Monday, August 4, 2014

Book 4, 12: Backgrounder

So I'm a morning person. Blame my Mom for coming in to open the drapes and singing Stevie Wonder. Everything is your parents' fault.

So Seventies. Wow.

Book 4, 11: Backgrounder

Charlotte delicately closed the secret door behind her. Unlike the doors that down led into the ultramodern, underground classrooms beneath the Old School, this one was at the bottom of a sweep of spiral stairs, so tight that it was almost a ladder. A bit of sunlight, bursting through the clouds, and shining down through the skylight above, played on the white wood of the stair, and reflected from its varnish to be lost in the dark, polished wood of the door, with its curious carvings. Closed, you couldn’t even see the join between door and wall, much less the veneer where the wood gave way to the apparently smooth drywall sheet that hid the door from other students. 

Charlotte stepped on the first rung of the stair, and began climbing, face to Rose’s back. She was last into Telantassar the Grey’s conservatory at the top of the ladder, but her favourite seat was still there, the rocker, big enough for two. Charlotte dropped into it, carefully, because one of the Elven Esoteric Arts’ cats was down there, and it wasn’t polite to set a rocking chair going before folks had a chance to get their tails out of the way. 

With a light, springing appearance, the calico appeared on Brian’s lap. Charlotte leaned back forward, put the Pearl Harmony Sword on the sword stand on Telantassar’s big old teacher’s desk, its refinished surface gleaming in the light. As with the stairs below, there was enough of a surplus to light a red rock sitting in a corner of the desk. Wood tended to glow around the ancient elf. 

Telantassar entered through the back door. She was still wearing her conventional, modern pantsuit in charcoal grey coat over white shirt, closed with a dangling silver chain. But, somehow, she looked more like a High Elfnow than a high school Modern Languages instructor. Her ears had grown more pointed, her businesslike bob somehow more upswept and alien, and flecks of swimming light appeared in her eyes. As she sat down, she gave a little nod to the Pear Harmony Sword. Meanwhile, not finding whatever it was it was looking for, the calico hopped from Brian’s lap to Bruce’s, accepting an ear tousle from Twelve as Bruce’s hand stroked its long tail. 

A purr burred in the room, and Charlotte’s sword began to pulse its perlescent light in a roiling glow that seemed to peak and diminish in time with the purring. A tiny smile graced the elven sorceror’s face as she pulled a sheaf of papers from her wood-and-old paper carrying case.

Charlotte’s heart leaped as she saw it. Graded already! She couldn’t even swallow as she took the paper, never mind breathe. The grade was the expected and unexciting “A-,” not bad when you were being graded on a curve with Rose in the room, but the percentage was nice: 84%. Bruce usually got an A-, too, so there was a pretty good chance she’d beaten him. Charlotte couldn’t wait to compare. 

“I gather that the class had quite an exciting weekend,” Telantassar said. Her voice sounded vaguely amused. As she said it, she picked up the red rock and dropped it in her desk drawer.

“We went to Babylon, as did that of another class. The other two went to Mars. It was nothing exception or special. We did our duties. To think more of it would be narcissism.” Leave it to Twelve to conform belligerently.

Brian slumped even harder into his chair and sighed dramatically. “I wanted to go to Mars.”

“Actually,” Telantassar said, “The Senior class was on one of the liminal parterres: as close to here and to the Land of Legends as to Babylon itself. Their investigation into the Piper & Norton hijackings continues. As for the Mars mission, I can only say that your class is not ready yet.”

“But we are ready to search for the most powerful magical relic on this planet,” Dora pointed out.

Telantassar tapped her cheek. “Who told you that, Ms. Guzman?”

Dora thrust her jaw out in response. “Father Asplin. Auralia is the First Light of Dawn, the blade of hope, the most powerful…”

“Ah, no. Hope is the most powerful thing of all. But, like a fine sword, it is also easily shattered. It is the wielder who brings it down on its cutting edge. Powerful as Auralia is, it needs a wielder. The Basilisk Orb and the Mandragalore, to name but two of the greater, give power to their user.”

“So why didn’t Tako—“

Telantassar held up a long, graceful index finger in a warning note, and a little sparkle of the Pearl Harmony Sword’s light picked out elvish writing on its silver ring. No-one needed any more reminder of the Lord of the Rings than that. Sauron was just a story. Takofanese was real. 

Dora choked of the rest of the name, continued. “Why didn’t the King of Ivory seek out the Basilisk Orb?” Everyone knew that the Mandragalore had been made by the Lemurians and used in some ancient civil war, long after the end of the Old Red Age.

“Because he could not use it, or did not dare? We do not know. Much of the King of Ivory’s purpose remains a mystery to us today.”

“I thought he wanted to put out the Sun and leave the Earth a dark, rogue planet, hurtling through space, carrying a population of everlasting undead helplessly lusting for the blood of the living until the end of our universe?” Nice quote, there, Rose, Charlotte thought. 

‘Indeed. The question is ‘why?’”

“Because he’s evil?” Brian asked, sounding a bit bored.

Telantassar’s gaze turned to her only Elven student. “Even evil people have reasons for what they do. The King of Ivory always said that he was doing what he was doing for the good of the universe. He even cursed Venghest when she thrust Auralia into his undead chest. The death curse of a wizard is powered by the needfulness of the mission the wizard leaves behind, and the curse that struck Venghest was powerful indeed.”

Charlotte shivered at the thought of the Paladin of Dawn being struck down by a wizard’s death curse. It wasn’t fair. Venghest had devoted her life to finding the Swords and raising the last army of the free people. In the end, she had had to make the decision to go on knowing that she was pregnant, something that she had never thought could happen to her, and her baby, and the baby’s father, had died with her.

“And now he’s back. How does that even work?” Bruce asked. “The King of Ivory rose from the dead in the old age because Obar Blackthew found his mummy and drew Auralia out. Did that happen again?”

“After the King of Ivory appeared and was checked, in 1987, we made a careful search for Auralia. Father Asplin was able to track down the original tomb, deep in the Russian Arctic. As far as we can tell, the King’s body had long since moved on to a chamber underneath Oklahoma, from which he was released by oil drillers working. Once we found that out, we were able to enter both chambers. There was no sign of Auralia in either tomb, no sign that the blade had ever been in Oklahoma, and, what’s worse, evidence that the original tomb had been entered and the body moved before the ice covered it in the glaciation that ended the Turakian Age.”

Telantassar paused, as she realised that she had spoken the cursed name. “The Old Red Aeron. Anyway, someone had been in there.”

“Who?” Bruce asked. “The Drindrish?”

TElantassar started visibly. “Not as far as know.” She paused. Charlotte thought of pointing out that as obnoxious as Bruce could be, he was one of the world’s best detectives.

But Telantassar seemed to realise that. At last, she said, “What makes you think that, Bruce?”

Bruce shrugged. “I don’t exactly. It’s just good detective work to start with the suspects you have, and rule them out. The Drindrish count as suspects because whoever broke into the original tomb had to have access to elven magic to defeat the safeguards, and it seems like what the thieves wanted to do was remove powerful magic items from Ambrethel. The Drindrish were powerful elven magicians, and they fled Ambrethel to hide in Tasmania with a bunch of powerful magic items. What could be more powerful than the remains of Tako—the King of Ivory, and Auralia?”

Brian playfully slapped Bruce’s shoulder. “Except that the Drindrish went to Tasmania, Bat Brain. Even I know that Tasmania’s nowhere near Oklahoma.” 

“You do?” Rose asked, turning to Brian and letting her voice hint at some skepticism.

“Sure,” Brian said. “Asked my phone. Hey, there’s a lot of search hits for Tasmania. Why are they all cartoons?”

“That’s where the Tasmanian Devil lives,” Charlotte explained.

“Who?” Brian asked.

“You are really from out in the boondocks, aren’t you?” Dora said.

“Colour me ignorant, too. In dark, post-apocalyptic future, the only children’s cartoons have been edited for violence,” Rose announced. 

“Seriously?” Charlotte asked.

“Nah. It’s just been a day since I did the ‘dark post-apocalyptic future thing. Watched ‘em all in my creche,” Rose answered.

“Children. The Drindrish hypothesis is not impossible. The power of magic waxes and wanes with the ages, and without powerful magic it would have been impossible to find the tomb and remove Auralia. Eldritch has been working on the assumption that Auralia was removed during the Atlantean Age, when the power of magic hit a pre-modern peak, but it would not be impossible for it to have been done by the more powerful sorcerors of the Valdorian Age. As for moving the King of Ivory’s remains, we know that happened anyway. Adding a second move, from Tasmania to Oklaoma, is not impossible.”

“It does complicate the scenario, though,” Bruce said, his voice sounding gloomy. “Looks like someone needs to look into Soviet-era magic users, too.”

“Not until you have exhausted the resources of the Library,” Telantassar said. “Now, we have spoken enough of your extracurricular activities. It is time to take up your mind shield studies again. Last time I showed you an Elven knot snare. Today we are going to learn how to untie one, and explore just why they are so effective.”

The rest of the class was …bewildering. The trick of elven visual snares was that they were designs and images that grabbed your brain when you looked at them. Almost like a Youtube of evil, when you thought about it. (Except that already existed; it was the comments.) By the end, they almost couldn’t focus on the stairs. 

“I hope your brother doesn’t get into another fight,” Dora said, behind her as they carefully picked their way down the stairs. “I don’t know if I’d be able to back you up if you had to, you know…”

Chew my brother out? Charlotte thought, finishing the sentence. Chris was probably still mad that she had taken “Mario’s side.” Kumi wouldn’t do that, he would say. She hadn’t taken Mario’s side, though. She’d just pointed out that Mario didn’t care if he was suspended, as long as Chris was, too. Chris had to learn not to get upset when Mario trash-talked

… Sigh, when Mario trash-talked Kumi. Kumi, Kumi, Kumi. Why did it always have to be about Kumi. Why couldn’t Charlotte just have her brother back?

Soon, they were out in the yard, headed for their ride, which was another of the nondescript, black SUVs that Jamie Neilsen was always driving around. Bruce hung back from where the guys were walking together, a few paces ahead of the girls. “Weird that Telantassar doesn’t want us to go to Russia yet, hunh?”

“Um, not really?” Dora asked. “There’s some pretty scary stuff going down up there right now.”

“We could hack it,” Rose said. “Pretty sure.” She paused. “Yeah, weird. It’s like programmed learning modules or something. Auralia or not, we’re supposed to learn something at the Library, something that Telantassar can’t tell us.”

“Duh,” Brian said. He had stopped dead ahead of them so that Charlotte collided with him before she’d even realised that he had stopped moving. Kind of. “You guys explained that. There’s this lost city of ancient immortal superwhatzits somewhere in the world, and it’s supersecret, and the grown-ups can’t tell us about it, so we have to figure it out for ourselves.”

“No,” Bruce said. “I theorised that. And let’s be clear here. The whole basis of my ‘theory’ is that lost cities of ancient supertypes show up in Marvel Comics a couple times, combined with the fact that Archon, Twelve and Eve are genetic superhero without being mutants, and that some of his metagenes show up in modern people, like me and Charlotte. So if the Eternals were real, and not just made up by Jack Kirby, then they could have been making babies with humans ten thousand years ago or whatever, and passing on their metagenes.”

“Whatevs,” Brian announced. “It’s like the math teacher always does that superheavy emphasis to let us know what the right answer is. If we hadn’t figured it out by now, Tel—“

Charlotte nudged Brian. They were out in kind of public now, and people would be looking at them. Girls would be looking at them. Girls would be looking at Brian. Because he was hot, hot like the hottest guy in the hottest romance manga there was. “Miss Grey would be, like, standing right over there and pretending to shoot herself in the head or whatever you do to let people know that they’re on the wrong track.”

“It’s an interesting puzzle, though,” Brian pointed out. “We don’t need to jump to hasty conclusions. We can take our time to think it through. That way, maybe there’ll be more data to work with.”

“I prefer to save my brain for more important things.”

“Our elders have set us a learning path to follow,” Twelve said. “The path is as important to our growth as human beings as the destination. And the only thing you ever do with your brain wjhen you’re away from your Xbox is play ‘Candy Crush.’”

“What, and that’s not important?” Brian asked, sounding disappointed.

“So it comes down to the Library,” Rose said. “There’s something there we might learn, and something there we’re supposed to learn. Plus, it’s an awesome place full of a million things we want to learn. Which we will.”

“If we can manage not to get kicked out of there for brawling,” Bruce said. 

Charlotte blushed. And noticed that for once Bruce had managed not to kid her about one of her screw-ups.

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