The Fifth Age

by D'Artagnon

Chapter 6

Natural Relative Minor

Ethan was worn out by the time I finally locked up the store for the evening. He had helped me clean up and prepare for the next day as best he could, but he was just too tired. I'm sure the sugar crash of so much ice cream had something to do with it as well. That and the emotional rollercoaster he put himself through more or less coming out to me on the hike to Barnie's. I was tempted to co-locate us to the back yard, but wasn't sure I was ready to do that with him slung over my shoulder. He might be my little brother, but he wasn't Awakened, and as such he might disrupt my effect with his disbelief.

That didn't stop me from cheating on the way home. I convinced him to climb on my back and then used a subtle application of Forces to lighten the load, so to speak. He was light as a feather as I set off for home, slipping between the stalks of the cornfield. They were at mid summer height already, the corn husks already starting to get silky straw filaments poking out the top. There really is nothing like New England sweet corn with butter and salt at a cookout. And this year we'd had the right combination of sun and rain to ensure that corn for summer holidays would be awesome.

I got through the cornfield and entered the forest. Fortunately, I not only knew the way easily from here, but I had gotten so good at using Life Sphere to augment my senses that the starlight alone was enough for me to see by as if it were just afternoon and not nearing 11 pm. Ethan was light but he still held on tightly, draping his arms over my shoulders, half asleep, my arms wrapped under his legs as I hiked us home. Thankfully he had broken himself of drooling when he slept long ago. I might be a teenage pack mule at the moment, but I wasn't going to be a drippy one.

I followed roughly the same path I'd taken on the way uphill, passing through the area where the ferns and saplings ruled, struggled to catch sunlight from the canopy of birches during daytime. My thoughts were in three places as I walked, toting my little brother on my narrow back. First was on keeping the tiny amount of energy into the mild Forces rote that was making Ethan light enough that I wasn't having to struggle to carry him. Secondly, I kept a close watch on my surroundings, knowing that there might be things in the dark with teeth and blades and a hunger for Mage blood.

Third, you probably guessed by now, was Jace. That smile, that laugh, the sound of his voice, just starting to deepen. And yeah, the shape of his butt as he walked away. I hate it when Meryl's right sometimes, but meeting Jace had kind of awakened something in me other than just my Mage talent.

Ethan woke and whispered that he needed to pee. I set him down and he moved to the side of the path we'd made before to do the deed. I figured I should go as well, so I took the opposite side of a bush from him and let things out to air. I could hear his urine hit the ground behind me and reminded him to not aim it uphill.

"Why?" he yawned.

"Cuz I'm not carrying you home with piss stinking sneakers," I told him. He seemed to understand and adjusted his aim. I let my own flow out and relaxed, feeling the cooling night air on my junk. It stirred in my pubes, which kind of tickled. I pushed to hurry my peeing up and then felt two things happen at once. First, my augmented senses detected movement in the near distance, a subtle movement of light and shadow ahead of me and to the downhill side, towards the river path below. Second, the unicorn's gift seemed to tense against my wrist, as if to warn me.

"Fuck, not now," I whispered. Behind me, I heard Ethan's stream trickle off. "You okay, Bud?"

"Yeah. Just shakin' the drips off."

"Okay, well, don't make any sudden moves okay?"

"What? What does that even mean?" he asked, petulantly, raising his voice slightly. I strained my hearing to perceive more from my surroundings. But I needed to get us moving again, and keep him relatively quiet.

"It means I we don't want to startle any skunks nearby."

"I don't smell anything," he said, moving up beside me. I heard him zip up as he stood near my side, reminding me to put my own junk away. I tucked in and cast my farsenses around, searching to see if anyone or anything was pursuing us. "You think it's a skunk?"

"I don't like surprises at night," I answered, whispering to him and putting my arm in front of his chest. I bent down a bit for him to get back on. He climbed up, feeling heavier than I remember. I quickly fueled the Forces rote to make him lighter again and helped him settle on my back.

"That thing on your wrist is cold," he said, shifting away from it a bit but settling back into place. I felt the tightness in the bracelet and also felt it was waiting for me to do something with it. Waiting to fuel any pattern I called into being.

"Yeah, let's get home," I replied. "Hang on." It would be too tricky to keep more than two Spheres going at the same time, so I simply kept the two in play and concentrated on getting us down to the river path without breaking our necks. The hill through the forest wasn't necessarily steep, but New Engand is famous for two things. Seafood and rocks. And this hill had plenty of the later.

I started us off at a brisk pace, sort of moving sideways a few steps then switching back the other direction to keep us moving down, but not so I was at a risk of tumbling forwards. The goal was to stay on my feet, not go for a roll. I tried to keep my head on a swivel, but Ethan's body and head kept me sort of leaned forwards a bit, unable to really crane my neck about. He remained silent against my back as I ran, even his breathing was silent.

On my third switch back, my enhanced vision picked up an animal in the path ahead of us. I slid to a stop, which alerted Ethan to what was ahead of us. I don't know if he could see it, but I surely did. A dog, easily Ethan's size stood beside the fallen trunk of an ancient elm tree, a death shroud of red and orange leaves decorating the area where long, stout branches once reached to the sky. And then I realized that the dog was not alone. Two more stepped from the shadows ahead, and I heard at least four more emerge behind us.

"Marc!" my little brother said, his voice raising in panic. "What are they?" Soft yet guttural growls began sounding all around us.

"Just coyotes," I lied. "Can you stand? Can you run?"

"They'll catch us," Ethan said, clinging tightly to me.

"I wont let that happen. But I will need you to run when I say so." I heard the three in front moving closer, and two more join the pack; one from the front, the other behind. Nine to two seemed like really unfair odds to me.

"Wish I had my saber," he said. I reached to the side with my left hand, the hand that had the unicorn's gift on it and grabbed the bole of a thin white birch tree. I flexed my will through Life and Matter Spheres and reshaped the wood in my grasp.

"I'm gonna put you down now."

"Noooooo," he hissed, holding more tightly, the leg I'd released climbing up on my hip more.

"Here, take this," I commanded, crouching down so he could slide off my back. He reluctantly did and took the object I held out to him behind my back.

"What the…? Marc, where'd you get…:

"Not important now," I reminded, with an elevated tone. "Take it! Time to see if that Jedi training is any good." I heard him gasp in surprise at the appearance of the suddenly conjured wooden practice sword in his hands. I didn't have a whole lot of time to plan it out, so it was a simple two-edged longsword like I'd remembered seeing on some Robin Hood movie, scaled to his size. I tried to compress the wood as much as I could to keep it light in his hand but still tough and springy, and hopefully sharp.

"When I say run, go straight downhill until you reach the river path. Find the Fishing Spot. It's a little bit to the left as you go down. Either wade into the water or climb up on the rock there. Don't look back until you hit the path. Got it?"

"Why?" One of the beasts to my left growled and snapped its jaws, making Ethan flinch. They were slowly closing in around us, which was their plan, but not mine. Ethan turned, putting his butt against my hip, his weapon held out in a ready stance.

"Cuz you'll be better able to see them coming on the path than in the underbrush and at least with the river they might not follow you into the water. If you have to fight, hit them and run. Don't stand still and make yourself a target."

"Marc, I'm scared."

"I am too, but we gotta be brave here. We gotta stick together. You feel me?"


"Okay. Close your eyes and when I say run, you bolt downhill, don't look back. I'll be right behind you."

"What are you gonna do?" he asked, shifting his focus as one of the creatures attracted his attention. In the limited starlight, we could make out the faint amber, sinister glow of feral eyeshine. My enhanced senses told me the odds had grown against us, with now more than 15 pairs of eyes closing in on all sides. I slowed my breathing, gathered Quintessence, and prepared for my first two moves.

"No questions!" I hissed at him. "Close your eyes, then run. Count of three, okay?"

"Fuck…. Marco…."

"One," I hissed, focusing on Forces and Matter, letting the energy build in my hand. "Two…" I said in that protracted way, raising my left hand over my head. The unicorn's bracelet felt cool and light and tight against my skin and I let it act as my guide. I opened my eyes and pushed the magic, willing it to take shape through my understanding of Forces and Matter.

"Three!" I shouted, leveling my right hand down the hill and pushing with a wide gesture. A short Mind Sphere telekinetic push threw three of the creatures out of the way, giving Ethan a clear path to run. At the same time, I let Forces and Matter focus my will and caused small bursts of flame to go off, exploding up from small patches of fallen red leaves.

The fireworks were brief, bright and loud, yet not enough to light things on fire. But the dog-ish creatures did not know that. The sudden burst of noise and sound was enough to get them to yelp and jump back, startled. Made Ethan jump a bit as well.

"Run!" I commanded. Ethan didn't need to be told twice, he practically jumped over a small rock three steps into his run and kept running like the devil himself was chasing him. Two of the three I'd knocked over with the brief telekinetic burst had regained their feet and were turning to pursue Ethan, but that's when I uncorked my true offensive power. Fire hadn't been working so well for me, but I definitely had found a happy alternative with ice!

Left arm extended, I dropped two of the creatures with quick, consecutive blasts of ice, the beams just cutting out from my hand like playing flashlight tag. I heard very satisfying slicing-chunk noises, and the whimpering of whatever these things were. I pulled my arm back and turned, knowing that while I'd given my brother a decent chance to get to the river path, I was still surrounded, even if the creatures were momentarily distracted.

This gave me a spare moment to see what they really were. And for a moment, it shook my focus realizing what I was seeing. Not because they things were larger than the coyotes I said they were, nor because they had the look of very dangerous predators out for a midnight snack. All of that was true enough. But what really shook me was what they actually were.

It seems these creatures might have been dogs at one point. Or even the coyotes I told Ethan they were. But that wasn't all they were. Their bodies, while mostly laid out like most mammals, were odd, twisted mergings of multiple animals. Most of them got around on at least four legs, but I could tell a few of them had more than just the standard set up. Some of the extra legs weren't aimed at the ground, but still had sharp talons, claws and in one case what appeared to be a separate mouth with wide spearing canines, like a cross between a boar and a dog. Some even had more than one head mounted at the shoulders, those being extra wide animals. All of them seemed to have strong if not misshapen bodies, but they looked diseased, missing long patches of fur. One or two seemed to have organs that my biology 101 knowledge said should be inside their bodies somehow attached outside, pulsing and moving in ways that turned my stomach.

Some dark magic was at play here, surely. Which meant that Ethan was in bigger danger than I had suspected. Time to pull out all the stops.

Ice was working, so I decided to stick to that. But I knew this was not going to remain a long-to-medium range use of Mage powers for long. And Ethan needed me. So, I kept my Forces and Matter ice rote ready and pumped up my Life Sphere, focusing on my own physical strength and speed. I took off after Ethan, blasting a chunk of ice into the third one that I had cleared on the downhill side for good measure. This broke their circle around me, gave me a path out. I got to the spot of rock Ethan had leapt over and did the same, jumping into the air and turning as I did so.

The pack was after me, at least 12 of the actual animals charging between the first two I shot down, impaled on ice spikes thick as my chest. I stopped counting eyes when I saw some had two heads, and more than a few had more than two eyes.

As I started falling back from the height of my jump, which was pretty damned high, and over a falling slope, I blasted the small boulder with ice and kept the beam on until I felt it was time to turn and land, erecting a large, wide chunk of ice at that spot. It wasn't a great wall, but it was enough to divide the oncoming pack, and forced them to go around. I can't be sure, but the wall I'd iced up had to be at least twenty feet wide. Enough to buy us time.

I ran on another ten steps before I stopped and turned, grabbing onto a bent elm sapling to help arrest my plunge down the hill. Two were closing on me and quickly. I blasted the lead one and scored a glancing blow. The one behind the lead one wasn't so lucky and ran headlong into the slashing ice beam. With a sickening squinching sound and an abruptly aborted "Urk!" of pain, it split down the middle, a slashing sheet of ice marking where I'd bisected it.

The lead beast tossed back its single head and howled, a long mournful yet ululating sound. Not sure if it as a challenge to me, a cry of loss for his packmate, or just him calling the rest of the pack to my location. Probably all three.

So I ran at him, firing with my ice beam as I went. Somehow the beast dodged three of the shots before I struck him in the right rear leg. It howled and growled at me, snapping its jaws at me and coming close to snagging its fangs into me a few times. But it had the desired effect. By fighting here, I kept the pack focused on me. Eight of the creatures surrounded me, and I let them.

I knew that I was not going to be able to focus my attention on that many targets, and I knew that they would use pack tactics to come at my blind side, harass me until they could get more sets of teeth into me than I could survive. There was only one way I was going to get out of this mess and get them all. Hopefully the ones not playing tag with me here would not get to Ethan.

I changed tactics, concentrated and grew giant spikey boxing gloves of ice, covering my forearms from the elbows down, even gave the elbows spikey bits. I didn't feel the cold, however. My blood was on fire with the magic. I raised my own strength with Life Sphere and raised my ice claws in challenge.

"Come and get it, you sons of bitches!" I shouted, and then I leaned my head back and shouted in primal rage. I thought about using Jerico at some point, but figured I'd keep that for another time. Right then I was doing well with ice.

They rushed in, three of them, all from different angles, either side of me and behind. I blasted ice towards the one on the left and he dodged it. I turned and right arm punched at the one coming up behind me, knocking it back from its jumping bite attack. I completed the turn and left arm punched at the one attacking from the right side, stepping into the punch. That left hand connected solidly and with my enhanced strength, I sent the beast flying, flipped over backwards, with a satisfying crunch. Not sure if it was the ice crunching or the thing's neck, but either way I felt the adrenaline surge into me.

Two more advanced, moving in together and only splitting direction when they were close, one ducking under where I had just punched the last one into the air, his partner moving towards my back. I brought my right arm down hard but missed the runner moving in front of me. Which gave his buddy behind a chance to attack.

His teeth dug into my thigh muscle from behind, piercing deep. I swung the left arm wildly in that direction and caught the creature on the head, crashing icy spikes into the bone and sickly fleshy material there. I felt his teeth rip out of me and knew I was in trouble. I couldn't tell how bad the damage was, but I was a geek, not an athlete. No matter how augmented I was, physically, at that moment, all my powers were from my mind.

'Maybe this was a bad idea,' I remember thinking.

From down the hill I heard Ethan call out, a panicky, high-pitched squeal that I hoped was just in fear and anger, not in pain. 'Time to end this,' I thought.

At this point I should point out I'd never done anything like this in any of Meryl's training. It had never even occurred to me to use my powers this way. Even when Meryl was teaching me magical combat, this scenario had never come up. So where the idea came from, I got no clue. All I know is I was betting everything on making it work.

With that first wound, the pack closed in and they all went charging at me, jaws and talons and claws all angled in to spear, slash, bite and pierce me, knock me over and then just maul me mercilessly until even the bones were scattered, wet and gory, exposed to the air with quivering bits of my meat left out to rot. Gruesome image, no? I actually let one of them, a two header, bite one of my spikey ice boxing glove claw things and let it pull my arm out to open my chest for another of his packmates to go for my neck.

And that's when I let them all have it. I focused past the pain, concentrating on my ice power and let it flow all around me. I could feel the humidity in the air with Matter, sense the change of pressure and temperature required with Forces, flexed my will, dominating the very air at the molecular level. I felt it, felt my magic flow, felt the unicorn's gift on my wrist fairly pulse with my own energy and energy it drew in from around me, from the Earth itself, from the air and water and sky. And as I felt the enemies all closed in around me, I flexed my will into the pattern I'd created, fueled that pattern, crafted the details of the effect in that singular moment and let the power flow!

The first part of the effect was light. I was converting a lot of ambient heat from the atmosphere in that moment and changing the energy into light was easiest. It shot out of my body in all directions, lighting up the forest with a clear, bright pale pulse. But that was a secondary effect to what I was really doing, although the burst of light gave me a clear view of my targets. Eight heavy, fast, aggressive bodies worth of tooth and claw closed in around me, and I allowed them get too close for me to miss.

Shards of ice shot out from my body, like spines from a sea urchin. With my body as the center.




The creatures dove in at me with the full weight and speed of their bodies coming right at me and crashed into the waiting, growing spikes of ice I used as both armor and weapon, cutting into their forms with razor keenness and that unforgiving hardness of solidified water. I could feel them struggling to get away from the impaling spikes, most of which I pushed to over twice my body length, thick as my scrawny thighs. I could feel them slide off the spikes as some were severed. I could feel them impaled on the ice, sometimes in multiple places.

I waited just a few moments, my farsenses telling me that the creatures near me were all dead or dying. Certainly out of the fight. I again heard Ethan call out, shouting my name and gasping loudly, echoing up the forested hill. I shattered all of the ice surrounding me and then winced at the pain in my leg. My left leg pulsed in sharp pin pricks of pain. I couldn't see where the bite landed, but my hand could feel it, and it came away wet with my own juices.

I had to end this quickly. My farsenses roamed quickly and found Ethan. He had done just like I'd told him and had reached the Fishing Spot, a slender hook of land with a giant boulder on one side that poked out into the muddy, murky Merrimack river, angling with the flow of the current. He had his weapon up and was keeping three of the creatures at bay, with his back to the boulder. Clearly he was trying to edge his way into the river like I'd told him, but the bastard things had him cornered.

I focused all my efforts into Forces and used it to negate gravity on myself. I took three bounding steps and shot into the air in something less than flight but more than a jump. Of course, in doing this, I completely forgot we were in the middle of an ancient forest of hardwoods in the middle of summertime, so the trees were plenty springy and strong. As I let gravity resume control over me, I shifted from all Forces to Forces and Mind. I was able to partly ward off the tree branches scratching me up as I fell through them to land on the boulder behind Ethan. I reached down and plucked him up using a telekinetic grab and clamped my hand over his mouth when he yelled his fool head off from surprise.

I was about to tell him to calm down when he turned and brought his impromptu saber down on my arm, right on my shoulder. And he hit real, real hard. All the feeling left my arm and I dropped to one knee in pain. Which brought on more pain because it broke my focus and the bite in my leg intensified. Whatever they are teaching at that Jedi class was working. And my little brother had learned it well!

"Ethan, stop," I squeaked as he reared back to take my head off. He looked at me in shock at what he'd done and dropped his weapon, coming to kneel beside me.

"Marc! Oh, fuck, I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!"

"Pick up your blade!" I commanded, with exaggeration from between clenched teeth. He looked baffled for a moment and then the creatures below began baying again, prompting him to action. He stood guard beside me, looking around the boulder, wondering where the attack would come from.

"What do we do?" he asked, panicking.

"Stop. Focus your mind," I told him, hearing Meryl's own words coming back to me from training. "Don't let the fear make decisions for you. Think! And control your breathing. What would you Jedi teacher tell you to do?"

"Remember the training," he repeated. "Let your muscles do the work. Act, don't panic."

"Good," I said, not knowing if that answer would be the right one or not. Clearly there is more to this Mage business than Meryl has taught me yet. Still. "Okay, it's down to those three and us two," I said, grinning through the pain. I kept shaking my arm to get the feeling back in my fingers. Everything south of my right elbow was still coming back online, and we had to make the right moves, quickly, in order to survive.

"Right, three of them," he repeated, visibly focusing on his breathing and getting control of himself. I noticed that his breath was coming out in visible puffs. I looked down and saw that I still had some frost and ice on my left arm, mostly centered around the unicorn's gift.

"Yup," I replied. "We got them outnumbered now." He turned and looked at me with an expression of "you gotta be kidding me, right?"

I gingerly got to my feet, taking the moment to push a little Life and Matter Sphere healing into my body, specifically into my leg. The howling and growling from down at the fishing spot below had moved around. The monsters were looking to find a way up the boulder and sadly, there was one. On the upstream side, the giant boulder had a few cousins which over the centuries since the last ice age had gathered mud and smaller stones, grass and plants to form a sort of ramp, about 90 feet long, pushing out from the river path, forming a sort of wall. Which meant we knew which direction the attack was going to come from.

"Face the ramp. They'll come from that side. If they get too close, we can escape into the river."

"But, Marc, you're bleeding."

"Don't worry about that now. We got three crazy coyotes to deal with."

"I killed one, I think," he said. "Like you said, soon as I got to the path, I turned around and it jumped at me. So I swung hard and knocked it down. I started to run here, but it got ahead of me so I hit it again, but not so good. Then it ran right at me and I stabbed real quick and hit it inside the mouth."

"Good job, little brother."

"I don't think they're coyotes, Marc. It had five eyes, on two heads!"

"Let's worry about what they are later. You did good defending yourself and following orders. You just got to trust me, remember your training, and we'll get through this, okay?"

"Okay. But Marc," he said, screwing up his face. "You don't have a weapon. How did you…?"

"You always have a weapon when you have your mind," I said, trying to reassure him.

"But how? And there were a bunch more of them."

"They're taken care of. You and I will have to have a very long talk after all of this is over."


"After!" I said dismissively. A low growl drew our attention upstream, in the direction of the ramp. "Remember grandpa's stories of when he was in the army. How he fought on three continents, always ankle deep in mud, blood and guts. Basilliers never back down. Never surrender."

"Never back down. Never surrender," Ethan repeated, grasping his weapon tightly and resuming a ready stance.

"I'll force them to come through a narrow gap, and we'll take them on together."

"Right!" he said, rolling his little shoulders back defiantly.

As the growls grew closer I again cycled my mind into Forces and Matter, and with outstretched hands caused the air going down the ramp to solidify, forming thick walls thirty feet high, glowing faintly in the darkness. I purposefully left a small gap, barely big enough for one of the creatures to squeeze through. With my farsenses I could tell they were already well on the way up the ramp, so when I formed the ice walls I closed in the back end. This was only going to end one of two ways, with these abominations dead, or trapped.

"How did you do that?" Ethan gasped, lowering his defensive stance for a moment. But then the growling at the gap drew his attention and focus again. Yup, I had a lot of explaining to do. We waited, again training our eyes towards where the enemies were due to come from.

Wouldn't you know it that the beasties were clever enough to beat even that attempt at funneling them in one at a time. They charged the gap and in what had to be a coordinated movement from a higher intelligence, one stayed on the ground and the other two leapt through the opening at the same time, at different heights. Icy fragments sprayed Ethan and I as the monstrosities landed in a spread formation, facing Ethan and I who stood about six feet apart. Far enough for him to swing his birchwood practice sword without hitting me. I had healed some from the bite before, but could still feel the punctures leaking, although much less so than before.

"Oh, fuck, here we go," I muttered.

Two of them leapt forward in my direction, the third, albeit a double headed one, charged for Ethan. I glanced over and saw him standing his ground, feet spaced apart, balanced. His eyes were focused clearly on the thing approaching him. I knew in that moment that whatever else happened, I could only interfere with his fight if his life depended on it. Not as a matter of pride, but so that he knew what he was doing was helpful, that he had skills and was valuable. No boy wants to be a wimp, or to be found out as a coward. My little brother had already had two ugly moments of truth today. I was not about to deny him his right to be a warrior.

Besides, two of these things, these unholy fusion creatures were tough enough to deal with. I was going to have my hands full. I concentrated for a second and regrew my spikey boxing gloves of icy death, pumping up my strength to keep the things held up. Not sure if you know it or not, but ice is fuckin' heavy.

They ran at us together and we held our ground, near the center of the big boulder, maybe thirty feet across. The middle one leapt in at me, raking two sets of right side claws at my head. This one had two extra front arms mounted at an odd angle over the front legs, kind of like a preying mantis. I blocked them both, using my boxing gloves together as a shield as it sailed past me. This meant I had them on both sides. I risked a look over at the one that was dancing with Ethan and saw he was holding his own against a creature with two long snaky necks sprouting from a low to the ground body with six legs, as if an alligator had partially vomited up a pair of cobras.

The other one attacking me moved in and tried to rake my legs with its wicked set of claws. It spun completely around as it did so, showing that it had a spikey tail, like a dinosaur and it tried to take my legs out again as I jumped over the first swipe. That set up the first creature to come back at me in a leaping attack, all six of its limbs spearing out try and bear me to the ground. I was not in the mood for that and slid myself back about ten feet with a quick Mage trick. I'd like to tell you it was a Correspondence thing, but in the heat of battle I was relying on what was simplest and as already working for me. Pretty much I just pushed against the ground with my Mind Sphere telekinesis and let my sneakers act as breaks.

Ethan was doing well. His fight came into my view as I dodged the pouncing attack. He had done as I suggested and left himself an opening to jump into the river if necessary, but kept the opponent in front of himself as well. As I watched, he swung mightily, stepping into the attack and smacked the left side cobra head hard enough to dislodge a fang. The creature recoiled from the attack and angled away, the injured head weaving and bobbing and spitting up blood, while the other head maneuvered the body, seeking a way past Ethan's defense.

A snarling charge from my right brought me back to the battle at hand. I'm no fighter. The gloves had been a weapon of defense and necessity. It was time to end this war with magic. The spikey tail ran at me behind his snarl, his mouth full of boar tusks spearing in towards my face. I could see what looked like lungs were poking up on this thing's back. Poor design if ever I saw it, as Meryl would say. But, any weak spot you find is a weak spot you exploit.

I aimed my left hand at the snarling charging spikey tail's back and blasted out with ice again. It pulled its tail up over its back at an almost impossible angle and caught the icy stream of icicle shards and snow spray on the tail end. Might have saved its lungs that way, but the tail quickly became encrusted in ice and very heavy. Did I mention that ice is heavy before? The creature couldn't hold it up and the now ice enshrouded tail thumped on his back, pinning him down. Didn't kill the beast, but it wasn't able to advance on me either.

But its friend was. I felt the rasp of claws come zinging across my shoulders, down over my spine and right off my ribs. It hit me so hard I spun around and was dropped to one knee. I could feel the rip in my skin, right through my lime green neon Barnie's Burger Barn and Ice Cream Emporium staff tee shirt. It wasn't a deep series of gashes, but the four parallel lines had hooked me good and I was bleeding pretty freely.

Now Meryl had drilled into my head that Mages don't get mad. They get creative. But at that moment, I was hurting, hunted, had my little brother's life in my hands and was feeling pretty fricken' mad. So I got creative. The Forces and Matter ice rote was still working for me, the telekinesis was working for me, time to use them both.

My ice boxing gloves shifted, reshaped, twisted and grew into four-foot-long lobster claws. I bashed into the jumpy cat-like one with the extra front legs, pinning it against the ice wall. As I held it in place, my magic flowing with anger, I brought the other claw around and down in a wicked arc onto the spikey tails back, crushing it like a walnut under a hammer. As soon as I saw spikey tail struggling to get away after that hit, I did it again, this time hearing a satisfying crack as it crunched under my icy pincer.

The leapy cat-like, preying mantis type thing managed to slip from between my claw and the ice wall and leapt at me with a yell worthy of Jurassic Park nightmares. But I was not about to let him claw me again. I brought up the crushing pincer from the corpse of the spikey tail and clubbed mantis to the ground in mid jump. As it got back onto its four ground favoring legs, I seized it with both pincers, one just before the hips, one just over the chest between where it's upper limbs both joined the body… and I King Kong ripped it apart. Guts spilled out and froze at about the same time. I howled in pain and victory. I now know what the sports guys feel like when they win a championship.

I looked over at Ethan, watching as he put on a clinic. The first head he had injured was still up and fighting, although didn't seem to be working so well. The second one was knocked over onto the beast's back, its neck snapped at a lethal angle. He had already taken that one out of the fight.

Ethan himself was poetry in motion. His feet seemed to move with surety and poise, perfectly supporting his attacks and parries. He did three moves at the snaky head that baffle my ability to describe. He hit it from underneath on the left side, then smacked it downwards from the right, did this nifty spinning move and for a moment I felt my magic pulse and flare, combining with a pulse and contraction at my wrist, and Ethan's blade of wood cut through that snaky neck as smooth as a hot knife through warm butter, killing it instantly. Ichor sprayed, the first head was bent over at the neck and the second head was severed.

"We did it!" he yelled, giving a loud war whoop and brandishing his wooden weapon with joy. I canceled my ice patterns, causing the solid water forms to steam as if turning back into vapor, which pretty much is the case. I took two steps towards Ethan and collapsed, the pain in my leg and my back suddenly overtaking me.

Ethan was at my side in an instant, taking a moment to bury his blade point first into the top of the boulder. A feat it should not be capable of since it was made of wood alone. I barely had time to shape it, much less give it special abilities. And last time I checked, birch was still not as durable as granite.

"No, no, nononono, Marc, what do I do?"

"Hold his hand and talk to him," I heard a familiar voice say. I looked up and saw Meryl standing over me, well, floating over me, wearing his pauldrons and cape. "What have you gotten yourself into this time, Marco, milad," he said, in his infernal British accent.

"Sir, can you help him?" Ethan asked, sounding pitiful.

"I can, and I shall, but only on your solemn promise of absolute secrecy, young knight. Gather thy blade and hold upon his hand kindly."

After that things get blurry.

I woke up in what I've started calling my bedroom at Meryl's castle. I was laying on my side, under the covers, with bandages all across my back. The tape felt awkward against my bare skin, holding the bandage in place. Beside me on the bed were two very welcome things. One was a bottle of Meryl's favorite sports drinks, which was a subtle command for me to drink it up. As if I needed any command along that line. My throat felt dry as sand paper in a salt factory. The second was Ethan, curled up beside me, some bandages on his face and hands, showing that he came through the battle with a few scars but nothing permanent.

*He never left your side, poor kid,* Meryl's mental voice spoke in my public mind. *He's been through a hell of a trial by fire.*

"Mostly it was ice," I whispered. "How long?"

*About six hours. Don't worry, the Time dilation is still in effect. When you both leave here it will be less than twenty minutes since I found you. Must have been a hell of a battle.*

"Wasn't my idea," I said, gingerly rolling to a seated position. I grabbed the bottle and drained half of it in one go. I tapped into Mind Sphere to continue my conversation with Meryl.

*Was he hurt?* I asked, looking over my little brother's sleeping frame. His chest rose and fell in a slow steady pattern. I reached out and pushed a curl of hair away from his eyes.

*No. He's a scrappy little guy. Nothing more than the usual bumps and bruises he might get playing rough with his buddies. It is his mental health we must concern ourselves with.*

*I know,* I sighed. *I tried to shield him from seeing magic things but I had no choice. We were surrounded, ambushed.* I opened my mind to him and replayed all of my actions, thoughts and sensory impressions. So in less time than it takes to explain everything that had happened, he knew exactly what I knew and had done.

*You made good choices,* he sent to me as I drained the rest of the sports drink, slower this time. *This was not your fault, kiddo. In fact, I think they weren't looking for you at all.*

*More random supernatural baddies just roaming the forests at night?* I returned with sarcastic backspin.

*I collected several of the bodies. They were stitched together, rather clumsily at that, with magic. Marc, I think these things were sent to find me.*

*Oh, well, you're welcome. They're all dead now.*

*Part of me is grateful that you and young Ethan here were able to dispatch these ghoulish concoctions and emerge mostly unharmed. Part of me wishes that you had escaped without them realizing you were magical.*

"Why's that?" I croaked aloud, then quickly clapped my hand over my mouth. No need to wake Ethan up.

*Think for a moment, beyond the tactics of your battle, which were spot on, by the way. Very creative and effective. But look at the bigger chess board. What does your victory over these things do to the strategy of those employing these savage things?"

I gave it a moment of thought. *It means that whoever sent them knows there is someone strong enough to take out that entire pack, and gives them an approximate location of where we are,* I realized.

*And it gives them enough information for them to investigate further. Nothing you could have done about it though. If you had escaped the ambush, they'd still have an understanding of where to hunt. Whoever is behind these creatures, they are sloppy in their execution, but not stupid.*

*And now Ethan is involved.*

*Again, nothing you could have done. He'll be asleep for a few hours yet. I'm down in my lab. Let's investigate these bodies together.*

*Be right there,* I said, getting out of bed. *How did you know I was in trouble?*

*Your ice attacks alerted my wards and defenses at the outer wall, similar to how your sloppy use of fire Forces warned me when you fought the Rimbor.*

*I thought maybe you had something specifically watching me.*

*And who says I don't, apprentice?* his mental voice chuckled. I made a mental note to see if there were tracking patterns attached to my clothing, shoes or hat.

I dressed and slipped out of the room and down the staircase. Meryl's lab door was open and he had three of the bodies on the large obsidian table. He had selected the one that Ethan had sliced at the end, one of the ones I'd flash frozen with my ice beam, and the two halves of the one I bisected with the ice sheet.

"Come up to the lab and see what's on the sa-lab. I see you quiver with antici… Pation!" I said, walking through the door. Meryl stood there on a step stool, wearing gore-stained farmer's pants and an equally gory white tee shirt, bits of decaying looking gray-green flesh and ichor speckled upon his gear. "You seem more dressed than normal for this sort of thing," I noticed.

"For Ethan's sake, I will be more civilly attired. Come look at this." He began showing me the odd mix of animal parts merged together. And it was an odd assortment. The long snakey neck wasn't a snake at all, but some sort of llama or alpaca. The heavy one that I'd bisected was an odd combination of a young male bear and a mature female elk, rudely and crudely merged together down the center, more or less.

"This is mad strange, even for us," I commented. "Have you ever seen anything like this before?"

"Actually, no. While Mages and others putting together different animals as war beasts is nothing new, it's the way this was done that has me baffled. There seems to be less conscious thought put into this and more randomness. They aren't chimera in the classical sense. I don't think these were designed as much as just jumbled together."

"A rush job, you think? What does the Tapestry show?" I asked.

"I'm glad you asked that. You are thinking more and more like a proper Mage." He dug into a pocket of his overalls and handed me the Ankh wand. "Take a look."

I passed the Ankh over the body and then flicked it to the air. Normally, a Tapestry is pretty easy to understand. The spheres show up as specific colors and patterns. But this one was wild. At least six spheres seemed to be at play in the energies involved in creating these things. Much of it was Entropy mixed with other spheres. Entropy with Life, Entropy with Matter, Entropy with Time and Forces wrapped around Life. It was nonsensical. Things that just don't normally have effects within living beings were present, multiple patterns interacting with each other, but all tangling with each other and warping the other patterns. Which led me to a lot of dead ends on what I knew about Mage crafting and living beings, which admittedly isn't much.

"Curious, no?" my diminutive mentor asked, rocking back on his heals. He accepted his Ankh back and repocketed it while I walked under the Tapestry, touching the pattern here and there to look deeper.

"Yeah, that's weird. Based on all of this," I said indicating a bunch of complex patterns in what basically amounted to the creature's biological energy use, "this thing shouldn't be alive. None of the Matter and Life sub-patterns actually seem to have any energy transport or matter exchange at the biological level. It shouldn't even be able to digest, or even breathe."

"That's because it can't. Marc, these things are undead."

"What? Zombies?"

"That's a good way to look at them. They look like poorly made war ghouls to me, but not assembled from Vitae like the vampires would do, nor animated by dark dreams like certain Changelings like to do. And this doesn't fit with anything the Traditions would do. Those that play with the dead are more specific about it. This almost looks like…" he trailed off. He jumped off his stool and ran to the desk at the far end of his lab. He bent over, searching for a book on a low shelf. At least I thought he was looking for a book. He grunted and heaved mightily.

"Like what?" I asked, hurrying to his side. Together we managed to lift a large, heavy iron box up onto the table. It had a lock built into the surface with the phrase "NOLI APERIRE!" carved into the metal in deep Roman style letters. The direct translation there is "Do Not Open!"

"Once upon a time, ancient powerful beings, akin to Titans and Gods ruled this world, and fought each other for control of it. And many others, across this and other dimensions. This was long before even this Age."

"I get the feeling that lesson is going to come soon," I deadpanned.

"We'll get into the details and history later. For now, the important thing is to consider what we know. During that time, many cosmic entities and aliens visited this world, either as minions of the Old Ones or simply as random beings attracted to the magic and power that such beings radiated without care."

"And something about this," I said gesturing towards the Tapestry floating over the monster corpses, "reminds you of that time?"

"It does," he said, pulling a very big knife out of his overalls. It was a very big knife to be tucked down around his groin area like that, so I suspected he was practicing good Correspondence habits. He held the blade out over the book, spoke a few mumbled words in Greek and then sliced into his left palm. He made a fist around the wound and shook it over the box. Blood flowed and dripped fairly liberally onto the metal box, dripping into the lock's key hole and onto the carved in Latin phrase.

The latched box hissed, some internal clicks were heard and a puff of steam escaped from under the lid. He flipped the lid back and pulled out a large scroll, although this one was not of parchment or vellum. It was apparently made of stamped copper. No wonder the box weighed so damned much. I went to help Meryl lift the scroll out only to have him bat my hands away.

"Have you learned nothing that I teach you?" he hissed. "I have enchantments placed on this thing that will kill any Mage other than me who touches it."

"Crap, it's that important?"

"The information here is that dangerous. I'm not the jealous type. I don't hoard stuff just to keep it." I tilted my head, giving him some attitude. "Okay, not important stuff. This is knowledge from two ages back, Marc. This is in a language that is literally magical if recited in its original form. For anyone, no matter if they have no magical talent or ability at all. That's why I keep it locked up so tightly. All we need is some amateur Indiana Jones wannabe reading the wrong passage here and opening holes to who knows where, unleashing some supernatural horror or other."

"You are still bleeding," I pointed out. He grabbed a roll of, I kid you not, paper towels off the end of the desk to wrap his small hand. "So what are we looking for here?" I asked as he rolled the scroll out.

"It was a reference in here that made no sense to me when I was a much younger man. The translation was literally 'Colours Which From the Sky Fell.' At the time, I interpreted that phrase as a reference to magic itself or possibly lightning, but now… I think it is some sort of alien entity that can be used or manipulated to produce random mutations, even full on Correspondence swapping if it comes into contact with organic matter."

"Most of the planet is organic matter," I said coming to realizations. "Well, most of the planet's surface is. Most of the insides is just molten rock and that giant hunk of metal in the middle."

"Don't confuse me with unnecessary facts," Meryl said, reading the scroll, rolling one of the end spindles as he did to keep it from possibly touching me by accident. "It says here that the Colours fell from a darkened sky and landed in a field where a farmer was tending his aurochs."


"Yes, think of them as giant cattle, now extinct. It reads that the Colours were found upon the ground, rolling back together into a central mass, as if water moving itself, and where it passed, things were changed. Grass shifted from green to the color of pale wine, and caused fruit to be inedible from the vine, plants to grow unnaturally, as too the small things"

"Small things seems a weird reference."

"In this case it means bugs. 'The insects became larger, and aggressive, threatening to devour all in sufficient numbers.' Positively Biblical."

"So how does this match with our monster there?" I asked, taking a strip of cloth and handing it to him to bind up his hand better.

"Well, apparently animals struck by the Colours were twisted and merged. 'The creatures of nature avoided the Colours with fear, Birds were solidified inside of wood, cattle flipped inside out, became as the beasts of the gods instead of creatures of the flock.' It speaks of animals that were mated at places other than the genitals, bound as if born linked of the same flesh."

We both looked up from the scroll at the monstrosities on the lab table.

"Well, I'd say that's a big check in the yes box," I commented wryly. "Could there be some kind of practical problems we should worry about?"

"What concerns do you have?"

"I dunno, radiation? Chemical mutagens? Secondary magical effects?"

"Your science fiction education pays off at last, eh?" he chuckled. "I had those concerns as well. No increase in background radiation, no reactives detected. And any secondary magical effects died when you put these poor wretches out of their misery. I also searched for tracking devices. Nothing electrical going on there. The only thing I can think of is a direct Mind or Spirit rote that vanished after the creatures died. I know you didn't have the chance to search for it before, but that seems like that's the only long-range control option. And difficult to trace a collapsed transmission from that angle."

"Still doesn't explain what the Colours were," I pointed out. "Or how it's relevant."

"Isn't it clear. No matter if the thing was of biological or chemical nature, one thing is for certain. It fell from the sky. Here, let me read." He scanned the scroll for a bit, carefully rolling it back and forth. "Ah, here we are. 'The Colours took the form of emissions from a stone the fell from the firmament above. It was more metallic than stone for lodestone ran towards it even as animals gave it range. Though stone, it moved as though a bag of grain or quicksilver,'" he paused.


"Indeed. So it was very liquid or at the very least some sort of emulsion in a plastic state with a very strong surface tension and cohesion. Apparently it retained heat after landing upon the…" he looked up, as if seeking a modern word for the place. "Nowadays you would call it Nazca Plateau, but in the old tongue here it was known as the Table of Yeg'medon."

"How far back are we talking here?" I asked, suddenly feeling way further out of my depth than ever before.

"What you know of as geologic time is coming to the end of an epoch. An Age, if you will. There have been three before our current age, and one we are about to enter."

"Is this part of the Aztec long count calendar thing?"

"To a degree. Don't get ahead of me boy, pay attention. This age has been one dominated by your kind. Modern humans, going back nearly 4 million years. The rise of your civilizations."

"But, Egypt is only 6 thousand years old."

"Closer to fifteen thousand, but your scientists haven't found the really old stuff yet, nor do they have a way to translate what texts may remain of that time. And stop interrupting." He sighed deeply. "So much of the grandeur of the cultures that went before has been destroyed, by their own hubris and warfare, using weapons that make the nuclear arsenal look like a bag of marbles and a sling shot. Much of what is mined from the Earth today as raw resources is merely the slag of great cities long destroyed. Are you following so far?"


"How concise of you. Continuing. So the 4 th age is ending and the 5 th age beginning." I poked up a finger to ask a question but he preempted me. "Master Meryl," he began, overly brightly, "how does one know when one age ends and another is born? I'm glad you asked, Marcus."

"Smartass," I muttered.

"The answer is that there is not one clear event that marks the passage, at least not as has been recorded. A feat that perhaps your generation of emerging Mages and other prodigals will remedy. Why, if you are smart, using your computer technology, you'd find a way to create some sort of archive to document these very days."

"Noted. Quit stalling and get to the important part."

"They are all important parts. However. Four ages. The Primordial, which marks the very birth of this world, and the other worlds that share this realm. A time of chaos and raw elemental forces just settling. Beings mostly incomprehensible to us existed, in constant struggle with one another. Simple living beings in this realm did not exist yet.

"Then comes the Age of Giants. And I don't use that statement lightly. Not only were these beings that ruled the Earth huge in stature, but vastly cosmically powerful. In most cases totally alien to everything your world created on its own. They were eventually overthrown and struck down, those that remained anyways, for many left this realm. Others invaded, spewing endless conflicts and rivalry. When they were finally defeated, they were still so powerful that they could not be destroyed. Many of them sleep still. Yet even their dark dreams are able to pierce into the reality of this world.

"The third age comes after the Age of Giants, it is the time of the creatures you know as the dinosaurs, and many other such creatures. In fact the meteor that destroyed that ancient ecosystem and wiped out so many millions of species was a left over weapon of war from the Age of Giants. But the third age is mostly characterized by the changes to the planet that led to the emergence of your species, the rise and fall of your various ancient cultures and the fading of magic in this world."

"Like the ice age?"

"Ice ages. Plural. And there were more great extinctions and volcanic events, tectonic shifts, even magnetic polarization shifts which happened in that time. Your archeologist and geologists got much of that right. They just didn't know about the magic and advanced technology that happened in and around that. Our species were still mostly rodent-like beings then, only partly like the other races that shared this world. Life was still mostly on the big size, but smaller forms were becoming more complex. Some in my time theorize that genetics from societies from the Time of Giants may have influenced our evolution, in unnatural ways."

"So, climate change?"

"It was as real then as it is now. Technically, this world should still be in the final stages of the last ice age, but human endeavors have sped up that process by at least a few hundred years. But more than just the climate may have contributed to the massive leaps our species made. As is evidenced by the information in this scroll."

"Gods and monster," I whispered, getting a subtle nod. "But not like in the bible? Right."

"We'll go over that lesson another time. For now, focus your mind on the bigger picture of time. So, Primordial, Age of Giants, Age of Dinosaurs, Age of Man. Four ages, four distinct periods of geological and cosmic time. The dinosaurs didn't leave us much as far as magic or technology. So much of our understanding of the times before them is lost. But the people of those times weren't so different from us. Just more enlightened, less stuck with the flim flammery of religion and politics. You might say they had it easier, despite the Old Ones games of power and magic."

"Why did the Old Ones leave? Did they run out of power? You once told me that the magic of the Earth realm ebbs and flows like the tide."

"Yes, the Old Ones were more susceptible to attack because they needed such massive amounts of magic to exist and thrive. They didn't use technology as the same sort of thing as your kind do. They fought, mostly each other, and eventually they were defeated because they were magical energy hogs. Much like hibernating bears, those that stayed went into a form of torpor, too stubborn to leave their prize. But even the sleeping, dreaming Old Ones are affecting this reality. During the third age, much of the Earth was destroyed, vengeful ancient gods deciding if they can not keep the planet, they'd trap their enemies here and destroy their power. Some of the sleepers were destroyed. Others… well, they went down deep, and may yet still exist there."

"Heady stuff. So, the 4 th age pretty much is human recorded history?"

"Correct. And even that is vastly under-represented. This scroll," he said, holding his hand out over the copper with the letters punched into it, "is a relic from the 3 rd age. And while it details the end of the Old One's rule and the cultures that lived then before departing as well, even this is fragmented."

"No ancient computer tech or magical information storage?"

"This copper scroll is a copy of an ancient parchment that was crumbling. If there were such recording devices, they have been lost to time. Poor planning on their part. Although if they'd just let me crack open that library vault under the Sphynx…" he trailed off, a gleeful look of avarice in his eyes.

"Hey! Focus!" I commanded, snapping my fingers. He seemed to shake out of it.

"Right, right. Where was I?"

"5 th age," I said, holding up my thumb.

"Right. The 5 th age is where I am from."

"Good thing it's just around the corner, then."

"Provided we make it to that 5 th age."

"Oh shit, you know I hate when you say stuff like that."

"What I am about to tell you is a risky statement. I can't reveal too much about the future while I'm in what amounts to my past."

"Time travel paradox."

"Yes," he sighed. "And I know it is frustrating for you that I cannot give you details or guidance. Even my training will be seen my many of my peers as major interference."

"And here I thought you had no peers," I joked, faking a punch to his little boy shoulder.

"I am part of a rebel faction that seeks to keep the timeline pure."

"Which is so ironic since you live through history backwards."

"Poetic license for the reality of it. And look at what such popular mythology has done to me when magic goes BOOM! after being practically stagnant for the last few dozen millennia," he said, gesturing at his body. "However, the point is, the greater powers that ruled the 2 nd and most of the 3 rd ages left when the stars above this world were in a certain configuration, lining up with places of power among the cosmos. A situation which is now coming back into configuration again."

"What does that mean?"

"It means that the Old Ones may very likely be on their way back here, entire vast alien cities worth of them, just as magic and other powers are about to spring into proper flow. Your world is not ready for what that may entail. Nor are you ready for those that would welcome such oppressors returning. Even helping make it happen sooner."

"Wait, what?"

"Remember we talked about the different types of Mages on this fragile little world?"

"Yeah. You can't mean that the Technocracy is trying to bring these Old Ones back."

"Oh, no. The Technocracy knows the truth about the Old Ones. In fact they have actually fought against several of their minions, both on this world and others close by." That got my eyebrows to lift in surprise. "No, the Nephandi were more what I was angling towards. There are cults that worship and attempt to encourage these beings to come to our world. Many think they are fulfilling a part in a prophecy. Some believe that they will be part of the new power structure to come. And while a few at the top might, these beings they try to summon or ease the path to our shores, they don't share power. When you have been a god for longer than this planet has had life, you don't let underlings have anything like true cosmic power."

"But you said that the Nephandi make pacts with supernatural beings. They trade service for power, right?"

"With two key things to think about. If you have the knowledge or raw power, you don't want to give away the real gems when you hand out gifts for loyalty and service. That's one way to keep from having to face true power if your so-called worshipers turn against you. The other thing to keep in mind is that power given can be taken away. Plus, keep in mind that the Nephandi aren't a group that work together, more a class or type, a pathway to power. A shortcut."

"Which is why you are training me, but not handing me all kinds of magic items."

"See, you can be taught to think," Meryl smiled. I remember in that moment glancing down to my wrist and wondering if the Unicorn's Gift made me a Nephandi as well, even though I had not asked for anything from that amazing creature. And what sort of "gifts of power" such a pact might bring. Not because I wanted to make such a bargain, just wanting to know what I might have to face one day. This magic stuff was getting very complicated.

"Okay, so… the Colours, you think some meteor is responsible for these things?"

"I would say that the Colours or some power very similar to the Colours may have been used to accomplish this. It just struck me as similar to the case in antiquity. But this kind of effect is just a very brutal way to create war beasts to send out hunding. If our opponents are operating with this level of randomness and chaos, we need to find out."

"And if a cult of Old One worshipers is responsible… they may be hunting you?"

"No, Marc. You are so close; but ask the right question."

"You think they are hunting any magic users," I said, plainly.

"And all other budding supernaturals. And since most of the supernaturals coming around now are about your age…" letting the implication hang in the air. It meant that whoever was hunting me had a target rich environment, which might include my little brother, should my magic talent run in the family.

"Fuck. Now I don't want to go back to school," I said, shaking my head. "Does Mage talent run in families?"

"It can, often does. Oooh, you are worried about Ethan?" We both looked up as we heard footsteps moving around on the floor above, heading towards the staircase.

"Marc?" we heard Ethan's voice echoing from the hallway. Meryl and I shared a quick look. He motioned me towards the door even as I was already in motion myself. I grabbed the door post to swing around and ran to the kitchen area just as Ethan cautiously looked around at the bottom of the stairs. "Marc!" he exclaimed, jumping up to hug me. I took two steps so that he could put his feet down on the second stair runner, putting him slightly above my height.

"Everything still in one piece?" I asked, ruffling his hair.

"I'm fine. What about you? That monster ripped your back up."

"Just a scratch."

"But there was so much blood."

"I got more. You were pretty banged up as well. I thought for sure Mom would roast my ass for beating you up once she saw you."

"Me? You were the one that got bit in the leg and shredded by those... those… Marc, what the fuck were those things?"

"Honestly, E, I don't know what to call them."

"Where…where are we? And who is that guy that took us here? It was like we were at the Fishing Spot one second, and then we were in that bedroom upstairs and that guy said it was your room. And how did you do all that stuff with the ice? And make that sword out of a tree?"

"Do you still have it?"

"He took it, along with your hat and the keys to Barnie's. Marc, what's goin' on?"

"What's going on," Meryl said walking out of the lab in freshly clean clothes. Yes, actual clothes. But in true Meryl fashion they were very loose, breezy clothes, a loose pair of khaki shorts with big pockets, gray crocks and a gray "property of the Boston Bruin's" Tee shirt. Meryl continued, after winking my way, acknowledging my shock at his actual civility. "…is you are guests in my home. And we are still in Canterbury, not far from where your brother works."

"I meant no disrespect, sir," Ethan said, with the kind of deference that we were taught to show adults. Some kids are actually raised right. I did a quick scan Meryl's way and realized he was throwing up an illusion for Ethan, making himself into a mid-twenties version of his kid self.

"Ethan, this is Meryl. He's been teaching me some things. Meryl, this is my younger brother, Ethan, Jedi in training."

"Is that a fact," Meryl smiled. "Glad to know you, young padawan. I assumed you were already a knight after witnessing your skill with a blade. You were very brave."

"I mostly ran away," he blushed, looking down.

"Not so. From what I observed, you followed instructions perfectly. By drawing off some of the enemy, you allowed Marc to attack them from behind, thinning their numbers. You stood your ground where you needed to and fought with honor, courage and skill." That made Ethan smile broadly. "I will return your blade when you are ready to return home. Some things in my home are not comfortable with armed unknown guests wandering about. May I offer you both some refreshments?" His British accent and more formal language helped sell the illusion, which meant that Ethan would not see Meryl's actual appearance and connect him with the "missing" Ralphy Curak.

"Oh. I see," Ethan said looking around the kitchen and into Meryl's playroom. The big screen in the room was frozen in the middle of a game, the landscape stuck with a giant "PAUSED" displayed in the center, with a ticking clock under it. He must have recognized the game because his eyes widened further.

"First food, then we talk. I imagine that pizza is acceptable."

Ethan brightened even more, if that were possible. "Really? Mom never lets us have pizza! She barely lets me have ice cream!"

"Is that a fact?" Meryl asked, looking at me. "Then this will be a treat for you both."

So we had pizza. We had root beer in frosty mugs. We sat around and listened to Ethan tell his story about his adventure with me tonight, leaving out the part about him coming out to me on the way up to Barnie's. And I sat with much embarrassment as Ethan ratted me out about meeting Jace, earning an eye roll from me. Meryl was the soul of civility, even making uproarious laughter and exaggerated knee slaps as my little brother told the tale.

The whole time, Meryl kept making sure that Ethan's glass was full of root beer, making a big deal out of pouring it from the bottle while Ethan held the cup steady. In short order, Ethan had to pee. I told him where the bathroom was and he got up, taking a last bite of pizza off the last slice in the box, and bolted for the powder room like he was that last hose needed to put out a fire. Meryl, quickly picked up the mug and set it into the middle of the coffee table and beckoned me to look closer.

"We may have an answer for your question earlier," he said, indicating the nearly empty glass with the handle shaped like rope carved from green glass.

"Which question?" I returned. "And what are we looking at?"

"When you were looking through my book for notes on magical materials, do you remember running across a mention of Celestial Jade?" he asked, pointing to the handle of the cup.

"You sick, sneaky bastard," I said smiling. Celestial Jade is one of the few naturally mutable materials. It reacts with a color change in the presence of different energies. In the presence of spirit magics, like the werewolves use, the green will become a cloudy silvery swirl. If a Mage holds something made of such material, it will become white, like alabaster. I'm told that if vampires touch it, the jade will react almost instantly, turning what is described as a "roiling black" and losing any shine. Psychics apparently make the jade transform into a more clear bluish color. So simply by Ethan touching the jade handle so long, my teacher was trying to determine what my little brother's special abilities might be, should he have any.

"Hence why I'm still alive after all these centuries. I made sure Ethan kept his paws on that glass handle and his paws only. We should know in just a moment."

And as we watched, the jade seemed to shimmer, shift and swirl from inside. I watched wide eyed, kneeling beside the table, but keeping back far enough so my own magical aura would not interfere with the Celestial Jade's reaction.

"Red? Does that mean changeling," I asked watching the Jade handle swirl.

"It's not done yet. Give it a moment. When the colors stop moving we'll know."

"We'll know what?" Ethan said, surprising us both with how quickly he returned.

"Damnit, E!" I exclaimed nearly stumbling into Meryl. "You know I hate when you sneak up on me like that. How can you be such a noisy mess just going to the bathroom at night but silent as a shadow now?. He just giggled and plopped down beside me, reaching for another slice. Just like Meryl, I don't know where he puts it all. He'd already had four slices, matching Meryl, slice for slice.

Ethan reached for his cup and stopped, looking at it strangely. "Funny, I thought it was green," he said, looking from his glass to mine and Meryl's. His was the only mug style glass with the rope-glass handle.

"Oh, that handle changes color with temperature," Meryl said, offhandedly. "Something I picked up in Maine a few years back."

"Oh. Didn't want to pick up the wrong one by mistake," he said and downed about a third of the cup in one long gulp. When he put it down, Meryl and I both looked to see if the colors in the cup had stopped doing their swirling, lava lamp with glitter dance. It was a solid color at last, and one that I didn't know the meaning of at first. It looked like smooth, bright, shiny gold instead of glass. "I wonder how they do that?"

"Do what?" I replied, almost automatically. I traded a glance with Meryl and he just rolled his eyes at me.

"Make it so the color changes like that."

"Oh, it's probably something to do with lasers," Meryl replied, twirling his hand about, dismissively. "These days, it's almost always got something to do with lasers."

"I know, right?" Ethan replied. He looked suddenly very sleepy. "Marc, we're really late. Mom's gonna be pissed."

"Yeah, that's something we need to talk about," I said, realizing that the moment for secrets to be revealed and resealed had come. "You did really well fighting against those, uhm…" I glanced back to Meryl, not sure what word to use.

"Let us call them nicht hunds, for now at least," he offered.

"Nick Toons?" Ethan asked, getting a curious look from Meryl.

"Perhaps something less exotic sounding or confusable with a cable channel," he said, looking back to me. "Suggestions?"

"How about shronks?" I suggested. Meryl turned his gaze to the ceiling. "Hey, all the other good names are taken. And I did think they might be a family of skunks at first.

"Shronks it is," Meryl said, resignedly.

"Right, so you did well, followed my plan without knowing it, and you gave me the chance to do what I did."

"What did you do? I mean, I know you were doing something with ice, but, like, how? Are you like a mutant?"

"A what?" Meryl asked, feigning surprise.

"Like the X-men, on movies and comics," Ethan replied. "You know, Wolverine and Professor Xavier."

"Well, I'll take the Professor title, but your brother is far from Wolverine."

"But he made icy claw things pop out of his hands," my brother returned, preparing to snag another slice.

"Yeah, he might be more like Iceman."

"Ohhh, cool. Heheh, get it, cool?"

"You're a million laughs, Ethan," I replied. "Seriously, though. What happened here tonight, you can't tell anyone. Period. Not even Mom and Dad. Ya feel me?"

"But it's so cool. You're like a super hero. Like Iron Man!"

"He's more like Doctor Strange," Meryl said. That brought Ethan's eyes over to Meryl's side of the coffee table, his expression going wide in surprise. "And not just because he's a weirdo. Your big brother here is a Mage. He's still in training, but he is becoming a rather talented student of the mystic arts. And before his head gets too swelled with pride, he's still only a student."

"Are you his master? I mean his teacher?"

"When he listens to me, yes," Meryl replied, chuckling softly. "Perhaps you noticed, he can be kind of stubborn." Cheeky little munchkin actually looked at me and poked his tongue out.

"Yeah," Ethan said blushing. "Why didn't you tell me you could do magic?"

"It's not exactly something you bring up at the dinner table. The girls would freak out and demand I do stuff for them, Mom would insist on talking to the priest and Dad…. I don't know what Dad would do."

"How long have you been doing this stuff? What kinda stuff can you do? Can you make lots of money just appear? Or like cast a spell to make my teachers give me straight A's?

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Easy there, Killer. We don't do stuff like that, okay. Calling attention to your special abilities is a sure way to put a target on your back. And I don't want anyone to hurt you or our family because they want me to do magic stuff for them."

"Okay, but like… was that why the shronks were out there tonight? Looking for you?"

"We think they were looking for anyone supernatural," Meryl interrupted. "Which in this case, includes you a well."

"Me? But I can't do magic. Wait a minute. When you gave me that sword, you did magic to make it?"

"Yup," I grinned.

"Like Full Metal Alchemist stuff?"

"Uh, in a fashion. It's not exactly the same. I wasn't doing like Equivalent Exchange; I just used the material closest to hand and reshaped it. I mean, it is kind of like alchemy like on that show, but it's closer to wood shop without the wood shop."

"Sounds like it to me."

"There's a lot more to it than just that. I mean, not everyone can do it. You have to have the talent and be Awakened to deal with magic."

"Which bring us back to you, young Jedi," Meryl said, smoothly. "Only an Awakened person could see that bit of crystal floss around Marc's wrist there." I held up my arm so that the Unicorn's Gift could be seen. "It magically hides itself from others, otherwise everyone would be begging him to know where he got it."

"Oh, yeah. I saw that on him yesterday. Is it some kind of weapon? Is that how you made all the ice stuff happen?"

"What we know so far is that it is an amplifier. It makes it easier for Marc to do what he does. And it was a gift, a very special gift."

Ethan mouthed an "oh" silently, then turned towards me and then looked back to Meryl. "So, if he's a magic guy, and you're a magic guy, what does that make me?"

"Well, first off, it may be too early to know for certain what your special abilities are. You are only 11 after all. Puberty hasn't done its genetic horror story to you yet." Ethan blushed at that. "I know your talents are different than Marc's. So even if you tried to learn what he can do, there's no telling if you'd ever be able to do it."

"So, uhm…. What does that mean?"

I looked him in the eyes and decided to put it all out on the table. He did the same for me when he came out to me in the forest. "For starters, it means you can't tell anyone about us. Not about Meryl, me, or you."

"I know," he said, looking down at his mug of root beer. "Kinda sucks."

"Yeah well, sometimes hiding in plain sight is the best way to be," Meryl said.

"But hiding what?" I said, subtly, switching my eyes back to the mug.

"Well, that remains to be seen." Meryl stood up. "For now, you both need to put in an appearance at home before your dear mother sends the police out to search for you."

"Oh yeah. Like what time is it"?"

"Late, You'd best get your hat, Ethan," Meryl said with a subtle backspin that spoke of magic in his voice. Ethan stood, awkwardly.

"Oh right. I need my hat," he said and ran upstairs. I lookd to Meryl, sort of weirdly once my kid brother was out of earshot.

"Well, that was unnecessary," I said, standing to make sure Ethan was out of range. "Why'd you make him go upstairs?"

"For a very good reason, Marcus. The celestial jade turned gold."

"Which means what?"

"Which means, numbskull, that you haven't read in on all your lessons."

"Quit stalling, Shorty! I need to know!"

"Marc, your brother is in far greater danger than either of us could have imagined. Of all the things he could have been, a very young gold is the worst." He handed me over Ethan's sword from his back pocket, working som correspondence magic. "You give him that, he may very well need it."

"Why? What is gold?"

"He's going to need your protection. Marc," he said with a pause. "Your brother is Aegyptian. He's a new god walking this Earth. And he has yet to discover his powers."

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