by D'Artagnon

Chapter 13

A Calm Amidst the Smoke

The emergency room of the hospital was chaotic even before we got there. The storm had been responsible for more than just the "fire" at the YMCA it seems. Three wrecks on the highway and three other injuries from falling tree limbs all came in about the same time as our group. There was even a boy brought all the way in from Salisbury Beach Center on the helicopter. Apparently, he'd been standing in the ocean when a lightning bolt struck him. I had no pressing need to see what that kind of damage looked like. My own all too fertile imagination could supply the visuals.

Apparently there had been a fire at Barnie's Burger Barn as well. It was close enough to the Freehold that I had to wonder if other things were going on as well. Sometimes things are just coincidental. And sometimes it's too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.

Yeah, that knocked about in my head a long while before it actually made all the sense that it does.

I had other things to worry about. Juan got rushed in ahead of us, and Bethy was a wicked mess. Her own cut from Korbesh's blade had been from one of the silver edges. Still, her wound had more in common with frostbite than deep tissue lacerations from edged metal. Jack and Paul stayed with her, one of them constantly holding her hand or side hugging her. She'd grown particularly attached to Jack in the short time she'd known him. They shared an intellectual bond, and I hoped that would help see her through.

In typical human medicalese fashion, they kept us "children" out of the ER room that Juan had been taken to. So we couldn't affect any supernatural healing. Not that we had the collective magical juice to even try. Once the cops and EMT's showed up, it was pretty much out of our hands.

I should point out, we weren't the only ones in the ER waiting room, or occupying beds in the back. Aside from those I mentioned above, there were several kids brought in for smoke inhalation, minor cuts that needed stitches, a few broken bones that needed setting, a couple of minor burns; you know, the kind of stuff that happen when there's about two hundred kids crammed into one burning building, panicky and barely making it out in one piece. Thankfully, other than our mixed coterie, none were seriously hurt. The convenience of all the other lightning storm related injuries would help cover the fact that some of our wounds were obviously inflicted rather than accidental.

So while I make it seem like we had the whole ER section to ourselves, there were a lot of folks in there. Kids from the Y waiting their turn through a brief triage area the medical people had set up were lined up to one side. Parents would come into the waiting room from outside, a few at a time. Some of them cycled in and out, walking to the tiny smokers area. Some were just arriving, having heard their kids were brought here. I even recognized a couple of kids from school, consoling each other in one corner, the boys still in bathing suits, the one girl sobbing openly against the taller boy's shoulder. I felt they were here for someone other than us, but had too much on my mind to pay them much attention.

But that is another story.

Mitch was in with Kenny of course. The minor knock to the back of Kay's head would heal easily, and thanks to him wearing his Jedi class helmet when that knot of Cold Iron beaned him from behind, he wasn't affected by the Black Kiss. Still, doctors being doctors, they wanted to check him for concussion. At least with Kenny in there as well, he would make sure the docs got a good look at the less than shallow cut our father had taken to his already gimpy thigh. I fear the wound that had kept him out of the Olympics so many years ago would now become more of a problem for the big Troll. Mitch would demand Kenny get treated first. Kenny would ensure things go the other way around.

There had been so, so much blood on Mitch when I'd seen him. That rip in his leg was a lot deeper than he let on. More to the point, he was the kind that wouldn't go get his medicine until everyone else had theirs. Not because he was stalling, but because his first priority was always making sure everyone else was okay. I loved that about him, but sometimes you have to treat the worst hurts first, then play mother hen when you're actually able.

I'd already lost one set of parents. I wasn't about to let another slip away because they were too damned noble for their own good. And I sure as hell didn't want my Kay to go through what I just did the week before. One of us being crazy is usually too much. Both… let's not do that and laugh about it later.

Magnus dutifully kept his yap shut this time. A few terse words from Sven and he went into containment mode. They'd pretty much healed up most of their injuries already in that disgustingly efficient werewolf way. And, yes, I'm jealous as hell of that. Nick seemed none the worse for wear, and Cody was his normal silent, if not alert, self. Nick kept trying to make jokes, keep people talking, you know, wasting time while keeping our spirits up. I never got to say it, buddy, but thanks Nick. As pissed as I was, I needed someone keeping me from going holy terror at that moment.

Sylvia came out of the ER rooms to the waiting area first, an orderly pushing her in a wheelchair. Her parents had been called and were on the way, but her injuries were minor enough that they could get her cleared for release easily. Her right wrist had a hell of a sprain, thankfully nothing broken there. Her left leg, on the other hand, was in a cast, ankle to thigh. She'd managed to get a spiral fracture of the tibia, which is a nasty break. She'd be in that cast at least six weeks.

As she came out to us, the first thing she asked for was a cell phone. Her own had been damaged in the initial attack by the library. Four were offered up at once, and she picked the nearest, that being mine. I didn't see the number but I had to think it was a short list she would have need to dial. After all, her buddies' families had all been contacted by the police. If I were Count for the region, I'd be checking on my command structure.

But, it was my other thought she checked up on. She tried the number three times, getting a very audible "the number you have reached is beyond service area," message. With a very sour look on her face, Sylvia tried a different number and apparently got through on the first ring.

Just not to the person she expected would pick up. "Aunty Edna? Is Uncle George there? Why can't… ohmigod… No, I'm fine, I'm up here at the hospital already." She pulled the phone away from her face and mouthed the words "he's here," at me. I had no idea who her Uncle George might be, but she must have thought I already knew.

"No, I'm fine. There was a fire at the Y. Cops are saying it was a lightning strike." She paused, listening. "Mom and Dad are on the way here. I sorta fell and broke my leg. Auuunty!" Sylvia said with great exasperation. She shifted the phone from one hand to another, a move I still don't understand. Sheesh, girls and their drama!

"They casted me up already. I'll be fine. What happened to Uncle George?" A long pause followed, during which Sylvia mostly went "uh-huh" and "jeze" in a fairly regular pattern. "Okay, well, I'll go look for him in a bit. Tell grandma I said hi. I gotta go, I borrowed someone's phone to call you. Yup, I'll have mom call you as soon as we know. Love you too, Aunty." And she swiped out of the conversation, handing the phone back to me.

"Well," Nick said, a bit agitated. "Don't leave us in suspense."

"He's here. Ambulance brought him here from another fire." She turned and looked me directly in the eyes. "There was a lightning strike in the woods behind Barnie's," she said, her voice flat and humorless. "The knights I had stationed there guarding the Freehold," she sighed, absently rubbing her wounded wrist, "are here as well… probably all into the Mists. My uncle, Sir Graham, was there. He's among the injured here."

"Son of a bitch," Paul said, standing up. Nick and Cody traded a look. Sven simply asked the question both he and Magnus were thinking.

"What does this mean?"

"It means, that more than just an attack on us took place today," Sylvia said, looking defeated. "And more than just an attempt to take the throne from Mab."

"He took your Freehold, didn't he?" Cody asked, as if knowing the answer. "Which means he has your Balefire."

"T'would appear so," she said. "He set us up good, and knocked us flat. Even if he didn't achieve all of his goals, he's defeated us."

"I do not understand. What is this Freehold and Balefire you speak of?" Magnus' voice was soft and respectful for a change.

"It means they lost the equivalent of a whole caern today," Nick answered, his head held low in shame. "And good as we were, we couldn't stop it. Didn't even see it coming." His accent was almost gone, showing how truly moved Nick was in sharing our sense of loss.

The silence that held the waiting room was thick as mud two days after a soaking rain. And we all felt like we were not only that mud, but stuck deep in it. Sylvia broke the silence, sitting up as straight as she could in her wheelchair.

"Milord High Protector," she said, bowing slightly towards me, not an easy task in a cast or a wheelchair. I immediately stiffened at the use of that particular title. "I fain must leave thy presence to look to my Uncle, Sir Graham's, disposition. By your leave, Sir," she said, bowing again. I could feel the pain in her voice at having to ask that of me. She was the higher ranking noble in the local hierarchy. I was just the favorite pet and hired gun for the Queen. I nodded. Paul got up and offered to wheel her about, which she gratefully accepted.

After she was around the corner, Nick looked at me and his eyebrow shot up in a silent question. Beside him, Cody looked mildly dejected and shook his head in annoyance. I think more at Nick's facility with facial expressions more than just the intrigues of court that just played out in that one brief exchange. However, the silent question hung in the air, which seemed to focus all eyes on me.

"Without a Freehold, her claim on the title of Countess is nearly vacant. Her court, nobles, officers, militia, are all scattered. No court, no county equals no Countess. Which," I sighed.

"Which makes you the ranking noble in the area, milord Robyn the Blue," Kenny said, a thick bandage around his head. He too was in a wheelchair, but was able to push himself about. "And while she is injured and unable to defend the realm, that duty falls…"

"On me," I answered. I stepped to his side and took his hand. "Art thou well, Beloved?" I whispered to him.

"I've had worse. Tis but a flesh wound." His free hand moved up to my face, a single finger tracing along the edges of the bandage on my cheek.

"How's Master Dad?"

"Likely staying overnight. They are afraid that perhaps the wound may have had some nasty bacteria involved, so they're gonna keep him for observation." Kenny looked a little scared, saying that to me. I squeezed his hand to let him know he wasn't alone in worrying about Master Mitch. "It's really bad. The wound cut deep, to the bone. They got to the bleeding in time. He could have lost that leg, they said." Not caring who saw, I planted a kiss on his forehead. Screw it all, we just survived an assassination attempt, a fire in a partially underground structure and riding in ambulances driven by NASCAR washouts. Celebrate survival, you know? Celebrate life!

The automatic doors to the ER waiting room swooshed open and admitted a bevy of parents and Yoseph. The handsome Arab quickly swept over to Nick and Cody, gathering them into his embrace. Almost as an afterthought, Sven and Magnus moved to that small grouping and were promptly group hugged as well. By the look of it, not something the German boys were used to, although I saw Sven smile and Magnus… I swear, I thought I saw him bury his face on Yoseph's shoulder to hide a tear.

Jack's brother had thought to stop at a Dunkies and had several boxes of the teen fuel known as Munchkins for us to snack on. Bethy's mom went to her daughter's side in a near instant flurry of tears and blubbering that I cannot now, nor probably ever will be able to translate. Even Paul's mom and aunt showed up about that same moment, a look of worry evident on their faces as well. I had sort of forgotten that Paul's mom and Kenny's dad were sort of kinda maybe possibly dating, slightly.

Questions flew. Responses were hurriedly given around mouthfuls of yummy donut holes. Parents that knew each other made social niceties which were not in the least forced. Seems most of them knew each other already. Small towns are like that. It got very friendly and chatty in the waiting room.

But it was when Juan's mother came it that we all got silent again.

She came in from a taxi, walking in with a cane. She seemed very old to me. Like, she must have had Juan when she was in her forties or something like that, old. Her hair was hidden by a dark purple scarf, further covered by a black crochet thing of some kind. She was obviously of Caribbean descent, and she looked slightly dazed. She looked around the waiting room as if searching for a doctor. Her eyes settled on Beth, with a look of concerned relief.

"¿Dónde está mi Juanito?" she asked, her voice heavy with emotion.

"I will take you to him," Bethy said, rising from her seat. Her mother went with her for a few steps before Bethy, with great patience and gravitas, simply held a hand out, low. Her mother sat back down, giving her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend's mother a moment of privacy as they walked towards the ER treatment areas. Bethy and Juan's mother began chatting animatedly in Spanish, at least part of the discussion about Bethy's own wounded shoulder. They moved hurriedly towards the back of the ER and out of my sight.

I watched that with ultimate respect for Beth. She'd been wracked with worry for Juan since we'd been here. Even the arrival of her own mother hadn't assuaged that grief any. But the moment that Beth herself was needed to help someone else deal with their pain, she became a tower of fortitude and calm. You gotta admire the courage and depth of compassion that sort of person brings to the table. That's Princess Leia kinda super tough, super awesome. Juan was a lucky, lucky guy.

Now, I would not be telling the whole story if I didn't say this part. Even while I was pondering Bethy's awesomeness and the fact that Korbesh had pulled off at least part of his palace revolt rebellion chess move sweep thing, and my worry over Juan and Master Mitch, while all that was going on, I was watching my friends all interact with their parents. And part of me was waiting for those doors to swoosh open and let in my own folks. I think I sort of day dreamed it, how they'd come in like a blizzard, lift me off the ground in a giant bear hug, trapped between the two of them. I felt certain they'd pounce on Kenny in the wheelchair with hugs and back pats and hair musses. All of that went through my head, how they'd be sooo relieved that I was okay, and how dare I take such awful risks and all that parental garbage that I used to hate.

And that sort of reopened the empty place in me where I used to think I could always feel Mom and Pop inside me. That place where I was still just Robby, their kinda nerdy thirteen-year-old solo progeny, with the scrawny chest and the snappy come backs and never backing down from a good argument. My mother's foil and pride. My father's Joy and Light.

But that place was empty now.

Kenny knew what I was going through. Guess he was sensing my day dream. He pulled me into his lap in the wheelchair.

"So," I started, leaning against his shoulder, "what's with the wheels?"

"Hospital policy. Apparently I got beaned near the brain," he grinned. "But, I guess if you gottah have a mount, ole Trigger here ain't too bad." He wiggled his eyebrows, suggestively. "Or I could use you for a mount. Do the whole saddle and riding crop bit. Make you wear a bridle. Maybe some blinders."

"Oh, and who's to say I don't mount you?" I asked. It started out as a sexy, funny thing, but it put a different idea into my head.

"Ohh, kinky," Kenny said, his voice betraying that he saw my thinking expression. "You okay in there, Bu?"

"Yeah. Yeah, just thinking."

"They say the first time's the hardest," he joked back. "At least we're already in a hospital so you can't get any more hurt by using that gray gunk between your ears." My silence spoke to him, I guess. "What is it?"

"I know what we're going to do," I said, then both of us continued, "Hey, where's Perry?" and we giggled. It's sort of an inside-outside joke. We're both "Phineas and Ferb" fans. If you never seen the show, you wont get the joke.

A nurse came in and looked at Kenny, with me still in his lap. Behind, I could practically feel Paul and his mom stand as well, Paul's aunt's voice stopping mid laugh. "Uhm, Mr Tannagord would like to speak with you, Kenny, and you as well, Mrs. Carver." As Paul and his mother caught up, I jumped off Kenny's lap and ran around behind him to push. I saw Jack fake a punch to Paul's arm, the two of them sharing a sad smile. Good medicine there.

We were led back to a gurney in the hallway, near the elevator bank. Master Mitch was laid out on the rolling bunk, his left leg suspended on a metal stirrup. His thigh was covered by a sheet, but the heavy bandaging over his wound was readily apparent, as was the bag of sanguine essence slowly dripping into his arm. He'd lost a lot of blood.

"Dad!" Kenny called as we got nearer. I saw Paul's mom clinch tighter to her son's arm as we approached. Mitch looked kinda blue. Not like depressed blue, or even the blue his skin was in Troll form. No, he looked depleted, pale, drained. But he still smiled as we drew near.

I looked sideways through the open doorway into the ER. In the corner unit, I saw a boy about my age. He was heavily bandaged and some weird welts or something had raised over the exposed surfaces of his skin. Looked like some sort of massive burn wound. His skin was puffy and red and had that greasy look to it. Poor kid was only dressed in some kinda baggy shorts. Bathing suit, I'd have to guess. I moved my gaze past that cubicle to the next one, where softly spoken Spanish lifted to my ears with reverent passion.

Looking in, I saw Juan laid out on his table; surrounded by tubes and beeping, hissing, dripping machines, all of them stuck to him, keeping what was left of him alive, keeping his fierce, proud beating heart going. To one side, Bethy stood, Juan's mother sat. Both completely devoted to him, sharing their deep concern. Their love for my friend, my savage defender, my rival and competition.

"Paul, gimme a hand here," I asked, letting go of Kenny's wheelchair. It coasted for only a few feet before Paul swept in behind it with a fist bump my way. I turned sharply and went to the entrance of Juan's little cubicle, ER bed #3. I stopped at the open entryway, the privacy curtain pulled almost completely to the right side. Juan's mother was whispering something in Spanish to her comatose son.

"Robby," Bethy said, gasping as she noticed me standing there.

"Vien aqui, Roberto," his mother said, gesturing to me. I detached myself from the doorframe, not realizing I'd latched onto it like a kid who can't swim holding onto the side of a pool. I walked in, looking at Juan's face the whole time. Could barely see him through all the breathing mask and bandages on his face. Beside him, a bellows lifted and lowered, hissing, pushing air into my friend's lungs.

"I'm so sorry," I whispered, feeling suddenly so guilty.

"Was not jour fault, mi niño," Juan's mother said back. "Dios mio, I have long worried dat dis would happen."

"You have?"

"Cie. Long has Juanito's father wanted to hurt him. They have never been close. Now…" she trailed off, a short bout of sobbing breaking her already broken English. "He talks about jou, often. I would recognize jou anywhere. Juanito says you have eyes of elders, yet always bright as sunny days."

I didn't know what to say to that.

"The doctor was in just a bit ago," Bethy said as Juan's Mother turned back to her injured son, apparently praying in Spanish. In her hand, she clutched some sort of prayer beads, a crucifix hanging loose underneath.

"And?" I asked, expectantly.

"It's bad. He lost so much blood, so quickly. And there's the Iron to consider. He's into the Mysts. The doctor says he's not sure how he's even holding on. They…" and Bethy choked back a sob of her own. "They think there is extensive brain trauma, but they wont know for sure until they can find and patch all the bleeding inside. He's going up for surgery in an hour."

I reached out and pulled Bethy to me. Yeah, she's like a full head taller than I am, but she moved easily against me. I don't know how long we held each other, both openly crying, but keeping the tears silent. She eventually did release me first, pulling herself together. She straightened up and gave me a subtle bow.

"Thank you, Robyn," she whispered.

"I swear, we'll get him back," I promised. "We'll find a way." A distant roll of thunder washed over the area after I said this, another binding oath to the Dreaming itself.

"Roberto," Juan's mother called to me. "I have much to tell jou, but I have not de words. Mi ni ñ a, please speak for me?" Bethy nodded and Mrs. Castillo began speaking in rapid Spanish, halting long enough for Bethy to relay the sentence to me in English.

"He hates you, Robert. Juanito's father. He is a powerful man, with evil thoughts in his heart. He will not stop at just hurting you. Like he hurt Juan. Like he wants to kill Juan. He wants to end you. He covets power and influence. He burns with a passion to command. Command and destroy. May God be with you. I fear he means to make of you an example to others who would cross him. He seeks to pleasure in killing you and all you love."

"I know," I said simply. "We will not let him hurt anyone else."

"You will have to end his life," Mrs. Castillo said, through Bethy. "Nothing but complete destruction will satisfy him, now. He will have his…" and Bethy stopped to ask a question in Spanish. The reply seemed to clarify things. "He will have his crowning jewel," Bethy finished. "I think she means the Tear."

Reflexively, I brought my hand up to curl around the Tear of Cerulean, cold now against my chest.

"Please. Por favor, be careful, Ni ñ o." I moved to her and embraced her, letting her head loll against my chest. She patted my back as we held each other. And then I moved away, unable to meet her eyes.

See, I'd been mad before. My people, my family, my friends, they'd all been hurt by this Red Cap lord. I had passed through anger and into rage, almost the Rage that I knew the werewolves speak of. But now, I trembled with not only anger, rage, passion. Oh you can bet that was there as well. But this brought me to the state of calm fury.

I was focused.

I was resolute.

I was… _there._ And I had the beginnings of a plan.

Then Kenny wheeled himself up beside me, just as my cell phone rang. Stupid Frog ringtone sounded hideously loud in the ER hallway. I really need to change that. One of the floor nurses gave me a scathing look. Kenny and I knew when to beat a hasty retreat. Once back in the hallway, I was able to answer. Paul moved to our side as well, giving his mother and Kenny's father a little privacy.

"Yeah?" I said, not bothering with niceties. Anyone calling me at this point would be important. Besides, I knew it couldn't possibly be my parents, and everyone else I knew and loved was either receiving treatment or in the waiting room.

"Milord Robyn, thank the fates!" It was Capricus' unmistakable salty voice. "We feared the worst."

"You're phone sounds awful. Are you alright?"

"Aye, milord. We suffered some fools less than gladly. Several of me crew are injured, but we'll live to fight another day. I am calling to let yer know, Her Majesty has transferred her flag to the *Tragic Nymph,* temporarily. If it meets with yuir approval, of course."

"Yes! Yes, that's awesome. She is welcome as long as you'll have her, Capricus," I said, more for the benefit of the two beside me. "Was she attacked?"

"Vicious highwaymen, mostly Red Caps and their foul pets, beset her party upon the road, milord. She was able to fight clear and used Flicker Flash to escape the fell trap, most accursedly laid. Her party are safe and recovering amongst me crewmates."

"That's great news, Capriricus." I pulled the phone away from my face long enough to tell the other's that Mab was safe, that she'd been attacked and escaped to the *Nymph.*

"Aye, sure tis a lucky thing that. We do have sad news to bring ye, however. As Her Royal Highness was assaulted upon land, we were doubly assaulted by the shore. Several fell monsters from the deep also accosted us. I am at sea now, with a flotilla of six ships, protecting the Queen. But not without cost. Three ships went under the waves. Burned to the waterline and then swamped with beasts enough to sink the hulls, all souls aboard lost."

"Red Caps?"

"Aye, and those allied with them. Two were of the werewolf kind, although as twisted a pair as any I have nary encountered. The She-wolf flung fire from her hands. Green, sickly flame that melted and consumed and twisted all that which it touched. The other… his flesh was carved with swirls."

"Sounds like old friends of Nick and Cody's," I said.

"Milord, there is no simple way to say this. To my shame, the enemy have the maps you placed in my care."


"The swirled one used some sort of mind magic upon yuir companion's protected one, JJ. He was told to remain below with Pyrious, under guard while we fought off the invaders. The lad was ensorcelled, possessed of strength beyond his tender frame. He leapt to the dock as we were leaving, with the maps in his grasp. Pyrious leapt after the lad, but…"

"Oh no," I breathed out. The tone of Capricus' voice was enough to tell me. They feared Pyrious dead. As I relayed this information to Kenny and Paul, Kenny made the head-lips-heart fingertip gesture, closing his eyes sadly.

"The flames dockside were too thick for any of our shipmates to see if Pyrious lived as we put to sea. By that time, we were so engaged in our own defense, we could not return. And even here, leagues to sea, we can still see the docks burn."

"I understand. I know you did what you could, but keeping the Queen safe, keeping the fleet from enemy hands, that took precedence. We have been sorely attacked here as well. Caspian is wounded and will require weeks of mending. Lady Elzbeth Oakenbow has taken wounds to her shoulder. The Countess and many of her retinue have been injured enough to remove them from battle. And…"

"Milord, say it is not Kay Neth, nor the werewolf lads under wily Yoseph's care."

"No, they are well. A little banged up, but otherwise still in the fight."

"Milord?" Capricus asked, sensing more bad news on my side.

"Thane Croaker is into the mists. Run through by his own father, Korbesh."

"Pray, not with Iron!"

"Almost as bad. His weapon is of silver and Cold Iron, and it radiates cold as though it were a raging hearthfire. Juan is fighting for his life now. The doctors will do what they can. I… I fear Croaker may be forever lost to us." I hesitated a moment. "He has scattered us, smashed us, and taken from us something he covets almost as much as the crown itself."

"Aye. Were it not against us, a proud gambit he hath run." I stared between Kenny and Paul, to where the parents talked together. "What orders have you, my Lord Protector?"

"Keep the Queen safe. I will rally what troops I can. We cannot let Korbesh take her. He means to overthrow the entire kingdom at once, neutralize me and dash all his opposition in one swift move. And he has had some success. But we are not defeated yet." I grinned savagely.

"By your command, milord."

"If I don't call you in twelve hours, then your mission is to support the Queen."

"What will you do, milord?" he asked.

"Not entirely sure yet, but something dramatic, I'm sure."

"That much's a given," Paul mumbled.

"Luck, Lord Robyn!" Capricus shouted, loud enough that I nearly dropped the phone. "May your vengeful blade strike with lightning force, and true to the mark!

"We'll be in touch soon. Thanks Capricus." I ended the call. "We need the gang, away from the parents. Can you get it started?" I asked Paul.

"I think I can get things going," Paul replied. "Where do we need to meet?"

"There's a bank of vending machines down by the cafeteria," Kenny suggested. "It's also close to an exit. We'll take over there. Make sure we get everyone."

"Not a problem. We have ideas?"

"I'm workin' on it," I answered. "Hurry! We gottah do this without the adults knowing."

"Oh, secret agent stuff now, is it?" Paul said, marching off.

"Spartan!" Kenny called out. Paul stopped and turned to look. "You did great out there today. Stuff of legends." Paul gave us his widest grin, eyes sparkling. He turned and headed back to the waiting room as I wheeled Kenny down towards the vending machines. As we went, his cell phone was cradled in his fingers, his thumbs a blur of texting.

"I'm telling Dad and Bethy what we're up to. He can cover for us for a little bit. He wont like missing the action…"

"But he needs surgery. Better he sit this ride out," I finished for him. "So, Mitch and Paul's mom, huh?"

"That's Pops to you, now, brother mine."

"We're a little more than brothers, I think," I said as we got to the vending areas. "Got to admit, you kinda scared me there, Kay."

"I scared you?" he countered, indignantly. "You were the one that went down under a swarm of Dauntain and monsters, on purpose, I might add!"

"It worked, didn't it?"

"Debatable!'" my Kay said, crossing his arms over his chest. "No more stupid heroic Satyr silliness!"

"Oh, like you aren't built for unexpected, unorthodox heroics, Master Eshu," I countered.

"Just promise me one thing," Kenny said. His fake pout wasn't working, and he knew it.

"I keep doing that," I smirked.

"Next time we get within shout range of Korbesh you take his fuckin' head off."

"That's my plan."

"Good," he grinned. "Now get me some Skittles, I'm starving."

The others started trickling in. They had been rather sneaky about things, even Bethy coming in to fetch Sylvia, the Countess claiming that she needed help in the bathroom. Jack offered to help and every female parent in the room shouted a unified "No!" as I understand it. Clever on the girls' part to find the one thing that parents couldn't argue against.

In short order, we were all gathered, Cody and Nick, Magnus and Sven, Paul and Jack, Bethy and Sylvia, still in her wheel chair, and Kenny and myself. Eight blades, a bow and… and Sylvia in a cast. I'd have to deal delicately on that matter. I needed her leadership reinstalled at the Freehold, not a liability in the battles to come. If she was still the sitting noble, that would leave me free to go do all kinds of "necessary" things.

Like lopping off Korbesh's head two or three times.

Between Kenny, Bethy and myself, we quickly filled the others in on Master Mitch's status, Juan's dire condition, the assassination attempt on Mab and the events at the *Tragic Nymph's* dock. Cody and Nick developed deep frowns hearing that the "friends" they'd thought had died months ago were still hot on their tails, and that their buddy JJ had been manipulated to stealing the Harry Potter maps. I had hoped that we were on the verge of some major understanding about those. Losing JJ was a severe blow to our werewolf allies, though.

Once everyone was up to speed, Kenny stood up from his wheelchair and folded it up, tucking it between two of the vending machines. He had a slight limp, but seemed to be getting along okay. Sylvia scowled at his return to mobility, stuck as she was.

"So," Nick said, drawing a deep sigh. "What's the plan, boss man?"

"First thing's first. We retake the Freehold. Tonight."

"Uh, unless you just missed it," Paul said, looking around the assembled changelings and werewolves, "we just got our asses royally kicked. And the whole Y burned down around us. We're some of us still hurting, and down at least three people. Most of us only met for the first time like 5 hours ago. Are we really in any kind of shape to retake anything?"

"Yes," I replied, standing. "We survived a carefully laid out and well sprung trap. You're right there, Paul. But we did survive it, and escaped. They wont expect us to make a move this soon. Nor will they be prepared for what we are about to bring to the battle."

"And what is that, exactly?" Cody asked. I got the feeling he was willing to back me, and had no intentions of arguing, but he wanted to know what made me so confident.

"They think we're defeated. They *think*," I emphasized, "we are licking our wounds and looking for a place to hide. We've been on defense for too long. They're about to find out what it's like when the boys from Canterbury go to war."

"But only four of you are from here," Sven pointed out.

"Five," Bethy put in, standing beside me.

"Make that six," Sylvia said, rolling into the center space of the small room. "It's my Freehold, my noble right and duty to defend it, and if necessary," she said, crossing her arms across the ample swell of her teenage bosoms, "clean the vermin out."

"We certainly could use your blade, Black Dragon," I nodded her way. Then I gestured weakly at her casted leg. "But in your present condition, you'd be more of a hindrance than an asset. As much as we could use your martial skills, I feel it's your organization talent that will help us best right now."

"I shall not sit idly by…" she began but I spoke quickly, to get her anger directed rather than fired up.

"We need an army! We need… we need our people to rise to your call. Rally what knights and commoner warriors you can. Meet us at Barnie's in two hours."

"That I shall, Dragonslayer," she said, and before I knew it, she'd whipped out her cell phone and was rapidly typing out a group text message.

"The rest of us… I have a plan."

"Is it a good plan, or one of those made up as you go things?" Kenny asked, smirking.

"Yes!" I replied.

"Oh good! This should be fun."

"Kenny, you and I need to discuss the definitions of 'fun' some time," Jack said, solemnly. "I don't think you have the proper usage."

"You intend to give them ground, let them make a mistake and then attack when our enemies feel themselves strongest. On your terms," Magnus said. "As you did with me." I nodded his way, probably grinning like an idiot. "I am beginning to like your **evil-mind**," Magnus said, grinning back, fiercely.

"So, an' Ah cain't buhlieve Ah'm repeatin' myself, what's the plan?"

"Frontal assault. Four riders, four werewolves," and I looked over to Paul, "and one skater." That got a grin from the older boy.

"You mean to use us as mounts?" Magnus said, looking slightly miffed at the idea.

"Nope. Along the way to the Freehold, we're gonna make a stop at my…" and I stopped at this point, feeling the big ache inside. Had to tell myself to push it aside. Time to dwell on that later. "At my parents' house," I continued. "We need to pick up a few things there."

"If you're thinking what I think you're thinking," Kenny said, twisting his head to look at me through the screen of his fore bangs, his voice trailing off with the thought. "Nooo," he said, exaggerating his tone, but grinning ear to ear.

"Oh yeah!" I smiled back.

"You're serious?"

I shrugged. "No time like the present to put our little secret to work."

"Wow. Impressive, beloved," Kay grinned back. He leaned into me and was about to lock me with a smoocher when a groan of consternation filled the room.

"Oh, c'mon!" Nick cried out in frustration. "Don't keep me in suspense!"

"It'll take less time if we start going there now. I'll fill you in on the details as we go." We gathered our gear, each gave Sylvia a hug and left out into the night.

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