". . . .The Dewdney Trail to Wild Horse Creek wound around the hill on the south side of Anarchist Mountain, sometimes on the Canadian side of the boundary and sometimes on the American side, depending on the grade. At the time of the Rock Creek gold rush, Chinese packed supplies over the Dewdney Trail, but were waylaid on the US side; subsequently they cut a new trail on the Canadian side, known as the China Road . . . ."
Chapter 2, 28: Mean Girls Pass Time, Too
The dragon circled around a strangely different First Bench, and not just because it looked like late fall instead of winter. The trees were smaller, and the road down to the Forest Road was narrower and more deeply rutted. Instead of an open crib with a cheery orange tarp over it, the hay store was a half-sized barn with rustic shake shingling. Now that Chris saw it, he remembered its rotted ruins from early childhood.
“We’re here!” Chris announced. Holding the sheathed the Blue Tranquility sword in his left hand, he vaulted off the dragon’s back onto the ground.
But as soon as his feet touched the ground, everything changed. Instead of standing in a large, grassy clearing, he was surrounded by big, mature trees. “What?” He asked, and looked up. There was no sign of He Who Passed, or of his sister and the others. And on top of that, he realised, something big and dangerous was trying to sneak up on him from the right.
Chris whirled, raising his sword, his left hand going to the sheath. It was only Fang. Behind the stalking cat was Eve, instantly changed from her vaguely period denims to her cave girl outfit. She held up her hand for a moment. “The spirit of this place is disturbed. You bring death.”
Chris shrugged. “Duh.” He put the sword beneath his knees, and shrugged off his old-fashioned Boy Scouts backpack. “I’ve got the vase right here.” Even though there was no wind, the tip of the nearest tree bowed towards Chris, and, out of nowhere, a dried out bramble slapped his thigh.
“Don’t taunt the spirits!”
“What?” Chris asked. “Things die around here every day!”
“They die, and they’re treated right. This death is wrong.”
“Well, tell the spirit that we’re trying to bury Aunt Elizabeth properly.”
Eve’s forehead wrinkled. Chris noticed that her freckles weren’t as cute as Morning Glory’s. “That’s not it. I don’t understand.” She added. “I’m going to call a spirit guide. If I can get one.”
Chris looked around him. Things might be a little changed from what he remembered, but this was still the Benches, the one place in the world he knew best. “Yeah, you do that. In the mean time, follow me.” Chris turned to face east, into the mountains, and stepped downwards between two trees, where the thickets grew thicker.
Eve hesitated. Chris didn’t really think that a bikini was the best kind of clothes for the raking underbrush of The Benches, but no-one asked him. East was the direction where the brush was heaviest, but it was also the direction they had to go. “I have been here before, you know,” he said over his shoulder.
Fang brushed by Chris, taking the lead with a lean feline leap through the bush. Chris shook his head, then set his feet carefully on a fallen log, gliding down it to its end, which still pointed slightly east and down. He noticed that it looked gnawed. He couldn’t help smirking. Chances were, the big cat was about to learn a very important lesson.
In spite of his care, a moment later Chris nearly learned the same lesson, as his boot broke through a crust of branch fragments and he felt the sad, disastrous cold of water rising up the side of his boots. Fortunately, his good old engineer boots were still waterproof at the seams.
The same could not be said of the luxuriant fur of the now-bedraggled Fang, coming back nearly as fast it went, clawing its way up another log with frantic speed.
“Damn,” he said. “Do time dragons get lost?”
“Don’t ask me,” Eve answered. “Why?”
“Great Grandpa broke the beaver dam on the First Bench way back in the 1800s,” Chris replied. “Whenever we are, this isn’t 1934.”
On the other hand, now that he’d found the edge of the old pond, Chris had a good idea where they were, and they could stop pushing through the thickets. “Okay, we can head uphill now.”
He turned left, leading Eve towards the hillside. At first, the going was almost flat, but soon they were climbing an abrupt rise, and in moments they broke out onto a clear forest floor, his boots sending up the fragrant smell of pine woods from the carpet of long, brown needles and sharp-bladed cones. “We can climb this ridge straight up to the Second Bench. The graveyard there dates from fur brigade times, and the path from there will link up with the Dewdney Trail at Anarchist Summit.”
“Why would we want to go there?” Eve asked.
Chris shrugged. “I dunno. Gives us somewhere to go, and Great Gramps’ old hotel was down at the foot of the mountain, off the first switchback on the climb. Either him or Grandma Mary will know what’s going on.”
But the ridge, which cut between parallel gouges down the mountainside, didn’t lead to the Second Bench. Instead, it dead-ended somehow, against a berry bramble spreading up a scree slope. The slope must have been carried away by an old landslide, Chris thought. They could probably get up on the ridge if they went down to the left and around. It didn’t make much sense, but it wasn’t as if the whole landscape had been rearranged!
Soon, they were down in low grass, sage and lethally sharp heather, pushing through tree branches that swooped low in gentle arches like they were permanently under snow, to block every path. Chris began pushing his way through them, only to again find his foot sinking into open water.
“How can there be standing water up here?” Eve asked. “The mountain’s pitched half vertical.”
“I don’t know,” Chris muttered.
“I thought you knew this mountain,” Eve pointed out.
“Things change,” he said, defensively. “We just cut around here and we’ll be back on the ridge slope. There’s a fifty feet of scree slope to climb at the top, and then we’ll be at Second Bench."
Instead, they came to a half moon cut of cliff side, ominously capped high above their heads by half-exposed roots. It was like a bite had been cut out of the hillside forest. The ground under foot became wet again. Chris set himself against the vertical face. It didn’t look like that hard a climb. IN fact, he could probably do it one-handed, and so not have to sling the Blue Tranquility.
Chris pushed upward, looking for hand and footholds, careful not to tap his qi reserves. He could climb this hill with his powers, but that wouldn’t matter if Eve could. The smell of fresh dirt came to his nose. What was going on here?
Beside him, Fang scrambled past him and upwards. He heard a voice in his ear. “This doesn’t look easy.” Startled, he looked over his shoulder. Eve was hanging in mid-air. The movement twisted his hand free. Desperately, he lunged for a hold, and his hand gripped around a hanging plant. It screamed with pain as the plant pulled free, and he fell, overbalancing on his feet as he landed a few feet below, and ending up on his butt.
He sat there for a moment, jarred, out of breath, with a hand that burned like fire. From above, he heard Eve ask, “Are you okay, honey?” For a moment he thought that it was directed at him, before Fang slammed down beside him on landing rump first but with the quick twitch back onto its feet that cats do when their pride is hurt.
Chris felt a little better knowing that the sabretooth was having trouble, too. Time to figure out just what happened, he thought, looking at his hand. He was holding a handful of devil’s club leaves. Chris opened his hands carefully, putting sword and leaves down, and then focussed his qi through his injured hand. He couldn’t actively heal it, but general constitutional strengthening would serve as well.
Then he bounced to his feet and looked up. Eve and Fang were glaring at him. “Are you lost, Chris?”
“Of course not! I know this place like . . .” He was actually going to say, ‘like the back of my hand,’ before he stopped himself. His mouth, he realised, was stupid. And so was he.
“Yeah. I’m lost.” He stopped and looked around. “I’m always lost.” Chris sat down in the lotus position, facing uphill, towards his ancestors’ graves.
Eve looked down at him.”What the Hell are you doing?”
“For God’s sake, why?”
“For guidance. Now please be quiet.”
She gave him a seething glare. “Well, I’m going to go find your hotel. And don’t expect me to send a search party.”
Chris wasn’t sure exactly when Fang and Eve came back, only that they were both covered in burrs and mud, and Fang was dragging what looked like a half pound of thistles in his tail.He was meditating.
And then, abruptly, a crow landed in front of him, big and old. It stared into his eyes, and cawed, loud and clear. Chris stood up, and, as he did so, finally recognised where he was. This was the tiny little bench below the First, where they had their hay store now. He had led Eve and Fang downhill, not up. Old Crow flew up, then landed on his shoulder in an explosion of feathers, the bird’s hard, old talons digging into his shoulder.
“Ugh,” he said. “We have our spirit guide.”
Eve nodded. Seemingly satisfied, Old Crow took off again for the branches overhead, just as a massive presence loomed in the forest above and a familiar smell struck his nose. Chris looked up. A massive yellow stallion was coming through the woods towards them. “Or two. Your ride?”
Eve looked at the Lion Stallion. “Eww. It smells.”
“Like horse,” Chris said. “I thought girls liked horses.” But the expression on Eve’s face told a different story, so Chris vaulted on top of the big horse. “I hope you can keep up.”
“I run with the fire in me,” Eve said. “No animal can keep up.”
“Whatever,” Chris said, kicking the Lion Stallion up the faint old trapper’s trail towards the Second Bench. They were there in minutes. It was weirdly empty with only the first two gravestones, but the path up to the Dewdney Trail was wide and clear, as though it had only been cut in the last year or so. Right now was a long time ago, he realised. But if that were so, why could he hear the clear sounds of a car engine rolling down the hillside?
And then the car sounds were matched by loud, single gunshots. “That’s what I hate about the holidays. All the good shows are in re-run!” Again he kicked the Lion Stallion, but it needed no urging. Chris wondered if the big horse’s run towards the V’hanian ambush on Highway 3 was in its past or its future, or whether that even mattered to a spirit animal. He hoped Eve really could keep up. The trail was open and would have been good for a gallop if it didn’t climb so quickly, but the Lion Stallion seemed tireless. Under Chris’s legs, the stallion’s foam crept backward, soaking his jeans, as the mighty horse’s tireless stride swallowed one switchback after another. Above them, Old Crow flew, cawing occasionally.
At least until they came up on one particularly sharp switchback. The light was changing here, almost the opposite of Lythrum, becoming more penetrating without, seemingly, being any brighter. Old Crow dived, almost as agile as a sparrow, pulling out only inches from his right hand, still clenched on the sword.
Chris got the message, crouching low over the Lion Stallion’s neck, taking a firm handful of mane in his left hand and thrusting the Blue Tranquility out straight ahead. As they rounded the switchback and broke out into the clear air of the mountain summit, the sweet autumn air keened on its blue jade edge. There was something big and monstrous directly in front of him, and beyond, a wagon, with just the tattered remnants of white canvas sticking up on little spokes of wood to show that it had once been covered, blocked on the trail by a fallen log, its slaughtered horses a scene of agony, death and blood that something that looked almost human, in chain mail and an ill-formed helmet was eating while its fellows surrounded the wagon, on which people that Chris recognised as his cousins Jenny and Henry as well as Brad Neilsen, and men who looked very much like Uncles Henry and Jason were standing back to back to back to back, fighting with power blasts, bullets and swords against more of the things in armour.
All of that Chris absorbed in the moments before the thirsty point of the Blue Tranquility took the big monster in front of them, hurling it down so quickly that it took all of Chris’s qi enhanced strength to keep his grip on the sword.
He needed it. Two more of the big creatures faced him, seemingly the body guards of something awful, dressed in black like some bad Western movie gunslinger, caught in the midst of drawing something like a six-shooter. It looked at him, and Chris could see both shock and a strange familiarity in the death’s head of dead skin stretched over skeleton. Never mind who it was; Chris had to save his cousins. He parried the massive sword stroke of the first of the giant monsters, and cut off its hand at the wrist with a back flick before taking the second one’s sword in binde and twisting it out of its powerful but misshapen hands.
With both of the monsters disarmed, Chris didn’t feel the need for finishing blows, so he sawed at the Lion Stallion’s mane, and it reacted as though by instinct, weaving left and right to bring its massive shoulders into one giant and its withers into the other. With his Eight Spirit awareness, Chris didn’t have to look back to know that the massive trolls or ogres or whatever they were had been scattered off the trail. He was focussed on the final mounted foe, his sword outstretched, his eyes on the thing’s eyes.
A bullet whizzed by Chris, missing despite the minimal range between them. It seemed as though the gunslilnger-necromancer-lich thing was trying to say his name in the moment before the pommel of the Blue Tranquility struck its face and the thing was catapulted out of the saddle.
“Dad?” Chris asked. But the black clad being simply vanished in mid-air.
Chris pulled the Lion Stallion up –or, at least, suggested it very hard with a pull on its mane. The horse, obediently, slowed up and turned around. Chris’s victims had vanished.
In the giants’ case, that wasn’t surprising. He could see over the edge of the Trail from his vantage, and he could see them limping down towards the next switchback, the uninjured one wrapping its arm protectively around the shoulder of the one that he’d cut. But the being that might have been his father was just gone.
Chris took a minute to feel really guilty, about the giants at least. He could easily have disarmed all three of them. Maybe he didn’t know that when he rode the first one down, but by the second, he had their measure. Just because you have a sword, he thought, doesn’t mean you have to go cutting people’s hands off. They tend to need the things for stuff.
He was thinking about the things that he needed hands for when he heard a crow caw. His eyes followed the sound. Old Crow was standing on the hood of an outlandishly old-fashioned Cadillac with a black body and a pink roof and detailing. Eve was hanging on its open driver’s side door, bent over, panting, but her eyes following his.
“We’ve got a ride, Chris!”
Chris dismounted. “What?”
“This is the time-travelling car!”
“Yeah, and my time-travelling cousins probably brought it! You want to strand them in the 1860s?”
“Whatever. I’m sure they’ll get back.”
“And what makes you think that?”
“Well, I figure time dragons don’t get lost. So this must be some kind of test. The dragon will take care of it.”
Chris thought about that for a moment. “You know what? Screw that.”
“Well, we could try to hitch a ride with your cousins, but there’ll probably be time paradoxes. Like the ones that are supposed to wipe Rose out of existence if we manage to stop the Plague.”
“If?” Chris asked. “Okay, let’s, for the sake of the argument, say that this is some kind of dragon testy-thing. Do you honestly think that the answer is going to be to steal a time machine and ditch my cousins a hundred fifty years in the past.”
“Could be,” Eve said.
“Forget it,” Chris said. “Hey, dragon dude? I’m not stealing anyone’s ride. It’s not cool with the dharma.”
And for some weird reason, his attention was drawn to the bush just beyond the Cadillac. A bush that slowly took the form that it actually had all along: the form of a dragon.
A sinuous neck reached out, and the dragon’s head descended into the driver’s side door of the Cadillac, which disappeared into thin air. “No. It isn’t. There’s never just one answer to a test question,” the dragon said.
“Actually, in a True/False test,” Chris began.
“Ahem.” Blue light flickered in the dragon’s mouth. “There are lots of test questions with only one right answer. Maybe all the good ones, I guess. This one, it seems, has more than one. So perhaps I didn’t design a very good test? This whole ‘teaching’ thing is harder than it looks. Be that as it may, I am ready to give you two, and the cat, a ride up to 1934, and your cousins need to be stranded in the 1860s for a while. It’s a time loop thing.”
“So are we going to find out our grades soon?”
“When I’m done marking,” the dragon said in their head, sounding a little defensive.
“Mark?” Chris said. “It was pass/fail. And I bet I passed, and Eve failed.” Chris liked passing tests. It was a weakness, he suspected, but he was seriously pissed that Eve had been ready to ditch his cousins.
“What?” Eve asked.
“It’s about learning, not grades,” Chris quoted a remembered teacher who loved to use trick questions to make sure that trailer park kids scored lower than kids who lived in houses. Take that, mean girl.