Competing Magic (Chapter Twenty-Five)
Ezekiel gaped at the animal that stood no taller than above his ankles. This was the master that Thornton was talking about? This was the ancient being who stole the Star Mages' mentor away from them? This was the true mastermind behind all the trouble that he, Veronica, and the others had all gone through since their first year as students of Paladin Academy? That . . . weasel?
"Don't look so surprised, Ezekiel von Ghoul," the weasel said, turning his nose up at him. He spoke gently, but his voice carried a hint of a condescending attitude. "A lot of powerful beings prefer to take the forms of harmless creatures as camouflage."
"H-how do you know my name?" Ezekiel demanded.
"Oh, that's an easy one," said the weasel. "You're friends with Veronica Waldenburg, aren't you? I, my servants, and my allies have been keeping an eye on her for a very long time. She's important to us, after all. So, naturally, we got to know who her friends are."
Done with talking to Ezekiel, the weasel turned to his servant again, clicking his tongue repeatedly in disappointment while shaking his head.
"Oh, Thornton," he said. "You've been rather naughty lately. It looks like I'm going to have to punish you."
"Please don't," Thornton implored the animal. "Please."
"I'm sorry, Thornton, but you forced my hand," Trent, the weasel said. "We cannot afford to have the Star Mages be warned of our true plans. Thornton, I command you to capture those two children, and bring - !"
Red fire from Sarah's hand bathed the weasel. As the fire continued to burn around him, Sarah reached for Ezekiel and grabbed his wrist with her free hand. She tugged Ezekiel back and pulled him along as she made her way to one of the square's numerous exits.
An aurora of light burst from the ground in front of the pair, stopping them in their tracks.
"I'm sorry, children," said Thornton as he lightly stepped towards them. He raised his cane like a fencer raising a sword. "If only you interrupted him sooner. But as he has already commanded me to capture you, that is what I must do."
"That's right," said the voice of the weasel behind them.
Ezekiel turned around and to his astonishment, found the weasel unscathed, as if it had never been hit by Sarah's flames. That was exactly it, Ezekiel realized after seeing ring of ash and scorch marks surrounding the small animal.
"No need to look so astonished," Trent said. "I'm a being that managed to get a High Master to become my servant. Someone of your magical level can never hope to defeat me. Now please behave, and this won't end . . . painfully."
Sarah didn't listen. She conjured herself a new long staff and swung it at Thornton's head. Thornton quickly raised the cane to defend himself, his composure unbroken. However, Sarah's attack was just a feint. As soon as Thornton moved to defend himself, Sarah dropped her weapon, grabbed Ezekiel by his wrist again and pulled him along as she tried to run past the old man.
Everything was happening so fast that Ezekiel could only stumble and follow after Sarah before he had time to think.
They were just about to exit the square when the hedge wall had a growth spurt, with branches, vines and vivid green leaves completely blocking their way. Sarah didn't stop and continued to run. She probably thought that her and Ezekiel's weights combined would be enough to break through the wall of plant-life. Normally, that could work. But that wall was made from supernatural power that was different from magic since it was born from Alchemy. It wouldn't break from something as mundane as teenage brute force.
When they crashed into the wall, Ezekiel felt like he had hit a giant block of rubber. He could feel the wall give way a little before pushing back, throwing the pair to the ground.
"Ow!" Ezekiel cried out.
As he pushed himself up, ribbons that glowed in the colors of an aurora burst from the ground and tightly coiled around him, binding his arms to his torso, and his legs together. The ribbons had a delicate, thin appearance, and felt soft to the touch. But despite that, Ezekiel could not break free no matter how much strength he mustered in his struggle.
The simultaneous tapping of two hard-bottom shoes got Ezekiel to look up. He was astonished to see Sarah on her feet again, despite having her hands and feet bound together by ribbons of light like Ezekiel.
Trent let out a low whistle.
"It's like watching a Kung Fu movie in real life," he remarked.
Going by the weasel's remark, Ezekiel could imagine what Sarah must have done. She must have curled up, rolled a tiny bit and then launched herself up, kicking her feet out so that when they hit the ground, she would use them to pull the rest of herself forward to the stance she was now making before Ezekiel's eyes.
Sarah scowled at the small animal as she faced him. She spread her hands into an arch, in which she conjured a red fireball.
Trent sighed, shaking his head.
"You know you're just making more trouble for yourself," he said. "It's pointless to struggle."
Sarah still didn't listen and bent down, pulling her hands back in a tossing posture. But the instant she did that, Thornton suddenly appeared in front of her in a blur of motion that didn't even leave anyone time to blink. The bottom of his cane prodded Sarah's throat.
Sarah's eyes were wide, and a single drop of sweat rolled down the side of her head. She stood frozen, dumbfounded by the speed of Thornton's interruption.
Ezekiel cursed his own helplessness. Once again, he couldn't do anything but watch as someone in front of him was in trouble. First it was that time with Chaplin and Montgomery. And then when monsters attacked those security guards when that accident happened at the advanced science building.
How could he let this happen again? Ezekiel wondered with frustration filling him from head to toe. He was the son of Manfred von Ghoul! How could he be so pathetic?
"Are you finally done?" Trent asked. "We don't have much time to waste. Thornton, let's go. Bring them."
"I'm truly sorry about this," Thornton said giving Ezekiel only a quick look of his guilt-filled eyes. He pulled the front of his hat down over his eyes and turned away.
Aurora light flew from the handle of Thornton's cane that he pointed at the duo and enveloped Ezekiel and Sarah. Gravity let go of them, leaving them to float in the air and to fly at Thornton's will.
Ezekiel wondered where the nefarious pair was going to take him and Sarah. Thornton followed the weasel to one of the open exits while Ezekiel and Sarah bobbed up and down in the air closely behind him. They didn't even reach halfway to the exit when a familiar wide-brim purple hat popped out from behind the hedge wall.
The hat's owner soon followed it out into the open, her hands clasped behind her back. As she strolled into the square, she swayed around, humming like a playful child. But when she looked up at the group in front of her, Ezekiel could see that her eyes were definitely not smiling. And they were glowing purple at the whites.
What was she doing here? Ezekiel wondered as Josephine Desorciere Duncan made her way into the square. Was it just a coincidence that she was around the area? Or did she know that something was happening?
Madam Duncan stopped just a few feet away from the group. She lifted her skirt in an old-fashioned curtsy, before she straightened up to address her former mentor.
"It's been far too long, Admiral Thornton," she said. "Are you doing well?"
Color drained from Thornton's face.
Ezekiel didn't understand why, but Josephine's voice sent an unpleasant shiver down his spine. His heart rate accelerated from the sort of fearful anticipation one would get while watching a suspenseful scene in a horror movie.
"And greetings to you too, Lord of the Atlantean Ruins," the violinist continued, giving another curtsy.
"Greetings, Madam Duncan," said Trent, bowing his head politely.
Ezekiel didn't know what to make of this unusual polite exchange between enemies. Normally, this sort of exchange could only be found in comic books and movies. So he never expected to see something like it in real life.
"May I ask what you are doing with my precious friends' students?" requested Josephine. As she spoke, purple smoke rose from the shadow formed at her feet and circled around her. It made her look almost like those coiling DNA strips.
"We were going to hold them to keep you and the other Star Mages from finding out about our plans," Trent replied. "But I suppose that's pointless now that you're here."
"Then can you kindly let them go?" Josephine asked.
"Now I'm afraid we can't afford that," said Trent. "If we just bring you along with us, we might still be able to salvage some of the plan."
"So, there's no room for negotiations then?"
"I'm afraid not."
Josephine sighed loudly, shaking her head as she threw her hands up in an over-dramatic manner.
"Then I have no choice," she said. "I really don't like to resort to violence, but I will if I have to."
An army of purple cats suddenly flooded the square. They came spilling from every shadow like water from a geyser. Several landed on Ezekiel and Sarah and pinned them to the ground. The cats on top of them melted into purple goo that wrapped itself around the captive pair and hardened into a solid, transparent cocoon.
Although everything was purple, Ezekiel could still clearly see outside. The rest of the cat swarm screeched as they leaped into battle, claws extended towards the weasel and the old man. Light shot out from the handle of Thornton's cane and formed several walls shaped like a classic shields that kept the cats at bay.
While Thornton was occupied with the cats, Josephine pulled a violin out from her shadow and straightened her back to play it.
Intense music filled Ezekiel's ears. He could feel his heart elevate from the rapid strong tones that penetrated the cocoon's walls. It was unlike anything he had heard or felt. Although not a music aficionado, Ezekiel could tell that Madam Duncan was an incredibly talented, master violinist. No flaws could be found in the stream of music Madam Duncan created. No mistakes could be noticed by even the sharpest of ears. And as the music grew strong, so did the army of cats that attacked Thornton and Trent, the weasel.
The cats tackled the walls of light that Thornton had conjured to protect himself and his master without any regard to their well-being. They all went splat, turning into goo that dripped to the ground before reforming as more cats. Thornton grit his teeth and grimaced with each scratch, bite, tackle and punch made by the cat dolls that Josephine had summoned.
There was such intense magical energy coming from Madam Duncan that space around her warped, blurring her appearance as if she was standing in the middle of a heat wave. Steam was even visibly wafting above her head.
Ezekiel couldn't help but feel awe towards Madam Duncan. By herself, she forced Thornton and his master into a corner. Even Professor Wu with help from his wife had failed to push Thornton far enough to make a troubled face like that. Madam Duncan could really be the most powerful of the Seven Star Mages.
Her music was relentless with no sign of slowing anytime soon. In fact, Ezekiel felt like it was getting more and more rapid and intense the longer Madam Duncan played. And the more intense the music became, the further Thornton was pressed. Slowly, but surely, the walls of light were giving way inch by inch, moving closer and closer to the duo they were protecting. Thornton and his master were being boxed in.
But just when victory seemed sure for Madam Duncan, Trent suddenly stepped forward.
"It seems I can't afford to just stand idly by anymore," he said. Light shown brightly from his weasel eyes, as if they were headlamps. Cats melted by the dozens beneath those brilliant rays wherever he shone them before seeping into the shadows they came from.
Suddenly it was Madam Duncan's turn to go on the defensive. A huge suit of armor sprang from her shadow, raising a large circular shield with a cat's face carved onto it's surface. The suit of armor stood tall against the lights streaming from the small animal's eyes. It's knees buckled beneath the pressure of the supernatural assault, but it continued to hold firm, protecting its creator from sharing the same fate as the cats. Any remaining cats broke from the assault and returned to Madam Duncan's side. They gathered around the suit of armor and melted into it, adding to its strength with their own.
With the pressure of the cat army's attacks off, Thornton collapsed onto his knees. The walls of light around him and his master broke apart and disappeared, but they were no longer needed.
"Thank you for tiring her out for me," the weasel said to his servant. "I can take it over from here."
"Trent!" Thornton groaned. "No!"
The weasel no longer paid attention to Thornton, and continued staring intently at the suit of armor and the woman behind it, the light his eyes shone getting brighter and brighter.
Through the cocoon, Ezekiel could see the suit of armor cracking at several places. These cracks were hairline at first, but the longer it kept up its defense, the more the cracks grew. There was no way it could last any longer than a few minutes.
But while the suit of armor inched towards destruction, Ezekiel felt the cocoon moving. He glanced downward and noticed a lot of really, really, really tiny legs lift the cocoon and slowly walk. It didn't take a genius to realize that Madam Duncan was trying to move him and Sarah to safety while keeping Thornton and Trent distracted, even if that meant sacrificing herself.
Ezekiel watched as Madam Duncan continued her musical performance, her eyes shut tight in concentration. Strong wind had blown her hat off and made her hair billow up. It was a beautiful performance, but Ezekiel could only feel bitterness in his heart over what his actions were sure to cost the violinist.
However, just as he had felt that this would probably be the last time he saw Madam Duncan, his view was blocked by the appearance of a pair of worn-out, leather loafers and a pair of dirt-stained white sneakers.
- Competing Magic (Chapter Twenty-Four)
An enemy wants to talk to Ezekiel and Sarah, but could it be a trap?
- Competing Magic (Chapter Twenty-Six)
Once more, heroes rise to action!