To get properly in the mood, we'll need a recipe: A cup of this...
Book 4, 37: Demon Monk. . .
Charlotte looked at the weird old bronze thing, halfway between a compass, brooch, and gyroscope. The pole was hanging in mid-air, wobbling and precessing. But it was very definitely pointing at the portal hidden in the vacant lot behind the Denny’s, the lot where the portal her team was using, was.
“What’s happening?” She asked Scout. “Is something coming through from Babylon?” She thought of an army of migdalar rampaging through Philadelphia’s night-time streets, and shivered.
“No,” Scout answered, looking at it. “The portal’s being hijacked. To the dream dimensions. But. . .”
“Ain’t no mystic, but I kinda doubt this is a dream dimension anyone on Earth ever dreamed. Come on!”
“Like, an alien dream?” Charlotte asked.
“Not that, either. Something else. Ever hear of an Empyrean?”
“One of ‘em’s mixed up with this. But a lot else, besides. Like, the place this is being dreamed ain’t Earth. Near, though.”
Of course, “near” by the standards of a guy from Landing was allowed to be a couple of light years, Charlotte suspected. Supervalu’s closed! Let’s drive over to Alpha Centauri to pick up milk!
Scout dropped some bills on the table next to their hardly-even started meal and got up. The thought of abandoning this –well, let’s call it a date, Charlotte thought, ‘cuz it’s darn well close enough—so early had Charlotte feeling sick, but she knew as well as anyone that there were some scary things trapped in the Dream Dimensions.
Scout turned towards the entrance. Charlotte put her hand on his arm, feeling a thrill go up and down her at the feel of his sinewy muscles, utterly unlike the familiar feel of Brian Ferguson’s scrawny arms, and leaving Charlotte in awe of the elven magic the boy had mastered. “This way,” she said.
At the back of the restaurant, Charlotte pushed open the familiar door and entered the familiar, crumbling parking space. St. Elizabeth’s to the left, the abandoned house directly ahead, the weedy, open lot to the right, and, beyond on all sides, the underwhelming back sides of various businesses that catered to Bryn Mawr girls and their boyfriends and the upscale locals, which meant that they had to put all the pretty they could afford on the front, and leave the ugly for the back.
It was very hard to believe that there was so much magic back here. Well, ordinarily it was. Tonight was magic, period. Without even looking over, Charlotte thought, she would have known that Scout was there, just by his hulking presence. But she looked, oh, she looked, only to let her eyes drop, without realising that she was going to, or being able to do anything to stop it, a moment before his turned to her attention.
Charlotte could feel a blush creeping over her face, and it took all of her willpower not to put her hand up to fool with her ponytail, like a girl in a book.
This wasn’t the kind of silly feeling that they described in romance novels. Well, actually, Charlotte thought, it was, only with maybe a little less poetry and a little more reality. Not much more reality, mind, and not much less poetry. Because the way that she was feeling right now, that was the part that the romances got right.
The cold was biting, though, and that part wasn’t poetic. Charlotte shivered, and held herself close. It was cold outside the Denny’s back fire exit, but she’d been colder in the past and not felt this need for closeness, for comfort before.
Scout reached around and gripped her firmly by the shoulder, like she was a boy. “You okay? It’s cold out here.”
Scout’s body was close, and, she knew now, big and muscular under his cowboy jumper that had the familiar old Twentieth-Century lanolin smell of old wool.
Charlotte didn’t pull away. Scout didn’t, either. The hand that had been all manly encouragement rested for a long moment, then slipped over her arm, and his body rustled closer until there was contact, warm and solid.
A thrill composed half of joy and half of triumph filled her. Suddenly, Charlotte didn’t mind that the date had been interrupted by Scout’s weird, magical interrupt, that they were standing here in the half-gone-to-ruin, half wilderness back of the Denny’s, with St. Elizabeth’s parish church to their left, and the darkness-within-darkness that was the black ash circle of the portal in front of them where they stood, just outside the leaning remnants of what had once been the back fence of the abandoned house that still stood in the middle of this empty space between store fronts.
His body was firm, and in her mind, Charlotte imagined Taylor Kitsch’s cut muscles. No, she didn’t mind at all.
What she minded was that this was going to end in another superfight. That was not what this soft moonset in the cold and wet November was for. It was for getting to know Scout a little better, and trying to understand why he pretended to be Brian Ferguson. Charlotte thought of herself as a fighter who had to be a leader, and who wanted to be a lover, and not as a detective, but there were some questions that she couldn’t leave to Rose, and some detectiving she couldn’t leave to Bruce..
“Ahem,” said a familiar voice. Charlotte and Scout jumped, in the springing apart in all directions motion of the plume when you dropped a Mentos into a Coke bottle.
Because it was Father Asplin, and now Charlotte was feeling every little bit of guilt that she’d been ignoring earlier, about sneaking out of the house and being past curfew, and snuggling up to Scout, and even a new one, because Father Asplin’s girlfriend was the woman who left the Pearl Harmony Sword to the Wong family.
Not that Father Asplin was lacking for swords right now. He was clad, head to toe in shining plate armour, with shield and surcoat of white so bright that they shone in the moonlight almost as well as the metal of the armour.
And, Charlotte could not help noticing, from the spike of his helmet hung a strip of fabric. Focussing on it with her Eight Spirit Dragon perception, she could see that it was not the white it appeared by moonlight, but the richness of old ivory, sewn with pearls, exactly the same fabric as the wedding dress that Charlotte had inherited from her Auntie Yili.
And that thought made Charlotte sad as her eyes fell to Father Asplin’s face, and saw that he was smiling the secret, patronising smile of a grownup who thought he knew so much better what was going on than you did. “Fight a little evil by day, make a little love by Moonlight?” Father Asplin said, and chuckled. “Well, I’m sorry to interrupt.”
“You won’t tell my Aunt?” Charlotte didn’t even realise that she was going to say it until it came out of her mouth. She was fifteen, darn it, not some stupid kid. She could make her own decisions! At least, she thought in relief, that whatever stupid part of her stupid brain thought that it had to say that had the sense not to say ‘Auntie.’ That would be just too kid-stuff.
“Of course I won’t tell your Aunt, Char-Char. Though I think you’re underestimating her. I don’t think I’ve met your acquaintance. Son, I’m Father Asplin, and I’m going to be the adult accompaniment in this superfight, which is rated PG-13 by the Supervillain Association of America.” Father Asplin shifted the heavy mace that he had been balancing over his right shoulder with his bent arm to his shield hand, and reached out to shake Scout’s hand.
Scout transferred his rifle to his left hand, and reached out to take Father Asplin’s. “Pleased to meet you, sir. I’m Scout.” He spoke slowly and carefully, so that his back country accent, thick even by the standards of Long Lake County, could hardly be heard. “You’re a superhero?”
Father Asplin shrugged. “I am now. I used to be an adventurer, but then I. . . Never mind, that joke’s played out for someone who’s heard of Skyrim, and you’re not even from Earth.”
“How can you tell that, sir?”
“By your accent. And by the fact that you tipped April twenty bucks.”
“I thought her name was Pam. Twenty bucks wasn’t enough?”
Charlotte liked it that Scout was a good tipper, wasn’t nearly as sure about the fact that he’d noticed April’s name.
“She’s avoiding a bad customer,” Father Asplin answered. “And twenty bucks is a very generous tip.”
“Earth people aren’t generous? That sounds crazy. Char Char and her friends are from Earth, and they’re swell.” Scout took forever to say ‘swell,’ like he was trying to say something extra. Charlotte just didn’t know what that was.
Father Asplin shook his head. “Either they don’t have that much money, or they do, and they think it makes them special. Never mind that, though. In a moment, you’re going to be fighting Li Chun the Destroyer, and we’re going to be on our own for as long as it takes the guys chasing him to make it through the portal. The one advantage we have here is that the Destroyer is going to be depleted, first, by being bound to the service of another, second by the portal. And we’ll have the initiative.”
“He won’t get back to full power, though?” Charlotte tried not to sound panicked as she said it. Li Chun was a Class Omega threat, capable of taking on the whole of Tiger Squad.
Father Asplin didn’t answer.
Oh, great, Charlotte thought. A moment later, something solid began to form in the middle of the portal.
Charlotte launched herself at it. The indistinct arm-looking things of the phasing image, which, Charlotte knew, would soon turn into the gown-covered arms of something that looked like a portly Daoist monk until you looked into its eye, rose in a well calculated block.
Darn. Charlotte was trying a pretty tricky move, and she’d been hoping that she’d fool the Destroyer with it. No such luck.
Then a tight group of scarlet blossoms on Li Chun’s chest reminded her that she had allies. The blocking hands dropped as the demon-in-monk’s body staggered in place, contained within the portal. It was only for a second, but it gave Charlotte the time that she needed to drop onto Li Chun’s shoulders, her legs wrapped around his neck.
Carrying through the momentum of her leap, Charlotte let her legs twist the Destroyer’s spine at the neck. A resounding crack told her that she had broken his neck just as she slid off, to drop to Three-Stand Monkey Posture in front of him.
Li Chun just stood there, caught within the portal, his head flopping askew, like the body of a mouse dangling in a cat’s mouth.
A dangling corpse that was somehow still standing, comfortably.
“One God and Old Gods, Dharma and Way!” The shining, armoured form of Father Asplin shouldered by her, and a blue-glowing mace fell on the heavy cloth of the robe around the demon’s chest.
One blow, two, three, while more scarlet blossoms announced Scout’s reloading rate, until the weirdness that was the open portal fell away, and Li Chun’s body tumbled heavily to the ground.
Charlotte just stared. It couldn’t be that easy.
And, of course, it wasn’t. One minute, Li Chun was lying there, head askew, staring blankly at the night sky. Then his head was straight, he was laughing, and the space around them was filled with a wind that, for just a moment, was enough to drive needles of rain through Charlotte’s fatigues, before it lifted her bodily into the air, flinging her backwards.
Backwards because she was being pursued by violet lightnings. Instinctively, Charlotte moved to block with her bracelet, while her feet searched behind and below her for the comforting solidity of the edge of the roof of the Denny’s.
And found them. Beside her, Scout did, too, landing with a heavy slump that reminded Charlotte of when normal guys like Bruce tried to keep up with her gymnastics. But he was still holding on to his gyro-disky-pendant-Ur-Elvy thing, and the violet lightnings were being attracted to it and vanishing into its bronze metal.
In his other arm, clenched at his side, was his rifle. In what seemed like a span of moments, he fired off a full magazine at Li Chun, working the lever at high speed to pump each round, and hitting the demon monk with every round, in spite of the fact that he and Father Asplin were sparring on the ground below.
Well, Charlotte wasn’t going to be a spectator! She launched herself into a flying kick, hoping that the combination of focussing an Eight Spirit Dragon punch on her feet, and the advantage of a story’s worth of height would get through Li Chun’s defences.
It was like kicking a brick wall. Stabbing pain that started in the sole of her feet was finally grounded in her the space halfway between her hips. Charlotte literally bounced off., fetching up on the ground, this time in Tiger Stance.
Li Chun looked over at her. “Your kung fu is tricksome, young one. It won’t stop me from eating your bones, though.”
Or, possibly, “It is raining on my motel’s esplanade!” Charlotte’s spoken Mandarin was not that good.
“You’ll have to deal with me, first!” Father Asplin shouted, bringing his mace down on Li Chun’s head. The matter of the bald-headed monk’s skull simply bent out of the bite of the heavy, clerical weapon.
“Granted,” Li Chun said. And where Father Asplin had stood a moment before, there was thick, expanding cloud of insects.