Charge of the Light Brigade
Knowing how bad traffic would be getting out to Salisbury, Mitch took route 133, across the river, and down into Newburyport. We jumped across the river again at the route 1 bridge, practically flying into Salisbury Beach Center. Rather than try to get through the massive line of cars trying to get onto the Res, we parked up at the Loop at Center and ran the half mile or so onto the Res beach from the public beach end. We must have looked a curious sight, zipping along in partial hockey gear, holding our lightsabers as we went. But at that moment, I didn't care.
We reached the Reservation beach and quickly made our way to the Black Rock Jetty parking lot, huffing and puffing like we'd run a marathon. It's not easy, slogging across sand, even if we stayed up by the well packed in stuff. By the time we got to the bathrooms, the sun was disappearing behind the western hills, casting the sky in a ruby glow that deepened through amethyst and into indigo on the east, out over the water.
We cautiously approached the bathroom, wary that this might be some elaborate trap set up with bait we could not honorably refuse. Yoseph hadn't any need to be kind to us that day. He did so as a choice. Returning to help him if he was indeed in trouble was a separate choice of ours, but one that we didn't hesitate to make. See, that's the thing about honor, especially if you feel it inside like I do. You make choices freely that bind you to other decisions later. But more than that, honor between friends is a form of love all its own.
Besides, if there were more kind souls like Yoseph out there, we'd be better off all around.
The Men's room door was locked. Which, it turned out wasn't as much of a problem as we'd thought. Now I'd like to tell you that Kenny showed off a bit and used another of his powers, enacting a cantrip called Portal Passage that let him just make an entrance through the door itself. I mean, I've seen him do it since, and it's kinda a cartoonish ability. He can literally just slip his fingers under a wall and lift it up like a curtain for us to step under, if he wanted to. It's a cool ability and it causes absolutely no property damage.
But, that's not what happened. Juan leaned forward and bit clean through the door handle, munching it like a stick of gum. I wont go into the tortured sounds that the brass handle made in his mouth, but let's just say, "That's not right!" With the lock mechanism tickling Juan's taste buds, it was a simple matter for Mitch to slide the drawbar aside and open the door. He reached around the entrance and flicked on the light and we all burst into the room, lightsabers going up into a defensive position.
Now, the bathroom was divided into three areas. A large place with sinks and counter-tops, mirrors on three sides, the toilet area, with a bank of urinals and five toilet stalls, and a shower area, with three cubicles fairly identical to the ones at the campgrounds. In the static, physical world, nothing seemed amiss. That is, until you looked about with fae sight. Kenny gasped in horror at the sight before us, and I had to admit that I felt my heart suddenly start knocking about on my skinny ribs again.
There was blood everywhere in the Dreaming. Literally liters of it splashed about. Marks of some horrific battle had been sprayed on the ceiling, the Formica covered wall panels, the sinks and the mirrors. If a normal mortal with any kind of supernatural senses at all was to come in this room, they'd run in terror. Most of the blood seemed to be coming out of the number three stall, where the mirror portal was.
"Kenny, follow behind me. Next Juan, then Mitch," I said, giving orders. "And keep your wits about you, this is not likely to be the worst of it." I don't know how I knew that, but some things, like I've said before, you know are a fact, some you feel are a fact, and others you just take on faith. One of those three musta been working through me then.
I stepped into the stall, Kenny close behind me. I hugged him to me once, briefly before we jumped through the mirror, his arms almost holding onto me with a desperate strength. Taking a bracing breath, I leapt through the mirror.
And, you know what, I was dead on balls right again. I leapt into the Victorian house's parlor room again, only the place was a shambles. Furniture that once was held in place by those eerie spider webs was now strewn about with the fury of a small tornado. Part of the wall was missing, apparently smashed inwards as there were planks of broken boards, plaster fragments and shattered glass everywhere underfoot. A trail of blood led through the parlor and into the main hallway of the house. I took a moment to get my bearings and survey the Umbrascape around me. None of the little spirits that had observed my healing were anywhere about. Whatever had come through this way must have scared them into hiding. I walked around, getting a sense of the place as Kenny stepped through the portal.
"Looks like a bomb went off," he commented as he came through, guarding my back. We waited until Juan and Mitch jumped through as well before moving to survey the rest of the house.
"Geeze, looks like Taz zipped through here looking fer rabbit tare tare," Juan said. Trust a Redcap to be a fan of the Tazmanian Devil! But there was a certain accuracy to that statement. Whatever had come through that wall had obviously done so in a ravenous state. And something somewhere, or more to the point, someone, had lost a lot of blood in that encounter. An awful lot of blood.
"Kenny and I'll search the house. You two check the grounds outside. Don't go far." Juan nodded and we tapped blades as he hopped through the gaping wound in the house. Kenny and Mitch exchanged a quick one armed hug and Mitch followed Juan, a very grim expression on his face. I tapped blades with Kenny, getting him to put on his brave smile, the one he shows just to tell me he's just as terrified as I am, that his heart is knocking about like a mad xylophonist as well. We moved through the rest of the house, trailing the pattern of blood into the dining room where the healing ritual had been performed.
Like with the parlor, the dining room was a shambles. The elaborate pewter and crystal chandelier was no longer suspended from the ceiling over the large oaken table, but embedded in the wall through what had once been a sideboard buffet counter. The table itself was smashed in two, with three deep, raking claw marks as evidence to how it went. In my mind I was beginning to realize what might have caused such devastation. Although how it had done so without leveling the house itself, I couldn't picture. Things weren't making any kind of sense at all. Where's Mystery Inc. when you need them, huh?
The blood trail in the dining room ended near a large, overturned, glass-faced dish cabinet and a similarly toppled piece of furniture that my Mom would probably call a hutch, both of these items done in old world styles, with a craftsmanship and attention to detail that you just don't see today. The way the two pieces lay against each other, I had the feeling that there might be something lying underneath. Possibly something huge and hairy and possibly bleeding.
"What d'ya think?" Kenny asked me. I nodded. We both stretched out our hands towards the cast over furniture, each choosing a separate piece, and hopscotched both away from the corner. A slightly mangled yet identifiable Yoseph lay there, gazing back at us with at first a sense of horror on his face, and then a smile. There was a large piece of claw stuck in his chest, easily 10 centimeters in diameter and nearly a meter long, apparently holding him in place against the floor, staked, as it were.
"Yoseph?!" Kenny cried, diving forward. He knelt by our werewolf friend and inspected the wound. I heard his sharp inhale as he got a closer look, but by this time, I had turned my back. It wasn't that I was afraid of the blood or the actual wounds I'd see. But I had the feeling that if this was a trap, then Yoseph had been set up as the bait. I went defensive while Kenny checked Yoseph out.
"Ah, the Satyr Cub and the Eshu Cub. Hello, my friends. I'd welcome you properly, but as you can see, the house is not suitable for visitors." A fit of great racking coughs surged through him, and I could almost hear him laughing through the coughs and the pain. He was making a joke out of it, so I assumed that things weren't as bad as they looked.
"What did this?" I asked. I was kinda short and clipped in asking too, which is something I do when I get nervous. Hey, I told you a long time back that I'm kinda a dick at times. Just then, I was a full page dildo ad in some skin mag. In living color, no less.
"A dream," Yoseph answered back. "I couldn't touch it with either tooth, or claw, or weapon or gift. I can only assume that it was more from your world than mine, since I am spirit and flesh. The only thing my powers can't rend is dream."
"Like a chimerical dragon," Kenny said. "Will you heal if I take out the claw?"
"Gaia willing," Yoseph said. "It pierces me, yet I can't touch it. We will have to trade secrets on this one day."
"Count on it," Kenny said. "I could use a hand hold on this claw."
I slipped the lightsaber across my back, finding that sheath from the Satyr rave just suddenly appeared there again to receive the blade. I pulled Sky Fire off my belt, suddenly not surprised at all to realize that I could grab something chimerical from my fae mein and use it with my mortal seeming in the Umbra. Strangely enough, this place was like a crossroads of Glamour, spirit, flesh and magic. Almost anything was possible here. I wondered, for a brief moment, if the Umbra and the Dreaming might somehow be connected.
The blade sprang forth at my mental command. A dancing column of starlight and lightning, driven by dream power alone. I prodded the claw several times, using the tip of the blade to carve finger holes into the smooth surface of the claw. The blade went back to sleep as quickly as I had called it, and I hooked Sky Fire back onto my belt.
Planting a foot on Yoseph's right arm, with Kenny doing the same on his left arm, we both grabbed the claw and pulled. It wasn't easy. That claw had been slammed hard into the ground and it didn't intend on coming out either. Grunting, we managed to rock it back and forth, and with a sudden jerk and release, we pulled the claw all the way out of Yoseph's body. All told, the claw was longer than 2 meters, taller than Kenny sitting on my shoulders. Both of us stared at the spike in terror and revulsion, Yoseph's blood dripping off it like water off a duck's back.
Tossing the spike of dragon claw aside, we turned our attention back to Yoseph. He had a mask of pain across his features, but was slowly starting to breathe easier, the wound closing over. Kenny had told me on the way over that werewolves have remarkable regenerative powers, especially in the Umbra. I just never suspected that it would happen so fast. But right before my eyes, and taking probably less than two minutes, the massive wound from the claw strike had sealed over, and he slowly changed from the Wolfman into the Arabian looking young man we had seen just days ago.
"Feeling better?" Kenny said, helping Yoseph up while I drew my lightsaber again, ready to fend off an attack.
"I wont be dancing for a while," Yoseph deadpanned. "But I wont be visiting the realms of the dead anytime soon."
"What happened?" I said, my eyes scanning.
"It came out of the water, the spirits tried to warn me, but they weren't fast enough. The beast was just too powerful. You say this is a dream?"
"More like a nightmare given flesh and form," Kenny said, grunting as he helped Yoseph gather his feet.
"I tried to fend the beast off, warning it, even tried to ask the greater spirits to grant me strength to fight it. But it was just so powerful. I couldn't even scratch it. It was like fighting mist… fighting fog."
"Well, I don't think we have anything to worry about right now. I think he's gone."
"He gave me a message for you, little changeling lord." Kenny and I exchanged looks as Yoseph spat out blood. "The dragon said, to tell you, 'Atlantis was fun, let's do it again.' He also said that every day you run from him, he would take more of your kind."
"Oh, Robby," Kenny said, his face taking on a horrified look that probably was the perfect counterpoint for the pained and shocked look that I was sure covered mine. The thing had basically laid down a challenge that I couldn't deny now. Every day I didn't face it would be killing more of my kind. I was really beginning to hate being so popular. Even the monsters seemed to know who I was.
"We're getting out of here, now!" I said. Kenny and I took an arm across our shoulders and half walked, half dragged Yoseph into the parlor room. His weight was pressing right down on top of my scar, yet I grit my teeth and took the pain. I guess that it was my way of shouldering some of the responsibility for the changelings that had already perished down the dragon's gullet, and the others it had hurt, all in the effort to draw me out. All of a sudden, that shoulder scar was more than just a clue that I'd survived a very ham handed assassination attempt. In my eyes, it was a harbinger. A warning that my strength was about to be very sorely tested, many, many ways.
We set Yoseph down in front of the mirror and I instructed Kenny to stay with him. I had to find the others, and quick. I was faster than Kenny with my goat legs anyways and I put that speed to good use. I actually went down on all fours and wound up running like a dog, my springy legs allowing me to cover a fairly massive amount of ground.
I raced around the outside of the house, my eyes drinking in the devastation wrought all about by the dragon's attack. The place was dug deep on all sides, massive imprints of the dragon's feet sunk about 8 cents into the ground. And on the packed sand of this beach, it would take a hell of a lot of weight to make so deep a rut. The imprints were further calcified into place from the immense heat the beast had given off, glazing the sand instantly into glassy foot steps. Dunes were broken as if the massive tail of the creature had slashed back and forth in anger. Plants that had probably grown in the arid, salty soil for generations were turned out of their natural habitat, uprooted, ripped and trampled. If those plants had a spirit at all, the dragon had either stamped it out, or just plain frightened it to leaving. Either way, there was no life here. The entire grounds of the house was a scorched earth battlefield.
The house itself had been broken into at several places, just huge gashes in the clapboard and plaster construction were everywhere, and the roof sagged inwards on one side, and sloughed off around what had once been the porch. Where the hell is Bob Villa when you need him?!
I rounded the back of the old Victorian house and nearly ran smack dab into Juan and Mitch, running the other direction. And with good reason. I stood up to turn and follow them when the thing chasing them came around the corner, literally breathing fire.
Okay, I know this wasn't the DRAGON, but one of its little cousins, or brothers or sons even, but it was still a fairly large sized fire breathing reptile. At least 5 meters long and almost as tall as Caspian from the ground to its rather stubby horns, the thing wasn't something to take on lightly. And it could still spit flame, which was something to definitely worry about.
Without even realizing it, Sky Fire was in my hands, ignited. The blade hummed an angry blue as I swept it forwards, diving right at the baby dragon. The little wyrm decided to lob a fireball at me, which I was able to parry with Sky Fire's biting parts. The drakeling stopped and stared at this in horror, suddenly realizing that it no longer held an uncontested advantage. It focused it's snout on me, inhaled and let fly with a continuous stream of flame, spraying back and forth. I jumped high, flipping up and over the stream of conflagration, coming down hooves first on the center of the drake's back. I was about to plunge Sky Fire deep between the beast's shoulders when it bucked me off. I landed behind and on the creature's left side.
But any end of a dragon is dangerous, and I had to drop to my belly and roll as it swished at me with its thick tail. It took a backwards hop, trying to land on me with its back legs, and again I was forced to roll or face being crushed. I came back out near the left rearmost hip and slashed, wildly as I regained my feet.
I must have connected, because the thing rounded on me quickly, bringing its more fang and flame equipped end about. Something this big, being up close is probably my best advantage, I reasoned. How or where or, for that matter, why that suddenly seemed like such a good idea, I can't say. Maybe it was something from within me, maybe it was something from elsewhere. I don't know. What I do know is this, though: crazy as it sounds, it worked!
I jumped a short dune and was an arms length from the thing (and I don't have very long arms). I plunged Sky Fire forward, two handed grip, and twisted. The blade skidded off dragon scale, but it showered sparks as it struck off. The drake screeched in agony and jumped back, nearly landing on the remains of the porch and overhang. It retaliated at once, spitting three quick puffs of flame my way. But I was too close for it to aim easily around its own body, and the bursts of flame shot past me, scorching the dunes.
I swung for the head, trying to leap into the swing, putting everything I had into it. The blow was a glancing shot, partly deflected by dragon scale and the bony fringe of horn around the back of the drake's jaw. But I cut it deep enough to make it bleed and that was all I needed to do.
Because, you see, I wasn't alone in fighting this thing. Caspian came around the corner of the house and he simultaneously hurled two things. First, a great axe, with a cutting head easily the size of a trash barrel lid, but made of much heavier, tougher, angrier metal. The axe didn't soar high, but landed directly through one of the drake's right feet, impaling the lizard to the ground.
The other thing that Caspian hurled was Croaker! Now in case you've never seen a Redcap Intercontinental Semi-Ballistic Missile before, let me describe it. Croaker soared at the beast, his mouth hanging open, jaw unhinged like a snake's. He had his arms out to his sides to steady his flight through the air and his feet remained pointed and together behind himself, like an Olympic diver.
He landed on one of the drake's other legs, mouth first and then I heard the most sickening, wet, greasy, smacking, crunching noise I can honestly say that I had ever heard to this point in my young life (well, this time around, anyways). He had latched on and bitten clear through the drake's knee joint, and was busily munching away.
I don't know which impact made the drake scream louder in pain, but that was all the opening I needed. I leapt in, bringing my blade around and under the drake's head, point spearing up. At first I thought I had skidded off of dragon scale again and that I was about to get a face full of fire for my trouble. That's when I felt Sky Fire fetch up short, embedded in the drake's mouth. The beast shook his head like a snake and I had to release Sky Fire, since I had just been bodily flung from the drake's head. Caspian reached out and grabbed Croaker off the drake just as the maddened beast made to breathe a stream of chimerical flame right at me.
But Sky Fire was still in place, and held the drake's jaws shut as it tried in vain to barbecue me. Its head puffed up like a seagull eating alka-seltzer (don't ask, I know a lot of really mean kids), and then exploded, showering flaming bits of meat, dragon scale and horn in all directions. I took cover and crouched in a near fetal position as it fell over, very hopefully dead.
The wave of heat and guts that passed over me was at once stifling, revolting, humid, greasy, highly pungent and thoroughly repugnant. I vomited on the spot, but thankfully my stomach was empty, so all I managed was a series of greasy, queasy dry heaves of my own. The odor of baked dragon guts (not fried!) was overwhelming. Bits of its flesh continued to roast and spit like meat in a frying pan. I walked around the blast site looking for Croaker and Caspian, hoping that Kenny and Yoseph had been spared any serious injuries by whatever shelter the rest of the house might leave them. During my trudging, I saw the back end of Sky Fire's hilt, the crystal ring shining wet and gory in the continuous moonlight. Enacting a brief bit of Wayfare, I bounced Sky Fire back into my hand, even though it was hot and sticky with encrusted dragonling guts.
"Robyn!" Kay shouted, coming around the corner of the house. I waved to him and he ran to see me, his own crystal spear weapon out in his hands, at the ready. I met him halfway and felt his hand reach out to brush dragon bits off me. My heart was still racing a thousand light-years a second, rebounding off my ribs like a heavy metal drummer doing an extended solo. I leaned forwards over my knees and panted as he kept watch, rubbing between my shoulders gently with his free hand.
"Robyn, we have to be going. If the dragon realizes we killed one of its kind, it will be furious with whoever it finds here."
"Let's move!" I said, straightening up. I kissed him on the cheek in passing as we strode for the opened wall of the parlor and the portal. Juan and Mitch were helping Yoseph step through. Just as Kenny was ducking through, I heard a high pitched screech behind me. I turned ready for battle.
But I didn't need to worry. The phoenix was suddenly there again, looking at me with fiery eyes. I don't know what it wanted with me, or why it chose after the fight to pay a visit, but I stared back at it for a long moment. Its eyelids blinked one time; it uttered another piercing note and then flew off. I quickly hopped through the portal.
On the other side, Kenny urged me to hurry as we left, just moments before a sharp snap and a pulse of light in the air shook the mirror, rattled it in its frame and spider-webbed it. Lines of broken glass shot from the exact center, effectively destroying both the mirror and the portal. Kenny and I had to step it up a pace in order to catch up with Mitch and Juan. Yoseph was still draped across their shoulders, struggling to keep from dragging them down.
We raced back to the SUV and collapsed inside, wedging Yoseph on Kenny and Juan's laps. I got the shotgun seat and Mitch took his spot behind the wheel. For a long second or four, we all simply sat there collecting our collective breath. Mitch started the engine, but made no move to put us in gear. My mind kept repeating the odd sequence of events that had led up to this point and still I couldn't make heads nor tails of it all. I hate to write it like this, but it all seemed to be coming out like some cheep tabloid "news" story about a three headed chicken or the aliens that secretly run the White House in DC and Number 10, Downing Street in London (but that's another story, true believers, hehehhehe).
"Everyone okay?" Mitch asked.
"A little crispy around the edges, Pop, but fine."
"I've got a wicked stomach ache," Juan said, holding his belly. He quickly leaned over, pushed the door open and let a sickeningly thick sounding batch of vomit fly. I swear to you, I heard something hard, wet and meaty smack the pavement, but I didn't have the intestinal fortitude to look. Whatever goes on in a Redcap's stomach after eating a piece of dragon must not be pleasant, even for a Redcap.
"Damn," Yoseph said with a faint smile on his face. "I was just about to say that."
If you get the impression that Yoseph has a rather skewed sense of humor, you're picking up on it perfectly. I'm no expert on werewolves, but you'd think they'd be more aggressive killer types than beach combing humorists of demented repute. I guess I watch too many horror movies. I'd always figured that a werewolf would be like a biker or a gangster or something. You know, something cool and tuff. Not a teacher/beat poet with a snide remarks list a mile wide.
"Let's roll!" I said to Mitch and he engaged the engine, making for Route 1A southbound, and the bridge to Newburyport. I was still on edge, though, and kept my eyes scanning for danger. One drake might mean that there are others, and the possibility that they all report back to the big dragon had me worried. Would the one we'd just aced be missed when it came time to report in?
"Pop, can we get that dragon sticker I wanted for the car now? It'll be like a kill flag."
"No," Mitch replied evenly.
"Sticker?" Juan asked.
"I'll show you when we get home."
"Kenneth?" Mitch asked with a rising tone.
"Oh, sorry. Yoseph this is my father, Mitch Tannagord, also known as Caspian, and Juan, also known as Croaker."
"Thank you all for the rescue. I didn't know how much longer that littler one was going to keep playing with me before it went in for the kill."
"Coulda gone on for days," Kenny answered.
Mitch nodded. "My son is right. Those vicious drake bastards are cruel and methodical, but they like toying with prey. Especially if they think they can lure out anything else to play with."
Juan seemed to be getting his color back a bit and even burped with a deep, resonant sound. A sure sign that his recent barf blast had cleaned his pipes. I didn't feel a laugh coming on from that sound, but I smiled nonetheless. Croaker was fast becoming a good friend, and his valor in helping me fight the drake was a sign of just how brave and true a friend he really was.
You see, once again, I keep finding myself thinking how lucky I am, and how good I've got it. But I keep forgetting that I've still got to influence someone I basically humiliated not to kill my friend utterly and then take on a creature that will likely peel my mortal flesh away and digest my changeling soul in tiny, piercing, painful bites. I forget that there's a nasty villain out there pointing Cold Iron at my back, plotting to not only kill me, but steal the one treasure that seems to be the key to us all going home, if it's even possible to go back.
Sometimes, it just doesn't pay to be a supernatural celebrity. And to be perfectly honest, aside from Kenny, all the rest of it can all just go to hell. Okay, so maybe the powers are cool and I like being able to dent in walls with my forehead and I'd probably have figured out, sooner or later, that I was born to tag people with the pointy end of metal sticks. But all this hassle of being reborn royalty without a place to call "throne" was just frustrating, confusing and, well, to be more than honest, not worth the time, effort, blood, sweat and tears I'd put into it.
Yet here I was, playing the hero. Here I was, rallying the troops to the rescue. Here I was, once more being thrust way in over my head into a situation that was as unlikely as it was real. Kenny said it once before and I keep hearing his voice in my head saying it again. I'm too damn noble for my own good. See? Sometimes, even when you win, you end up with the shit end of the stick.
Been a hell of a week for me so far, huh?
We reached Newburyport without incident and quickly found a gas station near the outskirts of town on Route 133. Mitch needed to gas the truck, Juan needed to visit the bathroom, I was feeling cooped up and Kenny wanted to get a fresh bandage over the small wound that the dragon's claw still left in Yoseph's back and chest. I say small but I mean in comparison with the gore-seekers delight that it had once been. For all of you out there that like the icky stuff, or read Fangoria magazine, that bloody mess would probably have been a real jaw dropper.
Too bad it was real and hurt someone I thought of as a friend.
We got back on the road, after I gave myself a quick chance to stretch out my legs and everyone else took care of what they had to do. The bad thing about having such monstrous power in my goat legs is that unless you use all your adrenaline when that rush hits, you get cramps. No wonder the stories of Satyr parties lasting forever, of them dancing and carousing across the whole countryside are such potent legends. As Kenny can tell you, as long as we're healthy, we can go for hours. Also a good reason why when you see a tragos of Satyrs heading your way, the ensuing rush to lock up the farm animals and the virgins is called a panic. Dad musta been one hell of a party animal.
Anyways, traveling back to Canterbury was a snap. We were all vigilant, but nothing untoward happened as we got back into town. Mitch drove us right back to the house and easily lifted Yoseph inside, like he was a child. Troll strength comes in handy at times. Mitch and Kenny made Yoseph comfortable in the upstairs guest bedroom, which basically ensured that Juan would be sleeping in Kenny's room with us tonight. I didn't mind, I just hoped that Juan wasn't too freaked.
I was still kinda worried about what Kenny said earlier, about a gift. I mean, sure, Juan was trim, strong, not bad on the eyes and even turned out to be an okay guy, but there was still the memory of those hideously powerful flat teeth of his, and the damage he could inflict. In my minds eye, I just kept seeing him biting through some important anatomical part while he was in the throes of some intense sexual experience, and that anatomical part would have to belong to either me or Kenny. Neither was acceptable.
Besides, I love Kenny. Robyn loves Kay Neth. I really didn't like the idea of sharing, or even being shared. Sorry if that sounds selfish, but I love who I love, and I don't think I could even get it up for anyone else. No matter how attractive. And, uh, no offense to Juan, but he just wasn't my type. My type has only one example, and I've already found him.
Mitch asked for a little privacy, he had some phone calls to make. Well, that was fine by us. We were frayed at the nerves anyways and needed a break. We raided the fridge quickly and headed downstairs to Kenny's room. We popped a DVD in the player and sacked out on the furniture, Kenny pulling one of his huge pillows off the bed, Juan grabbing the bean bag chair and laying belly down on it, and I plopped down on the couch. The credits rolled up on the film "Dude, Where's My Car?"
Strangely enough, we managed to let the movie take us away for a while, laughing like we were insane through some parts, staring in abject shock through others and just plain sympathizing with the main characters. It was as improbable and offbeat as our reality, so it was kinda a release for us. And to be honest, we all could've used the laughs about then. We grazed as we watched and laughed, mimicking parts, backing up the movie to catch lines. It was the most fun we'd had all day, and it served two important functions. First, it gave us a bond, a common experience aside from fighting for our lives to base our friendship on. The other, well, sometime during the second run through, we fell asleep, completely and totally out of it. Exhaustion, worry and then laughter had finally caught up with us and let us have a moment of peace, a moment of sweet, unconcerned relaxation.
With Kenny and me so far apart, sex would have been a miracle (or a seriously perverted cantrip of some sort). With Juan not in touch with any of us, we couldn't be accused to trying to do anything with him. And even though I longed to be with Kenny, just laying beside him as we slept, at some level, I realized that Juan needed us to just be friends tonight, not a pair and an odd man out. Maybe that was something that Kenny had in mind. Maybe it's just luck. Either way, exhausted in body, mind and spirit, we slept through the night and woke early the next day. Juan's last day.
I hoped he would have some good dreams that night, in case we couldn't save him. At least as he sailed into oblivion, his dream might live on. My own dreams were fitful things, full of violence without clear form and angry laughter and, of all things, the bright image and fierce cry of the phoenix fluttering across the dreams, like a messenger from the halls of doom.
And in the morning, I found that Juan was gone, having left Dentum Magni behind on the bean bag.
I rapidly shook myself awake and charged into the bathroom, hoping only to have an embarrassing moment, walking in on Juan while he was sitting on the john or soaping down in the shower. No such luck. I cautiously searched the entire lower level and then up to the second floor. No activity stirred in either the kitchen or the living room/dining area. Kenny's laboratory was empty and lights out. I was certain that Juan would never go into Mitch's room without being asked or brought in. Redcaps might have indestructible teeth, but the head they wore those teeth in was just as fragile as anyone else's. And let me tell you, Trolls are unimaginably strong. Even the young ones have such brute power in their muscles that you don't ever want one pissed off at you.
I looked in on Yoseph, who was still sleeping off his hideous injuries. There was no other noise or motion in the guest room, so I sped to the backyard, out through the kitchen sliding glass door and the porch. Still no sign of Juan anywhere. I practically leapt down the half flight of stairs to the front door and pulled it wide, hoping to maybe catch a glimpse of Juan somewhere, or at least a clue as to where he was.
The front stoop was empty, though. I bounded downstairs, slipped my jeans on, threw my shoes on and went for the utility door that led out to the carport and garage. I got outside, my eyes skipping about back and forth, looking for some sign of where he had gotten to. That's when I smelled the smoke.
I turned and looked under the porch. There was a small gate between the hillside and the porch above, with a matching fence skirting enclosing the area under the porch. This was where Kenny and Mitch stored their snow shovels, the snow blower, the lawn mower, a pair of bikes and the usual assortment backyard tools and toys.
Sitting with his back to the fence, right next to the gate section, was Juan. He had the last third of a cigarette in his hand, blowing out a cloud of dark blue as I turned to see him. He matched my gaze a moment, smiling slightly and then turned his attention back to his cigarette, flicking the ash off the end.
"I didn't think Master Mitch wanted me smoking in his house," he spoke, as if in explanation. "Didn't mean to scare you, either, Robby."
"I wasn't scared. I was worried. I thought you'd run off, especially with Dentum Magni still inside. Did you make it physical for a reason?"
"Two reasons actually. But it doesn't matter any more. There's only one reason that it's still there."
"What are you saying?"
"Robby… Korbesh made a deal with me, Thursday. He told me that if I killed you, he'd take me back."
"Yeah. And, to be honest, I thought about it. I mean, I really considered taking him up on it. All I had to do was wait until you and Kenny fell asleep last night, and I could cut off both your heads and walk up to Korbesh with them… and I'd be back in the gang again. Just that easy." He wasn't talking like someone who could pull off cold blooded murder. The sarcasm in his voice was self directed, I felt. He was really having some conflictions.
"So why didn't you?"
"Because you and Kenny don't have to take up for me, but you do. You didn't have to accept me as either a friend or a vassle, yet you've done both. But more importantly, because you both care. No one's ever cared for me, aside from my Momma. You know what I mean, right, like real friends?"
"Yeah!" he said, and I saw the tears starting. "And then last night, after you fell asleep, Kenny told me that you two were both glad I could stay over, that you both wanted me to be comfortable and to be welcome here. I mean, I know what you two are, what you do when you're alone."
"Yeah," I said, hoping to get him to get out whatever was deep in him, hurting him. He took a long drag off his cigarette and blew out slowly, staring down at it as the cherry neared the filter.
"But you two both decided that I was more important than all of that, of you two being together, doing things together… that's not just friends doing things for friends, man, that's… I don't even know what it is."
He crushed out the cigarette and wiped at his eyes. I could see the tears forming there.
"You know," I began, "Kenny's been looking out for you quite a while now. Even before he found me again, he was aware of who you were underneath."
"Yeah. He even told me, after my first day at class, when you smacked me a low blow with your sword pommel, he told me not to retaliate. I was so gonna go and trash you up, especially after I found out about my own powers. But he told me 'that's not what we do.' I didn't realize it then, but he was talking about fighting amongst ourselves. Not just what he and I should do, but what all of us changelings should do."
At the time, I had no idea where I was going with this, but it suddenly made tons of sense to me. "Juan, he was following the right path. I don't understand how Eshu know just what that right path is or how they find it, but he knew that we'd be friends one day. Best friends. And he knew that I shouldn't make it my goal to try for revenge with you. He knew that one day you'd save me, just like you did yesterday with that drake. For which, by the way, I haven't properly said thank you for."
I leaned forward and put my arms around him, pulling him tight against my good shoulder. It must have taken him by surprise, because he took a sharp inhale before putting his arms around my back and holding tight. I felt and heard his tears start, and I knew that this was what he needed. A good hard cry without anyone around to abuse his tough guy image. He could only let go like this with no one else around. But he needed this venting almost as much as I needed Kenny's touch, or a plant needs water and sunshine.
After several minutes, he managed to get control of himself. "You probably think I'm weak now, huh?"
"Hey, you're one of the toughest, meanest bastards I know," I said, grinning, still one hand on his shoulder. "And there are only two other people besides you I'd ever want to go into battle with at my side right now. And both of them are still inside asleep," I gave a slight sideways nod of my head towards the house. "You're a brother in arms, Juan. Croaker. I'd never leave you behind."
"Thank you, my lord," he said, bowing his head to me and then raising it smiling.
"I know you gave Dentum Magni back to me, but it is still your blade. If you take it up again, I will have to consider you a thane in my service."
"Gladly!" he shouted, standing up.
"Good, then put that thing away before Kenny sees it lying there and thinks the worst."
We walked back inside and I remarked, casually, "And next time you go outside like that and scare the hell out of me, put on some pants. I could see everything you got!"
"Like you haven't been staring at me in the shower before," Juan said back over his shoulder, snidely.
"True, but the lady across the street was taking pictures."
Much of that day was spent in preparation for the events of that evening. I say this even as we were keeping a watchful eye out for possible dragon signs as well as other impending doom warnings. Kenny looked in on Yoseph through much of the day. The werewolf was healing quickly, but he still was terribly dehydrated and in pain. Caspian invoked a form of healing cantrip on Yoseph, a little number I so seriously want to learn called Heather Balm. It helped, but Yoseph said that the remainder of his healing must be done over time. Magic alone couldn't cure him, but it had gone great steps to aid that cure.
Mitch spent a lot of that day teaching me the manners and patterns of court, while we both drilled Juan about his part in what we were now calling a plot to both kill me and take the Tear as a prize of war. I have to admit, that a lot of it seemed like the court shows and movies I'd seen my whole life. But a lot of it was also just weird. The ceremony of standing to your case, the fact that the jury would be Donna Trag's nobles and knights but the ultimate decision would be hers weighed heavily on me. If she wanted to, she could throw out the verdict of the jury panel and just try Croaker directly in her own court, under her own roof and with only her own conscious as her guide.
And the really bad thing was, there was only one person we could appeal to, and she was far to far away to be at Donna Trag's court in time.
Or was she?
While we were breaking for lunch, which Mitch grilled up for us, these fantastic chicken strips wrapped in a soft tortilla shell and stuffed with refried beans and taco stuff, I asked a question which until now, on one seemed to have thought about.
"Mitch, if I wanted to pull rank on Donna Trag, who would I talk to?
"There are only two in our system that rank higher than her. Queen Mab, lord of the Kingdom of Apples, and High King David, the Emperor of Concordia."
"And how would I get in touch with either of them?"
"Robby!" Kenny said, looking at me like I'd just kicked a child in the teeth.
"Are you sure you want to involve either of them?" Mitch replied, evenly, even though it was a question.
"He's right," Kenny said. "Going over Donna Trag's head is a serious misstep. It would anger her beyond all telling."
"But what if it's the only way to save Croaker?"
"You'd be willing to risk that for me? To risk your title, your rights and your name?"
"Juan, if it's our last shot, I'd put my sword on the line for you."
"You'd give up Sky Fire?" Kenny asked, awed.
"For Croaker's life?" I said, pausing and swallowing, feeling the truth of it, even as I spoke, "Yes. Without hesitation."
Juan stared at me in shock. Kenny too for that matter. Mitch merely nodded, his face passive, yet understanding.
"Look, we're talking about a life here. I can make another sword."
"Not like that one," Mitch said evenly. "That one has a history."
"I don't follow."
"You called it Sky Fire, which is its name. But it isn't the product of your dreams. Nor is it even a product of this world."
"Robby," Kenny said, taking over from his father. "That sword belonged to your father. It was his royal wand and scepter, his symbol of authority. That crystal handle wasn't just the projection of your wish for a sword, it was the Tear focusing your power and giving you back which was your due as heir of Cerulean. That blade, for lack of a better phrase, is your crown."
My left hand reached down and felt the handle, chimerical, yet still real, riding on my hip. The cool, glassy surface seemed to pulse with energy, with a familiar pattern. "My crown?"
Mitch spoke again, but with Caspian's tones and mannerisms. "I never saw him without it. In battle, he was as a Satyr possessed, the power of war and the fury of damnation combined in one. The blade was forged of starlight and lightning, and as such is as swift an edge as any. Unbreakable, sharper than the edge of night, stronger than a brace of Trolls, and ever faithful to only the will of the true heir."
Kenny's eyes shown. "Legend has it, that your brother once snuck into your parents' room and stole the handle. He went to ignite it, and nothing happened. He tried for days, not knowing that your father let him take the sword. In a fit of rage, he hurled it against a stone wall, where it knocked a chunk out of the stone. You picked it up and the blade almost immediately sprang forth. Your brother took the blade from you, and the edge sank back into the handle."
"Thy mother was secretly relieved. She ever thought that Sherwyn, while noble and strong in his own right, would not have been the kind of ruler needed. He was too easily swayed by wine and song."
Hearing all this, I was swept on the tide of memory. I even remember being a young fawn, little over 7 years old, and having my father, a huge, powerfully built Satyr, sit me on his left knee and present the handle to me in full court. Sherwyn wasn't there, out hunting with his friends. I had wanted to go, but he brought girls along on that trip and I wouldn't have had nearly as much fun as the rest of them.
But here I was, in my mother and father's most important room in the castle, and father was letting me touch his sword. The handle was much longer than I remember it. And this isn't just the eyes of a teenager versus the eyes of a child speaking here. The handle was easily 60 odd centimeters long as opposed to the mere 25 or so it was just then on my hip. He handed it to me and told me to call forth the edge.
And it sprang out, almost as tall as Caspian, humming and glowing a bright whitish blue, weightless. I gasped in surprise, and I wasn't the only one. All in the chamber gasped, and one man, an Eshu, if I'm not mistaken said "The prophesy has begun to fulfill itself."
I shook my head, aware that others were now staring at me as I stared off into nothing. "Caspian, I think I'm gonna go lay down for a bit. I'm not feeling too good."
"Very well, my lord."
"I'll be right down." I nodded, realizing that he had to check on Yoseph and perhaps other things. I was shocked to the core. Prophesy, now? Was all that happened in Cerulean all those years ago part of some prophecy? Was I still playing out that now? Was there nothing I could do to determine the course of my own life. I wasn't feeling sick, at least not in a physical sense, but I sure felt old all of a sudden. Like the weight of more centuries than humans can call history was bearing down upon me. Like the planet was suddenly taking five from being on Atlas' shoulders and perching squarely on mine.
I more or less walked down to Kenny's bedroom, stripped bare and got into bed, leaving only the Tear around my neck. I also should say that I took Sky Fire into bed with me, laying its cool metallic-crystal surface on the pillow near my own face. I more or less lost track of time staring into the glossy depths of the handle, watching as the tiny, dancing dot of light in the middle kept changing the highlights and shadows and demi-hues within the fly-outs and flats and ridges of the guard and handle and pommel-ring.
When Kenny finally did come down to the bedroom, he had Juan with him. Both looked at me with deep concern. I barely noticed, I was so lost in staring into the handle. For some reason, it stimulated feelings in me. Not so much memories, although I did see a fair amount of those as well, but mostly feelings. Feelings about my parents, my brother, my bevy of sisters (some thirty or so of them), and snippets of conversations, arguments, and other things I had heard as a child in the huge drafty castle we called home in Cerulean.
"Robyn?" Kenny asked, sitting down on the bed, leaning forward to stroke my hair, pulling some of it out of my eyes, which had been streaming tears almost since I came into the room. "Are you alright, beloved?"
"I have to know, Kay Neth," I said, barely a whisper at first. "I have to know."
"My parents… they were fully Undone, weren't they?"
"That was back before the changeling way, Robyn. It was before the exile, before the loss of all contact with Arcadia."
"Were they Undone?!" I almost shouted. "Were their eternal fae souls wiped into oblivion?"
His hand brushed against my cheek, and he closed his eyes, solemnly, and nodded. "I did not witness it, but in all of our incarnations, I have neither seen your brother, your parents or any of your sisters. I fear that their immortal souls were in fact consumed."
I closed my eyes and cried harder, just unable to keep in thousands of years of grief any longer. Kenny leaned over and tried to comfort me, but this was just something I had to let out, I had to feel it on my own and accept it. And as much as I wanted him to take me into his arms fully and just hold me, just tell me anything to make the hurting stop, I knew that I alone could make that true.
Juan didn't know what to say. Here he was in the hot seat because his own father would betray him at the drop of a hat (probably drop the hat himself too, along with whatever head was still wearing the hat), and he could only understand that I was in pain because my family was gone. Poor Juan never knew that a father can be a great thing. He never could have had the great times I had with my human father when I was a child. He would never be able to understand that patience and love that Dennis French had shown me, and the pride he showed me either. He would never be able to understand that my Satyr father had been wise and witty and showered me with affection beyond counting and without any sort of reservation at all. How he had cowed Trolls from their snide remarks about my behavior when I was a young fawn just learning the blade. How my soul's true father had taken me in his arms one night, when the weather had frightened me with rain and hail and thunder, and he had sang me to sleep, holding me against his broad chest, tickling my face pleasantly with the feel of his voice.
Memories of my mother, too, came flooding back. How she would take me out into the meadows of our land, climbing trees, chasing lizards, counting petals on flowers. How, when I was very little, she would teach me complicated dance steps and taught me to play the twin pipe. Her dizzying way with people, and how she could hold six conversations at once. She was light and fire and love. She treated all her children with the same respect and care she demanded we each show each other. And she loved us equally, with everything in her.
I was flooded with memories of an older sister who took special attention of me, coming to see that I was properly dressed for court, teaching me cantrips, even showing me the secrets of the castle. I remember being very taken with her, and the fact that she was now not only dust but had no chance of return only saddened me all the greater. My entire eternal existence seemed to have become a massive funeral wake, and all my relatives were in attendance, flat on their backs in caskets.
Even as this washed over me, I heard Kenny ask Juan to get a damp facecloth from the bathroom. Juan said something and stepped out. I only know this because he closed the door and I didn't hear the sound of water running in the bathroom.
"Beloved?" Kay said, looking down on me. I wrenched my face away from the surface and depths of Sky Fire and looked deep into his gray eyes. "Beloved, I know the memories are overwhelming. I know it is a lot for you to deal with at once, but you must pull yourself together. We will have to leave in less than an hour for court."
My eyes blinked twice and I sat up in bed, looking around for a clock. Sure enough, the time was near to 8 at night. The sun would be just starting to head down. I had lain there in bed, locked into my memories for the better part of 8 hours. Kenny put his arm to the middle of my back and rubbed gently, restoring a sense of calm even as he tried to keep pace with my breathing. Did I ever tell you he has wonderful hands, and that he gives the best massages (sexual or not)?
Juan came into the room and Kenny went to work, first on my face, washing away the evidence of tears, and then on my neck and my scar. Dead skin from the scab flaked off under the washcloth, and I felt the pain, but not nearly as bad as before. Juan also rummaged through my overnight bag and got out a fresh set of clothes for me. My strength began to return, and I knew that while I hadn't cried my last for all I had lost in Cerulean, I wasn't hindered by it either. Juan needed me tonight, and I would stand by him to my last strength and beyond.
"Are we ready for this?" I said as they helped me get dressed. Kenny did most of the work, although Juan helped when necessary. Mostly, though, Juan and I went over the steps we'd have to take while standing before Donna Trag.
"We are ready, milord Robyn," Kenny replied.
I took a deep, solid breath, held it and then released it slowly, opening my eyes with Robyn's senses alive. The baby unicorn was with us again, although it seemed more an adolescent now instead of a baby. I put out my hand and it came to me, nostrils flaring. I stroked its nose and it leaned into my touch.
"Hey, there, fella. Come to see us off?"
"His herd returns to his call," Juan said, in awe.
"They've been coming around in bits and pieces, lately," Kenny replied. "But I think you're right. The herd may have heard Robyn's call and they are responding."
"What are you talking about?"
"The unicorns," Kenny said. "Your father's cavalry rode them. No other ground force in all of Arcadia could match your father's cavalry. Only dragons and griffins were more feared mounts in battle."
"My army, my unicorns, and now my crown. I wont be able to leave the past behind me, will I Kay? I'll always be bound to Cerulean."
"It's who you are, my love. As much a part of you as…"
"As you are?"
"Now and always."
I stood up, hopscotched my saber towards my chest and grabbed it out of the air. "Right, then. Let's go take care of a little business, shall we?"
Kenny grinned, standing by my side. He reached out and gave me a peck on the cheek. He was ready to go, and supremely happy that I was back in the game. I reached out to Juan and offered him my hand. He shook it and then went up and grabbed my wrist in a warrior's grip. "Ready, my good thane?"
"I stand to your command, milord."
"Then let's not keep the Countess waiting." We went up the half flight of stairs to find Mitch already waiting for us, keys in hand.
"You wont need that tonight, Robby." Mitch said, pointing at the saber.
"Yes, I just might. I have someone to give this to. And an oath to seal."