The Dragon Next Door
When you walk the path between two worlds, you often have to make distinctions between the two. You have to know where the absolute boundaries are and where the murky gray areas are. I kinda found myself drifting into those gray areas about now, and my dreams reflected it. Instead of bright dreams of love, passion, home, family, adventure and excitement, I kept finding my dreams were odd places. Dark, often disturbing and sometimes even painful, they were. For a creature whose very lifeblood is dreams, this is an unnerving experience. As you can imagine, it had a profound effect on me, especially so soon before going to war with the Wyrm.
We woke shortly after dawn and prepared ourselves. I went and showered alone while Kenny gathered his gear and stowed it in the SUV. Juan was cooking breakfast with Mitch upstairs, but food was the absolute last thing on my mind. I was in the shower, ostensibly, to get clean. But Kenny and I had showered the night before, and I left the soap untouched, just let the water pour over me, drenching me in cool, sliding liquid. The tension of leadership was beginning to get to me and I felt that my small shoulders would buckle under such a weight.
How many lives depended on my actions in this campaign? Canterbury? All of Massachusetts? Just Queen Mab's Kingdom of Apples? Or was all of Concordia at peril from this monstrosity? I let the water run across my now wiry body, and hoped it would help wash the fear and doubt from my mind. It helped soothe my nerves, but that was about it. I felt my jaw clenching tight across the muscles of my face as the water hammered and drizzled and sloughed off me.
The water was what I kept coming back to, my elemental guide and my anchor through much of my recent ordeals. At the Y it was what we drank and bathed in. At home, I brought music and gentle darkness to water to soothe myself and get a grip on things. Even Kenny's bed was a waterbed. We trained down where the ocean meets the river. I was reunited with my Satyr kith at the water's edge. And one of my most powerful and influential thanes was a sailor. According to Greek mythology, the horses came from the ocean god Poseidon. So, after a fashion, even the unicorns that were supposedly my herd were water related beings as well. I guess it makes sense. After all, I'm a Pisces, and that's a water sign.
Yet even as I contemplated my connection and need for the water, and all the times I did my best thinking in the shower, something else cropped up through the torrent of my thoughts. Something I knew to be a truth as strong as my love for Kenny, and my own belief that he knew the right path. Something that even though I was preparing to do, I knew as well I could never win. Deep in my heart, I knew I wasn't ready. I knew that I was no match for this creature. I would meet it, I would fight it, and with a lot of help, I might even kill it, but in the end, my life was fairly much already gone. I could not win.
As I leaned against the shower stall wall on my hands, pushing deep into my shoulders to let the water course down my spine, Kenny came into the bathroom. He parted the curtain and entered behind me. His hand came forward to touch my back and I spun around, almost before I knew what I was doing, and was on him like a cat playing with a ball of yarn.
I had grabbed his hand and pressed him against the opposite wall of the stall, hard, my body going up against his, bringing his wrist up to the wall. For long moments we stared at each others eyes, chests heaving in sudden anticipation of what may happen. Then I realized I nearly attacked him. My Kenny, my Kay Neth; I nearly tried to hurt him. "Bright Eyes," I gasped. My fist was tight and cocked back near my rib line, ready for a snapping punch to the gut. I had nearly hauled off and blasted him one. It shook me to the core. With an act of will, I opened my fist and let the water wash the pain I had nearly caused away from me.
I let him go and put my back to the third wall of the shower, sliding down as the water passed over me. My head hung low, I felt the tears begin. I tried to stop them, but they came anyways. Kenny frog-squatted down beside me and brought his head beside mine, his arm going across my shoulders.
"I'm sorry, Kay."
"I know," he said, kissing me through my hair. "Autopilot's on defense mode already, huh?"
"I guess," I said, giving voice to my chaotic thoughts. "I just keep getting this feeling that we're in farther over our heads than we ought to be."
"Jitters," he said, dismissively. "We've all got 'em."
"Can't afford them, Bright Eyes," I shook my head. I spat out some water that had trickled into my mouth and looked into his clear gray depths again. "Everyone has to see me in perfect control, in perfect condition and perfect form or else they'll lose hope. And once we get near the dragon again, and the fear takes us…"
"Robyn, we would follow you no matter what."
"I know. But we're gonna get seriously banged up this time, Kay. We aren't just facing a mere drake. And it knows we're coming."
"Yeah, but we know it's waiting for us, too. That kind of neutralizes that advantage, don't you agree?"
I chuckled softly. "A few days ago you were talking me out of this fight. Now you're trying to talk me into it?"
He smiled. "C'est la vie! C'est la gere!"
"Thank you for that ultimate vote of confidence, O Wise One," I said, letting a smile color my vocal backspin.
"Ah, you're sarcastic again! Which means either one of three things."
"Got me figured out that well, have you?"
"I've had some practice," he allowed, tilting his head slightly.
"Oh, this I've got to hear. What does it mean?"
"You're either ready for food, a fight or a fuck," he beamed down at me, arms folded across his chest. "Or you just plain do not give a shit anymore, which I know isn't true."
"You kiss your father with that mouth?"
"Nope, just you."
"Oh, well, I guess that's alright then."
"Wash my back?"
"You sure you want me to? Every time I start playing with your back you get turned on."
"Robby, look down." I followed his directions and noticed he was already randy as a jackrabbit and pointing up towards his knees, hunkered down as he was. "I get turned on just being around you. Just knowing you're a touch away. If we took care of my needs every single time I got aroused around you, we'd never leave the house."
"I think I like that idea."
"Yeah, well, we have a thing or two to do today, milord. So if you're done hogging all the hot water, I want a shower, too."
"All yours. I think I'll just sit here a minute." He stepped into the stream and began washing in earnest.
Now as much as I liked just watching water slip off Kenny, giving rise to all sorts of ideas in both my heads, we did have some rather pressing business to get to. Far too much of it, and as much as I was dreading bearding a dragon in its own den, the consequences were worse if I didn't. One of these days I'm gonna be smart and give up all this responsibility and honor and duty bullshit and just try to be a kid again. I liked it a lot better than being the champion of the Queen and the defender of the realm, the ousted heir apparent to a throne centuries lost and unreachable and some sort of near prophetic figure who's fame began and ended at the point of a blade.
Being a homebound computer geek was soooo much easier. I thought fondly of the machine sitting unused on my desk back home. I was planning on spending some quality time inhaling that new computer smell once all this was over. Not that I didn't want to be with Kenny, or the rest of my crew, for that matter, but I needed a break. It had been one hell of a week so far, and the next day or two was looking like a "flashback of the future" scene from a Terminator movie.
I hopped out of the shower, toweling dry and going to get into my gear as well. I found that Kenny had laid out my clothes, Jedi armor and shoes for me, and left a note as well. "Go to my workshop" was all it said. Well, it also said, "you'll love it as much as I love you," but that was for me and not you, so forget I told you that part. I dressed quickly, making sure that my armor was strapped on right. It felt strange, but looking in Kenny's full-length mirror, I could see that my Satyr body was also armored for battle again.
This is really it, I thought, feeling an uneasiness in my belly. I don't know how long I stared, but I shook my head and sat to put on my Nikes. I even tied them double-knotted, like a 6 year old who has trouble tripping over his own laces.
I quickly took the stairs, two at a time, my backpack slung over my shoulder and ran to Kenny's workshop. I thought I'd glance briefly in to see how Yoseph was, but his door was closed, so I let him have his privacy. The werewolf would be no help fighting a chimerical dragon. His powers and strength couldn't affect it. I wouldn't even think of asking him to go with us on this quest. He would be totally defenseless. Any other time, that kind of muscle and just primal force-of-nature power would be something I'd gladly have at my side. But not this time, not this foe.
I opened the door to Kenny's lightsaber workshop and reached my hand inside, trying to find the light switch. After three grasping attempts I closed on the tilt plate of the light switch and clicked it up. The overheads in the room came on, and I saw Kenny's surprise for me in the middle of the main workbench.
I had given my blue saber, the one that I thought matched my eyes, to Donna Trag, kinda a peace offering. She knew how much that blade meant to me, well at least to the Robby part of me. After all, it was the blade I had used to flat out beat and humiliate her. It was an apology as well as an extension of my honor. That was part of why I gave it to her.
But that left me without a saber now. And while Sky Fire was probably all the blade I'd ever need, I couldn't just whip it out for all occasions. Its bite is just too much for defeating mortals without exposing my Satyr nature. Besides, it's kinda flashy and attracts attention. Basically, I needed a new saber, something that I could use all the time, something I could enchant when necessary, that I could use as a physical focus for a chimerical saber when required, and just something to beat down random Iron wielding punks again, should the need for that ever arise.
And just like clockwork, my Kenny came through for me again, without even needing me to ask.
The saber that lay on the workbench was perfect. My blue eye color again, but done in a metal flake finish. The handle was short, barely two hands in my grasp, but made with such balance that it rolled easily over the back of my wrist, and felt right enough for even one hand. The pommel was capped with a heavy plumbing cap, and the guard was a reducing joint put on backwards so it was similar to a fencer's bell guard. Almost a perfect match for the one I had given the Countess, but in some ways better. Kenny knew my fighting style and he had built this wonderful sword with me fully in mind. The Glamour of his supple, skillful hands shaping this was like a sweet dripping of dew on a spring morning. This weapon had been crafted with love.
"Found everything alright?" Kenny smiled from the doorway. He had on his Jedi gear, a pair of rugged denim khaki carpenter's shorts, hiking boots with a well worn look to them, and a blue hockey jersey with a white unicorn stag emblazoned on the chest, proudly rearing up, horn thrust into the air, and a grayish t-shirt underneath. His helmet was held under his arm, a drape of silver and blue fabric hanging from inside it. His own silvery blade hung to his side as he leaned against the doorway.
"Kay, this is… when did you… I mean, it's…"
"Can't believe it; you're speechless."
"Not quite! Just too many words trying to come out at once." I lifted the blade and shifted it in the air, feeling its weight and balance, its bite in the wind. "Thank you. It's perfect."
"You needed it, for after this battle." I turned and watch his smile turn ironic. "We still have class on Monday, and the four on four tourney."
"I can't focus on that right now. I have to keep my eyes on defeating the dragon, Kay. Everything else is secondary."
Something in his eyes betrayed itself to me then. A fear, not of rejection, or of losing each other. Something even deeper than that. Some need he had still, despite us being together again. Despite our love. And that's when it hit me. That's when I realized exactly how long it had been between simultaneous incarnations for us. How very, very long. No wonder he was so insecure about us all the time; why he needed constant reassurances of our love, that I was actually me and real and back in his life. He literally had been waiting whole lifetimes to be with me again.
And that realization just reinforced how much I loved him. Kay had been more patient than I ever would have been. When this whole mess is over, I thought, I'm gonna spend this lifetime making it up to him.
I spun the blade and turned to him, "sheathing" the blade through a belt loop, almost as an afterthought. "Kay, you and I both know that whatever else happens, you and I are forever. Nothing matters to me more than you. But we both have the duty to stop this thing now. Even if it costs us our lives."
"Robyn… I," he began, but I stopped him with a finger on his lips.
"I know. Me too, Bright Eyes. But I'm with you. All the way."
We embraced, briefly, and my eyes traveled to the corner of the room, where the huge double-blader Kenny built for his father normally stood. "Something's missing from your collection."
"Father had a use for it."
"As if Caspian needed another weapon," I said, wryly.
"We are facing a dragon, beloved. Every weapon we have might be the one we need most."
"Boys!" Mitch's strong, deep voice echoed through the house, causing us both to flinch. "You about ready?"
"We'll be right down, Poppa," Kenny replied, raising his voice.
"Never enough time to say what we feel," I chuckled leaning my head down against his shoulder.
"No words, beloved. No words."
"No words, Bright Eyes." Reluctantly, I broke our embrace and grabbed up my backpack. "You ready for this?"
"No. But the path leads forwards, not back."
"That an old Eshu saying?"
"Might be one day, I just made it up," he grinned, turning to leave the room ahead of me. "I'll meet you at the truck. I'm gonna make sure all the lights are off."
I quickly descended the stairs and headed for the side entrance, near the garage. I loaded up my pack in the back and set my new saber inside, along with my helmet. As I was about to climb into the back seat, I saw why Yoseph wasn't receiving visitors in the house. He sat shotgun in some of Mitch's older gear, looking like he was fully intent on going with us.
"Yoseph, I appreciate the gesture, but what good could you be to us on this mission?"
"I still have many tricks up my sleeves, little changeling lord. My healing gifts are but one way I can help."
"But you can't fight it. You said so yourself. Your claws can't rip open a dream."
"I think we can find a way for him to be useful, Robby," Mitch said, sliding into the front seat.
Juan hopped up to the back seat ahead of me and scrunched over to the farther side. "Let's do this," he said around a thick wad of watermelon-scented gum. He quickly blew a bubble and then snapped it back into his mouth.
"Keeping your jaw strength up?"
"Better than a Bowflex, Robby." His grin was back, a slight thing, at once joyful and competitive at the same time. I clapped him on the shoulder twice and returned his smile. I climbed in after Juan, our leg armor clacking with a plastic noise as I bumped my hips against his. A few moments later Kenny slammed the hatch and bounded in beside me. He tossed Juan and me each a small, tightly wrapped grocery sac, the kind made of that noisy, thin plastic stuff, and grinned as he sat beside me, making certain that our thighs were pressed firmly against each other.
"I thought I'd take the liberty of preparing your House colors, milord," Mitch said from the front seat. I hadn't noticed it, but he also wore the same blue hockey jersey as Kenny. I grinned and opened the bag quickly, pulling out a similar jersey. Juan's bag contained the same. Mine had the silver captain's C on the upper left chest.
"Thank you, Caspian. It's wonderful."
"Can't have you rushing off to battle looking like a commoner."
"None of us has to worry about that distinction now," I said. Where all this "font of wisdom" crap was coming from, I don't know. As corny as it seems now, at that time it just made us all smile, made us a little tighter.
We quickly pulled the jerseys over our gear and I suddenly felt ready. Not that I was ready, mind you, I just felt that way. And I guess that in the end, how we felt was what mattered. It's the stuff that kept us going as we forged ahead into the unknown dangers of tracking and trapping and hunting a dragon.
And despite all that, I still had a bad feeling about that.
Mitch revved the engine and we charged off for Barney's Burger Barn. One thing remained before we would go off to chase the wyrm. One bit of changeling formality and precaution that wasn't just empty ritual or worrisome political maneuvering. This was essential to our success, at least as far as we changelings are concerned. An Oath was needed, right at the very balefire of the freehold. An Oath to give us strength for our task ahead, and help focus us, and, to be honest, to harvest a little Glamour directly from the balefire itself.
Perhaps I should explain. There are places that call out to you, even in mundane reality. Places where you feel recharged, refreshed and even in touch with something. Like communing with nature, or God, or, in the case of changelings, the great Dreaming itself. These areas are actually physical places where mystic energies flood across into this aspect of reality. Remember Yoseph's beach house in the Umbra? He called it a caern, which is what the werewolves call such places. For them it's a merging of the physical and the spiritual. We changelings call it a balefire and we build a freehold around that in order to contain the energies that flow out of it. It also helps to keep the chimerical stuff that sometimes slips out of untapped balefires from just roaming the countryside and causing nightmares and other "imaginary" pains in the ass.
Like the truth about the monster under the bed. But that's another story.
A balefire is basically a place where the Dreaming's raw energy pours into the Earth realm. Glamour, and lots of it, slips through and can be harvested directly. I say lots of it, in comparison to the Glamour that's just hanging about everywhere else. A long time ago, before Concordia, or as you mundanes call it, North America, was settled by the old countries of Europe, Glamour was as plentiful and free flowing as water over Niagara. Now, pure sources like balefires and the occasional true Dreamer are the only sources left of free Glamour. And since the Glamour is the stuff that we changelings feed off of, like normal people might drink water or munch on cheeseburgers, you can bet that any source of it is jealously guarded, even hoarded. It drives our magics as well as serves as our life's blood.
Balefires are the heart of our freeholds. They retard aging, they inspire rapid healing. The energies of a balefire can be used to enchant objects with chimerical qualities. Or even to generate new chimera from just the stuff of dreams. They can even bring back a changeling that is into the mists, like Croaker was after our ill fated duel. Balefires are fonts of incredible power. The kind of power that might just spell the difference between life and death on this mission.
I parted the veil to the freehold and entered, my party close at hand. The hall was mostly empty, since court was not in session. Still, Grahame met us before we got too deep into the hall, about halfway across the main stretch of tiled floor to the dais.
"What business do you have here?" he said, his arms folding across his chest. It was intimidating, to say the least, especially when I noticed that his right hand, while folded under his left elbow, was also resting on the pommel of a very large sword. The message was clear to me; I might be Mab's champion, but he was Donna Trag's, and the Countess still ruled here.
Now before I could say anything stupid, inflammatory, insulting or denigrating (yeah, I had to look that word up, too, sue me!), Kay spoke up. Officially he's my herald. It's his job to be my mouthpiece.
"Lord Robyn the Blue, Scion of Cerulean and lord champion of the Kingdom of Apples requests access to the balefire, on the Queen's Business." Ever the diplomatic one, Kay had managed to not only define the reason for our presence but put things (and Grahame) in their place. The Trollish knight could not bar us now. Even he had to bow to the wishes of the Queen.
"Follow me," Grahame said, turning about with military precision. Kay leaned in against me, grasping my hand in his. Our thoughts were on what we needed to do, but suddenly he and I had other thoughts as well. Something we wanted to do, should have done a long time ago. And the balefire was the perfect place to do it.
Grahame led us through an open portcullis to the left side of the dais and into a long, vaulted chamber. At the end of the chamber was a massive room, even larger than the main hall, although the ceiling was much closer to the floor. The room was laid out with a pattern of inlaid tiles in the ground. I'm not an artsy kinda guy, so I couldn't tell you what style the tiles were set in, but I will say that it was intricate, with interweaving vines and leaves. My impression was that we were walking on stone imprinted with plant life made of poured glass. The whole floor shown with the reflected light of the room's central feature.
The Balefire itself.
It was set into the center of the room, a circle of polished alabaster stones, twelve in all. The stones were placed as perfectly as any Egyptian stonemason, forming a ring of slightly raised steps, six meters across, in the middle of the floor. Each of the stones had an inscribed sigil in it, matching the Zodiac signs in pattern and form, and inlaid with one of four colors, red, blue, green and silver, the stones coming together in a slight puckering near the middle. And springing up from the circle of stones was the flame. The colors of the flame swirled and switched, but the bright white core that was the ultimate expression of Glamour, prevailed in the middle of the flame. Just being in the room gave me a charge. I felt the fur on my legs standing out, and even my horns were tingly. Yes, that horn too.
"Robyn," Kay said from my side, nodding to the left side of the hall. A throne was set up there, and Donna Trag sat there, regal in her bearing. She had two knights with her, but her normal array of retainers were absent.
"Lord Robyn the Blue, what business dost thou have at mine balefire? And in what manner am I to welcome this… creature into my freehold," the countess said, using high formal language. Formal, proper and slightly disrespectful in its tone to Yoseph. And I wasn't in the mood for it. Fortunately, Kay was more than up to the task. Or so I thought.
"We are upon the questing path, milady," Caspian said. "And come requesting access to the balefire."
"As is the right of the Queen's lord champion, and his motley, Prodigals included," Kay said, smoothly. I glanced at him and noticed that he had locked eyes with Donna Trag. Some sort of implicit challenge passed between the two of them, but it wasn't something I could worry about at the moment.
By the way, all other supernatural creatures that are partly human (or partly changeling?) are called Prodigals. That's a different story, but for the sake of completeness, just think of it as the way changelings say that all magic in whatever form begins and ends with us. The Prodigals just forgot their changeling heritage and chose other paths through magic. So that would include the shape shifter breeds, like Yoseph and the other werewolves, vampires, mages, and the psionics and stuff like that. Weird, no?
"Thou mayest make two procurations upon the balefire, in the Queen's name," the Countess replied. "For I have need of its fell potence in defense of my soil." Okay, that was in keeping with what I kinda expected. Grahame was keeping his eyes on our every move as well.
"For our first use, we request to bathe our weapons in the balefire, with thy blessing," Kay said. And it dawned on me. Caspian's double saber. That was how our fur-bearing pal was going to be pulling his weight. Fully charged on the energy of the balefire, it would be able to do serious damage when backed up by his werewolf muscle. I grinned and gave Kay a sidelong glance. He just grinned back at me.
The Countess stood and held aloft her sword. "Place thy weapons within the flame." We stood around the pit and one by one shoved our sabers into the cascading color and light of the balefire. I started to reach for SkyFire, but Kay shook his head. I simply stuck my hand with my new saber in the blaze and cringed involuntarily, expecting to be burned. Even Yoseph thrust his arm into the flickering rainbow of incandescence, holding the heavy double blade surely in one hand.
It was like plunging into bathwater that had ice cubes floating in it. Warm and flowing with life, yet the occasional sting of icy chill, of bubbles of dream-stream flowing with power, light and radiance. I was shocked to see the raw essence of the Dreaming itself, pure, unmolested Glamour, sinking into our weapons, a dancing of fairy lights licking back and forth between our weapons and the light of the balefire, and connected still to the Countess' raised blade behind us. The drift of Glamour was potent in me, singing, crying out, lifting my hair, forcing my eyes shut tight and yet daring me to stare into its murky, glowing depths. I was certain that hours had passed, bathed in the glow of that power, in its tender and harsh embrace, but it only took a few seconds. Kay had to physically pull my arms out of the flame, to show that my saber now glowed as though it were a true lightsaber now. It even hummed a little as I moved it about. I concentrated a bit and the glow seeped within the wooden dowel of the blade, waiting for when I'd need it.
"Thy arms have been soaked in the flame of the Dreaming. Thou art armed against the darker places of the night and the soul. What hast thou for thy second usage of my font?"
"We request an oathing," Caspian said. "An oath circle in the balefire's light." Okay, I knew that oaths were important to changelings, even more binding and important than any contract in mortal reality. And I suspected that any such oath made at a balefire would be especially powerful. I just had no idea that Grahame would be so ticked that we asked to seal our oath circle at the font that he would half draw his blade. Well he tried to draw it all out, but, well…
He had the weapon halfway out of its sheathe when two blades crossed at his neck; mine and the Countess'. I hadn't even realized that I had moved when I was staring up at the Trollish knight's beard, my saber slipped up underneath, Donna Trag's blade crossing over mine, but resting with the business end against the Troll's throat. Time stood still a moment as everyone figured out what they would do next. Kenny was suddenly at my side, his back to mine. I heard shuffling steps all around and watched as several shadows laid out a complicated blade dance all around me. Two screams and a sudden inhale loud enough to force an echo in the chamber beyond reached my ears, and then all fell silent.
I didn't dare break my gaze though. I had to keep my eyes glued on Grahame's one visible eye as he contemplated his fate. A pulsebeat throbbed in the vein bulging down between his eyes in his forehead, matched by a slight fluttering that traveled down the length of my blade and into my arm. Clearly, he knew he had lost whatever little gambit he had in mind. I still didn't know exactly what had happened behind me, but Kenny's presence against my back was calm, relaxed.
Then again, he's usually calm before fencing. If I didn't already know what it takes to get his heart racing, I'd have to wonder.
Back to the moment though. Croaker moves up into my peripheral vision, with his blade out but held low, like he didn't really need it for a fight anymore, just didn't have time to put it away. And his jaws were covered in sticky red. I really didn't want to see whom he had bitten. Or what he may have bitten off, for that matter ("No, Luke. I am your father!")
"Stand thou down, Grahame!" the Countess ordered. "The Queen's business is more important than any pride felt here."
"And the Queen's champion is questing for what you should already have done, milord Grahame," Kay reminded, darkly. "Unless your loyalties lie elsewhere?"
"My loyalties are to my Countess!"
"Not to your motley mate, Korbesh?" I asked. Grahame released his weapon. He relaxed his posture and almost slumped in defeat.
"My Countess is my first loyalty. That to my oathbrother is secondary, but just as strong." He bowed his head in shame.
"You still are oathbound to that criminal? That traitorous letch and you still stand beside me at court? As my first knight?!"
I lowered my blade from Grahame's throat. He wasn't a threat to me anymore. His own wounded pride, conflicted allegiances and Trollish honor would keep him in check now. I turned to see what was going on behind me. Caspian and Yoseph were tending to several wounded knights, one even lay at the edge of the balefire, his right hand missing. Obviously, Croaker had chewed in self defense.
"Everything okay here, Bright Eyes?"
"All is in hand, milord," Kay replied, squeezing my free hand. I nodded and we gave the Countess and her first knight some space to talk.
"Let's get this oath well and truly laid and be on our way. This dragon's influence has already wrought enough harm to this land through trickery and guile as well as open mayhem. It's time we took to ending this madness and the mad maker himself."
"By thy side, milord," Croaker said, tapping Magnum Denti against my blade. He grinned fiercely at me, and I couldn't help but grin back. But some part of me was still upset that we had fought our own kinsmen over this evil wyrm. That changelings had spilt changeling blood. Clearly, more was at work here than just a big beast, causing a big stir.
After helping the injured and watching as the captain of the guards marched Grahame away in chains, we regrouped at the balefire. Now, this part of the oathing isn't required, but it just makes it more potent. First we chanted the oath in our mortal forms, and then in our true kith, with Yoseph transforming into his full three-meter wolf-man glory. And both times the balefire flared as we sang the oath. For those with the senses to detect Glamour, its like hearing a symphony grow around you and through you, fire and light, life, spirit given flesh, eternity and never and always and past-future-present all seemed to collide, linking us each to each other. The Oath of the Long Road.
We swear that we shall take the battle to the dragon's own home or lose our honor,
That we shall defeat this immortal fiend or else lay down our swords,
That we shall slay this wyrm-foe or Dream no more.
You and the sky bear our witness,
So mote it be.
The dancing rhythm of music, clashing cymbals, distant thunder, the tweet of woodwinds and the strong blasts of brass echoed trough the room. I faintly perceived a deep voiced chuckling at this, as if some god were having a wicked bit of fun at our expense. Then again, my mind has been known to play tricks on me before. In any case, I felt the energies of the Dreaming wash over and through and around me, cleansing me inside and out, filling my lungs and heart and all my guts with tingles. Our resolve, our courage and will strengthened, each to each other. We were as ready for this as any changelings were ever gonna be.
We bid farewell to the Countess, her actually nodding to me grimly, but smiling fiercely as well. She knew what was at stake. She also knew that should we fail, her county was likely going to turn into a dragon abattoir. With both changelings and mortals hung up like pigs waiting to become pork chops. We got back out of the hall, back through the woods and to the parking lot of Barnie's. Mitch and Joseph went to order some food to take with us, mostly BLT's and other things that would stay fresh without needing cooking. As we did so, Mitch handed Kenny a fist full of change and nodded towards the pair of phone booths near the picnic tables at the end of the drive up area.
"If there's anything left unsaid, this may be your last chance to say it," Mitch said. Juan and I nodded and followed Kenny to the phones. Juan went first. I don't know much Spanish, and I'm beginning to wish I did. It's such a flowing, melodious language. What few words I did know wouldn't last me through a conversation, but "Mama," even with strange accentuation, is easy enough to pick out. Juan was nearly in tears as he hung up the phone. As he was talking, I began to realize that I might be talking to my parents for the last time.
Juan reluctantly hung up the phone and stepped out of the kiosk. Kenny, sensing his pain, immediately went to Juan and pulled him into a tight, three-slaps-on-the-back embrace. My own hand snaked up and rubbed at the back of his shoulder and neck. Sympathy isn't a symptom of friendship, it's a root cause. And I needed to let Juan know that he was my friend as well as my vassal. He was family.
Besides, it gave me a few moments more before I had to face that phone myself.
Kenny passed some change into my hands and locked eyes with me as Juan moved off to the SUV. He realized that until I was done with the call, I wanted privacy. This wasn't because I wanted to exclude him, but because this needed to be me talking to my parents, not us. This was one of the few times since meeting him again that I didn't want Kenny practically joined to my hip. If our situations had been reversed, I'd give him the same space, as well. Parents are special people. It's a relationship that just can't be totally shared with your friends, or even your lover. Words began to fail me as I thought of what I'd actually tell them. Of what I needed to hear them say as well.
I felt all of four years old again, that scoop of ice cream dropped off the end of the sugar cone and melting on the hot asphalt, a trail of ants starting to move in. I picked up the receiver, dropped in a few quarters once the dial tone cleared, and dialed in a number I had known by heart since kindergarten. The phone picked up on the third ring. But as luck would have it, I got the answering machine. After the prerequisite waiting period and beep, I began to speak.
"Mom? Dad? If you're there, pick up, okay? I've kinda got something important to say." I paused a second, waiting to hear the other end of the phone snatched up and someone moan a hello back at me, question my name, that sorta thing. But it didn't happen. I continued. "Well, I can't deny my destiny any longer than you guys could, I guess. Kenny, Mitch and a few friends and I, well… Mom, we're going to face the dragon. He'll keep killing people if I don't face him. So one way or the other, it all ends today. By the time you guys get this, I'll likely be deep into it, although I'm not sure what to expect, these things never go easy. I guess being what you really are, you kinda know about all that. We're about to leave here, so, I just wanted to tell you… I dunno what I wanted to tell you. This is so hard." I felt a lump in my throat and worked a cough and a swallow to try to move it. "I guess what I want to say is thanks for being my parents. Thanks for helping me awaken my other side. Thanks for being so understanding about what for all of us has been a pretty fucked up week. And… and thanks for loving me. I love you guys so much that I'm cryin' right now. I might not come back from this fight, so I just wanted you to know how much I love you both. Don't try to come after me. This is a fight you can't help me with. Just know that I'm gonna be smart and do my best." Tears were straining down my face as I said this. "Don't worry too much, though. Kenny is with me, and he loves me and so far no one has been able to beat us when we're together. I love you… bye." I hung up the phone and leaned heavily against the glass wall behind me, letting my tears just dribble down and soak into my jersey.
At the time, I didn't realize that I had more or less just outed myself to my parent's answering machine. It didn't matter. I could be dead in the next few hours. We all could be dead. The truth was kinda liberating and frightening at the same time. But for good or ill, it was done. Those were consequences we'd have to deal with later, if there was a later, that is. I mean, I'd also said "fucked up," in that little speech. I'd never spoken like that to either parent before. That alone was certainly grounding material.
Here I am about to go face a dragon, after all. Getting grounded was the least of my worries.
As I come out of the phone booth, sniffing back tears, I feel a strong hand on my shoulder. "You okay, Robert?" Mitch says. Using my full name like that implies a certain formality, but hearing the way Mitch said it, so low and tenderly, was too much. I wrapped my arms around his waist and pushed my face into his chest, crying, just letting go. He put his hands on me, one on my head, and just let me cry it out. Some macho supernatural warrior I turn out to be, huh?
"They weren't home," I said to his unanswered question, once I was able to speak again.
"It will be alright, Robby. They understood that something like this might be coming. They know that you only are doing what you have to do."
"Did… did you tell them that when you asked Kenny and I to leave that time at the campground?"
"Did you… um, do they know about Kenny and me?"
"Not from my lips," he said, evenly.
"But they know?"
"They suspect. They also are proud that you have such a good friend as my son. I saw no need to tell them anything you weren't ready to tell them yourself."
"Thanks, Mitch," I said, sniffing back nose junk, loudly.
"We should be going, before the dragon decides to hunt again."
"Yeah." I released him, ran my hands over my face to clear away the tears, and took a deep, calming breath. "The path is before us, leading forward, not back."
"Sounds like something Kenny'd say," he grinned down at me, ruffling my hair.
"Yeah, well, we do kinda rub off on each other," I joked. We got back to the SUV and climbed inside. Kenny gave me a sidelong look and a smile. I knew he had questions, but he was being patient and would wait to ask me for another time. Once again, there we go communicating without words. Just then, I felt luckier than ever. Here we were all staring down certain death, and not one of us was scared. Just feeling everything else a person can feel, only times a million.
Once we were underway, Mitch headed the SUV towards Barstow Lake, and the castle at the top of the hill. All signs and hints so far pointed to that at least being a place the dragon crossed in his daily flights. If nothing else, it was a good place to start the search. We arrived there about ten til noon and packed out, arranging supplies and sabers like a group of backpacking fencers, or star wars reenactment troupe. Once all that was taken care of, I turned to Kenny. He nodded and closed his eyes, his saber held out before him like a divining rod.
"Which, way, pathfinder?" Juan asked. For several seconds, Kenny was stock-still. The movement of the trees and wind around him seemed to have no effect on him at all. Then, and with great slowness, he opened his awesome gray eyes and tilted his blade up the side of the hill. At the top of this huge slope was the castle, bound on the way up with huge boulders, trees as ancient as the town itself and a layer of fallen leaves and pine straw as old as New England itself. Older perhaps.
"We go up," Kenny said, his voice sure and steady. "Our first path leads up."
"Alright then," I said, moving to the first boulder and climbing it with Satyr ease. "Looks like a fairly long haul if we go up this way. Not an easy climb at all."
"Then let's follow the jogger's path up to the castle and start that way," Yoseph said, pointing at the wide dirt trail that corkscrewed up the side of the massive hill.
"A sound plan," Mitch agreed. Juan set off first, getting several steps ahead of us. I guess that his intention was to be the first one into any kind of fight along the way up. As fate would have it, the hour-long hike up the hill was uneventful, but his eagerness to chew on something or someone offensively was very much in the forefront of my mind. Yoseph and Mitch stood to the outside of our formation, kinda to the back, which left Kenny and me in the middle, but spread out to give each other fighting room. We were sorta walking in a pentagon formation as we neared the top of the hill.
"Where next?" I asked, glancing about. Kenny shrugged and kept his eyes searching as well. We were all nervous and beginning to feel like we were being most carefully and humorously watched. I didn't like it, not a bit.
The hilltop was a wide area, partly cleared of trees. A slight slope along the edges of the hill led to a more flat area, big enough to put a baseball diamond in. There was a small picnic area, a driveway and parking lot made of crushed seashell and gravel, and the castle itself. Also on the property was the castle caretaker's house and an outside storage shed for the tools and lawn equipment necessary to maintain the facility. Barstow Castle had once been the summer home of a wealthy Boston shipping magnate, back in the late 1800's. Now it was owned by the city and rented out as a function hall. The grounds were well maintained and people would frequently make the trip up just to have a picnic lunch on the lawn and marvel at the wonderful view of the lake far below. The hilltop was about 70 meters above the level of the lake, and the three-story castle had a commanding view of it and the other hills to the northeast, away from the river.
"Spread out, but keep within earshot," I said, tapping blades with Kenny. Juan moved to investigate around the shed. Kenny dropped back towards the meadow area facing out over the lake. I saw Yoseph morph straight into the form of a huge wolf and start sniffing about in the trees near the house and Mitch walked up to the front of the castle, inspecting the main door. I decided to sweep around behind the castle and see what was behind it. Fortunately, there were no mortals about, no picnickers on the meadow, no wedding receptions in the hall, and apparently no one at home in the caretaker's residence.
I strolled about, my new saber out and in hand. The back of the castle was closely bordered by the tree line, with a narrow cement walkway abutting the flowerbeds that lined the walls. Ivy climbed up trestles, framing windows and adding an archaic look to the castle. I peered in the ground level windows of the smaller turret, seeing a baby grand piano and a few rolling carts full of folding chairs. All seemed to be in order, neat and tidy. I reached the back door, which was fairly centered on the rear wall, between the back side turrets when I felt "a disturbance in the Force." Actually, I heard a slight giggle behind me and heard a twig snap under someone's foot in the same general direction. Not quite the same thing, I grant you, but it alerted me just the same.
"You're not supposed to be here," came this angelic voice from near the castle. Peeking around the turret was a small boy. He was about 8 or so, I guess. Blonde mop cut in a bowl shape that made his whole head look round. Sparkling blue eyes and a devilishly sweet grin. I smiled back at him, thinking that maybe he was the caretaker's son or a kid out with his family. I took three steps toward him and had my guard lowered when he attacked.
See, it's always something cute that winds up being the most dangerous thing. Like that bunny in Search for the Holy Grail. Just when you think you know something is harmless… WHAM!
He jumped at me from about 2 meters away and landed on my chest with both feet, firmly planted. He rode me down to the ground as I fell over backwards and leapt into the air, pulling a full somersault before landing. He spun with a grace and speed I've yet to see any mortal, no matter how talented, match, and jumped again. But this jump was different. Instead of just going in to lay me out with some kind of martial arts/gymnastics move, his body changed.
Suddenly, instead of facing a little boy, I was looking at a dive bombing giant falcon, its claws spread to spear me like a rabbit. I rolled to the side, the scrape of feathers brushing my hair as I avoided those lethal talons. Before I could manage to get to my feet, however, he changed again, this time becoming a large snake, a rattler, and he had apparently changed the direction of his head as he changed, because I swear to you that he didn't so much as swoop around and change as just change and all of a sudden was on me before I knew what was happening.
Fortunately, I'm a fast study. I farted loudly, and immediately Hopscotched myself over the incoming strike and had the presence of mind to bring my saber around to block. The rattlesnake rebounded off the blade and sort of gooped himself into a pile on the ground. I landed about 4 meters away, but the creature had already assumed a new form… a very large, and pissed off looking, American bison. Now, I don't know about you, but having a buffalo suddenly appear before you where an 8-year-old brat had just been was more than a little bewildering to me.
Then again, I didn't have to face this one alone. "Kenny! Juan! Mitch! Yoseph!"
"Call all you want, Robyn," the shape-shifter said ominously. "I can still kill you before they can get to your side."
And the buffalo charged. The ground shook; the thunder of his hooves against the cement walk was terrifying. I suddenly realized why bullfighting was a sport that was thought of as so macho, so daring. Staring down that much mobile hamburger had me more than a little worried too.
But I had a plan, and suddenly I knew I could do it. As the buffalo got closer, I brought my saber up level with my eyes, to the right side of my head. If this worked, I'd have a one shot kill and we could get back to looking for the dragon's lair. If it failed, well, I'd get a first hand accounting of what it means to be gored and stampeded. I steadied my aim, despite my thundering heart, and forced the Glamour to flow.
I Hopscotched the saber straight at the buffalo's eye. And the blade sailed from my hand, true to target, penetrating with a loud slurping noise, as if I'd just thrown it into the lake. But the buffalo kept coming on. One of these days I'm gonna learn that stuff that's already moving likes to keep doing that until it hits something to make it stop. Something like my body, for example.
The bison smashed into me, unswerved from its intended target by my brilliant use of Hopscotch. To say it hit like a ton of bricks is to not understand that a ton of bricks, by comparison, was light. I know that I got knocked a good ten, fifteen meters before I fell into Caspian's arms. Even then, I knocked the stalwart Troll over just from the energy of my unintended flight. By the time my head stopped spinning, I saw my guys all spread out around the thing and attacking it with renewed vigor and fury. And they weren't having much effect, either.
I guess that means that if you're a dragon, you can still find good help these days.
I picked up my saber and got up to rejoin the fight, taking stock of what form the monster wore this time. You know, I almost didn't believe it with my own eyes at first. Then I was just as amazed that it hadn't killed us all yet. Believe it or not, the creature had morphed itself into a 3 meter tall, demonic looking, 6 armed Minotaur. And it had morphed weapons for itself, because it was holding off the combined efforts of four other supernaturals armed with swords. Oh yes, I was impressed. Angry, but impressed.
I leapt forwards and blocked a strike that Kenny had prepared to block himself. This left his blade free to sever the arm that was attacking us. Juan got the hint and blocked one attack at his own head with his teeth, clamping down and holding it, and then hacked off the arm holding the blade so recently sent against him.
Well, I could go into the rest of the gory details here, but the point of it is, in short order we had the creature on the ropes, disarmed and hurting. We were all closing in for the kill when it seemed to rear up and suddenly was at full strength again. Apparently the loss of limbs wasn't slowing it down any. Yoseph made the mistake of going in for a wolf-man bite and got backhanded up against the castle walls, hard. Caspian tried to get close enough to put his Trollish strength to use, but got a glancing blow to the shoulder that knocked him a good twelve meters into the forest, banging and crashing through trees as he went. Juan tried another bite attack only to have the Minotaur's fist explode in his face, shooting him back about three meters and unhinging his jaw.
Which left me and Kenny facing the thing alone.
"You warmed up yet?" I asked Kenny. He replied with a curt "Yup." "Okay then, let's do this old school style."
Kenny began a series of elaborate hand movements, like a martial artists preparing to ape Bruce Lee or some stage magician trying to distract you before he did his trick. I moved in at the Minotaur and slashed wildly, letting the Glamour flow in the blade so that it glowed, a lightsaber in appearance now, if not in name. The whirling flash of my blade was distracting enough and I really had to concentrate on my defense. The thing had six arms after all, every one of them with guns like a professional body builder and a length of pointy metal in each of its six hands. It was all I could do to keep the thing busy trying to make me a Satyr shish kabob. Well, you know, and not let it do so.
That's when Kenny's cantrip was fully cast. His Legerdemain ability. Kenny assumed a batting stance, his empty hands apparently holding an invisible bat, and swung with all his might. He had used his Gimmix cantrip ability to lift a fallen tree from in the forest (fallen thanks to Caspian's hard head, thank you very much) and the giant tree trunk had been the perfect way to knock the shape-shifting demon into the lake, home run, grand slam style. The amount of raw Glamour necessary to do that must have been impressive, because right after the hit, Kenny drops to one knee and then to his hands, panting heavily.
"Kay?!" I shouted, coming to his side. Far below, I hear the splash of the metamorph in the lake. After that base clearing shot, I doubt he'll be back up anytime soon and I can concentrate on the important things. Like my drained boyfriend and possibly injured companions, for example.
"'m okay," he says, rolling to turn on his side, relaxing. "Just gotta chill a second. You check on the others, I'll be fine."
But I'm not convinced. I pick up his saber, which he had dropped to the ground, charged it with some of my own personal Glamour and hand it to him. "Here, charge up." He looks up at me, with those awesome eyes of his, smiles weakly and takes the saber from me, my Glamour soaking into him, reinvigorating him. I smiled, leaned over and kissed Kay on the head and then dashed off to see about Juan. I could see past Kay's shoulder that Yoseph was already getting back up, so I knew he was okay. Chances are Caspian wasn't badly injured either. Takes a lot to even scratch the surface of an elder Troll's hide, much less a little backwards air tour through the trees.
I get down a slight hill and come to a sliding halt next to Juan, who is sitting up and massaging his jaw. As I get nearer him, he actually snaps his jaw back into place with an audible popping sound. I can admit that watching and hearing him put his jaw back into joint kinda made my skin crawl. I mean, it just looked so unnatural, and he did it without any kind of yelp in pain or nothing.
"Juan, you okay?"
"Hell of a smack, huh?" he responded, working his jaw a few times, making sure that all the muscles were back in place. He reached back, picked up Long Tooth and I helped him to his feet. I got a good look at his face as he turned to grab his prized weapon and saw the black and blue bruising along the sides of his face.
"Youch! That looks awful. You still feelin' alright?"
"Just a flesh wound," he grinned back. "I've had worse."
"Your accent sucks for Monte Python," I told him, grinning back.
"That's just the pain talking."
"Robyn, Croaker, are you both alright?" Caspian said, coming up behind us. His jersey was ripped and pulled out of shape in places. This was the first time I actually looked at his fae mein since we started this mission as he came at me, and his normal armor was covered in a Three Musketeer's kinda tunic, the same blue color, but looking more like velvet and the silver embroidered unicorn on the chest. The tunic was similarly pulled and ripped from his unintentional backwards trip through the forest.
"Yeah, we're good," I answer, while Juan works his jaw some more, getting the kinks out, I guess. "You?"
"I've been better. But I'll live."
"Let's get back up to the top, then." I turned and started going up, but Caspian's long, strong reaching arm slipped up and took hold of my shoulder.
"Not yet. I think I found the way in. Follow me, quickly." He headed off parallel to the embankment and around toward the farther side of the castle. About ten meters through the thick underbrush, we came upon the spot where Caspian had landed. He had apparently landed hard on the ground, rolled a few times and fetched up solidly against a large boulder. A boulder that he had knocked out of its usual resting place in his fall.
Behind the boulder was a cave entrance, like a pit in the ground, that dropped about four meters and then turned sharply in towards the castle, burrowing under the hill top itself. It looks like a great way in.
"Get Yoseph and Kay. This is our way in."
We quickly regrouped and prepared to enter the underground. Kay nodded when he saw the tunnel. If his sense of the right path was agreeing with him, that was enough for me to know we were going into the right place. There was a kind of finality to staring down that hole, though. It kinda made me realize just how final my last words to my parents might really be. When we started, I had no idea what this quest might entail. I knew it would be dangerous, but not how, other than the sharp and possibly crispy ways. Going into the ground like this was like going into the bowels of hell, willingly.
And I had the sneaking suspicion that the friggin' wyrm was gonna try to give us the guided tour.
"In we go," Yoseph said. "Into the embrace of Gaea."
"It's gonna be tight in there. Keep your wits about you, boys. And keep your strokes short and controlled."
"Yes, father." Kay and I tapped blades, and then tapped them with Croaker. Three Musketeers indeed.
Yoseph dropped in the hole, feet first. His enormous size and enhanced senses making a good choice. His great height and his werewolf resiliency made it an easy drop for him. That, plus his enhanced senses would alert him to danger, at least of the physical kind, better than ours. You can't sneak up on a nose like that.
"You guys ready for this?" Kay asked, grinning.
"I know I'm not," I replied.
"Me neither," Croaker said and leapt into the hole. He landed just behind Yoseph as the werewolf started moving up the tunnel. Once again, he was showing his courage, his pride and his honor to me, and I was proud he was on our side. I leapt in next, my Kay close on my heels. Caspian rolled his shoulders and dropped in behind us, taking the rear. His size was going to be a hindrance in the close confines of the tunnel, I could tell. At least Yoseph could shift to a smaller form.
Well, I'd like to tell you that the next thing that happened was that we just happened to walk a short distance into the hill and found the dragon's lair. That the beast was asleep and we simply hacked it to bits in short order and that was it. Yeah, I'd like that to have been true. But that's not how it happened. Nothing's ever as easy as you'd like it I guess.
And what did happen next, well, just goes to show you that someone once must have used an ancient Chinese curse on me. The one that goes "may you live in exciting times." I'd almost rather it had been boring.