The princess bit off the last note of her song and cocked her head like a puppy.
I crouched behind a bramble patch at the edge of the forest clearing. Could she sense me somehow? My Cloaking spell should have been perfect.
I had been watching her serenade a rapt group of forest animals: two bunnies, two fawns, a bluebird, and a very large unicorn. But the only sound now was the tinkling of the crystalline stream that ran through the wildflowered, tree-encircled meadow.
Each member of her audience stood alert. The bunnies held their ears high. The fawns looked ready to bolt. Then the bluebird who had harmonized with the princess seconds ago flew above her head like he was scouting.
“I don’t see anything, Kara,” trilled the bluebird.
The princess held up her delicate hand to silence the bird, and he landed upon her finger.
I realized that they weren’t looking at me, but beyond me to the gnarled forest gate. The gate was formed from two live trees, spaced about five meters apart. A dozen low branches from each tree reached across and entwined with matching limbs from the other side. When someone wanted to enter, and the princess approved, the branches let go and pulled back, letting the visitor pass. It was a captivating effect and suitably impressive for the main entrance to a forest kingdom.
On either side of the gate the other forest trees were tightly packed, and the undergrowth tangled into a prickly lattice. Aside from the gate there was no easy exit from this wide, circular meadow.
The forest was nearly silent, so I could hear what the princess had heard: faint syncopated music from the direction of the gate, and a low rumbling.
A gigantic black monster truck from hell burst through the wooden gate, shattering the branches to kindling.
Each of the truck’s tires was taller than the unicorn. Flames shot from exhaust pipes in the back and propelled the truck past my hiding place and into the clearing. Death metal music blasted from the truck’s open windows. A huge humanoid with a chrome skull for a head leaned out the driver’s window and yelled, “Yee hah!”
He spun the truck in a tight circle, its tires pummeling grass, dirt, and flowers into swatches of mud. The creek ran brown.
The rabbits and fawns scattered into the woods. The princess vaulted onto the unicorn’s back.
“Stalwart, away!” she cried. The unicorn galloped for the trees and then turned onto a circular path around the edge of the meadow. The bluebird flew above them, matching their pace.
“Unicorn hunt!” bellowed the skull-headed driver. His truck made a one-eighty and followed the unicorn’s path, gaining quickly. He leaned out the window again, brandishing a gigantic automatic weapon with about twenty barrels. He shot a hive of projectiles that sailed over the princess’s head.
“I’m hit!” cried the bluebird. His tiny body tumbled and fluttered downward.
The princess leaned the unicorn into a turn and caught the bluebird in one hand. The truck was nearly upon them. “Keep on!” she commanded.
The unicorn dashed straight at the truck, then dodged past it before the driver could take another shot.
I needed to end this before that chrome lunatic did more damage.
I sprinted across the wrecked meadow, which isn’t easy in a wizard’s robe. I had to hold the hem up, like a long-skirted lady jumping puddles. Good thing I was still invisible.
The driver tried a quick turn, but he over-steered. The truck drifted sideways against the wall of trees. The impact barely dented the truck but a tangle of branches hooked his side mirror. The driver gunned the engine but the truck couldn’t break free. Its spinning tires carved muddy troughs.
“Silly!” he swore, in an odd, high-pitched voice. He curved his gun-arm around the front of the windshield and blasted the clinging tree branches and the side mirror, shattering the windshield in the process. The truck lurched forward, free again. But not for long.
From a few meters away I raised my staff and cast a Stasis spell. The truck and its owner were consumed by a blue glow, rendered motionless. The truck levitated a short distance into the air, floating in silence.
Of course, by casting this spell I had killed my Cloaking. Now I stood in plain view near the floating truck.
The unicorn had stopped at the far side of the clearing. The princess gawked at me open-mouthed in a most un-regal way.
Just then a second monster truck barreled through the shattered gate, with another skull-headed goon driving. He pumped a bony chrome fist out the window and yelled, “We own you!” The second truck hurtled straight at the princess and her steed.
There was no way I could drop the first truck and stop this new one in time. I waved at the princess, trying to get her to gallop over to me.
Instead the unicorn galloped away, straight at the dense tree line. The second truck closed the distance fast. It was about to ram them and smash them into the wall of trees when a large gap appeared, branches pulling back to let the unicorn through. Unicorn and princess plunged into the gap, followed at once by the speeding monster truck. As the truck entered the branches closed back in, pinioning the truck. The truck juddered to a stop with sounds of cracking wood and rending metal. The red glow of the truck’s exhaust fires died. Black smoke seeped from the newly closed line of trees.
A minute later another gap appeared in the trees a few meters away and the unicorn cantered out, still ridden by the princess. They trotted over to where I stood, near the glowing truck and its occupant.
The princess had regained her composure. She stayed atop her mount and looked down at me like I was her subject. She was gorgeous, of course, with long blond tresses, flawless skin, and clean, sculpted features. She had a well-placed beauty mark on one cheek, which was a nice touch. It made me think she didn’t always play by the rules.
The bluebird perched on her shoulder, seemingly healed, and stared at me sharply.
“Who are you?” the princess demanded. “Are these demons your doing?”
“They are not, milady. My name is Axon. I was sent here to aid you.”
She eyed me suspiciously. “I find it strange, Wizard Axon, that you should arrive at the same moment as these villains.”
“I had a premonition—”
“And even stranger,” she interrupted, “that you did not arrive by the official entrance to my realm.” She gestured at the ruined gate.
“Call me ‘Your Highness.’ I am Princess Kara, ruler of this place, and you should address me properly.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” I replied. When visiting other spaces, we were supposed to look and talk like the locals. Clearly, she wasn’t going to cut me any slack with the olde English stuff. I tried to get to the point. “I hail from Ensec.”
The unicorn stamped his front hooves and snorted. Princess Kara patted his neck. “When I signed that accord, I thought I would be visited one day by a noble knight of great repute, or a fearsome mercenary, not a…”
“A very normal-sized young wizard?”
“Just so. But your powers are far from normal.” She glanced at the levitating truck. “Is everyone from Ensec so skilled?”
“Not everyone, Highness. I have worked hard to better myself.”
“How admirable. Now may I trouble you to dispose of these… foul creatures?”
“Yes, of course. May I prepare?”
She nodded. She leaned back, and the unicorn stepped back a few paces. That gave me a clear line of sight to the still-smoking patch of trees.
Normally I would have winged it, but with Kara watching I didn’t want to screw things up. I lined up a few spells in sequence. I also scanned the surrounding area for some likely hosts for these losers. I wanted to ask these guys some questions, and people aren’t too amenable to calm conversation when they look like giant metal skeletons.
“I am ready, Your Highness. If you could clear that veil of trees?”
“Oh, yes.” She put her hands together as if praying and then drew them slowly apart. A gap reappeared in the trees. Through the smoke I saw the glint of a chrome skull peeking out.
The skull-head guy made a break for it, sprinting for the wrecked forest gate. He was three meters tall and made good speed, but before he’d gone far I twitched my staff at him and he disappeared, replaced by an out-of-control brown bunny who tumbled into the creek. Kara let out a sharp laugh, which was a welcome reward.
After I cast the Transmogrify spell, the first truck fell out of Stasis. The sounds of its engine revving and the music blaring hit me like a wave. Its exhaust pipes still belched smoke. The driver was ready when the spell broke. He opened his door and vaulted at me, his huge chrome skeleton plummeting at me from above. I spun and twitched my staff again, and felt a soft impact as a fluffy white bunny thudded onto my face.
I shook my head to regain my bearings. The white bunny squirmed and flailed in the mud beneath me, not so white now, and then flipped back onto its feet. “What the hop?” he shouted in the cutest little voice.
Times like this made me really appreciate the auto-censoring algorithms.
With the bad guys neutralized it was time for clean-up. Two more twitches of the staff and two Impound spells evaporated both monster trucks.
“You muddle-puddle!” squeaked the dirty white bunny. “Die!”
He bared his front teeth and dived at my legs. My shielded robe deflected the attack and shunted him off to one side. He jumped at me again with the same result. Then his soggy colleague arrived from the creek to aid in the attack.
While they thrashed against the robe, I called up an inventory list that only I could see, and scrolled until I found a good-sized cage, with wheels no less, like an old-time circus cart. A quick shake of the staff and the cart materialized in front of me. Another shake sent the startled bunnies flying into the cage. I slammed the cage door closed with my hand.
“You anteater!” squeaked the brown bunny. “My lawyers are going to fluff you so hard you’ll, you’ll—argh!” He gave up. It wasn’t working for him without the bad words.
I stepped through the mud to the princess. She had dismounted from the unicorn and stood next to it, showing excellent posture. She seemed to be conversing with the bluebird on her shoulder. They fell silent as I approached.
“The demons are done, Your Highness.” I waved my arm at the destruction around us. “With your permission, I will restore your land…?”
“With what magic?” she asked.
“Every living thing remembers its essence of being over time. I can help them recall those memories.”
She pondered this, then said, “No, they would lose the memory of this violence. We shall remember this and grow stronger. I will repair these things myself.” Her tone was dismissive, like she wanted to get on with the repair work right now. I took the hint.
“Then I will be off.” I bowed, with a flourish of my staff, and turned to walk away.
“Axon!” she called. I turned back around. “Why did these demons attack us? Who are they?”
“We don’t know. It seems random, like maybe vandals.” I was getting tired of keeping up the olde English.
“Very well. If you learn more will you let me know?”
“Thank you very much for your assistance, young wizard. And…”
She looked directly at me.
An awkward silence. I filled it: “Yes?”
“If you ever enter my space again without prior permission I will tell your bosses at Ensec that you violated the main safeguard of our security agreement and I will get you fired like that!” She snapped her fingers and pointed at me. “Got it?”
I guess she’d gotten tired of the olde English too.