river, buried in the ugly section. Patton rode his motorcycle up on the sidewalk and parked it, around the corner and across the street from the warehouse, putting it between a building and a telephone pole. This location was far less conspicuous than parking it legally on the dark, deserted streets. He put his helmet on the seat and pulled out his phone.
“I’m at a warehouse between Kodak Office and the river.” He gave the address. “Hutton says this is the place, but so far I haven’t seen anything.”
Elaine replied, “We’re about five minutes behind you.”
“Don’t rush. I think I’m going to take a ride around the block to look for back entrances and such.”
“Don’t! You have a familiar now — let him do it. He’ll be far less obvious than you.”
“Thanks, I hadn’t thought of that.” He thought a message to Hutton, who gave a brief caw and dove down the street.
It was her timid allies the roaches who finally pulled Yvonne from the warm embrace of blessed oblivion and back to cold consciousness and pain. She had imbued them with a need to report all those many hours ago, and they were trying to do just that, but she wasn’t listening! Their insistent demands to be heard combined with the feel of their little feet climbing all over her finally broke through her wall of isolation.
She opened her eyes to darkness, not the absolute blackness of oblivion but rather the darkness of a room imperfectly sealed from the lighted world outside. The roaches made it in, so why not light? The insects lent her their eyes and she could make out details in the dark that would have escaped her normal sight.
Opening her eyes to see also reopened her reception of pain. She slowly moved her hands to touch her breasts, belly and crotch. Each fleeting touch ignited fire in her skin. No wonder she was so sensitive to the pitter-patter of little roach feet! She felt for her clothes to discover the jumpsuit bunched around her ankles and other evidence of molestation while she was unconscious. She slowly, carefully pulled the now filthy garment on and zipped it up, trying hard to ignore the mephitic smell the soiled cloth brought near her face. At this point it was just one more defense against further attack, for who would want to fuck a creature that smelled this bad?
Once clothed she hugged her knees to her chest and simply sat curled into a fetal ball, making herself the smallest possible target to attack. If their aim had been to wring her dry of all hope, well, they had succeeded. She sat curled up in the corner, pressed her eyes into her knees, and cried weak little sobs, her eyes long past tears.
Elaine parked the Coven Mobile up on State Street and she, Margaret and Rich got out and started walking toward the warehouse. It was strange to see the witches, who normally wore dresses and went barefoot, now wearing tight tops, jeans and heels. They had decided that looking like hookers would help them better blend in with the neighborhood, as if anything they wore would keep them from attracting attention. Rich walked arm in arm between them, as if he were the luckiest guy in the city about to get even luckier tonight.
Margaret called Patton. “What next, Lover Boy?”
“We spotted Caldwell’s car next to a loading dock on the north side of the building. There are entrances all around, but the one on the west side is closest to you. I’ll meet you there.”
A couple of minutes later the trio caught up with Patton at a darkened doorway. He was digging around in his backpack, pulling out the toy guy he’d gotten from Dotty and loading it with sleeping pellets.
“What is that thing?” asked Rich.
“It shoots splat balls loaded with a sleeping potion. Good for five minutes of dream time.”
“It’s good to see you have a weapon you can handle.”
Patton scowled at him. “Give it a rest,” he growled. “Let’s find Yvonne and get her out of here.”
It turned out Rich had a way with locks. In only a moment the door was ready to open.
“Wait!” whispered Margaret. “Let the bird go first. They won’t be expecting such a short intruder — he can check around the corners and such.” Hutton stuck his head through the cracked door, and a moment later they were all inside.
The stench hit Caldwell like a fist when he opened the door to the freezer where the witch was being kept. “Jesus! What did you guys do, gut her?” As the door opened wider he could see a band of roach and rat droppings on the floor in front of the door. It must have been two inches deep! “Shit! Where’d that come from?” There were other pellets scattered all across the floor, as well as piles around the mattress where the witch was huddled in the corner. Angry at the damage being done to his Italian shoes he strode into the room and stood over his captive. The other two wizards followed him in.
“Wake up, witch!” The figure in the corner gave no indication she heard, or for that matter was even alive. “You two, pick her up. It’s time for us to move.”
Nieves looked as if he’d rather die than touch the filthy animal in the corner, but Fuentes stepped on the mattress, bent down, and grabbed her arms.
It was like a signal. From the mattress, the drain, the vent, even the doorway came an army of rats all running, squealing and biting in defense of Yvonne. Revenge was a fierce light in the beady red eyes, and they leapt on all three of the wizards simultaneously.
The wizards made a hasty retreat for the door, but the rats were having none of it. A dozen of them made ninja leaps for the throats, eyes and ears of the wizards, while dozens of others were attacking their ankles and climbing their legs. A few were attacking wrists and hands, trying to prevent any magical gestures that the wizards might make.
Fuentes managed to toss Yvonne’s limp body over his shoulder and started heading for the door, stomping rats under his boots. Nieves was preoccupied by trying to keep rats off of his head and away from his throat. Only Caldwell was able to keep his hands free enough to whip up a spell, a jet of flame that incinerated anything organic that it touched. With one hand he torched rats while the other was busy plucking rats off his body and tossing them into the fires.
As they escaped the freezer Caldwell sent one last bolt of flame inside and sealed the door. There were still dozens of rats in the corridor with them, but he doubted any would escape the inferno in the freezer. He turned his attention to the rats in the hall, and moments later he and Nieves had dispatched them all. He led the wizards back to the warehouse office.
“What the hell was that?” he demanded of his accomplices.
“I don’t know, boss,” said Nieves.
The entrance Patton had chosen was to an unoccupied portion of the building. As they made their way through the empty passages Patton got this feeling he was part of an episode of Scooby Doo, a quartet of amateur bumblers following their pet to face evil when by all rights they should be running the other way. In this case it was Margaret and Elaine leading the way, with himself following and Rich bringing up the rear. His toy gun was the only visible weapon, but each of the witches was carrying a large purse. Every now and then Elaine would reach into hers and pull out what looked like a handful of dirt that she would lodge at the base of a passing wall.
“What are you doing?” he asked her.
“I’m planting what Rich calls ‘non-lethal area denial munitions’.”
“Those don’t look anything like Legos!”
“Legos? No, these are vines. They’ll trip up anyone who tries to follow us back to the van.”
“Oh.” This was feeling more and more like a foolish adventure to Patton, but he kept his thoughts to himself. After all, he was the one who had pushed to rescue Yvonne. Any hesitation now would look like cold feet, or worse.
They found another locked door, and again Rich worked his magic. As they cracked it open they were greeted by light and the sounds of a strange conflict — the curses of grown men intermingled with high-pitched squeals of rats in pain and mingled pops and burning sounds. They stepped cautiously into the corridor only to be passed by swarms of rats racing past them, headed into the fray.
“It looks like Vonnie is putting up a fight! Good for her!” Margaret’s cheers were tempered, however, by the sensations coming through her link with her sister. Even Patton could feel the dark despair that was flooding Yvonne’s soul, now that she was out of the freezer. As the full impact hit them Margaret and Elaine stopped dead in their tracks. It was good that Rich was with them.
“Send in the bird! Get her away from them!” he cried, and Hutton leapt forth and flew down the hall, following the stream of rats to the fight.
Patton snapped out of his trance and started after his raven, dragging Elaine and Margaret along. It took a few steps for the movement to wake them from their stupor, and then they, too, were chasing after the rats, hoping to catch up with their sister’s tormentors.
The wizards were making their way through stacks of arms when the rat reinforcements attacked, leaping on them from above while simultaneously swarming under the pallets and biting from below. For the rats it was a great location for an ambush — the shelves full of boxes gave them lots of hidden approach routes, and the wizards didn’t want to damage their own merchandise or worse, set it off. About all they could do was activate personal shields to stop the bites, and carefully pick their way through the suddenly treacherous footing.
While they were waving their arms to ward off the rebellious rodents and watching their steps for any suicide squirmers, Hutton swooped over some boxes and dove at Fuentes, who threw up his arms in surprise. Yvonne chose that moment to kick at his groin, and in his efforts to avoid these attacks she slipped off his shoulder and to the floor. The sea of rats immediately enveloped her, burying her completely in snarling fur with lots of pointy little teeth.
As Fuentes bent down to pull her out of Mare Rattus Rich rounded the corner and sent a blast of kinetic energy down the aisle, blasting everything that was more than a foot off the floor against the far wall of the loading dock. Hutton was able to pull himself up and out of the blast zone, but the three wizards and the rats swarming on them wound up in a heap.
Margaret and Elaine charged to their sister and picked her up off the floor. They started crying over her, but Rich was right there with them. “You can cry later! Get her back to the van!” He dragged them all to their feet and the two witches started carrying an inert Yvonne back the way they had come.
Meanwhile Patton wasn’t idle. He raced past them and started shooting sleep pellets at the wizards, but the range was too great and the potion balls went wide of their marks. He managed to land one on Nieves and was pleased to see him slump to the floor, but Caldwell posed the greatest threat. The head criminal was able to keep his wits about him, and when he figured out what was happening he started using the rats all around as munitions, turning the hapless animals into something resembling the beanbags used to suppress riots, only traveling at much higher speeds.
“Patton! Let’s get out of here!” Rich was able to deflect the rodents with his own kinetic blasts, but Patton was between the battling wizards and in danger of being brought down by either side. He retreated enough to duck down a side aisle, allowing him a moment to figure out what to do next.
Hutton swooped into the aisle after him and landed at his feet. “Go follow the witches and make sure they get back to the van safely!” instructed Patton, and the raven darted up into the rafters and took off after the Gruff sisters.
“Patton!” called Caldwell, “there’s no need for us to fight! All you need to do is tell us who your supplier is and you and your friends are free to go!”
“After what you’ve done to Yvonne? Why should I believe you now?”
“Because it’s the only way you’re going to get out of here alive!” To prove his point, Caldwell caused boxes near Patton to fall into the aisle, hoping to force him back into the crossfire between Rich and Caldwell. Patton’s shield was able to deflect the falling boxes, and instead of backing up he dove farther down the cross-aisle. He turned a corner only to run into Fuentes with his arms spread wide, eager to trap Patton in a bear hug. Fuentes squeezed tight, and Patton shot straight up into the air. He porpoised over the piles of inventory and into the next aisle, where he scrambled to his feet and raced toward the back door.
Rich joined him at the door and they raced together down the hall past the freezer room. Patton opened the door as they ran past and flames burst into the hall behind them, the fire celebrating its freedom by doubling in size and intensity now that it was no longer starved for air. Rich and Patton, however, were past it and oblivious to the conflagration they’d released.
Caldwell, however, had realized which way they were running and sent a spell on ahead that closed their escape hatch in their faces. The seconds they spent defeating the spell and reopening the door was enough for Caldwell and Fuentes to make their way around the burning hallway. The wizards caught up just as the door opened.
A blast from Caldwell slammed it shut once again. At this Rich turned and pulled something wrapped in a handkerchief out of his pocket. “Is this what you’re looking for?” He held it up and peeled back the corners of the handkerchief, revealing the crystal ball that had caused so much grief. Patton’s eyes went wide as he recognized it, and he instinctively turned away and tucked into a ball.
Caldwell extended a tentacle of levitation magic to pluck it out of Rich’s hand, but at the slightest brush of manna the crystal exploded once again. Rich disappeared in a burst of light, while Caldwell and Fuentes were shot down the hall through the inferno and into the loading dock.
Patton’s reaction was quite different. Most of the released energy simply flowed around him, with only a small fraction actually touching him, and that little bit he absorbed into his chi. When his chi threatened to overflow into madness the excess manna was directed to the crystal battery he was wearing, a whole month’s worth of energy transferred in an instant.
The blast subsided and Patton uncurled and stood up. He couldn’t see Caldwell and Fuentes through the flames, but there at his feet lay Rich, unmoving, lifeless. Patton didn’t hesitate for a moment, but picked him up and bashed his way through the door, carrying him all the way back to the van as quickly as he could move. He didn’t even notice the crystal, still clutched tight in Rich’s lifeless hand.