The 5th Age

The 5th Age: Prelude

Prelude

 


Small towns have a life all their own, a breath, a heartbeat, a pulse. They have history and legends, customs, tendencies, folklore and a just plain feeling unique to each burg, hamlet, village and township. And nowhere is that more true than in my hometown of Canterbury, Massachusetts. We’re just a river town, on the banks of the muddy murky Merrimack, steeped in blue collar traditions and sensibility, Yankee pride and ingenuity, and the kind of warm hearts and tough exteriors that surviving rough winters breeds in folks. Stick-to-it-ness. A sense of community. A sense of connectivity. A sense of belonging.

But there’s a little talked of undercurrent to all that as well. Small towns also keep secrets. They have little backdoor dramas, flashes of the real world problems we all face skipping around behind our ideals. A darker side, perhaps. And in those shadows, still deeper, more hidden and less understood things exist. Not so much in hiding from us, but hiding within us. And it’s just such things that I’m making this Archive to house. Because even the things in shadow touch the things in light from time to time. And even things that are wholly unbelievable do need to be told from time to time for the simple fact that they’re true, real and happening more and more often.

And besides, this part happened to me. So I guess it’s only fair that this account start off all of the rest. For this is where a lot of it begins. This is my story. I’m Marc Basillier.

It all started out innocently enough. I was just another kid in Canterbury High School. Just another future 11th grader out for summer break. Dad was on my case to get a summer job, but the choices weren’t too desirable. Either fast food, working for the donut places scattered around town, or maybe doing part time at the old folks homes that dotted the hills. None of those seemed like “ideal” situations. I’m not really one to get into the menial stuff and, well, changing adult diapers and getting hit on by old ladies grabbing my cheeks all day didn’t seem really “cool”.

So, here I was, beginning of June, working at Barnie’s Burger Barn, this local hangout/ice cream stand/teen feeding ground. I figured it was better than a lot of places I could have worked since it was only open after 11 am so I could sorta sleep in, was away from all the city noises, so I could have some peace and read or write on my breaks, and, well, I could walk there easily enough from our house, so I wouldn’t be pestering Mom about a ride. I mean, you seen gas prices lately?

It was a slow Tuesday, and by the time the main crowd had vanished for the night and we were just sitting around, mostly done cleaning up, just waiting for our 11 pm close time, I was well into the last few chapters of the fifth Harry Potter book. It was the sixth time I’d read it, but I just couldn’t put it down. Rowling gets these really involved plots going and she weaves in stuff from so many little stories, but it all makes sense. I couldn’t get enough of those books. I find something new in it each time I read them.

The only other employee there was Sara Kitelinger. She’s a pretty red head, flashing green eyes, the whole pouty lips thing. I don’t know why I didn’t notice her in school before, since she’d been in three classes with me since middle school. We’d gotten to be pretty good friends, but we also kinda figured out that we both needed space at times. She was fiddling with the radio, trying to get a station from Boston to come in and settling for one out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire instead.

The night air was just getting to that comfortable state after being so mad hot and muggy all day. Even the mosquitoes weren’t that big a deal. I guess I sat on the end of the ice cream cooler more out of habit than any need for the cold metal to cool me off. Sara was absently going through the motions of checking the inventory. We’d already counted everything two hours before. Just killing time.

She was mostly waiting for her boyfriend, Donny Winchell, to show up in his new Audi. Being the only son of one of the richest guys in town didn’t hurt his good looks, brains, athletic talent or personality any. He’s the kinda guy that you really want to hate, because you envy him so much, but you really can’t, because he’s not stuck on himself, he’s not a jerk and he doesn’t show off more than any other guy. It’s like you want him to be your friend as much as you’d give anything to be just like him. I guess you could say he’s got inspired charisma. Natural leader written all over him.

“Marc?” she calls from the back of the small grill section. We might be Barnie’s Burger Barn in name, but we made more money on ice cream sales than on flipping cow parts and salting down fries.

“Yeah?” I call back, setting my book mark on the line I was just at. Things were getting desperate for Harry and company. I had images of Daniel Radcliffe shirtless in my head. I silently cursed as I set the book down.

I turned around and almost bumped into Sara as I did. I thought she’d be back in the grill and she moved so quickly and silently that I hadn’t heard her coming up behind me like that. We both shied off for a second and then burst into giggles. Weird, I know, but it happens.

“Um, can I ask you a favor?” she says, tilting her head slightly. She’s got this overt honesty thing going, hard to deny. I mean, she’s gorgeous, anyone can see it. And she’s no slouch in class either. But it’s her directness and that unwavering stare that kinda mark her as someone I’m glad to call friend.

“Sure,” I reply. “What?”

“Um, Donny’s gonna pick me up early, like, oh damn, like about now.” Just as she tells me this, lights wash through the pickup windows and a powerful, tuned engine glides into the parking lot. “I know we still have half an hour til close, but…” She squinted at me a little, in that way girls have of looking slightly desperate just to try to get the sympathy nudge for something they want. Okay, I can admit it, I fold for it all the time, even though I don’t really have a girlfriend to keep doing that to me all the time. I guess I’m just too much a nice guy.

“Hey, you guys go have fun, I’ll lock up.”

“Thanks, Marc, I owe you.” She gives me a quick peck on the cheek and then whirls out, shouting the last bits she had to do as she goes. Looks like Harry will have to wait a little bit as I finish up, I think to myself. It’s not really a lot left to do, and I finish up quickly enough that I still have the better part of ten minutes left before I turn off the sign and lock up.

Now I know I just said that I read Harry Potter, and I know that I’m kinda a sci-fi kid anyways, always have been. But what happened next shocked even me. And I’m still trying to half convince myself that it didn’t happen, even though I saw it, knew it and I’m still sorta dealing with it.

I turn off the radio and start my final checks. The mop’s all put away, the store’s set up to open on time tomorrow, napkin holders are full, all that stuff. I’m about to go outside and lock up when I hear music again.

“Friggin’ radio,” I grumble, going back inside. But the radio is turned off. I head back out and lock up, slinging my pack and ready to walk home. As I get around to the front of the building, walking under the slight porch overhang, the moon breaks from the clouds. Not a full moon mind you, just a half full one. I don’t keep up with stuff like that, so I don’t know if it was getting fuller or getting smaller. It was pretty much just half.

Now maybe I should preface this next bit with two important pieces of local information. There’s an old church up behind Barnie’s. An ancient, fieldstone church built as a mission about 400 years back when this area was still the domain of the Pawtucket Indians. It’s built more like a castle than a church and it was the site of many brutal battles between settlers and “savages”, according to local historians.

Chances are such things were mostly blown out of proportion and propagandized to the extreme. Other facts may be soaked in as much truth as, like the old timers say, that the church grounds are soaked with blood. However, the truth may be, as kids we all thought that the place was thoroughly haunted. For the most part, it’s just a spot that kids dare each other to stay in on dark, cold nights as a test of bravery. Not many I know actually stayed the whole time in there.

The other thing was that a local boy had recently gone missing. Little Ralphy Curak, 13-year-old son of a prominent and politically well connected family was discovered missing from his bed one night in early February, his second story bedroom window wide open, snow blowing in. The search for Ralphy had spread fairly wide, reaching the regional level and even the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. His picture was up in every Wal-Mart and Bob’s and Store 24 in New England.

Speculation on what happened to Ralphy was the usual wild, animated and widely storied thing that happens in such cases. Words from one mouth mutate a little before finding another mouth to spread from. Current versions I’d heard included such popular and nasty variations as: he’d been kidnapped by aliens; he went insane at seeing some inhuman act in his home and was now a lost, wandering lunatic; that he ran away to join the circus; that he’d been killed by his father and the whole “missing child” angle was just a diversion to throw suspicion off the family; that he was the victim of some rampant, roaming sexual predator; and even that he was the victim of some mad scientist in town who did experiments with kids’ brains.

And before you discount all of those notions, you should read deeper into the archive. Two of those actually happened to other kids.

So keeping these two things in mind, here is what I saw under the half-moon’s light. I started walking back towards the old river path, kind of a local trail through the woods along the river, past a large and ancient fall of boulders we’ve always called Watching Rocks, or just the Watch. Anyone who’s grown up in this town knows where it is. It’s just part of being from here. The path goes close enough to my street that I don’t have to walk beside the twisting, narrow roadway to get back home, and, well, to be honest, I like the walk through the woods. Gives you time to think. I popped in one earpiece from my MP3 player and started down the trail. Puddle of Mudd was playing in my ear, the opening bars of “Blurry”, when I caught a familiar and distinct aroma.

Some of you out there are going to be snapping into the possibility that I have supernatural senses, or that I possess magical abilities. And after the things that I saw that night, I can’t entirely discount it. Besides, this is a chronicle of the supernatural activities in my town. But for the record, what I smelt that night was the unmistakable, flat, stale and pungent odor of skunk.

We get a lot of skunks in summer time. They come up to raid the trash barrels. They wander between the corn rows of the farm field across from Barnie’s, looking for fallen ears. They invade the city at will, terrorizing dogs and cats and people in town. They sleep under cars, hiding from the cool night air in spring and fall. And the worst part is, there are no natural predators for skunks, other than time and tires.

So I was cautious as I scented the foul odor. The wind was behind me, flowing downhill to the river, so I didn’t stand a chance of running into the little vermin. But where there is one, sometimes there’s more. Would be just my luck to come across a family of skunks running down the hill together directly across my path. I decided to tread loud and shuffle my feet through the pebbles and dirt of the trail, kicking up leaves a bit to make my presence well known to the little buggers. In theory, they were more afraid of me than I was of them and they’d stay away if given sufficient warning of my location and movement.

The earpiece dropped out of my ear, swinging on its long chord and getting a whispered “fuck!” from me. My backpack had a pocket for my MP3er and so the earpiece didn’t swing far, but it was enough to make me stop to retrieve it. As I did so, I turned a little to the right, half facing Barnie’s. I’m not the most perceptive guy in the world, but from where I stood, I saw three things, simultaneously, that shouldn’t have been either possible or occurring.

A slight figure in black dropped out of a tree like Tarzan and landed on the roof of the ice cream shop. The swinging, curling gymnastic motion was unmistakably human, even if not something you see every day. Next there was a shimmer in the forest behind Barnie’s, out by the playground and the picnic tables. This shimmer turned into a tall female clad in some kind of archaic leather and chain mail armor and flowing iridescent silks. Finally, a tall male dropped out of the sky like Superman and landed lightly between the other two, all of them separated by height and about 8 feet of open air. I quickly dropped to the grass beside a big boulder. The flying dude had something long strapped across his back, ninja style. The armored chick seemed to be armed as well. I was assuming “weapons” and hoping to be wrong. Almost as an after thought, I killed the MP3er and watched.

You see, such things aren’t everyday occurrences, or at least I thought they weren’t. Now a days, I’m not so sure it hasn’t always been going on right behind our backs. Sometimes you see stuff that changes everything, and sometimes you see stuff that just makes everything fit what you already suspected. Somewhere between those extremes, I began making guesses and not liking the disturbing answers I was coming up with.

After all, such strange goings on got quite a few people killed in Salem a few hundred years back. Don’t think it can’t happen again. People don’t need much of a reason for a witch hunt, especially if there really are witches. And you can read that statement anyway you want to.

I left my pack by the boulder and moved into the cornfield, making my way obliquely to where these three persons seemed to be headed. None moved with anything like a violent intent. Which all by itself only meant that this was either an extraordinary coincidence, or a planned meeting. And I suddenly had to know what was going on.

So I eased up on the scene, trying to stay clear of open spaces, stray beams of streetlamps and moved closer. The night air was so still that I could hear clearly across the street. The acrobat landed lightly off the roof, bounded once into the air, turning and landing again, on a picnic table, sinking to a seated position, legs crossed. I could make out the flash of round lensed specs in the glare of the sodium lights. The big dude remained standing, loosely. He was water walking, fluid motion and totally relaxed in his stance. This was not a man I wanted to fight with. The chick in the Xena get up sat on the bench of one of the tables, facing the other two. And from this raven haired beauty, the first words of the meeting took place.

“Things are moving far too quickly. We cannot suppress the coming events any further. To deny the will of the world is impossible. Humanity is entering the 5th age, and soon.”

“So why do you need to speak to us about this, Donna Trag?” the flying dude asked. His voice was one suited to easy leadership. Everything seemed to be easy about this man. He was inspiring, and I’m not just talking about the slight twinge in my jeans as I saw him shift his weight and watched his butt muscles flex.

“Yes, we’ve been monitoring things for quite a while. What has changed,” the acrobat spoke. I couldn’t make out if the acrobat was male or female. The voice would have worked for either. The acrobat was apparently a teen, younger than myself by several years.

“There are signs. Both of you live in the mundane realm. And while you are not bound by static reality in ways that other creatures may be, you are powerful supernatural forces unto yourselves.” The acrobat snorted derisively, sounding more male than female to me. “You may consider your power a curse, but it is not. And the others of your kind are emerging. You should gather them soon.”

“You’ve said this before, Donna. Why should we believe you now?”

“Because it shall begin this year. I have had a sooth saying. The ancient powers are arising. Surely, telepath, you have felt this. The resurgence of the natural mystic flow within the Earth itself.”

“I have,” the tall guy said. “And among our covens around the world, telepaths are disappearing. We don’t know what is happening to them.”

“And others like you are emerging, aren’t they?” the acrobat asked, his tone contemplative. “Others with both the gift of the mind and the gift of forces.”

“Yes,” the telepath admitted with some reluctance. “My younger brother among them. And he will be strong among them. I can sense it growing within him.”

“So you see, my friends, our time grows short. The sooth also spoke of the return of a mighty changeling warrior. And the end of an ancient blood feud, a curse removed.” Xena chick was like radiating some kinda light that made the poor yellow glow from the streetlamps seem like a candle before a lighthouse. Even though she looked like she was all dark goth girl, she seemed to be well spoken and articulate. Almost as if there were no way she could look foolish.

“And that will start the 5th age?” the telepath asked.

“No, Michael. The age is upon us now. The Glamour is returning, slowly. Your world is infusing with the Dreaming. The Umbra of the Lupines is bleeding into the physical realm as well. The vampires are approaching their own breaking point of evolution. And for the lost Æternals such as young Andrew here….”

“I said it before, Donna,” the acrobat said, pulling his hood up over his head, “it’s just Andy”

“It’s never just anything with you, Fox,” the tall man said. He patted the acrobat on the shoulder briefly. “This champion that’s coming from your people, Countess….do you know who it is?”

“There are signs that point to the return of one we thought lost for millennia.” She cast her eyes down, slightly, and I could see that even her eyes had a slight glow to them. “One who could depose me from my authority without much difficulty, should his followers back him in force.”

“Palace revolt doesn’t seem to be much of your people’s style, especially in time of crisis. Even the Lupines don’t snipe at each other in times of trouble.” I was beginning to sense that this acrobat was more than just gifted at sneaking around. There was a very potent mind behind those bespectacled eyes. One that saw and understood things that most other didn’t get as readily.

“Perhaps not,” Donna said, still glancing to the ground. “But yours is the most difficult task, Fox.”

“Wha?”

“Because when the time comes for you to gather the other Æternals, you shall have to integrate them with members of all the Prodigals. The prophecy is rather specific. Unite those that nature cannot bend to force of will alone, and time rescinds as from flesh and bone.”

“Prophesies usually have several interpretations, Countess. That doesn’t tell me much.”

“I can help you this much now. You shall need to find, first, the Kat, the Hawk, the Raccoon, and the Wolf. And you shall have to make them understand their powers and help them through their Phoenix Trials.”

“Did someone mention a Phoenix?” a bemused voice said loudly from behind me. Then someone lifted me by my belt loops and the back of my sweatshirt and carried me across the street to sit with the group. I was so thoroughly busted. I twisted my head to get a look and saw what had to be a 9-foot-tall jackal headed wolfman lugging me about like I was a sack of blueberries. He set me down none to politely on my rump, only to have the tall dude, Michael, place the business end of something long and sharp under my chin.

“You’re late, Yoseph,” Andy said, smiling up at the werewolf.

“I apologize. I had a visit from the spirits and they were quite interested in the coming event. Energies are building throughout the Umbra and the signs are that things are either going to merge, or we’re all in for one hell of a rough ride.” The werewolf looked down at me, and I swear to you, I think he smiled all friendly like.

“Dimensional crossrip?” Xena chick asked, clearly upset by what this might mean.

“At the very least. And if it goes that way, life on this plane wont be pretty.” And before my eyes, he changed to human shape, almost as fast as a blink. Color me surprised! Then, looking like a handsome, thin Arab type, he pointed at me and said, “and Phoenix was most interested in this one.”

“Really,” Fox asked, sounding incredulous. “This isn’t more werewolf mystical mumbo-jumbo, is it, Joey?”

“Afraid it’s true. This one’s a mage. And he’s gonna be needed. Most soon.”

“A Mage?” Donna inquired, looking at me with deep, lavender eyes. “I sense not the presence of Glamour in him.” I was way out of my depth here, and I know it.

“That’s because he’s not awakened yet. But he is a Mage. Phoenix gave me a warning, sort of a cryptic one. He said he wants a new Silver Pack, but one not like any my people have seen before.” Yoseph or Joey, since I hadn’t figured out his name yet, looked to his buddy the telepath. “Is that really necessary? Even Fox could take this boy down in a heartbeat if he tried to run.”

“I suppose not,” Michael said, dropping the point from under my chin with such speed I felt the wind rush behind the steel, taking its place as he sheathed it, back over his shoulder. He didn’t even look at the blade as he sent it home.

“Tell us of this Silver Pack the spirits ask you to make.” Gotta admit, as much as I was scared, I was also impressed by how in command, Donna Trag was. Like she had a natural talent to run things. Of course, by this time I was close enough to recognize who Michael was. But I’ll save that for later.

Yoseph, in what I was to learn was typical behavior for him, promptly sat to the grass, sinking Indian style, looking totally comfortable. He didn’t seem menacing and evil like werewolves in horror movies. Parts of me might even have found him cute if I weren’t in over my head and now worried about what plans they had for me.

“Phoenix said thus to me:

“Of each breed shall there be, the strengths of brotherhood their bond, closer than man to wife each shall take the other for life, and mix souls and love and blood. The 5th age shall begin with children, eternal, powerful, wise and alive. Into the space of dreams, of mind, of body, of blood, of soul and of Gnosis’ raw form. They will merge to fight all fronts and all foes, and only be as strong as the pack is whole.”

When he finished, he looked around and shrugged. “It rhymes better in the wolf tongue.”

“Ya, but what does it mean?” Michael asked.

“It means, that this Silver Pack isn’t going to be just werewolves. It’s going to be some of all of us.” Andy sat up and stared at me. “Changeling, telepath, Æternal, Garou and Mage. Possibly even vampire.” He shot Donna Trag a knowing look, pushing his round frames up his nose slightly. “A mixed bag of supernaturals”

“Would have to be one hell of a vampire to join in this mix.” Michael looked at me. “Seems you’re going to be under my wing for a while there, Marco.”

“Actually, Michael,” Yoseph said, standing, “I have someone a little more in tune with Marc’s abilities here in mind.”

“Not him!” Fox said, looking outraged. “Oh come on, you’d throw a newbie to that son of a bitch like that?”

“I will not let him cause much harm to our newest member. But he shall have to hurry in the mastering of his ability. Phoenix said that the changeling in question has already started rebuilding his power base, even if he hasn’t gone through his change yet.” Yoseph looked to Donna Trag. “I’m sorry I didn’t get this information to you sooner, Countess. The spirits work in mysterious ways”

“That they do.” She leaned heavily on the table behind her.

“Um,” I managed to say. Really eloquent of me, I know.

“We are overloading him,” Fox noticed. “Yoseph, you should bring him to the ‘old one’ tonight. Introduce them. We shall begin looking for the others among our own respective kinds soon.”

“Good plan. Oh, Fox. I have the feeling that the wolf you’re looking for is a Garou breed into a human mage bloodline. Not sure if that makes him Garou or Æternal.”

“Guess we’ll find out the hard way.”

Michael nodded to Fox’s assessment. “I have to get going. My coven is meeting tonight. Two telepaths in London were attacked yesterday and we’re investigating.” He turned to me, Michael Perault, incoming student body president at the high school, and apparently a powerful kid with mental powers, looked at me, smiled and said, “Welcome aboard, Marco. We’ll talk later.” And with that he rose up into the air. I watched him fly off til the tree line hid him and looked back around.

Fox was gone. Not even a branch moving in nearby trees told which direction he had taken. Nor was there sound or scent or any indicator that might give away how he had escaped my view so completely. I must have had the obvious look of surprised confusion on because Yoseph grinned at me and dropped a hand on my shoulder like an old friend.

“He does that from time to time. It’s just one of his talents.”

“Huh?”

“Indeed. I hope, fair mage, that you learn to keep your wits about you better,” Donna Trag said, standing up. “I know this is somewhat less than subtle, but we need to awaken you quickly. Your abilities will be sorely required, soonest.” And with that, she threw her sword, yes, sword, at me. And there was no way I could dodge, not with Yoseph holding my shoulder. I tried though. Still, the hurtling weapon struck me right between the eyes.

And the whole world went “BA-DA-BOOM!” and the lights went out.


When I woke up, I was very worried. I checked my forehead for a mark and found none. I checked myself over as best I could. I didn’t so much feel different but I was concerned about what was done to me. My last clear memory was of staring down a sword blade, coming at me point on. I don’t know what exactly happened to me.

I sat up off the ground with Joey’s back to me. He was speaking with someone. We seemed to be in a garden at, still some time during the night, with stone walls and topiaries surrounding. I sat up slowly feeling like my body, my mind, and my whole world was throbbing, almost in time to the chirping crickets. Trying to get my balance, I realized I was sitting on a large square slab of flagstone. I tried to stand, but wasn’t feeling up to it yet. I made it as far as sitting back on my knees. It was at that point that I realized I was not just sitting on one flagstone, but I was at the corner of a black and white granite chess board, 30 feet long on each side. Across the board from me, in the opposing side’s king position, was my backpack. I took a brief moment to realize that I was sitting in the Queen’s Knight’s starting square, as if I was piece on the white side.

The voices raised in pitch and I turned to listen in. My head felt three feet thick and throbbed with every heartbeat. My skin felt the chill in the gathering fog, yet my chest, forehead and oddly feet felt insanely hot. Oh, and my stomach was turned about like some drunken sailor was trying to show off all his knot skills at once with my digestive tract.

“But why bring him hear?” I heard a youngish voice complain. “Can’t you see I have my own problems, Joseph? Half the state is looking for me, my resources are already stretched thin as it is, and I don’t have my stone! How can I even take in your stray like this?”

“He needs your guidance,” Joseph spoke. And in my muddled state, I remembered that Joseph was the Arab/werewolf guy who had carted me about like I was fruit in a bag. That galvanized me to motion. Slowly, I started the process of finding my balance and standing up on that white square of polished rock. It took time, during which more conversation went on. I tried to follow it as best as I could, but there was some fear backing my actions now.

“Guidance you say. A whack to the head is what I say!”

“Donna Trag already did that. She hit him with the Enchanted Stroke. You should have seen it. Brilliant throw, perfect aim. I didn’t know the changelings could do that without still having a paw on the weapon. Guess she’s privy to some advanced stuff. When the blade buried itself in his forehead, I thought she had killed him with one blow. Then his body exploded with light and Gnosis. Surprised you didn’t feel it clear over here.”

“I did feel that Quintessence burst. Woke me from a sound sleep, it did.” For someone with such a young sounding voice, he spoke like a crotchety old guy. “I just figured it was one of the bloody colonists tripping over something they should leave properly alone. Babes in the woods, playing with powers they cannot perceive. Why did I even come here? This place has been full of crazies and malcontents since before the witch trials. The poor Pawtuckets should have just slain them when they got off the first boat!”

“Wasn’t that the boat you came here on?” Joseph said, a sense of whimsy in his voice. The younger voice seemed to almost have an old timey English accent, like you hear in historical movies or Robin Hood films. Or as the bad guys in Star Wars.

“Bah! Those were different times. The Caliber wasn’t safe in Europe anymore. I had to case it in a new king’s-stone until a new lord could come forward to claim it. But you know well that story.”

“I do. As I also know that soon we may see the return of the Tear.”

“You don’t say?” the younger voice exclaimed, suddenly going from a combative mood to a more contemplative one. I had gotten one foot to the ground, leaning heavily over my knee at this point. My body wasn’t sure how to get the other leg up from a kneeling position, so I waited, gathering my strength. The throbbing sensation seemed to be going away, although every fifth or seventh one seemed to throb a little harder. The conversation continued as someone set down a drinking glass with settling ice. I heard the base of the glass come to rest on some solid, stony object, and the ice shift. I mention this because it seemed odd to me that I could hear that with all the weird sensations trickling about in my body and my brain automatically catalogued the sound and identified it for what it was. Seemed odd at the time.

“A changeling legend, they say. A warrior…” Joseph began, but the younger voice cut him off.

“From across time, bearing his ancient love and ancient hate with him. He shall strike like lightning from the stars, unite the forces, and dance in dreams and shadow to bring back the light.” After a small pause, I heard a chuckle from the younger voice. “Do not look so surprised, Yoseph. Changelings and Garou are not the only ones who value prophesy. And if this one is the one I believe he is, then apparently I’ve already got a hand on that result.”

“Another riddle?”

“Another truth,” the young voice replied. “Trust this much, there is a good reason your people don’t dwell on time magicks anymore. Not just that the vampires defeated and cursed your tribe’s bloodline to never have a home. Pity that. If your ancient kin could have held Egypt, there’s no telling how much of this Judeo-Christian-Islamist business we could have avoided. Two thousand years of fighting over whose god and which way to follow him is better yet claiming the same god based on the same scriptures. Insanity!”

“I will have to seek your insights on the differences between old religions and new religions later. What has time magic to do with it?”

“You see the glorious results of miscalculation with an alien magical artifact in me now. True, I long ago learned how to transmit myself through time backwards, how to remember the future as though it were the past. And part of that came through my study of the Stone. Had I the slightest inkling they’d actually pull it off, that it would result in Quintessence nodes flaring back to life, even forming Lines again… had I known that the power of magic would flood this world again and give greater power to the Stone and the Caliber and who knows how many of the others… that it would interact with my own magicks like this…” the young voice broke off. “I’m too bloody old to be this bloody young. I had been preparing my rejuvenation when the power flooded. It happened a little harder and faster than I could control. My reverse aging jumped, suddenly. After over four millennia of steady, controlled regression, instead of a young man on the cusp of adult hood and the height of my powers…”

“So that’s why you’re a child now?”

“As the colonists say these days, up yours, werewolf!” Joseph’s laugh peeled out in joyous pearls. Apparently the joke was great for him, but it was lost to me. I planted my hands on the square and managed to leverage myself up enough to get my feet under me, but I was still frog squatted to the ground. With some great difficulty, I planted my hands on my knees and pushed. Arms and legs and stomach all fought to get me vertical again. It was slow going.

“So, as you can see, I’ve all but stopped reverse aging. Most would find that agreeable, but in this condition, I am highly limited to the amount of energy I can channel. It’s taken most of my energy to keep from growing younger. I did manage to leap forward slightly once that Internet simultaneously opened the flood gates of magic again and then crushed them down as Imagination diminished. Thus, my higher magicks are unreachable. I have been hiding in human homes as a fosterling for just over six decades now. I haven’t had my Stone in possession in all that time. And if what you tell me is correct, then there are now four Vergence Philters in New England, with a fifth on the way. And I can’t get my bloody hands on my bloody one. In six decades, I’ve physically aged from a child of eight to a lad barely able to stir his own stipple. People were noticing again.”

“Is that why you did it? Why you moved out here?”

The young voice faltered for a moment. “I loved my last family. I’d almost forgotten that I wasn’t the child they adopted. But I couldn’t risk detection. If they’d taken me to another doctor to try and discover why I wasn’t growing any, why puberty had me barely flaunting grass in the garden after three years… I had to leave them, Joseph. To protect them. For what’s to come, if all the signs are correct, having me near them…”

“So you returned here?”

“So I returned here. Where so much of my artifacts and knowledge is couched. Where so many of my spells and enchantments still ring with power. If the old Catholics in this town knew that the old parish across the river was actually a mystical sanctum, much less that it was within spitting distance of a changeling freehold and balefire, they’d probably wet themselves. Or if they knew what was to come.”

“Then it’s true. I mean, if even one such as you has retreated to here, then you must be preparing for war. Which means…”

“Yes, Yoseph. He is coming. And we cannot stop the arrival any more than we can halt the stars from sliding through the curtain of night.”

“Our prophecies tell of it as well. A great red eye has opened in the deeper layers of the Umbra, but it seems to be moving, traveling here from outside our realm.”

“Yes, well, I fear He brings with him far more than just an eye. We are talking about an elder god here. A being so alien and so powerful that even your totem spirits are putting aside old animosities to prepare for his arrival. I fear you may see hostilities between your tribes and their enemies burst into open war if those enemies make allies of this invasion. Grave tidings I sense in the future. You would do well to prepare yourselves.”

“Which is why I brought this boy here. He is like you.” I perked up at hearing that. I had risen to a crouch, not quite fully standing upright, but the last sentence brought my head about to focus more on the conversation. After all, it was now focusing on me.

“He’s nothing like me!” the younger voice shrieked, sounding as if it didn’t intend to be so shrill, so high pitched. Like a person who was used to speaking with a much deeper, more powerful, more sonorous voice who hadn’t used it in a long time might sound. “That young man may have the gift, but I cannot train him. I can barely keep myself from, as your children might say, going back a grade.”

“He could use your training. Your advice.”

“How can you not hear me with ears like that! I can’t help him. I keep telling you, but you don’t listen. Until I can find a way to get back that Stone, or some other source of power, or unless someone grants me access to a node I can draw on, it is taking me everything I have just to exist. Weening a fledgling Mage is not within my capabilities, especially with Him and his hordes coming. I’m surprised we aren’t already inundated with his undersea minions coming to shore more than they do now.”

“Perhaps you could arrange something?” I stood a little taller. They were so preoccupied by their conversation and talk of some person they both feared so much that I felt I could escape. I moved toward my backpack, taking a step off the white square of stone and onto the black stone in front of me. My steps felt heavy, coarse. Like my feet were shod in stone instead of sneakers.

“Oh, you think your kind would welcome such as I at one of your caerns? Hummm?”

“Uh,” the werewolf guy seemed to be looking for an answer, but the smaller conversationalist wasn’t giving much ground.

“Maybe the changelings would consent to let me draw on their balefire from time to time. Even now I can just barely sense its energies. They must be tapping it pretty hard against the growing lack of imagination and inspiration among these younglings. Bloody iPhones, robbing the world of human interaction by replacing it with mechanical thinking. Bah! Why do I even want to save this world now!”

“If you remember the future like it was the past, didn’t you already save this world, or at least help to save it?” the werewolf guy asked. I took another step, crossing the boundary from the stone I’d started on to the stone in front of me. The flagstones were joined together tightly, not even any grass growing up between the joints. They were large enough that my unsteady pace was barely enough to get my toes to the next stone.

“Don’t try using the truth on me like I didn’t already live it,” the younger one snarled. “I know the fates I’ve committed us all to. I knew back when Arthur was still called Wart what I was setting into motion. But the future isn’t always set in stone. I didn’t remember losing my Stone. Some things change and my memory… is riddled with holes from those changes. Sometimes I can remember what was, or what should have been. Sometimes I remember that there was a change but not what that change was.”

“That sounds confusing,” the werewolf said with a note of sympathy.

“Worse! I remember what I have done, but not why, at times. And in one case…” his voice faltered and it sounded like he had slapped his own thighs, like an older person might do before standing, dramatically. “I have done things I knew should not be done, and done them anyways, but can’t remember the why, the how, or often who. And I have ransomed my own flesh and blood from the future, sent them here to the past for a destiny I forbade them from knowing, lest they change the lay of history, simply because I felt my own lack of power at this time… because I lost the damned Stone!”

“You could contact them here in this time, could you not?”

“I would not endanger them, or my grandchildren, so callously by calling attention to them or myself. Even now, my eldest grandson is just discovering his own uniqueness. And physically, he’s little older than I am presently.”

“So you have kept contact?”

“No. I knew when my daughter and son in law got here. I knew when the boy was born, who he is. But I have kept my distance. Not exactly like they’d recognize me like this.”

“I suppose not,” the werewolf spoke. “Perhaps you need a way to act in this world without exposing your hand?”

“Are you offering your help in this matter. I know your kind have a knack for getting around, finding hidden things, recovering lost artifacts.”

“If such can be offered, it might be offered as trade.”

“Trade!” the younger voice called out in outrage. “Trade?! How much blood do you expect to squeeze out of me, Lupine?”

“No blood,” my abductor said. I could almost sense him spreading his hands in supplication.

“And I’m not training him. Even if you could bring me back the Philosopher’s Stone.”

Did I hear that right? I turned my head to look back towards the voices. There was a hedgerow around the chess board layout, set up behind a row of benches. For spectators, I guess. Odd that for a board this big there were no pieces in play, I thought, looking about. At any rate, the hedge hid whoever was on the other side. I would get glimpses of motion, a sense of clothing worn. I did find what I saw through the gaps between branches and leaves quite illuminating. The werewolf person was obviously wearing his human skin. The small voice seemed to have a small body to match. Just a kid.

Fortunately, I don’t think they knew that I was mobile.

But it had been that crack about getting back the Philosopher’s Stone that had stopped my trek towards my backpack and beyond that my freedom. There was no way they could be talking about the actual Philosopher’s Stone. I mean, there were all kinds of bibliographic references to such a thing. The first Harry Potter book was about the Philosopher’s Stone, even though in America the name was changed to Sorcerer’s Stone. There were the obvious references to it in the Arthurian stories, and the legends of it going back to the Templars possibly finding it under the Temple Mount in ancient Jerusalem. And how it had been part of the Pharaoh’s treasure before that, or of it possibly being a piece of Alexander the Great’s sword. Or of the Stone traveling to the Aztecs or Mayans before Columbus crossed the ocean blue, only to be found when the Conquistadors raped the New World.

Whoever the little guy was, he fancied himself some sort of magician, and was claiming at least past ownership of the Philosopher’s Stone. If such a thing existed. Had to admit though, if this was some kind of wild prank, it had gone well too far, wicked.

Then again, that chick in the rene faire armor did just throw a frickin’ sword through my forehead. More reason to grab my pack and go.

“He could be the source of power for you,” the werewolf offered. I still find myself calling him a werewolf when there’s no such thing. And yet, here I am, captured, hauled about. Pin cushioned.

“Even if that boy is a Mage, which is a big if, Fleabag! If he is a Mage, just taking magic from him is not right. You know I’d never ravage a soul like that.” Ravage a soul? Oh, I should definitely just forget the backpack and run. Run! Run like a little girl, screaming, out of a haunted house.

I stumbled forward three steps, trying to urge myself forward. It seemed like I had built up a head of steam, crossing the black stone tile under me to white stone before it. Just as I was taking the next step, feeling confidence in my steps, I bounced off… something. I couldn’t see it. Nearly fell over after bumping into it. Even found myself leaning forward on it. There were what seemed to be ripples in the flat, open, thin air ahead of me, but something solid was clearly there, preventing me from taking a step off that white stone square.

“What was that?” the werewolf asked. I guess that when I found that invisible wall, face first, it made some sort of sound.

“Your boy has awoken. I believe he’s trying to move on my chess board. Don’t worry. He can’t figure out the trick to get out. American children don’t have the wherewithal to figure out simple puzzles, much less magical traps.”

Magical traps? What the hell?

“And they say kids aren’t cunning and cruel to each other,” the werewolf chuckled. “Back to basics, though. You know where the Stone is, right?”

“Yes. And the irony is remarkable. Even for this age.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. The last time the Stone and that particular obelisk were in the same place, the Pharaoh’s were still jerking off on statues to make the Nile flood each spring.”

“So what you’re saying is that my people have as much a claim to that artifact as you do?” An uncomfortable silence broke out between them as I sank against the barrier. Quite plainly, there was no give in the invisible wall before me, and it seemed to run right to the edge of the white flagstone beneath me. Despite common sense, seemed this magic business was real. Or someone had slipped me some seriously weird X.

“Don’t trifle with me, Garou. I might be barely keeping myself on the edge of puberty here, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still cut loose with a bolt of raw Prime up your fuzzy arse,” the shorter one said, darkly.

“Well, then if you wont make a deal with me to get your Stone back, what about the boy?”

“What about him?”

“Surely, if you could train Arthur to take over a country in rebellion against itself, it wouldn’t take much to take a talented young Mage and train him to get your Stone back from a simple museum.”

“Clever, boy. But appealing to my vanity is not the same as relying on it.”

“You have your tricks, oh mighty one, and I have mine.”

“Touché,” the younger one agreed.

I started getting angry. Here they were, just a couple dozen feet away, talking casually about my fate, and here I was, stuck leaning on open air on a flagstone, sprawled out like a drunk in a gutter. The throbbing in my body was easing more, and the weak feeling was going away, but I was still stuck, unable to move forward.

I was looking down at my feet when I realized that my feet had strayed off the white square and onto the black square beside it. No barrier. I sat up, twisted around and put my palm to the barrier near my shoulder. I pulled my foot back and then pushed it over the boundary of the black square to side. Took a moment to slide my hand along the wall, rubbing invisibly through the solidity of the air, right up to the joining of the black and white square.

My hand slid to the boundary… and found the wall kept going. I could cross to the black square to the side, but couldn’t go to the black square before me. I looked across to the further square where my back pack sat, perched on the king’s spot.

“No way,” I said, realizing what was going on. I’d started on the knight’s spot. I’d taken two squares forward, which meant in order to complete my move, I had to take a step either right or left. I was locked into moving like a knight. Those were the only moves the board would allow. Suddenly it all made sense. All I had to do was figure how to get to the king’s spot and claim my bag.

And make sure that my captors didn’t know I’d done so. Or awaken other pieces to the board. Not that there were any other pieces in sight, either already on the board or lined up beside it, as captured pieces would be. Then again, if the other side didn’t make a move, would I get another turn? I had nothing to lose by trying, I realized. And staying still got me nothing as well. Might as well go for it.

I took the right hand black square and stepped onto it with both feet. Almost immediately, the square beneath me seemed to shimmer, giving off a slight bell tone.

“Well, he’s made the first move,” I heard the younger voice say. “Took him bloody long enough.”

“Should we go see what he’s up to?”

“Why bother? He wont know what the next move is.”

“Why not?”

“Because unless he can see Quintessence, he wont be able to see the other pieces.”

“Ah, so it’s a test as well as a trap?”

“Most things in life are either one or the other, often both. You above all should know this, Silent Strider.”

See Quintessence, the younger one had said. And that there were other pieces on the board. Which implied the board was playing itself. But did that mean that the pieces on my side were available as well, or that I was stuck just being the knight?

A loud scraping noise from across the board drew my attention. It was a heavy, dry sound. Stone on stone. My eyes strained to see anything moving. As the sound stopped, I realized there had been two distinct clicks or maybe pauses in the scraping noise. Which meant that some piece had taken two squares.

Now, I’m no chess master. My parents have tons of board games, which we used to play a lot when I was a little kid. Kinda where I got my extreme hatred of Monopoly when my older brother would screw everyone else by buying up a corner and then loading it with hotels. And Mom would take some sort of extreme glee in sliding people back to start while playing Sorry! And while my Dad did teach me the basics of chess, I wasn’t the best student of the game. The only reason I joined the chess club at school was so I could get inside on cold mornings rather than have to wait around outside for first bell.

And now I was apparently going to be trapped or find my freedom based on my knowledge of a game I didn’t know well enough to win, against pieces I couldn’t see.

That job working at the old folks home is beginning to sound better and better all the time.

Okay, I remembered how the board is set up at the start. If I got to move first and do the knight’s leap over the front row privilege, that meant I was playing the white side. And the usual first move is either a knight jump to the front, or a pawn move. Other than the knights, the other pieces are trapped behind their own row of pawns, so if you want to do something like uncork a bishop or a queen, you have to slide a pawn out to open the way. So, with that in mind, and hearing the two-squares worth of scraping noise, I had to imagine that one of the opponent’s eight pawns had taken a double step forward. So I had to counter that.

“Queen’s pawn take two steps,” I called out. At one point I knew all kinds of chess terms and how to make notations of moves, and some of it was coming back to me, but I wasn’t as worried about the proper verbage. I just wanted out.

A scraping behind me on the right side alerted me that the pawn I’d called for was sliding forward two spaces. Which meant it would be sliding through the white space to my immediate right. I put my hand out as the scraping started, hoping to at least feel the passage of the pawn as it moved ahead of me.

And then my fingers trailed over the smooth, granite-like surface of the pawn’s spherical top. And as it continued on past me, I felt energy spread through me, into my arm, across my senses. It was a warmth, a chill, a shock, a solid force, a torrent of liquid and a twist of breeze all at once. That contact was like opening a channel, and suddenly, I could feel the energy all around me. My eyes snapped open, in that moment so much more sensitive than before. The night was still as dark as before, but things in the night stood out more, had the clarity of a sunny day.

And I could see the chess pieces now. They glimmered, nearly transparent as though made of glass or crystal. The pieces on my side, like the pawn that slid past me to the black square nearest center from my lines, were like a cross between opals and frosted glass. The pawn glinted in the moonlight in front of me. The pieces on the opposite side, the black side were like smoky topaz swirled with black opal’s dark fire. The pieces fairly pulsed in my vision as the pawn slid to its assigned space, a small hum and thrum sounding as it passed the boundary between squares. And my backpack, faintly outlined with the image of the black king was still my goal. My freedom.

Almost at once, the previously advanced black pawn shimmered, shifted, and transformed. So did my advanced pawn. They both assumed the shapes of pikemen, in mail armor, bullet shaped helmets, each with bits of cloth and fur adorning their armor in the color of their side. They were both armed with long pikes, and the black pawn stepped to my pawns side, the two of them taking opposite corners of the square. And then they started fighting.

I could barely believe my eyes. These two things that had just been invisible stone game pieces, just about my height, were now two short ancient infantrymen, looking like kids dressed for Halloween, engaging in combat right in front of me. They put on a good show of it, but the black pawn performed a spin in place move, ducked and used the butt end of his pike to smash my pawn’s right foot. My pawn immediately dropped his pike, hopping up and down, holding its wounded foot. Then, as if realizing his mistake, my pawn stopped hopping, looked up to the black pawn just in time for the black pawn to stab my pawn through the face slit on his helmet. A mortal wound, apparently.

My pawn fell over, dead, and melted into the square. The black pawn took the square as his own, and transformed back into the traditional chess piece pawn shape.

Which meant that pawn was now threatening my position. I had no idea if the pieces could hurt me, but I decided I didn’t want to find out. My turn had come and I needed to come up with a move.

I quickly, almost without thinking, jumped forwards two squares and almost took a third square forward, before the barrier stopped me and dropped me to my butt. I shook it off, feeling my whole body throb in time with the board, somehow. I used the barrier to help myself stand up, and then moved to the square to the right, putting me right next to the black pawn. As I stepped into the spot, I felt the board hum and a sound like a bell. Not sure if that had happened before or not. To be honest, I was sort of not paying attention to a lot of details. I just didn’t want to get stabbed in the eye. Sizing up the black pawn beside me, I could almost feel a sense of anger in that next square. As if it was aggressively thinking about killing me if I got in its way, maybe a little upset it didn’t get to keep me in its kill zone.

I didn’t have a lot of time to figure out if it was the right move, however. The black queen moved, her heavy base scraping over the flagstones, shifting with a regal grace and menace through the diagonal. She stayed on the black squares, moving forward to the square in line with my queen’s bishop. It was almost too good to be true. I had to take it.

“Queen’s bishop takes queen!” I called out as soon as the black queen came to a rest. My bishop slid forward, into the same square with the enemy queen. They both took opposite corners to accommodate each other, and then they changed. The bishop shifted around, the tall sorta penis-head shaped top of the chess piece turning into a cardinal’s miter hat, long robes flowing down in straight lines, and a crook capped staff in his hands, held across his body, with the end on the floor.

The queen’s transformation was equally stunning. She assumed a regal human form, long lines in her dress and belt accentuating her hips and ample bosom. Her dress was puffy without hiding any of her curves, and her diadem was tall, proud and sparkly. Her dark majesty was also shown clearly in the haughty expression of her face, her nose held up so she could look down it.

She began to weave her hands, as if gathering magic for a spell. The bishop began swirling his staff around, pulling off moves more akin to a Shao Lin monk than a Christian patriarch. She cast her spell, flinging her fingers out with lightning, spraying at the bishop. But the bishop blocked the lightning with his staff, seemed to catch it in the hook of his crook and spun in place, whipping the lighting back at the queen. It spun off the curved end of the staff and blasted into the queen at chest height. She cried out in pain, seemed to be stuck in place for a moment, and then collapsed inwards on herself like a pillar of salt. The powdery remains drifted away in the wind of the bishop’s spinning staff, as they also melted into the board surface.

My bishop took the square, reverting to his traditional shape. The queen was the most powerful piece on the board, and I’d taken it out as my first capture, only losing a pawn so far. I felt good about this. I felt the board pulse again, and knew that the board was planning its next move.

The sound of soft clapping interrupted my next move, however. I cursed softly, my shoulders drooping. “Bravo, boy. Well played,” I heard from behind me. I glanced back to the baseline of the chessboard and saw the werewolf guy, stroking his chin thoughtfully, standing behind a kid, middle school age by his height. He had wavy light brown hair, almost auburn colored, and was wearing a black T-shirt with Stewie Griffin on it over the words “Born to be Bad,” a baggy pair of tan cargo shorts and grayish Nike sneaks that had seen cleaner days. His green eyes shown from a rounded face that was bedeckled with freckles.

The kid was talking and lowering his hands from his recent clapping. “Interesting choice, but I can see you have hidden talents. And some skill. And the ability to think creatively.”

“You’re running off at the mouth again,” the werewolf pointed out.

“This was something you forced, Yoseph, you could at least do me the courtesy of keeping your sharp tongue behind your sharp teeth.”

“By all means. I have somewhere I need to be anyways. By your leave,” the werewolf said, bowing deeply from the waist.

“You have my permission to exit my realm through the Umbra,” the boy said, raising a finger. I felt a subtle tickle of something in the air around us change.

“And?”

“And I will treat the boy fairly.”

“Excellent! I will contact you later in the week. I get the feeling things are about to get interesting around here.”

“Always do,” the boy said dismissively. And then the werewolf guy literally took a step forward, the air rippling like the surface of a pond, and he was gone! Just vanished into thin air, like stepping behind a curtain.

I looked at the boy and he at me. “The board is waiting,” he said at length, his little boy’s voice sounding authoritative and bored at the same time.

“What?”

“Your bishop has the black king threatened. You need to tell the board something.”

“I don’t understand,” I replied, keeping my gaze to his face. Something about him seemed familiar. Like I should know who this pint sized know-it-all was.

“When you threaten the king, you announce that you have him at a disadvantage so that he knows he must cover his crown or walk it, or eliminate the threat. Traditionally, this is done by saying…”

“Check?” As I said it, the board shimmered, a shifting red light began cycling at the edges of each square, shining up in sparkling red lines. The brightest square, almost white limned in red, was around the black king.

“Very good. I’m afraid the board is not working at full power. It will likely take a while to figure out what it want’s for its next move. Which will give us time to talk.”

“It shouldn’t take long,” I pointed out. “The most likely move will be to have the pawn in front of the king’s bishop step one forward to block, forcing my bishop to either retreat or risk taking that pawn, only to open the bishop to the king’s knight’s pawn, or the king’s knight.”

“Ah, so it does know how the game is played. But there are two games going on here. Can it think of how to succeed at both?”

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here. I wont tell the cops that your uncle or whatever kidnapped me, or that you have a giant holographic chess board…” I said, intending to go on. But he interrupted me.

“I think you know there’s more going on here than all that.” I was about to speak up, but he pointed up, his other hand behind his back, and he began walking the edge of the board like some school teacher holding a well-practiced lecture. “You’ve had your whole world turned upside down. Flipped you might say. Turned ass over tea kettle. Run amok.”

“Hey, whatever. I just want my pack and to go home. And I can find my way out, if uh, you just turn this screwy thing off.”

He halted his walk, both his hands going behind his back like a little general. He nodded briefly and then said, “No. I think not.”

The board shimmered, the light around the edges of each square shifting to light green. I looked around to the sound of the bishops’ pawn sliding forward one space. It was now effectively blocking my bishop’s line to the king, and it had backup. I’d have to move the bishop.

“Seems your assessment was correct.”

“What do you mean, you don’t think so? Get me off this crazy thing!”

“You forgot to say ‘Jane.’ And I can’t just let you out of the chess trap. It has to run its course. You can only escape it if the king is captured. You do know what a king is, I assume, silly, arrogant colonist?”

“But there isn’t a king. Just my backpack on the king’s square.”

“It is filling in for the black king. Sort of a goal for you. And there is one king on the board that can be taken,” the little shit said, pointing to the gleaming polished white granite and opal of my king. His grin seemed almost teasing, mocking. I had an urge to walk up to him grab a fistful of his shirt and paint brush his face until all his freckles fell off.

“What happens if my king gets mated?”

“I’m assuming you mean in chess terms, not the sexual aspects.” Again that evil grin. My hands went to my hips in frustration. “If your king is captured or surrendered, you lose.”

“Meaning?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be a trap if I let you live, now would it?”

“Can we agree to a draw?”

“The board is making the decisions. If it thinks it can win, it will try. Can you say the same?” Grin again. He was very impressed with himself.

“So I have to play the game out, capture the king? And then I’ll be free?”

“Just like how if your king is captured or submits, if you cappture the kingpack, you’ll win. And the trap will dissolve.”

“What happens if I… I mean, if the piece I represent, the queen’s knight, what if I get captured?”

“The board doesn’t play war like hide and seek. You’ve seen what it does.”

“But I don’t have any weapons! I don’t have magic powers or armor! If I capture a piece, legally, how do I destroy the other piece?”

“Hummn! How indeed?”

I narrowed my eyes at him. He just grinned back, showing some sparkling white teeth despite the freckles that dotted his face. I turned back to the board, trying to imagine how it looked from above.

“Your move!” he said brightly, both of his hands stuffed into the oversized pockets of his cargo shorts. I couldn’t be certain, but it seemed to me like he was adjusting himself. Any how you look at it, clearly he was enjoying my predicament.

“Right,” I said, turning back to the board. “Uh, bishop to kings’ bishop four,” I called out, hoping I had called out the right square. The bishop slid, granite scraping sounds rising harshly, one space back and to the left, diagonally, from my side of the board. My bishop was out danger, but my check to the backpack, I mean, to the black king’s square, was broken.

“Interesting,” the little shit said. Almost immediately the board shimmered and the black side made their move. The pawn in front of the king’s side knight stepped forward two squares, coming in to threaten my bishop again across the center line of the board. “Oh, he senses blood in the water. How will you escape, little fish, when the big bad hungry shark comes up from the bottom for another bite?”

“Sorta like this,” I said. And I strode forward across the two squares in front of me, then stepped left. This put me on a square where there was already a pawn. As I stepped onto the square, I found myself shuffled to the corner, the pawn shifting from stony ball on a pedestal to the pikeman shape, like before. It raised its weapon at me. Now what? I thought.

Well, being as I was using a knight’s moves, and started from a knight’s square, I had to assume that maybe I also had a knight’s armament. I held out my hands and imagined a sword and shield. Almost immediately, those items appeared in my hands, as well as a suit of armor. I took a moment, gauging the weight of the shield and giving the sword a couple of swooshes to get the feel of it. As the pawn opposite me hefted that long pike with the glinting iron point, I remembered how the previous pawn had defeated my pawn. I raised my sword hand up to the visor of my helmet and made sure it was in place.

The pawn struck first, spearing for my eyes. I raised my shield but only managed to bump it out of line with the edge of the shield. But the pawn was a canny fighter. It stepped back and tried to spear past my shield to my mid-section. I brought my sword arm back away from his attack and took the point of his pike to the shield. It skittered over the flat surface of the shield and away from my body. Which left him temporarily open. I slashed forward with my sword. He brought the pike up to try and block, but my stroke knocked his weapon out of his hands. It clattered to the floor. As he knelt down to pick up his weapon, I struck again, sweeping my sword across his shoulders, lopping his head off. Blood sprayed everywhere, dissolving even as the pawn’s beheaded carcass faded into the black tile under me.

My armor and arms vanished in a twinkle. My feet slid to the center of the square, completing my capture of the pawn’s position. I was now on the enemy’s pawn row, covered diagonally by my bishop at mid-board, and threatening his queen’s rook, for one.

“That was a foolish…” he started but I cut him off.

“Check!”

He looked over the board again. Sure enough, my position, as knight, also put me in threat to his king, i.e., my backpack. I was one step forward and two to the right from the king’s square. And backed up by my bishop. Again the board shifted to red lines of light lifting through the joints of the flagstone squares.

“Bloody hell!” the kid shouted. “That’s pretty good.”

“I have the king’s square checked. The backpack clearly is not a chess piece, nor can it move on its own. This should end the game.”

“You’d think that. But just as you have replaced a knight, so does the backpack replace the king, with all the powers and mobility conferred. I’m afraid the game will continue.”

And with that pronouncement, the backpack slid a step diagonally my way. Threatening me. My own backpack was now just three feet from me, but untouchable because of the invisible walls separating squares, and it stood in a position to likely bash my brains in, somehow. After how well I treat it and everything! The light from the squares shifted back to white, although the squares I was standing on and the backpack stood on glowed pale red, as if to show I was in danger.

“Was a good stratagem, lad, but I feel you’re in over your head. Perhaps you aren’t as necessary or gifted as Yoseph believes you are.”

I turned and stared daggers at him. The little guy was definitely doing some pocket pool over there. He might not be stroking a full stiffy, but he definitely was working the balls and cue stick.

“Queen takes pawn,” I called out. My queen slid across to the black square three in front of her starting point. Queen and pawn took opposite sides of the square and went through their transformations. The queen lifted her hands overhead, building magical power. The pawn panicked and dropped his pike. I couldn’t be absolutely certain, but I think a puddle formed under his boots. The queen tossed a lightning bolt. The pawn, still looking overwhelmed, jumped over the first bolt. He tried to escape through the side of the square, but her second blast of electricity caught him in the chest. He disintegrated in a flash of lightning, turning into a pile of ash that dropped out of his armor a second before the armor itself dropped. She resumed her chess piece form as she assumed the center of the square.

“Check!” I called out, and the board flashed to red again. “Mate in one!” The enemy king was boxed in. It had one move and even taking that, it would only take my queen one move to complete his capture. He had no way out and no way to block my line.

The little imp looked over to me. “There’s technically another way out. So the Mate in one is rubbish. However, I can see that with your current position and pieces, and how you are using them in combination, my position is not tenable. I concede the match.”

The shimmering phantom outline of the black king around my backpack tilted and fell. The whole board shimmered in white and the pieces vaporized, twisting away in patches of opal infused steam. When the cloud show had ended, I was staring across the intervening space at the kid. He still had both paws in his pockets, both sort of pushed to the front, but there was no movement there. His face was twisted up in a look of confusion. Perhaps deep thought. Or perhaps he was trying to figure if he should push out some gas or not.

I stepped forward, unimpeded and grabbed up my backpack.

“Seeya, kid,” I said and walked to the end of the board. And smacked into an invisible barrier. “Oh, come on! You conceded the match! I won! Lemme out!”

“We haven’t had our conversation yet,” he pointed out.

“Conversation? It’s late! All this weird freaky shit is going on around here! My parents are gonna freak when I don’t get home soon!”

“Oh don’t worry about that. I can drop you off right on your doorstep, right in your own bathtub with the shower on if you like. But you and I still need to talk.”

“About what? How about kidnapping? Would you like to talk about that? I don’t wanna end up on a fuckin’ milk carton!”

“Could you be more dramatic?” he said, his auburn eyebrows knitting in consternation. “You are unharmed.”

“Only because your chess board made mistakes.”

He raised his finger my way, leaving only one hand in his pocket. “Oh, don’t chastise magical traps, boy. They often can hear you, and often have egos which need stroking when they feel like they’ve failed.”

“I don’t want to be here!”

“Very well then. How about we go to my laboratory?” I kid you not, he said “laboratory” like from Dexter’s Laboratory, the old Cartoon Network show. Lahb-bore-ah-tor-rhee. Just like that. “I feel like having a cup of tea.”

“I don’t’ drink tea.”

“What?” responded, shocked.

“I don’t drink tea.”

“Why the bloody hell not?”

“Because I’m allergic to orange pekoe and black cut pekoe teas. So I avoid all tea so I don’t break out in spots, or have my throat swell up so I can’t breathe.”

“Bloody savages,” he swore under his breath. “Well, I want some tea. You can have water or milk or whatever you kids drink these days.”

“I’m not thirsty,” I said, holding my ground. Which wasn’t that hard since I was still trapped on the board.

He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. “What further proof do you need?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“You are standing on a chess board that has you trapped. You manipulated giant pieces for that board, made of stone, which would have weighed hundreds of pounds, with only your voice. You yourself conjured the weapons you used against the pawn. Nice touch, by the way, the mobile visor was brilliant. And you did all of this without exerting yourself physically.”

“So?”

“So…” and he bent forward at the waist, his hands both going into the pockets again, and sliding around to his front more. “How did you do it?”

“You said the board did it.”

“No, you dumb colonist. The board moved its own pieces. You caused the others to move. You figured out a way to actually see the pieces. And you called the magic to yourself to create your weapons and armor.”

“No I di…”

“Because you’re a Mage, Marcus,” he said, standing up to his full height. “A magician, a wizard if you like, although you really need more years and wisdom under your hat to claim the wizard title.”

“No, that’s…”

“Impossible? What have you just been doing? What has been going on since Joeseph picked your scrawny ass up and brought you here?”

“Scrawny? Have you looked in a mirror, shrimp?” And then I took a closer look at his face. Something seemed oddly familiar.

“I know what I look like, presently,” he said, glancing slightly away. His nose fell into a certain angle, its slight upward tick lining up with his chin and lips, the tilt of his head putting his eyes into a certain position. The freckles seemed to blur in the light, altering his complexion slightly.

And then it hit me, where I’d seen him before. In fact, I’d mentioned one place I’d seen him already. Something that made a little more sense considering all the things I’d overheard since waking up on the chess board.

“Oh migod!”

“Whut!?”

“You’re Ralphy Curak!”

His eyes glazed over. “No. I was, Ralphy Curak. Was. In a manner of speaking I am still being Ralphy Curak. And while that name has been applied to me, it was not the name I was born under, nor any of hundreds of names I’ve gone through over the centuries.”

“But you are Ralphy. I’ve seen your picture on TV and internet alerts and on the lost kids board in the front of Wal-Mart. You’re Ralphy…”

“Bloody Curak, I know!” he shouted, looking sad. He tugged his hands out of his pockets and went to rub his eyes. “Don’t you think I don’t bleedin’ know who I am? What I’ve given up?” he asked, as sobs shook his body.

I was suddenly moved by his tears. I stepped forwards three steps and put my hand on his back.

“Hey, take it easy. We can go to your home right now. You can go home.”

“I can’t go back there ever again. He is coming and I cannot jeopardize them by staying there. And I can’t help save them until I get my Stone back.” I put my arm across his shoulder and drew him to me. It was strange, but it felt natural. Maybe I should have applied to work at the Y summer camp programs instead of working for Barnie’s.

He sort of melted into my arms and broke down further, just bawling his eyes out. I dropped to a squat, hugging him to me and he latched on like a cat dropped in the river will cling to anything it can get its paws on. Don’t ask how I know what that’s like. I had bad friends as a kid and had to rescue said cat from the Merrimack. I still have the scars on my shoulder to prove it.

I had to stand, since that squatting position was making my back hurt. I stood up and he simply held on, his arms latching behind my neck, his legs hooking over my hips. I could feel his package pressing on my belly as he held on, but I don’t’ think either of us was concerned about it. I had to shift one of my hands to under his butt, however, since he was a little heavier than he looked.

“Well, if I can’t call you Ralphy, what would you like me to call you?”

“In my youth, I was called Meryl,” he said, his voice feeling oddly very nice against my neck. I for one could feel his tears soaking into my shirt collar. He sniffed as I cradled him.

“That short for something?”

“It would translate into…” he sighed. “You wont believe me.”

“After all the things I’ve seen and done here, now you think I wont believe it.”

“Good,” Meryl said, his breathing seeming to settle down more from his previous sobbing. “Belief is key to how you will learn to work your magic. Key to your survival when the enemy comes knocking on our door.”

“Try me!” I said, full of bravado. I felt his junk twitch against me through his clothes when I said that and was wondering if he was turned on by… by me.

“It would translate into modern language as Merlyn. The sorcerer.”

“Whoa! Oddly, I do and don’t believe it.”

“Good. That’s a good place to start.” he said. “Put me down. We have much to talk about.”