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Kayda 10: There's No Place Like Poe (Part 6)

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A Whateley Academy Adventure

Kayda 10 - There's No Place Like Poe

by ElrodW, E.E. Nalley, and Joe Gunnarson

Part 6

Saturday, September 15th, 2007
Kitchen, Whateley House, Faculty Housing Facility, Whateley Academy

Elizabeth Carson

Had it been colder, the dreary gray overcast drizzle that started during the night and lasted well into the afternoon would've been one of those quaint New England all day flurries. But as the mercury climbed to nearly 70, it just rained constantly, not enough to count as a storm or to deter the determined outdoor types. No, it rained just hard enough to spoil the day, and no more. Elizabeth Carson considered that a perfect kind of day for what she had planned.

The pot was full of fresh ground, fresh brewed coffee of a strong, simple blend that she'd been drinking since she was a teenager, many, many years ago. Until Shelly had been brought back, it had been over a dozen years since she baked, but there was a plate with a selection of coffee friendly items on the table - scones, shortbread cookies, even a small coffee cake with a knife and serving dishes, the type of 'motherly goodies that she felt compelled to have for her daughter, as if to make up the time they'd lost. She just finished setting the small table in her kitchen when the security golf cart rolled to a stop in her driveway. It had two occupants, the security officer who had gone to fetch her guest, and her recalcitrant guest herself.

There was a frown on the guest's face that Liz could see even at this distance, even as a guard poked her out of the cart and escorted her up the short walk to the kitchen door. She was wearing a jeans and blue halter top that put the knot-work tattoos encircling both of her biceps on display, and the headmistress noted the dagger that hung on a leather scabbard from her belt. The guard rapped on the door, then opened it, and while he didn't quite have to shove his charge inside, he did have to tap her on the shoulder to get her moving. Her glasses were gone and so there was nothing to detract from her lovely Celtic features and her unnaturally emerald eyes practically glowed below that wild mane of crimson hair.

With great formality, Mrs. Carson intoned, "If ye break no rules as guest, then neither shall I as hostess. Come in so and be welcome."

The green eyes narrowed and the annoyance that had been draped across her face now changed to one of wary apprehension. Begrudgingly, the girl declared in a thick Celtic accent, "God bless all in this house." She sat at the table where Mrs. Carson indicated and watched as she poured coffee in the mugs. "I would nae have thought to use hospitality against an enemy," the Iron Age warrior admitted. "My compliments."

Mrs. Carson returned the coffeepot to the warmer. With a thin smile, she declared as she sat down, "When you've lived as long as I have, deviousness becomes second nature. And you may be making a hasty assumption that you are my enemy. Scone?"

The warrior took the sweet biscuit and put it on her plate while staring at the black beverage in her cup. "This is the magic elixir of the Ethiopians and Nubians, is it not?"

Mrs. Carson poured cream into her own cup and stirred quietly. "It's called coffee," she replied softly. "You've heard of it?"

Her movements became automatic as she began to add cream and sugar, but her voice was still the Pict banshee. "A Viking trader landed at Morlock once. He claimed to have sailed all the way around to the pillars of Hercules and then to the holy land itself, seeing Ethiopians and Nubians with his own eyes. I took him as a braggart, though perhaps I owe him an apology." She took a hesitant sip, doubtlessly at Elaine's urging in her mind, and her face softened somewhat as she appreciated the beverage.

Elizabeth contemplated her guest over the lip of her coffee cup. Had she used a magic ritual and done what coyote had done, she knew it would have taken years for the two portions of the soul to reconcile with each other. There was no way to know how long what he had done would take, and she doubted greatly he would be forthcoming with details of the spell. "Do try the scones, I baked them myself."

The girl bit into the hard, sweet biscuit and chewed appreciatively. "Sorcery and cooking?" the banshee demanded. "You are quite the kitchen witch. Doubtless you'll make someone a fine wife."

Mrs. Carson sniffed in disdain. "You obviously haven't completely integrated with Miss Nalley, or you would know I'm 76 and I've had the banns read three times."

For a brief moment envy played across the other girls face. She raised her cup in toast. "I should be so lucky!"

"Could I have a word with my student?" Liz Carson asked gently and carefully, to ensure that there was nothing that could be inferred as a threat in her words or tone.

The emerald eyes narrowed and the cup was returned carefully to the table. "She has nothing to say to you that would not break hospitality, and I have precious little. She trusted you with her very life and soul, and you betrayed that trust. Were we in my time, I would give you the back of my hand and spit in your face to add insult to injury!"

Mrs. Carson's gaze was fire and the set of her mouth as hard as steel. "Give me the front of your hand and I'll meet you on any field you care to name," she whispered with a deathly seriousness.

After a long moment, the banshee quietly declared, "Spilling your blood won't undo what you've done nor give satisfaction to either of us, but if I thought for a moment it would ..."

"Your bravery isn't in question, warrior," Mrs. Carson declared. "But if you doubt that I would be a formidable opponent, I suggest you consult with your hostess before you finish that statement."

Laneth eyes narrowed, then she rolled them and moved to gaze elsewhere, taking another bite of the scone. "I suppose we'll never know," she said cagily, looking back at the teacher longways. "After all, I did swear I would not break hospitality. And at least one of us is a woman of her word."

"This, Elaine, is exactly why I refused your request to be Wicked," Mrs. Carson told the young woman sharply. "You may be enamored of this cocksure, Pict braggart, but this isn't the 7th century, and mark my words, if you don't rein her in she'll be the death of you."

Laneth grabbed the edge of the table and leaned forward, her face a mask of rage. "Who do you think ...?"

Mrs. Carson was not intimidated. "How old were you when you died?"

The banshee sat back slowly and crossed her arms over her breasts. "Are you the arbiter of fate?" she demanded softly. "My village was attacked and I defended it. My people, my daughter, and my temper had nothing to do with it!" she hissed. "Yes, it was my 27th spring, and I died in defense of my loved ones. Can you say you would do any less?"

The expression on the teachers face softened. "I would gladly give my life to save any one of my children. On that we can both agree."

The Pict banshees face softened and her eyes filled with tears. “Why?” the young girl drawled once more in an accent that would make Scarlet O’Hara envious. “Ah trusted you! After all that bullshit you spouted last year about honor and responsibility and what Ah went through with the Kodiak? And you let her do that to me?!”

Mrs. Carson was around the table like a shot, gathering the young woman into her arms and soothing her hair. "Yes, I did it," she admitted. "And I'm sorry you weren't ready for it. But the training wheels have to come off sometime, my dear, and I won't always be there to catch you. There are times when I have to stand back and let you fall down. And know they hurt me so much more than they hurt you!"

"You let Hartford recruit for The Syndicate right under your nose!" the redhead accused.

Mrs. Carson sighed and nodded. "Yes, I do. I have to. This school wouldn't exist without The Syndicate, or Dr. Diabolik, or Lord Paramount! The school has to be neutral, and as Headmistress I cannot deny them access! So I let Amelia funnel the idiots that even after four years here think thuggery is an easy path to riches into an organization that will use harsh discipline to keep them in line and fighting guards and heroes ready for them instead of rampaging through towns knocking over 7-Eleven's and Walmart's!"

Elaine looked up into the teachers face. "And this ... this committee of theirs? You're okay with that?"

Mrs. Carson smiled sardonically. "Do I approve of their methods? Not all of them. Do I think humanity needs to be spread out throughout the stars? Absolutely! Will I fight them if they pull some survival of the fittest load of claptrap as a transparent excuse to raise collective IQ? Don't get between me and them or you'll find out! Could I use some moderating influences on that committee to keep them more on the side of light in their aims than of darkness?" she asked with a glance of heavy meaning at her student.

The girls face hardened again and the 7th century warrior clambered out of her embrace. "You think to make me your pawn?!" she demanded.

Mrs. Carson stood implanted her hands on her hips looking down on the younger girl. "If you search Elaine's memories you'll know that's not how I operate!" she declared. "But I'm always open to friends and allies! If Elaine chooses to be a fellow traveler in the Committee I would welcome the information, but she wouldn't be the only one there, and none of them are my pawns!"

The wheels turned behind the emerald eyes for several long moments, before the warrior stood up again, her eyes hard. "She wants to trust you, because she loves you the way she loves her own mother. But if you betray us again ...!"

"I haven't betrayed you at all!" Mrs. Carson declared. "You may not like what I do in your interest, but you may rest assured it is in your interest!" She sighed, sitting down at the table and clasping her hands before her on it. She looked like she was struggling to find the right words, which startled the redhead; she'd never, ever seen the headmistress at a loss for words. "I should have explained to Elaine that I awoke you, Laneth. I should've told her how dangerous it was, and I should've laid all the possibilities on the table so she could have understood that better. I should have told her that I sensed your presence, and that you were going to awaken sooner or later. I should have let her choose the time! I should not have danced around the truth the way I did, and for that again, I am deeply sorry."

The green eyes stared at the Headmistress, taking in what she was saying, but words stuck in her throat, not quite knowing how to accept what Mrs. Carson was telling her.

"I ... I guess I wanted to ... to protect you, if I could," Mrs. Carson said softly, looking down at her hands. "In a lot of ways, you remind me of someone I knew - someone fearless and convinced of her immortality and ... and making foolish choices."

"Donna?" the Pict girl recalled Mrs. Carson's earlier apology to Lanie and the Lakota girl.

Mrs. Carson shook her head slowly. "Me." She felt the redhead goggling at the revelation, and she looked up. "I wanted to be able to help you, to be able to protect you when Laneth awoke, so that you wouldn't be endangered by her unexpected appearance."

"But the mistress of ash and oak interfered ...."

Carson nodded. "And then Coyote decided to involve himself." She sighed heavily, looking back at her hands and shaking her head slowly. "I guess I made a total mess of things." Her eyes met the emerald green ones across the table. "I'm sorry, Elaine, Laneth. I let myself get a little too involved with your case. Yours and Kayda's." She tried to chuckle, but it sounded hollow. "That's one of the dangers of being a teacher - letting yourself get too close so that you lose your objectivity." Her eyes were almost begging for the girl to at least accept her explanation. "I'm so sorry."

The banshee stared at the headmistress for several awkward seconds, then nodded and sank back into the chair once more. "I ... we ... accept your apology." She picked up the scone took another bite. "And these are ridiculously tasty!" she said, letting a smile spread across her features.

Mrs. Carson smiled in relief, tension visibly flowing from her that the girl, the one she sometimes viewed as her protégé, had given her another chance. "I'll give you the recipe if you like. And Laneth?" The girl looked up and Mrs. Carson was beginning to realize which of the two personalities was at the forefront by the way the girl carried herself. "There is very little known about your people. Your language has become extinct, and it's thought that your people intermarried with the other Celts and became the Scots. It would be of great help to many scholars if you would sit down in your spare moments and speak with some of the professors of our sociology department. In their wildest dreams, they could not wish for a greater opportunity than to speak with a Pict banshee plucked out of time."

The redhead nodded solemnly. "I would be honored to help my people be remembered."

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Thursday, September 20, 2007 - After Classes
Vehicle Lab, Whateley Academy

The background hum of machine tools and the pungent, slightly-sweet smell of machine oil filled the air, and I had to concentrate to keep from feeling a bit nostalgic. Dad had several machine tools in the shop on the farm, and even more in the tractor dealership, and I'd learned how to use them at a very early age. Lanie and I were both in blue overalls, like most of the others in the shop.

"So, what are you going to do to Baby Girl next?" I asked as I triple-checked the measurements I'd set up on the shop's large milling machine.

"Ah figure Ah should put a little extra lining in the passenger compartment," Lanie said cryptically, but I knew exactly what she was talking about.


"Nope. Not strong enough. Ah'm putting in a double layer of the material Ah used in mah armored suit."

"Expecting trouble?" I chuckled, pausing to run the mill table to the other end of the block so I could check that alignment, too.

"Trouble seems to have a way of finding me. Us." She looked at the digital readout on the mill, then checked a measurement with a micrometer. "You're off two and a half thou on horizontal alignment."

"Damn!" I loosened one set of clamps. "Two taps?" I asked, hefting a shot-filled plastic-headed mallet.

"Three," Lanie shot back. Dutifully, I gave the heavy block three good whacks. "There, that looks better," she reported after examining the gauge.

I ran the table back to the other end and double-checked the alignment on my end of the large cast-iron block. "Less than two tenths. Think it's good?" When she nodded, I changed the milling bit, checked the height, and started the CNC program.

"While you've got the body off the frame," Lanie suggested, "you might think about lining your body tub with mah material, too. Just in case."

"You're going to jinx us!" I laughed. "But yeah, that's probably a good idea." I glanced nervously at the massive milling machine as it methodically went about its job. It was only taking of a couple of thousandths of an inch of metal, but that was critical to blueprint the engine so I could squeeze out every last pony without having the engine come apart. If I'd messed up the CNC program, then the block would be ruined and I'd have to start over. "I suppose you just brute-forced your engine when you built it," I joked to my soul-sister.

"You think Ah'd get over six hundred out of it if Ah had?" She glanced at the work bay that held my car. "Ah think you should consider some secret holdout compartments, too. Ah am."

I half-rolled my eyes at her. "You sound like a movie spy. The name's Bond. Elaine Bond!" I laughed in what was probably an awful British accent.

"Do you think we should make an appointment - to find out more about what we're doing? Things that we might want to have for holdouts, things we might want to have in our cars?" Lanie whispered to me after glancing around. "It seems like something out of an Ian Fleming novel, but ... Ah don't know what we've gotten ourselves into."

"Yeah, me, too!" I added nervously. "I know I need some compartments for my normal holdouts and for my shaman supplies - you know, my medicine pouch and such, but ... maybe getting some advice would be a good idea." I looked at the very fine shavings coming off the mill, swept away by a flood of machining oil. "Now you've got me thinking about other vulnerabilities. Like the tires. Or the glass. Or the gas tank."

"Bullet-proof glass is too thick and too heavy," Lanie observed.

"So why don't we invent something better?" I asked facetiously.

"Ah've been thinking about it. And with some of mah royalties, Ah'm thinkin' about getting some specialty tires - with Kevra woven into the whole tire, using Kevra belts instead of steel, and with run-flat capability."

"Custom bulletproof tires?" My eyebrows rose considerably. "Aren't you getting a little paranoid?"

"Not custom - they're ready-made for law enforcement and security," Lanie explained, looking up at me with a somewhat chiding expression. "Besides, you heard the same thing Ah did. You were on the road trip this summer. Do you think maybe the question should be why you're not being paranoid enough?"

I considered things for a moment. "Touché."

"Were you serious about trying to find a better material than Wexlerite? Because Ah can understand why we'd want something better - more transparent, stronger, lighter."

"We can make it better than it was before, we have the technology. Better, faster, stronger?" I laughed.

Lanie just slapped me with a grunt of half-amusement, half-disapproval. "You know what I mean?"

"Okay, I'll be serious. Transparent aluminum?" I asked with a smirk.

Lanie didn't miss a beat. "That's the ticket, laddie," she said in a bad Scots burr.

"Oh wellllllllll. It'd take years just to figure out the dynamics of this matrix."

Lanie couldn't contain her giggles. "Yes but you would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice."

"You're such a nerd!"

Lanie grinned and swept me into a hug, still giggling. "So are you, my sister!"

In a few minutes, the CNC mill was done, so I shut off the machine. It was nice to be able to carry the block to the engine lathe without having to use a stand - being an exemplar was handy from time to time. Unlike machining the bearing cap surfaces, actually line-boring the bearing journals was going to be tricky. Having machined in some good reference marks, though, it didn't take us long to set up the engine. I had spent a week making a fixture to do the actual boring because the shop didn't have the correct - and expensive - equipment that had to be custom-made for each engine. Instead, my jig only required that I adjust a cutting insert.

"Ah like your tooling," Lanie observed as I was setting it up. "Could Ah maybe get plans to mah Dad for him to use in his shop?"

"Sure. As long as he keeps it under wraps. Ayla suggested that I should apply for a patent on that, too. Ayla wants us to patent everything we make."

"And he's right," Lanie countered. "Mah dad won't spill the beans, especially if it helps him in the shop. Anything like that would give him an edge over his competition."

With the cutter bar I'd made, it only took a few minutes to do each bearing journal, and then we reset the machine to fine-tune the holes for the camshaft bearings.

"Whatcha doing?" Tansy's voice sounded over our shoulders as we watched the first cam journal being bored.

"Engine machining," I said with a smile. "Does this mean you want to learn the secret ways of the gearhead now?"

"Heaven forbid!" the blonde exclaimed with what we could tell was feigned horror and an overly melodramatic flinch. "If you think this is exciting, I think you're beyond hope!"

"Dinner tonight?" Tansy asked.

I shook my head, shutting off the machine and starting to set up the cutter for the second journal. Unlike the crank bearing journals or overhead cam bearings, the camshaft bearings were stepped in size because the camshaft had to be inserted from one end, whereas the crank or overhead cams were set into place and then the bearing caps were attached, so the bearing journals could all be the same size. Tansy probably wouldn't understand - at first. She'd catch on, probably before I could explain, because she was very sharp, and woe to those who underestimated her intellect. "I'm meeting with the Ghost Walkers to talk about the paper that's due from our last sim."

"Talk after. Let's have dinner together," Tansy insisted.

"Back, you flaxen-haired temptress!" I held up my fingers in the shape of a cross. "Back! Schoolwork must be done!"

"Okay, then we'll meet for dessert," Tansy grudgingly gave in. I glanced at Lanie, and grinning at the thought of some tasty treat, we nodded enthusiastically.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007 - After Classes
Administration Wing, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Elizabeth Carson

"No! And that's final!" Elizabeth Carson's eyes burned with fury at the student who stood helplessly before her in the Headmistress' office.

"But ... she's _important_ to my religion!" the Native American boy protested. "She needs ...."

"No. Now go, and I don't want to hear of this again! Got it?" Liz roared at the hapless boy.

"Yes, ma'am." Thoroughly cowed, the boy turned and scampered out of the office quickly, before Mrs. Carson could change her mind and assign her detention or some other punishment for his ... unorthodox ... request.

Liz settled back into her chair, her elbows propped on her desk with her forehead resting against her steepled fingers.

"Knock, knock," Caduceus' voice sounded as she rapped on the door frame. "Looks like it's been a tough day. Judging from the way Mr. Nesbitt scampered out of here, you must have really been upset."

"Ophy, that was the _fifth_ request this week. The FIFTH! This is getting out of hand."

Ophelia Tenent sighed. "You can't blame them. It is their beliefs you're dealing with."

Liz nodded, sighing. "I know. But if I give in to one, where will it end?" She reached out and pressed a button on her phone. "Elaine, please schedule an all-school assembly for this afternoon. No-one is excused, or they will have detention."

"Yes, ma'am"

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Thursday, September 20, 2007 - Before Dinner
Arena 99 Stands, Whateley Academy

Most of us fidgeted and fussed in the stands, looking down on the microphone which had been set up on the floor of Arena 99. The props which formed buildings during combats and simulations had been raised to make the space smaller, and a suitable backdrop was displayed - a massive white satin-looking curtain behind an equally massive Whateley coat of arms.

"What's it about this time?" Toni asked, glancing around a little hyperactively.

Fey and Ayla, seated on either side of her, shrugged. "I don't know," Ayla said. "Nobody knows what's going on."

"It can't be another shoulder angel thing," Fey speculated, "or we'd have seen - and heard - the ruckus." For some reason, the Kimbas - indeed most of the second floor sophomores - turned to look at me.

"I didn't do anything!" I protested weakly. It wasn't fun to be accused of some unknown infraction that resulted in all the student body having to attend an assembly.


Mrs. Carson, looking both glamorous and imposing at the same time, walked onto the improvised stage from the left, bringing a sudden stillness and silence to the assembled student body. She wore her glasses to add to her professional demeanor, and the glowering expression she bore did nothing to calm us students or the faculty and staff. She strode to the microphone, halting and looking up into the stands.

"Did someone take attendance?" she asked, glancing at the front row, where her administrative staff sat.

"Yes, ma'am. Fifteen students are not present."

"They were warned, excused from work-study, and all group meetings were cancelled. Double detention for them."

Murmurs of surprise coursed through the stands. Mrs. Carson was on the warpath about something. I couldn't help but gulp a little nervously, in case something I had done had annoyed her so badly.

"I've had a few ... unusual requests, five this week alone," Mrs. Carson began bluntly. "Now while Whateley respects your freedom of religion, no-one, and I repeat, NO-ONE, is going to build any form of shrine, temple, altar, or any other worship or adoration space devoted to any other student or student's spirit, NO MATTER WHOSE SPIRIT THAT STUDENT MIGHT CARRY!" She scanned the audience, stopping specifically so she could glare at me, and then moved on to a few other select students, such as the New Olympians, Fey, and Chou. "Anyone who makes a request to erect such a worship space will be severely punished. Any avatar who requests or otherwise gives approval to devotees will be even more severely punished or expelled. DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?"

She turned and stormed off the stage, fuming.

As we trudged out of the stands, I was getting a lot of attention from other students, and I overheard that one of the new members of The Nations had asked to erect a special lodge for worshipping my Ptesanwi spirit. There were also rumors that when the New Olympians heard rumors about that, they wanted Greek-style temples for themselves. And we'd all heard that the Cult of Kellith wanted to create an appropriate shrine to Sara. And then, according to the grapevine, a couple of foreign students, including one boy from India, wanted shrines to avatar spirits that were important to their beliefs.

No doubt Mrs. Carson figured that it was better that no spirits or beings had altars or temples than she ended up in a fight as to what was appropriate. She was probably hoping that her warning would suffice, but also probably more than prepared to dish out severe punishment if she ever heard of the subject again. I certainly wasn't going to test that theory.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007 - Evening
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Admiral Everheart strode into the briefing room, pausing to look around at us. For a moment, I felt relieved that Gunny wasn't here to verbally flail and abuse us, but seeing the look on Everheart's face, I thought better of that. Whereas Gunny was direct and blunt, Everheart was subtle but just as difficult in other ways, and in fact, a little more intimidating because she treated every single training scenario as if were deadly-serious real-life. The silence among my team-mates was indicative of just how seriously we took her briefings.

"Listen up, team," Everheart began professionally. "We have a potential situation at Kennedy Junior High School. That particular school has been named in 'chatter' on the dark web, and the latest intercepts name today."

I gulped; this did not sound like it was going to be an easy scenario, no matter what. The potential for collateral damage among innocent kids was quite high. A quick glance showed that all my teammates were sitting up a little straighter, their faces were a little grimmer.

"We're sending you to the school to protect the kids against any threats that might materialize."

I raised my hand. "What kind of threat? Are we talking about a shooter? A bomber? Terrorist?"

"We don't know. It could be."

"What do we know?" Evvie asked bluntly.

"One of the parties in the communication is a South American group which has ties to hard-line communist-terrorists and narcotics traffickers, the Paraguayan Peoples Front."

I turned my head toward my team. "So we may have a mass-casualty attack?"

Adrian shook his head. "We might have anything, Kayda," he said disgustedly. "The info we've gotten is full of if's, maybe's, and speculation."

"Yeah, I know," I grumbled. I'd been hoping that by mentioning one scenario, I might have gotten some visual or verbal hint from Everheart that my guess was close to the truth.

"Anyone noteworthy there that might be the target?" Evvie prompted.

"Senator Holsworth has two children who attend that school," Everheart replied coolly. "Holsworth is a hard-liner against leftist groups in South and Central America, and has been prominent in pushing legislation and funding to stop these groups, both financially and militarily."

"So, two targets if they are the People's Front of Paraguay."

"The Paraguayan People's Front," Everheart corrected.

"I thought they were the same," Naomi said with an innocent look, despite the fact that we knew she was poking at the topic a bit.

"No, you're thinking of the Paraguayan People's Popular Front," Evvie snarked.

"If you want to spend all your briefing and prep time doing that, go ahead," Sam shot right back. Seeing the somewhat chastised looks on our faces, Sam continued. "The governor will be at the school this afternoon to present an award to the school for academic excellence. Part of his security detail is already on-site doing preparations. His stance to cut all travel and trade ties to countries that aren't actively fighting the leftist groups has spread to other states; he's somewhat of a figurehead."

"Which makes him prime target, da?" Vasiliy asked with raised eyebrows.

"Other police and security?" Adrian queried.

"Standard for a school of about six hundred students. I wouldn't count on them for a lot of help. They could control a single active shooter, but that's about it."

"Floor plans of the school? Area maps? Sat images?"

"In your briefing packet," Sam replied calmly.

"List of staff?"

"And their background information," Laurie added. "Any of them that might be sympathetic?"

"It's in your packet." Sam looked around at us. "You've got fifteen minutes to review and plan before you go to the sim suites." She stood back to let us work while still being available to answer any questions we might have. The fact that we had time to plan really, really made me nervous. From my teammates' expressions, I wasn't the only one.

We reviewed the information as best we could in the limited time we had. There were two staff members who bore watching - if, and that was a big if, the group was the PPF. It was a distraction I could have done without. RPG noted that there was a major storm drainage tunnel that ran under the school - that bore watching as a possible entry point as well. Fifty yards north of the school was a wooded area, perfect cover for launching an attack if that was the threat. Four hundred yards to the east was a major gas pipeline - at least it wasn't under the school, so we could discount that threat.

We weren't happy at all. We might have disgruntled or crazy students or staff in a Columbine scenario. We might have a bomber. We might have a supervillain taking hostages. We might have a kidnapping attempt or assassination attempt against the governor, or kidnapping the Senator's children. Worse, there were six mutant children at the school, and they might be the perpetrators or the targets. There were way too many possibilities for any of us to be comfortable. Nevertheless, we put together the best plan we could think of in our allotted time, then went to our sim chairs.

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"So far, it looks clear," Harrier reported from flying top cover.

"Can you see anything in the woods?" Evvie asked. She was acting as second in command, for which I was grateful.

"Negative. Too thick. And the damned cloud deck is too low, so I can't see anything above."

"Can you fly up top to have a look around?" I asked.

"I tried," he answered immediately. "I think I climbed about four thousand feet without breaking through the cloud deck. No telling how thick it is, but the weather report isn't promising."

"Shit. Perfect cover to fly in an attack," Naomi grumbled loudly.

"Harrier, hold your altitude about halfway between the ground and the ceiling," I answered after thinking a second. "Tradeoff between seeing what's on the ground and not being surprised by something from above."

"Nursing, report." She'd been placed with the governor's security detail doing sweeps and preparations for his visit.

"We convinced one of the two potential sympathizers to take the rest of the day off; you should see her leaving the parking lot. The other, the janitor, wouldn't leave. He's staying in the facility operations room. We've got a man with him."


"I've done two perimeter sweeps, but nothing seems out of the ordinary."

"Okay. Get inside and find Punch and RPG. You three need to stay together as a reaction force." With RPG's heavy-hitting distant attacks, Evvie's PK shell, and Addy's speed, the combination should be enough to counter any major threat. I hoped.

I was covering the front entrance, which was the most obvious point of entry. Alicia had one of the fire exits, and Naomi was near the gym - the place where the governor would speak - with my shield charm; the utility and furnace room was the closest point to the storm drain, and would be a good point to breach into the building. If that was the chosen entrance route, the shield would help her hold off an attack while the rest of us reacted. We couldn't think of anything else to do, but there were still a lot of weak points to cover, and we didn't have the forces.

"Got a truck moving your way from the west."

"The principal said they get a catering truck from the central kitchens every day. Can you check it out?"

"Give me a sec." No doubt Adrian was looking closer at the truck. "It's marked as a school district truck, and the two drivers are female Caucasian."

"Okay." I switched modes of thinking. "Evvie, get to the kitchen to watch the delivery truck. It'd be a perfect infiltration ruse."

"Copy," she replied. "On my way."

A few minutes later, following Adrian's reports of the truck's movement, Evvie checked in again. "The truck checks out - it's full of food warmers and trays. Nothing else." She went back to rejoin the rest of the quick-response team.

It went back to being quite boring as we waited, knowing that something was going to go down, but not knowing when or how it was going to happen. That was the worst part - waiting in anticipation.

"Something moving in the woods!" Adrian's report startled us out of our boredom, which we'd fallen into after fifteen to twenty minutes of patrols and inactivity.

"What is it?"

"Can't tell. I'm moving closer to ... Oh, shit! Flier! Coming in fast from the southeast!"

Adrian didn't respond to calls; a quick peek by Adalie revealed two bits of bad news. First, it was a flier, and Adrian was trying to stay alive while engaging the very capable foe, and second, the vehicle that Adrian had seen was rapidly coming toward the school - it looked like a police breaching vehicle, a heavy, armored truck designed to forcibly enter buildings

"Freeze-frame, you got something to disable a vehicle?"

"I'm on it," she replied, sounding like she was running. She had her EMP gun; its electromagnetic pulse would disable anything but the most hardened military-grade electronics. "It's stopped," she reported, "but the passengers are coming at the door! They've got heavy weapons! I need some help here!"

"On my way!" Evvie was moving again.

I dashed to the administrative offices, to the principal. "Get the students into the gym! We've got some kind of attack happening!" The principal gawked at me for a moment. "Get them to the gym!" I repeated.

It took a second for my words to sink through her brain, then she picked up the microphone. "All teachers, please move your classes to the gym. Repeat, all teachers, move your classes to the gym. All staff report to the gym as well."

A minute later, as the teachers were urging their students to move faster, everything went sideways. Adrian reported a chopper coming in, fast, then he either got taken out or he was way too busy to respond. Addy dashed to back up Evvie and Naomi at the point where the vehicle had intended to breach.

"Speedster in the kitchen!" Headrush called. "I almost had him, but he got away."

"Charge!" Evvie called. "Get him."

The fire alarm sounded, interrupting us. "We've got a fire in the building."

"Charge," I was probably not the only one who was suspicious of the timing. "Check it out!" She couldn't respond; she was rather busy with the speedster who'd infiltrated.

Following their training and practice, the teachers turned their kids toward the fire exits, moving even quicker than they had been moving toward the gym. It wasn't a full-fledged panic until smoke billowed in the hallways.

"Smoke bomb! It's a smoke bomb!" Headrush called frantically as we started toward the exits to guard the kids after they exited. "It's a false alarm! Get them back to the gym!"

It was too late for a couple of classes - they burst through the fire doors and ran away from the building. As soon as the teachers started assembling the classes, the chopper flew overhead, unfurling a huge net that immediately ensnared the first group. Seeing that, one of the teachers began to push her students back toward the school, but she was like a salmon swimming upstream against the surging, panicked kids, and all she did was jam up the exit. Nursing, trying to stop the flow of students out the rear of the building, hear the helicopter and saw the net fall. "It's a trap! Don't let them exit! It's a trap!"

I blocked the main exit with a force field, but that immobilized me, while I screamed at the teacher and the kids to get to the gym, that the fire was a false alarm. "Punch! Block the exit! Block the exit! Don't let them out!"

There was no answer except an explosion from down another hall. I turned to look, just in time to see one of the two 'delivery cooks', wearing a mask and carrying a huge multi-rocket launcher on her shoulder, level and aim a rocket at me. This was going to be very bad - my shield would probably stop the rocket, but that would cause massive casualties among the kids. Before I even saw a flash of smoke from the launcher, I did the only thing that I could think of - I dropped my spell and ducked, screaming at the kids to do the same.

The rocket passed over my shoulder, barely missing me. It was extremely fortunate that I was guarding the front entrance - the rocket passed through the safety glass door, expending most of the blast outward as it shattered doors and windows. The explosion, though, knocked me very violently inwardly, where my body hit something very hard. Dammit - it's always the ribs, I thought as pain radiated instantly out from my side.

The one fortunate thing is that the explosion caused the kids and teachers I was trying to contain to flee back into the building. "The gym!" I screamed at them, wincing in pain. "Go to the gym!" I glanced around; the missile-launching person - who I strongly suspected was Bunker - was swinging the rocket tubes toward me.

"Anyone speak Spanish?" RPG called. "Janitor screaming at me in Spanish! Sounds urgent, but not understand!"

"Get the kids to the gym!" I repeated, trying to move away from the field of view of Bunker.

At that moment, another explosion rocked the school. "Bomber!" Adrian called again. No doubt he'd been flying for his life against the Grunt's flier. "Gym is hit! Keep the kids out! Gym is hit - keep ..."

It was almost like watching a super-slow-motion movie as another burst of smoke erupted from behind the rocket launcher, and another missile came unerringly toward me. In super-slow motion, the flying death bore down on me, despite willing my magic to get the shield up, or trying to duck out of the way.

Rocket-launched projectiles are fast. Very fast. I wouldn't have given Addy much of a chance to duck. I had none. There was a flash, pain, and then my world went dark.

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Arena 99 Briefing Room

"Well," Gunny said, striding into the room with a withering glare at us, "that was a huge fuck-up. What the hell were you trying to do? Make their job easier?"

As I suspected, the infiltrator was Bunker, which meant we'd been against the Grunts. Besides Mule, Slapdash, Bunker, Bomber, and Lancer, there were two more on the team - both freshmen, and one of them was glaring angrily at Charge, while the other Grunts were shooting him the evil eye. The other one was Whisper, a Sidhe girl who was a mage and a sophomore, but I wasn't familiar with her. If she hung out with Fey, it wasn't while I was around.

"We're not planning in being a hero team," I said calmly, frowning at the instructor. "So there's really no point in subjecting us to no-win scenarios."

"No," Gunny turned his stink-eye toward me. "You're supposed to be learning leadership, right?" I nodded, still frowning. "Well, part of leadership is how you react to the unknown."

"I'm surprised you remembered to inform us that it was a school," Evvie snapped.

"First of all, knock off the god-damned pity party!" Gunny growled. "Every team gets this sim or a variant." He seemed to be glaring at me again. "And it's not purely because we're sadistic bastards!" he added. "Although it's sometimes entertaining to watch."

"There have only been two teams that have even marginally won," Slapdash turned and commented to me. "Team Phoenix and the Outcasts. Although both teams were torn up pretty badly."

My eyes went wide. "So that's why you wouldn't let me in the sim with Team Phoenix!"

"Yes. Despite taking very heavy casualties, both teams at least got the kids evacuated."

"How?" Evvie, Adrian, and I exclaimed at the same time. "You gave us an impossible scenario!"

"The drainage tunnel," Mule chuckled. "The janitor was hinting to you about it."

"When none of us speak Spanish?" Adrian snarled at Mule. "And after you," he shifted his angry gaze to Gunny and Sam, "led us to believe he was untrustworthy, and maybe an insider."

"Did it occur to any of you," Sam interjected calmly, "that during your planning time, you should have thought about evacuation routes? And then looked them over as soon as you were in the simulation?"

"How were we supposed to know to evacuate through an internal tunnel?" I demanded angrily. "If it was a bomb or fire, the fire escapes were reasonable. If it was an internal shooter, the same applies. If it was an external shooter, the escape through the opposite doors was effective."

Adalie caught on quickly. "And if it was, by chance, a coordinated external attack, we would 'ave 'ad the kids protected in the gym until 'elp arrived!"

"Except that the opposing flier blew up the gym, and had the kids gotten there, the casualties would have been significant," Sam pointed out without batting an eye.

"Plus, we had a contingency for that," Slapdash said with a smug grin. "If you'd have gotten the kids into the gym, Bomber was prepared to breach the roof and the chopper would let us rappel in a team, so you'd have been hit from inside and outside."

We watched a replay of the simulation, including halting at key points. We didn't thoroughly check the catering truck, which was a huge oversight. A mage's spell had concealed Bunker's rocket launcher as one of the catering racks. That let Bunker into the school, where she was prepared to set off smoke bombs and pull the fire alarm.

Outside, Slapdash had two major traps set up, not counting the net: first, one area was covered with a sprayer that discharged a slippery goo that would render anyone in the field of fire totally unable to get any traction, and second, a sophisticated tangle-web launcher that could ensnare a hundred or more people in a broad area. The goal, evidently, had been to take a huge number of kids captive

Bomber came in from the cloud deck - Adrian was actually lucky to be far enough away to not be taken by surprise, so he survived a long aerial duel and was able to snap some reports to us which helped a little bit. Bunker took me out, Mule was almost defeated by Alicia and her special skill, but she wasn't quite quick enough, and Mule hit her a second or two before he would have gone unconscious.

One of Slapdash's gadgets took out Evvie. Only Addy had any success, and I noticed snorts of disgust as we watched those portions of the sim, so I glanced back at the Grunts behind us. All of them were giving the stinkeye to the new guy, the speedster that Addy had utterly and totally humiliated, mostly because he was show-boating and because she'd actually learned something about using her speedster power, which the kid hadn't. She'd left him pantsed, tangled up, and trussed up like a hog-tied calf. Even Gunny saved some of his more eloquent criticism for the failed speedster. If he couldn't get his ego under control and act like part of a team, he wasn't long for the Grunts. I couldn't see any of the longer-standing members putting up with someone like that.

In short, it was a long, demoralizing, depressing briefing that left us feeling unhappy with our own performance and feeling totally inadequate. If that was what Gunny had intended, he'd succeeded. If it wasn't, then maybe the sim staff should rethink how they smacked around the teams.

But feeling down didn't last long. On the way out of the briefing room, Mule left the Grunts and joined us, walking beside between me and Addy. "Come to rub it in?" Alicia asked dryly.

Mule sighed. "No," he said, sounding a little hurt. "I was just wondering if you," he was looking directly at me, "might like some help learning how to assess a situation. How to take into account the environment, the setting, and evaluate potential threats."

I shot a sideways glance at him. "Chou and I are in tactics class."

That elicited a chuckle from Mule. "I'm not talking about tactics," he replied. "I'm talking about how to evaluate a situation so you can set up your tactics. The factors you should account for before you decide on a tactical approach."


"That and you need to realize that there's no such thing as cheating in combat. There is no rulebook, just one rule. Win."

I pondered that offer a moment. "Yeah, that sounds like it'd be useful. Lord knows we didn't account for a lot of stuff today, and look where that got us."

Mule laughed aloud. "Don't be so down on yourself. You accounted for a lot more than most teams we faced. It's just - Gunny doesn't want any team to get cocky. Least of all us." He smiled. "Call. We'll set up some time," then he glanced around, "for all of you, to discuss this - if you want."

"Yeah, I think that'd be helpful," I said, nodding. Evvie, too, agreed, as did RPG and Adrian.

We went to the bake-shop in Melville with Alicia and Addy and had some pastries and cheesecake, and our disastrous simulation was quickly forgotten, or at least temporarily forgotten. We still had our usual paper to write.

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Friday, September 21, 2007 - Before Breakfast
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Kayda!" I turned at the sound of Danny's voice, especially since he sounded upset, and it wasn't like him to yell in the halls of Poe, especially when he was angry.

"What's up?" I asked when I saw the anger in his eyes.

"You ... you bitch!" he practically screamed at me. "You selfish bitch!"

My eyes must have nearly bugged out at Danny yelling like that at me. "What are you talking about?" We were attracting attention, so I opened the door to my room and gestured inside.

Danny ignored my unspoken invitation. "Coyote came to my dream-space last night! He told me what you did!" He was actually getting louder and angrier in tone.

"What?" I was somewhat flabbergasted. "Told you what?" He was close enough that I took his arm to guide him into the room because we were attracting a crowd. "What did he tell you?"

"Do you ever think of anyone but yourself?" he demanded angrily, jerking his arm away from me.

Lanie must have heard the commotion, because she poked her head out of her room. "What's all the noise about?"

Danny wheeled on her, his face a mask of rage. "I bet you convinced her! Coyote said you were involved, too!"

The pieces clicked into place, and I felt the blood drain from my face. "Danny, I can explain," I tried to distract him.

"You didn't even think what it would mean to me if you stayed you, did you?" he shouted. "All you thought of was yourself! You and Debra. And Lanie, too?"

"Danny!" I tried to interrupt his rant, "let me explain," I said insistently, trying to guide him out of the hall.

Danny shook off my hand. "Don't touch me!" he yelled, rearing back from me. "You ... you could have let Coyote set everything right! So you'd still be my brother, and I wouldn't be stuck as a half-boy, half-girl faggy-looking boy!"

"Danny, let's talk in private. I can explain!" I insisted. Lanie's face was ashen - he was so angry that he was going to blab everything he'd been told, no matter if it was embarrassing to either or both of us.

"You could have been her boyfriend instead of one of her lesbian lovers! Her future husband! And your stupid spirit wouldn't have put ... her ... in me! I wouldn't be getting teased and harassed about being gay!" He was nearly incoherent and his voice was cracking from his intense emotions. "But no! Is it because you like being a lesbian so much?"

Lanie tried to take his arm. "Danny, let's go into my room so we can have some privacy."

"Get your hands off me!" he screamed at her. "You, too! You're ... you're no sister of mine!" he screamed at me. I'd never seen him so angry that he was nearly incoherent. "You're just a self-centered bitch! I don't want to ever talk to you again!" He wheeled abruptly, and we both could see that he was almost in tears as he bolted away from us.

I was too stunned by his angry diatribe, mostly because what he said was true. My eyes were misting, and a few drops coalesced and trickled onto my cheeks. Around us, my wing-mates were gawking in astonishment.

"Kayda?" Nikki asked hesitantly, not quite sure how to respond. I looked around, taking in the shocked looks of disbelief, and the look of profound sadness on Ayla's face; clearly he'd overheard that I'd been offered something he desperately wanted, and I'd turned it down.

Lanie and I turned to chase after him, because as distraught as he was, he might do something rash. Alas, by the time we got to the first floor, he was gone, and while I ran out one way and Lanie the other, we found no trace of him.

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Friday, September 21, 2007 - Third Period
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Mrs. Carson was in her Lady Astarte outfit, and since she'd texted us to come prepared for a field trip, Lanie was in her Wicked costume, while I was in my Lakota-themed costume. Both of us had our bows, and I'd taken time to enchant a bunch of arrows for each of us. The fact that Mrs. Carson had warned us did not bode well for this field trip. Nor did the presence of Langley Paulson in his odd-looking armor that looked and flowed with his movements like liquid metal, with some kind of energy rifle over his shoulder. To top it off, Caitlin was waiting with a full combat kit - a machine gun held easily and casually the way most people would carry a light rifle, a rocket launcher tube over one shoulder, and Slapdash's Core Ejector over the other. On her hip was a pistol, of course. No doubt both of them were armed with other holdouts. Mrs. Carson had a new belt pouch in addition to her normal equipment belt - the same type that Ayla wore, but in colors to match her outfit. I couldn't help but gulp when I saw their preparations; in comparison, my holdouts and outfit seemed meager. A quick glance told me that Lanie felt the same way.

"Ready?" Mrs. Carson asked.

"No, but Ah doubt that's going to stop you," Lanie drawled.

"Is it too late to drop this course?" I intoned with far more seriousness than Mrs. Carson appreciated, based on the glare of disapproval she gave me.

"I have never personally been to the extra-dimensional space we're about to visit," she said in a grave tone, "but I know others who have, and while they returned - mostly - the reports all indicate that it is probably quite dangerous. Hence the suits, and Mr. Paulson and Ms. Bardue. When you plan an excursion to another dimension, you need to do your research and be as prepared as you can prepared. Even then, you need to have contingency plans."

I glanced nervously at Lanie, who had an equally nervous appearance. "Okay," I squeaked. My hand was trembling and my knees were knocking together.

"Step over here by me. Same as last time." We dutifully, if uneasily, complied. I don't know how Lanie managed to look so composed, but my knees were practically thumping together from me shaking so badly.

She handed us some kind of crystal on a metallic-looking cord, which I noticed that both Mr. Paulson and Cait were wearing. "Put these on, please." As I put mine on, she continued the explanation. "The cord is braided adamantium, so it should be unbreakable. The crystal has magic resistance built in, but more importantly, if we have to leave in a hurry, these will return you here, even if you're not within range of my teleport spell." She looked seriously at us. "Girls, this is very likely going to be a demonstration of how rough extra-dimensions can be. To be perfectly honest, I was going to save this for the end of the semester, but since you've insisted on dealing with Coyote and other spirits without proper precautions ...."

"Please knock off the bullshit, Mrs. Carson," Caitlin grumbled. "They're going because you know they're capable fighters and you know you can trust them."

I gulped; Lanie and I had earned this trip based on our foolish dealings with Coyote. If something happened, we had no-one to blame but ourselves. And whatever behind-the-scenes information Caitlin had and was referring to didn't help my nerves.

"These crystals are an emergency return," Caitlin said gravely. "The magic contained in the crystal will immediately transport you back to the focus, which is that statuette." She pointed to the odd, silver-greenish tiki statue on the teacher's desk.

"We won't leave ...." I reacted instantly, and from her reaction - and almost identical words at the same time, I could tell Lanie had the same sentiments.

"No heroics!" Mrs. Carson barked. "I want your word - sorcerer's contract, Kayda, Lanie - if something happens to me, or I so direct, you will pull the rip cord and bail! You'll invoke the magic and return here ASAP. Agreed?"

"Agreed," I squeaked, now feeling nearly terrified. For her to extract that kind of promise from me was as good as an admission from her that we might be in extreme danger.

"Elaine, I want the same promise from you - if something happens to me, or if I so direct, you will use that charm to return immediately."

Lanie nodded slowly. "Yes, ma'am."

"If you are injured, break the crystal. If someone is down, one of you go to that person and break their crystal. That goes for all of us. We're not leaving anyone behind if I can help it. The cord has braided adamantium in it, so it should be unbreakable."

"If you have to use it, the return ticket may be a bumpy ride," Caitlin added. "But that's better than being stranded or dead."

Mrs. Carson took two cell-phone-sized devises off the desk and handed them Lanie and me. I noticed that Caitlin, Mr.Paulson, and Mrs. Carson already had them on their belts. "PFGs. Put them on. Kayda, since you have a shield spell, I want you to activate it. Give your charm to Elaine for an emergency backup for her. If either of you lose your shield, activate your PFG. If you lose both of them, you are to return." She waited for us to exchanged worried glances, then gulp, and finally agree to her terms.

Holding her Astarte staff, she looked at us. "Kayda, close-in weapons. Elaine, ready with your bow and special arrows. Langley, ranged weapon. Caitlin - machine gun." When everyone was ready, she said, as she invoked her magic, "Okay, here we go."

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Somewhere in Extra-Dimensional Space

When Mrs. Carson said it would be dangerous from the moment we appeared, she wasn't off by much. I can't speak for Lanie, but I was disorientated for a moment when we landed, just like our previous field trip. Immediately, our surroundings sent a chill coursing up and down my spine several times. Overhead, the sky was a sickly yellowish-blue, without a distinct sun, but more like a bad glow-panel of slowly-swirling colors that simply didn't belong together in a sky. Dots of some kind moved through the air, too far away to distinctly make out, but close enough to give me the willies because they could be dangerous.

The landscape was jagged and rocky, with crystals jutting upward singly and in clumps. I shuddered; it reminded me way too much of the bad spirit plane where I'd fought Unhcegila's first son. There were some distant glowing things shaped like crystalline trees, illuminated from within as if they were living and light was their life-force. Lanie and I glanced around ourselves, looking nervously for whatever might be a threat, while Mr. Paulson - Tin Man, Lady Astarte, and Caitlin formed a defensive triangle. "Get your heads in the game," Caitlin barked at us to get us to focus again.

"This place gives me the creeps," I whispered to Lanie, as if keeping our voices down would prevent our discovery by whatever occupied this place. "It feels wrong! It feels ... like when I had to rescue Debra from the Snake Demon in dream-space. Only worse!"

"Yeah, Ah know what you mean," my companion hissed back. "What are we looking for?" she asked Lady Astarte.

"It's more proper to ask 'for what are we looking?'" Mrs. Carson, ever the English teacher, corrected the girls. "And I believe the question is moot - I think it found us."

"Yup," Caitlin agreed. "I think something found us." She jerked a thumb upwards, to where the black dots in the sky - whatever they were - seemed to be starting to circle.

We hadn't walked more than about thirty to forty yards when there was a hideous, unearthly screech, and a massive thing smashed aside a few crystal trees and stomped - if that's a correct word for moving on its odd pseudopod legs - into our path.

Compared to this monstrosity, Snakey was charming and cute! It stood about fifteen feet tall, or that was our guess after the fact, on four leg-like pseudopods that moved it at frighteningly fast speed. It had four arms with dozens of nasty-looking claws. It had three eyes on stalks protruding from its head, and a huge maw full of blackish-green, dagger-like teeth. Two looked like long fangs, and I immediately had the thought that its saliva and venom were really bad for our health.

And the smell - if I thought the hell-hounds or the Pac-men smelled bad, this thing smelled as bad as it looked - like it was made of rotting, gangrenous tissue. Sickly greenish color mottled with black, it had tufts of fur here and there, and even that seemed to be alive.

I stood rooted in place, my eyes felt as big as saucers, and my knees knocked horribly. Mrs. Carson, though, let loose a blast of energy from her Astarte staff, and the creature was stopped at least momentarily. Mr. Paulson joined in with a blast from his energy rifle, while Caitlin swung her machine gun. Unfortunately for us, the gun spat out only a handful of rounds before it quit.

"Dammit!" Caitlin cursed loudly, letting go of the gun. An automatic retractor built into her combat harness snapped it to her back, while she grabbed for another weapon. While my mind raced to catch up to what was happening, and to overcome the paralysis caused by the sight and smell of the nasty thing, I figured that the Aegis loader on the gun had failed.

One of the arms grabbed a big branch from one of the trees and hurled it toward us; I flinched, and for a moment, I thought its aim totally sucked, but when the crystalline lattice shattered on the rocks into hundreds or thousands of tiny razor-sharp shards that hurtled toward us, I flinched again. If it hadn't been for the PFGs and my shield, I would have been taken out even before I could get in the game.

Mrs. Carson leaped straight up, missing most of the shower except for at least one that tore her suit, causing a slight gasp of pain. She retaliated by shooting another blast of energy from

I slipped my tomahawk and knife back into their sheaths by touch - all the time with Mr. Two Knives and in the simulators was paying dividends in simple ways that could be vital in a combat situation - and pulled my bow off my shoulder and drew an arrow. By touch, I could tell it was one of the magic-laden arrows.

Lanie let loose an arrow - a C4 tipped special - and the arrow found a home in one of its three eyes that sprouted on stalks above its head, the explosion tearing the target apart and causing the thing to screech with such a volume that I felt deafened, and something about its tone made me very queasy. It took me an extra second and some serious effort to focus and put away my tomahawks and retrieve my bow, by which time Lanie had hit it with another shot, this time in one of its arms.

From the corner of my eye as I drew back my bow, I saw Caitlin move to our left, while Mrs. Carson and Mr. Paulson seemed to be moving to our right so we weren't bunched together, and we could attack from multiple directions. I recognized some of Gunny's tactics in the move - we were still close enough to provide mutual support. I could hear shot after shot from Mr. Langley's energy rifle while Mrs. Carson fired whatever magic or weapons she was using, and on our left, it sounded like Caitlin was firing Slapdash's Core Ejector railgun.

Then we got another nasty surprise - the creature was still a few dozen yards distant and slowly moving our way, obviously intelligent enough to not rush hastily into battle, but besides the crystalline projectiles, it launched another nasty surprise. Several of its claws, jagged and ugly-looking, hurtled through the air with deadly precision, while two other arms grabbed more branchs of the crystalline trees and hurled them toward us. Once more, our shield spells protected Lanie and me.

And if the spear-things weren't bad enough - aimed very precisely and accurately - the trees shattered and sent thousands more shards at us.

As we watched in horror, the eye which Lanie had blown up and the arm that had been nearly ripped apart began to regenerate, and the nasty claws which had been shot at us were replaced like shark's teeth, but at an incredible rate. Worse, the creature sprouted another pair of eyes and another slobbering mouth, which seemed to be focused on Mrs. Carson.

"Oh shit!" I swore. "This is bad!"

I alternated between exploding and magic arrows, although that felt like a desperate strategy because of its insane regeneration. It seemed to adapt readily to the circumstances - another pair of eye stalks sprout and focus toward Mrs. Carson and Mr. Paulson, and it looked like there was another mouth opening beneath that. It didn't have a definite form, which was disturbing, because that meant that there was probably not a central brain or heart or something that would put it down. I glanced toward the two teachers, gasping when I saw one of the claw-projectiles sticking out of Mrs. Carson's leg, having penetrated her Kevra armor like it was tissue paper.

We were in way over our heads.

Caitlin's Core Ejector was slamming round after round into the critter, and I could see a few small holes through it, but it wasn't slowing down at all.

A sudden ball of magic fire burst at the thing's feet just before another of my exploding arrows hit it; between the two attacks, the creature retreated a little bit. Then it seemed to stiffen - at least its head did, and there were tinges of frost appearing around its mouths. One of the two adults must have tossed a cryo grenade into one of its maws. As it moved, the very structure of its mouth cracked and broke away, teeth falling from the body, but slowly, the mouths regenerated and reformed.

"Shoot its body!" I yelled to Lanie.

"That won't do any good!" Lanie countered, dodging another blow as she tried to disengage a little bit. Nonetheless, she snapped off an arrow, which hit the demonic thing in the chest, leaving a gaping hole a couple of feet across. Sickly pus-like stuff oozed, and the smell increased by an order of magnitude. No sooner had she shot than I let fly a magically-charged arrow right at the crater in the thing.

The critter staggered when my arrow hit and unleashed its load of essence; it screamed again, much louder, and it turned its attention totally toward us, because we'd obviously hurt it. Maybe the outer skin had some kind of shielding from essence, which would explain why Mrs. Carson's and my attacks hadn't been very effective. The combination attack, though, worked.

"Oh, oh!" Lanie said needlessly. "This is bad."

"At least it can be hurt!" I shot another magic arrow into the wound, and the demon-thing fell back another few feet. I doubted that we'd hurt the demon very much, despite the fact that it had fallen back a few yards. But at that moment, the foul stench of the creature increased by an order of magnitude - or so it seemed. I found myself on my hands and knees, vomiting helplessly as the foul smell overwhelmed me. Beside me, I could hear Lanie puking as well.

As I got back to my wobbly feet, I sensed that something was wrong. The slight shimmer in everything, caused by minor distortion from the PFG, was gone. Either the batteries had run out or my PFG was damaged. Instinctively, I reached up to my charm, dumping more essence into the magical copper figurine what channeled and powered my magical shield. At the same time, something caused me to step between the creature and Lanie.

Whatever prompted me to move undoubtedly saved Lanie's life. More of the claw-missiles shot at us, and bounced off my reinforced shield, but they impacted hard enough that I was knocked backward into Lanie, and the two of us fell in a tangle of limbs and weapons.

"Thanks," Lanie drawled as we crawled back to our feet. She touched the charm on her neck, the one I'd borrowed from my brother, and put up her own magic shield.

"Fuck!" We both spun our heads toward the shout of distress from our left, just in time to see Caitlin vanish, with one of the missile claws embedded in her shoulder.

"What happened?" I gasped.

"It must have broken her return crystal," Lanie replied as she drew another arrow to shoot the monster.

"Not good," I replied. "Not good at all. Her rockets might have been effective!"

"Ah'm runnin' out of arrows that go boom!" Lanie noted as she nocked another arrow. After she let it fly, and I followed up with a magic arrow, I reached to my quiver. "Here." I handed her a half dozen explosive-tipped arrows, because I had the magic ones and our tag-teaming the thing seemed to be the only way we were slowing it down.

"At least we know it can be hurt." Around us, in response to something the creature did, the trees' internal light intensified until they were glowing like molten iron. "I've got a bad feeling about this ...," I muttered as the trees began to exude some kind of mist or fog. In seconds, our visibility was cut to only a few yards.

"Look out!" Mrs. Carson called out sharply, but her warning was too late. A pseudopod smashed into my shield, and Lanie and I were knocked off our feet again.

Rumbling growls started to sound above us - deep, booming, snarling sounds that set my teeth on edge. "I don't think this is good!" I repeated.

"Less talk, more fight," Lanie barked back. She was right; I had to get my head back in the game. We could think about what happened later.

"Regroup!" Mrs. Carson called; since we couldn't see each other in the fog, it'd be easy for the thing to take us out one-by-one. The volume of fire from Mr. Langley's energy rifle abated considerably since he couldn't see his target, but picked up again. Perhaps he had an infrared or RF sight that could penetrate the mist? Lanie and I started moving toward Mrs. Carson's voice.

I cast a 'seeing' spell that Wakan Tanka had taught me over the summer, and which I'd tweaked to be heat-sensitive. It worked - through the cool mist, the heat signature of the critter stood out like a floodlight on a dark night. Now if only I'd put variable vanes and heat-seeking detectors on my arrows! It was a project for later. Assuming there was a 'later'.

From above us in the mists, one, then two, then five shadowy dark forms appeared, man-sized things with four clawed feet and dragonfly wings, drooling something that looked and smelled nasty from fangs in bear-like snouts. Wicked scorpion tails curled over the backs of the creatures, and what I immediately thought of as bug-monkeys swooped down in a gang attack. The easiest way I could describe the things was to call them bug-monkeys.

The clawed hands were fierce, and only my shield-spell kept me from getting torn to shreds and being stung by the wicked tail that seemed to be oozing some kind of stuff - most likely not healthy to be hit with. A well-time blow from my tomahawk took off one claw, and in the moment that the thing was disoriented by pain, I swung an uppercut with the other tomahawk, slicing through its jaw and up to what should have been its brain. It staggered under the combined attack, sliding down my shield into a quivering heap on the ground. Around me, I heard bangs and booms - like gunshots and explosions, while next to me, Lanie had slung her bow and was using her .45 pistol like an expert, picking off the fliers with exploding shells.

We should have been surrounded by bug-monkey carcasses, but as soon as they hit the ground, they just faded away and vanished. It was yet another bad omen.

There was no time to celebrate our victories, though, because more of the bug-monkeys swarmed us in what rapidly became a war of attrition. Would our shields give out first, or would we kill all the bug-monkeys? Or would Lanie run out of ammo first?

We could hear shots above us that never seemed to come from the same place; no doubt Mr. Paulson was maneuvering through the skies to battle the things in the air. If the fog hugged the ground, as it seemed, then he'd at least be able to see what was attacking him. From Mrs. Carson's direction, which we were trying to move, there were sounds of her magic attacks crackling, and some muffled crumps and shrieks from the demon-thing, so she was managing to at least hurt it.

And then my shield rocked under a very heavy blow from behind me, knocking me back several feet. The flying things had attacked us in a way that made us turn our backs on the massive demon, who'd taken advantage of the distraction. Lanie, likewise had been hit, but she rolled and came up shooting, this time at the demon-thing; round after round of explosive ammo went into the thing, but it seemed like it was as effective as ping-pong balls against an elephant.

I felt rather than saw her shield energy flicker; she had no more protection. Ignoring another of the flying things, I dove and rolled under an attacking pseudopod from the major demon, racing to my soul-sister. Just before I got to her, I fingered my charm, deactivating my shield for a moment until she was beside me, then reactivating it.

My shield got up just a moment too late; two of the claw-spears hit me, one stabbing into my thigh and the other cut my upper arm but didn't embed itself. Instantly, my limbs felt like they were on fire as whatever bad stuff was on the claws began to affect my body.

The mist thinned slightly - perhaps the trees could only exude so much of it before it dissipated, and we could see the large demon again, its eyes focused on the four of us. A few ugly bulges formed rapidly on the thing's shoulders, in moments growing huge, before the skin split and more bug-monkeys sprang forth into the air. At least we knew where they were coming from, but that didn't help much because there were dozens of them in the air attacking us.

In that split second when the shield had been down, two of the spikes hit me, one in my thigh and the second grazing my left arm. With a shriek of agony, I barely managed to reactivate my shield before I fell; it seemed like my entire leg was on fire, like something toxic was burning my leg from the inside out. And in the distance, King Ugly's shoulder joints bulged and then exuded two more of the bug-monkeys.

From the sound of it, things weren't going well at all; Mrs. Carson's holdouts were being consumed at a prodigious pace, and we were only holding off the monster - maybe. It was hard to tell in the fog. It was clear, though, that we were taking a thorough beating in our efforts.

Mrs. Carson was fighting her way toward us, but it was tough going, because the demon seemed intent on keeping us split up and the swarm of bug-monkeys that were being spawned by King Ugly was very distracting. "Abort the trip!" she yelled at us. "Back to Whateley!"

That's when we all heard a human scream. A female human, or at least the voice passed for one. Lanie and I froze in place, staring into the mists in the direction the scream had come from. The demon-thing seemed to pause when it heard the scream, and then it turned back to us, its features looking even less friendly, if such a thing were possible.

"Help!" an unknown voice screamed, a high-pitched woman's voice that didn't belong to any of the party, perhaps spurred by my scream of pain or Mrs. Carson's loud cry to abort the trip. "Help me!" it screamed again.

Mrs. Carson, too, froze momentarily, stunned by the fact that whatever was out there had sounded human. It didn't seem like a random chance to me. But she paused her attack, and a wicked pseudopod smashed into her, knocking her flying twenty feet or so. She rolled with the blow, landing with her scepter up to block another blow, dumping essence into it a she wielded it like a club. "Hello?" she called out hesitantly, watching around her for more flying things, which were coming in a non-stop stream.

"Help me!" the scream sounded again. "Help, please!"

"I'll take the fliers. You focus on ugly!" my soul-sister barked at me, slamming another magazine into the pistol she held. The gun barked a couple of times, and messy bug-monkey guts splattered my shield, momentarily obstructing my view, but they, like the rest of the bug-monkeys, dissipated quickly.

I tugged Lanie with me, keeping her within reach, because my spell was her only protection. Taking a moment, I dumped more essence into the charm, reinforcing the shield, then I picked up my bow after holstering my tomahawk.

Above us, Mr. Paulson's energy rifle crackled off shot after shot. "I'll keep the fliers off you, Liz," he called out. "There's a clearing about a hundred twenty meters from you, four o'clock relative to you."

"Help!" The desperation in the voice was unmistakable.

"Hello?" Mrs. Carson called out sharply, wondering if she was really hearing a human voice.

"Help me!" a scream answered her. "Help!"

"Let's go!" Lanie said to me, changing direction toward Mrs. Carson.

All the time I'd spent practicing multiple shots quickly was showing itself to be invaluable; I snapped off an explosive shot at King Ugly, then followed it within a second with a magic arrow. Both hit home, creating a crater in the thing's outer armor, and then pumping essence - explosive essence - into the wound. The thing wasn't going down, but the combined attack was still slowing it down. While fighting, we were moving toward Mrs. Carson, who seemed to be fighting desperately toward the direction from which the voice had come.

"Girls, return! Now!" she ordered when she saw us moving her way.

I glanced at Lanie, whose face was as resolute a mine. If Mrs. Carson was going to fight to rescue something that sounded human, we weren't about to abandon her on the field of battle. "The wizard's pact," I muttered to Lanie.

"Ah don't give a damn about that," she shot back, never taking her attention from the skies. "We'll figure that out after we help Mrs. Carson."

Whatever she was moving toward must have been of supreme importance to the thing; it was exuding bat-things by the dozens, most of which were attacking Mrs. Carson, and it only had one eye and one arm focused on us as it undulated across the uneven ground in pursuit of our headmistress.

All the bug-monkeys began to swarm at Mrs. Carson, while the demon redoubled its attacks on the headmistress to try to stop her movement. Lanie's pistol barked repeatedly, interrupted periodically as she changed magazines, while I shot my essence-filled arrows one after another into the major demonic entity. I paused a moment to make sure my shield stayed charged, and when I realized that my well was nearly empty, I took out the essence battery Mrs. Carson had given me and let it refill my well.

We caught up to Mrs. Carson, who had a missile-claw sticking out of her leg and a stinger from one of the bug-monkeys protruding from her arm; whatever was on them was clearly slowing her down. "Take this," she said, throwing a grenade to me. "You don't want to be within twenty yards of it when it goes off!" she added. "Slow down the demon!" Her intent was obvious - she intended to rescue whoever was calling out, now in a steady sobbing series of cries for help.

All the while, Lanie's pistol barked again and again, and the things swarming Mrs. Carson exploded like cheap targets at an arcade, while I fought frantically with my tomahawks and magic knife to deter the demon-thing's pseudopod and kill any bug-monkeys that got too close. It was a running battle, and I was afraid we were going to run out of ammunition or essence; I'd recharged my charm twice more to reinforce the shield, and was dumping essence into my knife so that when I hit the demon's mace-like appendage, it caused the creature more pain and slowed its insane regeneration.

With startling suddenness, we broke out of the mist, into a virtual forest of the crystal trees, which the demon-thing was grasping and throwing at Mrs. Carson. Then as abruptly, we were in a clearing, a rock-strewn, ugly, foul, blacked clearing in the crystal trees. My jaw dropped - a human female, or a reasonable facsimile of one, was chained onto some kind of table in the center of the clearing that looked suspiciously like a sacrificial altar of some form. Blood was spattered on the altar and ground around the girl, who was suffering from many deep wounds, some of which had healed, while others were still oozing blood.

I turned, activated the grenade, and threw it at the ugly demon thing.

Nothing happened.

"It's a dud!" I called, but then there was a muffled 'crump' sound, and a flash of energy from where the grenade had landed.

Instantly, there was a crater in the ground about fifteen yards in diameter, a perfectly hemispherical indentation. At the same time, that part of the demon that had been within the spherical circle of destruction simply vanished. Two of its leg-like pseudopods, one arm, and a small chunk of its body were torn mercilessly into the singularity which the bomb had created. Off balance, the demon fell into the crater.

Mrs. Carson used the distraction to dart to the center of the clearing, to the figure on the tableau. Even from a distance, we could tell that Mrs. Carson was shocked at the sight, as if she was seeing a ghost, and the girl was looking at her, confusion writ large on her terrified face. The headmistress allowed the surprise to distract her for a moment, long enough for one of the creature's spiked pseudopods to smash into her.

"Oh, my God!' our headmistress mouthed softly as she rolled with the blow and came up on her feet, her eyes big as saucers as another scream echoed in her ears. "Donna?" she asked hesitantly.

The figure on the tableau, a human female in tattered remains of clothes, her body torn bruised and and blood-stained, still bleeding in spots, strained to look up at Mrs. Carson. Her eyes were having trouble focusing, but she finally locked her gaze onto her rescuer. "Liz?" she asked very hesitantly.

With a cry of anger and pain, the creature clawed its way up out of the crater, its focus entirely on Liz Carson and whoever was on the rock table. Whatever it was that we were battling took a renewed and heightened interest in Mrs. Carson, attacking with a fury that left Lanie and I almost alone. Perhaps the girl was some sacrificial victim that was important to it, and it feared we were going to take her away.

Mrs. Carson was torn - she had a demon to fight, and she had someone to rescue. If she focused on the demon, she knew it was a losing battle, and she'd eventually have to return. If she focused on the rescue, she'd be vulnerable.

I shot a questioning glance at Lanie. "Run with me!" I ordered my soul-sister as I invoked a spell, having merely to grab a card in my bag and dump essence into the pre-written spell. I'd learned a few tricks from watching Jadis and Molly use spell slips and cards and such - it was a huge time-saver, which was critical in battle. At the same time, with my other hand, I touched the charm on my neck, hoping and praying that what I was attempting would work.

When the speed spell kicked in, Lanie and I took off running, my arm around her waist so she stayed near; we covered ground toward Mrs. Carson nearly as quickly as Addy would have, courtesy of the spell I'd invoked. Above us, the bug-monkeys circled, confused, looking around for us, while Lanie's pistol continued to fire at those around our headmistress.

I halted our forward momentum, shield up, between the demon-thing and Mrs. Carson, who was trying to get to the altar-like table, rearing to fight. "Get her!" I yelled, daring to order Mrs. Carson around. "We'll keep Ugly off your back!"

Lanie emptied a fifth magazine and reloaded yet again, while I tore at the attacking demon. If his bug-monkeys were confused by my invisibility, he wasn't; his blows rained down on us, deadly and accurate, while I tried to keep my knife as full of essence as possible to try to slow down the critter. That was getting harder and harder; my essence supply was getting low. I was out of magically-charged arrows, Lanie was out of explosive arrows, and she was running out of mags for her pistol.

And then Mrs. Carson, her arms full of a battered, cut, emaciated girl in tattered rags, joined us inside my shield and invoked the return spell.

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Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

We fell out of the alternate dimension, literally, into the classroom we'd vacated only minutes before. "Doyle!" Mrs. Carson barked at us, already running with a pronounced limp and carrying Donna. Lanie and I exchanged a glance, and then followed her, both struggling as we tried to cope with our wounds. I couldn't tell if Lanie was hurt, but my wounds burned intensely, making movement hard now that we were out of danger from the demon-thing.

"Where's Caitlin?" Elaine asked as we hobbled out of the classroom, puzzled by her absence and by the fact that doors were closed, lights were off, and there was zero sound of students in the building.

"Already at Doyle?" I was just as confused as my best friend. "The EMT team took her?"

"We'll know in a few minutes," Mrs. Carson snapped.

Mr. Paulson dashed ahead of Mrs. Carson to open doors since she was encumbered, moving as quickly as his injuries would permit, although I couldn't remember seeing him hit. Lanie and I limped along as best as we could, and that was getting more painful by the second. We skipped the tunnels, going down stairs and once out the door, Mrs. Carson took to the skies to fly Donna to Doyle, while we struggled as best as we could. The campus should have been full of students, but again, it was far less busy than we expected. It was still another puzzling fact.

"It's starting to hurt really bad!" I fought to keep from crying, as my wounds seemed to be on fire, slowing me down a lot. By the time we got to the doors of the Doyle Medical Complex, I could hardly move. Fortunately, alerted by Mrs. Carson, the medical staff had three gurneys waiting, and we were loaded and then wheeled into the emergency wing, by which time I was in tears from the intense pain.

By the time we got to Doyle, Dr. Tenent was waiting, and moments later, Elyzia Grimes and Circe burst into the ER to supply even more essence; whatever we'd been hit with was evidently quite toxic, which explained the burning sensation. And they took the girl somewhere else, but refused to let any of the three of us out of the emergency room until we were given shots to counteract the poison in our systems, and then Ms. Grimes did some spells to confirm that we were freed of any toxic material and that we wouldn't be a danger to anyone outside the ER.

Of course, that still left the mystery of why Caitlin wasn't in the room with us.

After we were cleared, Mrs. Carson, Lanie, and I trudged to a small waiting room, where I poured cups of coffee for all of us before I, too, slumped into a waiting chair. "You disobeyed my orders," Mrs. Carson said wearily to me and Lanie.

"Yup," I answered before taking a sip of my hot beverage, not really caring at that time.

"And a sorcerer's contract," she added.

"Yup. I'll have to deal with the consequences, I suppose."

"You wouldn't have made it without our help," Lanie drawled somewhat defiantly.

"We were hurting it, but it was regenerating too fast, and your magic wasn't affecting it very much," I added.

"It would have worn you out," Elaine concluded.

"Perhaps," Mrs. Carson noted dryly. "But I had a few more tricks up my sleeve."

"Includin' the pocket A-bomb y'all had the devisors and gadgeteers whippin' up?" Lanie asked with a cocked eyebrow.

Mrs. Carson shook her head. "There are few secrets in the labs, I see. Yes, I left that particular holdout as a parting gift for our ugly friend."

"Besides," I said, perhaps a little arrogantly, "what's that you're always saying about teamwork?"

"I was not going to put your lives in danger for something that may or may not have been there!" she retorted angrily. "I had to take extra precautions to make sure you had a way back safely even if something had happened to me."

Lanie and I exchanged another glance. "Donna?" I asked simply. "How is that possible?"

"I should have figured that you'd remember the images from the arena," Mrs. Carson said with a shake of her head.

"How ... how is that possible?"

"And she looks ... young. Late teens, early twenties, I'd guess."

Mrs. Carson pointed at the clock. "Did you notice the time?" We looked, and I started to realize that the clock read just before nine. With sunshine pouring in the window, it was daytime. Seeing our rather shocked expressions, she nodded. "How long were we there?"

I glanced at Lanie. "I dunno. Seems like hours, but it was probably seven or eight minutes."

"It's Saturday." Seeing us both goggle, she nodded. "Ophy told me. You experienced time dilation on our first trip. This dimension apparently has dilation the other way - time moves much faster in our world than in the dimension we visited. Ophy estimated, based on a quick magic observation, that Donna is only six or seven months older than when I last saw her." She waited for us to take in what she'd said. "Now this time, I want your solemn oaths, unbreakable, that you will not talk about this, to anyone. No fingers-crossed, no exceptions, no 'I'll deal with the consequences later'. Not a word to anyone. Not your mothers, not your ... significant others, no-one."

I glanced nervously at Lanie, then nodded, holding up my hand like I was taking an oath, or at least, how I saw it on TV. "I promise, to the depths of my heart."

"Ah swear Ah won't tell anyone."

"Pinky swear?" She placed her cup on the table and extended her pinkie fingers toward us. Without hesitation, I hooked my little finger around hers, like Lanie was doing. Mrs. Carson looked intently at us for a while, until I swallowed nervously. "Okay, girls - go clean up. Expect to come to my office - probably tomorrow - for some private discussion of what happened and what we found. Okay?"

As we left, I heard her muttering to herself, "This complicates life a lot."

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Saturday, September 22, 2007 - Late Morning
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

"What's going on?" I asked, somewhat perplexed, as Lanie led me down the stairs to the first floor. I was still in the shower cleaning up from the field trip when she came for me, so my hair was still wet and I'd only had time to slip on my robe.

"Ah don't know," she said, and I could tell from her expression that she was as bewildered as I was. "Mrs. Horton just said to bring you to her apartment, and that Ah was supposed to stay for whatever it was she needed to discuss."

"What did you do this time?" I asked lightheartedly, trying to joke while my mind raced a million miles an hour to figure out what kind of trouble I was in, and why.

"Ah'm not the troublesome little sister here," Lanie shot right back with a grin. She reached up to knock on Mrs. Horton's door, but it swung open before her knuckles could rap on the heavy wooden portal.

"Come in, girls," our housemother said, standing to one side and gesturing in with a sweeping motion of her arms. "In the living room."

I pulled up short as I turned the corner, gawking at the figure sitting in one of Mrs. Horton's overstuffed chairs. My head swiveled back to Mrs. Horton.

"You kids need to talk about a few things," she said. "Sit, please." She looked at Lanie. "You, too, hon. You're involved in this a little bit, too."

I sat down on the sofa where she directed me - near Danny but not too close. Some familiar smell wafted through the air to my nostrils, causing me to wince. Lanie, sitting beside me, noticed too. "You smell like mah grandpappy's old still," she said almost nostalgically.

My jaw dropped open as my eyes went wide. "You ... you smell like ... like bourbon?" I gawked at him.

Danny wasn't looking at me; his eyes were downcast, avoiding meeting my gaze, and he both winced and blushed at my words.

"What ... what's going on?" I stammered, looking at Mrs. Horton as she eased herself into a chair beside Danny.

"Security found your brother ...," she began.

"She's not my sister!" Danny snapped, but as soon as he snarled at me, he cringed as if he had a massive headache.

"Security found Danny down in the tunnels late this morning, drunk as a skunk," Mrs. Horton explained. "We've been searching all over for him since he didn't show up in class yesterday morning. Thankfully, you two got back from your field trip about the time they found him," she added.

"Drunk?" I gaped at him; he blushed a little deeper shade of scarlet. "Where did he get ...?"

Mrs. Horton sighed. "He won't say, but we have our suspicions that he ran into one of our new students, a devisor with a talent for things ... brewed, fermented, and distilled," she explained. "Security hasn't caught him, but we think that 'Shine has ...."

"'Shine?" Lanie and I gawked at the same time.

"Short for moonshine," Mrs. Horton explained needlessly. "The administration is convinced he has a hidden lab where he's got a moonshining rig going, but they haven't caught him."

"Ah bet a couple of security guards are protectin' him in exchange for a little ... product," Lanie chuckled.

"Not important," Mrs. Horton got back to the subject at hand. "What is important is that Coyote is messing with your lives again, this time by explaining to Danny what happened."

"Selfish bitch!" Danny grumbled softly. "You didn't even think about me, did you?"

I winced because some of what he said was true. "I'm sorry, Danny," I said contritely, "but ... but it's very complicated."

"I bet!" Danny spat angrily. "Like you prefer rug-munching over being a guy, don't you!"

I just shook my head; with the mood Danny was in - somewhere between drunk and hung over - there was no point in discussing things, and getting angry at his name-calling wouldn't have helped at all.

"Danny," Lanie said, "you saw how worried your Ma and Pa were when Kayda got attacked, framed for murder, and had all those other problems, right?"

"Yeah," the boy grumbled. "So?"

"So, let me ask you - could you wish that on someone else? Could you wish to make a mother suffer through watching her daughter go through that?"

Danny looked up, glaring at Lanie, but beyond his jaw flapping a bit as he tried to speak, he didn't respond.

"If you were in Kayda's shoes," she continued, "could you wish that on a future wife? On a future daughter?" She looked straight in his eyes, and after a moment, he felt uncomfortable and looked down at his lap. "How would you feel if your child had to fight the water panther, or two snake-demons, or had someone try to frame him or her for murder simply because of tribal affiliations and old hatreds? You saw what those battles did to your Ma. You know how panicked she was when Kayda manifested and got run out of town. How heartbroken would you be if you chose that fate for your future child? Could you even consciously do that?"

Danny thought a moment, but then his thoughts circled back to his original anger. "But ... she made this all happen to me! If she had chosen to let Coyote fix things, I wouldn't be going through all the crap I have to put up with!"

"If you were a 'normal' boy, would you have a new 'sister' like Angel, who dotes on you because you're the only boy she can even be near, let alone hug? Would you have a friend like Ros, who absolutely adores you?" Mrs. Horton asked him questions that in his inebriated state he wasn't thinking about. "How much pure joy do you bring to their lives?"

"Only because I have to spend time as ... as her!" Danny spat, the words distasteful to him.

"Would you have the attention of dozens of girls on campus?" Lanie asked.

"Like having Wondercute dote on me is something to call a benefit!" he grumbled.

"Your spirit is teaching you how to defend yourself," I pointed out.

"And getting me detention because she has a temper!" he countered.

I shook my head sadly, looking at Mrs. Horton. "I give up. He's not listening."

Lanie wasn't so easily dissuaded, however. "Have you gotten laid since you changed?" she asked. Danny's scarlet cheeks were all the answer she needed.

Danny looked up at her in horror; he must have figured that his nocturnal encounters had been secret, and he was terrified that Mrs. Horton was going to tear him a new one over that disclosure and that possibly he'd be expelled for breaking the rules.

"Do you think you would have if you hadn't changed?" Lanie continued.

Mrs. Horton chose to ignore the disclosures of Danny's after-hours educational experiences. "Danny, last spring, when Kayda talked about getting away from the mutant-haters, she did nothing but gush about your courage, and how special a brother you are. That doesn't sound like someone who didn't think of you."

Lanie nodded. "How do you think Kayda feels, knowing that her choice was going to affect me whichever way she chose? Someone was going to be impacted, no matter her decision. Ah don't think she callously disregarded you when she was weighing the consequences of her decision. Not the way she talks about you."

From the look on Danny's face, absolute confusion at what he was hearing, I knew what I needed to do, especially when Lanie gave me a sharp elbow in the ribs. Crossing and squatting down in front of him, I took his hands in mine. "Danny, you're family! You're important to me! Of course I thought about you when Coyote made me choose, because you're my brother, and I love you - even if you sometimes are a brat!"

"But ... but I don't like this!" he complained. "I hate looking like a gay-boy! Getting teased all the time!"

"Just remember that the next time you put a smile on Angel's face," Mrs. Horton countered. "You're the only boy who can do that."

"Or the next time one of your harem of cute girls is playing kissy-face with you," Lanie chuckled. "Ah doubt you'd have so many girls going gaga over you if you hadn't changed like you did!"

I reached forward hesitantly, afraid of him brushing me off, and gave him a hug, clutching tightly to him in a show of familial love for the brat.

"You may not understand all the factors in Kayda's decision," Mrs. Horton said in a nice, soothing tone of voice, "but someday you will. And someday, you'll appreciate how hard a decision it was for Kayda."

Eventually, things were calmed enough that we left, after I thanked Mrs. Horton for intervening. "He'll have detention again," she cautioned us. "Administration has no doubt read the security reports, and they frown on students getting hammered."

Danny nodded. "I ... understand."

"Things would go easier for you if you'd just fess up to who you were with and where," Mrs. Horton suggested strongly. In response, Danny's expression became more stubborn and uncooperative; he was obviously not going to squeal on this 'Shine person.

"And you're apt to have a whale of a hangover tomorrow morning," Lanie added. "It's God's way of reinforcin' that getting too drunk is a bad idea."

We walked upstairs, with me holding Danny' arm reassuringly. "Are things okay?" I asked, worried.

Danny nodded. "I think so." He sighed. "I still don't like what happened, but ...." A wistful smile crossed his features, no doubt from thinking about the perks, like the herd of cute girls who doted on him, and who were more than willing to make-out with him. And more.

"Where'd you get the liquor?" Lanie asked at Hank's and Danny's door. Reading his expression, she smiled. "Ah'm no goin' to rat you out. Ah just might like to compare it to some bootleg whiskey mah grandpappy made."

"Was it that new kid, 'Shine?" I asked.

Danny nodded. "I ran down the tunnels so you wouldn't find me," he admitted, "and I bumped into him. He told me he had a cure for feeling so down, so we went to his lab." He looked at Lanie and me with a curious expression. "He's got a real cool setup - his devises let him make whiskey, bourbon, rye, vodka, brandy! And ... and he knows a lot of really ... interesting stories and jokes and limericks!" he added.

"You're supposed to drink the stuff, not bathe in it!" Lanie commented. "You need to take a shower, get on some clean clothes, and then drink a lot of water before going to bed."

I nodded my agreement. "Plan on sleeping in a long time tomorrow morning, and having a bad headache and upset stomach."

"Worse than this?" Danny asked nervously.

"You know how you felt when you had the headaches from Wihinape?"

"Yeah," Danny cringed.

"A bad hangover can be worse!" I cautioned him.

He looked distressed at that thought. "And you want to keep a trashcan by your bed," Lanie added. "In case you get sick."

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Saturday, September 22, 2007 - Noon
The Lake, near Whateley Academy

The lake was tranquil, a perfect setting for a picnic. Unlike other students who were enjoying the beach area, we hiked a bit to a cliff overlooking the lake that had a stunning view down over the azure water, and about half a mile beyond it, the tower of Melville and the glittering dome of Crystal Hall stuck out as spectacular landmarks. We had a lunch basket - actually, four large ones because of our energizers - and as it was a pleasant Autumn day, we didn't need jackets but at the elevation of the school, it wasn't warm enough for shorts. Not surprisingly, Ayla joined Addy for the picnic, but he brought his own 'special' lunch basket, probably with prosciutto and fancy cheese and such. We had fun teasing him about it, and he was a good sport, I think.

"I looked over the paper Addy wrote for your sim," Ayla noted when the subject turned to the dreaded sim analysis paper. "It looks reasonable."

"Translation - it's a damned good job," I chuckled.

Ayla didn't raise an eyebrow at my wisecrack. "I would have written the section on the contingency events differently, but you hit the main points."

Evvie smiled. "We got a few minutes with Hank," she explained. "Since he helped kick us around, we persuaded him ...."

"We got Lily to guilt him into helping us," Naomi finished with a giggle.

"Speaking of sims," I added, "Mule said he could meet Monday about an hour before dinner."

"Count me in," Evvie said quickly. Adrian and RPG chimed in affirmatively as well.

"We'll try to not drag it out so you can have dinner with Tansy and Elaine," Evvie added with a laugh.

"Say, I've been meaning to ask," Laurie had a quizzical look, "what's going on with you and those two? I know you're ... you know," she tried to tap-dance around the word, "and Elaine doesn't make a secret of the fact that she's bi. Are you three ... you know?" she asked hesitantly.

Jaws dropped as everyone thought the subject was a little improper. "No," I laughed. "There's nothing going on apart from Lanie and Tansy being friends. I am not having sexual congress with either of them!"

"Ooooh," Alicia replied immediately, "you've been hanging out with Ayla a bunch, haven't you? Sexual congress? Only Ayla would talk like that!"

"For your information," I went on as if Alicia hadn't said anything, "Lanie and I work on our cars together sometimes. It's more fun than working alone."

"How is your car coming along?" Ayla mercifully changed the subject.

"The engine is going reasonably well. I keep thinking of things I'd like to improve, and sometimes, I just wonder if I shouldn't scrap the motor I'm working on and buy one of the new LS6 instead. It doesn't have the cooling flow issue of the older 400, and it puts out 405 ponies stock. And I was reading about the new LS7 that's 427 cubic inches and puts out ...."

"And we've lost Kayda into car talk," Alicia commented as if she was a broadcast commentator, "so let's see who else has another interesting topic."

"You asked!" I replied, sticking my tongue out at my friend.

"Kayda has filed three patent applications," Ayla did change the subject, but I wasn't sure who, besides Naomi, was going to be interested.

"With 'elp from Ayla," Addy added proudly, snuggled up beside her boyfriend.

"I'm surprised Ayla has time to help you," Adrian said in a dry, British tone, "considering how much time he spends with Adalie!"

Adalie blushed furiously, but the rest of us chuckled.

"And of course, that means Addy doesn't have time to chaperone her little sister around your brother!" Laurie said with a grin. "I'm sure Danny likes that!"

"She is too young to 'ave a boyfriend!" Addy said snootily, like a protective mother. "'E is a nice-enough boy, but ...."

"Wait, are you saying my brother isn't good enough for your sister?" I feigned indignation. When Addy started to sputter that wasn't what she meant, I grinned. "Just kidding!"

"Thought we talk of magic charms," Vasiliy interjected. "So far, we talk of everything but."

I looked around, and everyone nodded; that was one of the goals for the picnic, besides a little fun and camaraderie. "Okay, we can do that."

"I want mine like a Harrier airplane," Adrian said eagerly.

"A cute little puppy," Laurie chimed in.

"Large wolf." "Heart." "A locket."

"Whoa, whoa!" I put up my hands as I spoke. "I could make your charms like anything, but it would be better if they were like your spirit guide."

"Spirit what?" Evvie and Naomi goggled at me.

"We aren't avatars!" Laurie added to the consternation.

"Spirit guides aren't the same as avatar spirits," Ayla countered the misunderstanding. "As I understand it, a spirit guide, or an animal guide, reflects your personality traits, or traits you would like to have. It's ...."

"It's avatar-lite," I finished. "It's kind of hard to explain. For example, a buffalo is symbolic of sacredness, life, strength, stability, and giving. Tatanka taught me that the buffalo gives of its own abundance to the People for food, shelter, clothing, many things. In the same way, I'm expected to give of myself to the People." I smiled at them. "And my friends."

"How do we find spirit guides?" Vasiliy asked the obvious question.

"Normally, they're found after weeks or months of meditating and thinking about your own self and characteristics, and thinking of the animal spirits that are a close match, and which have a trait or two that you wish to strengthen or emulate," I explained. "But since we don't have months, I will do a short dream walk that will show you the spirit, and explain what it means."

"Cool!" Evvie said enthusiastically. "Me first!" She noted that others were staring at her. "Well, when I roomed with her last year, I saw her doing her dream-walking all the time! I want to know what it's about!"

Looking around, I saw all of my friends eager to do the dream-walking thing that they'd heard so much about. It took only moments to make a very small cup of herbal tea, which I gave to Evvie. She hesitated, her courage wavering, and then she downed the beverage in one gulp. Her eyelids almost slammed shut, and she visibly relaxed; if she hadn't been sitting, she might have fallen.

Evvie looked around, showing curiosity, excitement, and a bit of trepidation all in one look. We were in what appeared to be foothills of some mountains, although I couldn't really tell which range. "Where are we?"

"I don't know. It's where your animal guide lives." As we looked around, I noticed something moving in the tall grass. "Over there!"

Slowly, a large tawny cat padded out of the grass, moving toward the trees, but pausing and looking at us, or more specifically, looking at Evvie.

"I thought Danny had the mountain lion spirit!" she protested as the cat disappeared into the trees.

"You have A cougar spirit guide. Danny has a major cougar spirit in his hallow. There's a huge difference."

"What does it mean?" Evvie asked. "Powers like your little brother?" She grinned. "Naomi might like it if I turn into a kitty girl!"

"Not like an avatar spirit. It simply means that you have some of the characteristics of the cougar - loyalty, leadership, courage, sense of responsibility, awareness and foresight."


The cougar turned to Evvie, reacting calmly to the girl's enthusiasm. "If you will follow, I will show you how to be more like me."

Evvie gulped and looked nervously at me. "Does this mean ... it's like your spirits? That you dream-walk with them?"

"No," the cougar answered before I could. "When you are troubled or confused, I will come to you in your dreams sometimes, to show you how to improve, to live your life more like I do."

Evvie looked at the cougar for a bit, then a smile dawned and it quickly became a full grin. "Cool!"

We dropped out of dream-space, and Evvie was grinning. "My spirit guide is a cougar!"

I grimaced at her pronouncement. "Spirit guides are a private thing," I interrupted before she could say more. "It's okay to tell people what your spirit animal is, and with the charms, it'll be hard to keep that a secret, you really shouldn't talk about what your spirit guide says or signifies to you."

Evvie blushed. "Oops," she blurted out. "Sorry."

Laurie went next - but how they decided, I had no idea. Having seen Evvie come through a quick dream walk, she was impatient for me to brew some tea for her.

Instead of a prairie, we were in a garden, and from the looks of it, it was a rather lush garden with many rather colorful flowers. Laurie looked around, confused. "I thought you said I'd meet ...." she started to say.

I just smiled and pointed to one large firebush. "There."

Laurie turned, and her brow wrinkled. "Where?" Then she noticed the motion among the flowers as a tiny and very colorful bird darted among them, pausing and hovering to get its fill of nectar. "A ... hummingbird?"

I could tell what she was thinking, that Evvie got a cool spirit guide like a cougar, and she got a wimpy little hummingbird.

The bird flew toward us, hovering momentarily in front of her before it perched on a finger I held up for it. "I may be small," it squeaked in a determined voice, "but looks can be deceiving."

"Thanagila," I added, "has many important lessons for the People. She has a sense of energy and vitality that many of the animal spirits lack. She is affectionate, as evidenced by her sitting on my finger, and she can be very playful."

The little bird nodded. "The Ptesanwi thinks that you share many of these qualities. If so, and if you accept, I will come to your dreams to help you learn more, healer."

"What?" Laurie's eyes bulged at that word. "I didn't ...."

"You didn't have to. Thanagila knows that you are a healer, as is she."

Laurie looked at the tiny bird for a moment, and then began to smile. "Yeah," she said enthusiastically. "I'd like that."

No sooner were we out of dream-space than Laurie was practically babbling. "Mine is a hummingbird! She's cute, and so full of energy!"

"That fits you," Adrian said, smiling.

"Oh?" Addy and Alicia both said, waggling their eyebrows suggestively. Laurie just stuck her tongue out at them, while Adrian's cheeks turned scarlet.

"Me next," Alicia said eagerly, beating the others by a bit, so I gave her the next small cup of tea. I was really burning essence with these short dream-walks; it took just as much to get another person into dream space for a minute as it did for a night.

"Where is it? What is it?" Alicia asked excitedly. We were near a small lake, with cat-tails reaching up into the air from the shallows of the water. From among the stalks, a small insect, long, with four impressive translucent wings, flitted.

"The dragonfly," I said, not taking my focus off the insect.

"A dragonfly?" Alicia sounded like she wasn't sure. "Kinda small, aren't they?"

"Some folks say that during the Jurassic and Triassic periods, dragonflies were the size of medium birds."

"Y'all are just makin' that up!" she shot back, trying to be serious, but a grin broke through none-the-less.

I shrugged and smiled. "Maybe." With a look back to the insect, I continued. "Dragonflies as spirit guides symbolize being flighty and carefree joyous and light-hearted. At the same time, those with a dragonfly guide are supposed to have strong imaginations and high aspirations."

"Like mah wantin' t' be a great artist someday?"

I nodded. "Exactly like that. You have to have a good imagination and a strong desire to succeed to make it as an artist." I smiled. "Imp really got to you last spring, didn't she?"

"She's a great teacher!" Alicia beamed. "Ah love her class!"

So far, everyone was pretty accurate at guessing how well the spirit guides fit, either to the person's own self-image, or to what others recognized in them but they needed to see themselves. Adalie took the next turn.

Based on watching Hatari with my family about a gazillion times, I guessed from the landscape that we were on the African savannah. The dust and odd trees seemed to match that movie's landscape.

As soon as I saw the animal, I knew that my guess was right - they were found mostly in Africa, and southwest Asia. From the long swept-back horns to the antelope-like body, there was no doubt that we were looking at a gazelle, even though neither Addy or I could identify the specific type, but that really didn't matter for animal guides.

"Why an antelope?" Addy asked. "I thought I would 'ave something like a cheetah, something fast!"

The animal turned toward Addy and darted to her. "You think I'm not fast?" it asked, sounding rather disappointed.

"My focus has been on North American animals," I confessed with a wince, "so I don't know a lot about the gazelle."

"There are those who say that I am quick and graceful," the gazelle said meekly. "And aware of my surroundings."

"I suppose if you had lions and cheetahs trying to eat you, you'd have to be fast," I joked. "I bet Ayla could attest to your quickness!" Addy wasn't amused; she stuck her tongue out at me. "And aware - so you weren't taken by surprise." I grinned at Addy. "Those sound like useful traits, kind of like someone I know."

"I thought you said I was not aware of things around me!" Addy said with a pout.

"Then I will help you learn," the gazelle said. "You seem eager ...."

"That depends," Addy said hesitantly.

"And how to overcome any vulnerabilities you might have."

"Like ... taking firearm and martial arts courses so you can better defend yourself?" I joked.

When Laurie guessed that the gazelle represented quickness, at least Evvie and Adrian shot knowing glances at Ayla. If they expected a reaction from the junior tycoon, they didn't get one; Ayla's well-schooled facial muscles didn't betray even the slightest hint of embarrassment at their implied innuendo.

"My turn next?" I nodded and handed Vasiliy a freshly-brewed small cup of tea.

The prairie looked familiar, and yet there was something that told me that it wasn't the upper Midwest. "Do you recognize this?" I asked the Russian boy.

"Appears to be steppes of Eurasia," he replied. His jaw dropped, and he pointed at an animal. "Is badger, da?"

I gawked - that had to be the biggest badger I'd ever seen, and I knew the reputation of badgers for ferocity. Hoka was very respected among the People as a fighter, giving the name to the warrior society I belonged to. "It's ... big."

"Am understanding that our badgers bigger than American badgers," Vasiliy said with a hint of smug pride.

"If you tell me 'it was inwented in Russia'," I said in mock seriousness, "I will slap you!"

The Russian boy's eyes widened as he cogitated for a moment. "Am not Pavel Chekov," he chuckled, "even if it is true!"

"You're a nerd, just like the rest of us!"

"Why badger?" Vasiliy asked.

"Why a badger?" the animal asked, having watched us with a strangely smug expression. "Because you have courage, tenacity, confidence in your fighting, and aggressiveness."

"Makes sense," the boy said.

"But you lack focus."

"Except for Chat Bleu," I laughed.

"You are solitary as well," the animal said.

"No, I'm not!"

I smiled, trying to look friendly and not judgmental. "How long and hard have you been trying to get her attention? You aren't exactly a social butterfly."

The Russian scowled at me, but I could see in his eyes that he was thinking of what he'd heard instead of making some angry rebuttal. "Is possible."

"I won't tell the others," I promised him.

No sooner had we gotten back to the real world than Vasiliy was besieged with questions from our curious teammates. "Is badger," he said, trying to suppress a smile. He shot me a glance. "Kayda says I am like badger in solitary nature, that I am not ... society butterfly?"

"Social butterfly," I corrected him gently. "The badger isn't the most social of animals," I explained, since he'd brought it up. "So our Russian friend is working on it."

"Based on how you're doing with Chat Bleu," Adrian said with a grin and a waggle of the eyebrows, "I'd say you're making progress!"

"Now me?" Naomi asked.

I instantly recognized the river where Naomi and I sat in dream-space. It was the same riverbank where Debra and I had played with Ptan, the otter, and her son. "Ptan!" I called out with a smile. "I am here with a friend!"

The otter's head popped up from the water, searching around before quickly settling her gaze upon the two of us. She eagerly dove back underwater, swimming toward us.

"An otter?" Naomi asked, wide-eyed. "Didn't you tell us about the otter?"

I nodded. "She's very friendly and playful." As I spoke, Ptan scrambled up the bank to us, and almost immediately behind her was her son. "This isn't just an otter animal guide. This is Ptan, a major spirit to the Lakota. The fact that she chose you is an honor!"

"I am honored to meet a friend of the Ptesanwi," Ptan said, bowing her head. "I hope I can be a worthy spirit guide for you."

"What ... what will you teach me?" Naomi didn't sound as much afraid as she did worried that she might not live up to my expectations, since I knew Ptan.

"You are already playful and friendly," Ptan replied, smiling. "You are helpful, and you try to live with joy. Those things you do not need to learn. You are sharing as well. You either love the young, as I do, or you have not yet learned that about yourself."

"Me? With kids?" Naomi asked hesitantly.

"If Ptan thinks you will be good with young, then you will be."

"The otter," Naomi said simply when we returned. "Playful and helpful." I saw the glance she exchanged with Evvie, so I figured I'd talk with my fellow Poesies later. I might even have to dream-walk with Naomi and give her a more personal introduction to Ptan.

Adrian was last, and he seemed most reluctant to get a spirit animal. If I would have guessed, I would think that he was hoping for a hawk or eagle - some majestic bird, since he was a flier. But one never knew, and his spirit animal might not even be a flier. There was perhaps a little anxiety about drawing an embarrassing animal guide.

"Your turn," I said, handing him a fresh cup. He glanced very nervously at Laurie, but she smiled and nodded, encouraging him. Drawing a deep breath and slowly exhaling, he swigged the small cup of herbal tea.

"Why are we in a duck blind?" Adrian asked as soon as he recognized the setting.

I looked around across the water, which was still and empty, but then I heard honking, so I looked up. With a grin, I pointed skyward, but Adrian had already heard the geese and was looking their way.

One of the geese broke out of the vee that was approaching to land on the water, flying instead toward us, and it somewhat gracefully landed on the water in front of the blind.

"A ... goose?" Adrian sounded rather dismayed.

"Why not?" I asked. "The goose is very reliable, prudent, and vigilant. Tell me you don't try to display those characteristics in our training and simulations."

"You are steadfast and loyal, right?" the goose asked. "You work with your team well, not trying to take all the glory, right?"

Adrian nodded, mute and concerned what else he might find out about the goose, and perhaps about himself.

"You have the fellowship thing down pat," I said with a smile, "since you're so genial."

"You will be an excellent parent, someday," the goose added, which caused Adrian's jaw to drop. Okay, my jaw dropped a bit, too.

"Um, can you not tell the others about that?" Adrian beseeched me. No doubt the only one who would hear of it might be Laurie. Maybe.

When Adrian said that his guide was the goose, I saw a curious expression on Laurie. No doubt they'd have some conversation about all the characteristics that they'd heard of, all the lessons they might or would be learning. Whether that would be meaningful or not was up to the fates; high-school romances were notoriously short-lived and it wasn't likely that they'd be together for much longer. On the other hand, I don't think anyone ever looked at the same phenomenon among mutants; perhaps because we felt like an oppressed minority, it might make bonds stronger and more permanent. Only time would tell.

"Okay, your turn," I said, turning to Ayla.

"I'm not on your team," Ayla replied calmly. "So there's no reason for me to seek a spirit animal."

"Oh, come on," Addy pleaded, batting her doe-eyes at him as she clung to his arm. "It'll be fun!"

"I thought I was going to help you figure out which power-boosts would be useful to have bound to each of your charms," he said.

Despite encouragement from Evvie, Naomi, Addy, and me, Ayla declined. I got the impression that he was nervous about finding out that his animal spirit, if he believed in that, would display feminine characteristics and traits. He had the excuse that we were focused on our simulation team. I shrugged, letting the conversation turn toward our team needs.

Since we were the Ghost Walkers, everyone would have a ghost-walking charm, with my shield and ghost-walking spells built in. That left the other spell which I would bind into a custom charm for each, shaped like their spirit animals to personalize them. I'd already figured that, based on the amount of Mishibijiw copper I had, I could easily make two charms for everyone on the team, and have a bunch left over for other purposes. I figured Cait would want some in payment for helping work on the charms, and I wanted gifts for Lanie, Tansy, and Wyatt. I also figured I'd give a minor charm to Ayla as a token of thanks for all the help he'd provided both last term and so-far this term.

Based on the two sims we had suffered through, we'd already thought quite a bit about where we needed help. Evvie was a brick, so she had a laundry list of desirable abilities - speed, magic resistance, telepathy. I immediately ruled out telepathy based on how taboo that was among shamans; not only didn't I know the spells, I knew better than to ask Wakan Tanka about them. Addy wanted more strength to go with her speed, to be able to put some power behind her attacks. Alicia was absolutely insistent on having some esper ability, which required a long discussion with Wakan Tanka. In the end, she agreed that limited esper abilities wouldn't violate the sanctity of privacy.

Laurie wanted more healing, but since she already had that talent and since I was a backup healer for the group, psi resistance would be handier. Since I'd worked that particular spell for myself, it would be easy to cast on her charm.

Vasiliy sensibly wanted a less-lethal attack, and after a lot of discussion, we figured that I could copy Debra's power of a 'force punch' type of attack to go with his ghost-walking charm. Naomi was interested in healing magic, too, but we talked her out of that, since we had both Laurie and me as healers. She debated between psi and magic resistance, going back and forth as we all commented, but she ended up deciding on magic resistance. Finally, Adrian wanted some kind of attacks like Bomber, but that was going to be tough, and we already had Vasiliy for ranged attacks. Instead, as Ayla pointed out, additional maneuverability in flight could really help him. Since he'd seen our paper, he knew the difficulty Adrian had had with Bomber.

"Now this is not a permanent power-up!" I cautioned. "You're going to get at most five minutes of power out of the charm, and you're going to have to get them charged every day." Despite my having said that dozens of times, there were some looks of disappointment; I think at least Vasiliy and Naomi were hoping for something more like a power gem. Instead, they had to think of the charms as 'get out of jail free' cards.

"Can't you make them attract essence?" Evvie asked hopefully.

I started to shake my head, but Ayla interrupted. "You could ask. Some power-artifacts do have the ability to attract essence, albeit very slowly."

That surprised me; I obviously hadn't studied that aspect of magic as much as Ayla had, but then again, with the Wiz power, I didn't need to. Ayla, on the other hand, as a Wiz-0, really could use something that would attract essence, even if it was only at a low rate. "I'll have a chat with Caitlin," I concurred. In a way, I hoped that I could make the charms do that, because I knew precisely what I'd give Ayla the next time a gift was called for.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Medawihla Reservation, New Hampshire

The shaman-hunter was almost drooling - he could practically taste two shamans in the area. Two powerful shamans. Unhcegila had promised him one - the Ptesanwi - but two? It was far more than the snake had promised him, and he struggled to control himself. True, the shaman's magic couldn't hurt him, but some shamans could still be dangerous fighters. He had to force himself to be patient to ensure that he had the element of surprise.

As he climbed down the side of a mountain, homing in on the taste of the shaman, he felt some evil around him, something that tasted familiar, something he'd felt millennia ago, at a different time, before the world was shattered. It felt like ....

He snarled, a roar that echoed through the mountain, a chilling, unearthly sound that frightened the Medawihla children while the adults trembled, looking around nervously. His cry was a warning to the 'others' that he was on the hunt, and they should stay away from his prey, that they should not interfere in his hunt. Or he would do to them what he had done to shamans from time immemorial.

He suddenly became aware that there was a third shaman, a weak one whose presence had been masked by the two strong ones. Instinctively, Kigatilik ignored the weak one and continued toward the strong shamans, who seemed to be close to one another. He dragged himself forward, toward a rock wall, ignoring the small creatures that poked around, growling and snarling nearby but wisely staying clear of the white monstrosity. The third shaman could wait until after he destroyed the first two.

Something pushed him back from the rock wall, and the shaman-hunter growled again. He pressed a clawed hand toward the invisible barrier, and snarled as he pressed into it. He recognized it immediately as shaman magic. With a howl of rage, he clawed at the energy field, and as expected, the shaman magic ripped easily, leaving a hole in the protective ward.

Snarling, Kigatilik climbed through the opening he'd made. The shamans were close. Very close. It was only a matter of time now.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007 - Early Afternoon
East of Whateley Academy, near the Medawihla Reservation

Charlie Lodgeman

Diamondback smiled as Charlie Lodgeman coaxed the spirit closer. She stayed very still as she marveled at how vibrantly different the animal spirits that the old shaman could call upon were from the emotional, conceptual and sedentary spirits that normally existed around Whateley. She stayed incredibly still because the small, vibrant thing was incredibly leery of the massive anaconda-viper thing with one side always in its world.

"Not quite the squirrel I was expecting. I thought Zica would come, not Ratatoskr. He's a long way from home."

"Weren't you the one telling me that just because you were summoning a squirrel spirit, doesn't guarantee which one will answer?" Sandra watched quietly.

The small spirit chittered at her. The squirrel looked old, wizened and scarred, like he'd seen both the beginning and the end. She imagined him like a tiny lecturer, giving advice to young squirrels who would never listen until their twilight years when they had their own children who would repeat the cycle of not listening. He also seemed leery of getting too close.

Lodgeman chuckled. "Indeed. Can you understand what he's saying?"

"Not a bit," Sandra smiled, "But I get the feeling that he's dubious about whether his lessons will be wasted on the young. He also doesn't trust me, probably because of Jormungandr, who I would resemble depending on which version of the legend you listen to."

The little grey creature shifted and his coat went red, like a local squirrel. His attitude never changed, but he looked at her as though seeing her for the first time. He chittered at her, almost as though acknowledging her point then darted off. A few moments later, he was back. This time, a second spirit was with him, one that seemed smaller, younger.

The two of them were shooting nervous glances at the snoring monster that was Razorback not twenty feet away. "She asked Ratatoskr to check out the snake girl, didn't she?"

"Yes, she did. His ability to slip between worlds means he's a very hard little fellow to catch." Lodgeman was careful to settle in without tearing up the working that allowed him to perceive the Astral space around Whateley Academy the way that Diamondback did. "Can't blame her for being cautious; snakes are spirits of healing, but they also are rather dispassionate about life and death, or eating whatever they can."

Sandra chuckled. "Well from what you've told me, it's me being human in mind that makes most of the spirits really cautious. Something about never knowing what a human will do?"

"So you were paying attention. I thought you were a bit preoccupied at the time."

She held a hand out. "I will not harm either of you tonight, deliberately. I'm here to learn, not to hunt." She wasn't quite certain that either understood her until the old one darted forward, hopped up on her hand, and Zica followed.

"Each of the spirits of the People, and even the ones revered or once-revered by other people in other places, have a purpose, a meaning. Each one represents a lesson that can be learned as well as being the archetype for the behavior of the animal in the real world." Lodgeman found Diamondback to be respectful, eager to learn, and careful, traits almost never seen amongst astrally active exemplars.

"Zica reminds me of Aquerna."

The little squirrel chittered excitedly, and Sandra got the distinct impression that Zica took that as a compliment. "Yeah I like her too. But you're the one with her, aren't you?" She looked at Ratatoskr quietly. "She's always watching, always learning, and the more she learns the harder she is for someone to pin down. Learning about all the worlds."

Diamond smirked as Ratatoskr chittered at her, admonishing her not to tell. He chittered in a way that told her he intended Aquerna to learn to play and be a child before he taught her to do anything else. Greater lessons could wait until adulthood, when she was ready.

She didn't know how the hell she understood the little creature. She just did. "Don't worry, I won't tell her just yet."

The mollified, grizzled old squirrel hopped down with Zica as Razorback stirred, startling the two spirits as they darted away to a safe distance from the mottled raptor-monster that was Jack, and his own enigmatic monster spirit. As the most heavily GSD kid of Outcast Corner stood and yawned, Diamond could see the spirit mimic the motion perfectly, its fury chained to Jack's mind, giving it sentience that it lacked on its own.

"And then there's Razorback." Lodgeman shook his head and chuckled mildly. "Hope we weren't boring you, boy."

Razor, being a shit, smacked his jaws and then nodded frantically with a predator's grin. -Hard to stay awake during a lecture about things you're not capable of seeing.-

"Which brings me back to why I called Zica here," Lodgeman said. "The spirits most shamans call upon exist at different layers of the Astral. What you see is where thought becomes reality, intent becomes will, self-loathing becomes a nest of Calibans." He gave her the gimlet eye.

Sandra winced. "Hey, they were preying on all of us!"

"I'm not exactly going to chew on you for wiping out a nest of self-expressing spiritual parasites, but can you be a little more discreet next time?"


The chittering from Ratatoskr had a distinctive "She's smarter than she looks" vibe.


"I thought you couldn't understand what he was saying," Lodgeman said sarcastically.

"Not the way you or I understand each other. More ... gut feeling? Intuition?"

Charlie nodded. "Everyone sees it differently. If you meet a spirit in your dream space, you would be talking, not interpreting each other."

"What does a dream space look like?"

"You wouldn't see it unless someone had retreated into theirs. In the Physical realm they would be asleep, or stopped as though they were having a petit mal seizure, and in the Astral realm you would see ..."

"The greyspace bubbles like I see around Kayda on occasion?" Sandra postulated.

"Don't poke them. It's very rude," Charlie cautioned her.

"I don't even understand fully what they are," the girl said, wrinkling her nose.

"A safe space for your mind, sort of like some people describe a mind-palace. Similar, but not exactly that."

Diamondback nodded. "I can only see the shallows of the Astral planes, you said. What other layers are there?"

Charlie nodded. "You see the place where spirits are born as concepts, products of thought. Most mages who do their workings and ‘create' the spirits they summon do so at this level. What they don't realize that some of the things they call reside in higher or lower layers of the Astral, and create an Avatar here in the shallows to interact with the physical world. Grimes and Chulkris argue the point with me, but we're old and set in our ways. I know what I know, they know what they know."

"I don't know jack all." Diamondback shook her head. "Would it be possible for me to see these other layers?"

"Not without help, no. Someone would have to draw your consciousness with theirs hand-in-hand to a dream space or astral layer for you to fully interact with it. Kayda could probably do so, or Louis."

Diamondback shook her head. "I like Fuub well enough, but I'd like to be comfortable in my current state before I go exploring. And I just don't want to mess with Kayda, not after that whole set up for Heyoka, being outed as gay to the bullies, having been ...," Diamond looked like she was chewing a bitter pill. "I'd rather not dump more shit into her lap. It feels cruel."

"There's more to it than that, but I imagine she'd appreciate the sentiment." Lodgeman paused a moment. "But ... perhaps her guiding you, showing you other realms, would help her in her lessons." He smiled as he considered it. "Since I'm her advisor, I'll discretely inquire."

She nodded. "Any insights into bored butthead here?" Diamondback very carefully changed the subject from the girl who, after being badgered in an assembly of students and teachers by an MCO asshole who'd been violating every rule under creation to dig at her, screamed out in frustration that she'd been gang-raped,

Razorback was busy pantomiming dying of boredom. Both of the squirrels were chittering at him with an appearance of profound disapproval.

Diamondback shook her head at the two squirrels. "If he could see you or understand you, the scolding would only make it more fun for him. He's a goofy boy."

Razor shrieked in protest. -I am the very model of a good student.-

"Of pranking."

-You're just jealous because the voices don't talk to me.-

"Razorback's spirit is old, dangerous. I, personally, have never seen his like. Ratatoskr calls him a Pack-Stalker, specifically the Alpha Stalker. It's a reference I am unfamiliar with."

"Caitlin said she saw something like him in an old Center-Court sculpture, along with a woman who looked an awful lot like Noms. She was treating the Raptor-things like pets in the sculpture apparently," Diamondback explained.

-I totally wouldn't cry if Noms wanted to pet me.-

"Nah, she just used you like a giant body pillow."

Lodgeman listened to the two chittering squirrels. Their intent seemed discussion, but their current level of communication didn't exactly leave much room for discourse over fine details.

"If Razor is of the Center Court, that might actually explain a lot about why the lot of you are constantly hunting on the Medawihla tribal grounds. Burning things that shouldn't be woken up?"

"What's the Center Court?"

"If anyone could actually fully explain that question, they'd probably make bank on the lecture circuit." Lodgeman gestured at the two spirits seemingly arguing. "The two of them think he's center court as well. Pack-Stalkers were created to hunt things that do not belong in this world. The Alpha was the one created to strike down things lesser creatures could not handle."

-Yay, I'm famous. Who wants an autograph?- Razor dropped to his side, using the rocks on the ground to scratch an itch along his back.

"Can it, death breath."

-You should talk miss carnivore,- he didn't bother to get up to respond.

"The two of them really aren't sure if Razorback is what they think, or an evolution thereof, or something else birthed in the Dream. In any case, the spirit is powerful, but it's not exactly a genius on its own."

Sandra smirked. "Hear that Razor? You're not a ..." She stopped dead in her sentence as a soul-shattering roar was heard, sounding like something that was trying to rip at the very fabric of reality.

Razor froze, his crocodile-slitted eyes narrowing to razor-edges as he rolled onto his feet, and answered, shrieking back into the night while the flickering pop of wards being rent too closely flickered across Sandra's vision.

"The Shaman-Killer ..." Lodgeman breathed. His face was ghost-white and his voice trembled while the wards sizzled and popped. He looked at the two children standing beside him. "Sandra, Jack, run back to the school. I'll hold him off. RUN!"

The two Outcasts watched him prepare his medicine pouch and drop out of the Astral hangout that he was sharing with Sandra, and he drew himself up. Diamondback could feel the pants-wetting fear radiating from the old man even as Jack smelled the man's terror.

The two Outcasts set themselves between Lodgeman and the oncoming demon with a violent intensity that neither had been able to muster since both had fought a running battle to save as many lives as they could, half a world away.

"Like hell!" Sandra answered as Jack set himself, stomping one foot to dig in for traction, then the other before dropping to all fours, growling like a mad dog. "Whatever that is, Jack's answering, and I'm not leaving him behind!"

"Sandra you can't fight Kigatilik ...." His voice trailed off as the monster crashed into the clearing - blue, glacial-ice claws and fangs led the beast that resembled nothing so much as an abominable snowman made from hard-packed winter snow, compressed around a skeleton carved from the heart of a glacier.

It was both beautiful, and terrible. And Lodgeman's spell to banish the thing popped helplessly like a ball of fluff flung to stop an oncoming train.

Razorback roared then charged, claws tearing furrows in the earth as the speedster went from zero to "You're gonna fuckin' die!" in under a second.

"Kigatilik is here for me, not for you! Run, Damn you!"

Diamondback watched as Jack slammed into the abominable snowthing, and popped her neck. "Not leaving you here to die." Her voice was final as she shrieked like a banshee, slamming her essence-loaded bracers together and then ripping her hands away, flinging a wave of emerald force at the monster, which slammed into it and sent it sprawling.

"I'm not a shaman, bitch!" Diamondback drew her cards and found a particular card, and then she started hissing syllables while the massive thing tried to smash Razorback into the ground. "The tower! I offer thee ruin! Let thy evil come back to you threefold!" she roared as she channeled all of her personal essence into one spell, flinging the card contemptuously at the monster, then slithered in closer.

"Razorback! Juggler time!"

Lodgeman breathed a sigh of relief as the two children locked on and tore into the monster. He looked around for something, anything he could use to fight. Totem wasn't going down without a fight, nor would he abandon the children in his charge to fight alone.

"Blood-Sister, Blood-Brother, I place myself in your care. Lend me your aid as you can, and see me through this challenge. I give my brother, the Bard, my strength and my arm. Come to us and show your fury!"

Lodgeman never could understand how some people could fight and cast simultaneously as Diamondback invoked something on the odd wheel-tattoo the Outcasts all shared - seven hands grasping another's wrist to form the spokes of a wheel, an unbroken circle.

At Diamond's invocation, her essence batteries flickered and died and something in Whateley answered.

Lodgeman watched Kigatilik slam his claws across Razorback, the gashes icing up even as his capacity for regeneration absorbed the wounds rapidly, but since he was reptilian, the cold would take its toll. Diamondback slammed the beast's arm with her tail, sending snow and shattered ice caroming across the landscape while the serpentine Outcast spit venom into Kigatilik's eyes.

Razorback came up screaming, raging, his limbs raking the beast's body like an obscene, murderous snow-blower, but a backhand from the monster shattered his bones and sent him flying. He was much slower getting up this time.

Lodgeman blinked, then cursed as he watched Kigatilik try to grab and bite Diamondback. The girl's insane reflexes smashed his claws away, and then she cracked him in the jaw twice before the viper-quick girl darted under him like a serpent sliding into the grass.

Charlie grinned. He couldn't assault Kigatilik directly ... But he didn't have to.

He only had to delay until the invoked reinforcements arrived. Blood-brother circles were dangerous, but there were fewer things better for striking demons low. Lodgeman began to chant, roaring out the words in his native language, calling upon the ancestors of all of the tribes of the People, while the two monstrous children battled a monster that was beyond even their ferocity.

Razorback was up and moving, body crackling with witchfire as the magic gripped him, and the most ferocious Outcast became a force of nature, channeling the spirit of warriors long dead, roaring and leaping into the fray as Totem gave him the strength to carry on fighting even as the cold leeched his ability to move. His assault upon Kigatilik would be impossible to ignore.

Diamondback's body crackled with lightning as the spirits of shamans and medicine men from time forgotten poured essence into her being. For just a few moments, she knew what it felt like to be Nikki Reilly as the magic poured into her well in quantities she'd never even imagined.

The two Outcasts erupted into a scene of violence that eclipsed anything that they had been in save Reaper's assault. Razorback dove in on Kigatilik, whose body regenerated even as it leeched the heat from the world around it, and smashed into the monster's leg, ripping it apart as Diamondback flung lightning and force into Kigatilik's form. The two Outcasts lost themselves in the moment, burning like stars as they tore the monster apart, and crashed its broken body to the earth.

The magic rush of power faded after a moment, and the two exhausted children slumped a bit. Razorback was barely able to move. Diamondback was shivering, but relieved to be alive. They relaxed prematurely.

"Look out!" Charlie screamed as the air rippled, and the cold became Arctic in the span of an instant as the shattered form of Kigatilik lurched and slammed its claws into Razorback, digging in and leeching the heat from the raptor-like boy as Sandra shrieked in outrage.

The battle joined again, only this time, the lethal form of Razorback fell to the earth, torpid and unmoving, the victim of a cold his reptilian anatomy was never meant to cope with. Diamondback was in a violent panic, her aggressive thrashing the only thing keeping the Shaman-Killer from overwhelming her.

Even as Sandra took several wounds, she kept fighting, never stopping even as her core temperature dropped, her body slowed. Lodgeman poured his magic to counteract the hypothermia in the girl, but it was a losing battle.

"Kigatilik it's me you want, come and get ..."

A loud tearing sound and a flash of burning white streaked past him, and struck Kigatilik in the shoulder, shattering the arm and blasting the fragments across the area. More cold came, and the arm grew back, almost as fast as it was lost.

"Enough of this," the voice spoke Inuit, but it was a horror. "Die, Shaman."

The spear of ice erupted from Kigatilik, tearing through the space to pierce his heart, but a red-and-white painted, armored form interposed itself between him and the demon, and the icy spear shattered on Jericho's adamant shield.

"No one's dying on my watch. Let's go, Bumble, let's see if you bounce!" Jericho's words punctuated with sirens as the stylized angel charged at the enemy.

The black-leather clad form that raced past him silently didn't bother with words, but Charlie breathed a sigh of relief as Eldritch leaped into Kigatilik's face, laying into the monster with her quake-stick, a nightstick that laid into its targets with the shockwaves of an earthquake.

Jericho's armored form hit Kigatilik in the chest and drove it back, away from the two fallen Outcasts, allowing Diamondback's wounded form to drag herself over to Razorback, and desperately focusing the small amounts of essence she could muster, she channeled it directly into Razorback to try and stabilize him while her two friends fought the titan behind her.

"Where's Noms and Dimes?" Caitlin subvocalized.

"They were already in the simulator cradles when we got the pulse. They gotta convince Gunny to let them out before they can come."

Jericho blasted Kigatilik in the face with the Core Ejector Slapdash had built him, burning a pinhole through the snow that made the monster's flesh, doing superficial damage. Caitlin went for the beast's knees, shattering the joints, and the two fought the shaman-killer to a standstill while the monster regenerated at a pace that was just unfair.

Lodgeman calmly knelt next to Diamondback. "I'll see to Razor. How are you with fire spells?"

"I have no essence to do that." She looked at him desperately.

"Then take mine." Charlie put a hand on Diamondback's shoulder and she felt the surge of energy rip through her with an intensity that was not quite as violent and volatile as Caitlin's own flood. She could manage this better.

As Diamondback watched her two friends battle the beast, she hissed the syllables of a spell she'd only ever used once to test, and she formed a ball of pure fire between her hands. When she deemed it big enough, she tripled it. As Caitlin always told her, "there's no kill like overkill."

Diamondback howled and threw the ball of flame right at Kigatilik, between her friends. The monster's eyes went wide, and a frightful scream erupted from its throat as the arcanist girl's fire struck him square in the chest. In the erupting explosion of light and heat, there was a brief flash of an icy, blue skeleton, then not even that as the fireball engulfed the monster. Unfortunately, the fireball also swallowed Caitlin and Jericho.

When the smoke and steam cleared, Lodgeman was staring at her. "Why didn't you warn them?" he asked incredulously.

As Diamond pointed at the two figures standing, the singed, smoldering Caitlin simply spat on the ground where the beast had been burned down. "Both of my friends are fireproof," Diamondback grinned, then slumped and as exhaustion overtook her.

As she passed out, she realized she'd never seen the dancing lights of the aurora in the sky before.

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Monday, September 24, 2007 - After Classes
Beck Library, Whateley Academy

A pair of eyes glanced up occasionally from the reading table, watching the Lakota girl going straight to the magical arts section. Curiosity would eventually prevail, he knew; he had to be patient.

He didn't have to see to know that the girl had 'found' the book that an unwitting accomplice had planted in the section on shaman magic; it was ensorcelled, so he could track it. Still, he couldn't help but smile faintly to himself when he watched her walking back toward the checkout counter with two books, one of which had the innocuous title "Shamanic Self-Defense". It was far from an innocuous book, however - it very lightly touched into forbidden 'dark' magic.

He played a long game; the girl was being advised by Lodgeman and Grimes, and they'd know if she suddenly rushed into mythos-level magic. He would be patient, feeding her little bits of spell-craft and forbidden knowledge, until she was thoroughly ensnared in it. This was not like his grooming of Hekate; that girl had harbored anger and resentment toward many, and it hadn't taken much fanning the flames of revenge to get her hooked. The Lakota girl, though, had gone through a lot of healing of her scars, and she didn't bear much anger. And now, if the rumors were correct, her insecurities were significantly abated, so he couldn't play on those.

But the brother .... Evil thoughts coalesced. If her brother was threatened, she'd come to his defense. That would be one path to get her using the dark magic. And he knew just the people to needle and push to set them off bullying the brother.

It was all starting to come together, just as he'd planned.

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Monday, September 24, 2007
The Astral / Spirit Plane

The spirit of the shaman-hunter pulled itself into a dark corner of the spirit plane, a recess that few spirits dared to near, a nook that exuded such vile evil and hatred and disgust that even wicked spirits found it distasteful. And yet, it was here that Kigatilik found himself, retreating to familiar safety as he licked his wounds. The simultaneous attacks in the physical and astral planes by the snake-girl had taken him totally by surprise; shamans fought in one or the other, never both simultaneously. And the Pack Stalker - he struggled to remember the last time he saw such a creature on the lands.

His spirit badly wounded, the shaman-killer contemplated the battle. The snake-girl and the Pack Stalker - they were both creatures of the warmth, creatures of the sun. As he'd seen, if one took away their warmth, they lost their power. The other two - the human and the stone golem - were also dangerous, but they, like all the mightiest warriors of the past, couldn't match his power. When they struck in the physical world, he'd just attack in the astral. If they ventured into the astral, they would be in his realm, and if they weren't with the snake-girl, they'd be easy to defeat.

For now, he had to analyze what he'd done wrong. Most shamans considered Kigatilik to be a monster driven in his bloodlust for their magic energy, and while that was true, he was clever in his madness. If not for the interference, he could have easily devoured the powerful shaman. And the other shaman, the one who was nearby and whose spirit was even stronger? He'd be more careful next time.

He had time to plan, to regenerate, and then return to his prey. And if he did it right, he could unleash his most fearsome weapon, the one against which even a shaman had few defenses, the weapon that would incapacitate the snake-girl and the Pack Stalker even before they could join battle.

And then the shamans would be his. He had to be patient and rebuild his spirit energy, so he could find a shaman to subsume, giving himself a channel back to the corporeal world once more so he could resume the hunt.

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End of Kayda 10

Read 2582 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 August 2021 17:55
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