Bonus Chapter from Pride Fall
Alice closed her eyes and listened. Individually a spell or magical creature had its own song, but packed together in the crowded confines of the Vegas shallowing, it blended into a mad band rehearsal with every kid playing a different song. When she had first Awakened, she’d loathed that word with the deep bitterness of a bottomless hole. After she had become a flippin cow, she couldn’t sleep for a solid month because of all the magical racket. Now though, a single year later that felt longer than the entirety of her nineteen years, she could tune her mind like a radio and zero in on an individual song. It took time because the radio in her head had five or six tuning dials, but if she heard a song once she could always find it again.
Magic scrabbled in her head and then clarified into the low rumble of the song that Doug had briefly sung for her. A necrotic dirge with the low sonarious tones of whale song. It sent a shiver down her spine that made her tail whip through the cool air of the Vegas night.
Got it, She thought to Grace, her partner and magus, whom she had jumped at binding herself to, for life, for the chance to be something other than a talking cow.
Where? Grace asked, placing her hand reassuringly on Alice’s black clad back, a custom leotard covered her four legged body. Grace too wore black. Her pudgy form stretching the gi she wore, long curly hair spilling out the rear of the cowl over her face, and fingers toying with the strap that held a curved sword to her back. A cosplay of a classic ninja except that sword was very real, as were the bricks of explosives strapped to Alice’s own horns.
Alice strained her ears, trying to get a bead on the eerie song. Hooves making soft clops on the pavement, she approached the side of the street. The song was coming from the north but she couldn’t be sure if it approached via this road. That was the problem with using the radio, after zeroing in on a song it lost its directionality to an extent, just near or far. Eyes still closed, Alice trotted down the sidewalk, guided by Grace’s subtle mental directions until the song’s volume peaked and began to recede. Here! Alice stopped and opened her eyes. A parking garage loomed over the pair, a perfect place for an ambush. Grace’s eager grin shined through the mental link as they rushed up five flights of stairs, the song growing closer with every clack of her shod hooves.
At the top of the stairs they hurried to the concrete railing on the edge of the roof, just high enough to catch the bumper of a pickup truck. Alice craned her neck to peer over it at the road below. Sparse traffic flowed down the street on their way to and from Las Vegas’ hidden strip, the strip of the magi. Listening to the song for a moment, she grew more certain. This is it. She declared. I think.
See! Dougie knew you could find it! Grace thought back, responding more to the cloud of doubt hovering in Alice’s mind than the actual statement.
Alice snorted, fighting to keep her focus on the song and not let her loathing of Ceres and her imperious cheetah wreck her concentration. There should at least be another team on the roof opposite from the parking garage. Ceres didn’t usually let them do anything without gobs of backup. This hush-hush mission reeked of another mean-spirited test.
To calm herself, she pushed up a chunk of cud to chew. She’d never admit it to anyone but Grace, but she loved cud. It was on demand bubble gum that tasted better than the grass she ate in the first place. It gave her something to do while she waited, hooves don’t twiddle well and there was a lot of waiting when you’re familiar.
Grace’s attention wandered to her phone but Alice stood there listening to the volume of the song slowly swell. She was so tuned in she wouldn’t hear anything short of a magical tass bomb, but instinct kept her ears flicking, listening for the sound for mundane predators. Nothing stirred but a few crows, their claws making the lightest taps on the pavement as they hopped and cawed to each other. The sky grumbled with distant thunder.
Finally she peered out into the distance and saw it. The source of the song. A black van lazily rolled to a stop at a traffic light two blocks away. Showtime, Alice whisper-thought, wapping Grace with her tail.
Grace started and slipped the phone into a pocket before joining Alice at the edge. The light changed and the van started toward them.
“Ready?” Grace whispered.
“You know I would have been in my freshman year of college right now.” Alice said.
“I would have been a high school senior and very bored.” Grace reached over and Alice heard the sharp snap of two switches, along with a quiet beep.
“You’re not the one with bombs attached to your head. I could do bored.” Alice took a few steps away from the edge.
“With great power…” Grace stood up on the edge, one hand reaching back to the hilt of the sword, the other counting down with her fingers.
Five. Alice lowered her head so her horns were level with the ground.
Four. I really hate this part. Alice thought.
Three. We practiced, I’ve got you.
Two. Alice swallowed down her cud and set her rear hooves.
One. Sucking in breath, Alice filled her considerable lungs.
Grace’s last finger slipped into her fist. Go!
Alice bellowed out a great Mooooooo! that startled the crows to flight and launched herself into a gallop. After two thundering strides, she jumped onto the edge and hurled herself off it.
For a heartbeat, Alice watched the street yawn beneath her, hanging there, weightless. She saw the van slowly moving in line with her jump, in the third lane. Then gravity demanded its due. The world screamed through the holes in the back jumpsuit she wore. The white lane divider rapidly expanded, shooting toward her. Alice had a flash of it cutting though her as wire.
In the exact moment of that panicked terror, soothing fire rushed down into her from Grace. Alice’s veins sung as a sinuous melody caressed her heart. It flowed, stretching her clumsy body into a form of elegance. Gravity’s grip became inconsequential, her long legs absorbed the blow of the pavement without a pause in her forward momentum. Alice rammed the van with her horns, rocking it up onto two wheels, and with a pulse of her legs, somersaulted over it leaving the adhesive bricks of explosives attached to the side of the van.
Alice’s hooves clicked onto the pavement.
Beep. Her ears flicked. A sound like an electric guitar riff followed in Alice’s wake, a ward. Too slow, she thought.
Alice pivoted and twirled away as the blast blew the van across two lanes of traffic and it rolled up onto its roof, side ablaze.
A single screaming note of magic cut through the erupting cacophony of car horns and squealing tires as Grace leapt from the building. Now a tall, willowy figure, she held her gleaming sword with both hands swinging down in arc. Although she landed far short of the van, a flicker of movement sliced out from its edge and travelled through the van, splitting it in half. The guitar skipped a note but continued on.
Dang gotta do it the hard way. Get ready Alice. Grace thought before launching into a whirling dance with the sword, sending cut after screaming cut into the van. Ribbons of metal and plastic fell away to reveal a man in a black House Erbus robe leaning on a staff made of bone, the source of the dierge. On his shoulder sat a Raven. They just stood there as the ward endured the barrage of Grace’s cuts.
Panic ward, Alice realized. It would hold off Grace’s force sword for as long as it lasted but he couldn’t attack out of it either. They had hoped the bombs would have staggered the enemy occupants but they’d gone off too late. Beneath the sound of the panic ward Alice heard tinny notes flowing together, he’d be coming out of there with a combat ward up. They had to break through now!
Alice only had one idea. Her tongue and jaw worked, popping a small crystal of Tass that had been tucked in the crevice between her cheek and her molars. Crunching down on it, the dull eerie vibration of the otherworldly substance filled her skull. She pushed it into her horns until they rang with the indescribable sound of tass. Imagining a radio dial at the base of each horn she adjusted until its pitch matched the ward’s tone. A smile pulled at corners of her muzzle; this was a trick that only those who heard magic could do.
Alice bound high into the air, executing a swan dive and drove her horns down into the ward. They didn’t penetrate but adhered. Grace’s power hadn’t reduced her near 700 pounds of mass, just enabled her to apply it precisely how she intended and those inside the ward weighed much less. As she went over, the panic ward came with her, rolling beneath the feet of the magus inside. Arching her deer-like neck back when her dainty hooves touched the ground, she hurled the ward and its contents. Letting go of the tass in her horns at the right moment, the raven and magus tumbled through the air as if contained by a giant invisible hamster ball.
Alice heard a rumble of thunder as the pair hit the ground and rolled until they hit the side of the parking garage.
The magus inside the panic ward swept to his feet as the ward itself imploded with the twang of a broken string. “Damn you!” He shouted as he brought the bone staff to bear. The derige swelled as the world went cold and darkness without a beam or wave to dodge expanded. Alice felt a wrenching sensation and all awareness of her limbs disappeared.
A searing flash of light stabbed through the darkness.
Alice’s entire being snapped back like a rubber band. Limbs suddenly regained their weight and only Grace’s power prevented her from toppling. On the other side of the link Grace also wobbled. Confusion flowed between them as they blinked away stars to find Doug, their mentor’s cheetah familiar sitting on top of a smoldering corpse; looking smug as usual as the gems of his collar slowly faded from white to black.
“Dougie?” Grace asked, picking up her sword from the ground.
It was a test! I knew it! Alice thought.
A test of what? Grace huffed back.
“Well done. You two make excellent distractions.” He said smiling toothily, tail flicking. “That raven never once looked up. If he didn’t have a soul catcher, I might have let you finish the kill.” He pawed at the bone staff and sent it rolling toward Grace, who stopped it with her foot. “You keep that. They need a very specific ward to defend against it and they’d work on me a little too well.”
“Dougie I don’t understand.” Grace said as she wondered how thick a glove she needed to safely handle a soul catcher. Alice moved sideways to bump against Grace’s hip.
“Do you trust me?” Doug asked.
“Yes.” Grace said, the response automatic.
“Hell No.” Alice declared with a snort. “You and Ceres put her through hell for no good reason.”
“True.” He nodded, “Ceres’ idea of training is overly vigorous. But it’s difficult to disagree with her when she is awake. You don’t trust me Alice. Your loyalty to Grace is absolute and therefore I trust you.” He hopped off his smoking perch and turned the magus over with a paw. “I want to show you two something.” With that he dipped his head and pulled a small green box from inside the robe.
He placed it on the ground and slammed his paw down on it. The crack of glass echoed. He lifted his paw away and the box quivered a moment before unfolding in an eyeblink.Alice lowed in fear, stepping back from a green-wing feathered snake the length of a bus lay on the sidewalk. It raised its head and flicked its tongue out at Doug.
“Go home,” Doug told it. “Don’t get caught again.”
It nodded once and then slithered upward into the air, disappearing seemingly through an invisible hole. To Alice it sounded like the softest of chimes as it slipped away.
“Was that an elemental?” Grace asked in a soft voice.
“The closest term for that is a small god. Your friend Thomas has his crusade and I have another. There are many such beings that the magi have captured over the centuries. I’ve done what I could, but my windows are limited. With the coming chaos I need someone who can nudge things when I can’t.”
“Ceres doesn’t know you’re here.” Alice burst out, “She’d never let something like that just… go. She’s asleep isn’t she?”
“Very good Alice. Ceres drives herself until she drops, I was very lucky my contacts got wind of this transport when they did.” He smiled and padded towards Grace who knelt down to his eye level.”
“What’s in it for us?” Grace asked.
“Ceres drove something into your skull I see.” Doug chuckled, “Follow me and let’s discuss how small gods can help a young magus and her familiar.”