Chapter 2, 27, Funerals
Chris’s phone beeped. For a moment, he lay there in his bed, stretched out on his back, staring into the darkness of the early morning room. He really didn’t want to get up just because his phone alarm said so. But, then, that was how he had expected to feel, and the moment ended as his phone began to play, softly. He listened for a minute, then, finally, pushed the covers aside and rolled up, leaning over at the top of the motion to grab his bathrobe off the floor. A compromise was in order. There were lots of things to do to get ready, and he could put off getting dressed and showered in the winter morning cold until after breakfast.
And then his heart and the muscles of his legs clenched in nightmare dreaming as he saw that his aunt’s ghost was standing in front of the bed.
“What are you listening to, Chris?” His sister asked.
“Charlotte. You scared me. And what have you done to your hair?”
“This is how they wore it in the 30s. What are you listening to?”
Chris blushed. “It’s Anita Mui doing the Heart Sutra. Her voice reminds me of Mom.” And Morning Glory, although he didn’t feel like talking about that today.
His sister cocked her head. “You’re not turning religious on me, are you, Chris?”
“You’re the one wearing the rosary, sis.”
Now it was Charlotte’s turn to blush. “Dora gave it to me. Besides, we’re going to a funeral today.”
Chris bounced off the bed to his feet. “And breakfast is a great place to start with that.”
Chris and Charlotte filed down the two sets of stairs to the kitchen quietly, since May, at least, might still be sleeping, but when they got to the kitchen, they found May, with Jamie Neilsen, and a tall, Black man in his early 20s that Chris finally recognised as the Crusader from the party in Lythrum. As Chris and Charlotte circled around the kitchen table to take their places, the man stood and held out his hand, first to Chris, then, as people nowadays did, to Charlotte.
“Chris, Charlotte. I’m Booker Crudup. I understand that you’re taking your first real trip through time today. Running the arrow back. Savour it, kids.”
Charlotte looked back over his hand and sasked, “Will you be taking us, sir?” Once again, Chris found his mind somewhere in a place of contemplation. Anita’s voice, repeating in his head, was the soft soundtrack , and words didn’t come to him. He was glad to have his sister speaking for him.
“The Crusaders need to stay well clear of weapons of mass destruction. There’s enough people in the V’hanian Empire who don’t get the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists as it is.” He gestured down to the table.
Chris sat in his usual place, with Jamie to his left. Charlotte sat across from him, next to Booker. Jamie Neilsen leaned over him and slid a plate with two oiled egg rolls, sausages and hash browns in front of him before refreshing Booker’s coffee cup.. A professional waitress, Chris thought, would slide in beside Booker, so that he wouldn’t even know that Jamie was there. Auntie Ma did it right, putting a big bowl of oatmeal and berries in front of Charlotte.
There was a long pause while Booker appreciated his coffee and everyone had a bit. “I’m getting you a time dragon, instead.”
Charlotte dropped her spoon. It clattered on the blue-and-white lip of her bowl. “A real dragon?”
“Real dragon, Honest Injun. Wait. We don’t say that anymore, do we?”
Charlotte shook her head, but only said, “I thought that Takofanes had the only dragons around today.”
Chris shivered. There was power in the name of the Lord of Ivory.
“The Undying One has the only dumb dragons out there. In this timeline. And even then, there are enough High and Wood Elves chilling in Pennsylvania to make me wonder about the Drindrish.” Booker’s smooth, brown forehead wrinkled momentarily. “I used to know these things, . . . .Oh, well. Easy come, easy go.”
“So, just to be clear, we’re going to ride through time on the back of a dragon instead of going to school today.”
“That’s it. In two hours, so you better not dawdle over your breakfast.” Chris poked the last of the egg roll in his mouth. They were going to Osoyoos. He had to get to the shower first.
An hour and a half later, Chris, Charlotte and Eve were waiting by the road at the end of the block as Graydon pulled the BMW into the curb. Suddenly, Charlotte reached over and touched Chris’ hair. “Ooh. Crunchy.” Ginger poked out one wing to stabilise herself and squawked.
Chris jerked aside, then turned to squint menacingly at the bird. “Hey, just because I take it from my sister, doesn’t mean some birdbrain can get away with it.”
Charlotte put her hand up to her pet. “Even a birdbrain can notice that you spend more time on your hair than I do. And I’m a girl!”
“Are you sure?” Chris asked, cupping his hands at his chest. It wasn’t a joke he would have risked if Charlotte were not, in fact, developing so quickly. “Anyway, that’s an exaggeration.”
Ginger rose a half-wing’s-beat into the air, pinions spread and claws outstretched as though to strike, while Charlotte pushed Chris in the shoulder, hard. “Oh, you will pay for that. And it’s not exaggerating today. Think we’re going to meet up with Morning Glory?”
“Oh, sure,” Chris said, trying his best sarcastic tone. “We’ll pull up at the stoplight on Time Travel Boulevard and drag it out, dragon versus timecar, or whatever they use.”
Without a word, Eve opened the right middle door of the BMW and slid in. Chris looked after her for a second, then opened the back door and climbed in. Charlotte followed, the handle of the Pearl Harmony nearly hitting Chris in the head as she entered. Billy was already sitting on the far side.
“Dude,” Chris said.
“Hey. Chris. Charlotte.” Billy answered. “So what’s the scoop?”
Graydon pulled away from the curb, while two front passengers turned around in unison. David Wong was sitting directly in front of Billy, with Bruce McNeely between him and Eve, and Father Asplin was sitting in the front passenger seat. Father Asplin began to talk. “The scoop is that you’ll be using a time dragon to go back to the night before the funeral, 15 September of 1934. You will dig a deep hole in the roots of the Old Pine, where your grandfather put the Women’s Plaque in 1955, and you will bury your aunt’s cremated remains there, and you will return to the present, no one the wiser.” He lifted his umbrella and gave a little salute with its handle in Chris and Charlotte’s direction.
David continued for the old clergyman. “And if something screws up, as it usually does, I’m chaperoning, so I will make up a new plan. Which I imagine will be straight out of a Three’s Company Halloween episode, given that we’ve got a gay guy and dead ringers for teenage Tom and Elizabeth.”
“Eh, we’re years too young, dude,” Bruce said. “Good thing I brought a disguise kit along…”
“What about clothes?” Charlotte interrupted. David handed a package to her. “Bruce already has his.”
Charlotte squealed and opened the package. “What about Chris? He could pass for Dad. I mean, with the disguise kit and all.”
David looked at his cousin for a long moment. “No he couldn’t. Bruce, Charlotte, you look like you’re becoming people like Wong Yili and Thomas McNeely. Chris’s face is already marked with differences from his father. Besides, Kwan wasn’t at the funeral.”
“But he did make his first trip to San Francisco in 1934. He recruited Master Lee there in the summer, and they sailed for Hong Kong on the Empress Pacific the day after Christmas. Why wasn’t he at the funeral?”
Father Asplin gave Charlotte the ‘I’ll Explain When You’re Older’ look. “He wasn’t. Trust me. I’m a man of the cloth.”
A priest, Chris had been told by his Uncle Henry, who took his grandfather’s last confession. Chris shivered inside. What if Billy was right, and he didn’t want to know the family secrets they were closing in on?
The SUV pulled onto the highway long enough to go two exits before pulling out into a park, crossing a broad, paved bridle path before finding a parking lot in a grove of trees. “Tatammy Park, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Graydon said, “horseback riding, pickup baseball and cricket, and dragon sanctuary.
Chris got out, his breath puffing in front of him in the winter. He stared through it at the delicate, interlocking haze of winter-stripped bare branches with dark purple swellings at their tips to show where the bulbs would form. The natural trellis formed a border to the edge of the parking lot, partly veiling a field of grass beyond so burned by the winter frosts that it was almost as purple as the branches. “Is the dragon going to warp in to meet us, or whatever?” He asked.
Father Asplin answered, without addressing him in particular. “This would be a good time for the warm-blooded to practice their dragon spotting. It could turn out to be a useful skill.”
Out of nowhere, Fang materialised between Chris and Eve, its long, feline body managing to bend so that it touched Chris with its shoulder while wrapping its flank around Eve. Through the fur, Chris could feel the great cat’s muscles, taut like tensed cables. A growl ripped through the cold air, like one a cat would make when it saw a rival walking through its yard, only a thousand times louder.
Chris looked again, harder this time, his eyes watering from the cold. There was nothing but the lattice of branches to break up the lines of the grass. Except, he thought, that something was wrong. He looked harder. The interlocking branches were so thin, yet everywhere he focussed, there was a branch. They were much more solid than he’d thought to start with. And up to the right and the left, he abruptly realised, branches crossed to make almost-eye shapes, and through those shapes, the purple-green of the field beyond looked yellow, instead.
And, with that, he realised that they didn’t look “like” eyes. They were eyes. They were the eyes of the largest animal that he’d ever seen, with a body that somehow filled out most of the branches and the field that he’d thought he was looking at. A huge creature of purple, shimmering scales. The eyes seemed to look at Chris, and a curtain of shiny purple slid across the yellow orbs. It was winking at him, and Chris could not hold its gaze. He looked down, then peeked up again, .appalled. Chris really wished that he had his sword right now, and he reminded himself again to ask Father Asplin about it. But he wasn’t looking aside now. In his peripheral vision, Chris caught Eve flinching, as she realised what she was looking at.
Then Charlotte broke the silence. “That’s so awesome!” Chris’s sister broke from the line, running towards the edge of the parking lot. A great chunk of lattice around the eye suddenly turned into a dragon’s head and bent down to rub its jaw on the sleeper that marked the end of the nearest parking stall. Charlotte halted a respectful distance away, and asked over her shoulder, “Can I pet him?”
“How do you know it’s ‘him?’” Billy asked.
“Oh, it’s ‘him,’ alright,” Eve said. “Maybe you shouldn’t get any closer, Char-Char.”
“No, it’s okay,” Father Asplin answered. “This time. Okay, everybody: Charlotte, Bruce, go get changed quick. The rest of us can get acquainted with He Who Passes Time.”
Charlotte turned around, heading for the path to the washrooms, but paused to ask, “Is that his name?”
“Dragons share their names when they choose. ‘He Who Passes Time’ is what we’re to call our friend, here.”
Chris edged in close to Father Asplin. “I guess you did for a few dragons in your day, Father.”
“Evil dragons, Chris. That was what you had holy warriors for, back in the day.”
“With your, like, Holy Avenger.” Chris said.
“Yes, with a holy sword. But it was never mine. Just something that I earned the right to carry.”
“And now you have an umbrella that you carry around all the time.”
“Yes,” Father Asplin said.
“Except when it teleports into my hands and turns into a sword.” Chris said.
“That’s a pretty wild-arsed guess, Chris.”
“Hunch. And why do you keep waving it at me if you don’t want me to jump to conclusions?”
“Fair cop, Chris. This,” he said, gesturing with the umbrella, “Is the Blue Tranquility Sword, and it does, indeed, go to you. When you’ve earned the right to wear it.”
“What? They just handed Charlotte’s sword over!”
“Charlotte has earned the right to carry the Pearl Harmony Sword. You have a ways to go to earn the Blue Tranquility.”
“So, what? She’s more advanced than me?”
“The rules for the Pearl Harmony Sword are different from the ones for the Blue Tranquility Sword. There’s no advanced and less advanced, or, for that matter, harder or easier. Just different. Besides, when you earn it, you’ll earn a whole lot more besides.”
“Something better than a wedding dress?”
“Much better than that dress.”
David sauntered over. “Done giving my cousin the 4-1-1, Padre? Because we’re ready to go.”
“Wait. One last thing,” Chris said, fast, to get it in between the adults talking. “Can I borrow the Blue Tranquility Sword today?”
“Oh, certainly, Chris,” Father Asplin said. “But, remember, until you’ve truly earned it, you won’t be able to count on it when you need it most, whether that’s when you’re slaying dragons or breaking enchantments.”
“Maybe I won’t need it at all today. But if I do, I’d rather have it and lose it than not have it when it could be there to help me protect . . . .people.”
Father Asplin nodded, gravely. “Fair enough.” He handed the umbrella to Chris. As soon as Chris touched it, it turned into the Blue Tranquility Sword, the smooth metal of its oricalchum blade suggesting the sheen of jade in its depths, the bird-worm script glowing with its own blue light. Chris looked at it. His Chinese was getting good enough for him to pick out the phrase “pure land,” but the rest was indecipherable.
Chris looked the old priest in the eye. “How does a sword made in the Turakian Age come to be made of Atlantean metal and have a motto in Ancient Chinese?”
Father Asplin winced. “Old Red Age, please, Chris. It’s bad enough that the Scarlet Gods won without dropping Kal-Turak’s name like some horrid minion. As for the rest, you’re about to ride a time dragon, leave it at that.”
Chris nodded. Father Asplin was pretty mellow about most stuff, but Kal Turak, the man who became Takofanes, wasn’t one of them. “Hey, Chris. What’s happening?”
Chris looked over. His sister had changed. Her hair was tied up under a pork pie in a blue and mustard-yellow check that matched a blue, calf-length skirt slit to the knees, worn below a grey suit jacket over a yellow blouse, with a dark brown, fur-lined aviator jacket style leather duster and matching riding boots, and old-fashioned wire-rim glasses, just like Aunt Elizabeth used to wear. Following Father Asplin’s example, the Pearl Harmony was disguised as an umbrella, although Chris wondered how many people, in 1934 or at any time, wore their umbrellas in over-the-shoulder scabbards. His sister dimpled as Chris looked her over, and twirled round, her hands out. “What do you think? Am I ready for 1934?” Ginger did a hopping dance from one foot to the other on her shoulder as Charlotte turned.
“Pretty nice, but you’ll have to ride your dragon side-saddle in that skirt, Sis. That’s quite the look, Bruce.”
Bruce McNeely scowled. He was wearing a grey tweed jacket, complete with matching tweed pants and vest, with a starched white shirt collar around his neck, and a blue bowtie over it that matched the band on his fedora. “It itches, I’m choking, and I feel like a monkey!” Then he shook the heavy-looking fur jacket that he was wearing open over the suit came down almost as far as Charlotte’s skirt. “And this is as bad as one of Gramp’s bulletproof cloaks!”
David Wong looked over. “You’re hurting my feelings, Bruce.”
“I think he looks fabulous, ‘Cuz,” Charlotte answered.
David shrugged, dramatically. “Ain’t never getting out of this ghetto.”
“Not to worry, David. I like the outfit, too,” Father Asplin said.
“You two both look pretty good for Eighth Graders,” Eve added. “Now, can we get a move on? I want to be back early, in case that thing with Doctor Destroyer meeting with the Elder Worm agent goes downhill.”
“A Destroyerbot, hopefully,” David said, firmly. “And, yeah. I hope we’re back in time for that, too.” David looked around, pitched his voice louder, and said, “Okay, everybody, mount up.” Then he climbed up on He Who Passes Time’s back, just behind the timeworm’s shoulder. Chris vaulted on as soon as his cousin was settled, then looked back. Charlotte wasn’t quite as fast as he was, but she did have to stick her landing side-saddle, as he’d warned. After her, Billy came up, also like someone who knew his way around horses, which you’d expected from a guy who was over a hundred. Bruce hesitated a second after that, and then came up in a pretty credible imitation of Chris’s vault. Although he came down too hard and in the wrong place on the landing, Chris felt strangely pleased to see that he managed not to give any more sign of the pain he was feeling than a quick grimace.
“Everyone settled?” David asked? “Because we’d better move. My privacy spell isn’t going to last much longer.”
Almost without waiting for a response, the dragon leaped into the air with an explosive stroke of its wings. Below them, Father Asplin waved goodbye as the tips of the trees rushed at them. They seemed to clear them by inches as they headed up into grey winter skies that seemed, gradually over the course of a minute of flight, to grow new colours. They started, like the purple furze of the new wood below, as subtle and murky, like natural winter colour, but gradually got brighter until they were flying directly into a blue so intense that Chris couldn’t remember seeing it nature.
Abruptly, they were surrounded by blue, and the ground below them was replaced by an angular, mathematical landscape of shapes and cracks in black and gold. He Who Passes Time seemed to squirm beneath Chris’s legs until he realised that it was the world that was shaking, not the dragon. Then they hit a solid patch of blue, and the world went dark.
When light came back, Chris was staring down, so that he could see that the weird world of colours and geometries disappeared beneath them, to be replaced by the familiar landscape of the little river valley, only strangely changed, with smaller cut blocks of logged forest, far down the hillsides from the modern ones. Below them, Chris could see Cherry Grove sweeping by under the powerful impetus of the dragon’s wings, but the roof poking through the autumn trees was green, instead of black, as it had been for his entire life.
He looked up, to see the wall of Anarchist Mountain coming at them through the space where David Wong had been. His cousin was gone. “Hey? Where’s David?” He asked.
Just as when he was under attack by the Elder Worm mind control spell, Chris felt a presence grow in his mind. This time, though, it didn’t feel oppressive. He imagined that he was seeing two yellow eyes, somehow surrounded by laugh lines, and the voice he heard was smiling, too. “One found that Doctor Wong had a pressing engagement elsewhere.”
“What happened to him?” Chris heard his sister ask. The dragon was somehow speaking to all of them, he realised.
“You two-legs have the most charming habit of assuming that the world is a story about you. Your kinsman has his own story, and he is in its next chapter. One feels that the pups would be anyways better served by the guidance of He Who Passes Time.”
And Ginger called, loud and raucous like a crow that owned the world.