Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Book 5, 43: The Scary Tree

Remember long ago, when Mockingjay, Part One was released (Christmas, 2014, if ancient history isn't your strong suit), and its album included a suprise number recorded by Jennifer Lawrence?

"Across the board, the songs sound like threads of hope escaping gloomier pasts." For "Millennials," it was getting some serious traction by the end of April of 2015, and caught the spirit of much of the year to come. 

But, oh well, "Buy this magazine or we'll shoot this dog works, too."

Book 5, 43: The Scary Tree

On the wall, an Old West photograph, the kind where everybody was wearing hats and bandannas and crinolines and stuff (and they had to stand and pose and pose until they looked like they really needed to go to the bathroom. In it, them: dressed for the old west. (Charlotte was in a Qing dynasty brocaded gown, fabulous fabric. She would have loved the look, but it was shaped approximately like a tangerine, and the boots sticking out underneath were clearly chosen by the Random Terrible Looks Table in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.) 

So, no change for Scout, standing there right next to a kid probably only Charlotte would recognise as Bruce in his Johnny-Depp-as-Tonto war paint. Sure, if Bruce actually was Scout in disguise, and he was using his holographic projector to look like he was in two places at once, then maybe the old-time camera would take pictures of them both. Maybe. But from the look in his eyes, Scout didn’t think so. Pause beat. Pause. Beat. Charlotte touched Scout on the shoulder, looked into his eyes. “I didn’t even know you knew Goblin Boy.” Bruce was lobbying to be allowed to use “Kobold,” but he had a cousin and his sister in line for the family sidekick name ahead of him.

“Ah. . .” Scout stammered. He actually stammered. Charlotte couldn’t help herself. She leaned in closer. He leaned in closer. It wasn’t the time but she couldn’t. . 

“Hey, lovebirds!” Dora hissed. “Hot pursuit here.”

Charlotte turned to glare at her friend, because she was totally coming, only to catch a load of Dora’s backside going up the stairs that led up from this musty old landing into –wherever. “Come on,” she said to Scout, and blushed from top to bottom under her Tatammy costume fatigues in embarrassment, because she really needed to say it to herself. 

At the top, they went through another fire exit door, and into another, bigger, chamber. 

A very familiar chamber, with a spaceship looming at the far end (Charlotte nervously waved at Rosa, and a green light winked back across the dim hall), and walls leading up into the darkness, and maybe the walkway halfway up that they were usually on. Because, this time, they were down on the floor of the Liberty League’s old Trophy Hall, right in among the exhibits, just over from the replica(?) Stonehenge and next to the gray, old skeleton of the tree that was for some reason a memento of one of the Liberty League’s greatest battles of the Fifties, Sixties or Seventies. 

At some point, Charlotte thought, she really had to read the plaque. 

Ahead of them, crouched in the branches being one with the night (afternoon, actually, but the dimmers were on), was Bruce, with Brian. As she watched, Brian materialised underneath the tree. It must be cool, Charlotte thought for the millionth time, to be able to teleport. She hurried up to join the conversation.

“Hey, guys,” Bruce said when Charlotte, Dora, Twelve and Agent Ayre came up to them. “Rosa says she picked up a giant flying bat on her optical scanners. It flew up to this tree, and then disappeared.”

Charlotte looked up at Bruce, marvelling at the way the angle let her see almost straight up his butt and his pecs at the same time, the last almost like sights lining up on his jawline. Thing was, calves to hair, Bruce was just so freaking good looking. 

Also, his actual body was probably standing right next to her, which meant he was doing a pretty good job of pitching his voice. “Anyone tell you that you’ve got good projection?” Charlotte asked, and blushed with embarrassment all over again that the words had come out of her mouth. Fortunately, no-one seemed to notice. Not even Scout(/Bruce?) beside her.

Her friends probably did get what she was driving at, because quiet set in around the tree. Charlotte was dying to ask Dora and Rose exactly what they thought Bruce was playing at by now, but she couldn’t exactly do it right now. 

She should probably ask Bruce, too, even if he wasn’t talking about it. Problem was, whatever he thought he was playing (you know, if), what if confronting him pushed him away? Just the thought made her heart break. So, yeah. Charlotte wasn’t going to push. That’s what she’d decided. So why was she needling him? Hey, stupidhead, she thought at herself, why are you being so dumb?

Her friends were looking at her, like she’d said that out loud. Charlotte checked her memories of the last second. No, pretty sure she’d managed to only call herself names in her head, which meant only Brian could hear. So that wasn’t it. Why were they –oh, right. The case. Her friends were looking at her like she was their leader or something. 

“Brian?” Charlotte asked. It wasn’t much of a clue that they’d dropped Eldritch the wizard off at the Tree-Science-Word-She-Forgot-Exactly-What Department at the Library of Babylon that day, but it was the clue they had that maybe this tree thing was about magic somehow. 

Brian stepped up to the tree and waved his hands in a circle, wiggling his fingers. “So. It’s like I suspected. The tree’s attached to a dimensional gate.”

To where?” Charlotte asked.

“Originally? Not a clue. It’s been kidproofed. All destinations are wiped, so you can’t go through it to home base, can’t even phone home. Also, it’s got no potential buffer, which means that you can’t just fall through it. Someone’s got to push, and unless the pusher supplies it, there’s no vector up or down on the Assiatic plane. Means there’s only one place you can go.”

“’Potential buffer’?” Dora asked. “When did magic turn into Star Trek? Are you sure it’s not, like, the Scurvy Scallion of Sockamatwome?”

Brian did a face palm. “Look, I do two hours extra homework a night with Ms. Grey to get this stuff straight. Did anyone volunteer to help me study? No, they did not. Those people who did not volunteer? They do not have valid opinions about what is or is not valid Super-Mage jargon.”

“Vale, in the Old World,” Bruce said, from above.

“What?” Dora asked.

“Before you whimsically interrupted, Brian was telling us where you can take the gate,” Rose explained. “No vector up or down and no destination means you just skit across the Assiatic until you end up at the collecting point, which is the gate in Vale. If you just open a gate on this planet and shove through, you end up at Vale. That’s why all the hippies end up there. Right, Brian?”

“Exactly,” Brian said. “Best you can do is fiddle with the rotation and gravity constants and end up, say, a thousand feet in the air over the central square of Vale, say, instead of right down in it.”

“Can you put us through it, say, five miles from the gate, so we don’t run into the Vale Cheer Squad again?” Charlotte asked. She mimed doing a pom-pom move and wondered if Madison was going to try out for cheer, next. On the one hand, another set of rules to follow would make her explode. On the other, the thought of Madison having an excuse to wear a cheerleader outfit around school made Charlotte super jealous.

“Sure,” Bruce said. “Got the spell off Emily. Had no idea what I was going to do about the material components, but I don’t need them here, so we’re golden. But. . . . “ He trailed off.

“Yes?” Charlotte said.

“No potential buffer. Spell’s balanced for six, and I have to stay on this side and push you through. So we need five people, not including me, and I have to tack down Emily or Eldritch and hitch a ride to join you guys later.”

“And Ah have to stay on Earth,” Scout said. “Things to do.”

Of course you do, Charlotte thought. Of course you do. Nothing to do with the fact that you were just a holographic projection of Bruce. Or that Bruce was a holographic projection of you. Whichever. Probably number two, this time around. 

“So we need to recruit someone to make up the number,” Charlotte said. “I can see if one of my cousins is available.” That’d be fun. Especially if it were Jason, who was funny. Though it’d be nice to have May watching Bruce and maybe getting into his head. Or Amy, come to think of it, who could actually get in his head. Except that she was too square to tell anyone. Hah, Charlotte thought, funny! Her thinking that someone else was a square. 

Then she thrust the family fantasies away. They were still in hot pursuit. The bat, somehow, had gotten through, presumably to Vale, doing that mission for whoever it was had stolen Auralia in the first place. They couldn’t waste any more time.

Charlotte looked around, and her eyes landed on Agent Ayre. He looked back at her. “So,” he said. “Do I qualify?” 

“Brian?” Charlotte asked.

“Oh, sure. Spell already covers a half-elf or two, an Empyrean, a person from the future. It’s not going to have any trouble with a PRIMUS agent.” Which was another angle on the important question, Charlotte realised. Scout was always implying that he was half-elven. Was there something about Bruce she didn’t know? A dark knight detective, being mysterious? Get out of town! 

Oh, oh, and trying not to get too distracted, Charlotte looked at Agent Ayre again. “Except that you’re not really dressed for Vale.”

“There’s all those VIPER uniforms downstairs,” Agent Ayre said. “I think I saw some para-agent outfits. Perfect for cold weather and thin atmosphere. Be back in a jiff!” He turned, and was just leaving when Dora’s phone buzzed.

Dora pulled it out and look at it as Agent Ayre went through the door in the wall. “It’s my Dad texting,” she said. “He needs to learn to trust autocorrect.”

“Instead of critiquing,” Rose gently suggested.

“Oh, yeah. The Liberty League’s switchboard just called him to ask if we were with Agent Ayre and whether he was okay. The Scarlet Archer is worried. I wonder if she likes older men. I mean, likes likes.”

“Juicy,” Charlotte said. Which it was. Although the Scarlet Archer was pretty ancient, too. Thirty-five, maybe? So maybe a twelve-year age gap between her and Agent Ayre? “Can you tell him to tell the League to tell the Scarlet Archer that he’s with us, and he’s fine, and no need to mention we’re taking him to an alternate prime material plane, kthanxbai?”

“Okeley-dokeley,” Dora answered, and thumbed quickly. 

“Glad that’s sorted out,” Scout said. “Now, Ah gotta go. See y’all soon. Miss Wong?”

And then, right there, honest to Heaven, in front of everyone, Scout wrapped his arms around her, drew her close, slipped his mask up, and kissed her goodbye, full on the lips, while Charlotte focussed on remembering every second of it, and, every detail of the scene, and the feeling of him and his smell, and not the fact that he was careful not to let her see his strong and gentle mouth.

And then, like every romantic heroine of every romantic novel she’d ever read, Charlotte sagged and said, “Ah, uhm, see you later, I, uhm.” He waved over his shoulder, strong and silent, as his lariat settled over a stanchion on the walkway above, and then he disappeared up his rope and through a door into some other part of the underground complex that he knew suspiciously well. While Charlotte gaped after him like some kind of moron.

A moment ago, she’d been imagining her friends watching her be kissed, by her boyfriend, in public. And now they were watching her be an idiot. Figured. 

“You good to go, Char-Char?” Dora asked, sounding almost, you know, sympathetic and stuff. Like Pod Person Dora probably sounded all the time.

“Yes, yes,” she said, impatient now to be on with the mission. “Hope Agent Ayre doesn’t spend too much time coordinating his outfit.”

No worry about that, because in a moment he was back, wearing a full-body VIPER outfit, only with a predominantly blue motif instead of green, and with a filter mask over his head and tanks on his back. (That were probably, if Charlotte remembered Mr. Brown’s shop classes correctly, something a bit more complicated.) The fashion stylings remained readier to fight Sean Connery as James Bond than White Martians in 2013, but Charlotte wasn’t sure she was ready to see a 45-year-old-man in a body harness, either.

Even if Agent Ayre was kind of buff.

“Everybody ready?” She asked. “Okay, Elf Boy, get out and push.”

And, bang, just like that, they were in Vale. Either the ride was getting smoother, or Charlotte was getting more used to it.

The one thing she wasn’t used to, was the Old World. They were, as requested, five miles from Vale. The ancient city was perched on a little lip of land between the chasm stretching down to the dry ocean basin, and the mountains that rimmed the dead sea. So Charlotte guessed that it made sense that they were in the hills. The skies were the dim, deep, purple-blue of high mountain air seen through thin atmosphere, and even though the noon Sun burned down, the Moon was visible in the sky opposite, bigger than it had any right to be. Around them on all sides, mountains stretched even higher into the gasping heights. There was no sign of either the Valeite welcoming committee, or whatever ambush Professor Paradigm might have laid in for them this time.

“So now what?” Bruce asked.

“I was hoping to have Brian, and some kind of spell so we could trace the bat by its magic collar, but even without him, we can still cover a lot of ground,” Charlotte answered. As she did, she looked around for her horse. The advantage with having a planes-travelling spirit-guide horse for a horse was, it was always turning up in places where you could never get a horse trailer. The disadvantage was that never you could never count on him showing up unless you actually put him in the horse trailer. She was hopeful, though. They might have a chance to see the country around Vale this time, and who wasn’t down for that?

Then she heard, first, a horse’s soft nicker, and, then, a suspiciously familiar snickting sound as many metallic blades were freed from very tight sheathes. 

Around them, on one side, were Telus the Occasionally-Obnoxious-Wonder-Stallion, and, rising from concealment, with brown-dirty-mountain-coloured shag fur covering muscles that splayed and bunched around sharp claws with a metallic sheen, were a whole heckuva lot of Old World beasties.

“I think we’ve maybe been ambushed,” Bruce said.

Poo, Charlotte thought. Maybe she should have asked for six miles?

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