Book 4, 1: Hit the Books!
On an overcast day in West Philadelphia, early in October of 2012, three superheroes were chilling in Dora Guzman’s bedroom.
Dora’s Dad turned in the doorway to her bedroom. But before he did, he had one last comment over his shoulder. “You know, in my day. . . Dinosaurs, caves, something, something.” The last thing Charlotte saw of him before the door closed was his smile.
“Your Dad is such a dad,” Rose pointed out.
“I know, right?” Dora observed, looking straight up at the slightly sloping, teal-blue painted ceilings of her bedroom. “What a pain.”
Charlotte Wong lay down on the bed, carefully, so that her head fell next to Dora’s, her curly, black hair, just past shoulder length ten months after radical surgery to remove a Farrah Fawcett-Major gone wrong. (Come on, it was the Seventies! Don’t judge, Charlotte thought at whoever might be listening.) She envied Dora’s butt-length, straight brown tresses, on which her own now coiled.
At least she could move. Charlotte had already removed the veil of her aunt’s wedding dress, but the carefully stitched and the embroidered panels of the gown had incredible play, only creaking-ever-so-slightly as Charlotte relaxed to lie prone.
Of course, that meant that she had to stare at the ceiling, which was the one thing she hated about Dora’s room. “You really should repaint the ceiling, Dora.”
“Oh, will you relax about Kumi, already? Your brother’s happy. You should be happy for him. Some of us have never even had boyfriends.”
The wave of resentful silence coming off Rose was like a wind without motion. Charlotte nudged Dora in an attempt to stop a two-fer. Her friend had no idea about Kumi. Except that teal was her favourite colour, all right.
“I mean, Char-Char’s stalked by some mysterious gunman, and Rose is stalked by—“
Charlotte nudged her friend, harder now. Rose was so not ready to deal with the Dark Ninja right now. Could you even imagine being the smartest girl in school, being romanced by a mysterious anti-hero, and have him turn out to be a special needs student using a phone computer to function normally? Ooh, Rose, you dated a retard.
Only you couldn’t call them “retards.” That was wrong. And mean. Michael Snow wasn’t slow in developing. He would never develop. What he was now was all his brain could do.
Without a word, Rose interrupted whatever Dora was going to say by opening the bedroom door and slipping out. A cold Philadelphia October breeze from the perpetually-open window in Principal Manuel Guzman’s den caught the half-open door and slammed it shut.
“Oh, great,” Dora said. “Now Mom and Dad’ll think I pushed Rose’s buttons.”
“You did.” Charlotte pointed out.
“I did not. Rose is going through her seven steps right now, and she needed a bit of pushing to get past Step 3(C.2): ‘Not talking to your friends about it because you’re enjoying the chance to be a drama queen.’ She’ll be back. You’ll see.”
“Is that really what you think is going on?”
“You met my sister, right? I am, like, ‘Doctor Drama Queen to ER, Doctor Drama Queen to ER.’”
Charlotte stared even harder at the ceiling. A sister’s view of a sister was different from a friends, obvs. Charlotte had met Nita Guzman a few times on visits back from Berkeley. The college sophomore seemed pretty solid to her. How many girls would be able to cope with sharing their wedding day, even with their best friend? Which was cool, because Jenny Wong was Charlotte’s cousin, so Charlotte and Dora might have to take sides if Nita and Jenny really blew up over this or that bit of wedding planning.
“You look incredible in that gown, Char-Char.”
Charlotte blushed. Her Aunt Yili had been beautiful, trailing admirers everywhere. Before her brother killed her. Charlotte’s dad. God, that was an awful thought. Charlotte decided not to think it anymore. “Thanks, Dora. I could stay in this room forever. I’m just so jealous.”
“For this dump?” Charlotte couldn’t’ quite figure out whether Dora was hiding her reaction, or genuinely couldn’t see how perfect this moment was. A flicker of movement in the corner of Charlotte’s eye was Dora’s arm reaching up to gently bat the white curtains of her bedroom window. Little Hello Kittys bounced gauzily.
“For reals,” Charlotte said. Charlotte had finally moved out of the closet at the back of her brother’s bedroom down to Eve’s old room, across from her Cousin Amy in September, right after the three girls got back from summer camp. She was still trying to figure out how to decorate it. She leaned towards the whole “Chan simplicity” thing. Problem was, there’s a limit to how far she could go, what with being a Eurasian girl whose superpower was wuxia martial arts. Kung Fu princess went from being stylin’ to cliché pretty darn quick.
There was a knock on the door. Rose bounced up and pounced across the polished, pine floor, picking her bare-footed way from one throw rug to the other. Charlotte lifted her head to watch.
“You know, carpeting would fix that.”
“I have some nice slippers Tante knitted me. Very cute. I’m just voguing my toenails.” Rosa went up en pointe like a proper little ballerina to demonstrate as she reached the door and put her hand to the knob.
“Hunh.” Wan’t much to say about that. Dora only had one “Tante,” and she just happened to be an intelligent spaceship. Rosa could find her way between the stars and repair her own star drive, so Charlotte figured that she could knit cute slippers. And Dora’s toenails were something else –done up in bright pink with gold sparkle. And short of miraculously getting permission to wear open toe heels to school, it wasn’t like Dora was going to get another chance to show them off.
The door opened. Charlotte felt the puff of cold as the draft curled round the crack in the door jamb. Yep, still cold. As the door opened all the way, Charlotte saw Dora’s mother, with her Bavarian good looks, faded by time, and a faint grin playing at her corners. Beside her were Rosa and Father Anicet. “I caught this one trying to escape,” Mrs. Guzman said. “Do I have to make you Mean Girls apologise to each other?”
Squealing, Charlotte ignored all that as she jumped up from the bed. “Father Asplin!” Her feet slid a little on the pine, and Charlotte grabbed for Rose and Dora’s shoulders. For effect, not for balance: one of the curses of the Kung Fu Princess is that it’s pretty hard to be klutzy unless you’re faking it.
“See,” Mrs. Guzman said, looking down at her daughter’s feet. “Char-Char has the sense to wear socks. You’ll catch a cold going around like that,” she added, in the way of unnecessary extra explanation. Char-Char tried to ignore the embarrassment of being used as an example. “Where have you been, Father Asplin?” Charlotte had been so worried that she’d even gone to a service at Saint Elizabeth’s. The relief Filipino pastor had been okay, but no Father Asplin.
“Archaeological dig,” he answered. “Look, I brought you a cursed artefact of a forgotten abomination!” He pulled his hand from his pocket and opened it. “Oh, no. Other suit. Never mind, I’ll get that for you later. Mrs. Guzman? I will be down in a moment. Girls? We need to talk.” Mrs. Guzman smiled, and closed the door behind her.
“I didn’t do it!” Dora protested.
“Yes, she did,” Rose said, straight-faced. “I saw it.”
“Girls, girls,” Father Asplin said, calmingly, “There’s no need to fight. You can all be in trouble.”
Charlotte let go of her friends and stepped back, her hands up. “Neutral like Switzerland.” Charlotte’s eyes went to the bedside table. She couldn’t help herself. The fragments of honey and chocolate in her mouth were just so good.
Dora threw herself through the air, landing on her chest on the edge of her bed so that she could grab the Halloween Toblerone bar that the girls had been splitting. “Not a chance, Kung Fu Girl!”
Except that Rose was already there, holding it up. “In dark, post-apocalyptic future, there is only nougat!”
Dora rolled over, giving a sigh that wracked her chest like a mountain range in an earthquake. “It’s a chocolate bar!”
“Only chocolate-nougat,” Rose amended.
Father Asplin stepped onto a Hello Kitty throw rug. “Now, now, Rose. Don’t swipe.”
“Hunh?” The girls said.
“Swiper don’t swipe?”
They looked at him blankly. Except Dora, who was a bit sensitive about that stuff, so Charlotte explained. “You’re getting Dora the Explorer confused with Hello Kitty, Father.”
His eyes brightened. “Ah. You know, I spend so much time watching Nickelodeon at the church daycare, you’d think that I would have that all sorted out by now. But it’s like that stuff soaks into your brain without even crossing the conscious mind. Like brainwashing, or something.” His tone shifted, and his eyes glazed over. “Must…kill…Caillou.”
Then he shook his head. “I’m sorry that I was unable to come and see you girls immediately you returned from your summer adventure, but I really was at an archaeological dig. A possible On an island only thirty miles from Monster Island, so security was extremely tight.”
Charlotte’s eyes went wide. Monster Island was one of the scariest places on Earth. A volcanic island not far from Iwo Jima and Tokyo, it was a nature preserve for giant monsters, and a refuge for more rogue elements than you could shake a stick at, if you dared to leave the Japanese Self Defence Force perimeter and cross the kaiju-stalked terrain to look for them. Who know what kind of attention a dig there might attract from VIPER, DEMON, or even alien invaders? “UNTIL thought it might be from the Old Red Aeon. They were right. A Thûnese outpost. I think we have it locked down, now, though.”
Father Asplin paused, then continued. “Which brings me to my business with you girls, tonight. I’ve read your report, Char-Char, and your summary, Dora.” The paladin-turned-Catholic-priest shook his finger in admonition, smiling widely to take the sting out of the blow. “You really need to get it finished, you know.”
“My dog ate it?” Dora offered.
“You have a dog now, Dora?” Charlotte asked. “Can I see it?”
“Keep it away!” Rose interrupted. “If I met a homework-eating dog, it would just get fat!”
“Girls? This isn’t about who is to blame. No-one is to blame. Although, in another and equally important sense, Dora is totally to blame. It’s about your reports. Charlotte? You brought the Pearl Harmony Sword with you today, didn’t you?”
Of course she had. Charlotte stepped over to Dora’s overflowing closet and pulled her sword free of the assorted clothes that she had stuck its scabbarded tip into. Gripping the sheath, she pulled the handle. Perlescent light spilled into the room as the blade came free of its holder, licking the pearls embroidered into the wedding gown she was wearing.
The light ran up and down the gown like an underwater flame. Glancing over at Father Asplin, Charlotte fancied that she saw the echo of an old pain. Father Asplin’s old girlfriend had carried the Pearl Harmony into the last battle of the Old Red Aeon, the one in which they thought they had vanquished the King of Ivory forever. She disappeared in its wake, and when Father Asplin awoke in the modern age, Takofanes was about to be reborn, the Pearl Harmony Sword was in the possession of Charlotte’s grandfather, and no-one knew what had happened to his girlfriend.
Then, of course, Aunt Yilihad carried the Pearl Harmony Sword when she met the original Hobgoblin. So far, Charlotte thought crossly at her sword, you’ve been pretty good at providing a tragic backstory to male heroes, blade of mine. Let’s see if we can do better than that this time!
“Charlotte?” Father Asplin put out his hand. Charlotte offered him the hilt. Father Asplin touched it.
“So many memories,” he said. “Charlotte, you said that a spell of worm-yellow and shining darkness was cast on the Pearl Harmony Sword twice. Both times it seemed to threaten the blade before it was turned back.” Charlotte nodded, biting her lip. She remembered those moments. She’d never lost confidence in her blade, but she’d been frightened for the world. That magic was wrong.
“Dora? It was what it seemed to be?”
Dora nodded, her face stricken.
Rose pounced. “Dora? Have you been holding back?”
“The Maid of Gold knows…” Dora began, then stopped, as though confused about where to go next. “But we shouldn’t. This isn’t something that deserves to be known.”
“The truth shall set you free,” Rose pronounced.
“Oh, give up.” Dora answered, crossly. “When they say that there are things people aren’t meant to know, this is exactly the kind of crap they mean.”
“Superstitious… I’m sorry, Father Asplin.” Rose could be quick to go the Full Dawkins on religious loons like Don, but she seemed to have more respect for the old priest.
“No offence, Rose,” Father Asplin answered. “I really could do with a better set of allies in the God Wars. But this is not superstitious. You’ve seen the shining darkness at work, and that is a burden on any mind. It comes out of a destroyed multiverse, and knowledge of it is but destruction, of everything dear to you, and everything that you are. Honestly, the evil of the lower planes is better than it.”
He held up his hand. “But, there are…forces in the world that use the shining darkness for their ends, rather than being consumed by it. At least, in the short term. The Thûnese were one such force, and there are others. The Lemurian rebels. Fang, apparently. That last is particularly frightening.”
“Why?” Charlotte asked.
“Because if Fang is who I think he might be, he is congenitally naïve about the dangers of dark magic. He probably thinks of this spell as another technique, a machine, purchased from one technician and used on another machine. The fact that they are magical machines doesn’t matter to him, because, in his core he is a rationalist and believes that magic is just another machine.”
“He’s not right about that?” Rose said, skeptically.
“He is more wrong than he realises. It is not just that magic is not a machine as he thinks of them. Machines are not just machines, as he thinks of them. Fang thinks of the world as something he can manipulate, but he is part of the world. He is trying to change something in himself, and, like many who go down that road, he is moved by a pain that he cannot cure but by ending it.”
Dark, Charlotte thought. “But this is about more than the Pearl Harmony.”
“Of course,” Father Asplin said. “Takofanes was ended last time by the Sword Auralia, and he will be ended this time by the Sword Auralia. Unless it is wrecked by dark magic. And the fact that dark magics are being mustered against the Seven Swords means that it is probably being mustered against the Three, and the One.”
Dora waved her hand like Horshack asking a question in class. “Well, why don’t we just go and get Auralia and keep it safe?” Shut up, Charlotte thought at her imaginary eavesdropper. It was a thing in the Seventies. Look, if you can’t look up the old references in Google, at least chillax on the time traveller.
Rose looked at her friend. “Because we don’t know where it is.”
“We should go find it, then,” Dora suggested.
Charlotte gaped at her friends in admiration. She could not believe this.
Rose’s eyes brightened with fresh enthusiasm, even though she had been talking about nothing else for two months. “And you know where we should look? The Library of Babylon!”
“Borrower’s privileges at the Library of Babylon are a very rare thing,” Father Asplin said. “And they are usually given to people who can, you know, get there.”
Charlotte blew the bangs out of her left eye. “We can borrow Mrs. Crudup’s car. Like Jamie and Cousin May do.”
“Except that it is a long drive across the Parterres to the City of Man,” Father Asplin pointed out. “Is your Mo- Auntie Ma going to let you spend your weekends on another dimension?”
Charlotte was obscurely pleased that even someone as smart as Father Asplin slipped and mistook her Auntie for her Mom. And hurt that she was pleased. I’m not forgetting you, Mom, she thought. I just want a family.
“I also have a horse that can travel the dimensions,” Charlotte pointed out. No need, she thought, to mention that Tellus didn’t do that on command.
Father Asplin held out his hands. “I surrender. We need someone questing for Auralia, and it sounds like you girls have a plan. I can’t get you a Library Pass, but I can get you visitor’s privileges. Or, at least, I have a friend who can. He can probably set up transportation, too.”
Rose literally jumped. “We’re going! Library here we come!”
“You,” Dora said severely, “Are such a nerd.”