A Second Generation Whateley Academy Adventure
Turkey Day Tragedy
Wasamon, based on conversations with NeoMagus
Part 4: Black Friday
----Friday, November 25th, 2016
The long weekend was only half done, and to Tanya Wright, it felt like an eternity. Coming back to her room the night before, only to find one side of it stripped, was bad enough. The fact that no one knew where her roommate was--or even that her roommate was--this was a new level of stress she'd never thought possible. For a few brief moments, individually scattered throughout the night, she'd wondered if Sterling was something she'd imagined up, that the rest of the world was right and she was the delusional one.
She had a few pieces of evidence, however, put together after a frantic search of her room and floor at Whitman Cottage. The results of the search were in a box on the cafeteria table before her: one long silver hair, one towel left forgotten in the showers with Sterling's name on it, three photos from her phone, now printed out on large sheets of paper. That was all. She feared it wasn't that whoever had moved all the stuff was thorough, just that her roommate had so little to her name to begin with.
The other students at the table stared at the box. "Not much..." said Vic.
Caro, the fairytale witch of sophomore year, looked over an enlarged photo of two happy freshman roommates in purple and green. From her squint, it was obvious she was having trouble seeing more than one. "I'll be honest," said she. "I only sort of remember this girl existing, like a flash of silver in passing. There's a second person in this photo, yeah, but I can't see... oh, let's try something." A notepad and pen left the witch's handbag. "Okay, anyone have a good rhyme for 'ephemerality'?"
"I, ah, not I," said the fourth at the table. Avzel Goran repeated the new vocabulary word to herself a few times before she brought out a notepad of her own to copy it from over Caro's shoulder.
Tanya did not want to cry, but this week was making it so dang hard. Of all the people available to ask, these were the only three who could even acknowledge Sterling's existence after a few seconds of thought and, much as with her own immunity to the green girl's power, she had no idea why. The closest any of them had to a common link was that Avsel and Caro were both Avatars with strong spirits--but then again, Sequoia was an Avatar as well, and the arboreal giantess now knew nothing about Sterling. And neither she nor Vic were Avatars at all, so that hypothesis at the very least needed more refinement.
She could not believe she was even thinking this, but she wished Rachel hadn't gone home for the long weekend. As an Avatar, the honey-badger girl might remember something. As a honey-badger girl, the atavistic little Avatar would also be happy to beat up whoever was responsible.
If anybody was responsible. That was a somber thought. What if Sterling had simply... No. Never. Her friend was rarely happy, true, but never so... No matter how she shook her head or cross her eyes or anything, the thought wouldn't leave her mind. "We, we need to locate her," she declared. "Before anything bad happens."
"So... where do we start?" said Vic. "Did she say anything to you?"
"No. At least, I don't think so. I left her here at dinner Tuesday night, and then I..." The gulp hit her throat hard. "And then I got word... well, I was gone before she came back that evening, for sure. Don't know how long she stayed or if she spoke to anyone. Um, Avsel? You were there at dinner, yeah? Do you remember anything?"
Bright brass eyes blinked as the freshman girl considered. "I remember you here, on Tuesday. I remember... ah, after you left, Sera and Faollass were complaining about the homework. I..." The words came slowly as Avsel picked her way through her memories. "I think that she left soon. After you. Maybe a few minutes."
"So, not long at all." Tanya made a note in her smartpad's memo app. It sat there on the screen, lonely and depressed. "She's probably on security footage or something, but good luck finding her if the image's always... Caro, how's it going?"
"...of subterfuge, ephemerality..." the witch intoned under her breath. "Reveal the truest image to me... D'oh!" The wince, even to an outside observer, looked enough to hurt the girl's head on its own. "Ugh, for a demerol and tea..."
"Oh, that rhymed?" said Avsel.
"Not the way I'd want..." Caro sighed. "Sorry. If you could give me some time to think this over. It's, ah-ha, not been a good month for me and magick. I'm a tad frazzled."
"No fooling." Vic mirrored the sigh with a groan. He slumped to the tabletop with his arms over his head. "Heh, I wasn't even all that involved in that mess, and I'm still feeling blah, two weeks later. A huge mess, magic items. Did you ever figure a way to make it work without all the, you know?"
"Not yet," admitted Caro. "It is the source of my headaches and figurative-slash-creative burnout." The witch sighed. "I may have to settle for a lower grade on that class project, too. But like I said, give me some time and I'll think of a rhyme that works just fine. Other than that, I could call up Leslie and see if she can help."
"Ping," said Vic. "Another of my step-sister's friends, from Poe. Gadgeteer, systems and..." The boy experienced a nervous tic that only she seemed to notice. "...electrical engineering. Is she still on campus?"
"No, she's at home in Oregon till tomorrow, so if I leave a message on her phone now, she might get back to us by noon. She's a whiz at computer systems, knows the camera layouts front and back, not to mention all the ways to mess with them."
She was not going to ask why or how, especially since her maybe-boyfriend's face had that look on it that meant she was close to please-don't-ask territory again. Every day, the borders of that territory seemed to expand. "Okay, sure," she decided. "Send her a line and get her clued in. We need all the help we can get."
Really, they did. This was the extent of what they had, and it wasn't going to get them far. If anyone could help... Tanya had the thought in mid-stretch as she glanced around the first floor of the Crystal Hall, and revised it a little too late. Un-help arrived a moment later.
"Góðan daginn!" Sera Eir Magnusdottir was in a good mood that morning. Why, Tanya couldn't say, but she could be happy for her friend, even as she wished the girl would go away. Alas, Sera came with a tray of breakfast pastries for all--except Vic, who was left with crumbs and a stink-eye. The boy shrugged it off and left to beg a cinnamon roll from Daniel in the pastry line.
There was nothing to do but accept a danish with thanks and grace. The first bite was done before she asked, "What's the occasion?"
"Why, a little bird told me..." Sera giggled at her own words. "Well, it was Whirlibird, and she said that you were asking around about roommates recently, and I thought..."
"Did you no, ah, not say that you were that soon?" said Avsel. "You said it much at dinner this week."
A raw blush slammed the Nordic girl in the face hard enough to make her pause a beat. "Ah, well, yes, that was to keep everyone in the cottage, ahem, in the loop? I think that is the right phrase?"
Tanya wished she could've slammed the door on this nonsense weeks ago, but in the apparent absence of a roommate in 229, Sera steamrolled over every attempt to blockade. "I'll repeat myself." Again. "I do have a roommate. Her name is Sterling. Some people remember her better than others, because she has social invisibility as a power. You have met her, repeatedly, and do not remember a single time. You will probably not remember all of this explanation, even, but the answer is no, Sera. I have a roommate."
"I know what you are saying, and I know you must be reluctant--"
"I. Have. A. Room. Mate." The words could not have shot out harder if she were chewing bullets. "Now, thank you for the danish, but I have to figure out where she is now."
Sera's face hadn't gotten any less red. "Fine! Fine! Be that way. Be, be all alone by yourself in that, that lonely old dorm room and, and think about how it could be different when the cold of winter comes! Jæja þá!" The young valkyrie pushed away from the table with such force that it lurched forward a few inches even as her chair fell backward. Surprise morphed into false bravada as the Nordic girl tossed her head and stormed off. Her route should not have intersected Vic's, only he was there and close enough to 'accidentally' take an elbow in the side.
With an oof and a muffled curse, the boy dropped his plate. After exchanging a glare with Sera, he retrieved the pastry, dusted it off in a brief inspection, then returned to the table.
"Seriously?" Caro eyed the dented breakfast good.
"Hey, a cinnamon roll's a cinnamon roll," said Vic. "And I've seen what they use to keep the floors clean in here. Whoo..." He rolled his eyes for emphasis. "You probably could eat off of the carpet." To demonstrate, he bit the side of his roll, chewed, and made yummy noises until he swallowed. "See? No harm, no foul."
She shouldn't laugh, really. It wasn't that funny in the first place. But, but... she couldn't help herself. With all the drama and intrigue flying around, there was something so reassuring about Vic just being Vic, even if he was a complete dork of a boy at times. And the laughter didn't stop, couldn't stop, wouldn't... Her head landed on the tabletop, and she was gasping and giggling into the patented Purendure material that could take far more damage than a simple headbutt...
An arm reached around her, hugged her from the sid, and the other arm had a hand along her head, along her cheek, guiding her up till she locked eyes with a concerned Vic. He didn't ask, and she would not have answered. A big hug and a shoulder to accept the laughter as it converted to sobs, that was all she needed.
So that was what she was up against. She was less than impressed. Fifty feet away and behind a ficus, Scarlyt had her inner ear open and listening. The clairaudience caught all the details she needed to know thus far. She considered them now as she chewed one of that Donut kid's special cinnamon rolls.
First, there were more people around than she'd thought who might be resistant, or at least less susceptible. She was certain she'd walked past both the sophomore Malefis and the freshman Karkadann without their noticing, when they were sure to have reacted to her without the no-see-um at work, but there was a lingering doubt. Could there be a prompt or a cue that would let all the blocked memories and impressions out? Perhaps, she thought, but it would make no difference if they didn't think to check.
Second, the boyfriend. It was interesting to observe him directly now, after hearing about him from Sterling. A quick search through recent school newslists and gossip threads had his name pop up in some interesting spots, including an emergency blockade of the underground's most annoying zone and, back in October, the big fight with those sophomores from the Beret Mafia. Footage of the fight was showing on her smartpad screen now, and what it showed her was that Vic Rivera was a heavier hitter than he looked at first glance. Caution was advisable.
Now to the third: what was she to do with them all? Anonymity was her goal, and they threatened that. But they did not know that they did. And if she moved to restrict the threat, then they would realize, and then Scarlyt would have that one situation they'd covered last spring in her psychology course. The Streisand Effect, yes. Attempts to deflect or remove attention only called more attention. Right now, they did not even recall that she herself existed, without any powers in play. Remind them of one thing, however, and more would follow.
It was easily decided: She would remain in the background and observe, when she wasn't taking care of her pet. Her fingers tapped a discreet app icon at the edge of her tablet screen, a simple magnifying glass. Karel'd bought a group package subscription and included her on it. Where he'd bought it and from whom, she didn't know, but its service was as anonymous as anything could ever be at Whateley. With quick typing, she entered the names of Tanya Wright and her three friends into the form area, and then as an afterthought that Sera girl as well. The app tracked people via the school's own surveillance system, providing her with up-to-the-minute locations as long as they did not stray too far from public areas. It was subject to all its host system's foibles, including more countermeasures than anyone could care to count, but the app itself couldn't be tracked back to the user.
Satisfied, she settled back in her chair and cast her inner ear around. Sometimes she caught juicy gossip this way, but the clairaudience was more often miss than hit. This time it fixated upon Raylynn, a.k.a. Scarlet-with-an-E, one stage up. For all the girl sneered at Scarlyt for being left behind for the weekend, the disomatic shifter didn't have anywhere to go, either. Boo-hoo. Cry her a river. Even as Raylynn discussed shopping in Berlin for Black Friday with her friends, the poor little girl would prolly spend the rest of the weekend all by her lonesome.
A smile creeped across Scarlyt's face. 'Alone' was not a thing she herself would be that weekend. In fact, her little lamb would likely be awake within the hour, if she'd timed the Knock-Out #1 right, so she had to grab all the stuff and get back before Sterling thought to wonder where her phone was.
A to-go box of fruit and muffins, a glass bottle of milk and another of OJ, and some more cinnamon rolls off that pink-eyed boy, Donut, who ruled the pastry lane. He'd done some catering work for the Bohemians in the past, and even Scarlyt could admit that the boy was true proof that not all mutants or their powers were inherently bad. An exception that proved the rule, yeah, and she was the reason that rules existed.
She spared no outward attention to the lavender girl's table, giving no sign for them to pick up, no oddity to cause alarm. Just another girl, one in the crowd, taking a breakfast box out for her friend...
No need for the no-see-um right now; playing to expectations was enough. Those four would never notice her, never realise she was there, until they felt a knife at their throat or the blade of the no-see-um scything through the gardens of memory. And then she and her pet would enjoy every meal in peace.
The sweetest, most wonderful scent in the world filled her nostrils, pushing away the puffy clouds of pink to draw her back to the waking world. Sterling did not know what scent it was, or even remembered it for more than a few seconds after she woke up. Not that it mattered; whatever the scent was, it meant Jen was there with her, and that was all she needed. That, and a cinnamon roll. The realization came to her as the particular aroma of spiced baked goods replaced the fading, lovely scent.
"Mm... hello." She sat up and stretched, not caring how well buttoned the front of her pajamas were. The cottony things hadn't ever fit her that well, and now she was jealous of Jen's silk set. She'd been promised a shopping trip soon, so she could hope.
Breakfast was eaten in a silence that grew slower as snuggles and cuddles continued between bites. "Hold on, sweetie," she finally had to say. "A girl's gotta eat, right?"
A lovely snicker. "Yeah, I know. You're just so gosh-darned cute, though, with that dab of cream on your cheek."
"Where...?" Before her hand could rise to wipe, Jen was in close and cleaning the spot with a flick of the tongue. Her heart revved and her stomach turned over like an old car motor, but she didn't complain. It was nice, so nice, to be so close.
"Hey, if you finish soon, we can grab the shuttle to Berlin."
"You heard me. It's Black Friday, ain't it? That means sales, sales, sales! All weekend, in fact, but it's first come, first served. So, think you can finish fast?"
"If you let me be long enough to eat!" she teased back. Jen had her garnet-colored eyes all open and innocent, and they both knew it was an act. She did finish ASAP, though.
At half past the hour, they were in line for the campus shuttle. It wasn't a particularly long line, which kinda surprised her. With a bit of thought, it made sense, though. Most of the students who could leave for the weekend already had, like Tanya, and a lot of the rest weren't too fond of going out in public. She wasn't fond of going out in public, and the public didn't even notice. This was actually her first time off campus in months.
But this time, she had Jen pulling for her. The redhead volunteered to handle the stuff with the shuttle attendants who checked IDs and asked questions, and the whole check-in was over and done with in record time. "Just gotta know how to work with the staff," said Jen as they settled in a front left pair of seats.
Jen was leaning against the window, and she was draped over Jen like a happy blanket all the way into town. No one else talked to them for those forty-or-so minutes, or even seem to notice them cuddled up, and she could not care less.
His girlfriend wasn't going to stop crying anytime soon. Only in the solitude of his skull would he ever call her that, but he was feeling pretty confident about it these days. A full half-hour of quiet sobbing and sniffling into his sweater wasn't something that just any girl would choose to do.
The others had already wandered off. Caro'd said she was going to check an old notebook for anything recyclable to the situation, which sounded almost promising. That other girl, Avsel, had claimed a previous engagement, but they all had each other's numbers now, so they'd all know if anything came up.
In his arms, he cradled his girlfriend. In his head, he tried applying his sordid and sundry list of life skills to being a detective for once. It was important to get everything together as good as he could now, while he still had it in mind.
Okay, what was the first thing the cops ran when they caught you? Fingerprints.
He shook his head. That wouldn't work here. Not unless the school store had... well, it probably did have kits for that sort of thing. He'd have to check that out later. But think! What would they check next, provided a name and prints? A list of known acquaintances, no matter how minor. His eyes wandered across the cafeteria floor till they locked upon a likely pair of minors.
"Tanya?" He stroked her hair as he spoke. "Who was it you said Sterling hung out with in the woods?"
"Those two stoners from Twain." The sobs were mostly gone, but she wasn't going back to her seat yet, and he wasn't about to complain. "But I don't actually know..."
"No time like now to find out," he told her. With a careful head-pat, he left her to watch as he ambled over to where the two most notorious cannabis afficionados in Twain were now sitting.
«Hola, Víctor!" Ernesto's friendly wave barely crested the horizon of the table. A long string of Spanish greetings in the boy's rapid-fire Cubano-Floridian accent, was much livelier. «¿How has the life been treating you, brother? I see you still have that way with the ladies.»
His own Spanish was fluent enough, if slower of tempo. «She's going through some stuff, »he explained. «Actually, that's why I came over--»
«¿You wanna bit of the good shit, brother?»
«¿What? Um...» There was a donut bag on the table, and the number of its contents was odd. «¿Is that snacks for later?»
«You know it. Daniel's always got the best. Need to ask him to make us some brownies sometime.»
«Yeah... ¿So who gets the chocolate ones?»
«Oh, those are for me and my brother here,» said Ernesto, nudging his roommate Sam. «¿That's right, right?»
"Huh?" Sam's command of Spanish was just good enough to manage «¿Hablamos ingles?»
"Sorry, bro." Ernesto's grin shifted gears to match the language. "Just telling Victor here, we always get the same donuts from Daniel, right? Double chocolate."
"Oh yeah..." Sam's eyes wavered in and out of focus as his internal radio dial spun about. "Goddamnit, I don't wanna hear about some rich Mel-bitch's big shopping plans. Can we go now?"
"Almost," promised Vic. "This is going somewhere. So, one chocolate for you, and the other for you, and... who gets the strawberry?"
Ernesto's eyebrows jigged up high. "Huh? Oh, that... it's for, um, for our regular guest. You know, Sam...?"
"Great listener," said the Avatar of the Echo, who was one to know. "Sits in, doesn't talk much, always good to pass it around. Nice gal."
"What's she look like?" He didn't expect an answer, and thus was not disappointed with silence. "Okay, look at this photo on my phone here." It was already at hand and ready to flash in front of lazy eyes.
"That your girlfriend?" Ernesto said. "Never seen her up close. Cutie."
"Nice purple," said Sam.
"Lavender." A shake of the head put his brain back on track. "But not her. Who's that with her in the photo?"
The two stoners leaned in close to peer at the screen. "Now that you mention it..." said Ernesto. "I kinda see something..."
"Someone," said Sam. "Silver? Green?"
"Our regular guest!" the two of them crowed. "You know where she's been?" Ernesto added. "We haven't seen her in a few days."
"Oh?" Vic brought up the notepad app and nodded. "So when was the last...?"
By the time he returned to Tanya's side, he had a handful of details pertaining to the whereabouts of Sterling on the evening of the 22nd. Bit by bit, they were adding to their pool of knowledge. Hopefully it would amount to something useful.
Follow the leads, follow the threads. Pray they led to anything. Pray that the anything really meant something. Like the info from Kinesio and Feedback. She would not have thought the two stoners had anything worth hearing, and yet they had something. Oh, she could've kissed Vic right then and there for being so awesome about it, but this was the middle of the Crystal Hall, so she settled for a hug and a peck on the cheek.
"Okay," she said once her heart had stopped fluttering. "We have a little more in the timeline, and we have a name to follow up on."
"This Jamie person?" Vic tapped the table as he thought. "Er, this wouldn't happen to be Tia's..."
"What do we know about her?"
That was a good question. The girl had moved into Whitman in the middle of the previous month, and yet Tanya had seen her at most one time ever. "Well, we know that she's got an interest in the mechanisms of mutation, because she basically made Tia a bunny girl. We also know she's madder than a shaved skunk, because she never asked Tia before zapping her silly. Hm... if she's aware of Sterling at all, she might find her interesting enough to study. Nnh..." The sound was somewhere between a whimper and a whine. "This feels so much like a red herring... but it's also plausible enough to maybe..."
"Let's go get it over and done with, then," said Vic. "We drop by her lab, say hi, ask if she can see Sterling in the photo, and then move on."
"And if she's really got Sterling?"
"Then we take things from there."
But first they had to take things from the cafeteria table, returning the plates and trays, tossing the trash into appropriate receptacles, and heding out into the chill November morning. Temperatures had been dropping all week, and the school's preternaturally accurate weather app was predicting snow Sunday evening from 7 to 8:45PM, with more to come later. But for the then and now, it was a sunny, clear sky above them.
It was perfect for a relaxing walk--or a run, as was proven by the rush of dust as the Twain Cottage mascot passed by with the rumbling grace of a landslide. Cookie the two-headed Boston Terrier had the size and speed of a small horse, and pup loved its exercise. Alongside the dog ran Avsel in her track gear and blue headscarf tucked tightly around her hair.
"Ah! Hello..." The greetinng dopplered lightly as it ended, several yards from where it began. With a clip-clop of hooves on pavement, the girl backpedaled to their position. Cookie bounded over a second later, both heads expressing confusion with their big eyes and comically expressive brows. "My prior promise," came the explanation. "Pup here needs, ah, 'walkies.' Is that not so, kûçikê min ê biçûk?"
Cookie happily accepted ear scritches from all around as the conversation paused for a few seconds.
"Ah, is it you have the new information?"
"Not exactly," said Tanya. "Maybe? We're checking all leads, such as they are."
"Speaking of which..." Vic had the evidence box, and the single strand of Sterling's hair was in his hands. "Yo, pup. Can you sniff anything off this?"
One flattened doggy face leaned in to sniff, and then the other. There was a snuffle from the left, a snort from the right. Both heads went up, smelling the breeze and stretching their round ears to full. Both heads went down, their combined breath scattering the dust from the quad's paved track. Left looked left, right looked right, and then they met again in the middle for expressive eyebrow waggles and a bark.
Tanya was fairly certain that the pup's two heads shared a mind between them--or at least she recalled Daniel saying as much--and she'd have wondered why they needed to do all that, except that she sometimes talked to herself at odd times as well. At least Cookie hadn't ever lost a debate with itself, most likely. That was more than many people could say.
Internal discussion concluded, pup turned and trotted with one head held high and the other held low to the ground as it snuffled and snorted. Those huge puppy paws stopped right before the main external tunnels entrance for Whitman Cottage: a little brick shed that hosted a spiraling staircase down into the earth. A woof! in stereo announced the end of the scent trail.
Sterling had passed through this entrance. Why here, and not the Whitman basement passage, or the Crystal Hall entrance? There might be a good reason, or no reason at all. And there was also the question of when. How long could a scent linger in a busy lace like the campus, and how recent would it need to be for Cookie to smell it? In her heart, Tanya hoped that he answer to both was short, as that would mean that Sterling was still on campus as of this morning, or yesterday at the latest.
"Good pup." She stretched up to scritch an ear. "Wish we could take you down there with us."
Both heads shook side to side in a coordinated negative.
Avsel spoke up for her running partner: "The student tunnels nearby to the cottage, they are a little too narrow for pup's comfort. If the scent, it was stronger, perhaps..." The bescarved head nodded at the double-woof of confirmation. "But it is not so strong, this scent. I think."
"Thank you for your help, in any case," Tanya told the pup. "We shall continue from here."
Once she and Vic were down the stairs, she had to wonder again why her roommate would have taken this entrance, and not the one in their cottage basement. Why take it at all? The weather had been fine for the past week, and Sterling was the last person on campus to concern herself with which color of flag was flying that day. Red, yellow, green, none of it mattered if the visitors on campus couldn't see you.
So it didn't matter so much where the green girl came in as where she went afterwards, and this entrance and corridor did not give many options. One way led to the Crystal Hall. The other way led to Whitman. And just ahead there was another, wider stairwell that led down to one corner of the larger underground, full of lab spaces and storage compartments and personal apartments--often all at once. It was more mess than maze, and ever more confusing.
"Okay, got an address on her lab space."
Her boyfriend had the map-tracking application running on his phone, and from the way his finger was working the screen, he was well versed in its use. "Everyone makes a big deal of how nuts the layout is," he told her, "but it's nothing compared to the Tangle. Lab spaces don't wander around by accident."
"That's... that's good to hear."
"Yeah, it usually takes a couple big explosions first," came the punchline. Putting it as a joke didn't make it any less of a worry, but it was entirely expected. This was Whateley, after all, and at times it felt like the gadgeteering and devisor tracks were a completely different school from the rest. They didn't always follow the same schedule, or the same rules, or even the same laws of physics. How they fit everyone's lab space down here and still have room for the hangar with the giant robot was a mystery.
The short stop at the observation deck to see the robot in its dock was of course a must. The sight made for a perfect excuse to pause and calm the nerves. Then Vic had his phone up for a selfie of the two of them, with his head in low so they'd be side by side for the shot, and lookee, there was no one else around... The click of the camera was timed perfectly to her leaning up to deliver a kiss on her boyfriend's lips. The phone kept clicking as the kiss continued.
Vic broke it off, with reluctance, and tapped his phone to make it stop. "Set it to burst mode," he grumbled. "Um, looks like we've got twenty different pictures of us, um..." His ears were turning red.
Her own blush shaded to a deeper violet. "Er, I guess we can, ah-ha, look them over later and, um, decide which to keep?"
"Yeah, I guess. Heh." Her boyfriend looked up at the big old robot. "I would not have picked this for a romantic spot. I guess you don't have to get off the ground to be a good wingman, huh, you bucket of bolts." He reached over the railing of the observation deck to tap the nearest section of the robot's chassis for good luck. "Anyway, ahem, lab spaces this way!"
With arm linked in arm, the two of them wandered the corridors of the lab zone. The familiar concrete of the community tunnels gave way to more metal bulkheads and blast barriers, as well as the occasional hole in the wall where repairs were under way. Not just a different school, but a different world; Tanya could understand why many students refused to come down to this section without a pressing need and three layers of protective gear.
She let Vic lead the way. His arm was a comfort to hang on to, and if she were to be honest with herself, she didn't want to think about much right then except the marvelous distraction that he was... But she had business to attend to, and Vic was sadly not that business. "How much farther?" she asked.
"Ten... eleven... twelve..." he was counting. "Ah, here it is, Lab 14. Um, you want to knock, or should I?"
Her business, her prerogative. "Here goes nothing," she said as she tapped the plate in the doorframe. A pleasant bing-bong sounded.
A less-than-pleasant buzz answered as the intercom spat and sputtered to life. "What the fuck is it now? I swear, Tommy, if that's you out there wanting to borrow a spanner again, then this time I'mma demonstrate the exact method of operation against your uptight rectal sphincter!"
"Um, hello?" Tanya called quickly. "Is this, um, Jamie Howe?"
"Who the fuck wants to know?"
Okay... had they caught the girl at a bad time, or was this normal? She could not even begin to guess either way. "My name is Tanya Wright and I was wondering if I could speak to you for a moment?"
"Not selling anything, are you?" Above the intercom, a camera lens attachment whirred as it screwed itself into proper focus.
"Here to tell me about your personal Lord Savior and Omnissiah?"
"Why would I..."
"Pimping your boyfriend there?"
"Too bad. Well, come on in. You've got five minutes of my time while I make a sandwich." The door recessed and slid aside, and a wave of warm air washed out. It was filled with the aroma of acetylene-grilled cheese and inadvisably homemade pickles. Glancing around, Tanya was reminded that while you could sometimes tell a devisor's specialty from their job tools, the operative word was 'sometimes'. She only had words to put to half of the equipment in Jamie Howe's personal space, and even that was only because that half was all identifiably computers. Most of the heat in the room seemed to come from sheer processing power in action--even the metal plate the girl was now using as a griddle appeared to be part of some other electrical setup's heat sink.
In the middle of this, Jamie was a golden-haired doll of a young woman with red-ringed eyes and the grin of maniacal muppet. "Well, howdy-doo. I'd say welcome but you aren't. So what's up?"
With one last squeeze, Tanya let go of Vic's arm and approached the devisor with careful steps and no sudden moves. "I, um, I wanted to ask you some questions about... well, I can ask in a moment. First, could I show you a photo? I need to confirm something."
"Not a BLIT, is it?"
"I don't even know what that is."
"The future of offensive psych-ops, if anyone figures out how to make them work for real. Okay, sure. What's this?" The blonde girl peered at the screen of Tanya's phone. "Just a picture of yourself? And they claim that I'm the narcissist, ha!"
"So you don't see anyone else in the picture?"
"Why? Should I? Hm..." Jamie's second look was intensely calm. "I guess... there might be someone... or something else in there. What did you do to mask it? I can barely tell that something should be there."
"I didn't do anything. It's just an intrinsic effect, I guess you could say." Tanya took her phone back. "Thank you for your time. Enjoy your sandwich."
"What the fuck? Is that all?"
"Yeah, if you can't see through the effect. It's..." She sighed. "Look, it's my roommate, okay? She's got an intrinsic power that makes her hard to notice, even secondhand like in photos, and now she's disappeared for real. We've been trying to trace her movements for the past few days, and at one point it seems you crossed paths with her, so we needed to follow up on it. I'm sorry to have bothered you."
"So would you say this was a malfunctioning power she has, or..." Jamie didn't seem to be paying attention, or otherwise was paying attention to the wrong details.
"Functioning too well," Tanya told her. "Constant psionic power, and I'm the only one who's consistently immune to the effect."
"In any case, I need to continue my search elsewhere." Tanya was already edged halfway back to the entrance, without ever once turning her back on the devisor.
"Fine. Don't let me keep you. Oh, but one question."
"You two are friends with the dumb slut-bunny, right?"
Tanya's fists clench instinctively at the insult to her friend, but a lifetime of being careful with her words and reactions to questions kicked in. It took but a breath to calm herself. Sticking up for Tia in the moment would not be helpful right now.
"Um, if you mean Tia, then... yes?"
"Good. Next time you see her..." The girl's grin would have broken any saner face. "Tell her I said hi, and that I'll be around."
A slow and careful retreat seemed most expeditious just then.
It'd been a long time since she'd last enjoyed herself this much in Berlin. Truth to tell, Scarlyt rarely visited the city or its sprawling shopping district as herself, instead borrowing Glam's illusions to present as anyone but herself. A day out was often an escape, a temporary reprieve from the stress of simply being, but it wasn't supposed to be fun.
It was all in the company you kept, and Scarlyt was in good this time. The big curtain on the changing room front made a shuffly-shimmery sound as it slide aside to reveal Sterling in her newest option for evening wear. The emerald green pajamas weren't exactly silk, but the material flowed and clung in all the best ways. Scarlyt's whistle of appreciation was from the heart, because damn, that girl looked fine.
There was no blush on green this time. Sterling basked in the approaval. Then she spun around and made a pose fit for a centerfold. "You like?"
"Very much," Scarlyt told her. "We're definitely getting that one. Anything else you wanna to try on?"
"Well..." The green girl looked at the area across the aisle, where a different sort of evening wear was on display. The selection ranged from the slinkier sort of prom dresses to the better level of gentleman's escort service. There wasn't a thing there that wouldn't make a good southern momma clutch her pearls in fake moral panic and well-hidden jealousy, and Scarlyt could not wait to see what her little lamb chose to try on.
So after Sterling changed back out of the pajamas, Scarlyt sent her out to find at least five items to try on, on her own so it'd be a surprise. And as she waited, she opened the surveillance app on her phone to see how the feckless roommate and her cohorts were getting along. The app was good to its promised intent: even restricted to the common areas of campus as it was, it had kept dibs on all targets.
Malefis had retreated back to Whitman early on, presumably to her room, and had not tripped any cameras since. She could assume that the sophomore was working on something but she neither knew nor cared. WIZ traits had never been a priority for borrowing, simply because they took too much time and training to be even minimally useful to her. Still, Malefis was the sort to reach into a top hat and pull out a basilisk, so Scarlyt would be checking again soon.
The raghead freshman, Karkadann, had been running laps around the quad for most of the past two hours with the Twain Cottage mascot. Lord, she hoped the roommate didn't bring that into any future altercations. She could not stand the mangy mutt, and the feeling was mutual plus well-communicated with growls. A fast-forwarded spin through the footage found only one lull, when the roommate did come by and did ask the mutt for something, only to be pointed towards the nearest underground access point.
That got her attention. If they figured out where Sterling had headed, or worse, where she was staying... but no, she saw on the next video. The roommate and her boyfriend went straight past the turn for the apartment spaces and into the labs. Why? She had no clue and doubted they had any better, but she could chuckle voyeuristically at that kiss in front of the big robot. The romance was like a cheap red wine served with cheese.
The app couldn't follow the pair into the lab, but whoever they spoke to, it didn't take them long. Nothing much had happened since then, so Scarlyt closed the app and waited for the show to begin. It had been a while, but...
"Everything okay in there, lambykins?" she called into the changing room.
"Ah! Y-yes..." The voice behind the curtains didn't sound okay at all. "Um, just having some trouble with these straps..."
"Need a hand?" It was a good thing the girl couldn't see her leer as she asked.
"Y-yes?" Was it her imagination, or was there a little note of expectation in there with the relief? She hoped so. It'd been even longer since she'd last enjoyed fooling around in a department store changing room.
Her brain refused to settle on the exact details of that memory, only giving the vague haze of a warm and happy ending. She wondered if Sterling was up for a similarly fun time today. No time like now to find out... "I'm coming right in."
It was lunchtime. How was it already lunchtime? The arrow of time had passed through Tanya's head with a whoosh of lost moments and scattered seconds which, small as they were, somehow added up to an entire morning. And she had nothing to show for it.
Well, almost nothing. Her lips tingled a little from the memory of one particular moment. Pleasant as it was, it only made the mental swamp of guilt feel all the deeper. Not even a decent cafeteria cheeseburger could fill that space in.
Her random assortment of allies were looking concerned, and she knew that it wasn't Sterling they were worried about. "You sure you're feeling alright?" That question came from someone new, the color-blotched healer girl who'd tagged along with Avsel on the way back from the buffet line. "I mean, not quite my line of work here, but you are eating, right?"
"Yes." The chunk of cheeseburger didn't quite block the sound of the word. A gulp took the food away directly so she could add: "Really, I am. It's just nerves and anxiety and... and..."
"Nothing you can magically wave off," Pastel concluded. "So, let me see if I got this straight. Your roommate's invisible. The school knows this, so you aren't crazy. Roommate's gone missing. You assume foul play, because...?"
"Because at least one of the other options is worse," she mumbled into her burger.
"Crap." The healer's skin blotches formed the most abstract patterns, like she'd taken a dozen colored chalk-dust bombs and then never washed off. Her clothes were a uniform beige. "Okay, I know I'm new here, like two weeks, but this isn't even the second major, maybe life-or-death drama I've encountered on this campus? Seriously? ...mind if I tag along?"
"You're that bored?" asked Vic. Her boyfriend hadn't stopped holding her hand under the table, which was nice even if it complicated the burger-eating process.
"Not the point, but yes," Pastel admitted. "It's been such a nice, quiet weekend that I'm out of things to do and people to fix up. And it sounds like you might need a healer at some point."
Heaven forbid, was her first thought, but she couldn't deny the girl's reasoning. "Alrighty then," said she. "Any ideas what to do next?"
"Cookie did not find other smells of Sterling around the quad," Avsel informed them. "If she is going around, it is in the tunnels under the ground."
"But not around the labs area," Vic noted. "One of the apartment blocks they rent around for mini lairs and love nests?"
"And how would you know about those?" she teased.
"Um, you hear things... and, um, Caro rented a workshop earlier this month. Right?"
The sophomore at the table twitched to attention. "Huh? Oh yeah, I did, but that was in the magic labs area, over the Tangle. The section you're thinking of stretches out closer to Melville. I don't know who all manages those. Given the location, there's probably several wannabe fixers in that dorm competing for business and some hefty no-ask no-tell clauses in the contracts."
"Er, why?" asked Pastel.
"Because the main reasons to rent are, as Vic said, mini lairs for wannabe villains or love nests for wannabe Lotharios. Or both at the same time. Could she have a boyfriend?" the witch asked Tanya.
"I guess it's not outside the realm of possibility... It'd honestly be close to a best-case scenario at this point. But I'm still not sure how she'd even meet someone, much less start something like that."
"Well, something must be keeping her busy, at least."
Oh, she did not even wish to contemplate... "How did it go with the picture?" she asked Caro instead.
"That? Well, I dug up an old spell I made to copy photos..." the sophomore began.
"Why'd you have that?" asked Vic.
The face of the fairy-tale witch was always less than angelic, but now it was also sheepish. "I... ahem, used it to transfer my old student high school ID photo to a fake ID last year," she admitted. "That was before my mutation became too obvious."
"Ooh, useful," said Pastel. "I know a few folks who'd pay good money for a service like that. Well, knew. Long story, don't ask."
Tanya had to interrupt before the conversation descended completely into misdemeanor territory. "So did it work?"
"See for yourself." The witch produced a velvet pouch from her bags, and within it was a spar of quartz crystal, in that icicle-bar shape that meant it was artificially cultured. Within the crystal, there was Sterling, clear as day and exactly as she was in the photo from Tanya's phone. By the surprised looks around the table, everyone else was seeing the exact same thing as she, in the exact same way, for the first time.
"Wow, she's hot." Pastel blinked at the odd looks thrown her way. "What? It's the truth. The boyfriend theory sounds pretty possible now."
"Only if the boyfriend can see her," said Tanya. "And since no one's ever bothered us while we're out jogging, I have to assume that none of the guys on the campus can. Um, Q.E.D."
"Kyuu-eee...?" Avsel had been doing her best to follow the conversation as she ate, but they hadn't been making it easy. Another pang of guilt struck Tanya's conscience.
"It's a fancy way of saying that something's obviously true," Vic told the girl.
"Ah, thank you."
"Is there any magic you could use to track her?" asked Tanya. "Now that you know what she looks like?"
Caro grimaced. "Already tried, actually. The way my spells work, it's easier to make a thing or empower a thing to do the looking, like an amulet that helps you sense stuff. But... it's got all the limitations of the user, including the inability to notice our girl under normal circumstances. That's if I wore it, of course. Probably anyone else, too. You're the only one who could use it, and I'll have to personalize the charm. And that takes time."
"How much time?"
"More than I had this morning. So after we're done eating, we--" A beep interrupted. "Wait a second. Hello?" Caro said with her phone to one battish ear. "Leslie? Great timing! Yeah, she's here. Let me get you on the tablet. Here, everybody..."
With the tablet set on its folding stand, their odd little assortment gathered at one end of the table as the screen displayed the image of a sophomore in far-off Oregon. Leslie 'Ping' Cartwright had exquisitely sculpted Chinese features and fire-engine red hair, in a combination unlikely to be seen anywhere but Whateley. The girl also had a bowl of candy-colored cereal in her hands as she sat in circuit-print pee-jays on her bed at home.
"Hello, world!" said Ping. "Don't think I've met most of you... except you, Vic. What's up?"
"Same old," said her boyfriend. "Trying to stay out of trouble and failing at it."
"I hear ya. Okay, so Caro sent me the long-story-short..."
Thank goodness. Tanya wasn't sure she could rehash the situation yet again.
"...and it reminded me of this regular issue we've been having with the surveillance cameras, especially around Whitman."
"Oh?" she prompted.
"Yeah, it's been... well, Aster's been calling them lacunae, but she likes big words like that. Holes, basically. Times when the system thinks there might be, or should be, a person in view but then changes its mind."
"That sounds like Sterling's secondary effects," she admitted. "Do you have an example to show us?"
"Way ahead of you." A photo from the Crystal Hall appeared. "See anything?"
"Sitting on the left, two spots down from Dawn-Renae and across from Faollass. Er, the sheep-girl and the dog-girl," Tanya added, in case the sophomore didn't know the names.
"Bingo! That's the mystery spot. Okay, so the system's been going wonky all week, so there's a lot to check. Could you narrow it down any?"
"Yesterday, Whitman," said Tanya. "She had to take all her stuff out sometime in there, and it had to be before I got back that evening. So... maybe in the morning?"
"Gotcha. Okay... one logged instance, Whitman Cottage foyer, time stamp is 10:12 AM." The video footage showed a relatively busy front area of the cottage, with Mrs. Savage and the RAs discussing business with an upperclassman as Sterling walked on past. Nobody seemed to notice her go by, not even Sequoia. Then the feed turned to pure static snow. "Damnit."
"There was a temporary blackout called on the cameras around the front of Whitman, external and foyer. One of the anonymized services, onion-routed through the school's backend. so no way to tell who, what, or why," reported Ping. "Standard fifteen-minute block for the general vicinity, fifty bucks on account."
"There's a standard price!?"
"Of course. Gotta keep these things properly regulated."
"But... but..." She could feel her boyfriend's hand squeezing her own. "Why? Why make it available at all?"
Somehow she was not surprised that Vic answered first: "Because, this school being what it is, someone would be doing it anyway."
"Yeah, what he said." Ping was back on the screen with a serious look on her face. "You don't get all the smartest and most creative little mad scientists on the continent in one place and expect just any security system to work. Oh contraire, you hire the upperclassmen to build the system and defend it against the froshies, and then in two years hire those former froshies to defend it against the newest wave of creatively destructive twerps. And we all make sure to have backdoors and special tricks installed. Basic stuff like this is largely automated by now, payment anonymized by blockchain rendering, etc. Set a time and day on the app and you're done." The systems gadgeteer chewed her cereal thoughtfully. "Huh. Lemme check..." No typing was involved, but something popped up on screen. "Ah-ha. Different system, same sneakiness. Got four of you right here and now flagged and tracked on general surveillance. All anonymized so I couldn't tell you who, anyway. Let me just turn that off... Done."
"What, what does that even mean?" asked Tanya.
"Someone was getting regular updates on our locations," said Vic.
Caro scowl was malevolent. "I doubt it was our missing girl. So, who?"
"Sorry, can't even begin to trace," said Ping.
"Not important." Tanya flinched at the tone of her own voice. "Or, no, er, yes, it's important, but the big thing's that someone thought they had to keep an eye on us. That someone is watching, and has a reason to watch, because they know we're after them even if we don't know it. Um, Ping? Thanks a million. Could you, um, keep an eye out?"
"Will do! You show up on any other system flags this weekend, I let you know!"
"Good. Now, Caro?" She stood up with her tray empty, her stomach full, and her nerves roaring at her to get a move on. "Let's go try that tracking magic, shall we?"
Just because something was expected did not make it any more welcome when it happened. So thought Scarlyt as she glared at the app on her phone. The snitch program had given her an over-the-shoulder view of the roommate's planning session from the Crystal Hall's own cameras, complete with tinny sound, right up to the second that Ping killed all connections.
Again, expected but not welcome. There were good reasons why the Bohemians never reneged on a deal with any of the school's systems gadgeteers, including the red-headed China-girl.
How she hated redheads--and she included herself in that number.
"Something wrong?" asked Sterling, back from a powder room visit and looking lovely in silver hair. A new sapphire-blue jacket hugged and filled her figure in all the best places. The look of concern on the girl's face was touching.
"Eh, just..." She chose her words carefully. "There's a group project I'm involved with, and I already done my part, but the rest of 'em..." An annoyed shake of the head told the lie better than any words. "Gonna have to do something about it."
Oh, the poor girl's face... Scarlyt just had to kiss the worry away. "No, it can wait till later. Much later... There's a pie cafe down the street. Shall we give that a go?"
There was no way for anyone to say no to that. And for a Yankee place, Sample Sampson's had a decent pecan pie, even if the staff couldn't pronounce it right. The two of them had a perfect time there, feeding each other slivers of dessert and being best girl friends for all the world to see, if not to notice.
Their shuttle bus back to campus left the stop at four, and they were waiting ahead of time. She let Sterling board ahead of her as she dealt with the details. The driver, she hit with a memory lapse from the no-see-um, so that he acknowledged their presence and right to be on the shuttle without ever logging their IDs. There would be no official record of their trip that day.
She placed the shopping bags in the shuttle's undercarriage storage compartment herself. This close to sunset, the shadows were long. It took only a brief flex of her second power to push the bags through the shadows and beyond, into her personal storage space at Whateley. The scar in her chest twinged a little, but as usual she ignored it. There would be no physical sign of their presence on the shuttle that day.
As for the memories of their fellow passengers, none survived the simple presence of Sterling and Scarlyt's combined powers. The green girl snuggled in against her on the seat and fell into a happy nap while her 'big sister' held troubled thoughts in her mind.
No records, no evidence, no signs, no memories--except the roommate's. The roommate remembered; she held on. She wouldn't give up. The witch had spoken of a tracking charm before the voyeur app was shut down, and Scarlyt did not doubt they would have one ready by the time she and her little lamb arrived back on campus. As soon as the two of them were back at Whateley, the clock would tick down to the inevitable.
The girl was hers, happily and willingly. The power was hers as well, to borrow whenever it pleased her. With it, she could deal with every threat to their happy little situation, except for the roommate.
In the depths of the shadows, a knife waited. It would taste blood that evening. Soon, very soon. It was already dark out, the sun setting soon after the shuttle's departure, and the Miskatonic Valley was never a place where daylight lingered. Its autumns were red of leaf and of blood.
Sterling could not be awake for this. Of that, Scarlyt was determined. Any vision of proper violence at this point would ruin the happy illusion in which her little lamb rested, so at ease and eager to please, and she would do nothing to disturb it. From the shadows, her hand retrieved a spray canister of Cuckoo Channel's Knock-Out #5. While not as reliable as #1, it was more close-range in application and would not affect the other passengers or--more importantly--the driver. Scarlyt needed her pet blissfully unaware, and #5 would do that for at least the next hour.
Scarlyt's face in that moment would've scared the shit out of anyone who could see it, if they could. By the time her pet next awoke, it would all be over, and she would have it all...
The rooms on the sophomore floor of Whitman Cottage were no larger than her own, but Caro's personal space felt smaller. At least part of it was the actual, factual presence of a roommate. Even if Zoo was nowhere to be seen for the long weekend, her existence was proved by the state of the other mattress. Tanya kept her chair far away from that side of the room, which meant she had to mind the clutter on Caro's side all the more. Most of it was just the amount of stuff that the fairytale witch had in there. It reminded her a little of Jamie Howe's lab, in that weird way that wizards and mad scientists both tended to hoard up absolutely everything they could, because one never knew what might prove useful when transgressing against the fundamental nature of reality.
For Caro, that included a ludicrous amount of costume jewelry. It was like the girl was secretly a rhinestone dragon or something. On an impromptu altar upon a hastily cleared mattress, the sophomore was putting the final touches to a dedicated charm.
Did it need to take this long? Likely not, and Tanya'd felt her spirits sink with the light of the sun outside, until now it was half-past four and dark as her dad's morning coffee... She squelched the shiver of worry. One emotional crisis at a time. And Silf had promised to call if anything major changed.
Caro herself had apologized a few times for the delay, but Tanya could tell that the witch was nervous, even for something so minor. After all the things she'd heard from Vic about what happened the last time Caro tried a major artifact, it sort of made sense. Occasionally the sophomore would grimace and nod to something only she heard--likely her spirit mentor. Tanya didn't want to get in the way of any arguments, so she sat in her chair and waited.
"Okay, we're ready for the final binding," Caro announced. "Put your hand right here and hold the crystal in your palm."
She did as she was asked. "Probably the wrong time to wonder, but will this hurt?"
"It shouldn't," came the reply. "A faint buzz at most. I, um, I tried to get everything as precise and orderly as I could with my initial verses. Once bitten, twice shy, thrice paranoid as all heck. You know?"
"I can only imagine."
"Oh, you've no idea..." mumbled Caro, a moment before she straightened up and began the recitation: "On this evening now I cast a spell to find she who has passed from our ken and yet not our thoughts, so let the lost one now be sought by her companion, friend who knows her best, out of all of us in this next of fledgling students who now worry, and to dear Sterling's side must hurry!"
Throughout the recitation of that circuitous sentence with its odd rhythm and internal rhymes, the crystal had shivered and tingled in Tanya's grasp, and not it glowed a faint silver tinged with green. Wires of gold folded themselves around, making a frame for the image of the girl within. There was a click not quite set within the parameters of mundane reality, and the glow faded to a glimmer. Caro attached the charm to a chain and helped put it around Tanya's neck. "If you think about Sterling and she is within two hundred yards, you'll know which direction to look," the girl told her. "I know it doesn't sound like much, but it covers most of the campus without trying too hard, and--"
Tanya stopped the rambling with a relieved hug. "Thank you."
"No, er, thank you," said Caro. "I, er, haven't made much in the way of anything for the past two weeks since, you know, and it's good to have a project that's important, but not to me, if that makes sense? I... I think I need to hustle to finish my Magic Arts project." The witch nodded to a voice only she could hear. "Yeah, I guess I do. Sorry, Tanya. I'll have to bow out of any more shenanigans tonight. Make good use of that charm, and I hope it all turns out for the best."
"Thanks," she said again. "For everything. Now go do your homework."
She could see herself out, easy enough. It was just Whitman Cottage on a slow night, and dinner had already begun in the Crystal Hall. Tanya was honestly surprised that anyone was waiting for her downstairs. Aside from Vic, that was. Her boyfriend had been to Twain and back for his combat equipment, and he was showing his fancy water belt to Pastel. The set of hip-flask holsters and tubing made for easy access to his reservoirs. All around, it was a superior option to his usual water bottle, and she wondered why he didn't like to bring it around more often. But he had it now, which meant he felt the situation was serious. She had on her own combat suit under her jacket for the same reason.
"Ah!" Avsel stepped over to the stairs as Tanya walked down. "You have the thing of Caro? The, ah, amulet?"
"Right here," she confirmed with a tap of the thumb on her collarbone. "Just need to walk around till it gets in range of Sterling, and--"
Crap. She was too busy worrying about the girl who was her roommate to bother with the girl who was not, but there was Sera, walking up to her. "Hey, yourself. Look, this isn't the best time..."
"I was about to go to dinner, if you would like some company?" the Nordic girl continued, more intent on her inner script than to the conversation as it happened.
"Maybe later, Sera. It's just that right now..."
"Oh, we can take that boy along to dinner, if we have to." The contempt could be spread on toast with a spoon. "If he can keep himself from flirting with the other girls."
Vic was in fact demonstrating his hydrokinetic abilities for Pastel, looping a stream of water in mid-air. Impressive, a little show-offish, but not flirting. "That's very big of you," said Tanya. "But today's been kind of a weird one..." A brief noise from Avsel alerted her to the flicker upon her chest. The crystal amulet's light had grown stronger and, when she focused on the memory of her roommate for a second, there was a sense of direction. "...we've got contact! Time for a rescue. Avsel, Vic, are you ready? We don't know what the sitch is on the ground, but it's not likely to be good."
Her boyfriend was already on his feet. "I'll do what I can for field control," he told her. "See if I can keep 'em from running."
"I shall be the in and the out," said Avsel.
Pastel waved from the foyer sofa. "I patch folks up, during or after. You just punch 'em first, okay?"
"Okay." It was time to go see what was really going on. "Sorry, Sera. We've got some business to attend to. You can tag along if you think you can be of help."
The girl with the code name of warrior spirits stiffened with indignation. "Of course I can! Only... who are we rescuing?"
In the dark of the shuttle bus, parked and silent with all other occupants disembarked, the screen of her phone was bright with the image of the Whitman foyer, centered on the freshman girl, Einherjar. While that redheaded Chinese bitch might've canceled and blocked all surveillance on the others, Ping hadn't noticed a fifth trace on a different girl, forgotten by all. Even Scarlyt had almost forgotten, and she thanked her luck now. Forewarned was forearmed. She knew who was coming for her, from where, and starting when--which was now.
A quick check assured her that the order for yet another camera malfunction had gone through, to begin shortly, and that other items were in due process. There would be no chances taken in regards to surveillance this time. Sterling was light as a feather in her arms, though limp and unwieldy due to the Knock Out #5. As Scarlyt carried her little lamb off the shuttle, she called the darkness to her, pulling at it through the power held in the scar upon her chest. Shadows spooled around her, the woolly fluff of nightmares to surround her body and distort the outlines, mute the colors, and render herself just another dark blotch in the night.
She rarely had the opportunity to exercise this aspect of the shadow-working power, but it never boded well for somebody when she did.
The statue of Old Man Whateley was bundled against the autumn chill in a ratty sweater and knit cap. Scarlyt nodded to the effigy of that singularly despicable bastard whose legacy was so perverted by the school that ironically bore his name. In her head, she figured the most likely line of approach. The roommate had been in Whitman, and Sterling at the front circle. Perhaps she should have left her lamb there and intercepted on her own... but no. There was always the risk that the wannabe heroes would bypass her and steal the prize. While that threat remained, she was not letting the girl out of her sight. And besides, she already had plans in motion.
There they were now, visible under the campus lamps in the distance. The roommate and her cohorts were about to arrive at the grassy area behind Schuster Hall, where bright lamplights kept the dark of night at bay. Unless, of course, one had the ability to bring the darkness along with. Scarlyt knew she must look the living silhouette, clad in billowy shadows. Impossible to miss; impossible to identify.
With care, she laid Sterling upon the grass in the middle of the mini-quad, kissed the girl on the forehead, and stood to face the upstarts. The roommate was shouting out words, a challenge, but Scarlyt did not bother to listen. They saw her, and some even saw Sterling, and soon enough--
The app had the best timing. It allowed her two seconds to strike a villainous pose wreathed in dusk below lamplights that suddenly flared and then died. A ten-minute blackout, in the literal sense, paid on anonymized account, and Ping would not be on call to fix this one promptly. There was more than one way to bring the darkness, and she was confident that her night-vision was superior to theirs. They'd been looking straight towards the brightest lights, after all.
Two upstarts charged forward: the raghead and the wannabe valkyrie. Li'l Miss Wannabe didn't even notice Sterling on the ground, going straight at Scarlyt with a manifested lance of glowing silver in her hands. A wild slash, a slam to the ground--she side-stepped both with ease, for the shadows were larger than she, and the girl didn't know how to aim. And when the girl whirled to face her once more, a sudden wince creased that pale face, followed by confusion at what she was even doing.
Yes, this one was extra susceptible to the no-see-um, forgetting who the enemy was in mid-strike. It didn't prevent Scarlyt's fist from being felt as it slammed into the girl's sternum. In a few seconds, from start to finish, the first upstart was down and finished.
The raghead had slowed her steps as the no-see-um cranked up, but then the brass-lantern eyes flashed in the most literal manner and the girl sped towards Sterling with arms angled for a pick-up. Oh, that would not do, though bless the speedster's heart for trying. The rough scar in the meat of Scarlyt's left arm gave a twinge as she dredged up first a power of preternatural accuracy and then a kinetic bullet from her pointer finger to follow the predetermined path. The ball of force was invisible in the darkness, but it intersected the speedster's ankle at the best worst possible moment. The crunch of bone came a second before the raghead tripped and fell. Momentum alone meant the girl plowed into the lawn for an impressive distance before stopping. A second one down.
Now it was the roommate's turn, zooming in at low altitude and lit up in lavender like a neon sign saying STAB ME. Scarlyt did her best to oblige, dodging fists left and right and spoofing her own silhouette with extra shadow-fluff to make it harder to aim for her body. More than once she found the opening for a riposte, but her knife hit the edge of the girl's PK field for light purple sparks and nothing else.
"Let her go!" the roommate demanded. Scarlyt did not bother to respond. There would be no voice of hers to recall from this meeting; not if she could help it.
Blades might not cut it, but there was always a way around a defense. The next time the roommate closed the distance, she was met with a fine spray of Knock Out #5. The light of her PK aura sputtered as consciousness fought a short but losing battle, and then it was Scarlyt's turn to play. One of the benefits of a Whateley martial arts course was that it taught a girl how to work within her limits and fight dirty. And at Regen-5, Scarlyt had a hell of a lot of leeway to work with. She could punch as hard as he could, full Exemplar-2 strength, ignoring the pain to herself and secure in the knowledge that the bones of her fists would pull themselves back into alignment shortly. She could headbutt the girl, finishing the fall to unconsciousness with a slam of forehead to forehead without a care to the mess of grey matter in her own cranium. She could kick, punch, pummel, poke, slam as the lavender faded.
A hit, a scream. Scarlyt leapt back to admire her work. Many a palpable hit, but nothing too serious. It would keep the roommate down for a moment, which left her with only the boyfriend. Likely he was wondering why the hell his girl was fighting someone who wasn't there.
Scarlyt looked at him, and he looked back. Looked straight at her, despite the no-see-um in effect, with eyes that glowed with an angry blue. Tendrils of water were poised around him like the arms of half an octopus.
The tendrils scythed through the borders of her shadowy outline, cutting away the parts that were not her in search of those that were. She buffed it out, expanded the coverage of the shadow-fluff, but there was no let-up.
Quick, quick! she thought. Where was the boy's weakness? She paced and pranced, stepping ever backward as the tendrils shot at her. Shot... but never separated. There was always a direct line back to the boyfriend and the flasks of water at his hips. A lode-bearing point. A point of opportunity.
Her left pointer rose and aimed for as close as she could to the source. A bullet of kinetic force hit one tendril near to its base at the boy's fists, splashing the water and collapsing the entire length of the water-lash to a spray of droplets. In rapid succession, she shot away the other three tendrils and then rushed at their master before he could recover, delivering a punch to the face that took him down in one hit.
There. Combatants neutralized, as the combat simulation announcer might say. Time to finish off the roommate and then leave with her prize.
Her ear caught the sound of feet on grass where there should not have been any. The many-colored kid, the healer, had run over to the raghead and laid a hand on the busted ankle. The speedster was already struggling to her feet in the short time it took Scarlyt to run over and punch the rag clean off the girl's head, followed by the last puff of Knock Out #5 in the canister. Brass eyes went dim as the girl hit the ground once more.
"Why'd you have to go and do that!?" demanded the healer. When no response came, the many-colored girl threw a punch of her own. Scarlyt easily caught the girl's fist in her own left hand, noticing too late in the low light of evening that the fingers had all turned a murky, roiling black. She was not given the chance to wonder why, as the darkness immediately found an exit through her own arm.
Pain. Primal. Exquisite. Sharper than any she had given herself in the longest time. Muscles up and down that arm rippled and then ripped themselves tiny tears from the application of agony. She could not recognize her own scream, not until it finished and left her throat raw.
Her left arm hung limp and useless. It would heal, but not soon enough. Her right hand was strong enough to push the healer away. The girl hit the lawn with an oomph and then stayed there.
"S-sterling!" The roommate was up, if not terribly about. Knock Out #5 was noted for being potent, immediate, but variably useful depending on the individual's physical constitution, which was why it was marketed for use on baselines. Apparently it did not last long at all on lavender wannabe heroes. The girl was now limping towards the unconscious Sterling, and the green girl twitched.
Damnit, of all the luck. Sterling was recovering sooner than average as well, mumbling "Tanya?" loud enough to be heard. Soon she'd be mumbling "Jen?" as well, and then the secret would be out. They would know who she was. She would need to kill them all, in front of her little lamb, and it would all be ruined. No pet, no power...
The pet, or the power. If she acted now, chose now, she might still have one of the two. Hesitate for too long, and she'd have neither. In her good hand, Scarlyt pulled the hunting knife from wherever it had fallen in the darkness. She ran, she swept in, she struck. Her lamb had only enough time to start the J of her name before the blade touched her throat, and then to slice through it.
A lamb, sacrificed.
With the blood still warm and wet upon the edge and within the grooves, Scarlyt opened a gash in her own thigh, where the meat was thick. Then the shadows covered her retreat. The upstarts were too preoccupied to notice.
No, no, no... The word, the syllable of denial, would not stop, could not be stopped as it dominated Tanya's mind.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
no, no, no, no, no, no
"Damnit, press it in harder!" Pastel's voice pulled her back into the reality she did not want to see. "Maintain pressure!" The healer was yelling at Vic, who was holding a squashed sphere against Sterling's neck. The surface tension made it more like a ball than a drop, a literal balloon of water that pressed against the gaping...
She nearly fainted again. Her roommate had a second grin, but was not smiling. The applied pressure of the water was the only thing keeping the blood mostly where it needed to be as Pastel lay her hands around the green girl's throat and cussed her way through the accelerated healing process.
"Mother-fucking bastard of a whore and a limp-dicked Jack the Ripper knock-off wannabe piss-brain..." The object of the invective was nowhere to be seen. Whoever he was, the shadow-man fought like the Devil himself and disappeared just as neatly. He knew they wouldn't chase him now, not when they had an emergency on their hands.
Emergency. Her phone was out and she was dialing up the Doyle infirmary hotline. "Hello," she rattled off, not waiting for the reception assitant to respond. "This is Invictus. There's been an attack in the mini-quad behind Schuster Hall. My roommate Sterling is in critical condition. Pastel is here and administering full healing power..." Tanya listened to the tenor of the cussing. "But I don't think it's going well. Please, hurry."
"No, no, no..." The colorful girl had caught a case of the terrible syllable as well, and more besides: Her arms were draining of color, turning greenish-black near to the elbows, and then past them. "I don't fucking know what's wrong!" she wailed. "Everything's fitting together, knitting up right, but something keeps pulling her away! She's dying, and I don't... I can't... Oh, fuck that bastard for a shit-stain!" Under the slowly reviving lamps of the mini-quad, the healer's signature colors roiled and turned darker. "C'mon, c'mon... live, damn you! Don't let whatever he did pull you away... Stay with us!"
Sterling's body shuddered and shook. Vic pulled back in surprise, taking the water compress with him, but by this point the gash across the girl's neck was healed over. She was breathing normally, with her eyes open.
The eyes weren't moving. There was no sign of awareness in them, no feeling in that face. It was the body of Becca Sawyer, but it was not her roommate.
"Damnit..." Pastel spat the words into the chill air. The healer was flat on her back upon the grass. Her leather jacket was thrown aside, and sweat covered her face. "No reason for it to've been that... There was a power interfering, somehow. Like, it was in her and making her wanna die, and..." A dry gulp. "And she wasn't even trying to fight it."
"It'll be alright." Tanya didn't sound so sure, even to herself, but it seemed like the right thing to say in the moment. She would've patted the healer on the shoulder, but Pastel flinched away.
"Don't touch me right now. Seriously. Bad idea. You still have Doyle on the line? Tell 'em to have a cow ready." In the lamplight, the girl's arms were two columns of black with strange green highlights, and the solid color continued beyond where her sleeves began. "Um, maybe two."
The others had both stumbled to their feet by now to join her and Vic at Sterling's side. "Oh, I am so sorry..." said Avsel. The speedster's scarf was lost to the autumn breeze, and she looked more vulnerable without it, her hair unbound and the nub of a horn showing in her forehead. "Is she...?"
"We're waiting for the medics to arrive at any moment," said Tanya. "But Pastel's at least... done... well, something."
The next moment of silence was broken by Sera asking, "So, um, who is she?"
Oh, that did it. This entire weekend had been terrible, with every problem distracting her from some other problem in a complicated web of awfulness, and it didn't look to be getting better anytime ever, but Tanya had a need to let it all out: "That is my roommate, Sera. Room. Mate. The person with whom I share a space in Whitman Cottage. The person whose existence you have been denying for over a month now, because you are too dense to notice any single thing outside your own interests and wants. And now she's lying here, doing nothing, and I have no idea what to do and so help me God if the next words out of your mouth involve me needing a new roommate, then I am going to punt your front teeth through the back of your skull and over the top of Schuster Hall so do not even think of asking, now or ever."
"But, I..." Sera didn't know where to begin or when to quit.
The girl knew to take a hint to the face, at least. Sera ran off, was well away before Tanya collapsed to the cold grass in a shaky, sniveling heap that somehow wound up in Vic's arms for the rest of the evening as the medics arrived, followed by Security and so many questions that no one could answer.
There was a huge gash in her thigh, an ugly and horrible wound drawn by her own hand in whetted steel. It should've made an impressive scar in which to cage a power. Scarlyt watched in disbelief as it closed, sealed, and faded from existence in a matter of minutes. This was not what should have happened, not at all. She could feel the borrowed power, the flutter of the no-see-um fade away alongside the lack of scar, disappearing from her soul forever.
What had she done wrong? What was different this time? That which had been done by accident previously, that which had been proven by experiment before, it had not worked now.
Perform the kill, blood the blade, make the scar... The only things to blemish her skin, to mar her perfect, regenerative flesh, were the scars she bore as part of her power. And this one had failed to take. Sitting in the washlet of her hidden boudoir, watching the blood stop and the flesh mend, Scarlyt screamed obscenities as none would ever hear.
It was all gone to waste. Waste of time, waste of effort, waste of money, waste of blood and pain. Her left arm still ached terribly from whatever that harmful healer had done to it, and that was only the edge of the spiral her life was becoming, into which she felt herself falling. And so, with the knife in her good hand, she did the ritual to reclaim her life, to ground herself in this awful experience and make it properly her own once more. The tip of the blade kissed the bare skin of her thigh as the first name was carved.
Becca Sawyer. Sterling. Her most recent kill, the one she even regretted in some ways. This was what happened when you tried to have your cake and eat it, too. She'd lost both.
Ike Callahan. Popgun. He'd never return for his senior year, but he'd left her the twin gift of accuracy and firepower. He would be missed by others, but she had him ever in her heart.
Mairead Johnston and Wanda Leary. Two names, and nothing more. Two women who came to Berlin, NH, on two different days in two different months, but they'd had the same red hair, and Scarlyt had the same foul mood when she saw them, and so they were remembered by others as the known victims of the so-called Ritual Redhead Reaper. She couldn't even recall their faces.
Rhee Williams. Shadowisp, if she'd ever had the chance to claim the code name. Young, carefree, with skin like the night, complete with starry speckles and gleaming tears. Dead in the H1 raid on the Birmingham safehouse, a year and more past, but not killed by any H1 militiaman. Her powers of shadow-calling, shadow-jumping, and clairaudience had come as a surprise that Scarlyt soon learned to hide.
And then there was... The blade paused. Rarely did she travel so far down her bloody memory lane, almost never to the final name, the first name, the murder and scar that had begun this hell on earth that was the life of Scarlyt. Her life, so out of control, her mind so lost that it needed this last signpost to find the way, to be the fractured whole. And so she let out her breath, put the blade point to her flesh, and carved the last and first of all victim's names.
She sat in silence for half an hour, letting the blood stop and the flesh mend. A quick shower washed away the last of her evening's sins, and then she moved on to the evidence. The leftover food, she ate. Regeneration required fuel, and the cooler held enough to serve a dinner for two. All of Sterling's things, she broke or tore into smaller pieces before tossing them down the garbage chute to the incinerators. After some thought, she did the same to the bedding.
Her phone buzzed as she finished. "Yes?" she snarled into it.
"Whoa, Jen!" On the other end of the connection, Glam's voice was too perky for any time, much less almost seven in the autumn evening. "It's just us! We had to cut our vacation short by a full day. Some two-bit weatherworker trying to hold the Lesser Antilles hostage with a storm or something. We'll be back at Whateley by nine-ish."
"Aw, what's the matter?"
"Why not?" That Appalachian twang made the question bounce.
"Don't wanna put you in a position to testify."
"Oh." A short beat of silence, then, "Anything I can do you for?"
Was there... "Yes," she said. "I'mma set up a morning session with Mocker for tomorrow, but I could use a warm-me-up, first."
To a complete stranger, it might sound like an appointment for yoga or some other exercise. To one familiar with the Bohemians and the way they carried on, it was definitely a hook-up. To Glam, who knew Scarlyt almost as well as she thought she did: "Ooh, pictures and sound. Got it. Planning a day out?"
"Wanna not be myself for a while," she admitted. Between Glam's illusions and Mocker's voice control, that was a thing that she could do for herself.
"Can do." The other girl's chuckle was deeply suggestive. "Got any requests?"
"Whatever you want, for an hour."
"Ooh, you must've done something really bad..."
"None needed. Okay, you naughty bitch. The usual place, eight AM. Be ready to play hard."
The lead trio of the Bohemians really were the most fun of the worst people. She deserved them, for now. How she hated her body, but how she loved having it abused. Glam, Jane, and Karel were ever happy to oblige.
She didn't know what time it was. The infirmary walls were a sterile white and pale blue combination, with nothing so base as a wall clock to mess things up. Her stomach was telling her it was half-past suppertime, but then it would do flips when faced with the notion of actually ingesting food. She'd need to, eventually, but her heart wasn't in it.
Sterling lay on the infirmary bed. Or better to say the girl had been laid in the bed; there was nothing of her own in the action. No response, no reaction, nothing. The nurse had drawn the girl's eyelids shut after a while, because the unfocused stare was unnerving. Except for the ugly scar on her throat, Sterling might have been peacefully asleep. Tanya was willing to sit there till the girl woke up, but it was looking to be a long wait.
Vic came back in the room with a mug of something warm. He pressed it into her hands, then guided her to drink. Corn soup. Her stomach accepted it with minimum gurgle.
"Dr. Gutierrez wanted to talk to you," he said. "Can she come in?"
"Her infirmary." Tanya's voice was barely a croak after all the crying. She nodded to the doctor as the woman walked over. "H-how bad?" A necessary question, a foregone answer.
Dr. Gutierrez had a thin-lipped frown on her face. "Better than it looks, is what I should be saying. Pastel is a strong healer, and physically, Sterling's probably in better condition now than any time this semester. But..." They all paused to look at the unresponsive patient. "Well, the lights are on, but no one is home, as they say. Pastel told me it felt like someone was interfering with the healing power, like a death curse or vampiric effect in action. I wish I could write those off as fanciful nonsense, but..."
"This is Whateley," Tanya croaked.
"Exactly. Now, her file does not state whether Sterling has a next of kin..."
"They don't remember her and wouldn't want them even if they could." Another common Whateley moment, she was afraid. "I, I guess I'm the closest thing she had, at this point? Um, not like it's official or legal or anything, but..."
"Heroic compacts, yes? Family when no family wants you." Dr. Gutierrez nodded. "You're first on our contact list, and second after the school itself on major decisions. For now, she can take water if we put it in her mouth, so autonomous reflexes have not been impaired. We'll keep her under observation for the next few weeks, but if she doesn't improve by Christmas then we'll need to discuss placing her in a med-bed adjusted to her personal requirements. But we're all hoping she finds her way home to us before then."
There was nothing to do but nod. To sniffle and nod. To sniffle and cry and nod. To sniffle and cry and cling to her boyfriend and cry some more and nod off into a sorry state of temporary oblivion as the worst weekend ever came to a close for her.
---One Bloody Epilogue
It was a chill Saturday morning in Berlin. Raylynn Meade, Scarlet-with-an-E, enjoyed a warm latte at her usual spot, by the window in a café at the edge of the shopping arcade. She was alone this time. Black Friday had been a great time to shop for herself when all of her friends were along to see, but today, she had to shop for Raymond, and that was a thing she preferred to do alone. In a few minutes, she'd head over to the local YMCA, shower up, take care of his business, and then switch back so she could return to Whateley. No way she was returning as him, though. She wouldn't even admit to Raymond's existence if he didn't accidentally pop out at the least opportune times.
There was a tap on the window. She looked up. Raymond waved at her.
That was not possible. She was... well... sometimes she was... but there he was, already walking away. And she was still sitting there in the café. Not for long. When you saw your personal body-double, a body that shouldn't be able to exist separate from you, there was little choice but to follow. So she did. She she ran, following the person who was not her, could not be him, and yet was.
She followed him down an alley. She followed him through a door. She followed him into a small and dusty room. She followed him directly onto the point of a knife, held in Raymond's hand, only it wasn't Raymond's anymore, but rather a redheaded monster with a scar creasing her face and the Devil's own grin to bid Raylynn farewell.
A few minutes later, a Raylynn walked back out of the alley. Another Raylynn wouldn't be leaving ever again. The first Raylynn continued on to the YMCA, where she had an understanding with the manager. She walked into the private showers, washed away all of the blood hidden beneath the illusion, then walked out as Raymond once more. The manager accepted this as normal. Raylynn's membership card was scanned, recorded, with camera footage to corroborate. The timeline of the murder was truly fucked for whatever detective was unlucky enough to be handed the case of the latest victim of the Ritual Redhead Reaper.
Slipping through the men's fashion stores, no one noticed Raymond's replacement with another male figure. He was older, possibly in college, with short-cut brown hair and the sort of grin that looked friendly till you learned better. Harrison McDonough strolled down the shopping arcade and enjoyed the act of looking himself, if only for the day. True, below the borrowed power of illusion, he was still the bitch, and without Mocker's power on loan, he'd never get the voice right, but those were details to ignore as he took the recently vacated seat by the window in the café at the edge of the shopping arcade. For now, he could sit back, enjoy his latte, and listen to the latest Irving and Ira podcast on his earbuds.
Soon enough he'd be heading back to Whateley, wearing a borrowed face on the shuttle, and then to suffer the rest of the semester. Once the authorities discovered Raylynn's body, the school would likely ban all students from visiting town for two weekends at the least, and redheaded females specifically through Christmas.
Harrison smirked as Ira the puppet made a rude joke. He could live with that, as long as at least one mutant bitch didn't. So for the rest of the morning, he stayed himself, enjoyed himself as himself, and plotted in his head how best to leave that fucking school behind. It would have to be next spring, yes. There was no way he was gonna take it much longer, and his luck was stretched thin as it was. Ready the exit strategy, activate it at the right moment, and then leave it all behind, never minding the bodies...
Yes, it would all end badly, but he would choose how, on his terms.