Sunday, September 4, 2016

Book 5, Chapter 38: Sidekick to a Spirit Quest

Sometimes, we're the hero in our own story, and sometimes we have to be the sidekicks in someone else's. Doesn't mean you can't use the dress again, later!

A wedding is about the bride, so no matter what the bridesmaid's dress looks like, you just nod and smile. But not when she tells you that "You'll be able to wear it again for something else." If you want to make that joke, you need to, I don't know, go to the basement of the CIA headquarters to make it.

Or post the pictures on the Internet.

Book 5, Chapter 38: Sidekick to a Spirit Quest

“Man, oh sassafrass,” said Brian. “Overconfident or what?”

“What?” Twelve clarified, helpfully. 

“Yosemite Sam says it!” Brian answered. 

Twelve shook his head. “No. No, he does not. Also, who is overconfident, and about what? ‘Cuz you better not be suggesting that Li Chun was overconfident when he travelled into the Martian spirit realm through this altar, and that we’re just going to walk through it and kick him out.”

“Elementary with a sonic screwdriver!” Brian answered. 

Now it was Charlotte’s turn to look at Brian, on account of just having got into Dr. Who this very week after resisting Bruce’s suggestions about a billion times. She knew what a sonic screwdriver was now. Well, more or less she did. No, actually, she didn’t, except the Doctor was always using one. Anyway, point was, it had nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes. “You’re giddy, Brian,” she pointed out. 

“Okay, yeah, I’m giddy, but bear with me. I’ve got good reason. Ms. Grey’s been saying that I was due for my spirit quest any time now, and you don’t get much more spirit quest-y than this. Look: Li Chun is dangerous as crap. He was taking us all apart before he decided that it wasn’t mission critical and jumped through the altar. But he’s just a demon from the Yama realms riding around in a monk. He’s not a real wushu practitioner, he’s just got demon magic backing him up. Well, he’s not a monstrous tough demon in the dream realms, just another wandering soul. And what does he know from Mars? Nothing! We may not know much, but, not much makes us the biggest Mars experts around!”

Brian paused, look around. “I know, I know, you’re going to say that maybe Li Chun has had an awesome briefing from Yin Wu. But would they have bothered with all this nonsense of attacking us if they knew anything about the Martian dream realms? Look, I’m a freaking sorcerer. Exorcising demons is my job description! If he can’t snap my neck with his excellent kung fu, that is. Which advantage he’s just given right up on! So, yeah, totally I’m going to go through that altar. And I am going to kick his ass.”

“It’s tots nice you’re so pumped, Bri,” Dora answered. “Fake it till you make it and all that.” Pretending to ignore the filthy look Brian gave her back, Dora continued. “But don’t you need a spirit guide for a quest like that?

And darned if Ginger didn’t actually perk up, flutter her wings, tilt her head the way she thought was so cute, and quork. “Shh,” Charlotte whispered. “You’re not helping.”

Ginger quorked louder. 

“Say, could I borrow your spirit guide, Char-Char? I promise to have it back before curfew and gas it up, even.”

The environment helmet on Ginger’s head disappeared and was replaced by an Indian headdress. Charlotte glared at her crow. “That’s unhelpful in approximately a million ways.”

The headdress disappeared. There was a pause, as though Ginger was thinking about scouts and guides and stuff like that, and then a tiny little Girl Guide bonnet appeared. Charlotte was not going to admit it right now, but it was super-cute, actually. 

“Hunh,” Brian said. “If Ginger’s gone Girl Guide, does that mean there’s cookies around?”

Across from her, Bruce rolled his eyes at the thought the idea of Ginger having a box of Girl Guide cookies and not being head in it, chowing down until she exploded, and Charlotte just couldn’t help flashing him a grin back even though she’d had a lecture from May about how she shouldn’t a million times. It’s just going to encourage him, her cousin would say. 

Yeah. Well. Something something I know you are but what am I, Charlotte thought back at Imaginary May. Then she shook her head at Brian. “No cookies. But she is ready to be your spirit guide, so I guess that’s one vote in favour.”

“Actually,” Deloss the Wanderer said, speaking at last, “It’s probably the only vote. We Empyreans haven’t much to do with magic, but I’ve been around the block enough times to know that when a spirit calls you on a quest, you go. Even if the spirit is a plump little crow with a terrible sense of humour.” 

Bruce clapped Brian on the shoulder. “It’s your show, man. Good luck!”

“Actually,” Charlotte said, “Could I tag along? I mean, Ginger is my crow, and, no offense, Brian, but you could use a body guard just in case you can dream kickass kung fu moves in the Marian dream dimensions.” More importantly, Charlotte wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to see the Marian dreamscape if she could. Even if meant people calling her that stupid, “Tagalong” nickname again. 

Bruce opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but something in Charlotte’s face shut him down. Good. 

Brian nodded. “Sure, why not?” He put his hand out and touched Charlotte’s shoulder, and . . . They were somewhere else. Somewhere red and rusty, with a sky the colour of the skin of a Pink Lady apple, with dark, low bushes straggling along the line of something –a canal? Seriously? Because that’s what it looked like—and, framed against the sky where pinkish red washed out to a kind of lemon or autumn-leaf yellow, impossibly tall, straight towers loomed in front of a hill, where, in spite of being impossibly far away, Charlotte could see Lin Chu the Destroyer. Because dreamscape, probably. Also, it reminded her of the Old World a lot. But that was how they already figured it, so no big revelation there.

“Wow!” Brian said. “Smell that, Char-Char? Isn’t it incredible?”

Charlotte sniffed. It smelled seriously cold, with overtones of weird vegetation and lots of chemicals like this was some kind of radiation-bleached hellhole. Or the municipal swimming pool after Kid’s Day. Whichever. Probably both, actually. “Smells like Mars?” She asked, knowing as she said it that she was blowing the pop quiz. 

“Old is in the air! Like we’ve gone three billion years upwind, where everything that once was, is!”

“That’s a strangely specific analogy,” Charlotte answered, “On account of the Martians living three billion years ago. It also doesn’t help me figure out what I’m supposed to be smelling. Or doing. You notice where Li Chun is? We’re not going to get there and back in time, you know.”

And then she felt herself being lifted from the ground and flung forward across the lemon sky at impossible speeds. “This is the Dream Dimension!” Brian said. “Your powers, tools and weapons are limited only by your imagination!” 

Beside her, strangely gigantic, and with stars shining through her soot-black feathers, Ginger flied, cawing triumphantly. 

Hunh, Charlotte thought. For a moment she thought about imagining that her horse was with her, but some instinct stayed her, like this wasn’t Telus’ time. Then she thought about being able to fly, or turn on fire, or make a giant, green, glowing gatling gun that shot bullets of green energy. No, wait, hold on, try baby steps. It might be stupid and look dumb, but being able to stretch was an absolutely awesome power for a weaponmaster kung fu artist. 

Sure enough, by the time they’d reached the faraway hill, Charlotte had figured out how to stretch her sword arm almost twenty feet. Mean time, Brian had decked himself out in master-of-the-mystic-arts looking robes, was riding a giant, transparent flying horse, and was conjuring some kind of weird effect of iridescent blue-nestled-three-dimensional-discs or something that looked like it belonged in an old time Dr. Strange comic book. 

Charlotte sighed to herself, reminded of how lame being a sidekick could be. And then she was dumped on the ground. “Okay, body guard, fight now!”

Meanwhile, Li Chun grew until he filled half the sky, all the way to the tiny, hurtling moons that her science teacher said you actually couldn’t see from Mars. 

Brian answered that with an honest-to-gosh prismatic spray that rocked the dream scape like they were on a page and the wind had just picked it up. Then he soared into the Martian stratosphere, Ginger flying behind him.

Traitor, Charlotte thought. Right. Sidekick. “Uhm, anyone to fight around here?”

As if from nowhere, Li Chun appeared. Yes! Or no, as the case might be. Charlotte extended her sword arm, going for the straight impale. 

At the last second, Li Chun stepped aside. Fortunately, Uncle Henry like that move (because sometimes they sparred when his back was acting up), and she was ready with a low, Leaping Tiger sweep. 

Li Chun hopped, not athletically, but just enough to avoid her. He even held his robes in one hand as he did so, exactly like before.

Or, wait. Not exactly like before. Instead of being smooth (if hairy) and suffused with blue, the skin of his hands was parchment-coloured, thin with age and work. 

Hunh. And when she looked at his face, the demon mask somehow floated over another one, a strange mix of youth and age, mostly in the laugh lines that crinkled his eyes.

Demons, Charlotte thought, do not have laugh wrinkles. “Master Li?” She asked, in her best Mandarin. 

Master Li, the ancient Daoist monk, bowed slightly to her in reply, and Charlotte bowed back, making heshi as she did so. 

Master Li turned and looked up at the sky, where Brian was throwing a dozen pastel spells at once at Li Chun the Destroyer, and the horizons had somehow gone sideways. “Your young friend seems to be enjoying himself. It is a pity that he cannot actually hurt Li Chun here.”

Charlotte shrugged. “He’s on some kind of spirit quest. Seek enlightenment, get cool new feats, grow, build character, all that.”

“And you are jealous?”

“Of course I’m jealous! It’s like being bridesmaid at someone else’s awesome wedding.”

“On another occasion, I might tell you about how one can only follow the Way by adopting right thought and letting it lead you, though it may seem only to double back. Yet while there are times for such things, this is not it. This is more the time for gossiping and catching up.”

“Do monks do that?”

“Ideally not. But who ever lives up to their ideals?”

“You must have a lot to talk about, what with having been cooped up in a cave fighting a demon since the Ming dynasty,” Charlotte offered. Maybe she hadn’t been on top of her briefing the first time she’d fought Li Chun, but she’d read everything the Tiger Squad knew about him, since.

“Actually, I’ve had a number of chats with Yin Wu since that dreadful creature was born into our modern world. He has assured me that he will be using the Destroyer only to guard this gate against elder horrors for a while, and while he is here, he is not troubling the mortal realms. So instead of wise words of the Way and of the heart, doled out by twos and by tens, it seems that I am free to hear a pretty young lady tell me about her adventures.”

Something about that was suspicious, and not just that he was pretending that Charlotte was pretty in her current, horrid state. ON the other hand, she’d spent a lot of time in the bathroom trying to fix what was wrong, and it was nice that he’d noticed. “Thank you, Reverend Master. Forgive my impoliteness, though, but I do not think that you arranged this conversation so that you could gossip.”

Master Li raised his eyebrows. “Arranged? You give me too much credit. I only wanted to discuss the strange circumstance of Yin Wu, of all people, involving himself in the Martian dreamscape. It seems so out of character, and you live in a household which has had much, and intimate dealings with the Devil Mandarin.” 

“Yes, sir,” Charlotte said, because, quite frankly, she had no idea how to keep up a conversation with an ancient Daoist master. “As far as we know, he’s seeking powerful magic to restore the world to the time of the Tang dynasty. I don’t think there’s a single supervillain on Earth, with the possible exception of the King of Ivory, who cares less about the space programme and, and,” she struggled for a word, before settling, like she would anyway, but more self-consciously, on ‘stuff.’ “The space programme and stuff.”

“He is very mystically inclined. One wonders, too, about the involvement of an Empyrean, prince of science and of reason. And the lover of Eidolon the Dreamer, amongst all the dwellers in the City of Silence.”

“That’s because Deloss and Eidolon discovered the incursion from the Marian dream realms in the first place. That’s not a coincidence at all.”

“No. It is not. But, Miss Wong, it turns out that Eidolon had to sacrifice himself to close this gate, and restrain the ancient, Martian horror beyond. Someone might be inclined to wonder to whose advantage that redounded.”

Reminded that Li Chun was not by any means the only threat in this dreamscape, Charlotte couldn’t help scanning the dream-horizon. But, though stretched and lemon-coloured and undergoing one queer CGI effect after another as the battle above raged, it was otherwise normal. 

“Do not alarm yourself. On this occasion, the dreamscape serves only to host visitors from the blue planet, Mars’ younger sister, still in its swaddling clothes. Speaking of which, I have heard, from whose lips we shall not say, that you have visited an alternate dimension where the Martians tried to colonise Earth.”

Charlotte nodded. That was certainly the theory about the Old World. “Yes, it’s very strange. Martians don’t like Earth. It doesn’t have enough background radiation for them. Otherwise, all the timelines would have Martians on Earth. They were first by billions of years, after all!”

“I was not aware that it was this ‘radiation’ that made Earth so undesirable to the ancient ones of Mars, but I do urge you to investigate exactly the circumstances that made the Old World different.”

“Is that you talking, or Yin Wu?” Charlotte asked. 

Master Li quirked his mouth enigmatically. “Why can’t it be both?”

Because I trust you, Master, but Yin Wu? I do not trust that . . . villain.” That sounded intensely stupid coming out of Charlotte’s mouth, but it was better than her first impulse, to say ‘dude.’

Master Li held his index finger over his mouth in a shushing gesture, and gave Charlotte his saddest, wisest smile yet. 

The ground folded neatly aside, and Brian stepped out of it. Now he was wearing one of those old Greek or Roman robe-type thingies, of shining white linen, except low on one side, where there was the dried crust of a blood stain. He had a wreath of leaves in his hair and only one sandal, and he was holding a bulging leather sack in one hand. “Charlotte? Why haven’t you left? It’s been days!”

“Or minutes, dude,” Charlotte replied. “Dreamscape, remember?”

“Oh, right. Oh. I guess we can make it in time for class after all, then. Uhm, look, I’ll be with you in a sec, just as soon as I bogart this.” He held up the sack, tipped it in his mouth, and began to drink.

And drink, and drink. His face bulged and turned red. Presumably, there would be consequences if he didn’t finish it, but since Charlotte hadn’t clue number one what they might be, she finally turned, uncomfortable, back to Master Li. “So that’s all the mysterious clues and guidance I get?”

Master Li stood, stock straight, but if you could nod with your eyes without moving them, that’s what he did. Ginger settled on Charlotte’s shoulder, and she bowed and made heshi again, and Master Li responded with his own bow, deep and sincere. “Thank you, Reverend Master,” Charlotte said. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. Now we really need to get back to school.”

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