Combat magic is shaped by the one manifesting the power which means personality, history, and themes are all reflected in the energy’s appearance.
— Crystal Spheres Techniques
As the people in the village said, the bird tree was impossible to miss. Hundreds of birds fluttered on leafless branches that looked more like claws than something from a tree. With all the beating wings, Linsan half expected the roots to lurch out of the ground and the entire tree to sail into the sky.
She clutched her violin case and stared at the tree. She couldn’t tell if it was dead or twisted because of some magic spell, but nothing about the tree made her comfortable.
“Blessed Couple,” whispered Brook as she careened to look at it. “That’s creepy.”
Linsan whimpered soft. “Why aren’t they making any noise?”
Brook released the accelerator and the car grew quieter but no sounds of the birds rose up to fill the silence. Not even the whisper of feathers or the creak of wood. They rolled past with the crunch of dirt underneath the buggy’s tires.
As soon as the vehicle passed, Brook revved the engine and shot out down bumpy road.
Linsan braced herself and watched for the turn-off. She spotted it after only a few minutes. “There!”
Brook barely slowed down as she spun the buggy. The back end fish-tailed violently and the wheels kicked up a cloud of dirt.
Linsan barely had enough time to clamp her hands over the drinks and brace herself. The pressure drove her back into the seat as the vehicle launched itself down the bumping road. As they did, she tried to prepare herself for a fight. It was hopeless to even imagine how it would go, they were going blindly into a battle with nothing more than untried skills and a few hours of practice.
She glanced at Brook. Seeing the dark-haired beauty’s face twisted in a scowl, Linsan knew that she wouldn’t be able to stop Brook either. They were committed to getting the murderers and recovering the violin.
When they reached a broken-down windmill, Brook turned hard to the right and followed the road. The car roared while it covered the distance.
“Just like we practiced?” asked Brook through clenched teeth.
“Yeah. Just like we practice. Fast songs, work on the beats. Start with the guitar since he’s the leader.”
“This better work.”
“It will,” Linsan said, not entirely sure of herself.
It took a few minutes before they saw the blue barns along the horizon. Linsan smiled grimly.
Then she caught sight of the main village roofs off to the side. It was pathetically close, less than a few hundred feet. “Damn the Couple!”
“That’s the village. It’s right next door. Those old bastards sent us the long way around—”
Brook slammed on the accelerator and the engine’s roar became a high-pitched scream. Needles on gauges rose rapidly, dipping into the bright yellow areas that warned of danger.
Behind them, something began to whistle and a deep rattling shook the vehicle.
Linsan braced her foot on the dash of the buggy and retrieved her violin. She quickly tugged it out and stowed the case behind her. Just outside of her window, she could hear the wind howling as the vehicle ripped down the road, kicking up dust, dirt, and leaves.
She gasped as her heart pounded in her chest. The violin strings hummed underneath her fingers, the warmth of the Sterlig giving her strength and a sense of calm despite her anxiety. “Work on the beat, work on the beat,” she whispered.
“I’m going to bring the Glasscoaster around to use it as a shield. Try to block off their escape. Use it until we can get our bearings. You go after the guitar, I’ll cover. You lead.”
“Count the music coming in?”
Brook grinned, her eyes scanning back and forth on the road. Her dress ruffles fluttered with every bounce of the road but she kept it moving forward. “Third bar, start with the drinking song.”
”My Lady of the—”
“Yes!” Brook rolled her eyes and smacking the steering. “Is the name that important? How can you remember all that?”
Linsan grinned. “Been living it all my life. A thousands songs are stuck in my head.”
“Just keep it fast and hard. The milk song next, and if we are still fighting, then go into that anthem we only tried twice.”
“Plan,” Linsan said with a nod. She double-checked her bow. Taking a deep breath, she made sure she was braced and brought the violin up to her chin. It was going to be cramped playing in the Glasscoaster, but they had to come out swinging.
“Okay… we’re coming around the corner.”
Linsan threw herself into the rapid bars of My Lady of the Dark Unders, a drinking song that ended with a powerful beat to simulate a fist fight for the woman in the song. Both of them thought it would be perfect with Brook’s concussion blasts. The rich sounds of her violin filed the cramp quarters of the buggy.
The car burst out of the tree line. They were still a quarter mile away.
Ahead of them, she caught sight of the man wearing a duster and the wide-brimmed hat. It was Tilbin, the leader of the killers and thieves. Even from a distance, she could see his guitar swung over his shoulder as he rapidly threw what appeared to be bags into the back of a vehicle of his own.
Compared to Brook’s Glasscoaster, Dukan’s Black Thunder was a startling different vehicle. It looked low to the ground with a buggy near the back third. Mechanical ports and gears shone along the entire length of the trunk. Nestled between fat tires, the chassis looked more like a cat stretching out with its rear rising up where Tilbin threw possessions into the open trunk.
Another man stood up from the front of the car where he had been peering under one of the hoods. He bolted straight and then turned to the barns. He waved his arms.
Judging from the way Tilbin responded, he was yelling but Linsan couldn’t hear from the distance or the roar of the Glasscoaster.
“He saw us!” snapped Brook. She kicked the vehicle but it wouldn’t go faster. “Shit! Shit!”
The third of the men, Mayforn, raced out of one barn. He held up his pants with one hand and had a single bag in the other. Whatever was in it snapped back and forth. He raced straight for the car, but didn’t throw the bag in as much as carefully set it even with his bare ass sticking out.
Linsan’s heart skipped a beat. The care Mayforn took implied the item in the bag had worth. “That’s Palisis, it has to be.”
The three killers quickly slammed hoods down and doors closed before tumbling into the car. In a matter of seconds, Mayforn was in the driver seat and a cloud of white steam burst out of the back of the car.
“He’s about to release the pressure valves,” Brook said. Her lace gloves tightened around her steering wheel. “We aren’t going to get fast enough to block them in.”
“The Thunder has four pressurized tanks to get it moving quickly. Otherwise, it’s too heavy to move without a horse. Those are going to go off and the entire thing is going to lurch. I just… need to stop it!”
Rapidly losing any semblance of control, Linsan cradled her violin and braced herself. “Are you going to crash?”
A wild smile gave an answer Linsan dreaded.
“Is this going to hurt?” she whimpered.
“Probably.” Brook suddenly looked around the cabin and then toward each side of the car. “I’ll hit on my side, back of the car. It might knock Daddy’s off angle so it charges into the fence or that boulder near the front. Even if it doesn’t, it might break something more important. The Thunder is a lot more fragile than this buggy.”
Linsan stared at the furious glare that came from the driver’s eyes. She whimpered and braced herself the best she could, cradling her naked violin and bow in her hands.
She noticed that Brook tapped the steering wheel with her thumb. She still kept the beat. Inspired, Linsan used her own finger to pluck out the song they had started. The tinny sound bounced around the cabin.
Brook smiled and her tapping grew more confident.
In the briefest of moments, Linsan heard the beat of the song match the throb of the engine.
The buggy slammed into a fence surrounding the yard with the Black Thunder. The entire chassis shuddered violently. It bounced hard on the thick tires.
Brook twisted the steering wheel hard to the side. Her feet slammed against the pedals in a rapid-fire beat of her heels against the metal.
The pressure of their speed shifted and drove Linsan against the car door. She let out a cry of surprise as she slammed one hand against the frame and the other to the violin. The sound faded.
The buggy twisted to the side, then began to scream as it slid sideways toward the front of the Black Thunder.
Just as the two cars met, a powerful boom exploded from the back of the Black Thunder.
Glass shattered and metal tore.
Linsan’s scream faded underneath the burst of noise that assaulted her. It felt like someone had punched her in the throat, chest, and stomach at the same time.
The buggy jerked violently to the side.
Linsan was dazed and blinded.
“Shit on them!” screamed Brook, apparently unaffected by the collision. Her boot punched the accelerator and the buggy shot forward.
The pressure driving Linsan into the seat was almost comforting. She pawed helplessly as she struggled to focus.
“Are you with me, Lin?” Brook said with a hint of fear in her voice.
Linsan shook her head one more time and her vision came into focus. She looked out so see the world screaming past her, wind howling past shattered glass and the grasses on each side of the road nothing more than a blur.
The Black Thunder raced ahead of them, belching out steam as it bounded on the root. The left tire rattled like a snake’s tail and streamers of steam poured out of ruptured vents.
“He got the charger off. I need you now!”
Linsan whimpered but the tone of Brook’s voice and the closeness to the murderers forced her to push her thoughts aside. She grabbed her bow and twisted her body so she could play.
With the wind plucking at her hair and instrument, she struggled at first but she knew the song. The rapid, sharp tones rose up and the air around her shimmered. She focused on the energies, feeling how they rolled over her skin and warped the air. With a flex of her power, she used part of it to deflect the wind ripping into her and gave her a bit of breathing room.
Tilbin stood up from the back seat of the Black Thunder. His hat was off, revealing a man who would have been handsome if Linsan could have seen past him being a murderer. With his cocky smile, he brought his guitar in front of him and slammed down on the strings.
The air around him ignited into flames. The musical notes hung in the air for a moment before forming into fireballs that launched themselves at the Glasscoaster.
“Got it!” Linsan accelerated her own play, shaping the notes of her own song into tendrils of force. The rippling of song and magic snapped forward and twisted, directing the fireballs to the side where they exploded into the field. A crescendo came up. Knowing the beat after it, Linsan formed it into a sharp point of pure energies.
Right at her moment, Brook released the steering wheel and slammed her hands together. The concussive blast exploded from her palms. It shattered the remains of the front windshield and threw twisted metal and glass along with Linsan’s magical attack.
Tilbin stumbled back as he was peppered by the attack.
Brook grabbed the steering wheel and wrestled the car back underneath control
Linsan grinned at their triumph.
He came back without his cocky grin. With a glare, he slammed through riffs of his own. More fireballs formed around him but they didn’t shoot forward.
Linsan worried as she tried to catch his song. It sounded familiar, but the instrument and the wind made it difficult to identify. She focused on her song and used it to form protective energies in front of them.
“Not much more, your magic is making it hard to see the road.”
“Hard to play in here,” Linsan gasped. Her hand guided the bow as she watched more of the fireballs gathering behind him. “Very cramped. Ready?”
She focused on turning the defensive energies into another attack. “Three. Two.”
Tilbin grinned and his teeth shone. He punched down on his strings.
Mayforn surged up from the driver’s seat. The Black Thunder swayed back and forth. He slapped his hands together and then threw them apart. As he did, a barely perceptible wave of force slammed into the fireballs.
Accelerated by Mayforn’s magic, the fireballs shot out in all directions faster than Linsan could track. They blossomed out before streaking in toward the Glasscoaster from too many angles to redirect.
Linsan’s bow screamed as she redirected as many as she could, but it felt like using a spoon against a flood. Her sonic whips tore out chunks of the ground and scraped both the Glasscoaster and the Black Thunder.
“Fuck!” screamed Brook. She slapped her hands together, using her blast to blow away the ones screaming toward the open windshield and the front of their vehicle.
Neither of them were able to stop the ones that came from the side and top. Bursts of heat and fire scorched the air, setting fabric and hair aflame. The impacts shook the roof and bounced the buggy along the ground.
One hit the side of the door and bent the frame against Linsan’s leg. She only had a second to register the hot metal before she jerked away.
She bore down and switched songs. She didn’t know why, but the Rider in the Storm felt like the right choice. The dark tones filled the cabin, bouncing off the roof and warping the air.
“I don’t know that song!”
Linsan’s brow furrowed into a scowl. It was wrong, the song needed more room. She needed to hear it, she needed to move to summon the energies. “Damn, I can’t play it.” She shifted back to a song.
“What was that? I felt that! That’s what we need!” Brook yelled over the wind.
“The right song, but I can’t get it off.”
“Why not!” Brook’s voice had a shrill tone over the win.
“Not enough room. Too cramped.” Linsan wasn’t entirely sure how to describe the feeling in her gut.
“Brace!” Brook twisted hard on the steering wheel and the vehicle bounded off the road.
A fireball exploded where the buggy had been.
The thick tires of the vehicle took the uneven ground easily but the entire car bounced rapidly as they raced over furrowed ground.
Linsan tried to keep her bow on the string, but the rattling made it impossible.
“How much room?” Brook said as she waved the buggy around fireballs exploding around them. Chunks of scorched dirt and rocks peppered both of them. “The roof?”
“I-I think so.”
Brook grinned. “Grab the wheel and hold tight.”
Linsan snatched the wheel. It jerked and bounced in her grip like a furious beast. She dropped her bow and the violin into her lap as she clamped her other hand on it.
Brook grabbed something between the seats and jerked back. Her seat fall back and she slumped with it.
“Duck your head!”
Linsan let out a cry and buried her face into Brook’s dress. She clamped her eyes tightly together until tears leaked out from the pressure.
Something punched her from above. A powerful boom drove the buggy into the ground. Linsan could feel the clods of dirt and rocks scraping along the undercarriage. Then it bounced back up and there was nothing but silence for a single terrible moment before it crashed back into the ground.
Brook grabbed the steering wheel and pulled herself up. With her other hand, she grabbed Linsan’s hair and pulled her out of her dresses. “Get playing.”
Linsan looked around with curiosity and fear. Then she realized there was nothing above her, no metal or wood. Just bright blue sky creeping past her.
Only twisted and stretched metal braces remained of the roof. To the side, they had passed the village and were already on the route back toward Fanasis Village.
Brook slammed the seat back into place. “Enough room now?”
Hope filling her, Linsan nodded. She grabbed the violin and bow from the ground and settled them into place.
“Now, let’s get these cow shits!” Brook yanked the steering wheel and the buggy raced back toward the road. “What’s my part?”
Linsan realized she didn’t know how to communicate it. She looked around furious even as she started the first bars of Rider in the Storm. The punchy song started quickly and her hands were a blur as she raced along the notes.
The measure of the song meshed with the thudding of the engine. She synchronized to engine and felt more power surging through. She channeled it and let the wavering energies gather around her. With the room, they stretched above her in a maelstrom of power.
“Give me a beat, Lin! You need me!”
Linsan tried to speak but the notes faltered. Rider in the Storm had always been a more complicated song. Feeling the power behind the rhythm, she could tell why but it made it impossible.
Remembering how Brook tapped the steering wheel, Linsan got an idea. Turning her back against the still hot door, bent her leg, and jammed her foot between Brook’s thighs.
Brook let out a yelp and looked shocked.
Linsan cringed. “One, two, beat!” she managed to belt out while only losing a few notes. As she counted, she tapped her foot on the softness of Brook’s inner thigh.
Brook squirmed, her legs clamped down on Linsan’s, then she nodded.
Turning her attention back to the song and the drive, Linsan gathered up more power. Her foot twitched as she concentrated on moving at the same time as the song.
The first moment came right as the buggy hit the road. Linsan tapped it against the inside of Brook’s thigh as the music rose into a crescendo.
Everything slowed down, moving on the pulse of sound and energy.
Linsan ripped through the last chord. Around her, the maelstrom shot out in a spiral of energy that lit up the sky with blue streaks.
Brook released the steering wheel, lifted herself with Linsan’s foot still caught in her thigh, and then clapped her hands together with all her might.
The concussive wave exploded in a tsunami of brilliant blue, sucking the maelstrom into it. It tore up ground and the road in a flash before rising up to come down like a hammer against the back end of the Thunder. The sheer force of the power sheered off the tanks before crushing them into the ground.
The buggy bounced once over the flattened metal.
Tilbin stared in shock, the wind whipping at his duster. Then he peered over.
A single bag hung out of the back of the Black Thunder, the distinct shape of the priceless violin fluttering as it bounced.
“Palisis!” screamed Linsan.
Tilbin grinned and snatched it up. He tossed it into the back side. It bounced off the back of Gabaw’s head.
“Again!” snapped Brook. “Keep playing!”
Without saying anything, Linsan started into Rider in the Storm again. The energy quickly gathered around her.
Playing his guitar, Tilbin sent fireballs racing toward them but Brook dodged out of the way.
Linsan’s bow sparkled with energy with her notes. Each one danced off the string and rose up like rainfall to accumulate in the gathering maelstrom.
The beat came up.
She tapped her foot into Brook’s thigh. In the corner of her eye, she watched as Brook’s lips pressed into a thin line.
“Now,” bellowed Tilbin. He leaned back and slammed his hands down across his guitar. The power chord rose up in a column of flame and heat.
Gabaw surged out of his seat and jumped up.
Linsan tried to get out the note in time but Tilbin had somehow known the timing; he had heard the song once and knew how to use it.
The flame pillar gathered in Gabaw’s hand. When he brought them down in a double-fist punch, the fire left a streak that traced his movement in brilliant white. Both Gabaw’s hands and the fire formed into a large, hammer-like bullet that punched into the ground right behind the Black Thunder.
The ground in a hundred feet behind them shot straight up in a column of flame and earth. Heat tore out of the earth and burst up, picking the Glasscoaster completely off the ground and tossing it aside. Trees, bushes, and rocks flew in all directions from the smoking crater that the Black Thunder left behind.
A sickening feeling caught her as the world stopped, a brutal silence.
Then the buggy fell.
Linsan only had time to wrap her body around the Sterlig and grab Brook’s hand before they crashed to earth.