Chapter 3, 28: Eight Times
Charlotte very carefully sidled down the slope to a level cut, pushing through the brush that set shallow roots into the rock and draggled along it. When she was more-or-less level, she set her black, flat-sole, fringed high-calf soft leather boots into a cut in the rock beneath her where there was no lichen.
Charlotte tested the slip. Nothing. She put her hand up to the disguised hilt of the Pearl Harmony Sword and slipped it in and out of its sheath. No problem there, not that she expected one. Okay, then. If something came at her, she’d be solid on the ground. She wouldn’t be able to do any footwork, but hopefully anything that came at her would be susceptible to getting bits cut off or having lengths of oricalchum metal thrust right through the kind of squicky inner bits that nice old ladies at Vietnamese restaurants couldn’t resist putting in your pho because they were good for your hair.
Charlotte absent-mindedly put up her hand and pulled it through her hair. The tie had come loose and itw as hanging down on her right. And it had little bits of twigs in it. And –she pulled her hand free. Spider webs? Gross.
Charlotte shook her hand, scanning her surroundings. The stunted forest was quiet. Too quiet, you were supposed to say. But since Charlotte couldn’t hear her friends bushwacking, she’d already figured that out. Now she was listening for something else: a crow’s call, a horse’s whinny. Even a car coming up the road they’d crossed only a hundred yards or so back. Anything.
But there was nothing, just the silence. Charlotte pulled out her phone. It was 8:30. Awesome. Half an hour to coffee break. It was in the official superhero contract.
Ha. Somehow, though, it didn’t seem that funny, out here in the silent woods. Maybe because she’d been attacked out in the woods of Long Lake Valley one too many times. What were they searching for? Brian Ferguson said he remembered something spooky out here from when he was a kid, spooky in the same way as the jewel thingie that gave him pseudo-malaria, which the team thought might be some kid of weird transform disease that you got from the weird artefacts that a space leprechaun was leaving around the Valley.
Oh, and as long as you’re recapping to yourself, Charlotte added, don’t forget to remind yourself that we mainly think that because it’s the plot of some old science fiction novel Rose read once. Lame. Lame lame lame lame.
Not as lame as being caught out here and lost in the woods, though, Charlotte thought. Big, bad superheroes can’t read a compass! She could kick herself right up the ass-crack of the jean shorts that she was wearing under a white scoop-necked T. Because the one good thing about the way that she’d planned this mission is that it was plainclothes. Though her bare knees were getting a might scratched up.
Face it, Charlotte. You screwed up. Now what are you going to do about it?
Her phone chimed. Charlotte snatched it like it was on fire. Except instead of throwing it away, she held it up so that she could see the screen in the forest gloom.
Her “Uncle Henry’s Totally Useful Advice No You Shut Up” app wanted to run. Charlotte tapped the green “Okay.”
Her uncle’s soft voice rolled into the forest. “I see you’ve lost the dharma path.”
“Yeah,” Charlotte said. She could see where this was going. The app was going to give the same old advice about breathe in right nostril, breathe out left nostril. Well, she wasn’t in the mood to indulge it.
“You’re wondering why I started like that.”
“Like I’m deliberately putting your back up.”
“’M okay.” You’re getting the silent treatment, phone. Take a hint.
“Diagnostic shows that you’ve lost reception. But I can still see the orbital relays. So this is content suppression, which is either crazy high tech, or magic.”
“But you’re not moving. You’re physically lost.”
Charlotte thought about denying it, but couldn’t.
“Your brother was lost like this on The Bench, last fall.”
Oh! Charlotte brightened. Chris had told her that story. There might be a way out. Except that Christ had figured it out by meditating. Oh, God. More lectures from Uncle Reverend Henry.
“Your brother found his way out by meditating.”
Duh! Charlotte was so mad now that she couldn’t help bursting words. “I don’t need stupid religious tips about setting my feet on the eight-fold path! It’s just a stupid metaphor!”
“You will tell me that the Eight-Fold Dharma Path is a metaphor,” her phone’s AI relentlessly continued with her uncle’s script, determined to make a bad situation worse by throwing in a Sunday School lecture. “Of course it is.”
“Buddhists talk about the path of dharma, Christians about the straight and narrow road to Heaven. Those are metaphors. Travelling the right path means taking the right turning. You can’t walk down the wrong road because it’s wider and easier for a mile or so and then make the right turning. You’re past the branch. The point of the metaphor is to take the right turn at the right time.”
In spite of herself, Charlotte was listening. “Your brother had to learn to set aside his anger. That was his turning.”
“You got that from Chris’s story?” Charlotte asked. That had not exactly been obvious at the time.
“Sometimes you have to think badly-told stories through,” not-her-uncle explained. “Your neighbour, Mr. Vezina, came back as a spirit guide to help your brother because he loved the two of you. Once your brother accepted that, loving-kindness filled his heart.”
Mercifully, her uncle’s script did not mention the compassion of the Avalokitesvara. Charlotte had heard quite enough of the Heart Sutra from listening to her brother chant it every morning. “So? What? I have to summon my spirit animal? Ginger’s missing and I’m worried.”
“Your crow is not your spirit animal, Char-Char. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, she is your mother’s vehicle in this world. I am sure you have met your spirit guide already, and if that guide were with you right now, you would not be lost right now.”
Her phone paused. “Or, rather, you would not be lost if. . . .”
Oh, Goddamnit. Now came the lecture.
“You had discipline.”
“You’re going to try to get me to do breathing exercises, again, aren’t you?”
“The only kind of discipline that’s worth anything comes from inside you. But now would be a good moment to think about how discipline and spirit animals.”
“There is a horse.” Charlotte had to remind herself that this script had been written months ago. He could not be reacting to her.
“You’re a fine young horsewoman, Charlotte, but any horse worthy of you is going to be a test. Riding is a partnership, and you are not going to be able to master your horse until you master yourself. If you want to learn to ride that horse properly, I can teach you. First, assume the lotus.”
Charlotte looked down at her phone, fighting the urge to throw it into the woods. If there was one thing she wanted more than anything, more even than to tear that mask off Scout’s face and see if he was who she suspected he was, it was to ride Tellus properly. Her uncle might be a crazy old religious coot, but he knew horses.
Charlotte squatted down on the forest floor and assumed the lotus position.
“Now, cross yourself and pray to St. Elizabeth, patron saint of those left behind.”
Charlotte crossed herself.
“Now, with me.” Her uncle began to softly chant the Great Compassion Mantra. Charlotte began to chant along, invoking the protection of the Avalokitesvara Buddha. At first, she cursed herself for preferring the long mantra to the shorter Heart Sutra, but, gradually, just as when she was a child, her mind emptied and her breathing began to fall into the disciplined order.
…Her phone was sitting in her lap, and it was beeping. Charlotte picked it up. What did her uncle want now? But instead of her uncle, it was showing the mapping app, magnified to max. Her icon, at one edge, was stationary, but three other icons were picked out above her. Time to collect her team.
The uncanny spell that had hung over the forest was gone now. At least for Charlotte. She took the slope above her at the run, her boots finding secure footing in spite of the uneven rock that lurked below the thin and slippery layer of vegetation. She exploded over the edge of the great stone ledge, catching Dora firmly but gently around her right shoulder and drawing her friend in to her until Charlotte held Dora’s head only inches from her face, finding Dora’s eyes.
They were frightening, hooded by half-closed lids and unfocussed, each pupil staring off in a different direction. Charlotte whispered gently, “St. Elizabeth and the Holy Sangha.” It was just as corny as when her brother did it, and just as effect. Dora’s eyes snapped open and it was like her friend was reoccupying her own body.
“Light the needfire!” Dora shouted, and the aureate nimbus of the Maid of Gold sprung up around her. “Thanks, Charlotte!” Dora shouted as she lifted off through the forest canopy.
One down. Now Rose. She was trickier, because it wasn’t as though a slowpoke, even one as fast as Charlote, could catch her speedster friend. Charlotte checked her phone and moved on an intersecting path with Rose’s trajectory.
A moment later, a blonde streak topped a mighty log lying sideways above her. Half-rotted chips fountained as Rose’s feet pounded through it, too fast to see. Charlotte shifted to the side –just in time. Rose appeared in front of her, blocked at the last moment. She had the same empty expression on her face as Dora had. Charlotte made the Abhaya Mudra, then slid her right hand into the sign of the cross, and Rose’s eyes came into focus as they followed her fingers.
“Wow.” Rose said. “I’m –in the forest. Where are Dora and Bruce?”
“I’ve already snapped Dora out of it. Bruce, though,” Charlotte began, only to stop when a heavy body in jeans and a faded grey T came swinging through the grove, headed for the sudden drop-off at the edge of the rock sheld, as though Bruce were determined to do Dora one better and throw himself off it, instead of falling off of it. “Gotta go!”
A few minutes later, the team was together in the middle of the ledge. “Wow,” Dora said. “I’ve seen some pretty heavy charms on the other side, but that one’s right up there. Should we spread out again?”
“No,” Charlotte began to say, before reminding herself that Rose and Bruce would want to show how smart they were.
“Lots of people have been up here.” Rose began.
“They even built a road just down the way,” Bruce continued.
“But most of them don’t get charmed,” Rose interrupted.
“Which must be because they weren’t looking for something in particular,” said Bruce.
Rose took up the explanation. “So there’s something hidden really close to the road.”
“—Which means that it can’t be along the ledge.”
“—Which leaves a cut into the ridge.”
“Like the Paths of the Dead in Return of the King,” Bruce finished.
“Like the one right here,” Rose said over their phones, because she’d just run two hundred feet up the slope, according to their map app. Charlotte grinned. That was her team, alright. She had the grandson of the World’s Greatest Detective, Or Anyway In The Top Twenty, and the girl with the computer brain. No wonder Mr. Diavolo thought Charlotte was just there for her looks! Oh, well, he was wrong about most other things, too.
“This. Is. Epic,” Rose breathed, as Charlotte and Bruce came up to the point that Rose had run to, and Dora had flown too, a moment before. They were standing well above the shelf, the flat rock terrace merging with the vertical cliff wall of the striated stone outcropping more than a hundred feet below them. Above the ledge they were standing on, it that towered at least five times as high above them again.
From their vantage point, they could see into the natural grotto cut into the stone. It was a full city block deep and half that wide at the back, although much narrower at the front, easily concealed by the charm.
And as tired as Charlotte found the word “epic,” Rose had a point. Rising from a ground that was as brilliantly green and full as a lawn were ten towering pine trees in two rows of five each. Each tree was a as wide around at the base as a house, and, Charlotte guessed, tall as a twenty storey building, at least. The bark was silver, and even at this distance, Charlotte could see regular round holes in the.
“We found the Kiebler Elves! Cookies for everybody!” Dora shouted.
“Way to ruin the mood,” Rose said.
“It’s a tree city. It’s either magical cookie-making elves or hippies,” Dora pointed out. “And I know who I’d rather.”
“Point taken,” Rose conceded.
“I used to like hippies before they were cool,” Bruce pointed out.
Charlotte turned to look at Bruce, squinting fiercely. “Take it from someone who had hippy teachers, Bruce. No, you did not.”
Bruce looked at Charlotte just long enough for Charlotte to realise that he’d touched a nerve. Well, the hell with it. Bad teachers could ruin whole years, and the biggest buttload of good intentions in the world did not make up for being too mellow to discipline a class. Or for bad grooming and no sense of humour.
“We going to go get our cookies?” Dora asked.
“Actually, if the space leprechaun is following the script from the novel, we’ll find its stash of lures in down there,” Rose pointed out.
Now it was Rose’s turn to get stared at. “Wait. Following the script? I thought we were assuming that it was just a wacky coincidence that this whole thing was like that novel you read.”
“Eh,” Rose shrugged. “I can’t be the only one who reads old novels. Wanna find out what’s down there?”
Charlotte looked down at the hidden valley, and the ancient trees that towered in it. The silver trunks were so tall that they cast shadows on themselves, and the brilliant green of the forest floor was too bright to be real. Somehow, this didn’t feel like a cheesy commercial or the moment where you ran into some garlic-chewing stinkers.
This seemed awesome. Something ancient had touched this valley, and for the first time, Charlotte was beginning to wonder whether it was enough just to shrug and say that “The Terraformers did it.”