And the song reference.
Book 4, 3: A Trip, And Introductions
If a tourist spends long enough in Philadelphia, the visit will include shopping at King of Prussia Mall. It is not the only mall in Philadelphia, and, in fact, it is well outside the city, being in the suburb town of King of Prussia. Although calling King of Prussia a suburb of Philadelphia, Charlotte thought, was like calling Langley a suburb of Vancouver. Only Dora was completely unimpressed with that comparison. Probably because she had no idea what a “Langley” might be. Or hardly even an idea of where Vancouver even was.
Anyway, for a visit to King of Prussia Mall from downtown Philadelphia, you take the Schuylkill Expressway. Or I-476, if you don’t mind going out of your way (maybe to see the university, or even visit the Institute for Advanced Research, just outside campus.) If you do that, though, you have to get off the Interstate and venture down into the streets, and if you do that, you will find that the way from the university to the Institute leads through an old neighbourhood that used to be called the McNeely Patent.
They do not call it that any more. Seems too undemocratic, Charlotte’s Uncle Henry once explained. Even though the McNeely mansion still stood in its middle, on a little hill with other expensive houses. It wasn’t where the nicest houses in Philadelphia were. That was the Main Line, along US 30. Not that close to her uncle’s house, but not that far away, either. But it was a nice little neighbourhood with a mansion or two and schools. And also a Denny’s, which, oddly, sat with its little strip mall in front of a strip of buildings with only alleyway access. They included an ancient little Catholic Church with its churchyard, and an abandoned house.
And in the back of that house, in what seemed like a vacant lot, overrun with neglected fruit trees and weeds, entered via the back fire exit of the Denny’s, was a patch of burned ground. And that, it happened, was where Charlotte, Dora, Rose, Bruce, Twelve and Brian were standing right now with Eldritch. Who was wearing his visiting clothes. Which turned out to be a blue denim shirt, open two buttons below the collar to show a saggy white undershirt, with a green down vest over it. The shirt was tucked into brown work pants, and they into knee-high, dark green rubber boots with faded yellow trim. Fingers of down discretely fled tiny pinholes and slits low on the side of the vest. His watery eyes peered over old-fashioned bifocals.
Charlotte sniffed. Of course he smelled of garlic.
Twelve pointed his finger at Eldritch. “You stink, old man. Why are we here?”
Eldritch grinned, pulled a garlic clove from his pocket, and bit down on it like an apple, papery skin and all. “Good for you,” he mouthed around the bulbs. “Full of essential oils. Want some?” He was bare-chinned today, so you could see his yellowing teeth work slips of papery skin to the corner of his mouth for a snuff-style spit.
It must be nice, Charlotte thought, to know magic spells like the ones that Eldritch used to show up one day in hippy-length hair and a beard, in a logger’s half-tamed bare chin and short cut today, and the professor-style brown curls and neatly trimmed beard he wore to teach. (To hear Cousin Jenny tell it. Apparently he was ashamed to look like a normal person outside work.
Twelve put up his hand. “The odour distresses the collective. I sense this. Why are we here.”
“Charlotte?” Eldritch said.
“This is, um, the teleportation gate that leads to Saint Elizabeth’s right? The one in Genesee, Washington?”
Eldritch nodded. “So it is. A very powerful place. Its energies are not bogged down by the tedious rules our minds have made up and call ‘reality.’” He tapped his temple with one stubby finger. “So I decided to cast a gate spell here. It turned out well, I think. Twelve hours up, twelve hours down, then a reversal. You will be able to return to Philadelphia tomorrow evening. Are you ready?”
Bruce lifted his oversized overnight bag and scowled. He was wearing a long, Batman-y, dark green overcoat with flapping tails at calf length. It somehow made his scowl extra broody. “I don’t understand why we’re in such a rush. I had plans this weekend.”
“Rush rush rush go go go right now!” Rose stamped her right foot. The shiny black wedge heel that Charlotte and Dora had helped her pick out (“In the dark, post-apocalyptic future, the only shoe store is Lady Footlocker”) were so cute, Charlotte thought. Total self-five. Was Twelve checking Rose out?
Whether he was or not, Twelve turned his eyes straight back on Bruce and snorted. “Your plan was to beat FTL.”
“And it was a good plan!” Bruce crooked his left wrist and let the handle of his bag slip down over it so that he could push his hand into his pocket. Somehow, it made him seem mopier still. His right hand he lifted so that Twelve could give him a high five.
“Preach it,” Twelve said. Frankly, beating FTL had been Charlotte’s plan for the weekend, too. So, so immersive. Even for someone who had actually travelled on a starship.
“Ms. Telantassar was going to show me how to do some High Elf magic meditation practices!” Brian protested. Not very convincingly. Even Charlotte found her patience tested by “meditation practice,” and she was all about the kung fu.
Eldritch turned his old, blue eyes to Brian. “And I regret pulling you away from that. You would not be here if your mind had not been touched by something out of hyperspace, and little that lives there is good to know. Meditation is the path out of that darkness, one you will have to take.”
“What do you know, old man? You said yourself that there is no trace of the Qliph—“
Eldritch held out his hand. “I hear a silent plea.” His gesture extended to include Dora. “Sister Guzman’s instincts are right. That is not a name to be spoken. The Shining Darkness is dangerous when its attention is invoked.”
“But—“ Brian began.
“You have probably heard that there are those who think the Shining Darkness but a tool. That its power can be used for good.”
Curious, Charlotte watched Brian, to see if he’d be dumb enough to say that to a grown-up.
“Magic is just science we don’t understand yet. And there’s no such thing as evil science.” Yep. He was.
Eldritch crossed his arms. “You are a fool, brother. All power is dangerous, and in this the power of death. The death of a universe, of universes. Now look. Let us take evil to be parameterised entropy, we can see that--” He drew his fingers in the dark, cold October air, and kabalistic signs took shape in fire where his fingers dribbled through the air, as though to draw out the autumn latent in it. Or it was algebra. Charlotte was almost sure she could tell the difference.
Then he stopped in mid-word. “Never mind, and I mean it. There is crawling degradation in that last effort to escape death. I will not be persuaded that it can ever be purged from the works of the shining darkness. Nor is that the only danger I see here.” Eldritch turned to Twelve.
“Young man, you are the creation of a dread enemy, but your principal thinks that you can be redeemed. What do you think?”
Twelve stuck his hands into the pockets of his PLA-style olive green jacket and pushed one Doc Martened foot forward into the wet grass, like he was trying to turn “sulk” into a dance repertoire. “You Americans with your redemption. I was born to the battle. Simple as that. If orders are to do recon in Babylon, I do recon in Babylon.”
Eldritch’s gaze turned to Rose. “What about you, young lady? Do you still plan to destroy an entire future because of the suffering of some?”
Rose blushed and looked down, not saying anything. Oh, that was a question, wasn’t it? Rose had been sent back in time by one group to cancel out a post-apocalyptic future. Michael Snow had been sent back by another, because his people would never have existed without that apocalypse. Eliminate that future, and Rose probably would stop existing –but Michael would, for sure. Question was whether Rose wanted either of those things to happen.
Charlotte didn’t know.
Eldritch looked at Rose’s down-turned eyes for a long moment. “The hearts of the young turn from spring to fall in a moment.”
Then he stepped up to Bruce, swinging his right fist at the Hobgoblin’s gandson’s face far faster than Charlotte would have thought that an aging sorcerer could. Bruce’s right hand intercepted his wrist without fuss. Good technique, Charlotte thought. Not great technique.
“You are a McNeely. I see the likeness. Good at everything.”
Bruce looked back at him without saying anything.
“Do you know that for the trap it is? To be good without ever striving? Would it surprise you to know that there is an entire city of people like that?”
Still Bruce said nothing. Charlotte stole a look at Twelve, who was trying to conceal his interest. Yes, Mr. Big-Time Sorceror, we’ve figured out that there might be a city of people like that, and that the McNeelys had their genes. That would be the same people that Twelve was cloned from.
“There is no good that is not becoming, young McNeely. Through practice we become excellent. Through excellence we grow good. That old Aristotle might have been a horrible male chauvinist pig, but he got that right. How do you grow, young man?”
Eldritch turned back to Dora. “Sister. You try to be flippant. A ‘magic manic pixie girl’ is the phrase, is it not?”
“You’re mixing up two things, sir,” Dora answered, levelly.
“Don’t call me ‘sir.’ That’s my Dad. Or me at work. Yes, I am mixing two things up. You’re mixing three things up, aren’t you? Because down there where your soul hooks up to the needfire, there’s a heart that loves your friends and the world they’re in. The serious, serious soul that you inherited.”
Now it was Dora’s turn to say nothing.
“Your grandfather sacrificed love to save the world. And because the woman he loved didn’t love him. And you will never forget that, will you?”
Charlotte thought she could see a tear in Dora’s eye. There was certainly one in hers.
“You need to own your true self, Sister Guzman.”
Eldritch turned back to Charlotte. He reached out his hands, as though to take her’s.
Charlotte put her hands in his. His skin was wrinkled and old, but his grip was warm and firm.
“These are a warrior’s hands,” Eldritch rumbled. “What did your friend say? Born to the battle. As dauntless in battle as tender in love.”
Charlotte blushed. She’d never even had a boyfriend!
Eldritch’s eyes bored into hers. Why had she ever thought they were watery? It seemed magical, the way they penetrated. “And they are the hands of a healer.”
Charlotte shivered. They were. And not just a bit of q’I energy flow, either. Unless she really didn’t understand that as well as she thought she did. She’d felt a Power flow through them. A Power that came when she spoke the names of saints. The healing power, and the fighting power, that was the gift of the paladin, the holy warrior of the divine.
Fear gripped Charlotte. She didn’t want to be that person!
“Healing is your calling, Charlotte Wong. Some day you will heed that call.”
Eldritch drew back, somehow a little taller than he had been a moment ago. His voce came loud and penetrating. “What is the hurry to go to Babylon and learn the fate of the First Light of Dawn? What is ever the hurry of learning?”
Look at you! So young and sweet and fresh. It tears my heart to see how beautiful you all are. I cannot think of the years that you will live, and the lives that you will make, without crying.”
It was true. A tear was leaking out of the corner of Eldritch’s eyes.
“And you will learn so much in the doing, my children! How can you not hurry to that?”
“Amen!” Rose shouted. “Oops. Inside voice, Rose, inside voice.”
Eldritch did not seem put out, though. “Thank you, Sister Rose. Now, if you will prepare yourselves, we will be in the City of Art and Man momentarily.”
“I thought it took hours to get there from here? That’s how long May and her gang take.” Bruce pointed out.
Charlotte remembered the stories, and her heart leaped, and this time in a good way. “And they get to fight off cool ambushes!”
Eldritch smiled. “Your Aunt would kill me. That’s why you’re going this way.”