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And just to show that I'm not hallucinating. . .
Book 5, Chapter 7: Blue Herring
“Shh,” Father Asplin said. “At least, while you’re eating.”
Oh, I’ll shush, and I’ll eat, all right, Charlotte thought to herself. And you just wait.
Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. Charlotte’s mind was going a million directions all at once. Number one: She’d kissed a boy. A boy. Kissed. Boy. A. And not just any boy, Scout, the mysterious, cute and downright amazing cowboy-boy from the faraway planet of Star Trek reject planet where the guys from Earth show up and find a local culture that’s somehow just like the studio backlot. Or, in this case, a weird amalgam of Earth in the 50s and today. Whatever. Charlotte had other things on her mind than sorting out the planet of Landing.
Like, her priest had caught her kissing Scout, totally the OMGiest moment in the history of LOLtalk. But he didn’t seem to be making much of it, and as much as Charlotte could die from the embarrassment of it, for some reason that wasn’t happening. It was, like, ‘dying from embarrassment’ was just some kind of analogy or something, kind of like her Auntie Ma said. Not that Charlotte was going to admit out loud that an old could be right about something, sometimes. Flukes don’t count. Charlotte guess that that was Number 2. Free associating in your mind while you inhaled a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast for supper wasn’t like writing on a computer, after all. You could start a numbered list, but, before you knew it, you were picturing Scout with his shirt off.
He probably looked like Taylor Kitsch that way, you had to figure.
Shake it off, Charlotte, shake it off. This is serious stuff. Three, or whatever, Father Asplin had just straight up admitted to sabotaging Professor Paradigm’s armour gauntlet. That kind of mattered, because Charlotte and her friends were scrambling hard to find Auralia, the First Light of Dawn, the ancient magical sword that was supposed to be the key to defeating the sere lich, Takofanes, who planned to reduce the Earth to a shadow world of undead darkness. And the whole “sabotage” thing consisted of Auralia being teleported to parts unknown the moment that Professor Paradigm’s armoured hand closed on its hilt.
Four, and then he’d clammed up, and he and his buddy, Mr. Stonechild, had proceeded to order coffee and sit there looking smug while they made “you young folk today with your hippity-hop music and your dumbstep and your baggy pants” –honest to God, Mr. Stonechild had said that, like the thing with mistaking hip-hop for hippety-hop was funny—“Eat up, on account of you’re growing fast and you need your nourishment.”
Give them nourishment, Charlotte thought, as she scraped a forkful of hashbrowns through smears of ketchup and egg yolk on her plate, to get the last, delicious bits.
Across the table, with equal focus, Scout was finishing his toast. She looked into his deep, blue eyes, and held them until finally Charlotte felt her eyes slide away in embarrassment, or whatever. She had to focus on holding her hand in her lap, because it wanted to fiddle with her hair so much.
At last, Charlotte pushed her plate away. She looked at Father Asplin. He looked back, over his coffee mug. “Okay. You understand that I’m not the best member of our team to do this. Br—Goblin Boy—is our detective, and Rush is our big brain. They’d do this awesome job of laying down a web of questions and figure out everything and get you all, like, stuck in the gooey strands of self-incrimination and stuff. I’m so dumb I can’t even finish this analogy.”
Okay, not the best start, Char Char, Charlotte thought to herself. That was the Wong thing. You tried too hard, and got in so far over your head that people couldn’t tell you were trying at all. “Okay. Uhm, no, I said that already. No. Okay. Why did you sabotage Paradigm’s gauntlet? And how? I guess, start with ‘how,’ because that could tell us where Auralia is.” Charlotte shut up, held her gaze this time, and concentrated on not wishing that Rose were here. Or Bruce. Especially Bruce, who was apparently off beating up informants and being one with the night.
Father Asplin held her gaze right back as he, very, properly put his cup back in its saucer.
“That’s damn fine coffee,” he said, in that tone that hipsters used when they made a TV reference you were supposed to get. Charlotte waited.
“So. Sabotage. Char Char, I have to confess that I exaggerated a bit to get your attention.”
Of course he had. “Of course you did.”
“You see, when Auralia was being prepared for its role in defeating Takofanes, the Blue Heaven invested great power in it. Before I was received into the Universal Churc, I was a paladin of the Blue Gods, back in the old Red Aeon, and, as a result, I was attuned to the power of faith that worked in Auralia.”
Ooh, ooh, Charlotte thought. Let’s have a conversation about theology! That would be so exciting. The Universal Church was what the Catholic church would become by the 26th Century, when the space pope was somehow also the Dalai Lama and the Caliph and everything else beside, and Father Asplin would always say that he would be glad to explain the theology of it all, and you’d make any kind of excuse you could to get out of it.
“Recently, I have become aware that Saint Kilburn is once again active in the world.”
Charlotte thought it might be helpful to look blankly at Father Asplin now and say, “Hunh.”
“The Blue Heaven himself. The Skyfather. Shang Tien.”
“Girl said, ‘Hunh,’ Padre,” Scout pointed out.
“Yes, yes. As you know, the world is full of entities, both natural and supernatural. By embracing the wheel of dharma, the gods and demons of the ancient world can become buddhas, guides on the eightfold path to Enlightenment. In these last few months, I have been praying for Kilburn’s intercession, and I have felt the Old Blue Heaven gather round me.”
Yep, Charlotte thought, anyone trying to explain the Universal Church hreally was just asking to get hippie-punched.
“Kilburn is such a guide, returned from the Pure Lands to guide us down the path. Or, in this case, to the reservoir of his power held in Auralia. That afternoon in the school, I felt Kilburn immanent in the school. My faithsight saw the blue nimbus everywhere.”
“Oh!” That sparked Charlotte’s memory. “My sword manifested some kind of blue aura, back in the fight with Timelapse this evening!”
“Indeed,” Father Asplin said. “Kilburn’s power is everywhere in this city right now. I am not surprised that the swords of the Seven, like the Pearl Harmony, and no doubt the Three, are echoing Auralia, they are attuned, by the great workings of the Blue Gods, and by the smiths who made them in that more ancient era of which even I cannot tell. Part of what has been happening is my prayers, but only part of it. The Old Blue Heaven wants something to do with Auralia. I do not know just what, but I am sure that, wherever Auralia is, it is Kilburn’s doing, somehow.”
“So some ancient god stole Auralia?” Scout asked.
Father Asplin shook his head. “No, no. Saint Kilburn has no such power in this modern world. He would need an avatar, or at least an ally.”
“So Kilburn didn’t steal Auralia, but whoever did steal it may or may not have accepted Kilburn as his lord and saviour,” Charlotte summarised. “I guess our next step is to find the local Kilburn-botherers and ask them if there’s anyone, anywhere in this city, who doesn’t slam the door and pretend not to be home when they come by knocking on whatever day Kilburnists use instead of Sunday. To the subway, Cowboy-Boy!”
Scout looked at Charlotte blankly, and she had a taste of what it must be like to be an old, always remembering stuff that no-one under twenty could possibly be expected to know. “Because the Jesus freaks like to hang out at the big subway stops, Scout.” She paused for a moment. “Sorry about calling you Cowboy-boy. I was trying to be cute.” And then Charlotte stopped, a half step up and out of herself, like when you’ve been whacked on the nose or whatever, and stared at herself for being so lame as to say that out loud.
“It’s okay,” Scout said.
“Ah, youth,” Father Asplin said. “On a more serious note, I’m afraid that I have no idea how you’d go about finding modern Kilburn worshippers. They may exist. They probably exist! But considering that everything modern history knows about Kilburn is a short paragraph of an old oricalchum-plate book that’s survived two Ice Ages and the sinking of Atlantis, I doubt that they know any of the rituals of the old church.”
Charlotte nodded. She’d actually seen the paragraph, because it was reprinted, word-for-word, in a Pathfinder supplement her Cousin Amy’s boyfriend liked. (Or maybe not Pathfinder. Another RPG. Warhammer or Dungeons and Dragons, maybe?)
“Thanks,” Father Asplin, Charlotte said. He might be an old, and he might have embarrassed her, but he was her priest, and, more importantly, he was trying to help. “It’s a clue. And with every super-powered teen at Tatammy High and practically everyone of their parents and teachers a suspect, we need every clue we can get.”
“I do what I can. Now, I’m afraid that I’ve had just about as much coffee, even decaf, as this old body can take.”
“I was waiting for you to say that,” Mr. Stonechild said. “Unless you can work a bit of magic, I’ll be up all night.”
Father Asplin reached out and touched his friend on the shoulder, and it was like a light went out in the retired superhero’s face. Or like it . . . deflated. Like a balloon. “That’s . . . something,” he said, at last.
Charlotte was once again reminded that she never, never wanted to get old.
“That, I think, is our queue. I’m next door to my rectory, and I can sleep in tomorrow, but Mr. Stonechild is a busy man, and has to drive home. Or be driven. Which I think I will see to before I take a bit of my own medicine. In the meantime, I gather that you young folk have places to be. Do let us know if we can be of any further assistance.”
Soon, Charlotte and Scout were walking down the midnight street towards the corner where Mrs. Crudup was going to pick Charlotte up.
“So, is there anythin’ strange about those two just showin’ up and jawin’ about our case like that?” Scout asked.
Charlotte thought about that. What would Bruce say? Did it rule out Father Asplin, or Mr. Stonechild being suspects? No, it did not. It hurt to think that Father Asplin might lie to her, but, playing the odds it would probably turn out to be mind control or possession or a clone double, and not her priest double-crossing her. And even if he did, he’d probably turn out to have a reason. Like, she thought, to drown out the thought she knew was going to rise up out of her, her Dad. “No. It doesn’t rule them out as suspects. In fact, when someone just up and talks the investigator’s ear off like that, it makes them more suspicious.”
Charlotte paused. “Unless he knew that it would make me more suspicious, but did it anyway, because he has nothing to hide.”
“Yeah, I heard that joke before,” Scout said. “What he doesn’t know is that I know that he knows that I know. . . an’ like that.”
Ego was illusion, Charlotte realised, as the Pearl Harmony was already sweeping in guard above her. There is only action, as the blade, at the top of its arc, caught the unseen sabre sweeping from above, of which the Eight Spirit Dragon mastery had warned her. “Look out!” She found time to yell, as she jumped, flipping, into the air, aiming for the person who’d attacked her, who was now rising rapidly higher.
Scout dropped below the arc of the sword directed at his head, just before it connected, falling to the ground, rolling, and hauling out pistols in either hand-
Charlotte’s pivoting feet touched the horn of a saddle, somehow in mid-air, at a mad angle of attack as they climbed towards the sky—
Muzzle flashes rocked the night—
A shadowy, sinewy shape writhed in agony in mid-air-
Charlotte brought the hilt of the Pearl Harmony down, hard, on the helmeted head of the rider who’d just swung at her-
Her ride bucked under her feet, sending Charlotte flying into the darkness above the streetlights-
Wee, Charlotte thought, in free fall, along with the shape plummeting from the sky-
Which was a shark. A flying shark? Where had she heard that before?-
Charlotte landed, the impact gentled by her legs. The flying shark, probably dead from Scout’s bullets, was not so lucky, splatting solidly, with the tang of the sea like a seafood restaurant everywhere-
Scout was still on the ground, still looking up in the sky, his pistols out, but unfired. Charlotte looked up. At the top of its arc, she could see, just for a second, the rider of the still-living shark, with his or her companion draped over the front. Then they vanished into a hole in the sky and were gone.
“Were those guys blue?” Scout asked.
“Yeah,” Charlotte said, finally remembering. “Rafaella’s blue, under her image inducer. And her uncle is a pirate king who raids the dimension. An air pirate king. With shock troops who ride flying sharks.”
“If that don’t beat it all,” Scout said.
“They’ve shown up a few times in the past. They attacked Philadelphia a year ago, and I can’t remember the details, but one of the old Marvel writers used them as villains in an issue of Ka-Zar,” Charlotte explained.
“And they’re mixed up in this how?”
Charlotte shrugged. “I don’t know. They’re blue, so that could be something. Or they could just be looking for Rafaella.”
“Well, Scout said, “They ain’t going to ruin this night for us, Miss Wong.” He held something out.
It was the blindfold from Denny’s. Charlotte could feel herself flush as she put it over her eyes.
But this time, no-one interrupted the roadside kiss until the crunching of a car tire behind let them now that Charlotte’s ride had arrived.