JAKE AND THE DYNAMO
CHAPTER 14: THE THIRD TEST
Magical Girl Lady Paladin Andalusia stared up at the sky. When the stars began to sparkle, she turned to Jake with a wan smile and said, “Much as I would prefer company, I must send you to bed. This night, I stand the long watch alone.”
Jake nodded and rubbed his arms. The air was chilly. “I admit I’m not looking forward to the shelter you described, and I doubt I’ll sleep anyway—”
“It’s a favor to Pretty Dynamo. If I lost you, I’d be sure to hear about it.”
“She’s less attached to me than you think.”
“Perhaps she’s more attached to you than you think.”
“No, I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in her head—”
“Ha! So spoke no man truly, ever. I’m afraid that understanding a girl is quite beyond your ability.”
Jake chuckled quietly and again rubbed his arms. “How would you know? How old are you?”
She walked up beside him and leaned against the tail of the downed Apatosaurus. “Part of me is young, part old. I have the spirit of Bradamante, knight of Charlemagne, living within me. She was a grown woman when she died, and she has aged since then.”
She touched a hand to the golden cross on her breast. Its embedded jewels glittered under the starlight. “The love she felt for the Saracen Ruggiero burns within me like a torch. Millennia have passed, yet her love remains unquenched. The weary world will wear away to nothing, and still that love will burn.”
“It will outlast the world?”
“What about the universe? They say even the Moon Princess can’t outlast that.”
“Who knows? Perhaps, when the universe dies, love alone will remain.”
Jake stared up at the stars. Down the street, the soldiers were still out, their rifles dangling over their chests. There was a faint orange glow as one of them lit a cigarette.
“Does that bother you,” Jake asked, “to have—?”
“Hopeless desires living within me? Every girl has them, Jake. That is why girls, and only girls, can wield magic. Boys are natural doers, but girls are natural dreamers. Boys are too pragmatic for the power we possess.”
She elbowed him in the shoulder. “Besides, I may be yet a child, but I too know love, even if I have not plumbed the depths of its secrets as Bradamante has.”
She held up her left arm, clenched her fist, and shouted, “Shield of Faith!”
Her vambrace split open, and the white heater shield, marked with a red cross, unfolded to cover her forearm.
She walked out into the street. “On the inside of this shield,” she said, “like the knights of old, I have placed the image of my beloved. In battle, I gaze upon that image to find my strength so that I might not faint under the blows of my enemies. Would you care to see, my liege?”
A lump formed in Jake’s throat. Slowly, as if entering a sacred shrine, he stepped toward her. He wasn’t sure this was any of his business, but curiosity gripped him.
He moved around to stand at her shoulder. In the dim starlight, he gazed upon the image inside her shield. He thought, given her religious theme, it might be a picture of Jesus Christ or of some Christian saint.
Instead, he saw a lacquered photograph of five young men in baggy, hooded sweatshirts. After pondering them for a moment, he said, “Isn’t that some band—?”
“The Backdoor Boys. Oh my Princess, they are sooo hot. Donnie is definitely my favorite. He has, like, the world’s cutest butt.”
She lowered the shield. “In any case, the hour is late. To bed with you. You’re a growing boy.”
“You’re a growing girl.”
“That is true, but irrelevant. Good night, my liege, and think not on me: I am missing Frederick, I admit, but Bradamante is with me always. And there are even soldiers here to keep me company.”
She waved toward the group of soldiers up the street, and two of them walked over.
“Escort the young man to the shelter,” she said.
The soldiers nodded and flanked Jake. He walked with them toward the side of a building where a concrete stairwell led into the earth.
Accompanied by a deafening peal of thunder, something in the middle of the street flashed white like a strobe. Jake winced and covered his eyes. For a moment, he couldn’t see, but a loud, animalistic snuffle let him know a monster was close.
“Hold, vermin!” Andalusia shouted. “You will find no prey here!”
A low, sardonic chuckle followed.
One of the soldiers grabbed Jake roughly by the arm and hauled him toward the stairwell.
With a roar like a freight train, a wall of blue fire shot up from the street, cutting off their path. Jake stumbled back and landed hard on the asphalt. Unable to reach cover, both soldiers fell to their bellies, put their rifles to their shoulders, and fired. Jake flattened against the road behind them and clapped his hands over his ears.
Layered gunfire erupted from several windows. The clatter of M4s and the staccato bursts of M249s made his teeth rattle. Over the din, he heard Andalusia screaming into her radio, “Hold your fire! This isn’t a zombie or a robot! Fall back! Fall back, darn it!”
A great swirl of blue flames, like a fiery tornado, spun out of the center of the road. Jake barrel-rolled toward the detox station as both of the soldiers in front of him caught fire. They writhed like landed fish while their flesh sizzled. Accompanying their screams was a steady pop-pop like firecrackers as their ammunition cooked off. There were other screams coming from the open windows up and down the street.
The blue flames died out as quickly as they had appeared, leaving behind blackened lumps of tar where the men had been. Unable to catch his breath, panting so hard that he was close to passing out, Jake sat up. His eyes took a moment to become accustomed to the darkness again, but when they did, he saw an enormous, vaguely humanoid shape, at least ten feet tall and almost as broad, towering over Lady Paladin Andalusia. The great gray monster uttered a deep laugh, and his broad middle jiggled. “Foolish mortals,” he said. “You never learn. You dare come against me with mere guns?”
Andalusia again raised her radio to her mouth. She looked calm, but her voice wavered. “Hold all fire. It’s immune to conventional weapons. If you shoot, it can lock its magic onto your position.”
In the monster’s meaty hands was some elongated, pale green object with a blunt, silvery tip. Jake’s heart leapt into his throat.
It has a bomb?
“Magical Girl Lady Paladin Andalusia,” said the monster, “or so I estimate.”
Andalusia pulled the golden cross from her chest. “Aaron’s Rod!” The cross expanded into a staff. One-handed, she twirled the staff over her head.
The huge troll rubbed the thick fingers of one hand over his copious potbelly. “Your hope of success in this battle is less than one percent, paladin, for I am Chai Square, the tea-drinking statistical troll! I have studied your prior engagements.”
He unscrewed the silver tip from the huge green shell he held, and now Jake could see that the silver tip was a cup. The troll tipped the shell over so liquid poured into it.
“I’m so calm about this fight, I think I’ll have me some tea right now.”
He slurped noisily.
“You dare ignore me?” Andalusia cried. “Fire from Heaven!”
As if someone up above had dumped out an enormous bucket of hot coals, a great stream of red, flaming ash poured from the sky. Chai Square, with his cup still to his mouth, merely leapt out of the way and landed heavily against a glass storefront, which shattered under his weight.
He swallowed with a great gulp, making a sound like a plunger being jammed into a toilet, and lowered his cup. “Ah, that was good. You see, paladin, I knew you’d do that. Or rather, I knew you probably would. In fact, I know more about you than you know about yourself.”
“Are you a mind-reader?”
“You might think I am if you choose to fight me. Now step aside. My quarrel is not with you tonight.”
“I think it is.”
The troll laughed. “You? No, I don’t care about you. I want that boy.”
He pointed a meaty finger at Jake. From that finger, a fresh stream of blue fire erupted.
Andalusia quickly jumped in front of him and raised her shield. The fire struck it and dissipated.
Jake gasped. “Me?”
Andalusia tossed her head. “Ha! I wouldn’t be much of a magical girl, nor much of a paladin, if I abandoned a friend to the likes of you, Chai Square!”
“Oh?” Chunks of stucco pattered against the sidewalk as Chai Square pushed off from the building. “I’m not the least surprised. In that case, a quick mental calculation leads me to the conclusion that you shall die this night.”
“Probably. In fact, the probability is—”
“I do not care about the odds, monster, and I have no fear of death!”
With a snort, the troll hauled a huge battle-axe from his back. “You don’t understand what you’re dealing with, paladin. I am a master of statistics, and with statistics, I can predict all your moves.”
“Statistics? You intend to fight me with statistics?”
“But of course.” He hefted the axe. “Don’t underestimate me. I warn you, paladin, Chai Square is not an average monster, but he is a mean one!”
“Well, he’s ugly, at least.” Andalusia glanced at the troll’s hulking body. “Is it significant that you are one-tailed?”
“Of course. It gives me more power.”
“And as big as you are, I think you must enjoy pi.”
“Indeed, I enjoy it most frequently.”
“You mean … à la mode?”
“Precisely. Now prepare yourself, for I’m about to give your bones some Jenks Natural Breaks!”
“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that one.”
The troll snuffled as he twirled his axe. “It’s a method of dividing data into discrete clusters. Developed by a cartographer, actually—which is most fitting, as I’m going to distribute what’s left of you all over the map!”
He swung the axe overhand in a wide arc, but Andalusia backflipped out of the way. Once she regained her feet, she spun her staff over her head and said, “Ha! Bet you didn’t predict that!”
“It was within one standard deviation from the expected value.”
“Don’t your statistics get boring?”
“They have their moments.”
“I’m about to reject you like a null hypothesis!”
“You better leave the jokes to the expert.” With a snarl, he swung again.
Instead of dodging, she raised her left arm. The axe struck her shield with a resounding clang, like the ringing of a church bell. A shower of sparks fell to the street.
“I am clad in the Armor of God, troll, and it shall prove too much for your weapons! Helmet of Salvation!”
From the back of her neck, a close helm with a bellows visor unfolded and enclosed her face. On its top appeared a gaudy horsetail plume, dyed pink.
“My calculations have taken your armor and weapons into account, paladin.”
“I knew you’d say that.”
The troll fell flat on the ground and rolled out of the way just as Andalusia pointed her staff and shouted, “Pillars of the Earth!”
Jake felt a low rumble under his feet, as if someone in the sewer had cranked up an impressive stereo system. The asphalt in front of Andalusia split apart to form a narrow chasm, which stretched to the place where Chai Square had been standing a moment before.
Surprisingly lithe in spite of his bulk, Chai Square sprang to his feet and poured another cup of tea. “You see, I have studied you. I know how you operate, and I can calculate the likelihood of your various actions.”
He gulped from his cup and sighed. “Bayes’ Theorem. It’s a beautiful thing. Of course, because it’s so beautiful, people tend to abuse it—”
Andalusia swung her staff back and forth. “You think you know my every move ahead of time? You’ll find I’m full—”
“Of surprises. Yes, I know. You don’t understand what you’re up against, paladin. You imagine that you’re fighting a determinist, don’t you? You suppose that by doing something I haven’t predicted you can strike a blow for free will. No. I work in probabilities. You have a finite set of spells, and you’ve learned a finite set of moves. I know how often you use them. More importantly, I know in what situations you use them. Can you do something unusual? Of course. But I’ve figured that possibility into my calculations.”
“I’m not as predictable as you imagine.”
“You’re more predictable than you realize, and it’s about to cost you. Only a madman acts at random.”
“Then I shall—”
“Imitate a madman. Yes, I thought you’d try that. It’s harder than you think.”
His bulk jiggling, he leapt into the air and cracked the pavement when he landed to her left. He swung the axe in another powerful overhand swing, and she again backflipped out of the way.
“You did that move before,” Chai Square said, “which increased the probability that you’d do it again if I made a similar attack. It is, you might say, lodged in your short-term muscle memory. And, of course, I add each new motion to my dataset. The more you move, the more predictable you get. In fact, right about now, you should—”
Adalusia passed her staff into her left hand and pulled the arming sword from her hip. “Sword of Saint Peter!”
“—draw your sword. Yes, thank you. That’s what I expected.”
The gleaming blade flashed in the starlight as Andalusia swung. A red flicker, like a tongue of fire, appeared on the blade’s tip and launched toward Chai Square. Dropping to one knee, he set down his bottle of tea and pulled a second axe from his back. With a snarl, he crossed the axes in front of his face. The flame dissipated when it struck them.
Andalusia followed up the magical strike with a flying leap. Diving down toward him, she raised her shoulder and turned her wrist to bring the cross-guard of the sword up beside her cheek. She aimed the tip of her blade for the top of Chai Square’s head, but he parried the blow, and Andalusia flipped over backwards as she rebounded.
“Saint Elmo’s Fire!” The tip of her staff blazed green and left circular afterimages in Jake’s eyes as she somersaulted through the air. Once her feet were again on the ground, she ran forward and closed with Chai Square. Expertly guiding it with her wrist, she slashed viciously with the sword, at the same time blocking the heavy blows of his axes with her shield. Because the shield was built into her armor, she had her left hand free to wield her fiery staff, which she thrust like a spear wherever she found an opening. For a moment, Jake forgot to be afraid for her life as he admired the elegance and speed with which she handled her three separate items.
“Predictable!” Chai Square roared. “You’re just too predictable!”
With seemingly little effort, he fluidly moved the bits of his axes to turn aside each of her blows. Although his movements were quick, he appeared unhurried and untired.
After a few minutes, however, Andalusia stumbled. She recovered, but her weariness was apparent even though Jake couldn’t see her face. Finally, an axe struck her left pauldron. It was only a glancing blow, but she staggered, momentarily lowering her shield. She recovered only just in time to block another ringing crash from an axe blade.
A chill ran down Jake’s spine, and sweat broke out on his forehead.
She’s going to lose.
His eyes slid down to the container of tea, which still stood on the cracked asphalt beside Chai Square’s feet. As Andalusia tried to flank him, she drew near it, so he carefully slid it out of the way with the edge of one foot.
Jake’s eyes scanned the ground until they alighted on a brick, still flecked with mortar, lying in a pile of dust and debris. He ran to it, picked it up, and hefted it in his hand.
Let’s see if he predicted this.
He sprinted toward the fight. Chai Square’e enormous, black eyes landed on him, and a frown passed over the troll’s face, perhaps a hint of confusion.
A grin spread Jake’s lips. He chucked the brick. His aim was true: it turned end over end as it sailed through the air until it clanked against the tea bottle, knocking it onto its side. The bottle rolled toward the gutter, leaving a dark stain behind as the tea splashed out.
At once, Chai Square roared and flailed. He took a step back from Andalusia. “No! No! Not my tea! My teeeaaaa!”
“You’re wide open!” Andalusia jumped and slid her blade into the troll’s soft belly, driving its point up under his ribs. His deep roar turned into a high-pitched squeal.
She twisted the blade and pulled it free. Blue-green blood, thick as ink, poured out and mixed with the tea on the ground. Chai Square collapsed to his knees, dropped one axe, and slapped his heavy fingers over the wound. Still the blood poured.
“Augh,” he groaned. “I didn’t calculate for interference.” He slumped. “And that was my best mix, too … genuine second-flush Darjeeling … urgh … the last one had too much black pepper, but this time … hah … the cinnamon and cardamom … complemented each other … perfectly …”
His face contorted in pain.
The helmet unfolded from Andalusia’s head, and the shield collapsed into her forearm. She took great, gulping breaths as she leaned heavily on her staff. “That’s what you get, Chai Square. Only sissies and hipsters drink flavored tea.”
“You’re wrong, paladin,” Chai Square moaned as blood coated his hand. “You’re … urgh … thinking of coffee … flavored tea is okay …”
“Do you ever drink matcha?”
“Oh, yes … hagh … I love matcha. Very soothing.”
“I think so, too. They say the Moon Princess was an impeccable hostess of the tea ceremony.”
“I imagine … guhhh … she was …”
With a final groan and a loud whump, Chai Square tumbled onto his back.
Andalusia nodded, took a deep breath, and glanced toward Jake. “A worthy foe, one sure to raise my competency rating. I only wish I could have slain him before he took so many lives. Thank you for your help, my liege.”
Jake swallowed, breathed heavily, and clutched his knees. “No problem.”
“Are you winded?”
“Just … just not used to all this monster-fighting.”
“Adrenaline rush. You’ll grow accustomed to it.”
“I don’t plan to make this a habit.”
She chuckled. “That’s good.”
Her armor tinkled like silver bells as she rotated her shoulders. “One task left.” Spinning her sword in her hand, she walked toward the troll’s head.
Something was wrong. A voice in the back of Jake’s mind said, Wait. No.
He frowned. The troll was down, and no other monsters were visible …
Like a video, the scene of Pretty Dynamo striking down the kaiju played in his mind. Once her Lightning Rod had flown down its throat, its body had disintegrated. For the last few days, they’d been fighting Robosaurs and zombies, which were different, but this kind of monster—
“Wait!” he shouted. “Andalusia! He’s not—!”
She turned her head toward him. “What?”
The troll’s right arm lifted and rammed the toe of an axe blade into Andalusia’s chest. With a screech, her armor rent. The strike was powerful enough to lift her into the air, and for a second, she dangled on the blade like a garment on a hook.
“Predictable,” Chai Square wheezed. “So predictable …”
Then, at last, his body crumbled. Pieces fell away in chunks like a child’s sandcastle tumbling into the waves.
Andalusia staggered backwards, her hands to her chest. Jake ran to her and caught her as she fell. He released a strangled grunt as he lowered her to the ground; with her armor, she was heavy.
She had a hole an inch wide and three inches long through her breastplate. Bright red blood welled out.
Blood also flecked her face. She smiled.
“They’re right,” she whispered. “Chest wounds do suck.” She giggled faintly.
Jake tried to clamp his hands down onto the wound, but her armor was in the way, and the metal, curled inward, dug into her flesh. She winced. Her blood, hot and sticky, continued pouring out from under his palms.
“I can’t stop it!” he said. “Take the armor off! Transform!”
She shook her head. “My alter ego is dead already. No, my liege, it is too late.”
“No! Look, I can—”
She weakly raised one gauntleted hand and clumsily stroked his hair. He could feel her smearing blood on his face. “Do not weep for me, my liege. Weep for the cosmos, for the galaxy, for the Earth, but not for me. Bradamante shall return to high heaven, and I shall go to the Moon Princess. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.” Her hand fell to his shoulder and then slid down his arm. She plucked at his sleeve. “Will you hear my confession?”
“What? Me? But … I’m not a Christian.”
“Please? It’s important to me.”
Tears welled from his eyes. He nodded.
“I have fought from vainglory instead of humble faith,” she said. Her voice grew fainter, and he could see blood in her mouth. “I cheated on a math test once. I gossiped about Brandy.” She giggled again and then fell into a fit of coughing. Her fingers found his hand and squeezed it tight.
Once her coughing subsided, she continued, her voice hoarse, “In battle, I was lazy. And cowardly—”
“No you weren’t! You just—”
She made a sound like that of a mother shushing a baby, and she smiled. Her teeth looked very white under the blood streaking them. She lifted her eyes toward the stars shining coldly overhead. “I had impure thoughts about Pretty Dynamo’s boyfriend,” she whispered.
Oh, sweet Princess, what? Darn it, darn it, darn it—
Her voice grew fainter. “And tell Nunchuk Nun I’m sorry. We won’t … be having … those parfaits.”
A line of blood, so dark it was almost black, trickled down her cheek. In his grasp, her hand went slack.
He pressed his face against the asphalt beside her and burst into tears. His voice choking, he recited what he could remember of the prayer for the dead in Aramaic, over and over again. Then he lost the words entirely and merely babbled. Tears kept pouring, and his nose ran.
When he heard the flapping of great wings, he looked up to see a dark shape blotting out the stars as it passed overhead. A moment later, Frederick the hippogriff landed lightly before him and folded his wings. His hooves clopping against the asphalt and his regal face impassive, he stepped to Jake’s side.
“She is dead, then.” It was not a question, and Jake couldn’t read the hippogriff’s deep voice.
Jake swallowed hard. The tears were already drying on his face and forming crusts of salt. He gasped, “She died … protecting …”
“She did her duty.” Tucking his mismatched legs under himself, he lay down beside her. “Inform the robot. She knows Andalusia’s true name. Now, pick her up and place her on my back. I will take her away.”
“Do you not know, boy? In man’s twilight, has man forgotten all the old stories? Perhaps it is inevitable; the death of a nation, or a world, follows the death of its myths. Load Lady Andalusia onto my back: I will carry her to the Terrestrial Paradise, where once I carried Astolpho. From thence, Elijah’s chariot shall lift her into heaven. In the palace of the Moon Princess shall she lie in state until the stars fail and darkness covers all. At that time, she shall have her burial, as shall all things, for the universe is a tomb.”
Jake dropped to his knees beside Andalusia and cradled her in his arms. Gasping from the strain, he arose and gently laid her down across Frederick’s saddle, her feet above his tail and her head at the base of his neck. Some of her blood dripped upon Frederick and stained his white feathers pink.
Jake crossed her arms over her chest. Then he took up her sword and placed it in her hands. He drew his fingers down over her eyelids.
Frederick spread his wings and beat them against the air. He rose slowly and steadily until he was above the highest skyscrapers. Uttering a high, mournful cry, he circled once and disappeared from sight.
Jake dropped heavily to the pavement and buried his face in his blood-streaked hands.
She died because of me. Lady Paladin Andalusia is dead because of me!
Seated on her dark throne, the Dark Queen gazed into her crystal ball. Once Chai Square’s soul passed from his body, the ball went dark.
Quietly, the Queen leaned her chin on her hand and ruminated. Chirops appeared at her elbow and rubbed his little claws together.
“That was costly,” the Dark Queen said. “Chai Square was one of our best.”
“But a magical girl is dead as well,” Chirops replied.
“True.” A grin formed on the Queen’s mouth. She flicked her forked tongue like a snake. “And a shelter is defenseless.”
Chirops nodded eagerly. “Another monster—”
“No, little minion. Not one of ours. Let us take advantage of the city’s self-inflicted wound.”
She reached down and scratched Chirops between the ears. One of his legs twitched.
“This is a job for a demoniac. See to it.”
Chirops swallowed hard. “Me? But, Your Darkness—”
Her hand clenched in his fur, and he gasped.
“Yes, little minion. You.”