Scene 16 – December 19th
Exterior “Higgins Museum”, Late Morning
The castle Max had built appeared to have a relatively standard layout, from what I remembered of a special on castles we had watched at some point during the summer – he had probably remembered the same special when building it, in fact. It had a central keep within a wider stone wall, one which would no doubt be quite effective at keeping out mundane police.
The New Champions, however, had no such trouble, and Anima simply landed the roc golem on the outer walls. “Castles don’t work too well against flying enemies,” she commented. “I mean, walls are a good base for protective enchantments, but Max doesn’t seem to have any.”
“They certainly fail without archers,” I agreed, hopping out of my seat. Anima dismounted as well, and the golem shifted slightly as she retracted the white lightning that had let it move. “Now, if I know Max, he’ll be in the main hall. Probably sitting in some kind of throne.”
“A real drama queen,” Emilia croaked, then flew off my shoulder and down into the courtyard. Halfway down she transformed into a large snow leopard.
I hopped down myself, absorbing the weight of my landing with a slight twist of power, the only sound being the crunch of snow beneath my boots. “Broadcast: I’ll catch you,” I told Anima through my earpiece. We were using the magical versions that Holly had created – he had made a large stockpile of them over the last month or so, and while their range had turned out to be more limited than that of the electronic ones, they were more secure. Not to mention that Zookeeper could use them even through transformations. “No sense in wasting more of your energy.”
She leapt out without hesitation, and I held out my arms to catch her. Another twist negated the kinetic energy of me catching her, and we turned to the face the heavy doors that barred us from the interior of the keep. “How did Max expect the city to deliver tribute?” Anima asked. “I mean… the main portcullis is closed, the main door is closed…”
I sighed. “I was thinking about that on the flight, actually, and… however narcissistic Excalibur has made him, I don’t think there’s any way that Max would be dumb enough to think that he’d actually get any tribute from the city.”
Anima frowned. “Then why…?”
“He’s after something else,” I said grimly. “He must have known that this would draw a lot of attention to him and all available heroes would come to respond. That must have been his real goal with this stunt – I just can’t figure out what he intends to get out of it.”
“Do you think it’s a distraction?” she asked. “That he’s not here at all, he’s actually off doing something else entirely?”
I shook my head. “That doesn’t feel right. That’s certainly one of Max’s standard plays, but his usual method is to have one of his actor friends appear in his costume somewhere, like he did when he robbed the Bellini Archives. Something on this scale? What on earth could it be a distraction from?”
Emilia transformed back into a raven and fluttered up to my shoulder to say, “It doesn’t have to be a distraction from something else he’s trying to do, it could just be a distraction from his actual goal. What if he’s intending to capture and ransom us”
“For the magical knowledge Arthur Peregrine keeps,” I guessed. “It… makes sense. More than that he genuinely thinks he should be a king, at any rate.”
“He could have wanted Arthur to come in person, too,” Emilia said. “I mean, he did steal a powerful magical artifact, which would normally bring him running – just our bad luck that he’s busy the next few days.”
I nodded, then shook my head. “No, wait, this doesn’t add up. Originally he was after a book, not the sword…”
“Right…” Anima rubbed her temples. “Still, he’s a smart guy, right? Maybe he came up with this plan after getting the sword?”
“…I think I’ve got it,” Emilia said. “He comes looking for the book, and finds Excalibur instead. He realizes that Arthur must have the actual book, and decides to ransom the sword back to him in return for the book, or for similar books. To get Arthur’s attention, he needed to do something big and public with Excalibur – thus, this whole stunt.”
“I think you’re right,” I agreed. “Hopefully we can talk him down, with that in mind – the sword may have messed with his head, but if he sees that there’s a non-violent way to get what he wants – instead of, say, kidnapping us and using us as leverage in a second attempt to get at Peregrine – I think he’ll take it.”
“We can give it a shot,” Anima said. “But first, the door?”
“Right. Dear, if you wouldn’t mind?”
“I’m not sure how a deer will help.”
I snorted at Emilia’s joke – her beak hung open in an approximation of a goofy grin as she glanced between me and Anima, who just rolled her eyes. She shrugged her wings and flapped off my shoulder.
A quick transformation, and an elephant shoulder-bashed the door, making the castle shake. A second slam, and there was a cracking sound that I assumed was the deadbolt cracking off the heavy wood of the antique doors – a third, and they were open.
“Honey, I’m home!” I called out as we stepped inside.
Scene 17 – December 19th
Interior “Higgins Museum”, Continuous
As I had suspected, Max was in the great hall, sitting in a throne and somehow looking more handsome than ever. He was leaning forward, hands propped up on what looked like a long, ornate wand but could only be Excalibur, and said, “Ah, you’ve finally…” Then he frowned, and his voice was angry as he asked, “Where’s Peregrine?”
I exchanged a quick glance with Anima. As we had guessed. “Peregrine couldn’t make it, sorry Max. I hope you’re not too disappointed.”
He stood and vanished in a swirl of flame, reappearing in another burst of fire a few feet in front of us. “I’m never disappointed to see you and Keeper, Navi,” he said, smiling at me and Emilia – suddenly calm again, even pleased. “And you too, Anima,” he added.
“Glad I’m an afterthought,” she said dryly, leaning against the wall. “Max, what exactly are you thinking? This plan is…”
He rolled his eyes and lifted the wand, resting it across his shoulders. “Obviously I’m not really declaring myself king, that’s a ridiculous notion. No one would accept it, no matter how good a ruler I’d be.” I… didn’t think he was being series, but… “I just needed to attract Arthur Peregrine’s attention.”
Emilia shifted into a parrot and landed on my shoulder. “To ransom Excalibur for the book you were looking for?” she asked. “Peregrine said it wasn’t useful anyway.”
“I must say, expected it to look more like a sword,” I commented.
“It changes shape to fit its bearer,” he casually explained. “And no, I have no intention of giving up this beauty. Excalibur, really?” He twirled it around his fingers. “A great many things became clear to me once I drew it from the stone, but that wasn’t one of them. It makes sense, though…”
I narrowed my eyes. “What sort of things became clear, Max?”
He smiled at me – the same loving but slightly-condescending smile he wore whenever he told me about magic. “Nothing you need to worry about – just magical puzzles that had been stumping me for years, now.”
“If you weren’t going to trade Excalibur to Peregrine,” Anima cut in, “why did you want him here?”
“To show him that I’m not as incompetent as he believes,” Max said, his voice going hard. Something seemed very off about him, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. Perhaps it was how fast he was bouncing from one emotion to the next. “He rejected me, did I ever tell you that? I was down on my knees, begging to learn magic from him, and he cast me aside.”
“He didn’t think you were incompetent, Max,” Emilia said, her tone almost pleading – she was seeing the same instability as I was, a mercurial shifting of moods that Max had never shown before, I could tell. “We talked to him, and he said that his style of casting wasn’t compatible with yours, and that’s why he didn’t take you on.”
He laughed, amused once more. “Is that what he said? No, he simply didn’t see my genius.” He leaned Excalibur against his shoulder again. “And you know, perhaps he was even right, then. Certainly I’m far greater now than I was before.”
“Max,” Anima said, her voice filled with pity and concern, “Excalibur is affecting your mind.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Is that what he told you?”
“He said that the blade is dangerous,” she summarized, “and that, yes, it’s probably messing with your head. Please, Max, give us the-”
Max casually flicked the wand, and a massive metal cage suddenly coalesced around Anima, trapping her – I sank into a combat-ready posture, and Anima flapped off my shoulder to become a leopard again. “Don’t,” he said, his voice low and dangerous, “even ask it.”
“Max, please,” I begged. “You don’t have to do this!”
He turned to face me, and flame began to flicker around him – a fiery aura casting a dangerous light on his features and making me squint to keep looking at him. “What would you do,” he demanded, his voice rising and becoming more and more frantic. “Comparing me without this blade to with it… it’s like night and day. I was nothing without it – like a regular person! What would you do, if someone proposed to take your powers from you!?!”
My voice caught – he couldn’t know, could he? How could he possibly know – there was no way! Max… he had worked with the Ambrosia Company at least once, I knew, had received magical tutelage from them – but he couldn’t know that my powers came from the same source, could he? Or that they could be taken away as easily as they had been given to me?
“Max…” Emilia said, and in my brief panic I hadn’t even realized that she had taken bird form and perched on my shoulder yet again. “The night may lack the sun, but there’s still the moon. There’s still the stars. Even if you’re less without this sword, you’re far from nothing. You were an amazing person without it – you can be again.”
Max stared at us, still with a wild, frantic light in his eyes, then down at Excalibur. He… fuck, he seemed to be considering it.
He looked down at the wand in his hand, then back at us. Then at Anima in the cage he had placed her in, then back to the wand, then us…
“…no.” He said, finally.
“…no?” I asked.
“No.” Then something was flying at my head and I was dodging, unsure of what had gone wrong.
Scene 18 – December 19th
Interior “Higgins Museum”, Continuous
The ax Max had flung, an ancient-looking thing that had probably been on display somewhere in the museum, slammed into the wooden doors behind us as I skidded to a halt and turned to keep an eye on him.
Or rather, on where he had been a moment ago – Emilia had leapt off my shoulder and flown at him in the shape of a tiger, and ended up passing through a ring of fire instead, Max having teleported elsewhere. I pulled pulled my metal chain out of my belt and began twirling it in one hand as a makeshift shield, hefting some ball bearings in the other.
“Don’t make us do this, Max!” I called.
“You were never able to beat me before, Navi,” he said from behind me, and I spun and launched the ball bearing towards his voice. It simply vanished out of mid-air, then came back at me just as fast – I only barely managed to absorb the kinetic energy in time when it struck my shoulder. “Why would you be able to now?” He flicked Excalibur in a casual motion, and there was a sudden explosion that tossed me backwards.
“Fuck,” I quietly grunted as I landed, my ears ringing – Max was definitely using magic he had never been capable of before. The flames, the explosion, being able to launch that ax and my ball bearing… not to mention, I thought with a wince, how many bruises I would have from the blast.
Max approached me, a vicious grin on his face as he looked down at where I lay on the floor – behind him, I saw Emilia stealthily padding towards him, and Anima quietly infusing his iron cage with zoetic energy. “I wonder if Peregrine would show up if I threatened your lives?” he asked, almost idly but with a wicked gleam in his eyes, and swished Excalibur through the air to point at my throat. “I wouldn’t really hurt you, of course, but I doubt he would spot that, the old fool.”
“Why do you have to prove yourself to him?” I asked, trying to distract Max from the heroines. “You’re better than him and you now it – who cares if he knows?”
“Peregrine holds so much knowledge, so much power,” he hissed, flashing back into anger. “So much that should belong to the world. To me. And yet, he keeps it all hidden away, not trusting me, anyone, to use it properly. If I show him my power he’ll have no choice but to grant me access!”
Emilia reared up behind Max and transformed into a gorilla, quietly reaching towards his head… “And what if he still says no?” I said.
“Then I’ll make him give me access,” Max growled. “I said ‘no choice’ and I meant it.” Then he smiled, that same easy grin as before, and fire flared up around him again, bright enough that I could barely see, bright enough that Emilia flinched away before she could try and grapple him.
When the flames died down, he was sitting on the throne again. “I’m so sorry, Keeper,” he said to Emilia, sounding genuinely regretful, “I’d love to catch up, but I’m afraid I’m talking to Navi right now.” He pointed Excalibur at her, then at the iron cage, and she – and a pair of dazed-looking security guards – joined Anima in the cage.
Or rather, in where the cage had been. Anima had wrapped its bars around herself and turned it into a suit of animated armor, brilliant white energy burning around her as she rushed forward with an indescribable sound – a mix of crackling flame and buzzing electricity and heavy, metallic footfalls until she slammed into the surprised Max like a train.
The aura shrunk a moment later as Max vanished her armor, but Anima was undeterred, still flaring up energy and clearly draining it from the struggling magician as I rose to my feet. “The sword!” I called. “Get the sword away from him!”
His efforts redoubled, flame licking around the two of them, but it seemed to have little effect – a moment later, Anima wrested Excalibur from him, and he collapsed.
She turned to face us, the sword changing shape into a long rapier, and the hairs on the back of my neck began to rise. Something wasn’t right.
If you enjoy my writing, please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. If you can’t afford a recurring donation, you can make an individual donation through Paypal, or purchase one of my books. The more I make from my writing, the more time I can devote to it, which will improve both the quantity and quality of my work.