We pulled up to the front of the Y and emptied out, each guy taking his own saber and bag from the back. Kenny and I both grabbed the extra two bags and sabers, which for some reason meant I wound up carrying three equipment bags while Kenny managed the sabers. Well, someone needed to have a free hand for closing the car doors, I guess.
Our remaining two fencers for the new class were already waiting for us on the front steps of the Y, already registered and wearing their approved gym t-shirts and lanyards with their ID passes hanging down. Jack and Paul were an odd couple compared to the rest of us. Sven and Magnus were of a similar height, as were Nick and Cody. And it's been pretty well established that Kenny and I see pretty much eye to eye. Jack was several inches shorter than Paul. And while the older boy did have slightly wider shoulders and hips than his shorter counterpart, he was by no means what you'd call chunky. Paul had that skater-boy build, lean limbs, long torso, slender and toned.
Juan and Bethy were there as well, also geared up. The four of them, Juan, Beth, Paul and Jack, had been talking about movies and stuff while waiting and greeted us with smiles and high-fives. A few quick introductions happened as we more or less managed to get our stuff down to the lower gym. Nick and Cody took opposite sides of the double doors to the main floor of the lower gym, holding the portal open for all of us. Kenny took charge, directing us how to lay out the thick but hard gym mats on the floor. He'd been doing these classes with his father for a while, so it made sense that he arrange the set up while his father found a parking place for his huge truck.
"What is this place?" Sven asked, gesturing towards the irregular facets of the rear wall of the gym. Ropes hung down from the ceiling on pulleys attached high overhead, linked to spots in the ground where the ropes were tied fast into the floor itself.
"Oh, that," Juan answered. "There's a rock climbing class that meets here a few days a week. That's their practice wall. It's kinda fun. Maybe Master Mitch will let us use it towards the end of class."
"So, it is for learning to climb sheer surfaces?" Magnus asked.
"Yeah. A lot of little kids love that class."
"Humph," Magnus replied, lifting his head in assent. "Americans."
"Meaning?" Nick asked, dragging the "-ing" out.
Mitch came down and called the two werewolves up to the registry office. He gave us a nod towards the locker rooms, basically telling us to get ready. Juan and Bethy had a quick kiss in parting as she went to the girls' changing area. We guys went to our hallowed ground to get set up for the next few hours of upcoming training.
This was pretty much the first time that we had all our supernatural friends together at one time. And it was the first time we all kinda knew we were supernatural. So it was, well, a little cautious in the locker room, as you might kinda coulda guessed.
We dressed, putting on the gear and helping the newbies put on their new protective equipment. Nick and Cody didn't take much to get into their stuff, either. Of course, with Juan and Kay and me down in there, we did have plenty of hands to help them. The grieves seemed to give them the most trouble. Gloves pretty much speak for themselves and helmets don't need all that much adjusting. There's a subtlety to wearing leg armor, though. It has to be snug, move with you well without impeding your natural movements and be kinda airy. Nobody likes sticking to stuff through sweat, and if you're like me, you bleed off excess heat through your shins and forearms. Plus, they have to sit on your shoes the right way or they kinda dig into the tops of your feet, right at the ankle.
Jack and Paul were kinda easy to help set up, by comparison. Jack, typically, didn't need much instruction to catch on quickly. Paul might need a nudge here and there, but he was also a quick study. Of course, the fact that me and Kenny had been showing them both some fencing basics over the last several weeks since their "big time drama event" down Lafayette Square showed that they could pretty much hold their own in most fights if pushed.
But that's another story. No seriously!
The other two werewolf boys came down with their new YMCA t-shirts and ID lanyards on. We showed them their lockers and helped them get their stuff together. Magnus sort of turned up his head at the mishmash of second hand stuff we had for him. I got the feeling he was sort of a spoiled rich kid about some things. And he kept staring at me like there was something he wanted to say, but was biding his time. Sven seemed to be the mouthpiece with those two, so I answered his questions as best I could. Seems they were adjusting to a lot of changes in their lives all of a sudden. I know the feeling. Every question leads to more questions. Poor guys. I hope they caught on quick, because they've got a lot of ground to cover to catch up with the rest of us.
We got downstairs, picked up our sabers and got in line for warm ups. Master had us go through the usual slow stretching routine, added in some light calisthenics to get the blood pumping and then paired us off to start training. The first hour or so we went through teaching the newbies the basic eight blocking or parry positions of FIE style. That's the Olympic fencing style stuff. It's pretty easy to teach, but you have to literally feel how it feels to understand. I mean, if I told you that there were rote patterns of parrying and foot work, and started shouting out the technical terms like Secunde, Tierce, Prime, or just used the English terms that match, it could get really confusing.
Fencing is a visual sport, but it's also a feel sport. It doesn't make tons of sense until you do it and realize what's really going on. We needed to get that sense of hearing a concept, seeing it come at you and knowing the way your responses feel as you make your parries and stuff so the new guys could understand and react at the speed fencing moves at.
Anyways, we paired off. Kenny got Cody, which seemed a natural pairing. Bethy took Jack, for their similar heights if nothing else. Paul and Nick teamed up, and that also seemed to be a natural match. Juan and Sven became a tandem and they seemed evenly matched, even if Sven was almost 10 centimeters taller. That left me with Magnus. Man, did he live up to that name. He musta had 20 centimeters in height on me. And at least half that many kilos in muscle and bone. He was a big boy.
So we began with the basics. Foot work, learning to step and control distance. We progressed into a few rote patterns, showing the most common parry and step moves. We traded going through slash and thrust attacks while our opponent performed the rotes. For example, we trained almost twenty minutes on a three step parry and retreat move using two (low and away, wrist down), three (high and away, wrist down) and five (high and inside, wrist turned up), and showing how to turn that from a defensive move to an offensive one, gong on the attack.
Most of them caught on pretty quickly. Magnus seemed bored out of his skull. After about two hours of this we took a short break and changed partners, running the same four or five drills, but mixing them up. Your future opponents weren't going to do the same thing at you all the time, after all. You have to learn how to do the parries and such, learn the changes between them, and be able to react to incoming attacks all in the blink of an eye. Muscle memory, I guess you'd call it.
For the next hour we teased each other and showed little tricks and things. Got to give the newbies good habits after all. Plus, learning from different fencers of different heights you develop insights to your own movement and style. Which turns out to be very important when you go from sport fencing to fighting.
Which is what we were aiming for after all. Sure, this lesson was for fun and building a team, but it was also deadly serious work. We might have to rely on each other in life and death situations in the future. Knowing how our allies fight, letting them see how we do, learning from each other, well, that was the whole point of this, wasn't it? Well, that and showing off a bit.
The last twenty minutes or so, we got to do some random sparring. Literally, Master drew names from a hat. Best of five passes. Nothing too out of hand. Half speed, full gear, orders to not leave our strip or it would be a point lost. It was a chance to blow off some steam before lunch, cheer, and watch from the outside the lessons you saw earlier.
I drew Jack and was quite impressed with his ability to keep me from scoring on him. He wasn't really adept as yet at counter-attacking but he showed potential. I wasn't going full out either, but I got the feeling that Jack was learning a lot from watching me. I took him in four, with him getting a surprise coupe to my chest during a parry. He'd figured out how to let my blade carry his into a position where a simple push got contact. And in sport fencing, a contact was good enough for a point. To be honest, it's a great skill for serious sword combat as well.
Kenny got Juan, and they both turned it into a clinic. They both had a competitive spirit and went at each other cautiously, but with intent. They both scored on each other twice before ending their duel with a simultaneous hit, both of them going into great fake death scenes as they fell over. That let off a lot of tension. I just laughed my fool head off, watching my boyfriend and my best friend cut up like that.
Sven drew Bethy and she surprised him by taking him in three passes. He worked hard for them, though. Her shorter height gave him an advantage, but they both had that long-limbed sort of body type. They stayed disciplined and focused, although when Sven fell after the second hit, he graciously accepted Bethy's hand up. He might be proud, but he wasn't stupid or rude. That earned him a lot of points with me. With Bethy too, it seems, for she thanked him for the match and praised his skill… in the German language no less. That caught the attention of both the tall European boys. Sven beamed at her like he'd gotten the only gold star in class that day.
Cody's name was next out of the hat, followed by Paul's. They were a lot more evenly matched than I'd have thought, with Paul likely having the edge in strength. Cody wasn't as nimble as Paul either, but with his more compact body style, Cody was more centered. The match went to five passes, the two of them trading hits back and forth. The last pass ended in a draw, both of them poking their blades past each others guard to land point first to the chest protector. And that last one they both went at it hard. Their chests were heaving. Paul smiled as he pulled his helmet off and tapped Cody's blade, the fencer's version of a high five. I think they'll be good friends. Then again, it's hard not to like Paul once he lets you into his circle. Cody too for that matter.
That left Magnus to square off with Nick. At the time, I didn't know there was family issues between these two. Seems Nick's mom and Magnus' dad don't exactly like each other. In that "I want to rip your head off and shit down your neck," kinda don't like each other way. I'd say the Dreaming had a hand in putting this match together, but it could have just been dumb luck.
Anyways, in typical Nick fashion, there was much trash talking during the match. And before it. And between passes. I thought he'd never shut up. Even when he lost points he was bragging and making rude comments about Magnus' form, his personal habits, the smell from his direction, his hairstyle, his accent… Nick was just slamming him from every conceivable direction, trying to get Magnus mad, distracted, off his game.
It didn't much work. Magnus took the first two passes. He had to work for them, but he got them clean. Nick didn't seem to mind losing the first one. He took it personal losing the second one. He made a point on the next pass by surprising Magnus with a spiraling parry move and a sudden step in, thrusting hard. I think even Nick was surprised by that very Zorro-esque attack. Magnus was angered to see Nick's point land on his shoulder. He cut Nick's blade aside with a vicious swipe after the point was called. Nick's smug grin told me enough. He didn't care if Magnus scored on him the rest of the day, much less the rest of the match. That one point was enough to make Magnus never underestimate slim, brazen, big mothed Nick again.
Before they could get to the next series of passes, however, Master called a halt for lunch break. Nick tapped Magnus' blade and said "no hard feelin's?" to which Magnus simply grunted and nodded. Man of few words that Magnus, but he puts his emotions into them. Even if he can't filter those emotions sometimes. I would come to appreciate that about him. You always knew where you stood with him, even if he was still figuring out where that was himself.
So, somewhat sweaty, a few of us with a level of appropriate stink, we changed back into street clothes (keeping the cups in play, of course!), and busted over to Sal's Pizzeria (Straight From Boston's North End!), next door to the Y. The guy behind the counter recognized our core group at once and waved. We ordered some slices, helping Magnus and Sven with their selections, grabbed some tonics and a bottled water each from the cooler and took up the corner with the windows that sort of faced the Greek Orthodox church across the street.
Hard to believe we'd eaten just a few hours before. Magnus and Sven seemed kind of dumbfounded by the pizza at first, but a few sniffs and watching Nick practically drink a slice in one gulp was all they needed to join the bottomless pit club. The sound of chomping and slurping was only interrupted by the occasional burp or request to pass the cheese (never directed at Nick after this morning!).
Magnus kept staring at me. I should explain how we were seated. There really isn't enough room in the booths for all ten of us. So we pushed together three tables. This allowed us all to sit together and still sit with our prospective partners. Kenny sat to my right, with Bethy and Juan sitting on my left. Going around the clock from Kenny's side were Cody, Nick, Magnus and Sven, Jack, and Paul. Now Magnus and Sven were tall lanky guys, just a few months from the kinda bulk you'd expect on like a linebacker, you know, muscle wise. Easily the biggest kids in our new class. Got that European soccer boy look, too. All speed and power and business.
Now that the image is in your head a little, I can say it was kind of weird looking across the table and seeing Magnus staring at me as I ate. Oh, he looked around from time to time, and of course concentrated on his food. But when there was nothing going on with his mouth, his eyes seemed locked onto me. In that predatory sort of way that unnerves the fuck out of you. Honestly, had I been a normal kid, and not seen the things I've seen lately, it might have made me wet my pants having a guy three years older than me look at me like I might be a late night snack.
And, well, he is a fucking werewolf, ya know?
"So, if you don't mind, what are your stories?" Jack asked, his voice sounding calm and measured. When Magnus didn't respond to it, and Sven's less-than-subtle elbow to Magnus' side garnered no response, Jack switched to what I assume was German. I believe he asked the same question, but hearing it in his native tongue got Magnus' attention. Bethy's as well. Thankfully, he replied in English, saving us all the horrors of Google Translate.
"We are students now, here in America. Our… uncle watches over us. We learn with our… cousins," Magnus said, nodding towards Nick and Cody. "It is a recent change for us."
"Our father was called back home, on business," Sven added, putting his drink down. "It was a sudden thing."
"Very sudden," Nick agreed, but I felt no sarcasm in his statement. Just a sort of sadness. "Ya'll know ya'll are welcome with us anytime, right?"
"We are thankful," Sven replied. "And we look forward to talking about… swimming."
"Oh, yeah. Swimming is great!" Nick smiled back. Cody blushed visibly. Not sure what that was about, but okay, moving on.
"You don't strike me as brothers," Bethy said, smiling at the two tall boys. She glanced sideways to Juan and grabbed his hand resting on the table. "I sense a different kind of relationship here. I hope you don't find me rude to suggest that," she added, looking back at the foreign werewolves.
"No, you are very perceptive, sword lady," Sven replied. "I was adopted. Father literally took me off the streets of Oslo. I had been abandoned by my parents. I am… so grateful that he found me worthy to bring into his home." A look passed between the two of them. It seemed like Sven was asking permission, and Magnus nodded slightly, his squinty eyes closing slowly and opening equally slowly, like a cat laying in sunshine.
"Magnus and I were raised together as brothers," Sven continued. "But you are not far wrong. We have kept a big secret. Father would not approve. We have not expressed in the physical ways, but there is more to us than just brotherhood." Sven seemed a little embarrassed to say so, and Magnus took that moment to look away coyly. They could be so cute when they aren't looking out of place with the rest of us.
"Well, I think it's awesome to have you join our class," Paul put in. "We special types need to stick together."
"Uh, not to probe or nothin'," Nick said, looking across at Paul and Jack, "Ah mean, Ah get why we're here. And Ah think we all know what those four are up to," Nick said, nodding his head first towards his side of the table and then towards we changelings. "Ya'll don't seem to fit the mold as much. Ah ain't bein' rude, mind ya. Just wantin' to know what's what and who's who."
"Actually, that is a fair question," Jack responded, even as Paul was opening his mouth to say something. "I'm only slightly less normal, physically speaking than any of you. I might not be as strong as some, or as gifted in other physical ways. But in my case, it is the things that can't be seen, which can't be openly calculated that make me different from other kids."
"Yeah, that much is true," Paul said, rubbing his hand through Jack's hair. Jack smiled at this, a rare and awesome smile from him.
"And you?" Nick asked. The werewolves' heads were like watching a tennis match with the exchange.
"I'm not really sure what I am," Paul said. "There was a big problem several years ago that affected my parents. Kinda gave me abilities that don't fit what's normal. I'm not sure what the term would be. We're still figuring out what all I can do."
"They're being modest," I said. Was about to say more but that first phrase got me a kick under the table form Kenny and at least one other person. My bet is it was Bethy.
"Uh, what Robby means," Kay said, giving me a sideways glance for emphasis, "is that there were events that happened earlier this summer that tested Jack and Paul. And they survived under highly difficult circumstances."
"Er, right," I agreed. "And the circumstances were kinda like the things that the rest of us have dealt with. So it seemed a natural fit to bring them into this class. You know, likely be stuck in the same situations with each other and all that."
"Highly unlikely," Magnus said, dismissively. There was that heavy stare again. And the arrogance. A weird silence fell on the table as Magnus continued to glare at me like I was dangling meat in front of him, (not that meat, ya pervs!) teasingly.
"Yeah, well, Jack and I are kinda together. Like, dating, I guess."
"Dating fits," Jack replied, proudly. "We are enjoying not being alone anymore." I was kinda proud of Jack for saying that. He and Paul had come a long way in a short time. I'm hoping they would stick together for a while and the looks they gave each other when they thought no one was looking seemed to imply they would. So many teenage romances end quickly. It's a process kinda a lot like trying on shoes. You gotta find the right fit. If it doesn't fit, you stick them back in the box and try the next size over.
All of this occurred while the speakers overhead switched from an old Elton John song called "Empty Garden" to Shinedown's "Second Chance." The lyrics were so familiar to me that I was almost singing them, thinking them in my head as we sat there. It was working some kind of subliminal thing on me, but at the time I didn't feel it. Thinking back on it now, it almost seemed programmed to fit my mood. Or to influence it. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you need to hear those two songs, back to back.
Jack and Paul seemed to be that perfect combination of getting that right size the first time, even if Paul was almost a full head taller than Jack. Make no mistake though, while Jack was the younger and smaller of the two, most of the time, Jack seemed to be in the driver's seat. Oh, I don't know what they did when alone, or how far they've gone yet. Nothing like that. But where brains and forethought are the rule, Jack took the lead. Paul seemed more the kind to take charge when quick decisions were required. One was intellect, the other instinct. Together, they were awesome. I'm lucky to call them friends.
Across the table from me, I heard Sven whisper something to Magnus in German. I heard him use the "schatzi," word again, in that universal tone that lovers use to just each other. The same tone that Kay uses when he calls me "Bu," which despite its cute sound, is actually sometimes a short form of "Butt Head," a nod to both my general horniness as well as the horns above my eyes.
ANYWAYS, Sven whispers something sweet nothing-ish to Maggie in German and Magnus turns his head towards Sven and answers, but not in German, with something that sounds like a cross between a bark and a chuff. Nick's ears visibly perked up and he exchanged a look with Cody. Not sure what was going on with the woofers, but apparently it wasn't for our ears.
I began to wonder if this alliance was going to come with some new, hidden caveats. And no, I didn't have to look up that word. My parents were huge on words and their meanings and their usages. They forced me to use words creatively and to research words I was unfamiliar with. I'm a lot smarter than I look… and act. I actually was thinking about our group situation with the word caveat in mind.
And in that moment, I felt the loss of my parents, suddenly. The knowledge that I'd just put dirt over them the day before hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn't help the tears that flew to my eyes in that moment. I mean, it was so sudden. I literally could hear Mom yelling at me to "look it up!" when I asked her what a word meant, or hear Dad call out the spelling as I leafed through the pages of the huge dictionary on top of his research library case. He was always telling me that most of the answers he needed for what he did were in the pages and books in that short shelf stack beside his desk.
That sense of loss, that emptiness, just washed over and into and through me, carried me off, smashed me into the rocks and dashed me on the shore, only to surge back into and under me, lifting me back out to a cold, painful place, scraping me on the seashells of sorrow.
The look must have been really easy to pick up, because I saw Bethy's face change almost at once. Kenny's hand was on my back, rubbing small circles between my shoulder blades. Beth had her arm across my shoulder, rubbing my neck. I just couldn't take that memory right then. I put my head down in folded arms and sobbed against the table. Cody had been quick enough to move things out of my path as I went to the table top. Which, considering my hard head (and horns) was a wise move on his part. Probably saved his own pizza.
Not sure how long I sat there, crying like a pussy. When I looked up, Magnus and Sven had gone back to the Y, along with Jack and Paul and Nick. Bethy and my Kenny were still comforting me, with Cody and Juan standing guard.
"You okay, beloved?" Kay asked, when I finally pulled my head up. I gave the quick explanation of what had gone through my head before the tears started falling like Niagra. Cody patted my back and moved chairs around, reminding us that we needed to get back for class.
"I'll be okay, Kay, okay?"
"Okay," he replied, grinning. "At least you didn't go face first into the pizza. I doubt I could fix that kind of cheese burn with just the stuff on the table," he said, reminding me of our first lunch date together after our first Jedi class together. I'd burned my tongue… wait a minute! Why am I explaining this to you? Go back and read Coupé if you want the full story of that.
I got other things to tell you about here, and time is running short.
We took care of our trash and headed back over to the Y. It's a short trip, being only next door over, so we had enough time to run into the locker rooms and retrieve gear, change shirts (back into that sweet sweaty stuff), and pick up our sabers. I took a few moments to check my face in the bathroom. My eyes had leaked quite a lot and kinda made a mess of me. I don't know why crying turns every little bit of dirt and sweat into a river of dark, but it does. I washed my mug, reminded myself that this was what I needed to do. What Mom and Dad would want me to be.
Joy and Light, he'd called me. Can't be Joy and Light if you're crying all the time. They would want me to go on, to find my "great destiny" and to live my changeling life to the fullest. Yeah, that's what they would want. Either way, I was last out of the locker room. When I got up there, things in the class had… changed.
As I came back to the floor of the lower gym, rolling my wrist around with my saber in hand, I nearly ran into Magnus' bulging chest muscles. His pecs were wide and deep, especially with his forearms crossed under them, looking, for those who know, kinda like the way the rocky shelves of the Watch sort of bumped out of the side of the forested hill near Kenny's house. Oh, the Watch is what we in Canterbury call Watching Rocks, a formation of stone platforms that poke out like a natural fortress. Local kids have been playing at the Watch since before the town had a name. Everyone knows about it, but that's another story.
Getting back on track, Magnus was doing his imitation of the Berlin Wall (history, bitches; look it up!). And doing it right in front of me. Like on purpose in front of me. He only changed into his gym shirt and shorts, had the lanyard on and the hockey grieves, but none of the other protective gear. I was taking it for granted that he hadn't removed the cup from before lunch, so, you know, short of kicking him in the nuts, I had to assume he still had it. He also had that big freakin' red saber in his hand.
"Uh, what's the deal, there, Killer?" I asked, matching his stare. Something subtle happened around us as we locked eyes. It's like the tension between us jumped enormously and flowed out to everyone else. They all sensed it. How could they not?
"I call you out. You are not fit to lead. You cry easily. I will not follow someone who is soft and weak."
"Gaia, Magnus, this isn't the…" Cody started, about to step between us, but Sven put his hand on Cody's shoulder, slowly shaking his head.
"It is the Way," Sven said, sadly. Cody simply looked at Sven for a moment before nodding his agreement. Uh, what the fuck, over? My friend was agreeing to whatever this dip-wang had in mind? Then it hit me. Were-WOLVES. This was an ancient tradition among their kind. A dominance challenge. Something I had to deal with personally. No help.
So I turned my head back to Magnus. I only came up to just under his chin as he stared down at me. Which was fine by me. He might be a werewolf when he changes, but I'm a Satyr all the time. And as close as he was standing in front of me, glaring, nostrils flaring, it meant that my head, and thus my horns, was level with the center of his chest. Ask Nick what that feels like when I'm just playing around!
"You are weak, and unfit to lead," he repeated, softly but with emphasis. Like it was an insult. Well to me it sure felt like one.
"Because he's mourning the death of his parents?" Paul shouted, outraged. "You honorless, soulless…" Paul began, leaning forward, despite Jack standing in front of him, hands on his boyfriend's chest.
"He is a pathetic soft paw weakling, without the skill or strength to effectively lead us in combat," Magnus said, sticking out his massive chest, proudly as he continued to stare down his nose at me. "He makes play of sword arts. I have been bred and trained for war since my birth! Clearly, I would be a better war leader than this small, mewling whelp."
"You challenging me, Magnus?" I replied, keeping my tone normal, no question mark raise at the end. I wasn't questioning his questioning of me, I just wanted to make it clear that I took his challenge seriously. And I kinda was hoping he'd take the way out without losing face. I didn't want to embarrass or humiliate him. Unless I had to. Besides, he spoke excellent English. Knew the big and funky words and everything. I needed him as an ally, not a rival.
"Oh boy, here we go again," Nick muttered. He reached out and dapped and finger-explosioned with Juan, who returned the gesture without taking his eyes off the scene of Maggie and me staring down. They had bonded in our training and since the scuffle at my parents' graveside. There was a friendly rivalry there, but respect as well.
"Boys!" Mitch shouted, getting both of us to look his way. He used Caspian's voice and let me tell you, in the lower gym of the Y, with the place empty except for us, all the irregular shapes on the walls from the rock climbing set up and the bleachers pulled a third of the way out on both sides, his loud is like an amplified guitar set on eleven. And the echoes even had that power as well.
So of course we both looked over. Stare downs are one thing, but not reacting to a loud command shouted so nearby, with that voice no less, was about as likely as fish growing on pine trees.
"If you two have a grievance, I suggest you settle it the old fashioned way. First to three lethal hits wins. Agreed?" Mitch asked. Yeah, he asked it, but it was a command from an adult to two kids under his care. It was also the weapons master taking back control of his class. That student-teacher relationship dynamic, er, thing. Whatever.
"Agreed," Magnus said, his voice low and growly.
So naturally I had to pop off as well. "I'll try to make this quick for you, Maggie. You need the practice."
Now since discovering I'm a Satyr and, like, mega-amazing with a sword, I have kinda been a bit of a showoff. Yeah, I know, so out of character for me, right? But I find myself liking the spotlight at times. Maybe not all of the time, but fencing had become a sort of performance for me. And I had an audience just then, both on the sidelines and at the other end of my saber, that being the big lanky werewolf boy. So it was time to put on a show. Well, that and win this challenge to my authority by an older upstart who thought his shit was gold-plated, rose-scented and fortified with vitamins and minerals.
To put it mildly, after my emotional crack up about my parents at the pizza joint, I was in a mood to kick some ass.
"Fencers, toe your lines," Mitch commanded and we moved away from each other. Magnus made no move to put on his helmet, gloves or chest protector, so I quickly stripped off my shirt, peeling off the chest armor. I heard gasp from the side as I turned to toss the protector off the mats. Juan and Bethy hadn't seen my shoulder since Cody's healing touch. Kenny was whispering to them as I put my Y shirt back on and adjusted the lanyard. Usually when I fence, I simply push the lanyard around so it's behind my back instead of in front where it can get snagged in a blade. This time, I tucked it back down the roomy tee shirt and tucked the front of the shirt into the waistband of my gym shorts.
I looked across as Magnus stood his ground, but instead of a fencer's en garde position, he stood facing me full on, square to the line, his enormous red lightsaber held with both hands, blade up bisecting his eyes as he stared me down from about three meters away. Unusual for a fencing match to begin like a Conan movie, but I had the feeling this was not going to be a by the rules event. Which suited me fine.
I took my position, in normal fashion. I even made a show of wrapping my free arm around behind my back and bowing to Magnus as well as saluting with my blade. Mitch looked back and forth between us, and I could tell he thought this was a bad idea. Not because he thought I could lose, but because he felt that this would rapidly get out of hand. Everyone on the sidelines clearly thought the same, it was plain on their faces. Even Sven, who was still new and slightly enigmatic to me, had a look of trepidation on his mug.
Kay locked eyes with me briefly. His awesome gray eyes imparted so much to me in that look. Love, naturally, concern, and a subtle warning not to over-do it. I winked at him, just to let him know "message received, beloved," then I turned my full attention to the other end of the fencing strip. Magnus waited, a silent storm of unknown type, waiting to crash into me, head on.
Mitch held his hand up between us, and called out "allez," and dropped his arm away. He might be officiating officially, but it was my office on the line here. My hand alone that had to drop this challenge. As Mitch's hand fell away, I took in a deep breath, and waited. I didn't have to wait long.
He came in fast, almost charging in like for a fleché move, where you run almost past the other fencer and stab into the target area with your point. But he remained upright, swinging his blade diagonally for my blade, to hit it about in the middle. So, arrogantly, I let him. Turned out to be a mistake. He hit my weapon so hard that it knocked my point clearly out of line. Almost immediately he attempted to decapitate me, swinging his blade up in a perfectly timed reverse of the beat attack he used to push my blade well clear of any chance to parry. I had to take two steps back, keeping my fencing position to limit his target zones.
His blade swept past my nose by less than ten centimeters (that's a tad under 4 inches for you old types that don't do metric). I brought my point back up and around, my eyes opened to the kind of strength that Magnus brought to the party. And the reach he had with those long wings of his. I readjusted my plan to account for him using that strength. I knew I couldn't match it, not directly.
Magnus kept the pressure on, making two crossing diagonal slashes at me. I ducked the first and parried the second, using a little trick to slide my point in closer to his chest over the parry. He caught on to that trick quickly though, and spun his blade in a circular move that put my point outside, again. His strength was backed by skill, I realized, as he stepped back and then lunged in, trying to let out all that pizza I'd carefully packed away in my belly less than half an hour before.
But that pizza was mine now, and I wasn't going to let it go so easily!
We were pretty far down the strip, near the warning line when he made that lunge. So, I took a shuffling step forward and a bit to the left, which left Magnus' back, belly and shoulder (and head) exposed to an attack. He was strong and fast. I was quick. In fencing, quick beats fast at close range. I "felt" more than saw Magnus try to bring his lunge back my way and stroke his blade through my torso. I ducked under that return stroke and switched footing, my left foot coming forward to land beside his right foot. That's when I struck, landing my point into his tummy, pulling the strength of the hit since we were sharing the same oxygen, being so close. He tried to jump back from it, but I was dropping to my knee as I speared into him, my elbow still cocked. Had the blades been live, and had I extended my arm through that attack, he'd have been pierced from belly to back.
"Point!" Mitch called out. Magnus shouted in frustration, turning away from me and growling something in a combination of German and barking growling words that I assume had to be in the Garou language. "Toe your lines."
We got back on our spots, claps and hoots coming from the sidelines among the changelings, although the other werewolves were silent, as if observing some ancient protocol among their kind. Jack and Paul looked on in wonder but also kept quiet. Mitch waited for us to get into position again, and then he dropped his hand.
Now, when I say that Magnus came in fast before, it was an understatement. This time he came in wicked fast! A straight spearing thrust, straight for my eyes. Watching that point coming right for my noggin got more than just my attention. I swatted a quick parry in quarte to brush the attack aside, strongly. He had closed distance and attacked again. He clearly wasn't into doing things the fencing way, not like Olympic rules or such. But he'd clearly also been trained to use sharp, pointy things to cause pain and other dismemberment type things. I had to up my game.
Maggie swept his blade through a low attack, and when I say swept, I mean like from the ground to about groin level. He wanted to take away my feet, I guess, which is a good tactic. I hopped over the swing, easily and the momentum took me back a good meter or so. He pressed in again, his time coming with a lateral cut across my midsection that would have made me half the boy I used to be, if things were sharper than a boiled egg with our training sabers. I stepped back and parried with an almost perpendicular prime, or parry position one, and took another step back, disengaging my blade, bringing the point rapidly back to en garde.
Not missing a beat, he continued his phrase of assault with a back spin and two-handed diagonal slash coming to catch me over the shoulder and down through the body, right to left. It was a power move, and one he knew would take a lot out of me. But he was too close after that spin, actually stepping into me as he turned and he knew it. I was going to feel this one.
The red lightsaber blade slashed down at me and I chose to intercept it. But it was time to stop playing by the nice rules. He was clearly going for more of a fight than a fencing bout. So if he was pulling out all the stops, so was I. I stepped back with my leading foot, something you simply do not do in traditional fencing forms, and brought both hands to the saber blade. I raised up my weapon to parry him in what saber guys call parry five, a move to block attacks at the head. I caught his blade's foible with my middle third and with a brute strength move of my own, shoved his weapon well over to the left, so my blade was pointing to the ceiling and his was well out of position to hit me.
Which didn't stop him from ramming his shoulder into me and knocking me to the ground. I had been so proud defending that power slash move that I didn't think he'd have a response to it. Again, I was underestimating Magnus' skill, combat savvy and smarts. I really need to stop doing that.
So, he knocks me on my tail. And, I can admit, it hurt. Like a lot, it hurt. He's much bigger and stronger than me, so, yeah, when the 16-year-old German boy smashed into a scrawny 13-year old you like a ton of bricks you feel like you've been hit by, well, a ton of bricks. And he wasn't done yet.
As I hit the ground, he came set over me, one foot near my hip, the other, well, not entirely sure, but I prayed he wasn't about to stomp me in the nards. There might be a cup in play, but that mostly protects from whacking, not stomping. He shifted his weight above me, bringing the point of his weapon around to smack me someplace chest-like. I didn't have time to estimate his target or even to ask him how he was enjoying the fight so far. I needed to act!
So, I rolled my butt up off the mat, planted my feet in his tummy and goat kicked him, hard. He must have fallen completely over when I launched him like that, and I think he actually rolled when he hit the ground, because he was almost 4 meters down the strip from me. (Yeah, that's like 13 feet or so. You, in the back, with the calculator, keep up!) Along the way, he'd dropped his saber, but the knock down took a lot of wind out of me. I was a few seconds before regaining my feet.
When I did, Magnus was on one knee, recovering his weapon and had his eyes locked on me. I swear, for a moment, I thought they flashed a little bit red. And yeah, I can admit that was a little intimidating. But I was doing what I live for, so I wasn't about to back down. Not that I ever do anyways.
From the sidelines, no one was sitting. There was a sense that this had just gotten all kinds of serious. Sven whispered something to Cody, who looked angry, but kept his place. Nick still had an interested yet passive expression. I could read worry in his eyes, but I had the feeling that he wasn't going to be interfering, as long as others kept their snouts out of it as well.
Juan clutched at his saber, expectantly. Bethy kept a stoic calm, the point of her blade down under folded hands on the pommel. Jack and Paul both had their weapons in hand, but they kept them slack. I think a lack of understanding of what was going on had changed to a full knowledge at that point, with those two.
Kay simply stared, smiled back at me. Gave me a thumbs up. He could see me trying to get my breath back after that impact. Being thirteen himself, I think he fully understood. I could feel my heart beating staccato rhythms out on my rib cage again, reminding my of my only recently changed geek status.
Magnus stood, rolled his shoulders back and brandished his weapon, bringing the point up between his eyes again as he stared at me. He rolled it through a couple of back turns over his wrist as he came at me again. I flicked a quick sideways figure eight before me as he closed and we clashed blades again, this time going diagonally at each other, locking at about the middle of our weapons.
His knee came up and landed on my crotch. Thank the gods for plastic nut guards. The impact was enough to double me over and shove me away, but the "dingly-danglies" didn't take a crushing scrunch. He had, however, grabbed my lightsaber's handle as we went corps-a-corps and he kept it with him as I tumbled by the wayside. He tossed my blade aside and moved in for an easy kill.
"You are soft and weak!" Magnus taunted, moving in to spear me. I rolled to the side at the last minute, barely avoiding the tip as it sang in. Then he stepped on my shoulder with his left foot, pinning me in place, fully open, and dropped the point of his red saber right on my sternum with a reverse grip downward thrust, like planting a flag.
"Point!" Mitch called out quickly. Magnus waited an extra moment after the point award and leaned over me, grinning fiercely with teeth that belonged more on the werewolf he was than on a kid his age.
"Weak!" his whispered to me, twisting his foot on my shoulder before stepping off and walking towards his end of the strip.
"One point all. Fencers, toe your line," Mitch commanded. I gingerly got to my feet, but made no attempt to go get my saber. He'd hurled it nearly across the entire gym floor, and it lay about where center ice would be if the hockey rink were set up. Magnus assumed his normal, square to your opponent stance that he preferred. I decided that if I was going to use my full skills and knowledge, I was going to do it right. So I placed my left foot towards Magnus on my starting line, bent at the knees and shook off the pain of both that earlier shoulder charge and the groining he gave me. I made a show of swinging the shoulder he'd stomped on before reaching out towards my saber.
I farted loudly and then sang out a long "Baaaaaaa!" goat note, which was really sort of musical and operatic, if I do say so myself. That was all the bunk I needed to power the Hopscotch cantrip. The saber with the same color as my eyes flashed up from the gym floor as if launched from a catapult and landed in my hand, hilt perfectly in my palm.
Magnus' eyes popped open a bit at that. Clearly, he didn't think enough of me to think I could manage such a feat. Then again, he was probably still wondering how strong my legs must be after that booting I gave him. It seemed to change his strategy suddenly. Because now he moved in slower, more deliberately, when Mitch called the next pass on with a hand drop and a shouted "allez!"
"No more points. No more games. This ends it," Magnus said.
"Agreed!" I called out and I ran at him. I slashed wildly at his feet, getting him to go for a low block and then completely leaped into the air, twisting through my long axis (Yeah, I know, but calling it the short axis gives some pervs different ideas), well over his head. I landed behind him and tried a short, tight cut to the midsection, about belt height on Magnus. He had turned as I flipped over him, though, and with a slight step back, he parried my slash with ease. His counter was predictable, but no less impressive, a double handed vertical chop that started over his shoulder, aiming to cleave mine.
I used a nifty trick and blocked his blade strike with the pommel of my weapon, using both hands to stave off his strength, then lifted my right foot to his hip and pushed hard. He went down, and I had to take turning a step back in balance, but it thwarted his attack. He was very agile, though and regained his feet quickly. I resumed my goofy foot stance, bent over a bit, blade held up over my head like a scorpion's tail.
"Tricks will not save you, small one," Magnus said.
"Let me guess," I said, mocking him with a bad movie imitation Russian accent, "You must break me?"
"Yes," he said, completely missing the irony of it. I guess he didn't get HBO where he's from. But he was serious, and I realized that I needed to be as well. This wasn't a fun sparring event like when Kay and I go at it. This had so much on the line. And he meant to beat me.
And just to show me he meant to beat me, he changed forms. It was a subtle thing, at first. Until he suddenly grew out a short Thor beard and his hair suddenly sprouted from his head, and almost everywhere else I could see. He didn't go full werewolf on me. More like that in between form that looks like a caveman. He got bigger, stronger-looking, and certainly taller.
The other thing I noticed when he did that was his blade grew as well. Nick had helped both the German boys do something called talisman dedication or something. He said it would help them always keep the blades with them and that they would shift forms appropriately with them as they shifted. Magnus' blade had been the regulation size for the Jedi class, about a meter past the handle. Now it was almost a third longer. Not sure if that length would help him against me, but it did mean he had a longer reach, along with his longer arms as well.
Gee, aren't I glad these guys are on MY side!
"oh shit," I mumbled, realizing that if he was much stronger than me before, this change probably meant he could seriously injure me with one hit. I raised my blade in salute. We'd both just agreed to it, that instead of going to three hits, this one would tell the tale. It was do or die time.
"Honorable surrender is acceptable. Agree to follow me and all this ends. I wont have to hurt you," he said, his voice much deeper in register now, sounding a few years younger than Caspian.
"You will be the one honorably surrendering," I replied, keeping my tone even, not letting the sudden worry enter my voice. And for once, it worked. No squeaking, no cracking, no sudden changes in pitch. Yeah, even with all the adrenaline pumping in my blood, I managed to keep calm. A subtle boom, as of distant lightning echoed through the building as I said this. I thought for a moment I only heard it in the Dreaming, but all the others looked around as well. Then again, they were all now attuned to the Dreaming at one level or another. I had other things to focus on.
Magnus came at me again, and if I thought he had been fast before, he was at least twice as fast now. Only the greater distance between us saved me from an easy slash through the knees this time. I hopped over his blade and caught it from behind as he came to a stop, just beyond my blade's reach. This prevented him from making a simple lift and sweep across my belly and I bounced his weapon up over my head. I spun inwards towards him and lashed out with my blade. He then did something that amazed me. You see, so far, he'd been keeping a solid vertical base. No single leg moves, no leaping attacks, even his running moves were balanced and grounded.
He leapt up over my blade and tried to kick me in the face this time. Only reflexes from sparring with Juan saved me from getting a boot to the head. I dropped to my knees, sliding a bit and on instinct somersaulted forwards. The passing of his blade behind me was like a wind on my stubby tail. I halted my roll and reversed it, rolling backwards, ass over teakettle, as he followed and tried to lay that huge lumber of lightsaber across my back. He was too far forward with that lunge to stop me from regaining my feet behind him, but he had enough presence of mind to sweep his blade laterally behind him to keep me from rushing his unprotected back.
I think he realized that his altered form, while stronger and arguably faster, wasn't very quick compared to his normal human form. And the lightsaber's length wasn't much of an advantage against a smaller person. I was able to rabbit around faster than he could bring that long point to bear, so he shrank back to normal, that telephone pole red saber reverting back to just having an over-sized handle, but regular length blade.
"Oh, look!" I called out, taunting him. "It can learn from its mistakes!" I instantly chided myself to stop antagonizing him like that. Despite this challenge, I needed him as an ally, and a willing one at that. Not a reluctant soldier, but a committed one. Kay's admonition to not be a pig-headed Satyr came back to mind.
I don't think Magnus appreciated my dilemma on that mark, though. For he came in with renewed vigor and aggression. I parried a low strike with Two, a high strike with Three, shifted weight quickly to counter a twisting about strike with Five and then leapt into the air as he tried to sweep my legs. The leap carried me back and over and I landed on the table that we used to put the sabers on when not in use.
Magnus followed, his blade held in both hands as he chopped down on the table, looking to take at least one of my legs out. I leapt again, flipping end over end this time, my strong goat legs feeling ultra-springy with this workout, and I landed on the second seat row of the partly retracted bleachers. Had to take a moment to steady and balance myself after that leap. The class, standing now, moved out of the way as Magnus charged up after me. The table was a ruin behind him, bent in the middle and nearly torn in half.
As he jumped up the first bleacher seat, Magnus swung, a long reaching arc that might have reached me if I didn't take a step back. The next swing he made while trying to step up to my level and I parried it easily in Three. He seemed to be using the contact of our blades as a point of balance in climbing up, so I immediately sat down, dropping my blade from under his and took a stab at his chest.
Wildly he batted my blade away and had to take a shaky step back, nearly losing his footing. I pressed my advantage, standing up in the foot board area of the second step and the one above, trying to tie his blade up enough for me to move forwards against him. His strength was still a factor, despite his unbalanced position, though and I had to retreat a step as his erratic movements made his blade hard to track.
I decided I needed a height advantage to counteract his already height advantage because I'm short (hey, I heard that. It's not that kind of story! Even if I do measure… and keep records… I'm not telling you!). So I stepped up to the next seating level and backed away from him. My plan was to make him chase me, lose his footing again and go for an easy kill.
Except Magnus wasn't making it easy. With him standing below me, he was more able to make swings at my feet, and his body was further away from my attack range, so I had to work harder to get under his guard. We traded half a dozen slashes before I realized this and made a mad lunge across his body. He backed up and parried with the tip of his blade, enabling me to drop to his level and engage him directly. By this time, we'd also gone up to about the fifth seat row, and I have to tell you, fencing on a less than half meter width of board isn't as easy as it sounds, especially when you have to back up and move without looking. Even worse when one misstep might mean a broken leg.
With a backwards hop, I turned 90 degrees left and performed a front flip out from the bleachers, aiming for the floor. Magnus took three quick steps and a wild swing in an attempt to slice into my belly, but the leap was really high, considering my target was down. I watched his red saber blade pass close by my arm as I tucked. I landed and turned just in time to see Magnus do a Conan leap at me, his blade coming down right for my head. I had no time for anything fancy, so I raised my blade up overhead, angled down to deflect him away from a full power hit. Still, it rocked me. I felt that deflection deep in my arms, wrists to shoulders. His blade skidded off mine but even deflection parrying that shot hammered a lot of energy into me, and I had to roll backwards across the gym mats to avoid Magnus' feet.
With a relentless charge, he came after me again. I had just gotten to my feet when he went into a flurry of counter-slashes, basically going a big step forward and hacking from over his shoulder toward the opposite hip, and then changing direction and doing the opposite side. It's a great offensive move to gobble up ground, force your opponent to retreat and use your strength advantage to hammer them some more. I'd seen it before from other fencers and other fighters for that matter. I parried the first three, then ducked the second, freeing my blade to make a shot at his wrists. He'd seen that move too, and knew to pull his hands back against his body, sidestep to the left and start counter-slashing again.
Say what you want about how smart Magnus may or may not be, this kid was wicked good with a blade.
On a whim, I stood my ground and caught his blade on mine, our points crossed and held away from each other. It was a mistake on my part to bring him in close like that. He lifted the blades up, keeping them pressed together. When he did, he smashed an elbow into my chest.
Yes, my thin, bony chest. It hurt, really bad. And it screwed up my breathing. I heard Kay's voice cry out from the sidelines, even as my vision swam. To this day I have no idea what he said. It was the tone of his outcry that did reach me, however. I was already mad, tired, sweating like a hog in high summer, breathing heavy, hurting, muscles aching. My knees were like rubber, and I felt at any moment I might go down to the mats. I didn't think there was much worse I could physically feel just then. Well, you know, short of massive bruising and broken bones.
So I did what comes naturally and used my head. He brought the blades down from over my head, back between us, and I felt him gathering his strength to push me off. That's when I struck, literally. I slammed my horns into the center of his chest, like I'd done to Nick earlier that morning. Only when I'd done it to Nick, it had been playful and funny. This time, it was hard, with as much power as I could get. Magnus fell away from me, knocked about six meters back from my head butt.
This allowed me to drop to my knees and butt, trying to catch my breath. I shook my head to clear the cobwebs. Across the mats from me, Magnus was getting up to one knee, looking across at me with what can only be described as utter shock. I watched him smash a fist into the mat in frustration. He knew how far I'd knocked him with just my hard head, and I'm sure the impression of my horns would be showing in red marks on his big pecs. A hand went to his chest, moving around on the impact site, as if checking to see if I'd caved his sternum in. He started getting to his feet, using his saber, point down, to help him find leverage. I leaned back, my blade held up over my head on the mat, levered my feet up, shifted my weight through my hips and kipped up to a martial arts crouch, bringing my blade around. With an effort, I managed to straighten up about the same time as Magnus did.
I was beginning to feel winded. All this jumping around and athleticism was taking a toll on me, and the fact that I was having to two-hand my blade to defend Magnus' attacks wasn't helping. He was so powerful with all those strikes, resisting and deflecting them took a lot of strength as well. I couldn't attack and parry at the speed I normally would, even going full out because of how tired just absorbing blows was making me. And getting knocked off my feet all the time wasn't helping any either.
It changed my strategy enormously when I saw how winded he was getting, too. For those that don't know, defending yourself with a blade, any kind of blade, takes a lot of energy. It's not just about beating up on someone with a heavy stick, like it seems to be in the movies. You have to constantly be thinking, adjusting your body position, keeping an eye on your surroundings, and making sure your blade is ready, not only for the abuse it's about to take on your behalf, but it's position. Then there's stuff like how well you feel you are moving, keeping your feet from tangling with each other as you move, if your blade is in the right hand position to cut or thrust, if the edge is still sharp, how your balance is. It looks really simple, but it takes brains to go bash people around with sharp pointy things. Maybe not rocket surgery level brains, or atomic scientist level, but you have to understand how the body moves, how things move around you, and be able to keep track of it all.
And while you're doing all that, you're also having to keep in mind how tired you are, you have to look for weaknesses in your opponent's guard, stay on your own form to keep your guard from getting sloppy, it's a million little things all impacting your senses and thought processes at once. And in the middle of all that, believe it or not, your body is telling you things. It's sweating to indicate that all this exertion may lead to dehydration, especially if you get hit. Bruises suck water out of your body almost as much as bleeding does. Your body also starts telling you to get some rest in moments when your breathing becomes labored from moments when you are wailing away and forget to breathe, or if you get flustered by an incoming attack, panic and hold your breath to be more physically rigid when you take a hit.
So while I'm being all dramatical about what happened to this point, keep in mind, I'm a shrimpy 13-year old being run around by a much stronger, taller and heavier kid, who's also running around doing the same things I am. And we're both doing them well. If you think it's easy having someone bring their full strength down on something you are holding out at full arm length extension, more than a meter from your body, well… try it sometime and see how you feel doing that for more than ten minutes!
We remained separated for a moment, still staring each other down, although both of us seemed to be pulling in a lot of air. He suddenly swung his arms out, making his body a big letter "T" and then brought his arms up over his head, inhaling deeply, before bringing them back in front of his body, both hands gripping the lightsaber handle once again. He opened his eyes, with the blade perfectly bisecting his face again, and his breathing was calm. Even. Relaxed.
That kinda pissed me off and impressed me at the same time. I'd never seen such a technique, but damn did it not only look impressive, but seemed to work. If I wasn't sure he'd rush me if I imitated him just then, I'd have tried it. Either way, it still left me heaving a bit, feeling the burn in my chest, arms and thighs from all the maneuvering I'd had to do to keep this maniac from thwacking me. He started circling as he came back in at me, forcing me to keep my eyes turned to him. I would take little steps in place to adjust my position, keeping him in a place I could easily lift a blade towards.
Maggie and I came set, about two meters apart, his blade held down and away, a look of snarling hatred on his face. I remained calm, although I was having trouble controlling my breathing. His strikes had skill as well as strength behind them, and he moved a lot faster than a guy his size had any right to. My blade remained aimed at his throat, a two handed grip held low by my navel. You know, Samurai on horseback kinda stance.
"Getting tired?" Magnus asked. From the sidelines, I could see that the others were getting really anxious about this confrontation. A quick glance told me all I needed to know. The other three werewolves were standing back, watching intently but no expressions on their faces. This was still a battle between me and Magnus, none of them, even his presumed boyfriend, Sven, would interfere. Kenny had his hand on Juan's shoulder, keeping him from rushing to my side as well. The look on both their faces told me of their intense loyalty and desire to help. But Kenny knew that I had to do this on my own. This was a challenge to my authority. Only I could field it, much as he'd dearly love to handle it for me.
Jack had his blade held laterally before Paul's waist, as if barring him from coming to my side as well. Behind them, Bethy looked on with extreme trepidation. The only girl in our class, she clearly didn't like this display of overly macho stupidity. But as a changeling, and a Sidhe at that, she knew that the stakes of losing this match against Magnus were very high. Mitch, standing near her, stared dispassionately, although the hard set of his jaw showed the tension within him. His Troll stoicism warred with his sense of protecting his new son, that being me.
Amazing what information you pick up in a single glance, huh?
"You will get no help from them, little boy," Magnus said, his accent sounding heavy and harsh as he heaved for breath. Sure, he had worked me all over the gym floor, but it hadn't been easy on the big kid. He took a menacing step forwards and I retreated two, balanced. His snarl turned into a grin. He took another step and I shuffled back a step of my own. In my peripheral vision, I saw I was backing towards a corner, the two walls closing in. Oh, perfect, I thought, sarcastically.
I made an attempt to break out of the corner, working hard to sell the idea that I was desperate and looking for a way to maneuver. He was prepared for that, though and his counters to my short hacks also involved moving his body to block any path I tried to arrange for a run. He was herding me, and I wanted him to. Guess it's a goat/canine thing.
"Nowhere to run."
"You seem to think I'm giving ground, Magnus. What you don't realize is that I'm trapping you."
"Trapping me?" he almost barked. "You are backing up like a soft paw whelp and you are trapping me?"
"Yes, and you use that phrase way too much for it not to have been used around you, like, a lot," I replied. He straightened up and laughed a little bit, looking around as if he were some kinda pro wrestler, bragging to the crowd.
"Does Daddy call you that? Like, a lot?" I asked, sarcastically, smirking. He got a look on his face, like I'd dropped a brick on his favorite foot. Then he took a big step forward, sweeping his blade around. It wasn't really a lunge or an attempt to strike, but it did make an evil hiss passing through the space between us.
I didn't flinch. Didn't chase his blade. Didn't even blink in surprise. I had him right where I wanted him, at the corner of overconfident and stupid streets. What I did do, was take two steps in as his blade passed, and thrust into the high line with the tip of my blade, right into the soft spot of his throat, up over his shoulder. I didn't put any pressure on the thrust, so it just touched the skin, but the response was immediate.
He stopped, looking down at me with both shock and anger. It must have looked comical from the side, my arm arched up so high to drop the point where I had it. A perfect, in time, balustrade lunge. I wiggled my saber left and right with some wrist action, just moving the tip within the confines of his neck muscles. I kept my face neutral as we stared at each other. Yeah, I know, I felt the urge to smile at him, or smirk, or make some sort of sly remark. But this was serious business, and I had to keep it that way. Making light of a challenge like this would just give him reason to try again.
"You tricked me?"
"I gave you room to make a critical mistake. Then when you made that mistake, I took advantage of it. In fencing we call that a trap." His face went through a series of twitches and reluctantly he lowered his blade, turned his head slightly and relaxed his posture. I accepted the surrender, withdrawing my point from his throat. "Good match," I said, taping his blade from the side. I was hoping to let him know that while he was surrendering, there was respect, there was still honor for him.
That's when the lights in the entire lower gym dimmed, significantly. We all looked around, a bit surprised by the change. Before anyone could comment on it, the lighting ticked back up, almost towards normal, but still dimmed enough that we could tell. Like, the light was still eerie in there, ya know.
The main door to the gym floor banged open, admitting Sylvia and three of her friends. They were in a state of utter panic, clothes torn and out of place, hair all messy, a few of them showing blood on their clothes. As they burst into the room, they turned and slammed the door, two of her people looking to somehow bar the door. Sylvia looked around and spotted me.
"Robyn! Dauntain!" she called out.
I've heard the expression, "my blood turned to ice." I never really could say I felt it until that moment.
Dauntain. The word itself is enough to send chills down the spine of any changeling. Our own personal nightmares. Every bit as powerful, as unearthly and as deadly as any changeling, the Dauntain are heartless, soulless killing machines. They started out as changelings but for one reason or another their dreams and powers turned in on themselves. They are the antithesis of all that is magical. Their powers actually quell other magicks in the area.
And their merest touch can drain the Glamour right out of you, painfully.
They are every bit as brutal in combat as any changeling shrouded in the Dragon's Ire. Methodical, aggressive, Glamour-draining. Such creatures were used against my family millennia ago in Cerulean. From time to time, packs of them are found leading powerful armies or sects of religious zealots who hunt those of other creeds, using their powers to destroy the faith and passion of their enemies. If you think you can imagine how that happens, they also have a habit of destroying magical and artistic artifacts that stand against their iconography. Those ISIS guys in the middle east and the Nazis of history seem to be Dauntain to me. So that should tell you how dangerous such people are. When you have nothing to believe in but hate, it can fuel terrible, terrible things, and it brings out the worst in those who have no hopes and dreams living in them.
So hearing that Dauntain were coming after the Countess and her people, I immediately forgot all about challenges to my authority, trying to teach the art of war to a hyper Garou, or even the weirdness of the lights flickering. Actually, considering that Dauntain were coming to our doorstep, the lights suddenly made all kinds of sense.
Kenny and Juan ran to the table where we keep the spare blades and scooped up four, rushing to bring them to the newcomers. Sylvia ran up to me, visibly limping. I reached out to her, supporting her as she collapsed near me.
"We were ambushed, near the library," she spoke, her breath still several steps ahead of her. "And not just Dauntain."
"Not just?" Kenny asked, perplexed. She took the blade he offered her and charged it with her own Glamour.
"They had… things with them," she replied, glancing Kenny's way before looking back to me. "Big, nasty things."
"Defensive circle around the Countess," I called out, the lights overhead flickering more and starting to dim again.
"I can still fight!" Sylvia said, trying to stand again.
"Your Excellency, with all due respect, sit down and shut up," I told her. "Your people need to rest a bit. Gather your strength, we may need it."
The two seeking to block the door were knocked to their butts as a massive shock slammed into the door. Nick stuffed a chair over the two bar latches on the doors, the legs of the chair sliding into the latches. It was a brilliant strategy, effectively forcing the doors into a situation where they blocked each other no matter which way you tried to open them. I mean, the doors opened outward into the hallway, with a metal support bar between them.
The room seemed to grow colder. Cody grabbed the two girls and hauled them back into the gathering circle of swordsmen. Bethy and Jack also took to the center, helping clean up a few of the injuries. That left me with Kenny, Juan, Cody, Nick, Magnus, Sven and Paul on the line, oh, and Master Mitch. Nine blades on the front, with Bethy and Jack behind, and the Countess and her three friends, should it get really bad.
The lights dimmed almost to nothing, barely a glow from the overheads showing at all. All four werewolves shifted up to their caveman kinda form, bulking up, getting taller. Kenny, Juan and I all kicked on the Dragon's Ire, putting a soft glow back into the room a bit, but the cold feeling persisted.
On a whim, Kenny reached out towards where Paul's skateboard rested near the bleachers and using a quick Gimix cantrip, with a pulling gesture, called the skateboard across the floor to Paul's feet. It rolled as if on a string tugged by my Kay's hand. With a deft kick on the tail, the board flipped up into the air and Paul reached out, grasping the front truck of the board between his fingers and snapped his arm, locking the board's second truck behind his elbow, like a shield. I reached back with three fingers and the thumb of my left hand, touching the board and enacted a cantrip of my own, shouting "Bark Skin!" like they do in Anime shows. The energy flowed through me, sparkles of fairy lights dancing on the skateboard, adding layers of magical armor to the already tough surface.
We were as ready as we likely could ever be.
The doors shook again. I gestured to move us back. Whatever was about to burst through those doors, I wanted to give our wounded plenty of space. And to be honest, after fending off a werewolf with ambitious tendencies for the last twenty minutes, I was in a mood to really let loose. Which meant I was going to want room to move as I kicked serious ass.
"When they break through the door," Mitch said, holding the big heavy double-blade saber like it was a part of him. "When they come in, give them room, let them make the first move, and then make them pay for it. The first pass will be over before you know it. Then move on to the next foe that presents."
"Watch each others backs," I called out. "Paul, stay with Kenny and Master Mitch. Juan, stay with Nick and Sven. Cody, Magnus, you're with me."
"Why do you split us this way?" Magnus asked, loudly, sounding a little pissed at being separated from Sven.
"Question my tactics later!" I shouted back. "For now, trust that I know what I'm doing."
The door shook again. The sound of an echoey growl followed the strike to the door. We all crouched a little, holding our weapons defensively. I risked a look behind me and saw that Bethy was looking my way. She shook her head a quick no. Apparently, there wouldn't be much help coming from that quarter. The Countess and her people were in much worse shape than we'd realized before. Jack was doing what he could, but it wasn't like he had a full medical pack available.
Again the door took a brutal shock. The chair jamming the door latches twisted and shrieked as the doors buckled but held.
"Ah smelt more'n just folks on the other side a' the door," Nick said, glancing to Cody. "Our little buddies Chuckles and Knuckles are out there. And they brought friends."
"Who?" Kenny asked.
"The bully pack that keeps going after our buddy JJ. The same jerks that attacked you and Robby on the beach with Cold Iron," Cody responded. "And likely some of the ones responsible for several deaths among our kind lately."
"If such as these are in league with these Dauntain you fear so much," Sven said evenly, "then we shall give none of them any quarter."
"An' more bad news," Nick said, twisting his hands on his saber handle. "There's things out there that got a smell like…"
"Like what?" Juan asked when Nick's voice faltered.
"Like the salt marshes at Salisbury Beach at low tide."
I knew that smell. Like salty rotting boiled spinach mixed with dead fish left out in the sun. Yeuck!
"Success, beloved," Kenny said, tapping his blade on mine. Juan tapped us both as well before we formed our lines. With Kenny standing with his partners to the left, Juan taking the right flank, that left me and my werewolf backers up the gut. We spaced out slightly, giving each other a circle to swing a blade through without smacking each other.
The doors shook again as something tried to wrench the doors open, and then slammed into them in frustration as the chair held them closed. The battered chair clattered loosely where it jammed the door latches. We knew that it would not hold much longer. The room temperature plummeted enough that even in summer we began to see our breath puffing before our own faces.
Silence reigned. Long seconds ticked by, and I was beginning to feel antsy as the adrenaline started making its presence known. I felt a drop of sweat snake around under my chest protector, despite the growing cold in the air.
The chair suddenly wiggled a bit and then clattered to the ground, as if some unseen force had lifted it out of the bar latches. The echo of the chair hitting the gym floor seemed to pass through us, like a wash of sea water from an ocean wave. I swear the sound was thick, deeper than it should have been, and had weight that pushed on us as it bounced around the room.
Maybe it was just the irregular shape of the rock climbing walls behind us, or the partly retracted bleachers on both sides. Maybe it was just that some of us were scared shitless (me among them!) that gave the sound something more ominous. Either way, I glanced around and realized I wasn't the only one that was weirded by the echo.
A look passed between me and Cody, and it was clear to me, he felt it too.
The doors wrenched backwards, ripping off their hinges. Even the center beam that split the doorway, already battered from where the chair had been banged against it, was slung back and away as the doors peeled back. A shimmering darkness, billowing and cloud-like, slowly entered the gym, like a dark fog. But even more chilling were the sets of eyes, red and glowing, that shown through the obscuring mist.
"Hello, boys," a deep, loud voice pierced the fog in our direction. The sibilant sound at the end of that brief phrase was drawn out, seemed to go into a breathy, flattened tone, almost like speaking into a tin can. It was a voice I knew. It filled the space the same way the echo of the chair had, in a creepy kinda personal way, ifuknowhutimean. More than one of us unconsciously reached down to make sure our cups were in place.
I kinda wished just then that I hadn't drank so much tonic at lunch.
"Korbesh!" I called back, anger in my voice as the sets of eyes, some of them in threes instead of twos, marched steadily and slowly into the room, spreading out. Some of the eyes were low, as if those of an animal instead of something on two legs. Some of them seemed to move weirdly, as if maybe climbing the wall around the doors.
"How's the family, Robyn?" Korbesh's voice rang out again.
"Why don't you step up to the plate and see how my family's doing, coward!"
"Not today. Actually, while I am sending you some playmates, I'm also hunting older, stronger prey."
"Gods, Robyn!" Kenny said, as realization dawned on him. "He's going after Mab!" Our elderly queen, who lived all the way down in New York, so far away from us. Plus, she was supposed to be attending court tonight at our freehold. So she could be traveling at that very moment. We had no time to warn her or go to her aid. And with these horrors coming my way right now, we were about to be very busy.
He'd set us up, bided his time and laid his traps most carefully. He'd ambushed the Countess, herded her here where my people all were gathered and continued the ambush here. And the whole time he'd done this, gathered his forces to unleash hell, he was going after our queen at the same time when she was most vulnerable.
Got to hand it to the bastard, that's one hell of a chess move.
"Yeeessss," Korbesh's voice dripped like poisoned molasses. "And while I'm head hunting for the crown, I'll let my pets wipe out you as well. I'm quite afraid you wont be able to Undo me, fair Robyn the Blue. So sad, but I'm afraid you're not going to be able to honor your vow to the Dreaming. Die with honor if you must, but today, you, and all of your supporters, will meet oblivion."
"Ah'm beginning not ta like this guy," Nick said. I looked over our lines and saw all our blades held tight as the billowing cloud covered the slow advance of our opponents, many of whom seemed much larger than just normal beings. We were likely facing monsters as well.
The only blade not held up at the ready was Cody's. He had his blade down by his side, but his left hand was up pressed over his left eye, the middle finger folded back so he was looking through the fingers. Later I would learn that's a werewolf thing, using a spirit Gift to look at the magic in use before him. I am so glad he kept his head enough to do that. Such information might come in super handy later.
Especially with what happened next.
The fog cleared back some, and we got our first looks, in the subdued lighting and cold air, of our opponents. About half of them were kids, Dauntain kids, although a few of them had looks that said something other than Dauntain. Cody calls them formorii, which seems to be a werewolf phrase for the same sorta thing, the power of magic turned wicked and given human form to work evil… or something equally melodramatic.
Then there were the, as the Countess had termed them, "big nasty things." There were at least six of them, spaced out with the dozen or so kids our age. The six or so things looked about the size of grizzly bears, but that's where the similarities end. Their heads were vastly over-sized, more resembling squid faces than anything else. These things were also the source of the triple eyes. The legs seemed roughly canine in nature, but the dog that could have come from should be pulling freight trains instead of sleds. Massive paws with large claws poking out. Muscular, but in a sick sort of way. If the things had fur, it was slicked down by a layer of sickly shiny wetness with a green, semi-glowy cast to it.
"Now that is ugly," Paul said. Clearly, he wasn't scared by such supernatural horrors. Either that or he had the guts to keep his fear in check, especially with his boyfriend doing first aid to the Countess and her injured people while we stared down the enemy. I got a lot of respect for him.
"I see you," one of the Dauntain kids said, pointing a weapon at me. Then he pointed it to Kenny, and then Cody and then settled the point on Nick. "I see all of you."
"Good ta know yuir eyesight ain't screwy then, Chuckles," Nick shot back, clearly baiting him. I recognized the guy as the fat kid that had struck me with a bar of Cold Iron at the beach several weeks back. That got me kinda pissed again.
And then I noticed something truly frightening. There were four of him, moving in among the crowd of the Dauntain! I thought at first my eyesight, as Nick so pointedly put it, was screwy, until I saw them all moving differently. It's like they each chose one of us, like the ones he'd identified, and was ready to square off. Either he had a lot of identical brothers (I didn't know assholes were born in litters!), or something really screwy was going on here.
Then I looked closer at the weapon he, er, they… heck all of them held. Part of me didn't want to see it. As if it were somehow hidden from my sight, deflecting my attention. I had the feeling I was only actually seeing half of it. And then it hit me. I was seeing the silver half of it, but not the Cold Iron side. A quick glance told me both that I wasn't the only one having trouble perceiving the weapons of our enemies, but that all of the two legged ones were similarly armed.
They all had those horrible hybrid swords. One half Cold Iron, the metal that sucks Glamour out of changelings, and one half silver, the metal that mortally wounds werewolves. This wasn't just an assault force we were facing. These were a gang of supernatural assassins. Armed with our natural weaknesses and gifted with the ability to nullify our powers.
And as I watched, three more kids walked in. Older teenagers, big, hairy, angry, even the chick. Dressed like they didn't know what day to do laundry on, like for the last few years. Something about them was different, and I got the feeling they were werewolves or something like them, although not like our allies. Sven growled at this turn of events and I could feel layers of anger rolling off Magnus beside me.
I got mad and stacked on another level of pissed.
Two of the big critters had moved up the walls, apparently looking to encircle us, attack us on our flanks or from behind. They moved like spiders, easily navigating the sheer surface as if it were the ground. There were enough of the others on the ground that we'd have our hands full just dealing with them. We were well and truly fucked.
"Countess! Elzbeth! Jack! Mind your backs!" Kenny called out, seeing the same thing I did.
"It's far too late, Robyn," Korbesh intoned from somewhere far away. "I'll give Mab your best… as I bite her head clean off her feeble old neck."
"Easier said than done, Fiend," I whispered. And somewhere deep in the Dreaming, I could feel the distant stirs of violin strings and trumpet fan fares. I hoped that meant that somehow Mab had some kind of warning, or some trick up her sleeve to help her. But I had other matters close to hand that needed my attention.
"Robyn the Blue," Korbesh's voice called out. "Die well. Black Circle," and he paused. "Kill them. Kill them all."
"Dramatic cuss, ain't he?" Nick asked. But we had no time for snappy banter. The assembled enemies, apparently called the Black Circle, rushed us at that point.
Now, I'd like to tell you that it was a heroic battle and that we struck with precision and skill, with strength and conviction and that our enemies were not ready or equal to the task. That we were so much better prepared, better armed and just better people, that we easily waded through them without taking a single hit. That we were such a well-oiled machine when it comes to combat that even this motley assortment of combined horrors was no match for us.
Yeah, I'd like to tell you that. But here's what really happened.
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