by D'Artagnon

Chapter 15

Cleaning House

We arrived, stepping out of the Umbra, directly into the Dreaming. Three Changelings plus Jack on fully barded unicorns, four werewolves on all fours, and Paul keeping up on skateboard, hands in his pockets. Leading fifty-something other unicorns out of the half-grown corn stalks to the left of Barnie's Burger Barn's. All bearing the blue and silver of my house, tabards and mounts, and even werewolves, decorated for combat. All decorated for battle with werewolf face paint. It was like we melted out of the corn.

I kinda wish that someone had taken a picture of it. Juan would have loved it. So would Mom and Dad. I suppressed a shiver at that, and Kenny, riding beside me, moved his hand subtly to pat my leg. Probably the closest thing we'd get to a hug until the battle was over. Still, it must have been a haunting image for the ages. Epic, majestic.

True to her word, Sylvia did what she said she would. Over 160 changelings of mixed kiths were waiting with her at the parking lot, armed in various ways. Trolls were well represented, but so were Nockers, Satyrs, Pooka, Boogans, Sidhe, Sluagh and Eshu. Some of the lesser known Kith's were there as well. Leprechauns, most notably. No Red Caps, I noticed. Seems most of them were playing for the enemy.

When Sylvia saw what we were riding as we stepped from the corn field, her eyes grew enormously. The crowd around her gasped in awe. She was even more impressed when Onxy performed a complicated bounce step, moving side to side before bowing, his long horn dipping and sweeping right. And then all the unicorns behind performed a simple bow, also sweeping right after tucking low. The Satyrs among the crowd cheered.

"Sir Robyn," she said, acknowledging me. "You seem to have found some allies."

"Countess Donna Trag, Your Grace, my cavalry stand ready to bring pain to thine enemies. And retake this Freehold." I slid off Onyx's side, giving him a good scratch to his shoulder, a signal that he could stand up. He did, the others following him. A virtual wave of unicorn horns rising.

I strode up to her wheelchair, dropping to one knee. Behind and beside me I could feel the rest of the Eight Pack, and Bethany, also kneeling, heads bowed. "By your command, Your Grace," I said, getting a soft chuckle from the Sidhe girl.

"Thank you, Lord Robyn the Blue," she whispered, but her loyal Sidhe guards heard. We'd just made a public display of backing her claim to her title. The Countess commanded the commander of unicorns. "Rise, and your lieutenants with you." We stood, to further cheers. "When this is over, you and I must talk."

"Indeed, Your Grace."

"What news?" she asked.

"The Queen is safe. Her flag tops the mast of Capricus' ship, the Tragic Nymph , with a small fleet defending her," Kenny said, nodding. "Capricus says his fleet is not being followed. He is in deep water, but prepared to make for port at the turn of a kind word."

"May such words soon be said," The Countess replied. "You have a plan?"

"We enter the Dreaming here. We make open challenge. I call the prick out and see if he's got the guts to face me directly," I said. "He has much to answer to me for."

"If he were honorable, he'd take the chance to take you one to one," Sylvia said, understanding that her people were about to offer their lives in her service. Many of them were not warriors. Some would not come home tonight. "I wish there were another way."

"As you say," Kenny said, nodding. "We mean to pair your weaker warriors with unicorns. They can fight from higher up and the unicorns come with their own advantages. They move twice as fast as any horse, and they can fight."

"And they can teleport at combat distances," I said, getting our countess to look my way again, in surprise.

"In step?"

"At full speed, stride and power, and they can even change direction as they teleport, to flank an enemy. It is a glorious and violent feat," I reply, bowing. "And an advantage that Korbesh wont expect." She nodded with grim sagacity. "If he wont come out and face me, we mean to invade. My pack will open the way in. If you can pin the bulk of his forces after getting inside the fort, we'll handle the rest."

"Bold, simple. Bloody. But effective. Not sure how I can lead behind the walls like this, though."

"I may have a solution to just that," I said, and whistled.

Kenny was instructing the assembled knights and commoner warriors to find unicorns to pair up with. One by one, the different Changelings seemed to find a unicorn that they resonated with, forming a brief bond. As we watched, a tall, dappled stallion with black mane and tail walked up beside Donna Trag. He whickered briefly. Cody transformed beside me.

"This one says his name is Gypsum, and he would like to bear you into combat, Your Grace," my werewolf buddy translated.

"It would be my honor," Sylvia said, and gave me a grin. With a little help from Cody and myself, we got her up on Gypsum's back, seated comfortably and changed the barding on him to match her colors. Literally just waved my hand and her standard replaced my own. Gypsum whinnied briefly and Cody again had to translate.

"He says he hopes you can hold on, that you are so light that he barely feels you upon his back, and he intends to strike swiftly"

Sylvia smiled and patted the unicorn's neck, leaning over to whisper to him, "Then we are of like mind, mighty one." That seemed to get the unicorns approval, for he sounded a few clarinet sounding notes from his horn, like grim, proud, macho laughter. "Alright, Lord Robyn, I will lead a frontal assault, should Korbesh fail to enjoin you in combat. It wont be pretty."

"Never is, my lady." I looked about and saw the Eight Pack helping here and there, getting people up into unicorn saddles. Jack rode up, casting his eyes to the wooded lot behind Barnie's.

"Looks like they aren't expecting us. No movement from the castle tops," he said. "Maybe they didn't see us exit the cornfield."

"More likely they can't get into the Balefire yet," the Countess spoke. "I carry the key with me at all times, and those are thick ensorcelled doors which guard it. He can't touch the heart of the caern." And sure enough, she lifted a gilded key from within her bossom, hidden there and dangling from a long silver chain. "It never leaves my person." In the real world, it was a simple house key on a simple chain of balls, strung about her neck so she could wear it close to her heart. But in the Dreaming it shone like purest gold, and bore her crest.

"Keep it ever safe," I said.

Cody and the werewolves gathered around me, and the three other riders did as well. Paul stood beside Jack, his skateboard shield glowing faintly. There was nothing more I could do to prepare them. Or myself for that matter. Kay Neth in his battle tabard, smiled my way. But it was his grim smile, not his happy one. I gripped the back of his neck and pulled his forehead to mine.

"I just wanna say this," Paul said, from the ground. "No matter what happens today, I'm proud to call you guys my brothers."

"This is the Way," Sven said, patting Paul on the back.

"My Lady," I said, giving a slight bow. "With your permission, I'm gonna go pick a fight. Prepare your troops."

"Press on, Lord Robyn. We have thy back." She saluted with her nearly clear sword, the red crystal catching the slanted rays of the afternoon sun. I presented with my lightsaber, as did the rest of the pack. Bethy simply inclined her head. The nine of us rode forth.

The castle was a fortress. Its tall walls reflected the dark heart of its current master, having darkened considerably. The gate was opened and the battlements above seemed strewn about with thick, menacing vines, worthy of any Super Mario Brothers game.

"Oh, someone's trapped in the 90's," Paul commented. "You think those things have big mouths with teeth?"

"Don't give him ideas," Nick replied. Magnus said something briefly in German, getting a firmly affirmative from Jack, which startled the taller of our Garou companions.

We stopped about ten meters from the entrance. Still no movement was sighted from either the top of the battlements or the towers at the corners. No movement within the courtyard, nor any in the various buildings to be seen. It was still and quiet, if not a bit colder. Grim clouds from the fires still shrouded the place with foreboding, and an odious stench lay upon the air with the scent of burning timbers. In Static Reality, there were still fire crews mopping up the forest fire from the lightning strike that had claimed a part of the woods. In the Dreaming, that lingered in the form of a vaporous fog, swirling between hot and cold.

"Ah got a baaaad felin' 'bout dis," Nick said, ominously.

"It is about to get worse," Kay Neth said beside me. I nodded and he took a deep breath to shout. Normally, I like to do my own talking. Especially when I need to back that with a blade. But this felt more formal. So I had to stick to protocol. Which meant my herald had to do the talking. I had butterflies in my stomach as Kay Neth spoke.

"I call now to the usurper! To the villain known as Lord Korbesh! Lord Robyn the Blue of Cerulean, Dragon Slayer and High Sherrif to Her Majesty, Queen Mab of the Kingdom of Apples, bids you to present your foul self for a duel, to the death, to the Undoing. The winner shall claim the Freehold of Arkham, all lands and territories, and shall make claim of the county throne. We await your response."

"Is dis de part where dey shoot da messenger?" Nick joked, getting a few soft, nervous chuckles. I have to admit, when not polished up and pretty, those walls were very intimidating. The palace beyond seemed to mock Kay Neth with its silence. I was reminded of that little unicorn and kitt that had been impaled by one of Korbesh's hybrid weapons. Maybe the unicorns weren't such a secret, but at least they still gave us an advantage. Catching one outside the bygone still would have been a feat.

An arrow arched up over the wall and fell to earth several meters in front of us. Now it could have been a message arrow, with a note rolled around the shaft. It could have been a warning shot to get us to scatter. It could even have been a misfire from inside. But it wasn't.

It was a thick shaft on a two-meter-long arrow. Impaled on that arrow was a thin, small figure. A female, shot through in such a way that the arrow pierced her body into the ground so that she was face up. I leapt off Onyx's back and ran to the smaller person. She lay there, gasping her final breath as I arrived, a young Pooka, less than 10 or 12 years old. A simple note pinned on her chest as the Mysts overtook her. The note simply said:

"Come and get me, boy!"

"Korbesh!!" I shouted. "You'll pay for all your atrocities!" And a blinding flash of lightning, a deafening clap of thunder echoed across the face of the fortress, shaking the walls.

"Robyn! Duck!" Kay Neth shouted and pointed. Across the crenelations of the battlements, archers appeared, long glowing arrows of golden red and frosty white pointed down near us. As one, they fired. It was on.

The Eight Pack scattered. Our archers returned fire, from unicorn back, while the grounded ones made a mad dash for the walls. They began lowering the portcullis over the entry way as the assault began. Key Neth wove around the incoming array of meter and a half bolts of death, moving to engage however he could. Onyx was by my side in a flash and I quickly assumed the saddle.

Hellspikes turned the grassy fields shiny with molten glass. Icicles peppered the landscape with horrid, twisted mushrooms of frozen eruptions. All around me, combinations of those effects had me dodging shards, avoiding riding into liquid pools of sticky, burning glaze. And then I heard the unicorns, all as one, sounding a battle cry of their own. A cry sounded and magnified as the unicorn cavalry charged the gates, horns and whistles and flutes among them.

"Onward, Onyx!" I shouted. "Let's give the horn!"

And he teleported. One moment we were charging the gate, the next we were through them, impaling a Dautian and slinging him off the horn. I turned and slashed with my saber and two heads fell, one from a Red Cap, another from some monstrous fish person with a trident in its hands. Kay Neth, astride Gossymer, was close to hand, laying about with horn and saber, hoof and boot. He peeled three from my right flank as I turned towards the side of the gate towers.

The werewolves were suddenly there above, leaping the dozens of meters high walls and laying about. They had their work cut out for them, though, as the top of the walls were swarming with formorii, and other horrors. I turned Onyx with my knees as I hacked at limbs, unaware I had been outflanked. Thirty mixed Red Caps and formorii charged out of a hidden part of the wall, ready to cut me and Kay Neth to bits. I wheeled to face the threat, realizing that Kay and I were separated. We were in no position to back each other up.

That's when Paul came through like a golden comet. His glowing body rammed into the massive swarm, knocking them flat. Close on his heels, our archers, Bethy and Jack, drove in on rampaging unicorns, flinging crystal arrows and bowling over enemies with reckless abandon. I picked up the attack and leapt from Onyx's back to a point halfway up a set of stairs, into the portcullis wheelhouse. I engaged three in sword play, giving one a stab through the chest, another a boot out the door and down the stairs and the third actually got three strokes on me before I slashed his throat open.

Outside the sound of pitched battle could be heard but our army was clearly having trouble with the gate and the archers above. Even on unicorn back. This was made even harder when the enemy charged from the forest, flanking the cavalry charge from the left, toward Barnies. Two Red Cap advanced on me as I was reeling up the massive portcullis. So pulled the hand break and stepped to them to express my anger.

They were cagey and used to fighting dirty. But I wasn't fencing this time. I was at war, and my saber sang a bloody song. We slashed and turned, the two Red Caps getting me between them. I was slippery as a river eel, though, and danced around them. Finally, I stepped between them, one pierced by my blade, the other impaled on his friend's ill-timed thrust. I finished them off with one stroke that took both their heads. It was just a matter of a few moments, and I had the gates up and secure.

Upon leaving the wheelhouse, I saw Kay Neth had dismounted and was holding off the throng on the stairs up to where I was. They had to face him one at a time and were no match for his skill. Our mounts had taken up a defensive position against a large bear-squid thing, hemming it in with Jack and Elsbeth's mount, while Jack, Elsbeth and Paul took on a small horde. Jack was actually doing well with Shard in its shortened form while Paul's Xiphos was opening up the enemy with sickening ease. Those long crystal arrows would sing out and that bow make a quick slash at anyone who got close enough to feel Elsbeth's wrath.

I leapt into a crowd of enemies, horns first and sent one to the ground permanently. That was when our rag tag army of unicorns and commoner volunteers swept in, catching the reinforcements, monsters and misfits off guard. As they flowed by, we watched in horror as beasts rose up from the massive field inside the fortress walls. Squid-bears and their smaller cousins broke through the ground and caught our army off guard. They turned to harass the monsters, which the Red Caps used as mounts.

It was carnage. I lost myself to it for a bit, feeling a Satyr's red rage build in me. Kay Neth was suddenly by my side, and we became a swirling blade storm, merging with Elsbeth, Jack and Paul's efforts. The enemy pressed, but we pressed back, deeply. For a brief moment, we held the line. Paul, Kay and me as a front line, Elsbeth and Jack launching flights of arrows into enemies that present themselves. Blades and spears sang in, and we batted them aside, Paul using his skateboard/shield offensively as well as to block strikes.

Jack yelled and went down. An enemy lance had found his leg. Just a blind throw, but it was hard enough to twist him about, dropping him on his side. Elsbeth promptly launched an arrow to silence the hurler, but not before three Dauntain tried to rush the breach. She nocked two more with amazing speed and fired, drilling four of our enemies at once with two arrows, pinning them together. But the gap in our defense invited further attack.

I was too far out, and Kay was too far to my other side to help Jack. He rolled on the ground, somersaulting backwards as we had taught him. He dodged three blades that way before reversing his momentum and plunging Shard hilt deep in one foe. The other two found themselves on the bitter end of Paul's flashing blade. One managed to smack him on the unshielded weapon arm, but his miraculous golden force field seemed to take the blow without problem. Paul lashed out at the attacker, three swift strikes with Xiphos; one disarming, one dismembering, the last decapitating.

I couldn't be prouder.

Jack pulled his blade free of his opponent with a spin on his knee, coming around an up, with a slash and shallow stab into another enemy. He ripped Shard upwards and regained his feet, limping as he took his place on the line. I was immediately impressed but had no time to say so.

We were surrounded, but suddenly the werewolves were everywhere. Standing in their war form, they towered over most of their human size enemies. They dipped and dove out of the Umbra, making strikes with claw and lightsaber, plucking enemies up from behind and chucking them meters into the air, or just dragging them into the Umbra and leaving them there. It was as if they were some furry, four-man tag team wrestling troupe putting on a clinic in ass kicking.

Donna Trag rode in on Gypsum, her armor gory from her efforts. She saw us and saw the bulk of her army facing monsters, even as we dispatched the last of those around the main gate. She saluted me, which I returned, and she headed out to the broader field, to rally her forces. Our four mounts had managed to down a monster and awaited us. It seemed like only moments, but it was nearly half an hour of fighting at the front, and we were glad for a momentary breather.

"Everyone okay?" Nick asked, even as he turned and saw Jack sitting down, bleeding. Paul was by his side, helping to put pressure on the wound. "Oh, fuck! Toothpick…." Nick said and gave Cody a look. Cody dropped his own saber and knelt beside the smaller boy.

"This is gonna hurt," Cody said, getting a curt nod from Jack. He applied hands and that creamy green light slithered around our wounded motley mate's leg. To his credit, Jack didn't fight it. He just accepted the feeling that was twitching his leg and let Cody heal him.

"Korbesh is likely still in the great hall," Kay said. "We may have to go in and dig him out."

"Just like a tick," Magnus agreed, his white mouth fur decorated in green, black and red ichors. I guess to one degree or another, we all were.

I took stock of our situation. If the werewolves took any wounds in scaling the wall while arrows of hot or freezing death rained down on us, they seemed none the worse for it. They do heal wicked fast. Elsbeth showed some signs of close contact but didn't seem impaired by it. If any thing the cuts and scrapes seemed to make her look more of a bad ass. Jack had recovered fully from his leg wound, but seemed bummed out that he was the first one grievously injured. Still, he put aside his emotions and tried to get his game face going. Paul was all into the worried boyfriend deal, but he was otherwise untouched. I think he was getting the hang of his magical powers.

Which left Kay Neth. I looked to him and could see him visibly vibing with the universe. Eshu, such as my beloved boyfriend, have this sort of sixth sense. They always know the right path. They don't know why it is the right path, just that it is right. They know which way to get to their goal, although they may not know what lays in wait along the way. When he is in the moment, following that path, it's a wondrous thing to behold. When dueling, he never needs to look behind him, always knowing which way to step. He has an uncanny way of dodging that just fits the moment. And when questing into the Dreaming, he knows if a Trod will lead him where he wants to go.

But there are times, like this moment, when his sixth sense is telling him to leave, even though he knows he must push on. Battles like this one tend to bring that uncertainty out in him. Like just now.

"Kay?" I said, reaching out to touch him. Beyond our area, the sound of those dying and killing could be heard. Even the sounds of the wounded near us were a distraction. Thankfully mostly the sounds of enemy wounded and dying. "Hey, Kay Neth. You okay in there?" I said tapping on his helmet.

"I am… disturbed, milord. It will pass."

"I need you, pathfinder," I said, giving him a smile. I needed him to have confidence in his abilities. "We still have a festering boil to pop."

He smiled. Grimly. "It is just a momentary thing. It will pass."

"So, how's it gonna go, chief?" Paul said, walking over. His armor and tabard were soaked in enemy entrails, a testament to his courage. I looked around and the other seven stood, waiting upon my next decision. I looked up at the central keep, sighing at the sheer size of that pile of stone. It looked suddenly sinister to me, not like the dark, majestic hall that Donna Trag held court at. It seemed again that Korbesh had put his own stamp on the building itself. Lots of changes. Dark changes.

"We raid the castle. Once inside, we split up. Elsbeth, you take Spartan and Shadow Foot, and sweep the right wing. Kay Neth, you pair up with Sven and Cody, cover the left. I'll take Toothpick and Magnus with me and search the next level up." This got curt nods all around. "Stay loose and fast, always check behind you when entering a room. Cover each other's back. We'll go room by room until we find the bastard, root out his baddies as we go."

"A good plan, pack leader," Sven nodded. He turned to Magnus and grabbed him by the back of the neck for a quick hug. He said something in their home language, ending with the endearment "Schneki", which I later learned meant something like "snowy" or "sweet heart." Jack and Paul embraced, sharing a long kiss, which they only broke after saying "be safe" to each other at the same time. I watched as Nick and Cody grabbed each other by the neck, in their caveman form, bringing their foreheads together, mouthing a silent "love you."

I was struck by how I had divided all the couples in our pack. It made sense at the time. I choose to separate the group in order to balance the teams, keeping one bigger guy, one sneakier guy and one skilled fighter guy in each group. It just shook out that way. And it kept one Changeling in each group as a tour guide.

I turned and Kay was there, Kenny shining through. I pulled his tabard, reeling him into me. His arms went over my shoulders, his lips came to mine. His breath smelled sweet, like wintergreen mints, despite all the blood that splattered him. He broke the kiss but stayed with his face close enough to speak directly into my mouth. I felt his words on my lips, resonating inside me.

"You better come back to me," he said, a note of playfulness in his voice. And something else. Fear. He knew what the risks were for me, for us.

"As you wish, milord," I whispered back to him.

"I'm serious, Robby. Take his fuckin' head off! Cuz if he Undoes you, I'm gonna Undo him, and then follow you into Oblivion." A blast of trumpet notes echoed with the lightning across the sky at that statement. I swallowed hard, knowing that the Dreaming was looking to pay off a lot of promises today.

"Then I wont miss."

"You better not," he said, leaning heavily against me.

"No words, beloved."

He paused, breathing heavy. "No words, Robyn." He surged forward to hug me with a fierce squeeze that took my breath away. "No words."

As Kay Neth and I broke our embrace, we noticed the others had all gathered around Elsbeth, giving her some attention. Kay Neth moved to hug her, but I held back. After everyone had shared an embrace, I found all eyes on me. They needed something, I realized, so I looked them all in the eyes and spoke.

"Let's keep in mind why we're here. We all have reasons, unfinished business. For Master Mitch. For Croaker. When it comes down to it, you fight for the soldier beside you. Let's get Korbesh and remember the First Rule. After the mission, we all go home."

"Yeah, baby!" Paul said, emphatically.

"Let us kick some ass," Sven muttered, darkly, and around the circle guys agreed.

"Eight Pack, let's roll!" I said, turned and walked towards the keep, ready to chase my destiny.

Or die trying.

We entered the keep, with the distant sound of battle still clashing in our ears. Opening it up, the big double doors made an ominous sound. They creaked heavily on their hinges, leading to an air of menace in the cold echoing rooms beyond. Yet no sign of life betrayed inside. No shadows moved, no debris shuffled, no sounds of beathing. Only the soft flutter of the curtains betrayed any air currents from our entrance.

Inside the big double doors, the foyer echoed unnaturally. It was laid out with a staircase up the middle that split to either side. The upper arcade had flyaways to other, uhm let's just call them them floors, but this one overlooked the main court room, as well as Donna Trag's personal chamber. We had a good shot at finding Korbesh. But the other two wings of the building

The stone checkerboard floors were stained here and there with blood. Candle holders were knocked over, with pools of green and white wax showing they had been lit during some altercation. Gouges from weapons had been torn here and there in the entrance, some near the blood stains. The silken drapes in the many rich dark colors, iridescent as black opal, were torn in places, burned in others. The whole place had a scorched sort of feel to it, dry and powdery and burnt. Still, the air felt ridiculously cold for summertime.

"Looks like de party happened heah, alright," Nick stated flatly.

"I dislike this party," Magnus said, growling in big werewolf form.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Jack said under his breath. Everyone turned to look at him. "I thought it needed to be said," he said, shrugging.

"Wherever the action is, it isn't here," Cody said. Paul and Sven muscled a beam across the doors, effectively barring anyone from slipping out without us knowing about it. The loss of daylight was palpable, and in the gloom the shadows seemed alive, hungry.

"Let's go. Jack, Mags, you're with me." I nodded to Kay Neth, giving him a smile. He rolled his eyes and motioned for his team to take the left wing of the main floor. I nodded to Elsbeth as well, who nodded curtly to me, before moving off with her team to the right. She was all business. I pity the fool who ran across her.

We took the staircase up the middle, turning right to move up to the next level. The carpet and wall hangings again were dirty with spilled blood and pooled wax. It seemed that the defenders had not fared well. Fortunately, Magnus got to enjoy the lofty ceilings for longer, staying in full werewolf form.

"Something is wrong," Jack said, following close to my hip. He was technically older, although he didn't seem so physically. At least not as much with a full Crinos werewolf with a glowing red claymore walking nearby. Still, I was the shortest member of my team.

"What do you mean, Toothpick?" Magnus whined as we made the main floor level. He was speaking in Garou, yet clearly I understood his meaning. Perhaps a gift from our new pack bond? And Jack's Garou name sounds interesting in the wolf tongue. Like a cute rising sound with a clipped, short growl. It's hard to describe.

"Where are the dead or wounded?" Jack replied. "There's no bodies. No weapons."

"Yeah well, we're dealing with monsters, formorii, Dauntain and Red Caps. It's kind of to be expected."


"Red Caps are known for eating anything they can get their teeth around." I looked to Jack with a grin. "So keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times."

"Ah, humor. Gruesome. But there's no evidence of any extraneous body parts. Or discarded Changeling weaponry, for that matter. Even if they ate the dead…"

"A distastable act," Magnus interrupted.

"Even if, there should be something left behind other than blood stains on the drapes."

"You think it means something, Jack?"

"Yeah. Combined with the body of the impaled girl they launched over the fortress walls, it indicates a pattern designed to prevent us from thinking clearly. Just reacting. I think you're being lured into a trap."

"Bring it on," Magnus grunted. "More formorii and monsters to slay."

"Think of it this way; would you rather fight tripping over dead bodies or have nothing to block up your feet." I rolled my shoulders. "We knew it would be a trap, anyways. So stay sharp."

Jack simply held his comments. He sighed resignedly and checked the draw on his bow. He kept an arrow nocked, but the bow held down and in front of him, advancing carefully down the hall, as Elsbeth had taught him. The delicate crystal shaft faintly pulsed as we moved on. "I'd rather be slinging arrows instead of dealing with them close up," Jack replied.

"Sounds good to me, but keep Shard handy," I agreed, nodding towards his bow. "You're wicked fast with either of 'em." He cocked an eye up at me, reluctantly grinning.

We rounded the banister rail around the top, cautiously. Here the building ran in many directions. There was a gallery across the front that served as access points and observation decks. Those I mostly discounted as possible hiding points because they were nearly fifteen meters (that's nearly 50 feet, for you lazy bones at home) off the ground. I mean, this keep was the show piece of buildings within the fortress walls. It was toward the court area that I really intended to focus our search.

Now as I described it before, the main court room is somewhat raised from the first floor. And if you don't have an ample description of the court room, go back and read Coupe (cuz if ya haven't, your already lost by now, sheesh!). There is an area on the ground floor called the "visitors entrance" which is sort of a back door into the castle. That's the part where you walk between two birch trees and you're suddenly in the "receiving area" to the court room. When Donna Trag is holding court, that's typically how people get in. In friendlier times, it's open to all. Many a young person has stumbled upon it, by accident. Typically, they are treated to a tame yet fun time and released back into the mundane world with slightly augmented memories. All in good fun.

But at times like these, the "walking between two trees" entrance is closed. If it had been open, we wouldn't have had to mount the assault at the gate. It was sort of a short cut for visitors, but a security breach during attacks. Ain't magic stuff grande?

Anyways, the receiving area is right behind the staircase, meaning that as we cleared the upper gallery, we had a vantage down into the court room. It wasn't much of an advantage, but it was something I wasn't about to overlook. Get it? Overlook?

I crack myself up sometimes.

Sorry, even writing about it now, with time to think about it, I get nerves. Like, I started all this. Maybe I didn't intend for Korbesh to raise an army and start killing people. I certainly didn't intend to get my friends hurt or killed. But part of being the hero is making mistakes, and owning up to them. And sometimes, you just got to learn that the hard way. Although you'd think as many times as I've lived that the lesson mighta sunk in by now.

But that's another story. Don't get me started.

Right, I'll leave the comedy to the professionals. Back to the business at hand.

So we swept into the upper gallery over the courtroom, gazing down. It was in an odd disarray. Tables and chairs were overturned. Candles lay in pools of tallow beside burnt draperies, slowly smoldering. The enormous checkerboard square before the throne was scrubbed bare, but had scratches carved into the normally polished surface. Blood stains and spilt wine splashed across the floors and columns.

Yet not a creature was stirring, not even a rat. We spread out, moving around. The upper gallery was a long corridor, the length of the courtroom below, with a wide, flat marble railing, running its inner edge, wide enough that some seats could be put up to the railing for viewing the court below. It was cast into shadow, and so we slipped through quietly.

I kept one eye on my surroundings and one eye on the courtroom and raised throne platform below. The normally brightly lit court chamber seemed surreal in the shadows, even Donna Trag's normal dark, richly colored silks were suddenly dingy and scorched, burnt rather than full of smoky hues and incense.

"Lord Robyn!" I heard a whisper across the upper gallery. It was a small voice. One I didn't recognize. A simple glance to Magnus and Jack was all I needed. I moved towards the voice, cautiously, knowing my pack would back me. I slipped around some overturned chairs, back into one corner of the gallery, and found a small Changeling, lying against a wall. It didn't take a genius to realize she was propped up, wounded. Her leg was weeping blood, the injury quickly wrapped as best she could.

"I'm here," I whispered, kneeling. Her hand reached out with a desperate strength, clutching at my tabard with a bloody grip.

"Oh, blessed be, Dragon Slayer! I knew ye'd come! He's crazed! Absolutely maniacal!" she said, pulling my hand to her own. She was a middle aged Boggan, but other than that, I didn't know her. Still, she was a victim of some violence. I couldn't help but feel responsible.

"Easy, friend. You are safe now. Are you injured?"

"Me leg. The bones are all crackeledy. That mad Red Cap tried to eat me! I thought he would bite me leg off!"

"Jack?" I said, and he moved in to examine her leg. "Where did he go?" I asked her. "How many fighters does he have?" Jack quickly slung his bow and bent to examine her leg. Magnus' shadow was a comforting weight. I knew he'd remain vigilant.

"He kept talking about going to the Balefire, milord. He railed against your noble name but could not assail the door. His thugs… they toss'd me about! Gnawed at me without breaking me skin, milord!"

"I hear you…" and I held out, waiting for her name.

"Molly, milord, Molly Elmwood," she supplied, wincing in pain.

"Molly. Okay. I will deal most harshly with them, you can be assured. How many guards attend him?" I looked at Jack who was checking her wounds and I could tell he was having a hard time keeping his breakfast in. I risked a look at her leg and saw it was nearly chewed through. The flesh below was horribly bruised and savaged. I think she was in so much pain she was in shock.

The fiends had held back with their infernal bites just enough to keep from severing her leg. The mangled limb was crushed unmercifully, above the knee. How this poor woman remained conscious was beyond me. I met Jack's eyes and he shook his head, imperceptibly.

"Dear lady," I said, looking down at her. "We are going to make you comfortable. Milady the Countess is nearby, meting out righteous fury to the fiends beyond. It falls to me to oust the interloper from these halls. Help will come for you soon. Can you remain here in silence, hidden?""

"Aye milord. Lord Korbesh means to Undo you. Oh, please be careful. He's vicious, absolutely vicious, the villain!"

"We will, Molly. Help is on the way," I said smiling at her. She smiled up at me and took my hand for a kiss. No sooner had her lips touched my hand and released it than an arrow sprouted from her chest.

"NOO!" Jack shouted, hauling her down, out of the open. I turned, hunkered down. About three meters from me Magnus spun about, a thick shaft sprouting from his shoulder. Wicked laughter echoed in the court room, freaky weird laughter, devoid of any mirth or merriment. It was hard to tell where it came from. Wind whooshed in the chamber, filling the room with dust and fog.

"You cannot protect them! You never could, Brat!" a voice shouted, although if it was Korbesh or not I could tell. "You aren't hunting us, Lord Robyn. We are hunting you!" More echoing laughter burst out and faded.

Magnus roared to his feet, his eyes wild with anger. He reached up and literally ripped the arrow out of his shoulder is a spray of blood. He tossed the arrow down, his chest heaving with his frustration.

Jack sobbed behind me, his eyes on the verge of tears. I crouched near him as he held Molly's body close, but her spirit clearly had fled into the Mysts. I kept a close watch around, looking for danger. He carefully laid her body down, covering her eyes with his hand.


"She's gone," he said, sniffling. "I'm okay. I will be," he straightened up, resetting his bow. "Let's end this motherfucker." His tone was so cold, so matter of fact. I knew he was in shock. But we'd have to wait to worry about his mental well-being. I drew him in for a quick hug, my saber by my side.

"We will." We turned and found Magnus on all fours, sniffing around. "Whaddya got, Ritter?"

"Three scents, two Changelings and a Formor," he growled. "All with blood on their hands."

"In more ways than one," I replied. "Down in the court room?"

"Yes. Still in there. There were more. I am sorry, pack leader. I should have been scenting them."

"Not your fault," I realized. They are manipulating the air. Just like Jack suggested, they've set up the grounds to their advantage. Keep pointing out things that don't make sense, both of you. We'll figure it out later, let's just get them now. Where are they?"

"Two down among the main floor, the archer is upon the stage. And there may be more. Scents are mixing."

"You're sure," Jack said. In response, Magnus' huge paw fell on Jack's narrow shoulder and he pointed back into the shadows.

"The arrow that struck me landed from there," he growled in Garou. Jack nodded. Incidentally, Magnus' shoulder had already fully healed. Ah-may-zing!

"We jump on three, yeah?" They both nodded grimly, Magnus grinning in what I can only guess was meant to be a smile. It looked like a shark's smile. "One," I counted out loud. I mouthed a silent "two," while preparing to uncoil my Satyr legs, counting out on my fingers. On the count of three, I vaulted over the railing into the court room below.

The enchantments on our weapons really made a difference. That leap was so easy and the landing so light, we barely made a sound, even Magnus in full werewolf form, weighing well over 150 kilos (that is like 330 pounds, get with the program folks) hit the floor as light as a feather. I landed in the middle of the court room, almost dead center of the checkerboard. Long shadows from outside crept over us as Magnus and Jack landed beside me. All remained quiet.

A loud "thwip" sounded from the throne area. Jack grabbed my shoulder and tugged me out of the way. The shaft passed right through where my chest had been, clattering against the stone tiles. I looked up and came face to face with three Red Caps, armed with Hybrids and with those teeth. To the side I saw Magnus charge something on his side of the room, but I had my own area to watch out for. Jack was suddenly involved in a duel with the other archer, weaving between tables and chairs in the court room, slinging arrows as he went.

I had to trust that Jack would keep the archer busy. I had to trust whatever big thing Magnus engaged would be handled. In the meantime, I had to handle these three… now five… Red Caps. Where the fuck are all these Red Caps coming from?

And that's when I noticed something. All five of them were… identical! I wasn't sure it was an illusion, some kind of trick, or just a family resemblance. The thing that struck me in the moment was that they had replicated themselves. I squared back my thin shoulders and dropped into a low guard.

"Ohhh, brothers! Look, the meat wants a fight!" one of the Red Caps said, advancing at the head of the five. They made to circle from the right side, leaving my left side open to the archer if Jack gives him a moment. But I couldn't worry about it. Just had to track five enemies and stay alive. They brandished, each of them, one of those evil Hybrid swords, silver on one side, Cold Iron on the other.

To make it simple, I'll keep them in order as they spread out, like a single wing, from the main speaker. One through five.

Number two moved in but it was a feint, because number five leapt at me, arms spread wide to bring his wicked Hybrid sword over his head. I spun back through my left side and slashed Blue Streak up, stuck deep and came back around to face the other four. Number five landed and fell in a pile, some of his guts landing beside him. As an afterthought, I kicked my heel across his forehead, pushing that lethal jaw away from me in case he had some kind of post mortem bite reflex.

The other four stopped at that. Two moves, one enemy cleared. I wasn't even touched, or even broken a sweat.

"Oh look, brothers! That's one of you down!" I taunted.

Number three took the bait and rushed in. I parried three slashes and made a shallow cut to his left arm. Not a kill, but it slowed him. The other three jumped at the chance and all rushed in. Number four had to go around three, so I could wait on him, but the other two were a priority. I slashed upward between the both of them, forcing them to flinch as I divided them. I turned and parried one, stepped over a slash from two and then gave two a blow across the chest. Before one could strike me, I grabbed two and hauled him around behind me, using him as a shield for one.

Four came around three and made a weak thrust at the edge of his reach, which I simply danced away out of range. Three was able to make two attacks at me, which I turned aside, shifting him through space with a step for each block. I dropped low and struck at his leg, scoring a hit. By this time four had to chase me again, coming around on three's wounded side, slashing down viciously.

I stopped and turned, catching four's blade high on the outside and simply head butted him, right in the face. He blasted back from that impact to go sailing over the overturned tables. I lost sight of him, but didn't expect I'd see him standing anytime soon. Three tried to stab me, but I blocked his blade away and brought Streak through a hard left cross, spinning him around. He crumpled to the ground.

Two was on me, with almost manic energy, slashing that wicked Hybrid. He screamed as he came in, which only served to warn me. I blocked and stepped back, focused on parrying him. His strength was wild, and I barely kept that edge from my skin. I tried to turn under but his raw fury kept me from getting a swing off. As I turned to parry again, I had to duck under a swipe from number one, who struck at me from behind. If not for that duck, I'd be slightly headless.

I backed up, keeping thing one and thing two in my view, blade held up. Two heaved, breathing heavily, bleeding heavily from the chest wound I'd gifted him. One was grim, but he was working his jaw in that way I knew meant he was thinking about biting my head off if I tried to headbutt again. I waved Blue Streak through a few guard positions, backing away under the gallery. Soon I'd run out of room.

Two bellowed again and charged, trying to hack through my chest. I saw one hang back and knew he'd go for whatever opening two left for him. I angled to the outside, avoiding One's side. As Two swung in at my head and then immediately swung back to cut across my chest, I dropped to one knee, rolled across my shoulders and back, and brought my bright blue blade up to block that savage edge. His blade lifted high again, and I surged forward, both hands holding Blue Streak out straight, burying my blade in his chest to the hilt.

And immediately had to duck as a Hybrid came at my head. My hands slipped off the handle of my blade as I dropped and reverse somersaulted from his follow up stab attack that would have skewered me through the floor. I came out of the reversal sitting down in a chair, only to have to hop up and over that chair as number One's blade came crashing down where I'd been sitting.

For some reason, I landed on my ass, hard. Everything graceful seemed to leave me as One drove forward, hacking and slashing. I turned and rolled, ducked and dodged, staying one step ahead of the Red Cap. I finally got to my feet, and got inside his guard. I used my hands to block his wrists. He pulled his wrists down to bite at my head, forcing me back. He came in underneath and I turned, ran up the side of a column, backflipping over his head. I held out my hand and summoned Blue Streak back to my hand.

He must have seen the motion, knowing my blade would return to my hand, and moved to hack my hand off. I tucked my arm out of danger and turned back against his chest. I used my butt to push him back as he tried to bite at the back of my head.

Which was the opening I needed, because I held my hand before me again, summoning my blade. It soared straight forward from behind me, point first into my hand so I had to catch it from behind… coming directly through number one. The blade made a loud "zorch!" as it shot through One's gut. I turned and lifted his chin with a punch.

"So long, brother," I said, and winding my shoulders up for the cut, hacked his head clean off. The open-mouthed skull tipped backwards, his body going first to his knees and then off to the side, dead.

Magnus roared in triumph, slinging the carcass of what looked like another werewolf into the middle of the room. Well, it did, and it didn't. There were long flaps of skin between its arms and legs, and its muzzle was twisted and deformed, as were its ears. Patches of its dark, greasy fur were missing and mangy.

"I'd hate to see the fleas," I muttered, looking up to Magnus' blood smile. He had a wound on his left hip that was rapidly healing right before my eyes. With the flick of his wrist Dragon Fang pulled itself out of the carcass to his hand.

"I don't think any flea would bite such as him." It came out as three chuffs. "Where is Toothpick?"

"I'm here." Jack's voice came from the platform. He stepped out of silence and shadows, his bow hanging by his side. He dragged out the archer, still alive but wounded, his left hand clutching his right. Apparently, our Toothpick lived up to his name. Splinters of crystal arrow pierced the archer's palm.

I looked to Jack, who looked past to see the carcasses of the thing Magnus had killed and three of the five Red Cap replicants I'd dealt with. He directed his captive to his knees, standing on his long calf muscle. "I thought we could use some information."

"Good thinking." I looked at the captive. He was a Nocker, one of the "clockmaker" kith. Doubtless his bow was something heavily modified and specialized. His long arms and dusky-pink, clownish features seemed at odds with themselves.

He chuckled, mirthlessly. His green eyes danced with an insane light. He wiped his hand under his nose showing blood on his lips. "The Dragon Slayer. I must say, you aren't what I expected."

"Where is Lord Korbesh?"

"Oh, he's around, milord."

"Where?!" I thundered, grabbing a handful of his mail shirt.

"Careful, little sheriff. Mustn't rustled the feathers, now."

"It is interesting that you mention my station," I said, hefting Blue Streak, igniting the blade. His eyes snapped open as that dancing blue column of light lifted out of my palm. "I personally witnessed you murdering the Boggan Molly Elmwood. She was no threat. And yet you slew her without cause."

"You can hardly place the blame on m e , my lord. You didn't actually _ see_ who flung that bolt."

"You are the only archer over here," I countered.

"Am I?" he grinned up and started giggling maniacally. His eyes were lost in madness. "AM I?!"

And another arrow suddenly burst from his chest, hitting him hard enough to slide him across the floor. Literally ripped the thin weave of chain mail I was holding him up by. We immediately sought cover as links from that chain mail hit the stone floor. Another maniacal laugh broke out above us, followed by the sound of a slamming door. Magnus leapt up to the upper gallery, but a slammed door above barred his passage. Jack and I leapt up as well, both making the upper floor amidst the chaos of overturned furniture. We found Magnus ramming his shoulder against a stout oaken door.

"It… (bam) will… (bam) not… (BAM) Move!" The powerful werewolf's rattling pulses, still could not gain any traction.

"Killing his own people. This Korbesh sure is a cold bastard," Jack said, his eyes wary.

"He's hoping to wear us down."

"This door will not budge, Robyn." Magnus punched the door, again getting it to rattle yet not pop open.

"Uhm…" Jack said, reaching out to pull the door. It swung in easily showing an empty corridor. I traded a look with Jack and we then looked over Magnus.

"Ah, we all make mistakes?" I offered.

"This place is so confusing," he said, sheepishly.

"Let's go." I said, leading the way down the hallway. I realized that this was one of the upper routes to the back of the court room, into the Countess' chambers. Which meant it was a back way into the Balefire. "I think we're on the right path."

"He's leading us." Jack drew back on his bow, aware that the corridor limited his options.

"I know. But what choice do we have?"

Magnus sniffed the air deeply. "Many scents ahead, many enemies."

"Okay, let's scout it out." We moved down the hallway very cautiously.

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