Book 5, 31: That Agent Elrond Moment When
Charlotte was still putting herself together, there on the golden transparent floor of the gold cube that hung in the midst of the Big Bang, or possibly Big Crunch, when Jaime Neilsen suddenly appeared.
Well, not suddenly: a golden door appeared in nothing, and Jaime stepped through it. No sign of Booker or Cousin May or the others, though. She was wearing her costume, but with her cowl down, like a movie superhero, and her big trenchcoat, which was cool, because Jaime was all about the guns, and her big old automatics were in her hands, and dripping the golden light of the needfire.
Jaime looked around, obvs having her problems with what she saw. “Hey, ‘cuz. Hey, DDT! What’s Char-Char doing here?” Jaime stopped, collected herself. “Er, I have the watch,” she said.
“You have the watch, Jaime,” Dora answered. “I don’t know why Charlotte’s here. I’ll ask Big Magic when I see it, and I’ll let you know what I find out. If I find out. By the way, careful. We just got a strike from a real kickass Raven. There might be another one along soon.”
“I doubt it,” DDT interrupted. “Charlotte’s timeline is tied up in some amazing knots, and any Raven that looked at it would have trouble staying away from all that delicious inverted entropy.”
“So you think,” Dora said, “That Charlotte attracted the trouble? Because let me be the first to, right here, right now, volunteer to never, ever bring my BFF back here.”
Charlotte dabbed her eyes. “I have done a lot of time travelling.” And done some awful on her trips, too. She was not, she reflected, doing a very good job of not thinking about it.
“I think,” DDT said, “That not bringing Charlotte back here is an excellent plan. It’s bad enough that the needfire asks this of your family, Dora, Jaime. It has all the time and space of a very large universe to find its volunteers from. It doesn’t really need to be dragging in your friend.”
“Speaking of,” Jaime said, “There’s your gate, Dora.” And, sure enough, a gold, square, doorlike space was shimmering in the emptiness, outlining a single small square of the surroundings that was not filled with exploding stars and plumes of burning gas.
“Wait, before I go,” Charlotte said, “Can I ask one thing?”
DDT did something that might qualify as a nod. Or a dance step. Or like an Olympics rhythmic gymnastics routine triple back-flip one-foot-landing-with-catching-things. It was hard to read the body language of something that looked like a bunch of glowing, spinning skip ropes.
Anyway, Charlotte was going to take it as a nod. “Does the Pale Cathedral have anything to do with the King of-- With Takofanes?”
Here, at least, reality seemed to be able to hear the lich-king’s name without reacting, in a very disturbing way, like a fangirl.
“Yes,” DDT said. “I see that’s not enough, but there is a limit to what I can tell. It will have to be enough to observe that it inspired him.”
“Come on,” Dora said, taking Charlotte by the wrist and pulling her towards the door.
“Hey, what’s the rush?” Charlotte asked, but there was no answer as they passed through the door, and stood in the middle of the big, underground-parking-lot-with-slightly-nicer-décor that the Hobgoblin had built to store his vehicles.
This was where Charlotte had just fought Eve’s summoned army of Pleistocene mammals, and it showed. There was blood on the concrete here and there, some of it smeared by bits of the motorcycles that were themselves smeared, or whatever the word was for battered and shattered metal, on the floor.
Dora looked around. “It was like this when I got here.” Then she let go of Charlotte’s wrist. “Oh. Sorry, Char-Char. I wasn’t sure that was going to work.”
“Meaning?” Charlotte asked.
“I can’t teleport, remember? I was hoping the gate would work on you, but, you know?”
“I, uhm, I,” Charlotte started. Then she stopped, and tried to think about what she was thinking about. “You know, this all started when we crossed into Goblin’s Deep and passed through some kind of elven wards.”
“Which,” Dora said, “Weird.” Charlotte looked at her friend, waited a moment for an explanation.
Charlotte cocked an I’m-not-sure-that’s-true, sideways-head look at her friend. “You’re not on the Goblin Deep need-to-know list?”
Dora shook her head. ‘Just because I’m in one set of frankly disgusting secrets doesn’t mean that I’m in on all the other ones. It’s like, I share your frustrations? My sister is all, like, ‘You’ll understand when you’re older.’ And I’m, like, ‘How about I bust your chops right now.’ Sisters.”
“I know, right? My Cousin Emily was actually in a hospital in the Goblin Deep up at State College. Like, there’s a doctor down there? But. . .”
“If Elven magic was involved in us getting to the other side of time and space, it probably took account of getting you back? That’s what I was hoping, anyway,” Dora answered.
“Ahem.” The unexpected voice shook Charlotte to her runners. The Pearl Harmony Sword appeared in her hand as she turned in a fighting crouch to continue the battle that Eve had started. But it was only Mr. Brown.
“You’re a little jumpy this afternoon, Miss Wong,” he said.
“I’ve been jumped three times and emotionally ambushed since breakfast,” Charlotte answered, looking down at her sword. Mr. Brown hadn’t exactly been hiding, but, somehow, his standard outfit of leather-lined jean jacket, jeans and boots had a way of blending into the tiled wall and smashed machinery in the corner.
“Fair enough. However, the two of you should really not be down here.”
“We didn’t,” Dora answered, “Exactly walk in here. So, sorry about your precious secrets and stuff.”
“They are not my secrets. They belonged to Dr. McNeely. I am only their custodian.”
And just like that, Charlotte realised that Mr. Brown was trying too hard. That this whole thing just did not make sense. “You were Dr. McNeely’s gardener when he started fighting crime back in the 30s, right, Mr. Brown?” As she said it, Charlotte realise that she was getting sleepy.
Well. It didn’t take the faint sound of a crow call somewhere down in the bottom of her head for Charlotte to call shenanigans. It was Mr. Brown’s turn to get a bit of a head-cocking, just to let him know he’d been rumbled. No stupid making-my-brain-stupid magic from you, dude. Or science. Psionics. Dimensions-stuff. Whatever. Point was, she thought, for just a flicker of a second, I’ve already had enough of that.
Mr. Brown nodded a bit, and the sleepy feeling went away. “Yes, yes, I was. I am older than I look.”
“A lot older,” Dora said. She paused to count on her hands. “You must be over 90! There’s no way. . .”
“And there’s no way that no-one ever just happened to realise this before, either,” Charlotte finished. “You have relatives who also work for the McNeelies. A bunch of Browns, all down from some little town outside Pittsburgh. How many of them are there, just how closely are they related to you, and is there anything the State Tourist Board might like to know about your town? You know, like it’s a city of treehouses where people hang out with wolves, or something?”
Mr. Brown nodded. “Good one. The Pinis are good people, and they did borrow some of the basic inspiration of Elfquest. . . “
Charlotte gave Mr. Brown a look. A look that said this was not the time for an old person to do the “Back in my day,” thing, because Charlotte was old enough to tell when that line was leg-pulling, or, in this case, delaying.
He started again. “We came over to the New World 73,000 years ago. The Lord of the Graven Spear was making trouble on far Ambrethel, and we wanted something a little quieter. Elves, we thought, were better off without Men around. We did not, I think, understand ourselves so well as we thought we did. Had we talked to the Ur-Elves, or had they bothered to talk with us, perhaps we would not have entertained such illusions; but that is all gone, like the passing of the night.”
“So, what?” Dora asked. “You merged with wolves, and stuff? ‘Cuz my brother says that part’s just weird, and I’ll think differently about it when I’m older.”
“No wolves,” Mr. Brown said. “That part’s all on the Pinis. And a little romantic, too. We did not become more than we were, not by any stretch of the imagination.”
He paused. “By the time Men came to find us, after the last Ice Age, the floods of too many springs had washed us out and buried us in the clay, jumbling until you could no longer tell us apart. Until we could barely tell each other apart. And there were not, for so very long, enough Men around to do more than remind us of what we had lost. It took the McNeelies to give us purpose again, to remind us of what High Elves might be. There are strict limits to what we could do to help the Hobgoblin in his battle with evil, but even keeping to those limits, we were thrilled and transformed by the struggle.”
“So let me get this straight. The guy who teaches us science and technology is an ancient elf,” Charlotte summarised.
“There are many more things in this world, Miss Wong. . .”
“I said science. Not English.” Charlotte hated people who quoted bits of Shakespeare.
“You are much cheekier than usual, Miss Wong.”
“Ambushes, ambushes, ambushes, old people keeping secrets,” she explained. “At least the talking plasma torpedo I just met at the Big Bang isn’t one of my teachers.”
“What’s a plasma torpedo?” Dora asked.
“What the Romulans shoot. They’re pretty scary.”
“I thought that was phasers?”
“I see that we are going to have a long conversation about why Spock rocks at a later date,” Charlotte answered.
“Ahem. Girls?” Mr. Brown had that teacher’s trick, of adjusting the way he was standing just so, so that you looked at him again. “It is true that I have not been upfront with you about my origins and that of my family. In my defence, it is a pretty minor secret.”
Charlotte looked at her teacher, sure that she was missing something. Oh, well. It would come to her. “So I’m hearing that we’re not getting the grand tour of Goblin Deep.”
“No, you are not. You are going back to your friends, who are very worried about you. Now, if you will follow me?” A door appeared in the wall behind Mr. Brown, where no door had been obvious before. Charlotte was getting very, very tired of that particular design feature.
At least it didn’t lead magically to where they were going, but into a rock tunnel, squared off at the edges, with a raised and carpeted walkway for everyone’s convenience. And then to a flight of spiral metal stairs set into the rock, and up a level, and then down another rock corridor, and then through a door.
Finally, they were in a very ordinary, receptionist-style room, complete with a bank of four desks behind a counter, and doors leading off on both wing, like the one they’d come through, and big doors at front and back. Charlotte tried to imagine the old days. Presumably there would have been four Browns behind the desks, providing administrative backend for the Hobgoblin’s untiring war on crime? It was a little hard to imagine.
Also, most offices don’t have firehall poles coming down through the ceiling. Or two firehall poles. Charlotte eyed them. “Seriously?”
“Not seriously,” Mr. Brown answered. “They’re a joke. I mean, they do lead to a secret room behind a bookcase upstairs, but the Hobgoblin put them after the TV show caught on.”
Dora started swivelling in place. “Bah-da-bah-dah-bah Batman!” Charlotte stepped back, turned around, tried to do the Batusi to the lyrics in Dora’s head until her friend collapsed in laughter.
Mr. Brown, who had been amazingly patient through it, finally continued. “Instead of trying to climb the poles, I think we will use the door, instead. It’s what it’s for.”
He opened the door, and there were Rose, Twelve, Brian and Bruce, waiting, in a room that looked like another half-finished storage area, but this one for jarred preserves instead of old magazines.
Mr. Brown gestured, and the two girls stepped through into the dimly lit concrete hole, with the ugly, unfinished wooden shelves with their loads of mason jars of murky fluids containing half-glimpsed shapes, a kind of home-canning ’R’lyeh.
It was weird and it was strange, and the strangest part of all was that after all that happened, what Charlotte wanted to see most was the obvious concern in Bruce’s face.