Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chapter 2, 38: Ivory Moon

War stories

Chapter 2, 38: Ivory Moon

 “Hey, Chris. Saved you a seat.” Brad Neilsen was a very big young man who stood out even in a crowd of Wongs. He gestured towards the end of the family room, barely visible through the crush of relatives and near-relatives. Or he gestured as far as it was possible when you have a hockey team’s worth of food piled on a plate in one hand, and a pair of chopsticks in the other. Then he turned to lead the way, only stumbling a little over Nita Guzman and Jenny Wong as he did so.

Chris waited for Brad to untangle himself from his girlfriend and his cousin. The girls were almost-matching red cheongsam dresses with strappy high heels, and they weren’t going anywhere. In fact, Nita, whose dress was embroidered with gold phoenixes, was not-so-subtly leaning on Jenny Wong, in a dress highlighted with yellow horses and black crows. For her part, Jenny was against the wall. They really needed to take the conversation somewhere they could sit, Chris thought. But they were talking to the hosts. Mrs. Wong was supervising the buffet table, where Jamie Neilsen and Amy Wong were feeding the guests, and her husband, along with Mr. and Mrs. Guzman, had clustered around her, drawing the girls, presumably to talk more wedding.
Brad stopped and gently touched Jenny on the shoulder. Chris’s cousin turned for a second from her animated attempt to persuade her mother that they really needed a troupe of Lippazaner stallions, twelve dwarfs and a space ship at the ceremony, and looked passionately into her boyfriend’s eyes. Chris waited for the traffic blockage to clear. It gave him a chance to stare at the wall and think about how he had messed up his chance to have a girlfriend as cool as Jenny.

Also, he could take a second to dip a pan-fried dumpling in tamarind sauce and pop it in his mouth. The soft noodle wrapping parted in his mouth, and taro-and-duck filling, almost too hot to bear, met the sweet-sour-salty sauce in his mouth. It was the first bite he’d managed since coming in the door, except for the cookie-sized,  mostly-ceremonial New Moon Cake, and it was delicious.

Ahead of him, Jenny and Brad did that disgusting coupley thing with the quick “Oh, I love you more, duckie” kiss, and then turned away from each other. Jenny back to making her case for getting OK Go to play the wedding, Brad, apparently, wanted to talk to Chris. As soon as the promised seat materialised so that he could start to eat. Frankly, Chris was this close to heading upstairs to Jason’s room. He’d have to hang out with the  kids, but no-one would bug him if he sat in the floor in the corner and got some serious seating in. Instead, here he was darting in with his chopsticks to  snag a deep fried prawn while waiting for Brad to bumble on through the crush, turning to his left  as he reached the kitchen-side arm of the big couch under the dormer window, and sliding along the inside of the coffee table towards the wall end of the couch.

Chris held his breath for the food. Brad was the size of a small elephant, and not nearly so agile. But the big blond managed to make his way past John Roy’s pulled-back knees to plummet into the far corner of the couch. As soon as he was by, John slipped off the couch, shoveling his hand through the air from Chris to the place.

Chris frowned. He didn’t like the idea of taking someone else’s seat, but John stepped over the coffee table, and lowered himself cross-legged on the other side, evidently not even noticing the almost-empty glass on the floor that he knocked over as he did so. Chris grimaced. Brad was clumsy, and John was careless. They could both use some kung fu training.  Then he sat.

The couch seemed to give a little as Chris settled his weight into it, protesting that it really wasn’t meant for boys so big. Chris ignored it. At least there were no day care kids climbing all over it.  Brad held up his chopsticks, half of a battered egg roll still held in them, and gestured in the direction of his girlfriend. “I wonder if they get the dresses sorted out today? I'm getting a little tired of spending my weekends watching them vogue.”

“Hunh,” John looked up at the two of them. “Amy says that you and Henry are usually gone in fifteen minutes.”

Brad shrugged. “Only if there’s a food court. Henry’s addicted to A&W fries.” Brad wrapped the wall behind him, his knuckles wrapping the cream paint to draw attention to a portrait picture of  Henry Wong, matched by one of David at the other end of the couch, forming the base of a pyramid with a portrait of Chris and Uncle Henry’s late grandfather, Henry (and wasn’t that confusing!) above, right below a classic Chinese painting of a man in the vermilion robes of an emperor that Auntie Ma had brought out for the occasion. Chris couldn’t make out the inscription.

“And your excuse?” John Roy asked.

“Someone’s gotta be the wing man. Those onion rings won’t eat themselves.”

“Is that really helping?”

Brad looked at John with a pained expression on his face. “Look, if you think you can do better, they’re modelling right now.”

“Those dresses are the ones they’ll be wearing?”

“Shyeah, like Jenny is going to wear red to her wedding. No.” Brad paused for a moment, and then started talking, sounding like someone who is trying to sound like he is reciting, but has no gift for impersonations. Which would be Brad. “They’ll be cheongsams in that cut. Slit high enough to ride astride, low enough to be decent while doing it. The dresses will be white rather than red, but with the same embroidery. Nita’s will have designs of a phoenix for the needfire and an eagle for Mr. Guzman. Juanita’s will have the Earth Horse and Sky Wolf for her mother, and Crow for her Dad.”

His voice dropped to a more normal tone. "It's all settled, is what I'm saying."

“So, why do you still have to go the mall with them?”

“Relationships are about compromise.” By which I mean, sneaking out to A&W while they try on clothes.”

Chris didn’t really care about wedding dresses, but he was grateful for the conversation, because it had given him a chance to inhale half his plate and then, with the edge beginning to come off his hunger, pulled out his phone to scan the inscription. Now, into the lull in the conversation, he asked, “So, what’s up?”

“Heard you tried to smoke out a mastermind today,” Brad answered.

“Well, I heard the story about how Jenny did it last summer, and I thought.  . . “ Chris trailed off. He wasn’t sure that he was supposed to bring that up. He’d heard enough to guess that the whole thing had involved his Dad somehow, and no-one wanted to talk about it. Chris wasn’t dumb. His Dad was an undead lich now, which meant that he’d died at some point. Probably up at the Benches last summer, give or take some time travel. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, or what he’d do if Brad copped to it.

But the pain on Brad’s face came from somewhere else. “Yeah. Perfect plan, except we smoked out the wrong mastermind. Or masterminds. And got May’s boyfriend killed.”

“What? Was that your fault?” Chris knew that May’s boyfriend had been an Indian superhero. That was why Rashindar was so pissed at the Wongs.

“No,” John answered. “Everyone’s been to the guilt table and loaded up an extra plate.”

“Oh, come on, smart ass,” Brad answered. “The way it worked out, Mr. Wong spent the last twenty years thinking he got Vijay and me killed up there too. Both his daughters’ boyfriends. That’s a metric buttload of guilt for something that wasn't even his fault.  I shouldn't have let Vijay get that far ahead of me. I might have been able to screen the blast.”

John turned his gaze back to Chris. “So, yeah, exposition blah blah. The point is that you’re trying to con a con man. That’s tough stuff. Master villains are master manipulators. Case can be made that they’re supervillains because they’re manipulators.”

“Watch it,” Brad said. “John’s about to go all DSM IV on you.”

“Laugh-a while you can, monkey boy. The theory of personality disorder provides powerful insights into the true motives of so-called master villains.”

“Yeah, yeah. Honestly, if I hear the word ‘narcissist’ one more time,” Brad answered, letting his threat go unfinished. Chris caught a whiff of something serious and painful under his banter. Brad was a pretty serious guy at heart.

John shrugged. “So it gets overused. Doctor Destroyer still has narcissistic and psychopathic disorder layered on basal bipolar and autism spectrum diagnoses. Professor Paradigm is still a borderline personality. Yin Wu’s megalomania is still generated by a sociopathic defence response to his autistic lack of empathy. There’s a reason for standard diagnoses. People adopt similar coping mechanisms to similar brain chemistry disorders.”

“Seriously, dude,” Brad said. “You’re not a trained psychologist. You can’t just lay those labels down.”

“No, but I’m a genius and a telepath to boot. When I say that people are narcissists, they’re narcissists.”

Brad just stared at John, who hesitated, for a second, and added, “A modest genius!”

“So, anyway,” Brad said, looking back to Chris, “My buddy here thinks that he can use the DSM to predict Doctor Destroyer’s next move, for which I wish him all the luck in the world and also request that he leave my little sister out of his death commando.  Unfortunately, your mastermind hasn’t done anything that would let John diagnose him, so Herr Doktor Space Clone  can’t help.”

“Well, he’s a sociopath,” John said. “Probably male, and a member of a social in-group. White, if he’s American. But you could probably have guessed all of that.”

Chris shook his head. “No, no I could not have guessed all that.” John must have noticed the way that Chris’s eyes came up from his phone, because he raised himself on his folded legs to peak at the screen of the phone.

“Gaozu Emperor,” John read. “That’s the guy in the painting?”

“Yeah,” Chris answered. “Mean anything to you?”

“No,” John answered, drawling the word slowly, exactly like someone who was terrible at lying. “Anyway, the app is cool. And also, cheating! Those aren’t hard characters to memorise.”

Chris shrugged. “Maybe for you. I’m not a super-genius, and I don’t have time to memorise thousands of characters.”

John shook his head. “Yes, you do. That’s the point of learning Classical Chinese.” Again, he paused. “So, what’s the name of the app?”

“I’ll text it to you,” Chris answered. “And, uhm, if you can’t tell me anything about our mastermind, why am I in this conversation again?”

John reached under his rear, pulled a graphic novel out, and handed it to Chris. “Neil Gaiman’s The Eternals?” Chris read, with a question mark.

John nodded. “Unh-hunh. Mr. Stone said that I would like it. And also you, Babs, Savannah, Corey and Tyrell.”

“Mr. Stone reads comics?” Chris asked, in shock.

“Not in my experience,” John answered.

“So very, very subtle,” Chris said.

“What’s up?” Amy Wong asked, as she dropped on her haunches next to John.

“I’m showing Chris the totally coincidental literary recommendation Mr. Stone just put out there.” John mimicked an avalanche of snow burying them all. ”It’s this comic about an ancient, immortal race of superbeings who are related to human beings and live beside them in secret.”

“Hunh,” Amy said. “Any good?”

Anansi Boys, not American Gods or anything.”

Amy stuck out her tongue. “So where’s the conflict? Who do they fight?”

“Well, there’s another, similar race, called the Deviants, and they’re evil and stuff.”

“Oh, no, we don’t,” Amy replied.

“Yeah. Mr. Stone said he didn’t like that part, either.”

“Wow,” Chris said. “I bet that’s a Clue!” Chris let his tone carry the capitalisation.

“You are probably right, cousin of mine,” Amy said, brightly.

“So what brings you over, Amy?” Brad asked. “I thought you wanted to hang with your sister?”

“They’re talking about clothes and blah like that. I wanted to come over and talk about the cool guys stuff. Like how many touchdowns the 76ers will score on goal. Stuff like that.”

John looked put his arm around his girlfriend’s shoulder, pulled her close, and mock whispered: “You know that we can see through your cunning ruse, right?”

“Besides,” Chris added, “Brad told us that the dress design was settled already.”

Amy squirmed up to bring her legs under her body with  her back ram straight, hands cocked on her hips and glared at the boys sitting around her. “Oh, Brad told you that, did he?”

Chris was confused. “Sure, white cheongsam with embroidery, right?”

Amy sighed so loudly that Rafaella heard her from the other side of the family room. The blue-skinned sky pirate turned around, hand on swordhilt. Amy must have caught the motion, because she looked back over her shoulder and watched until Rafaella relaxed and returned to talking to May and her girlfriend, Emily Neilsen. Then Amy turned back, and glared at the boys again.

“Well?” John asked.

“I’m taking a moment,” Amy answered.

“Going to explain to the stupid boys?” Her boyfriend asked.

“Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails,” she answered.

“That reminds me,” Braid said in an aside to Chris. “What are you doing about that plague reservoir? Chinese Slough?”
“We think it was activated in the other timeline when the developers breached the bar and let it drain into Osoyoos Lake.  So we took out an injunction on the developers, and asked the Okanagan Irrigation District to intercept the feed spring upslope. That’ll dry it out and destroy the ecosystem pretty quick.”

“Excuse me, boys,” Amy interrupted. “I was so talking.”

“No, you weren’t,” her boyfriend pointed out. “You were taking a moment.”

Amy was quick to refute. “That counts as talking,”

“What? We’ve got Silent Brad here. You really want to set a precedent like that?”

“At least you’re never going to take it.” Amy stuck her long tongue out at John. “Because you’re a motormouth. Ba-Zinga.”

“Yeah, got it,” John said.

“The wedding dresses?” Brad asked.

“Well, what you have to understand is the importance of detailing and accessorising. For example, a cheongsam says one thing with a collar like this,” Amy began, lifting her hands up to show a high collar.

“Does anyone except supervillains actually wear something like that?” Chris asked.

“I was exaggerating for effect, Kung Fu Boy. Now, as I was saying, it says something completely different if the collar is down and the neckline is open.

Chris kicked back on the couch, letting the motion draw everyone’s attention. “Wow, Amy. I know you’re not a boy, so we can cut you some slack on that, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for any of us to be thinking about Nita and Jenny in low-cut dresses.”

“I’ll be in my bunk,” John said. “My sick, perverted bunk.”

“You guys,” Amy protested. “Is that all you think about?”

Chris was trying to formulate an answer to that when he felt a nudge on his leg. He looked up to his left. Father Asplin was edging his way down the space between the coffee table and the couch, five massive plates of food balanced up and down his arms like he was trying to impress the Russian judge at the Waiter Olympics. “Clear off the couch, boy,” the priest growled. “Old man coming in for a landing.”

Father Asplin sat down, surprisingly dextrously, and spread the plates around the coffee table. “Seconds, courtesy of our  hostess. Now, I don’t want to interrupt you young folks with your ganging and banging. Go on and talk about illicit drugs and getting to third base like I wasn’t even here.”

“We would never talk about anything like that, Father. We’re good kids,” Amy said, piously.

“I’m saving myself for . . . for marriage,” Brad said, his attempt to banter collapsing into stuttering embarrassment.

“I see that you’ve been reading some fine graphical literature,” Father Asplin said, pretending not to notice, and nodding at the comic on the coffee table.
“Yeah, it’s all about how these immortal supertypes fought evil in the ancient past. And I do mean ancient,” John said.

“Like, turn the TV up so I can hear Fox News ‘loud,’” Brad added.

“And still fall asleep by 7.” Chris said.

“Gotta be fresh for the Early Bird Special at Denny’s,” John pointed out.

“You kids,” Father Asplin interrupted, ”Have no idea what old really means. It’s been 69,871 years to the day since I opened that crypt and found the Blue Tranquility sword and became one of the Nine Against  Gorgashtar.”

“Yeah, about that,” Brad said. “When we met you in the 1860s, you were borrowing the Blue Tranquility from Jason Wong. How did that happen?’

Father Asplin sighed. “When we were brought forward in time, it was just us, the five that survived the field of Darkspire, naked as we came out under Sky. We were scattered through continents and centuries, and as for our swords, who knows what history they had over seventy thousand years?” A pain crossed his face. “Or us. We never did find Falla, although Jason had her sword, nor the blades broken on the field, or tje Mercy of Undying.”

“Will we have to quest for Auralia some day, sir?” Chris asked.

“If Takofanes becomes as powerful in this day as he did in ours, yes.” The old priest picked up the graphic novel. “And more besides.” He rolled the soft-covered book in his hand, absent-mindedly, but before anyone could protest, unrolled it and began to stroke it with his age-spotted hands, his eyes looking out across the crowded family room at the celebrants, but focussing on nothing.

Finally, he spoke again. “Fantasy novels can be a poor guide sometimes. Tolkien got it right enough, but, then, we talked to him. Sure, we had powerful items and an army of heroes, but it was a small army, and for all our courage, it was nowhere written that we’d fight through the Ivory Throne’s armies and actually have a chance to plunge Auralia in that damned lich’s dead and leathery heart. When we marched on the Northlands, we had a few advantages. We knew about the revolt planned for Gorgashtar, that might open the Wall to us if it succeeded, and we had a plan to cross the Evling.”

He paused and took a sip of tea and slammed the back of the couch with his left hand, balled into a fist. “And they worked, by all that was Holy. There we were. We’d broken Vrakes’ army and put another behind us. We’d struck down three of the Crowns of Krim on the same field where we left the lesser lich’s body to the crows. We were marching on the Darkspire with nothing but Takofanes’ personal guard to stop us.”

Father Asplin put his tea down and shrugged. “Thing is, they were more than enough. We knew that. We knew we were marching without hope, and there was no Frodo and Samwise sneaking in the back door to exploit some unaccountable weakness. We were going to our deaths. We knew that when the Guard refused to be lured out so that we could recross the Evling and put its torrent between us and them. Still, what else could we do but go on? None of us would live to flee the North, anyway.”

Again, a pause. This time, Asplin chopped his hand through the air slowly and dramatically. This is my point, it seemed to say. “And then it  happened. A day’s march out, the whole horizon lit up in cyan fire and magenta. We didn’t know what was happening, and so we could guess what it had to be. Some power, long hid in the bones of the world, unknown to mortals or their gods, had chosen this moment to enter the fight. We double-timed our march, desperate to be on the field in time and make an end to the Undying King.”

He sighed. “But we were too late. Whoever our allies were, they were beaten before we could make the last stage of our march on the Darkspire. When our scouts crested the rise of the King’s Road, bonfires were lit to celebrate a victory, around a black altar erected to Krim himself in the middle of that obscene field. We’d wondered as we marched whether our allies might be the archons of the Blue Gods, but the creatures bound to those stakes looked as though they had been human before they were dedicated to the gods of night and terror.”

Father Asplin shuddered at the memory. “But perhaps we judged too quickly, because whoever they were, they had not broken, and did not break, until Nuadin’s shafts of mercy found them out, and our chivalry launched its wild charge down the Black Gate. Victorious the Guard was, but spent, too, and so we won the day.” Asplin’s expression changed from horror to surmise. “Nuadin was a well-travelled and very old Elf. I wish now that I had a chance to talk to him about that before he fell. And that’s the story, or as much as I dare tell on this day of hope.”

“So that other army that attacked the Darkspire,” Chris said, slowly and speculatively, “Nuadin might have known something about it?”

Father Asplin nodded. “There were things to be known. And questions still to be asked. Such as, ‘Did Takofanes know that the hidden army was coming?’”

John gasped. “The Eternals were betrayed? There was a traitor?”

Father Asplin nodded. “Perhaps. And this is where I feel young, imagining someone with a grievance already old and festered when Kal Turak first walked the Earth as a half-demon necromancer.”

“Wow,” Amy said. “That’s so romantic.”

“So we’re fighting Vandal Savage?” Chris asked.

“Pretty much,” Father Asplin answered.   

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