“You’re not going to force me out of my city!” Willard shouted. Ice had us rolling to the left before another blast of fire could hit us.
Willard’s magic didn’t affect the tent at all. He didn’t get another chance to attack us. Billie’s manticore was on the offensive. Ice and I got to our feet and joined everyone else, watching the mad enchanter facing off against the automaton. There wasn’t much else I could do. Ice, Ruby, and Eli all looked as exhausted as I did. Billie pulled what looked like a tent-spike out of one of their pockets. They threw it at the floor, and an energy barrier came up between us and the fight. June went back to fastening the stones into their settings. Billie seemed satisfied to watch Willard bob and weave to avoid the manticore’s swipes. He wasn’t attacking it, but he kept trying to get closer to the automaton’s head. I did not doubt that the metal creature would kill Willard if he slipped up.
“Billie, call off the manticore,” I said.
“Why? Did you miss the part where he tried to kill you?” they asked.
“I can reason with him,” I said. I had to try, at least. If he died, it would be my fault for dragging the three of them into my mess.
“You can barely stand,” they said.
“Let me try.”
“It’s your funeral,” they said. I didn’t see any signal, but the manticore stopped attacking and folded its wings around itself.
“Willard,” I said. He didn’t turn to face us; instead, he kept his eye on the metal cocoon. “It’s not going to attack. Can we talk about this?”
“What’s there to talk about?” he asked, looking over his shoulder rather than turning around. “Those two want me gone, and I don’t think they care how it happens.”
“That’s true,” Billie said.
“For the record, I don’t want him dead. Just gone,” June said, not looking up from her work.
“I don’t want you dead either. There has to be something we can offer to make it worth your while to move,” I said. I doubted there was much in the way of creature comforts that Ruby couldn’t arrange given an internet connection and enough time.
“I don’t want to start over. Why should I have to?”
“Because you’re an abusive asshole who deserves worse,” Billie said.
“What would you know about it?” Willard asked, finally turning to face us.
“Enough,” they said.
“Screw you.” Willard threw a handful of slime at the barrier between us. It started to glow and expand. In only a few seconds, I lost sight of him.
“Still think you can reason with him?” Billie asked.
“Did you know he’d react this way?” I asked. They wouldn’t look at me. “You never believed I could make him leave. You just wanted to force him into a confrontation.”
“If you could have convinced him, I would have been happy to see him go. I’m not going to pretend he doesn’t have this coming,” They said. The slime was nearly covering the whole energy barrier. Its color shifted from green to a mix of boiling yellow and orange.
Billie thrust their arms forward, and the barrier pushed the slime all the way to the other end of the tent. There was a bright flash as Willard’s enchanted sludge hit the tent wall. I shielded my eyes. When I looked again, the muck was black and crumbling. I didn’t see Willard anywhere, but the manticore stood untouched by the action. For a brief moment, I thought it was over, and then the metal beast opened its wings. Willard came out from behind them and rolled marbles across the floor. Billie plunged their hands down and threw them back up. The floor moved like a wave, rolling the marbles back at Willard. The manticore shielded him again. The marbles’ explosions didn’t leave a mark on the metallic wings. Billie grimaced.
“Why is it protecting him?” Ruby asked.
“Loyalty charm,” Billie said. They didn’t explain any further. The automatons from downstairs came up and started attacking the manticore.
“Milo, we’re in danger,” Umbra said.
“Not from the enchanter.” My familiar showed me what they saw outside. Coven witches were on their way, following the Bibliomancer we’d encountered. Umbra sensed them when they entered the market and came to warn me. I knew Coven’s procedure well enough to know we had a little time before they’d attack. First, they would clear the area of civilians, then surround the tent, and finally, open fire with deadly force. If the Bibliomancer was leading the charge, I doubted she’d attempt to capture me after our last encounter. I was too dangerous to take in alive, and everyone in this tent was guilty by association.
“Billie, you wouldn’t happen to have an escape hatch, would you?” I asked.
“Why? I can handle Willard,” they said. The automatons were making slow progress breaking through the manticore’s wings.
“We’re being surrounded by Coven witches.”
“What?” Ice asked. I met his eyes and knew he hadn’t betrayed us. He looked scared. The same fear that I saw on his face the night I ran from the Coven. This time I knew what he was afraid of because it was the same thing that frightened me. I couldn’t lose him again so soon after I got him back.
“Something went wrong. That bibliomancer is leading them here now,” I said.
“I’ve got a low range teleport. It lets out at the park’s entrance,” They said.
“No good. They’ll have people waiting there,” Ice said.
“How many were on the recruiting team?” I asked.
“Fifteen. But she’ll have called in back up,” he said.
“I don’t have the charge to take on one Coven witch right now, let alone fifteen,” Eli said.
“Do you trust them?” Umbra asked me.
“Why?” I thought.
“We can get them out of here safely, but it will leave us both exhausted. If they can’t protect us, it would be better to escape on our own.”
“Ice will keep us safe,” I assured Umbra. “I can get us out of here. Deal with Willard. I don’t want to get us out of here just for him to kill us.”
“Everyone, take your blockers. We don’t want them following us,” June said, holding out the finished pieces of jewelry. I took the spare necklace she’d made for me. Billie split the wall closest to Willard, pushed him and all of their automatons out, and resealed the canvas with a few quick hand gestures, making it clear they’d been toying with him this whole time.
The stairs reminded me how shaky I still was. Umbra was confident that we could do this. I got to the bottom level of the tent and felt our shared magic start to gather. I needed to see it, though. I got to the entrance and found the bibliomancer looking smug. A few of the Coven witches threw spells at me, but Billie’s protective enchantments came to my aid. Ripples of energy showed the place where their will met the attacks and slapped them down. I watched as the Coven witches’ shadows left them entirely and pooled beneath me. Our magic didn’t stop there. The shadows of the other tents, the trees, and every other thing in the market drew in closer and closer until they left their sources and joined Umbra and me. I smiled at the Coven bibliomancer and watched the confidence drop off her face. She ran forward as Umbra and I sank the entire tent into the massive shadow beneath us. All my focus was on the biggest shadow-step of my life. I couldn’t stop her from grabbing onto me. The rest of the Coven’s witches watched in disbelief as I took her and three stories worth of enchanted canvas with me.