The Tragic Nymph
Summer in New England is golden. The trees are full of a million different greens, the air is full of breezes that cool the sun's sting and the skies only have schooner clouds that sail across the sky without gathering enough to drown you with rain. Well, not as often as other parts of the country. Just plain perfect day for a drive, so it was kinda good that's what we were doing. The road from Canterbury to Newburyport follows the south side of the muddy, murky Merrimack river, through the hilly forests that dominate that part of Massachusetts. Kenny and I mostly spent that time telling more stories from the fencing tournament. I know it sounds like we're fencing geeks (um, well, we are) but mostly we had funny stories about things that happened there, and a few of the pranks we played on the other kids in the tournament. We were really in stitches talking about one poor kid that lost his bathing suit at the hotel pool and a bunch of us spent the next several hours playing keep away with his trunks. It was the kinda thing that you had to be there, I guess. Juan and Bethy liked it though. It made the trip pass quickly enough that we barely noticed passing through two and a half towns (sorry Georgetown, Massachusetts).
Newburyport's fishing boat wharves don't have as bad a reputation as other places might, but it was still a dangerous and rough place to be if you didn't belong there. Not from any threat to life and limb from the sailors and fishermen themselves, but just from all the activity there. It was a busy place. The Grand Banks fishing grounds in the North Atlantic had been yielding up less of its former boundless bounty the last few years. I don't pretend to know what all that means from any kind of practical or environmental side, but it basically meant that there were fewer fishing boat jobs and more responsibilities for the fishermen that were already there. In short, they had a lot of work to do. Gawkers would just make things a little more dangerous.
Thankfully, cell phones make fantastic communications tools. We were met at the dock parking lot by a youngish sailor. Early twenties I guessed, sandy hair, pale blue eyes that were almost green, but not much of a smiler. The part of me that likes looking at guys and judging them said he looked alright, but Kenny had nothing to worry about. Looking beneath the surface, with my fae sight, I could see his true, fae mein submerged beneath his mortal seeming. He was an Eshu, like my beloved Kay Neth (Kenny's other side, for those who haven't been paying attention). His true soul form looked slightly Mediterranean/Arabic but more like the ancient statues of the Greeks. Curly hair the same color as his mortal form, same sea colored eyes, but his expression in the Dreaming was more of a weathered and cheerful look. Like a young Sinbad might look like, or Jason from the story of the Argonauts. Or for those that saw Brad Pitt in "Troy," well, sorta like that.
He identified himself as Keith at first, then, bowing deeply before us, as Pyrious Solempuer. Kenny bowed deeply to his kithsman, doing that hand thing where they touch their foreheads, their lips then their heart with the fingertips of one hand and then let that hand open gracefully to the floor and a slight bow of the head. Pyrious returned the gesture to my Kay, and then began rapidly talking in what I can only assume is a language long dead to this Earth. I couldn't follow or even pick out words from what they were saying, although I could tell that some good-natured jokes passed between them a few times, with little bursts of giggling catching us all off guard. It's strange, but it almost sounded like there was a touch of Canadian accent between them as they chatted rapidly. I couldn't get anything more than that, though.
"Right this way, my lords," he said at length, gesturing for us to follow him up to the ship. I should say right now that there were several fishing boats there that had aspects of the Dreaming about them. I couldn't make out any huge cultural differences in them, like if one ship was owned by and Eshu or another that might look Nocker or Boggan. Pretty much they shared a certain look. So with any luck, they were all owned by Capricus. Keith lead us directly to the side of a fishing trawler tied up at the end of a short quay. He helped Bethy step onto the deck while leaving the rest of us to just scramble over the gunwales.
Now at about this point you're probably expecting me to say that as I perceived the fishing boat in the Dreaming that it appeared as a powerful war ship, with tall stout masts, proud, bluff lines, streamlined to the water and covered in filigree and ornate decorations. That the power of Glamour had so infused this ship with such glorious and mystical resonance within the Dreaming that the whole of the vessel seemed as crafted entirely of gold and enough sparkly jewels to make the ancient crowned heads of Europe whistle long and low in admiration and envy. That from keel to lanyard, stem to stern, and beam to beam the whole vessel was a treasure in and of itself; a vision of maritime glory and a tribute to the science and art of changeling seamanship and craftsmanship.
Once upon a time that might have been so.
In faded gilded letters painted across the back, in both the mortal world and the Dreaming, was the name Tragic Nymph. From there, things went in right angles from each other. In reality the ship looked like an older but very well maintained fishing boat like you see all over the northern shore and Cape Ann areas of Massachusetts. For those who don't know what that might look like, either go visit Glouster and Rock Port, MA, or go out and rent "A Perfect Storm." But in the Dreaming, it was more like a square rigged, race-built galleon… that had seen better days. Not that it looked unseaworthy, or even like something just three steps from total garbage scow. It just looked like the war part of warship had been forgotten long ago. Like... like it was just some kind of overdeveloped cargo ship and the crew weren't too keen on making it look like it had any glory to live up to. Strange that.
To say the least it didn't look like the flagship of any kind of naval force. And since Capricus was my father's commodore, any craft that he called home was the flagship. Not that I was looking to resurrect Cerulean's military powers, mind you. Given my choice I'd rather just be me without the trappings of noble birth.
It's a tradition among changelings as well as a New England custom that when you are receiving guests you offer them something to eat and drink. Especially with friends. Capricus, being a Satyr like me, loves company and parties and just plain enjoying life. And he probably is hyper gifted in bed too, but I'm just guessing there. At any rate, as Keith/Pyrius led us below into the fishing boat, we could tell that someone was cooking seafood, and ohmigod did it smell good. My mouth started watering like Pavlov's dogs almost before we started down the ladder. We entered the galley and the scent of grilling shrimp and boiling corn on the cob. And the heavenly scent of something baking in the oven, like fresh dinner rolls, lifting in layers, spinning yummy smells into the air.
"Yo, Dan!" Keith called out as we entered the galley. "Yer guests are here!"
"Right!" came a gruff reply. Then out strode a tall, powerfully built sailor, his beard and hair dark red but shot through with gray. His cloudy blue eyes squinted at us as he entered the dining area, his smile as warm and genuine as any I've ever seen. To you mortals his name is Daniel Danvers, but his true Satyr mother long ago named him Capricus. "My lords and companions, welcome to the Tragic Nymph!" he said, sweeping forward to shake hands, trading words at whisper range closely with Caspian/Mitch. He clasped wrists with us all in warrior tradition, and bowed over Elzbeth's hand.
"We bring you news, and a gift." I said. Kenny stepped forward and gave Capricus a long cardboard tube wrapped in simple brown paper. The tube was over 2.5 meters long and was one of those simple double-ended map storage things like you can get at any UPS store. Inside was a specially made double-ended lightsaber.
Okay, once upon a time, Capricus kidnapped Kenny and me and took us to a wild Satyr rave. During that time, he kind of noticed the double blader me and Kenny had been playing around with, just having our second favorite form of fun together. So, we worked together in Kenny's workshop and built one especially for him. The dowel blades were painted an aquamarine color with a metalflake sheen. The handle was padded with foam rubber and the entire thing was very balanced. As he opened the wrappings and fished the blade out of the tube, I reached up my hand to the Tear of Cerulean. He grinned as he grasped the blade in both hands, marveling at it.
"You crafted this for me?" he asked in awe.
"We crafted most of it for you, the last part is yours to create," I said. "Let your Glamour flow, Capricus." I concentrated and my own Glamour snaked out to envelope Capricus and the double blader. A brilliant blue flash sparked between the two of them, the Satyr and the blade. Once again I was using the power of the Tear without fully understanding it. Maybe that might be seen as reckless, but it's worked so far. Sometimes you just go with what works, no matter how crazy it seems.
The blades seemed to shimmer, warping a little. The Glamour raced around Capricus and joined him and his present, the dowels acquiring a sea green glimmer, the guards turning more open and bell like, glimmering with polished steel and copper. One end of the handle took on a more coppery look, the opposite one more dark blue steel. Almost like the needle of a magnetic compass.
When the Glamour fueled light show was over, Caspian stood holding his new double blade like I'd just given him a fleet of submersible battleships and aircraft carriers and told him to go play. I felt a little drained. I still wasn't fully up on using the Tear and it always took a lot of energy out of me every time I used it. Fortunately, I had Kenny. He knew what I had planned and what it would do to me. Wouldn't do to be seen falling on my ass in front of my advisers and warlords. Kenny just leaned against me, leaning me against him and sort of crammed us both into a bench seat.
"Every time I see you do something with that thing it blows me away," Juan said, grinning. Bethany was still staring in awe at what had become of Caspian's weapon.
"I shall name this Storm Light, in honor of the Glamour that created it and the fury it shall bring to those that oppose thee, milord."
"Carry Storm Light in good stead then, Commodore. It is your rank and privilege and authority," Kay responded. A soft blast of notes, as if from a boson's whistle, sounded, echoing through the depths of the Dreaming. A little formal, true, but such was in keeping with maritime tradition. And it served as an oath, which if you'd taken the time to read the first story I wrote, you'd know that we changelings are big on that sorta stuff.
And if you haven't read it yet, you're probably so freakin' lost by now that you're kicking yourself about it. Take that as a hint.
At any rate, with the magic show over, we let our mortal seemings regain dominance for a bit. Dan and Keith started laying out food on the table, handing out drinks, generally making themselves the busy hosts. We learned that Keith was one of Dan's main sailors and was apprenticing in the ancient traditions of seamanship, basically learning the trade of seagoing fishing boat captain. As such, and since he too was a changeling, he was the only other person living on the Nymph at the moment. Strangely, although there were only the two of them and the five of us, they set ten places as the long galley table.
"You expecting guests Dan?"
"Aye, some friends of ours should be here soon. I don't think you folk have met two of them. But one you know well."
"Permission to come aboard," called a familiar voice from above. I smiled instantly recognizing that sound.
"Since when do you have to ask permission to come on this ship, you lazy, flea-bitten scalawag?" Dan shouted up. "Permission granted, and bring yer runts with you."
"Runts?" Beth asked, arching her eyebrow. We all recognized the voice as Joey, our werewolf friend from across the river in Salisbury Beach Center.
Joey came down the ladder first and smiled broadly, his sharp, Arabic features and narrow build looking as fit and trim as ever. Behind him, also coming down the ladder like old pros, were two boys about my and Kenny's age. One was sort of plain looking, with wheat golden hair and sparkling green eyes, the other looked more like the sophisticated California boy type, with the sun kissed blonde hair and blue eyes. They seemed sort of out of place standing beside tall, dark Joey. But I think we all knew that the new guys were more than they appeared. Probably young werewolves under Joey's care. The one with the wheat hair and the baseball cap pulled down over his eyes adjusted his hat so the shadows weren't hiding his face so much. The other boy was a fidgety type, I guess he was just nervous. I was to learn that the boys were named Nick and Cody (wheat hair and blondie). We made quick introductions and then Keith, in traditionally New England fashion, calmly invited us to the table for a meal with a hearty "Dig In!"
Food has a way of making relationships happen. Acquaintances become friends, friends become allies, dates become fiancées, all over food, it seems. I could go into the whole details thing about how we listened to the werewolves at table tell of their recent adventures and how Nick and Cody came to be apprenticed to Joey about two or three weeks back. Various people told the new comers and Keith about our little tussle with a dragon a month ago. Yeah, I did my share of bragging then, but anytime we are all together and telling the story, we trip all over ourselves to tell our parts in it. Nick and Cody seemed to be happy to listen and ask questions. Seems Cody hadn't been too long in the tooth about his own supernatural nature. And Keith, well, he's just a riot. Quick witted and even tempered, just an all around good guy to hang with. I guess all Eshu have that sort of easygoing nobility thing going. I'll have to ask Kay about it sometime.
Suffice it to say, Nick and Cody were pretty cool. I kinda noticed that they sort of hung together the way Kenny and I, and how Juan and Bethy did. During the course of our story, you'd have to have been stupid or naive or just plain thick as a brick not to get that Kenny and I were gay and an item. It wasn't an issue, but for what it's worth, I could tell it wouldn't be. I was just happy to know two other fellow warriors who weren't afraid of more than comradely companionship with other males.
We kinda broke up into age groups. Which basically means that Mitch, Dan, Keith and Joey sat on one end of the galley table and started playing cards while we all sat at the other end and just chatted. After we'd finished the awesome seafood and corn dinner Keith and Dan had whipped up, and had about an hour of talking and laughing, Mitch called us all down to business.
Keith poured everyone a glass of Satyr wine from a small oaken cask, even us munchkins. We sat down around the table relaxing.
"You said you have news for me," Dan said, looking at my motley. "Well I have news for you as well. Drink!"
"To your health," Mitch shouted and downed a healthy bit of his glass. I followed suit. I should have remembered that Satyr wine packs the kick of all changeling spirits plus a healthy dose of Glamour. This time it was a very sweet apple brandy. The effects are almost as subtle as having someone smash you in the face with a brick. In a good way! Dan spoke up first.
"We drink to something other than just our health, my friends. I believe I've found it," he said, setting down his cup. We all stared at him for a few moments, except for Keith who was obviously onto things. His grin would have made a Popeye cartoon proud. I wasn't really sure what he was talking about, but I couldn't help but grin as well.
"You can't be serious," Mitch said, clearly excited but not yet able to put belief to his excitement.
"I am old friend! I found the route!"
"Back to Arcadia?" Kenny said next to me, also with his jaw hanging open in utter amazement. It dawned on me then. Arcadia is the long lost home of the changelings. It's an entirely other realm, a dimension that cannot be accessed anymore. We don't know why, but all the trods to the Arcadia realm dried up and withered to nothing long ago, which is why those of us changelings on Earth had to choose the revolving door method of maintaining our immortal souls. Continuous reincarnation instead of our unearthly perpetual vitality. In a way, we were all exiles, time tossed and dimensionally lost.
You see, for many changelings this world you mortals live in isn't just a place to exist in, it's a prison. An eternal torment of the worst type. Trapped in a place where the power of the Dreaming is limited, where the mundane depressions of reality as you know it sap the very life essence of Glamour from our souls, where our powers are blunted and our true forms have to remain cloaked in human flesh just to survive, your world is both a safe haven of existence and a reminder of all we once were and can't be until we can return to our true home.
And Capricus had just told all of us that we might have a way back to our true home.
"But how?" I was very much interested in this. I might not have any great burning desire to go back to Arcadia, but I am the crown prince of Cerulean, one of many countries in ancient Arcadia. I had set it in my mind that we'd never get to go back, so I was content to just make the most of life here. If there was a way back… could I ignore my birthright, my noble duty?
I traded a brief look with Kenny. His eyes were cautious, their intoxicating depths suddenly focusing tight. He was just as interested as I was.
"I'll explain how we found it. Keith and I were out, with a full crew, chasing a run of fish out by Mt. Desert Island. The fish weren't hitting like we'd hopped. I was about to pull in our lines and turn back when we hit a nasty squall line. My crew hauled in lines in time and we were heading back, well ahead of the storms. We tried to pull into Bar Harbor in order to just find a safe anchorage. On the way in, we got into the wind and wound up fighting heavy chop to get back into the cove. And then, out over the water, I saw it."
"An ocean trod?" Mitch asked.
"Shining like a string of pearls on black velvet," Dan said, grinning like a cat eating canary pie. "All this time, we'd been looking for a surface route. The only way I saw the trod was because of the waves. Must have been a trolls height deep under the water, pointing due northeast. If we can get into it, we might be able to get back to Arcadia."
"What makes you think that trod leads back to Arcadia?" Juan asked. "There are lots of paths through the Dreaming to other places here on this realm."
"He thinks so because of the location," Kenny said, smoothly, but with a sort of subdued tone, almost as if he didn't believe it himself. "Mt. Desert Island, Maine is the home of Acadia National Park."
That revelation sunk in slowly. I sat forward, looking across my steepled fingers, my lips against my thumbs as I looked at Dan. "Do you have any proof?"
"Milord, all I have is instinct and experience. My gut tells me that it's the trod I've been seeking through several lifetimes. I trust my gut."
All eyes shifted to me. That's the problem with being in charge, you're expected to have an opinion and an order and a command for everything. Just then, I wasn't sure how to feel. Arcadia. Home. Cerulean. So many possibilities. So much to think about and think through.
"Kay, show him the maps. We have other problems right now, but some of what you say might make more sense with the news we have. The kingdom is in peril again."
"What else is new?" Keith said, dripping in sarcasm.
"What kingdom?" Nick asked.
"There are regions that the changelings watch over, much as we do, with our caerns. They tend to take more of a guardianship approach to things within their domains. We tend to be more goal oriented within our territories, they tend to be more territorial in their goals."
"Or something like that," Mitch agreed. "This region of America is part of what we changelings call the Kingdom of Apples."
"Oh, okay," Nick nodded. "Sorry, Ah haven't had a lot of truck with fae."
"Me either," Cody replied.
"That will change," Joey said, chuckling softly.
"Here we go," Kenny said, spreading out the first map. The map of the murders.
"Sweet lord!" Dan said at length. "Are all of these marks…"
"Slain kinain," Bethy said. "Our kinsmen are being slaughtered."
"I don't see anythin'. Just newspaper with splotches," Nick said. His accent was honey from the deep south, even further away than New Jersey. My guess was that he was Cajun.
"My boys don't quite have fae sight," Joey said, laying a hand on each of the younger werewolves shoulders.
"There's a few ways we can deal with that," I said, smirking. "But I think that in this case the Enchanted Stroke is probably not a good idea."
"Yeah, I don't think stabbing werewolves is a good idea," Kenny smiled. "Use the Tear."
"Oh, right." I tugged it out from under my shirt, letting the light catch under the facets of my crystal, tiny flashes of starlight and lightning swimming in its blue depths. "Um, a slight warning, you're about to see some freaky shit. Please don't panic."
"We wont," Cody said, taking Nick's hand in his own. I noticed that they linked fingers, tightly, like Kenny and I do. That was all the confirmation I needed. Cody and Nick were a lot more like Kenny and I than I had first thought. It would be interesting getting to know these guys, not just for the werewolf angle. I had comparing notes in mind. Kenny and I only knew of one other gay couple our age, back in Canterbury, and neither of them was what you'd call legitimately supernatural. Well, okay one of them has a little something extra going on under his cap, but that's a different story (hint-hint).
"Okay." I let the Glamour out, flowing in a stream to both of them, and cast a slight modification on the Enchanted Stroke. Instead of stabbing them with a blade, I let the power of Glamour enter their mind and soul more subtly. The effect was almost instantaneous. Both the younger werewolves started looking around at the innards of the Tragic Nymph, seeing us and our surroundings as we changelings see them, two ways at once. The power of the Dreaming had touched them now and they would be forever blessed with being able to check it out this side of reality almost any time they wanted to. Well, at least as long as one of us was around to leave enough Glamour behind in the air to accidentally activate the ability again.
"Oh wow!" Cody said, breathing out as he glanced around. Nick was a little awed by Mitch's height. Suffice it to say, they saw enough of our fae mein in those first few seconds to make them a little intimidated. Beth's awesome elvish beauty, Juan's fierce and almost maniacal appearance, Kenny and Keith's ancient age sophistication, Mitch's simply intimidating physical presence and Dan and my goatish good looks. They got to see all of us in our finery, mind you. None of us was in battle armor. We were all lightly armed at most (yes, I know that SkyFire on my hip doesn't count as a light weapon, despite the fact that it's made of lightning and star light).
"I'm guessing I did it right," I said, my smirk returning.
"It's like being in the Umbra all the time," Nick said breathlessly.
"Now, back to the map," Dan insisted. "These marks show the places, times and identities of over 40 changeling murders in the last month."
"That's a lot of area to cover. Clear down to the Maryland border," Joey noted, getting closer over the map, stroking his chin. I noticed that Cody's face twitched involuntarily.
"Fortunately, the murders seem to be more up in this region," Keith said, looking over the map with a clinical eye. "And if you follow the dates and times, it's fairly clear that those responsible are traveling by conventional means."
"How do you mean?" Juan asked.
"Well, like these four marks here, along the coast in Massachusetts. These marks follow I-95 here in the north shore. I bet these six out here are following the Mass Turnpike from Worcester to Stockbridge. And that group of three just out past it, I bet that's just outside of Albany."
"Son of a bitch, he's right," Mitch said. "I should have seen that."
"Keith here is well traveled, as can be expected of an Eshu. He's originally from Calgary." Dan grinned. "But he felt the call of the sea and had to find the ocean."
"You suspect that Korbesh is behind this?" Joey's question hung in the air, letting us all mull over our own interpretations of it.
"For now, that's what we believe. He's been quiet since the dragon incident." I looked up to Juan, who was keeping his eyes on shadows in the corner. "Queen Mab has called us to court at Donna Trag's hall."
"So she is worried enough about it that she feels it is Korbesh," Dan nodded grimly. "We shall be there, Milord."
"I wasn't asking or commanding your presence, Commodore."
"Nevertheless, we shall be there." He looked up at me. Simple, direct, powerful honesty. Nothing else actively describes it. I didn't need to ask, Dan/Capricus felt such total devotion to me and my family that he only needed to know that I was going into something big to want to be there. I felt so honored to have a friend like him. I noticed that Keith nodded as well. My guess is he was as up for a challenge as any Eshu.
"What's this Korbesh guy done?" Cody asked. We all went silent. Glances were exchanged. I was nervous, but the question needed to be answered.
But before I could speak, Juan did. His voice was shaky, quivering with his emotion as he spoke. "He… tried to kill Robby, three times. He nearly killed Kenny twice, once with his own blade. He framed me for attempted murder." Bethy was right beside him, and she drew his head to her chest as he continued to speak, tears forming in his eyes. "He manipulated events to try and steal great treasures. He set in motion things that killed and maimed many changelings and could have harmed mortals. He even arranged for something that could have killed Joey to happen."
"And that chimerical drake very nearly did kill me, if it hadn't been for you four."
"And," Juan continued, "he tried to overthrow the whole kingdom. He's also… my father. My mortal father."
"Oh man," Cody said. "I'm sorry if I upset you."
"He'll be fine," Beth said, as Juan turned his face away from the rest of us, just holding Beth like a lifeline.
"He has no respect for any life but his own," Mitch said, as gently as he could for all the anger in his tone. "His treachery is only dwarfed by his ambition, greed and malice. And if he's behind all of these murders, then he's trying to draw Robby back out into the open."
"No offense, ya'll, but why is Robby so important to this Korbesh dude?" Nick asked. His accent was cute. The words kinda leaned on each other as he spoke but they came out so smooth and easy.
"Nicholas, do you remember me explaining the ranking systems of packs and tribes? How even great tribal leaders bow to the will of sept leaders and war leaders?" Joey clearly liked being the teacher.
"The same is true of changeling cultures and packs. Robby is as you see him with physical eyes. But with your newly awakened vision into the Dreaming you perceive him as something other than just a boy."
"So your kind are shape changers?" Cody asked.
"Some of our kind have that gift. We just exist two ways at once," Kenny said, inclining his head slightly. "Just as your kind exist as spirit and flesh, we exist as flesh and dream."
"And we are not creatures native to your world. We are exiles here." Bethy's voice was so calm yet sad as she spoke. "We bring our own traditions and legends with us. Yet we are allies with the Garou. Not as closely allied with all tribes and packs as this motley with your sept. But allies just the same."
"Forgive me, ma'am, but that still don't explain why this bad guy wants only Robby out in the open."
"Well, young cub, much of the truth of that lies in ancient times and the power of a name. Do you remember when we performed the naming ceremony for you and Cody?" Joey's face held that expectations look, like a teacher before a chalk board.
"Yeah," Nick replied. "When I became Shadow Foot and Cody became Speaks With Water."
"The changelings also have two names. And titles involved. You see Kenny and yet you also see Kay Neth, the Steel Eyed. You see Juan and you see Sir Croaker. You see Beth and you see Elzbeth Oaken Bow. You see Mitch and you see...."
"A big freaking blue dude with horns," Cody grinned.
"You see Reeve Caspian, General of the armies of Cerulean. You see Dan yet you see Lord Capricus, Commodore of Cerulean's ships." He paused, looking dead at me. "All of them owe allegiance and fealty to one lord. You see Robby, and yet you also see the Satyr prince, Lord Robyn the Blue, heir of Cerulean, knight of a thousand years, keeper of the Tear of Cerulean."
"So, it's political?" Nick asked.
"No. It's most definitely personal," I said, wearily. "You see, the night we were betrayed and exiled from Cerulean and Arcadia was orchestrated by Korbesh, more than 15000 years ago."
"So long?" Nick asked, looking around. "Ya'll don't look a day over 3000."
"We can discuss aging later," Mitch asserted. "This is clearly a problem we will have to deal with. If Korbesh is behind these murders…"
"Then it's a sure bet he's heading back in this direction. According to the map, the last attack happened three days ago, somewhere near Amherst." Keith came back to the table with a road map of southern New England. He pointed out the path and the major highways that connected all the dots.
"The university," Kenny gasped. "We were just there three weeks ago for the sectionals." I remembered it as well. The campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was a big sprawling complex, mixing hilly terrain and open plains. It was a wonderful place and the fencing competition was very intense. We made a few friends in the local fencing community there. We even met a few of the fae students there. To think that some of them might be dead now just served to darken my already melancholy mood.
"So he's coming back this way. Good! Maybe this time he'll have the guts to take me on directly rather than attack innocent people."
There was a quiet moment. Then Cody stood up and looked deep into my eyes. It was a little unnerving. His expression was one of almost frightening intensity. He then smiled and looked over to Joey. "Athro, he is favored of the spirits! I see Unicorn and Phoenix have blessed him. Is he part of a Silver Pack?"
"Only time will tell, Speaks With Water," Joey smiled back. "You'll have to forgive his enthusiasm," Joey said to me. "He only recently discovered his Garou nature and he is learning his path well. He has a great deal of uncontrolled curiosity, however."
"It's okay. I tend to poke my nose where it's not wanted too." I looked at Cody for a second and almost felt a moment of familiarity. "You are a theurge?"
"I'm ragabash," Nick said proudly.
"Interesting combination," I remarked. For those of you that don't speak werewolf, athro is a formal title that means teacher, a theurge is a mystic and a ragabash is a, uhm, well, it's a, ah, think of it as James Bond with more jokes and fewer gadgets. Theurges are like spiritualists and rags, well, they like to shake things up to make people think. They're also sneaky bastards when they have to be.
"We thought that everyone should have a heads-up about this threat in case Korbesh decides that our Garou allies are targets as well. He has attacked Joey before." Kenny brought out the second map and unrolled it. "Now, this is the other piece of information that we have but don't understand." He sat back, resting his hand on my thigh under the table. Not like some sort of conscious thing on his part I think. We were all still feeling very companionable after the apple brandy. Such things tend to make my Kenny multitask. He was telling me about some activities he had planned for later for just the two of us.
But we had other things to do at the moment, and usually when we're alone together like that we prefer to be alone, together, as you might expect.
Anyways, laying out the second map was a little like throwing a large, wet blanked over a single tiny candle flame. Everyone was totally perplexed by it. There weren't any points of reference on it other than some odd astrological signs, circles and lines, numbers and notations. I noticed that the one notation I thought had moved before had moved again. The difference was very slight, but because I had paid attention before it caught my eyes again.
Except for Cody. His eyes flew open wide. I noticed at once; he was enraptured by the second map. And I wasn't the only one that noticed the effect on Cody. Joey, as sharp eyed as ever, saw the change in Cody's face.
"Cody, what's wrong?" Nick asked. I guess I should have realized that Cody's boyfriend would see it, too.
"There's gnosis coming off this map. Like tons of it." He looked back to Joey and said in awe. "I bet in the Umbra there are pattern webs on this map that lead off in all directions." Oh, yeah, gnosis is the same thing as Glamour. It's just the word the werewolves use for it.
"Pattern web?" Bethy asked.
"In the Umbra, the spirit realm, magic tends to be more solid than in this physical reality," Joey said, looking around. "Physical things that are static, solid and in some cases magical have lines of magical power flowing from them. Most of the lines are spiritual pattern webs that act as magical anchors. Basically, the pattern web helps solidify things. I could explain it better, but we'll save that for another time."
"So magical artifacts in the Umbra have spider webs of power on them?" I asked, looking down at where SkyFire hung at my hip. My times in the Umbra were a little bit distracting, but I'd never noticed spider webs on my sword.
"Only if the magic is connected to some other place. What Cody means by saying that the map would have webs in the Umbra is that this map is connected to other places through magic. Whatever this map indicates, it is obviously very important." Joey looked at Nick and Cody with a slight pursing of his lips and wrinkling of his brow, as if he were contemplating the toughest decision of his life.
"Joey-rhya?" Nick asked, noticing Joey's mood as well. Clearly, Nick was highly alert and sensitive. Cody might have werewolf magic on his side, but Nick was as savvy as any of us. Joey looked at his young student and passed a hand through the boy's wheat golden hair.
"We have a difficult decision to make, my cubs. These fae are my allies and I cannot turn my back on them in what may wind up being a time of need. But I cannot speak for you in this case. If you choose to assist us, I will guide you. We may have to follow ways that are not our own, and there will be peril."
"Athro," Cody said, a bit unsteady. "If this is a threat to Gaia, then we can't sit by idly. You taught us to use our brains as well as our rage. How can we not help?" Nick looked to Cody then back to Joey, smiling. "Count us in," Cody said, grinning. "Besides, how else are we going to get to show off?"
"You'll have ample opportunity to regret that decision later, kid," Dan said, lighting his pipe. "This game has consequences."
"So does smoking, but you don't see us doing that," Nick smiled back, his wit scoring a mild nod from Dan.
"Anyways," Juan said, looking back to the middle of the room. "What does this map mean? We're still no closer to knowing."
Joey took up the challenge. "I'd have to say it's a path through the Umbra to another realm. This point here, marked 'anchorhead,' indicates a place where you can leave the Umbra near our realm and jump off to other realms." He looked across the map more, scrutinizing it deeply. "From what I can see, this is an anchorhead I've never heard of before."
"Is that usual?" Mitch asked.
"Many places in the Umbra aren't what you call static. The name anchorhead is sort of misleading. It may be an opening to another realm but it doesn't mean that it is a stationary place."
"You mean that this map might show the path of a flying trod?" Kenny asked.
"It is very likely. This may be why your kind have so much trouble finding a way back to your ancestral home," Joey said, sitting back from the table. "The trods back to your world may only be open for brief periods with long times in between."
"Can you decipher it more?"
"Mitch, this isn't just a look and go kind of map. A lot of these symbols are totally alien to me, I have never seen a lot of this before. It will take some time to figure it out. We'll have to work on it some more."
"I'll help you there," Keith said. "I'll help you research the symbols and figure the math out." Everyone looked at him oddly for a moment. "Hey, I'm a navigator. Finding the way is what I do."
"We'll take all the help we can get," I said. "If this is what we think it is, then many changelings will want to take a chance and head home."
"I wonder, if this map matches with the underwater trod we came upon up east," Dan said, puffing away. "If it does, then we have the way and the means to return..."
"Home." It was the strength with which Beth said it that struck us all. Such longing, such sadness. I felt a little homesick just hearing her say it, and I had absolutely no intention of going back to Arcadia. I had once told Kay that the throne and Cerulean were so long lost to us that even if we did return, it would be an alien realm to us now. It would not be a homecoming as much as returning to the scene of a crime, and a bid to regain our throne. Even with the crown jewels in my possession, as it were, I wasn't really in much of a mood to go chasing a kingdom. No matter how awesome it might be to become the king of my father's lands, keeping them was a different thing entirely.
Still, how could I deny others the right to return to Arcadia? There are times I'd wished I'd fought harder to just stay home instead of going to the Y and joining the Jedi class. Now I was stuck deeper and deeper in other peoples wishes, obligated. Don't get me wrong, I'm good at kicking ass, but I don't know if I wanted to keep doing it on someone else's whims. Geeks might not be brave and adventurous, but we tend to live longer and make more money. Now, the fate of countless changelings might very well be right in my hands in the form of these maps.
Sometimes, being famous and noble and honorable just seems to be more trouble than it's worth. I needed to think. The effects of the apple brandy were very much gone by this time, all the sobering thinking had pretty much cancelled out my buzz. I stood up and headed for the weather deck. Joey and the other adults present poured over the map, making notes and basically applying their logic and experience to the map. I just felt the weight of what they might actually come to understand from the maps.
I stood out on the foredeck, watching as the sun began its slow decent into the ocean. So many things fell to me, time and time again. Was this to be my constant destiny? Always obligated to take leadership, to put myself in peril for others?
"Hey," came Cody's voice behind me. I looked to the side and saw him, Nick and my Kenny walking towards me, Beth and Juan looking out over the portside gunwales at sail boats at anchor in the river mouth.
"Hiya," I said, unconsciously. Kenny smiled at me as he took the rail beside me. Nick and Cody looked out beside us.
"Remember the last time we were out here?" Kenny asked me, loud enough that the werewolves could hear us, but Juan and Bethy couldn't.
"Yeah, we were on the beach, over there," I pointed at the seawall beach on the other side of the Merrimack, at the general area of Salisbury Beach State Reservation. In the far distance we could make out the light tower that marked the point of Black Rock Jetty. "We were fencing and fooling around at the seawall. That was when the dragon came on shore."
"Dragon?" Nick asked. "You mean that story that Joey told was real?"
"Very real," Kenny responded. "But that wasn't the last time we were here," Kenny goaded.
"Oh right! The drake that almost killed Yoseph and ruined his beach house in the Umbra."
"He's rebuilt it," Nick said. "It looks so weird in there, like all old-timey."
"Victorian," Cody supplied. "He really respects you."
Kenny grinned. "We really respect him. He's been a true friend through some wicked rough times." I nodded, but looked back to the ocean.
"He says that ya'll are like ungodly awesome fighters," Nick said. There was a subtle sound in his voice that I understood at once, eagerness. In a subtle and friendly way, they were offering a challenge. I could understand it. I'd want to know what my allies can do, as well. I just never thought they'd be so direct and casual about it. I was to learn that young werewolves don't have as much restraint or tact as older ones. I guess that's an important trait since they often have to fight without reservation against enemies that are not only hideous and disgusting, but fearless and fanatical.
But we'll talk about their enemies later. Consider that a promise.
"We can hold our own," Kenny said, popping an elbow into my ribs. I grinned and gave him a sidelong glance. "Need a demonstration?"
"We're understandably curious," Cody replied. "We don't have a lot of fight training. Joey wants us to rely on instinct, mostly."
"We could train you," I said, softly. "A lot of what we know is from centuries of survival. A lot more is natural talent. So don't deny your instincts. You've had your body your whole life. It knows how to move. You have to train your mind to make the right moves, that's all."
"Want to show us?"
I looked over at Kenny, who was grinning like the Cheshire cat. "You know you want to," Kenny said to me.
"It's a little public here, don't you think?"
"We can take you into the Umbra," Cody offered.
"Okay, but let's warn Juan and Bethy first so they don't freak when they can't find us."
"Cools," Nick said. We quickly told Juan and Bethy what we were going to do and they decided they wanted to watch us fight as well. So we passed word to the elders, got their approval and found out that they wanted to watch as well. And thus, to make a long story short-er, we grabbed our lightsabres and were brought across to the Umbra. We walked a short distance to a park near the waterfront but not far from the Firehouse restaurant where I'd stabbed my parents with the Enchanted Stroke. The grass was dark and lush there, a kind of green that only magnifies it's dark luster in the near dark of the Umbra. We allowed our audience to settle in, with Mitch standing in as adjudicator. Kenny and I stood opposite each other, in human form, but our fae mein almost evident in the Umbra. It's weird. I guess in the Umbra you can chose what side of a changeling you want to see.
"Full contact?" Kenny asked, loosening his wrist with a few practice swings.
"However you want, Babe. Just don't swing at your favorite parts too hard."
"You know me," he returned, smiling. And then he activated the Dragon's Ire.
For those that haven't taken my numerous and insistent advice and gone back to read my previous story, Coupe, first, I'll describe the Dragon's Ire for you. I could just say, to some of you, have you ever seen Dragonball Z? How several of the characters there can suddenly spout energy auras and their hair dances in breezes from their own body? Dragon's Ire is a lot like that. The power of Glamour surges through a changeling's body, making him faster, stronger, tougher, allowing him to shake off the effects of pain and injury, even able to focus this glowing nimbus of power around himself in such a way that he can make a part of his body or his weapon almost completely impervious to injury.
Kenny looks awesome when he invokes the Dragon's Ire. His body glows with this silvery fire, his hair stands up and flutters like in a strong wind, and he seems to almost float, like he's weightless. I have never seen myself when I invoke. I know that I feel immensely strong, and so much faster than I already am. I once used it while showing off and lifted the back end of my father's car. It hurt, and I was sore for a few days after that, but I did it. Seeing Kenny flowing with his fire, I concentrated and engaged mine as well.
"How do they do that?" I heard Nick say.
"Ready, boys?" Mitch asked, looking at us. I nodded. Kenny came set en garde. "Full speed, one touch," Mitch said, telling us the rules. "Any wound is a kill."
"Full range?" I asked, wondering if we were intended to remain straight on, like formal fencing on a piste. I fight better with full mobility. I guess everyone does.
"Yes, and no contact with the spectators, please. And Robby?"
"No kissing you opponent until after the battle, please."
"Yes, Master," I replied.
"You're going down, Robby!" Kenny shouted, smiling. I grinned back. We might be lovers and friends, but when we faced off against each other, it was still warfare. Sometimes you need that rivalry with your boyfriend. Keeps sparks flying, you know?
"Don't sing it; bring it!"
"And...play!" Mitch said, dropping his arm between us. Kenny wasn't wasting time and he lunged in fast, going for my legs. I took the incentive as well and hopscotched myself over the attack, landing well behind Kenny, doing that movie twisting thing in midair to land facing him. Kenny grinned wider and shook his shoulders, loosening up more. We circled to each other's left and slowly walked in at each other. We moved in close enough to lock our blade tips, both of us tense as we kept pressure on each other's blades.
Kenny again surged in, stepping quick with his lead foot and twisting his arm in. This made his blade slide in along mine, trying to spear me in close. So I parried to the outside and pressed his blade up and away. I spun in, under his guard and tried to spear him in turn.
But Kenny knew that trick well. Instead of moving away from the attack, he moved with it, circling his blade around and catching my thrust on the middle third of his weapon, a modified prime parry. I bounced off his parry and spun the opposite way, hoping to catch Kenny from the other side, but he simply pivoted and caught me in a backwards secunde, blocking me again.
I pressed into his back and leaned against him, both of us back to back. He spun me to the left and I went willingly for about three steps, both of us turning against each other. Then I stopped, dropped to my knees and wildly swung backwards, arching back. Kenny caught me in an octave parry and lifted my blade up and away. I dove and rolled with the battement. I got a little distance before I could feel Kenny sweeping at my back with his lightsabre. I came up and instantly threw my blade back over my head to block.
Kenny knew how I fought. He was no slouch himself, but he had me defensive and facing away. My blind swipe had been my only serious attack. Kenny was on the move and was in a mood to show off. Which of course meant that I had to rise to his challenge as well.
I took his swipe as my back on my blade, both arms in the elbows up position, my blade across my back. I sat down, pulling his blade and mine over my head, whipping him far out of line. I completed the back somersault and came up in my favorite en garde position, blade held low, pointing at Kenny's throat. He turned and swung wide, but well off target. He was just too far away. So I ignored it. But that was part of his plan as well, because as he made the swing, he took three steps in and brought his blade back around and in, like a snake, point first. It doesn't sound sneaky, but it is, because it means he was forcing me to back up suddenly without seeing the full length of his blade. It's like being on the receiving end of a scorpion sting. And he was moving in as the thrust came at me.
So I brought my blade up, pressing his blade up over our heads. It was a perfect position for a disarm move. As he brought his blade back down, I stepped back. I dropped my blade over the top of his, completely faking a coupe to his left arm. Now for the non-fencers out there, the automatic response for any gifted fencer at this point is to lift the back of the blade into what we call parry five, or quinte. It's a quick move that you normally use to push back an attack, take a step backwards and attempt to put your point back into line. I was counting on this.
And Kenny saw it too late. As soon as he dropped his blade into quinte, I changed my attack, tried to hook his blade in a circular move, and forced him to step back in a move called a glisse. I stepped in closer, continuing the circular movement to my quarte, trying to force the blade out of Kenny's hands. But he was well versed in this move and he ripped his blade up out of my trap and stepped back, spinning to gain a little more distance, bringing his point back into a threatening position. I looked across our blades, moving in slightly. His grin was huge.
I lowered my blade, holding it down to my right side, both hands on the handle. Kenny was wise to so many of my tricks. He'd successfully sidestepped two of my traps and launched some of his own, keeping me guessing as well. And to be honest, I don't think either of us were even half worried about it. Every match was a new event. Every time was a new conversation, a new wrinkle in our relationship. We challenged each other and it kept things fresh for us both. A little competition and a lot of love. And, well, I guess I can be honest about this...fighting each other was a way of flirting between us. I don't know how it happened that way, but I have to admit, it's definitely exciting. I guess that fencing uses your body and your mind at the same time and that keeps you fit, fast, alert and competitive, all traits that I love about my Kenny.
More gay people should fence. Seriously. Throw that macho stereotype in the garbage and show the world that we aren't just some sort of deviants. Earn some respect for our brains and our skill and show off at the same time. How can we lose?
So, we circled and swung at each other, rolled about and dodged, jumped over attacks, parried and generally were laughing like idiots as we did so. I remember once we both hopscotched each other's shoes at the same time and wound up almost ten meters straight up, trading saber strikes, spinning and slashing on the way down. Must have looked like a Hong Kong kung-fu movie. Watch out, Jackie Chan! The changelings are coming.
Not to blow my own horn, but the final stroke was mine, and I have to admit, it was a desperation move. Kenny is a phenom in combat, and anyone that thinks I'm just blowing his horn about that (not that I wouldn't, wink-wink, nudge-nudge) should pick up a sword and stare him down. The final went like this.
He swept at my neck, full speed and then some. So I got a little creative. I dropped my center of gravity, bringing my blade up over my head almost parallel to the ground, which is what the traditional saber guys call parry five (the saber guys aren't always in agreement with the other types of fencers). This meant that Kenny's blade literally bounced up off mine while he went through his heroic sweep. I swung my edge behind my head and came around to the front, looking to sweep his head as well. But Kenny spun through his sweep and came around in time to parry my shot. Our blades sparked as they met and rebounded off each other. I went into a sideways figure 8 pattern, cutting up from under, hoping to get him out of position.
But Kenny knew that trick well. He was beating my attack with a simple quinte &tierce defense, which is just a back and forth move keeping his blade close to the center of his chest. So while he was doing fantastic keeping me back, he got caught up in it. I pulled a slash on my fifth time through the figure eight, switching my angle up over the top, slipped the blade down behind his and pulled this thrust and pirouette move, my body almost parallel to the ground, twisting backwards. My blade was well inside his defense, sliding along the top of his hip, just inside his hip. Had he been a fraction of a second faster, he'd have managed a weak parry. But that's the way it is with sword play. A matter of millimeters and microseconds.
Kenny smiled, looked up at me and the twinkle in his eye was pure joy mixed with exhaustion. Without him saying a word, I know what he intended to do, so I played up to it as well. I ripped my blade away from him, turning around dramatically with my eyes masked by my fore bangs, and he dropped to one knee. He gasped in pain so realistically that I thought he really was hurt. Then, as if on cue, he slashed his blade across my back. The point barely touched me, but I reacted like I'd been ripped in half. I pitched forward, face first on the ground.
Behind us, there was stunned silence. I think I heard someone gasp. We were trying very hard not to break out laughing. I made an "effort" to lean up, trying to let on that I was bone weary tired and pained. Then I collapsed again.
"Da-aad? Robby killed me again."
"I so did not kill you!"
"That's barely a scratch, look at what you did to my shirt! You got my blood all over it!"
"Ha! That's only a flesh wound!"
I sat up. "Oh, and I assume you didn't intend to strike me while my back was turned?"
"Your back was to me, you should have turned around."
"Okay boys, enough," Mitch said. We looked at our audience and saw that it had grown. A lot. Spirits in the Umbra were attracted to the display and were sitting around watching, some hovering near Cody, who was apparently translating and explaining events. The spirits weren't like ghosts, but they were sorta see through. I guess they were the embodiment of environmental spirits and like aspects of nature.
We didn't stay in the Umbra, however. The little woofers were all excited after the fight, and they were practically begging Joey to let them come join our Jedi class. I really shouldn't call them little woofers. I mean, they could rip me in half without trying to hard if they wanted, provided they can catch me (not a prospect I want to put to the test anytime soon, mind you). Besides, they are the same size, basically as Kenny and myself. Juan was a little taller, but he's older too. Basically, we had just done a huge recruitment for Mitch's Jedi classes. Joey said that he'd find a way to get us together more often so we could teach each other. Supernatural cross training!
Like I said, we jumped back to the real world, we climbed back on the Tragic Nymph for a while, and just spent a lot of time goofing off, playing 45's (that's a local, Yankee card game, kinda difficult to explain, but we had to teach Nick and Cody the rules) and chess and let the adults talk for a while. They passed some more apple brandy around and well, yeah, I sipped at some, but for the most part, we were having too much fun just being kids. Bethy and Juan stayed mostly to themselves. I don't think they were being separate in spite. I think they just realized that Cody and Nick had things in common with Kenny and me, and that for some reason, the four of us clicked.
It started getting late, and Mitch ordered us into the car. We said our goodbyes, traded e-mails and screen names and phone numbers, climbed in the SUV and headed home. We planned to meet up together sometime before the call to court. I was just happy that we had made a few connections about the maps and made three new friends at the same time. Kenny and Keith traded some hand gestures without saying anything, I guess that it must be some Eshu sign language that they only share with each other. I considered asking him about it later, but I know Kenny well enough to know that if it was important he'd tell me. For all I know, it was just an Eshu parting ritual.
Things felt so good just then. Everything was moving on track just perfectly. Friends, family, I got to show off some, we were all just a little bit tipsy from the apple brandy and well, things were feeling just, I guess the only word that fits is strong. Sure, clouds were gathering, but I felt that we were in such a good position that we wouldn't have too much trouble once things started happening. I felt like I was ready for anything.
Boy, was I ever wrong.