In my defence, Charlotte is a Seventies girl, Paper Chase was probably a pretty grownup movie for her to have seen, but John Housman was on TV all the time cashing in with Smith Barney ads, though I honestly can't recall if the ad campaign had begun by 1975.
Book 4, 29: Dawning in the Mountains
Charlotte touched Rose gently on the shoulder. Rose turned to look at her, and Charlotte nodded at the window. “Where are we?”
Rose’s hands blurred over her phone, and Charlotte’s buzzed, gently.
[Rose]. We are in Arcadia, hidden city of the Empyreans. The Empyreans are an immortal, superpowered species of humans created out of various hominid DNA strands by the Progenitors roughly 500,000 years ago and given the city of Arcadia to live in. The Progenitors are…”
Rose, Charlotte thought, typed fast. Way faster than Charlotte read. She tried to skim it briefly, but gave up when she ran into a solid paragraph about how the Empyreans helped overthrow the prehistoric Elder Worm civilisation about 150,000 years ago. What, Charlotte thought, did the Slug think of that? Charlotte tapped her phone with one finger, trying not to be texting obviously while the grownups around her were talking, as they were.
[Charlotte]: N w3 R W?
[Rose]: Oh. Antarctica. You can tell from the sky.
[Charlotte]: L Sh9a?
[Rose]: Sure, like Shanna the She-Devil, in the Savage Land, in Marvel Comics. I wonder if there’s a jungle full of strange tribes, sabretooth tigers, and a cave girl in a leopard skin bikini out there, of if Eve was cosplaying a Frank Cho character?
Charlotte: [Eyeroll.] Charlotte looked up at Antiquarian Secanto, Breeder Noatar and Thief Handeln, standing together at the table and examining the Esme Choker together, while the rest of the gang stood around, trying not to look bored. Which left Charlotte feeling guilty for not including them in the texting.
Too late. Antiquarian Secanto turned to meet her gaze as Charlotte looked. Damn. Old dude had eyes in the back of his head. Like he’d done hard time as a teacher. “Redeeming Daughter? I’m pleased to see you’re still with us.”
Charlotte couldn’t help a gigantic, Bruce-sized blush, the kind that stretched down your face below your cowl and only stood out more against the Tatammy black. “I’m sorry, sir, just asking Rush some questions.” Charlotte let her eyes glance sideways at Bruce, who blushed again at the emphasis Charlotte put on Rose’s codename. To take the sting out of his mistake in giving away Rose’s name back in Babylon, she nudged him playfully in the ribs. She wasn’t going to tease him for that, not like she’d teased him about getting Australia upside down two weeks ago.
“It’s interesting what I’m getting from your computer…” Rose began.
Archivist Secanto cleared his throat, exactly like a fussy old English teacher. “You have access to our network, young lady?”
“Guest access, anyway,” Rose shrugged. “Wow. Is it true that your IT backbone is a Progenitor server? I’d love to look at that!”
Antiquarian Secanto gave Rose the Paper Chase, which was tough, since unlike Professor Kingsfield, Antiquarian Secanto had no glasses to look over, and had to make up for it with extra eyebrow-arching. “Perhaps.” At some future date. I am sure that a sixteen-year-old girl will have insights that our people have not been able to extract from Progenitor designs, in all the days since the Ancients first built them.”
“Progenitors hasten the day of their return,” Thief Handeln and Breeder Noatar chanted in unison. Wow. Immortal superbeings got religion, Charlotte thought.
“Now, if perhaps the Redeeming Daughter is quite done distracting herself, we can continue. As I was saying, most of the Ur-Elven material that I have examined is made of oricalchum, a material of which I can learn little in the literature save mumbo-jumbo. As fascinating as I find these oricalchum artefacts, in terms of designs, inscriptions, even properties, I have to admit that I came at last to a dead end in investigating them by the means available through science a few millennia ago. Often I curse myself for not taking cognizance of the Ur-Elves when they lived, but our people were going through a face of withdrawal at that time. I have spoken on occasion to various elves of their progenitors, but it was a tediously unenlightening process. Their memories had not crystallised, and they inevitably substitute mysticism for objective reason.”
Grand, Charlotte thought. We’re going to be talked around the hour by a whiner-dude telling us about how everything is everybody’s fault but his. She noticed that her hands were fidgeting in front of her, and did not feel inclined to control them.
But then a light went on in Antiquarian Secanto’s face. “But there is one grand exception: the Esme Choker. Ur-Elven, but made of a more mundane material. A previous owner permitted me brief access to it in exchange for gifts of some small value to the owner, procured for me by Thief Handeln. In even that brief time, I secured the most interesting information. Did you know that, with 98 percent probability, it was made elsewhere in the Solar System than on Earth?”
Rose and Bruce sputtered simultaneously. Charlotte couldn’t wait to hear what the brain trust had come up with from that, but Archivist Secanto was not finished. “I have waited through a long war and two trying rebellions for a chance to perform the experiments I designed since. My automation has been at work for long minutes, and I can tell you that the results have been most interesting. The p-transition orbitals in the gamma-form platinum allotropes are misaligned, with strong statistical certainty, and internal stress dislocations in the copper-gold alloy wires indicate partitioned exchange mechanisms!”
A long pause followed. Charlotte glanced at Rose, to see if a light was going on in her head, back to Antiquarian Secanto, to see if he was going to impatiently fill in the blanks.
Nothing. The seconds ticked away. Well, if no-one else was going to talk—“And that means?”
Antiquarian Secanto gave an unmistakeable look of disappointment. “I amusing spoken words as a concession to your primitive minds. How can I make this any simpler? I do not know the hand gestures or the trade pidgin for anomalous p transitions and stress dislocations. These are what I have found.”
Charlotte stamped her foot, was instinctively ashamed of herself, but not enough to hold back. “But what does that even mean? What does it tell us?”
“Mean? Shall I speculate, spin some ill-supported nonsense about vast and deep causes across the reaches of space and time? I am no fictioneer! I am a scientist! I shall pursue the patterns of the p-transitions in this piece. Supportable statistical conclusions will eventually emerge. It would help if I had additional pieces.”
Charlotte moved to bring her hand onto her bracelet, but the sharp peck of Ginger’s beak against her ear halted her. There were probably other Ur-Elven pieces on Landing, and she’d turn them over to Antiquarian Secanto. In good time.
“Okay then, I…” Charlotte began.
“Wait,” Twelve said. “What were these things you turned over to the owner of the Esme Choker?”
“I—,” Thief Handeln began.
But Antiquarian Secanto interrupted her, because all of a sudden it was Interruption Fest 2012, like a bad podcast. “Thief Handeln was kind enough to bring me the contents of the grave of Takofanes. I have to admit that I was quite pleased to hear that his resting place had been defiled, and the contents included a matched set of swords.”
Charlotte gasped. “Auralia and the Swords of Man and Elves!”
“Ah?” Secanto sounded annoyed. Not everyone got to play the interruption game, apparently. “No. The lesser swords could hardly be called ‘matched’ to Auralia. It is, or, perhaps, was, a piece of exquisite making, and well-matched to the black blade it came with. I understand that it was made for Takofanes as a counter to Auralia, but the King of Ivory was never greatly inclined to physical exertion, and gave it to Varakes instead. A foolish choice, as it proved. I gave all four swords to Vondarrien of Atlantis. I believe our king at the time framed it as a diplomatic gesture to placate the ruler of the Atlantean Empire.”
“’Was?’” Bruce prompted, sounding upset. So was Charlotte. Please don’t tell us that Auralia was melted down!
“Ah, yes. Atlantean magicians thought that their spells were powered by the burning of oricalchum. It is hard to believe that rational beings would destroy such valuable antiquities, even if in this particular case there was some basis to their superstitions, but, I have to admit, every time I interact without your mortals my confidence in your rationality takes another blow.”
Now Charlotte was so mad she could hardly contain herself. “You gave Auralia away to be used as magic fuel?”
“Hold your tongue, young lady. We gave a gift. What some puffed-up Atlantean potentate did with it is no business of ours.”
“The Hell it’s not!” Twelve shouted. “You hide away here in your City of Silence behind your Progenitor-designed defences and you don’t even care that you’re endangering the thing that can stop the King of Ivory, even though he kicked your ass the one time you decided to stand up for humanity!”
Breeder Noatar seemed to get ten times bigger, without changing outwardly at all. “Be silent, you mewling child! That ass-kicking, as you so inelegantly put it, was our mistake. And it taught us an important lesson: keep ourselves to ourselves!”
Charlotte looked Breeder Noatar in the face, waiting for him to explode out of pure hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like that was going to happen today. “I see in your eyes the unreasoning judgement of youth, child. Understand that I am hundreds of thousands of years old, and with that experience comes wisdom that you will never live to achieve. With that wisdom comes understanding, and with age the seriousness to know what must be done.”
“You!” Breeder Noatar’s gaze turned to Rose. “I see that you have downloaded our standard short history. Know that there is far more that could be said there. I travelled half the galaxy before your species learned to talk! I served in the hosts of Malva in its greatest war, learned that there are things at stake in this universe of ours beyond your callow imaginings!”
“Yeah, right,” Dora muttered.
Breeder Noatar either didn’t here, or ignored Dora. Instead, his burning eyes seemed focussed on Rose. “Do. You. Understand?”
Rose lifted her chin. “Oh, I understand. Blah blah inexperience blah child blah primitive blah. All the horrible things you’ve done were necessary. You should write speeches for videogames. Like, ‘I was your Dad all along, and now I will seize the MacGuffin of Power and accomplish the Goal of Now You Come In To A) Choose the Bad Thing; or, B) Choose the Good Thing With the Personal Sacrifice.’ ‘Cept not a good one, because, we already know you screwed your daughter over.” Rose tried to sound defiant, but her voice came out weak and beaten down. Also, she was using ungrammatical contractions. Charlotte’s hand gripped around the hilt of the Pearl Harmony Sword. No-one beat her friends down like that.
And then, just like that, Breeder Noatar seemed to shrink to normal size, and the overwhelming psychic pressure that even Charlotte could sense through the combined protection of her bracelet and the Pearl Harmony Sword vanished. Thief Handeln held up her hand. In it was a tiny little gadgety-looking gadget. “Interesting, Cousin Noatar. I haven’t seen one of these presence boosters in some time now. Didn’t Cousin Arvad used to make them? Well. Is there, perhaps, something that you’d like to say without it?”
Breeder Noatar whirled on Thief Handeln, eyes glaring. She looked back. “In words, please. So that our young guest can understand.” But Dora’s eyes were narrowed, and gold light leaked out. Some of us, Charlotte thought, can understand already.
“It is only a pedagogical device. The children need to understand that they meddle with things beyond their control.” Noatar said at last.
“Such as the reason our battle plan went so far awry at the Darkspire? Almost as though Takofanes knew we were coming?”
“Cousin Handeln!” Antiquarian Secanto sounded outraged. “Be careful what you suggest!”
“Half my team was lost. If they died because the King of Ivory knew they were there, then I want answers!”
“Answers that will not be found in Arcadia!” Noatar was shouting now. "You don’t understand. There is more going on here! The King of Ivory exists for a reason, and Auralia’s purpose is darker than it seems!”
“Is?” Charlotte asked.
Noatar said nothing.
“Yeah. So Auralia wasn’t burned thirty thousand years ago, then. Not that I bet you didn’t try to arrange it.” Charlotte looked at Breeder Noatar, waiting to see if her random speculation made him surrender and exposit all the dialogue so that she and her team could get on to the quicktime event. Now that, Charlotte thought at Rose, is what you call beating your metaphor to death with insert-your-fav-console-or-controller-here.
Unfortunately, Breeder Noatar either didn’t play videogames very much, or didn’t think he was the Big Bad, because he was showing no signs of following the clichés. Instead, he just looked at them levelly. “I will forgive your insinuations. The charm of childhood lies in innocence. I wish you luck in your search for the First Light of Dawn, and will be here, in Arcadia of the valleys, when you apprehend the harsh reality of life by its unforgiving light.”
“Valley! Dawn! Mountain! Holy Random Word Association, Redeeming Daughter! To the, to the Bat-Library!” Charlotte couldn’t help herself. She just gaped at Bruce.
“Did you just come up with that?” Dora, not so much with the amazement, more with the not-impressed voice.
“Sure. I’m smart.” Bruce paused, somehow managed to look embarrassed in spite of the cowl, once again. “Not that you can tell. We need to look at that book from the reading room in the Library again! We’ve gone and earned ourselves a real clue!”
“Some of us earned it,” Brian drawled. “Some of us just spent the best part of the afternoon trapped inside a robot.”
“I…” Bruce began, but Thief Handeln laughed out loud, with such an amazingly beautiful laugh, like, Charlotte tried to think of what it was like, before finally realising that she was thinking of that time that Jameel actually laughed at one of her jokes. Like that. Like a cute boy thought you were funny, and the weird feeling that gave you.
“Isn’t it a bit too late to spend any time in the Library today and still be back in Philadelphia on time?” Rose asked.
“Leave that,” Thief Handeln still had a laugh in her voice, although Charlotte hadn’t a clue what was so funny, “To me.”
And just like that, they were standing in the hall outside the reading room in the Library.
“I hope that Thief Handeln brought the Esme Choker back from …the place…” Rose paused, her face stricken for a moment. “Why can’t I say the name of …the place?”
“Maybe,” Charlotte answered, drawing the Pearl Harmony Sword, “That’s how the Veil works?”
The incoming pulson blast richocheted off Charlotte’s blade as she spoke over her shoulder. “Guys? I think it’s time for a tedious and repetitious fight.”
At which point the hall blew up, sending Charlotte flying to slam against the wall at the end of the corridor while shrapnel fragments whined as they bounced off the protective Eight Spirit Dragon shield that she’d just raised.
It was nice, Charlotte thought, as she lay on the floor and tried to get her breath back, head cradled on Bruce’s rib cage (she hoped that didn’t hurt him very much) that there were no fragments perforating her as she got over her little concussion. Because it looked like she’d need her wits about her to fight the lumbering, decayed-looking dude, cat-eared furry girl, guy in ninja togs, and snarling ape with a pistol in one hand and another grenade in the other, oversized paw, advancing together down the hall towards them.
“Or not so repetitious,” Brian said.
The grenade was coming now, Charlotte saw, still trying to put herself together. In mid-air, a golden baseball bat intercepted it, slapped it back towards the launcher. “Needs more cowboy,” Dora assessed the situation.
“How about brain-in-a-jar?” Rose asked. “This is the Overbrain’s gang. Their boss is a brain-in-a-jar.”
“Like Hitler? Whatevs. Still needs more cowboy.” Dora sounded determined not to be impressed.
The expected explosion, however, did not happen. Instead, there was a puff of smoke, out of which the ninja-dude jumped. “Fight now!” The ninja announced.
Charlotte stood, raised her sword. “Sure. Whatever.” It wsn’t a very paladin-y thing to think, but she was feeling a very strong urge to explain to ninja-dude just how mad she was at Breeder Noatar right now. Explain with swords.