Once Salvador learned, via me, that some of the secrets that had puzzled humanity for millennia were accessible to him as one of the Kithain, not even the warnings of possible danger could hold him back from exploring, and the warnings of possible difficulty only encouraged him. So, he decided to spend a year of his college experience abroad, a semester in Japan, a semester in India. The former allowed me to pick up Japanese and learn a bit more about the cultural origin of Sal’s human part. Fucking whacked-out place if you ask me. I mean, the people may have stopped following bushido hundreds of years ago, but the dragons! By Odin’s eye, those beasts are more annoying that Salvador and Christian combined… But that’s another story; remind me to tell you about that sometime. Anyway, his primary reason for enjoying his stay there was the different cultural views on, you guessed it, encryption. He said exactly 3.5 times while we were there, “I find it absolutely amazing that only a few thousand miles across an ocean they can have such different views of the unseen.” The .5 comes from me digging a talon into his neck when he got to the word “miles” the fourth time. Fucking enigmonger….
In India, there was ironically a lot more for Salvador to explore, despite the fact that he has utterly no human connection with it. Perhaps his fae half spent some time there in another body; that’d explain a bit more than a bit. But in addition to getting yet another perspective on hiding things (I swear, he really doesn’t need that much help), he managed to uncover (gasp!) another changeling in one of the most densely populated countries in the world! Astounding! Salvador, a sluagh fascinated by well-hidden rarities, fell madly in love with probably the most common specie of Indian Kithain, a Bengal tiger pooka. Kateli was her name. Both her seemings were tall and athletic of build, with dark eyes and skin and deepest black hair, bone-straight and shoulder-length. In her fae mien, however, shone the little extras of her true pooka nature: curly wisps of orange hair—it’s too long to be accurately called fur—bounced playfully among the black, and long whiskers shot out from her face with perfect symmetry. He met her in the place he’s, in a way, still yet to leave, the university. She was a year older than him, a senior who would ultimately graduate magna cum laude. She wasn’t nearly as much into the whole cryptology thing, even less the whole computer thing; she was a biology major, with a concentration in ecology. Perhaps he liked her for that, the object of ecology being to search for the often-illusive systems that have automatically developed in nature. Perhaps it was her particular style of lying—utter bluntness—that intrigued him, together with the fact that she had enough will to defy her nature and speak the (blunt) truth on occasion. Love is one of those concepts I’ve yet to truly grasp, though I’ve observed it millions of times. All I know is that he was deeply in love with her. And she didn’t give a damn.
He tried to play the gallant, offering to carry her books for her, and falling down under their weight. He tried to be Shakespeare, writing poems that had more levels of meaning than Kateli had claws. He sent her flowers and candy, with sweet little notes with utterly no meaning. All of these met with the same response: Kateli threw her head back in laughter, then regained her composure, gave a cute little smirk and said, “I’m impressed. Silly boy….” Knowing it was probably a lie, he was disheartened every time he heard this, but I’ve got to hand it to him, the kid is determined (or perhaps he just knew something I don’t give him credit for). So, (foolishly) attacking the “problem” as a mysterious cipher, he analyzed the tactics that hadn’t worked. He came to the conclusion that the one approach he hadn’t tried, the one most unlike his nature, being aggressive about it, stood the greatest chance of “breaking the code.” Stupid code-monkey; he has—or at least had—a hell of a lot to learn about love and human/fae nature. Peeking into one of her classes, he playfully batted the end of her hair with a Gimmix to get her attention. She whipped around, saw him at the door and rolled her eyes, the smirk coming back across her lips. Sal kept at it. He picked up her pen with another cantrip and used it to scrawl, “Go out with me?” among her notes (ay, the pathetic kid). She didn’t even turn around this time; just snatched the pen out of the air and pretended like she hadn’t noticed. Class was almost over by then, and he knew he’d gotten her attention at least; he decided to get back out of view and wait for her to come out and give him an answer. When Kateli walked out of the room, she was greeted by a half-expected arm on her shoulder, and turned around slowly to look straight into Salvador’s eyes. Her expression seemed uncharacteristically serious as she said, ever slowly, “I don’t like you. Please, go away.” And then she turned and left.
Now, I’ll admit, I wasn’t there at the time, so I can’t corroborate any of the claims Salvador makes. He claims to have seen a Mona Lisa smile on Kateli’s lips before she turned, and he also said she looked over her shoulder with a familiar grin as she went around the corner out of sight. I think that’s horse shit. I think he just followed her because he was obsessed, and that she really was sick of his “wooing” and just willed herself to defy her pooka nature to get her point across. What I can be sure of is what happened next, because I caught up with him for it. As soon as she got out of the building, she changed her pace to a jog (one which Salvador described as “playful”), and Sal followed her, and continued on her trail straight off-campus. About a mile away from campus, I happened to be flying overhead while they were running—yes, their pace was very fast by then (perhaps aided by a bit of Quicksilver)—and I saw they were heading toward the jungle, so I decided to keep an eye on them, make sure they stayed out of trouble, and perhaps get a look at—now, look, I’m not a voyeur. I’m a Historian. With a fucking capital “H.” And don’t you forget it. Anyway…
As Kateli entered the woods, I lost sight of her; Salvador must have, too, for when I swooped down under the canopy to investigate she was already in tiger form. I allowed the chase to go on a while, Salvador trailing Kateli with mild difficulty in this her form’s natural habitat. And I wasn’t about to help the fucker; at that point I’d have considered him a stalker. Thus and such, he lost sight of her. He searched around in all directions for a full minute before he heard her growl and me caw nearly simultaneously at what we had seen. The jungles of India are home to a great many terrible beasts; most are no match for a full-grown Bengal tiger, let alone one with the reasoning mind of a changeling. There is one, however, which in addition to its arsenal of bodily weaponry possesses a wit and will that rivals many humans. Fortunately for humankind, and unfortunately for the Kithain, it is not animal, but chimera. Having seen the pooka for what she was, the manticore grinned broadly, no fewer than 3 rows of razor-sharp teeth gleaming below deep blue eyes. Its coat shone blood-red, perfectly smooth all the way to the infamous tail, whose tip is encircled with poisonous spikes. Before I could yell to him to stay away, Salvador rushed into the clearing of our stalemate. Probably a good thing he was so quick in coming, or I may not have survived to tell you this tale.
“Good evening, maiden pooka, master sluagh, master raven. Welcome to my jungle,” trumpeted the voice of the beast (I was impressed by the accuracy of the mortal myths on its voice, actually; you see th—oh, alright, I’ll get back to the story…). “You are at my mercy; delude yourself not with escape.” With that she flipped her tail, flinging spines into four trees on opposing corners of the clearing, one of them must have been less than two inches in diameter; we weren’t going anywhere without a prick. Then, ese, I made my mistake. I tried to confuse her, get her to miss a beat with the power of my Glamour. Big mistake. She saw through my attempts to befuddle her senses and used a trick of her own to stop my motion utterly. Had I a true beating heart in my chest, I don’t doubt it would have stopped, too. As it was, the halting of my wings’ motion send me crashing to the ground in pain. “Pity he had to do that. Worry not, your friend yet lives. I just need to be sure the remainder of this will be fair to all involved.”
“Cut to the point, m’lady,” chimed Salvador. “What kind of ‘fair fight’ do you propose.”
Her grin broadened as in a fanfare she announced, “Oh, no fight, m’lord. Challenge would be the better word. And if you interrupt me again, it’ll be not to the point but the quick that I cut, and quick your faerie blood shall run.” Salvador bowed his head with a mocking grin, and the manticore narrowed her eyes and continued. “For trespassing upon my grounds, you have become my rightful fodder. Those that live here know the law well, and take their risks anyway, as is their right. However, as there are no postings or other notifications of this law, or even of my presence here, you each have your fair chance for freedom. Do you accept this chance?
“By chance, we do.”
“Good. Look not so relieved, young wordsmith. You still have some debt to pay. After all, ignorance is not an excuse. But it does merit leniency. Therefore, if answers giv’st me to riddles three, one to each be, you all go free. Agree?”
“Conditionally,” Salvador said with a smile, met with a scowl. “As you can see, one of this group is rather unable to speak, bound as he is by your will. The other has the tongue of a cat, and while in a human mouth I must tell you it speaks volumes of her grace, when a cat has her tongue this one speaks not. How can fair an answer be from one who cannot give it thee?
“I suggest you hold your silver tongue, sluagh, or else we make a third who cannot speak. Their inability is unfortunate, and as I do wish to keep this fair, you may answer in their stead. However, a wrong answer on the second or third voids the release you first obtain. If you answer the first, you may leave thereafter, and leave your friends to me. Or continue on to risk your own life for them and die a gallant, hubristic knave.”
Salvador nodded calmly. “So be it. Begin.”