Sunday, 17 May 2015 21:48

Kayda 4: Now the Real Learning Can Begin (Ch 1)

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A Whateley Academy Adventure

Kayda 4: Now the Real Learning Can Begin

by ElrodW

Chapter 1 - Apetu Theca (A New Dawn)


Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Poe Cottage

I sighed when I came down the stairs. "Okay, let's get the daily taunting over with," I groaned to Rosalyn, who was waiting to escort me to my morning classes.

"Taunting?" Rosalyn feigned a pout. "I'm hurt that you'd think so ill of me."

"Okay," I conceded as we walked out of Poe. "So what would _you_ call it?"

Rosalyn lightly and slowly brushed her upper lip with the tip of her tongue, a blatantly sexy gesture. "I'm working on seducing you," she said in a husky, breathy, sexy voice. "And I'm succeeding, I think."


I recoiled a bit. "What makes you think that?" I demanded, astounded.

"Your protests are getting weaker every day." She laughed. "Admit it - you like the attention don't you?"

My jaw almost hit the ground. "What?"

"You like knowing that someone finds you sexy and attractive. More than a little, too, I think," she said confidently.

I was a little rattled, because I'd lost a little sleep the past couple of nights wondering the same thing. "Do I need to introduce you to my tomahawks?" I asked sternly, scowling at her.

"Oooohh," she purred. "Kinky!" She chuckled when I blushed.

"Aaaarrrghhhh!" I turned and stalked toward Schuster, ignoring her and her annoying, frustrating banter. We walked in silence for a few seconds, which was bliss to me. And yet ....

"Aren't you going to say something about the hot-tub party?" I asked softly when we were far enough from other students that none would hear.

"You _are_ getting excited about it, aren't you?" Rosalyn chuckled. "I knew it!"

"I'm looking forward ...," I began, watching her expression. She looked hopeful for a moment, "... to getting it over with so you stop flirting."

She didn't bat an eye. "And what makes you think that I'm going to stop after the party?" She laughed softly when she saw my expression. We walked silently a bit more. "I understand you did a Native American sauna thing with a bunch of naked girls," she said casually.

I almost stumbled. "What?" That was a private matter, and she should NOT have known! "How ... how did you find out?"

"I have my sources," she said with a smile. "Sounds like good practice, if you ask me. Being naked with a bunch of girls in a sauna, being naked with a bunch of girls in a hot-tub - sounds pretty much the same if you ask me." She gave me a rather leering look. "I would have _loved_ to have been there."

"I bet you would have. But you weren't, and we didn't take pictures," I huffed.

"Then I'll have to let my imagination run wild, won't I?"

I just shook my head. "When it does, don't forget to include my mother and grandmother naked in the sauna, too!" I saw her eyes widen and wince on her face at that mental image. "I really need to get a note from Chief Delarose telling you that I can walk around campus unescorted."

"What, and spoil the highlight of my day?" Rosalyn pouted.

"Something like that," I replied with a sweet smile. It was my turn to watch her react - but she didn't. She was _very_ disciplined with displaying her emotions. "Okay, we're here," I said, stopping outside Schuster. "I don't need you to hold my hand and walk me to class like I'm in kindergarten."

"Oooh!" Rosalyn purred. "Now _there's_ an idea!" She made kissy lips to me, and I blushed brightly, thinking of the last time I'd seen her lips puckered like that. "And I happen to know that the Chief and Mrs. C said the escort is going to be required until they find out who attacked you the last time." She smiled again, turning back toward Poe, but looked over her shoulder at me. "See you later," she said with a wink.

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Schuster Hall, Lunchtime

I glanced nervously at the clock, and then at the door, and finally back at Ms. Claire, who was sitting, typing away, seemingly oblivious to my presence. Across the open space, I was aware of Ms. Hartford occasionally glancing my way with her usual haughty, condescending scowl of superiority.

The sound of the door opening startled me, making me flinch, but it shouldn't have. The headmistress knew I was sitting out here waiting. Mrs. Carson stood in the doorway, looking directly at me. "Come in, Ms. Franks," she said very calmly.

"Yes, ma'am," I answered, following her into her intimidating domain. I expected her to circle behind her desk and assume the 'seat of supreme authority', but instead, she sat in one of the leather-covered chairs before her desk, gesturing me to sit in the other. Hesitantly, I sat down.

"Now, what did you want to see me about, Kayda?" Mrs. Carson asked in a pleasant voice. She smiled, trying to dissipate any nervousness that I felt.

"Um," I hesitated, wincing. "Mom and I had a long talk while I was home, and, um, I ... um ... kind of ... I guess I owe you ... an apology," I managed to stammer, looking down out of fear and embarrassment.

"I see," Mrs. Carson said very calmly. She gently lifted my chin so I was looking at her eye-to-eye. "Why are you so nervous?"

I fought tears of embarrassment and unpleasant memories. "I ... I don't know," I confessed, wanting so much to be anywhere but here, apologizing to her. "I ... figured it out when Mom and I talked ... about how she knew. She told me how she and Dad knew, but they hoped I'd been unconscious and didn't remember anything."

"Yes," Mrs. Carson said simply, "we had that conversation your first day here."

"I ... realized that ... you were doing what you thought was in my best interest, even though," I paused, looking down again, but this time out of shame, "I was pretty nasty and angry and stuff."

She chuckled softly, surprising me. "Yes, you were." I looked up, startled. I'd somehow expected her to say 'no, you weren't' and otherwise placate me. Her candor was unexpected - and refreshing, because it meant that she didn't feel the need to coddle me.

"I'm ... sorry," I said, afraid to look her in the eye. "I was ... really wrong in judging you."

"Was that so hard to say?"

Those words surprised me. "No," I managed to mutter.

"To be honest, I'd have been surprised if you'd been anything _but_ angry and resentful and hurt. Compared to you, most of our students have a very easy manifestation, so it's understandable that you felt quite traumatized and even distrustful." She smiled gently. "Did your mom tell you that you owed me an apology, or did you come to that conclusion on your own?" It was like she knew exactly what I was going to say and what had happened.

"Did she call you?" I asked. Seeing her head shake, I continued, not sure what to say. "It took me a bit, but I kind of figured it out - with a little help from Mom. She told me you called her ... when I was having trouble."

"I kept her informed of everything you were going through. She wanted to fly right back out here when you had your emotional collapse," Mrs. Carson, "but I persuaded her not to."

I goggled at that statement. "Why ... why not?"

"Because Mr. Geintz and Dr. Bellows advised against it. While you were catatonic, she couldn't have done anything for you that they weren't already doing, including dream walking with Mr. Lodgeman to help you." She paused a moment for that to sink in. "But if they hadn't been able to get through to you, I was ready to have a charter flight bring her straight here - not that she'd have been able to help you, either."

I nodded slowly. "And maybe ... they wanted to see if I could," I paused, biting my lower lip for a second, "if I could maybe start finding some new friends to be my support group here?"

"That's part of it," Mrs. Carson said with a nod. "To be quite frank, if they hadn't been able to get through to you, we were looking at transferring you to ARC, because we wouldn't have been able to do anything else to help you."

I gulped; I'd heard about ARC and their psychiatric unit for mutants. I wouldn't have wanted to have gone there. "I just ... needed to say I'm sorry."

Mrs. Carson smiled warmly at me and squeezed my hand lightly. "I appreciate hearing that." She gave a half chuckle. "I wish more students were as mature about things as you are about this. Some of them never do realize they should apologize, and if I do get an apology, it's usually when they're much older and have grown up emotionally."

"I know you're busy," I explained quickly, "so I don't want to waste your time."

"Nonsense," Mrs. Carson said, smiling. "There are a couple of things I wanted to talk to _you_ about."

I pulled my eyeballs back into their sockets. "Me?"

"You're in the mystical arts class where Miss Reilly is teaching assistant, and you're on her floor in Poe."

"Yes, ma'am," I answered, not quite sure where she was going.

"Losing a spirit is a very difficult thing for someone," she continued. "Since you're a shaman-in-training, I'd like your opinion on how she's doing."

"But ... Mr. Geintz and Dr. Bellows and ...." I was totally surprised by her question.

"I have _their_ opinions. I want yours. You're closer in age to her, you see her every day, you interact with her closest friends. You probably have a much better view of how she's really doing than Louis and Dr. Bellows. How is she?"

"Not good," I replied cautiously. "She's managing to keep her focus on her classes," I added quickly, "but out of class, ... she's ... lost." I turned my head slightly to stare at a picture behind Mrs. Carson, trying to figure out the proper wording. "It's like ... like when grandpa died. Mom was ... lost. She kept acting like he was just in the hospital and he'd be home soon."

"Are you suggesting that Nikki is in denial?"

I winced. Was she looking for opinions that might cause them to put Nikki in ARC for psychiatric help. "Um ...."

Mrs. Carson squeezed my hand again. "I _have_ opinions from professionals," she assured me. "I want your opinion, nothing more. You don't have to worry that you might say something that causes me to do something drastic with her. I'm not going to act based on the words of an untrained teenage shaman," she added with a wry smile. "I want the viewpoint of a teenage friend." I must have still looked unconvinced. "Just so you know, I have appointments this afternoon with Ms. Goodkind and Ms. Chandler to get another opinion, so dont worry about me acting hastily on just your view."

I nodded my understanding. "Uh, yeah. I think she's in denial. She's asked me several times if I've seen Aung in my dream space, and if I can dream-walk with her to help her find Aung. She thinks that her spirit is just ... missing."

"And you know otherwise?" I nodded. "How?" she asked.

"I've ... looked," I said. "I ... searched around the dream world, and she's not there. Wakan Tanka helped me. And ...." I trembled slightly at an unpleasant memory, "I ... met the Kodiak in dream space," I said, my voice quavering. "I saw Aung's death through the Kodiak's eyes,."

"You're certain that Miss Reilly's spirit is dead?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"In your opinion, what would be the best thing for her?" Mrs. Carson was talking to me like I was a colleague, not a teenage, trouble-attracting student.

"Let her stay here so her friends can help her," I said without hesitation. "Her teammates really love her, and they're giving her all the emotional support they can. Without that," I shook my head, "I think she'd fall apart." She smiled unexpectedly. "What?"

"That's exactly what both Mr. Geintz and Dr. Bellows think. But you're leaving out one factor. Yourself." My jaw dropped. "Yes, you. It's Dr. Bellows' opinion that, while you may not be best friends with Miss Reilly - which is a good thing, given how much trouble the two of you attract separately - you could dream-walk with her to help her accept - slowly - that her spirit really is gone. And the fact that you're relying on her for catch-up work in Intro to Mystical Arts gives her a purpose, which is helping her continue without having a breakdown."

"Oh." I hadn't thought of either of those as factors.

"And supposedly, your mother's jelly is a special treat for her," Mrs. Carson added with a smile. "Although I can't really say _why_, as _I've_ never had opportunity to sample it to see if it's really good enough to merit being called a special treat." She chuckled when my jaw dropped. "Just teasing, dear."

"Oh. I _could_ have one of the chefs make you something ...."

"I'm not Ayla, dear," she countered, still smiling. "But if you insist ..."

"I don't want to take up more of your time, ma'am," I fidgeted a little bit. This was much more of a discussion than I'd expected. "I know you're busy. I just wanted to say I'm sorry."

"I always try to make time for important conversations with my students," Mrs. Carson replied easily.

"Well, I'll leave you to your other ... stuff. I've got a couple more stops before I meet Dr. Quintain ..."

"Ah, yes. Your work-study job with him in pattern theory math." She smiled. "How is the extra martial arts working out for you?"

I groaned, thinking of yesterday's exercises. "I'm glad it's only three days a week now. Getting beat up in three martial arts classes a day is a little much."

She laughed softly. "Sensei Ito was quite pleased that you took the initiative to fight Lancer."

My hands were shaking at the memory; I'd barely managed to get through fighting Hank, and only because I knew and trusted him - and even then, I'd barely managed to keep it together. "It ... wasn't easy."

"I'd imagine not, but it _is_ progress. Now you said you have a few more stops to make, so I shouldn't keep you."

"No, ma'am," I said, starting to rise from my chair.

"But I will. Headmistress' prerogative, rank hath its privileges, and all that." She smiled. "I want to spend a little time talking with you about your recent adventures."

"Ma'am?" I asked, puzzled.

"Oh, don't look at me like that. Yes, I have the reports, but I want to talk to you about your own thoughts of your performance. And I want to discuss precautions against being filmed or photographed." She read my expression. "Oh, you _weren't_ aware that you were filmed twice during spring break? Once manifesting your white buffalo after you'd stared down a wild bison, and the other time while you and Charge were fighting the ... Canotila, is it?" She frowned. "Staring down over a ton of shaggy fur, horns, and hooves doesn't exactly sound like a bright thing to do."

"Uh, Mom and Dad and ...." I stopped abruptly; I wasn't about to say more.

"And Cornflower," she finished my sentence with a pleasant smile.

"Um, yeah, and Debra ... they thought I was nuts to do that."

It was over half an hour before I left Mrs. Carson's office. She'd been so interested in talking to me that I'd have to schedule my other two meetings for another time. Unlike other debriefings - grillings - I'd had about my various battles, Mrs. Carson was quite cordial and non-judgmental, eliciting and listening to _my_ evaluations of what I'd done right and wrong, to the point that I ended up asking her for _her_ assessments. And unlike the earlier critiques from Ms. Grimes and Ito, I actually felt pretty good when I left Mrs. Carson's office - mostly. It was only as I was walking to my meeting with Dr. Quintain that I realized how she'd steered the conversation so that _I_ said what _she_ was thinking, so that I felt like I had come up with the points she wanted me to get.

There was one thing she said, though, that really caught my attention. I'd have to check with Wakan Tanka and probably Fey, but Mrs. Carson reminded me of the fact that when I'd battled Snakey Jr, I'd dumped _all_ of my essence into my knife. From Ms. Grimes analysis after the battle, I knew that it wasn't smart, but I hadn't realized just how serious it was until Mrs. Carson _also_ mildly scolded me for doing that. I had to keep my 'core' essence intact and 'lit' because without that vital core essence, I might lose the ability to attract more, and then I'd have no magical powers. And like Ms Grimes, she noted that I was leaking essence all over the place, and needed to learn more control, so any essence I gathered stayed with me. I knew that I was going to get some 'special' homework assignments in Intro to Magical Arts. Groan - all I needed was more 'special' homework. On the other hand, I think she was pleased to find a way to increase my interaction with Nikki for tutoring, so I could continue to help her. Assuming that I could. It was strange that Mrs. Carson believed in my ability to help Nikki more than I did. I thought adults didn't have confidence in teenagers.

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Laird Hall, late afternoon

When I came out of the locker room from changing, I was surprised to see Stormwolf, Stonebear, Mule, Lupine, and Mr. Lodgeman sitting in a circle with Mr. Two Knives in the training room. I was a little late because I'd been trying to finish a lab in electronics, and evidently Mr. Two Knives, having more students, had started without me. Mr. Two Knives was talking about the tomahawk and knife as weapons, and as I approached, he looked up. His smile turned to a scowl. "Where are they?" he asked simply.

"Addy and Alicia have another project," I started to explain.

"No. Your markings."

I gawked. "My ... markings?"

"You are In'oka. You should always mark yourself with the signs of In'oka," he chided me.

"I ... left the skins in my room," I said, wincing.

Mr. Two Knives saw the puzzled expressions around him. "Kayda has been honored to be inducted as In'oka, a member of the badger warrior society. A warrior so honored should _always_ wear the markings of his or her society as an example to others. Just as I always wear the markings of the White-Marked society, she should proudly declare to all that she is In'oka."

I sat on the mat, blushing heavily. The curious looks I was getting from Mule and Stonebear were disconcerting; I was going to have to answer more questions, and as a result, I was going to get more of a rep on campus.

"Kayda, to the bow, just like yesterday," Mr. Two Knives directed. "I'll do some basic demonstrations and lessons exercises with the tomahawk here."

"May I work Kaya with the bow?" Stella - Lupine - asked eagerly, to which Mr. Two Knives nodded.

Over spring break, Mr. Two Knives had brought his own bow to Whateley, and had gotten another bow for me to train with. It was a simple recurve bow bent in somewhat of a B-shape, made of white ash with antler tips to hold the bowstring, and laminated with several layers of sinew to add strength. It couldnt have measured much more than forty-eight inches tip-to-tip unstrung, but it had a surprisingly tough draw weight. It was ideally-sized for using from horseback.

I strung the bow and picked up a few arrows. Lupine looked at me oddly as I nocked an arrow on the right side of the bow instead of the left side. "You're supposed to hold the arrow on your left side," she informed me with the certainty of someone who knew her way around a bow.

I smiled. "That's what I thought when I started, because that's the way it's always shown," I replied, "but Mr. Two Knives showed me how it's traditionally held. With the arrows on the right, I'll eventually learn to hold several in my right hand as I draw and shoot, which will let me shoot more arrows as fast as I can draw." I picked up a second arrow, held in my fingers, and then drew and shot the first arrow. Lupine watched the arrow sail toward the target, and so she missed me drawing the string back and nocking the second arrow in one smooth motion. Before she'd even turned back to me, the second arrow flew to the same target.

Lupine glanced back at the target, and then turned to me, eyes wide. "Wow! That was fast."

I shook my head. "No, that was slow. Mr. Two Knives can shoot ten arrows in less than six seconds, _and_ he's very, very accurate."

She thought a moment. "May I?" she asked. "I did some bow-hunting, so I know what I'm doing."

I let her take the bow, and as expected, she drew an arrow on the left side of the bow. Her shot was very accurate, but when she tried to draw another arrow to deliver a follow-on shot, she had to fight the placement of the bow. "Hmmm," she muttered to herself, thinking. "I see what you mean about being tough to draw a follow-on shot."

"Try shooting from the right side, like Mr. Two Knives is teaching me."

She drew a second shot, awkwardly, because she was already used to shooting one way. After a bit of fidgeting, she let loose the arrow - and though it hit the target board, it wasn't nearly as close to center as her first shot.

We traded more shots; though I was an amateur by comparison, she had to unlearn her former technique and fight those bad habits to learn the Lakota way of shooting. It made us relatively even, which made it a friendly informal competition.

After about twenty-five to thirty minutes, we put up the bow and arrows and went back to where Mr. Two Knives was on the floor with Stormwolf sparring with tomahawks. I'd heard that Stormwolf was a good, quick fighter, but Mr. Two Knives was better. Every time Stormwolf attacked, Mr. Two Knives met and deflected the attack with minimal, graceful motions, delivering a devastating counter when Stormwolf was at his most vulnerable. Feints did little to alter the situation; I knew that Mr. Two Knives was reading the same air and earth spirits that I was learning to, and he was completely prepared for anything and everything Adam threw at him.

After three or four minutes of this 'schooling', Mr. Two Knives called a halt to the sparring, putting down his training weapons and shaking Adam's hand. "You're good at the basics of fighting, but you have to learn the weapons," he said simply.

"It was interesting that you were able to block all of my attacks," Stormwolf said warily. No doubt he assumed that Mr. Two Knives was a mutant with faster reflexes, or possibly a paragon.

Mr. Two Knives smiled broadly. "And I suppose you think I have some mutant powers, right?" Seeing the look of surprised confirmation on Adam's face, he continued. "I don't. I've just been training in these weapons for years. And I listen to the spirits of the air and the earth. A warrior learns to touch the air spirit, and the earth spirit, to feel the energy flows. You, too, will learn such skills, if you wish. One needn't be a shaman to listen to the spirits of the earth and the sky. Let's finish the day with a demonstration of the tomahawk and knife," Mr. Two Knives said to the others. He looked right at me with the unspoken question of whether I would be able to do this demonstration.me. "Kayda, would you like to demonstrate?"

I gulped nervously. "I'll ... try," I said uncertainly, which drew some rather surprised looks from the other students. I took the training weapons from Mr. Two Knives.

"Who would like to spar against Kayda?"

Stonebear and Lupine glanced back and forth between Mule and Stormwolf; clearly, those two weren't keen on going first. And since Stormwolf had just fought, Mule settled the issue by clambering to his feet. "I guess I'll volunteer."

"Just a sec," he said, and he gestured for Lupine to join us. "I may need your assistance," he said very softly to Lupine and me so the others couldn't hear.

Lupine looked at him and then at me, and I nodded. "In what way?"

"I ... had some ... bad experiences," I said softy, wincing. Lupine's eyebrows rose. "I ... have some ... issues ... fighting guys." A knowing look dawned on her features. "Sometimes," I continued, "I ... lock up. A couple of times I ... kind of lost control."

Lupine nodded. "Mule will be safe to spar with, then," she said, "since he's a brick. You can't hurt him."

Mr. Two Knives nodded, and then handed Mule a training knife he'd picked up from the shelf of mock weapons. "Just attack Kayda with the knife," he posed the scenario. "It's a non-lethal training knife, so you can go full-out, okay? The worst that will happen is that you or Kayda may be bruised. Ready?"

I gulped nervously and nodded, reaching out to the air spirit and the earth spirit. I frowned when the air spirit seemed to not be touching Mule. I wondered if there was a peculiarity with his TK shield that made it impossible for the air spirit to feel him. I'd heard of his combat final against Fey, in which she learned, to her frustration, that magic didn't work against his TK field. Perhaps the spirits weren't affected by him, either.

Mule attacked in a classic knife-fighter's stance, balanced and holding the knife out to his right in his flexed arm, positioned so that he'd be able to make a number of different strikes. I frowned; without the air spirit, I couldn't sense where he was moving, so when he feinted, I countered, swinging to hook his knife-arm in the tomahawk. There was no arm there to hook, and I was slightly off-balance. Alarmed at being duped so easily, I lashed back and up with my arm, barely deflecting his blow as I leaped back from the attack.

Warier, I circled him, both of my weapons at the ready. Again he made the same attack, but this time, it wasn't a feint. Having been fooled once, I didn't commit to the defense until late - late enough that I only partially blocked his attack. To my horror, I felt a sharp pain in my arm and then a stabbing pain in my side where the knife blow had been deflected. Slightly off balance at the intense pain, I stepped back and glanced down, shocked to see crimson on my arm and splattered on the mat, while pain radiated from my side throughout my body and red wetness slowly spread over the side of my gi.

JJ swung his knife at me, and I felt something stab into my arm when I futilely tried to block the blow. Pain erupted from my arm and side, and a scream came from my lips. He grinned wickedly, holding his knife dripping with my blood. Screaming with primal rage, I tried to raise my tomahawk to attack him, but my arm would lift because of intense pain that I couldn't overcome.

Someone grabbed me from behind, attempting to pin my arms. I screamed again, fighting those who were pinning my arms. I couldn't budge them, and my fear turned to terror when I realized that I couldn't break free, but was helpless.

I screamed again, letting loose the essence I felt within me, causing it to explode outwards like a bomb burst. My arms were suddenly free, but when I looked again, JJ stood there, holding the knife and staring at me.

"Kayda!" the unseen people called to me, mocking me as they came back to try once more to pin my arms so I would be helpless once more. My world spun crazily, darkness trying to close in around me, pain blurring my fading vision. Consciousness was ebbing.

"Kayda!" Someone was shouting at me over and over, a commanding voice that pierced into the buzzing darkness that was my world. I tried to turn toward the noise, but pain interrupted my movement, and all I could do was cry out.

"Kayda, they're sending a litter from Doyle to take you there, okay?" It was Lupine's voice. I slowly realized that I was in the training gym, not back home, and I tried to nod, unsuccessfully.

"What the hell happened?" Mr. Two Knives was confused, and based on what I heard from the others, they were as well.

The last thing I heard was Mule's voice. "It was a training knife! I checked!" He sounded baffled, and quite distraught.

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Doyle Hall, late evening

Liz Carson

The chief paced back and forth, unable to sit as he exercised the worry muscles of his face. Incidents like this, he told himself once more, were going to be the death of him. He stopped suddenly when the door opened; it wasn't, as hoped, the door from the operating room, but rather the other door from the hall into the waiting room.

"Franklin," Mrs. Carson said bluntly as she walked into the room. "How is she?"

Chief Delarose shook his head. "I haven't heard anything since she got here. They took her right into the operating room."

Liz nodded, noting the worry on his face as he waited for news. Her expression matched his. "Do you have any idea what happened?"

The chief sighed. "She was stabbed in her Native American fighting class. It was apparently an accident, because they were supposedly using training weapons. She was sparring with Mule, and he did a routine training attack - only the knife was real." He shook his head, rubbing his tired eyes. "Mule swears it was a training knife. The instructor was certain it was a training knife. _Everyone_ in the room swears it was a training knife."

"But ...?"

"Circe determined that it was an illusion covering a real knife."

Liz's brow wrinkled deeply. "Mule should have noticed when he picked it up. Magic doesn't affect him through his field, so ...."

"Circe said that the cutting edge was outside his field, so he didn't notice. It _has_ to be, or he wouldn't be able to use weapons." He frowned. "The only other option, she said, was that it was some very unusual magic."

"Damn." Liz poured herself a cup of coffee from a pot brewing in a little refreshment area for those in the waiting room. "How bad was she injured?" Taking a sip of coffee, she sank into a chair, showing the fatigue and angst of a mother whose child was injured. To her, all her students were her children, and she took their safety very seriously.

"She sustained a cut on her left arm, and then a very serious stab wound to her abdomen." He shook his head wearily. "They haven't said more, but she's been in surgery for an hour and a half."

Liz nodded. "You probably should get back to the investigation. I'll wait for word on her."

Chief Delarose nodded. "I've already got the team pulling all the security videos, looking for anyone who had access to that room. We've dusted for prints already, but since Mule was wielding it ...." He shook his head, expressing his lack of hope. "I don't think we'll find anything there." He looked at the worried headmistress. "Do we need to make her a Section 33 - for her own protection?"

Liz shook her head. "No. You know some of the trouble-makers. That'd probably backfire."

"Rule one-eighty-four?" Franklin asked simply.

Liz sighed, shaking her head as she rubbed her forehead with one hand. "I ... I hate to do that." She looked up at her security chief. "Tell a kid she's officially authorized to use deadly force to protect herself if she feels threatened, to kill another student as long as she believes a threat to be credible? That's not something I want to saddle _any_ of the students with if I can help it." The weight of her position hung heavily on Liz's features. "Suppose we make her a one-eight-four, and she kills someone because she thought there was a threat, but it wasn't real? How would that mess her up mentally and emotionally?" She shook her head. "I don't even know why we keep rule one-eighty-four on the books. I can't see that it would _ever_ be useful, let alone in this situation."

"We know a non-violent armband wouldn't work, and she's not a UV. What do we do?"

A frown crossed the headmistress' face. "The escort rule stands. She is only allowed to spar with weapons _she's_ wielding until Louis can check out her combat instructors. I'll get her a charm that will counter any illusions in ... ten feet?"

Franklin nodded. "Five meters would be better." He correctly read Mrs. Carson's expression. "But ten feet is better than nothing."

"Keep me posted on the investigation. I want to know who did this, and I want them off of my campus, in the hands of the FBI or MCO, and charged with attempted murder."

"What about Mule?"

Liz shook her head slowly. "Ah, now there's a problem. Since Louis can't do a psychic probe, we can't be sure that _he_ wasn't the perpetrator, can we?"

"Mule? He's about as straight-arrow as they come. Non-violent except in the simulators, sticks up for underdogs, and hates bullies. There's no reason to think he'd have any reason to dislike Kayda."

"It can't be helped." She looked straight into Franklin's eyes. "Find a motive or find an alibi. Hopefully," she added somberly, "the latter."

"Should I tell Gunny?"

"No. He'd have a conflict of interest." She sank back into the chair and took a pull from her coffee cup. "Get the Wild Pack and anyone else you can trust to start nosing around. Find any enemies Kayda has. Anyone who _might_ be upset enough with her to try something like this. I want to know every move that each of them have made in the last forty-eight hours. If they _think_ about hurting Kayda, I want to know."

"TNT? Cagliostro?" Delarose asked.

"Start with them."

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Whateley Academy Woods, near the school boundary

The shadowy figure was looking all around itself as it crept into the woods, checking to ensure that nobody had followed. He followed a circuitous path, always vigilant against even the slightest hint that he had a tail, and stepped into a small clearing occupied by several stumps, the ugly remains of trees which had fallen victim to lightning, or excess snowfall, or some other natural calamity.

A figure in dark clothing sat on one of the stumps, glaring at the newcomer. "You're late."

The newcomer scowled at the way he was being upbraided by the figure on the stump. "Do you want me to be on time and followed, or do you want to keep things secret?"

"You seem to forget - I have ways to make sure I'm not detected," the dark figure snarled.

"You keep telling me about your mystical gifts from some all-powerful shaman that let you do anything you want," the newcomer retorted angrily. "Meanwhile, I'm the one taking all the risks. I'm the one who's going to be expelled if they trace this last one."

The dark figure stood and stomped over to the newcomer, and despite having to look up a couple of inches, he clearly cowed the other boy. "And you almost fucked up! Are you _trying_ to get her killed?"

"There weren't supposed to be any other students there. Just her and her instructor, and ...."

"I _know_ the plan, dammit!" the dark figure snarled angrily. "She was supposed to injure her instructor or one of her gal-pals, and then be expelled after an investigation! It was _my_ plan!"

"And that says that it was a bad plan," the taller newcomer said with a scowl. "What's so important about her that you want to get rid of her so bad, anyway? Why not just kill her if she's such a threat here?"

"The shaman I'm working for doesn't want her dead. She's supposed to be just leave Whateley - and not in a pine box," he added

The taller boy pulled himself erect, squaring his shoulders. "This is getting too fucking crazy. You can deal with this yourself from here on out," he announced. "I've done enough for you. I got that damned poster. I stole that creepy spike. I've got Blackrose harassing her to no end. Switching the knife is my last job. From what I heard, security is going over every inch of tape from Laird. They're going to find out that I was in that training room." He shook his head. "I'm through."

"Oh? Is that so?" the dark figure asked with an almost audible sneer. "You know how things went for the Goodkind bitch-boy? You know how much harassment Saladin got when he was outed? Are you ready to deal with all of that? Hmmm? Do you _really_ want all that aggravation, _Brad_?" He watched the taller boy shrink back a bit. "How do you think Collingsworth GMC is going to do businesswise when it comes out that junior is a pansy, a frou-frou sissy-boy? Do you think your dad will be proud his son grew up to be queer?"

"You _know_ the rules about threatening family!" Brad tried to say sternly, but he was rattled, and his voice quavered. He knew it _would_ really hurt his dad's business if his sexuality came out in their hometown. Not to mention how his parents would feel when they discovered their son was gay.

"Are you going to go cry to Mrs. Carson, like the sissy you are?" the dark figure taunted more. "Poor little Brad, can't stand up for himself?"

"I'm done with you," Brad forced his voice to be cool and collected. "How do you think the administration is going to react when they discover that you're engaging in threats to family, blackmail, attempted murder, theft, and other things?" He watched the shoulders sag on the dark figure. "Do you want them to know that, Magic Mikey?"

Mike Reynolds, Magic Mikey, turned away from Brad, clenching his jaw as he fought back the mindless fury seething through him. "You won't do that," he finally said in a disturbingly collected, cool voice.

"And why wouldn't I?" Brad straightened himself, sure that Mike was bluffing. "Maybe I should be like Saladin and out myself so you don't have anything to blackmail me with."

"You won't tell anyone," Mike repeated. He spun quickly, and before Brad could react, a spell slip was slapped on Brad's chest. "Because you won't be alive to tell them," he said, his voice sounding like the echoes from a tomb. His eyes burned with an unnatural fire, a glow that bespoke insanity and evil. He drew a knife, a cruel-looking ceremonial dagger, and held it up to the taller boy who was paralyzed and helpless because of the magic spell. "You got anything else to say, faggot?" He leered at the terror in the eyes of his helpless victim. "I didn't think so." He dropped his arm, partially turning away, only to wheel and slam the knife up into Brad's abdomen, thrusting the long blade up behind Brad's ribs and into the boy's heart. For a brief moment, shock registered on Brad's eyes before they glazed over and his lifeless corpse slowly crumpled to the ground, pulling the knife out of Mike's hand.

Mike sneered at the body lying in the clearing. "I hate to waste it on you," he spoke, as if Brad was still alive to hear, "but with this ghost charm on you, they'll never find a body. The shaman can always get me another one." He slipped something from his pocket, and pulling the knife free, slid a small metallic token of some kind into the still-oozing stab wound. "Hasta la vista, sucker!" Brad's corpse vanished from sight as soon as Mike's hand released the charm.

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Wednesday, April 18, 2007; 3 am
Doyle Hall

Kayda

A one-sided conversation slowly drilled into my head, piercing the blissful unconsciousness in which I'd been floating. The first thing I noticed was a dull, mild ache in my abdomen, followed by a feeling of being detached from my body a little. Gradually, I became aware that the person speaking was Mrs. Carson. I had no idea what time it was, but given the surroundings, I figured I was in Doyle - again. I let my head flop to one side so I could look toward the sound of the voice.

"What do you mean, missing?" Mrs. Carson sounded more than a bit upset.

"And security hasn't found anything?"

"Is it possible he's just out?" She absently ran her fingers through her hair. "Call security and have them review all their tapes. He _has_ to have gone somewhere, and the cameras should tell us."

She seemed to notice me lying on the bed. "Bella, Kayda's awake finally. I'll call back in a bit." She hung up her phone and smiled at me. "You're going to be the death of me yet."

"Doyle?" I asked. "I ... really got stabbed?" It had all seemed like a dream.

Mrs. Carson nodded, her expression grim. "Liver, large and small intestines, left kidney. Yes, you got pretty serious wounds from being stabbed."

"What .. what happened?" I was dumbfounded; it all seemed so surreal and confusing.

"What do you remember?"

Give Mrs. Carson credit; she wanted my statement before I could be prejudiced from hearing what others had said. "Mule and I ... were sparring. He ... attacked, and I missed blocking him. Then ... I think I freaked out. The next thing I remember clearly is waking up a minute ago."

"Who selected the weapons you were using?" Mrs. Carson asked.

"Mr. Two Knives," I answered after a moment of thought. "He ... asked if I could spar Mule, to demonstrate knife and tomahawk." I paused, closing my eyes for a moment to try to recall. "He handed both of us training knives," I continued, "and I had a training tomahawk."

"Go on."

"Mule attacked me once, and I blocked him. Then he attacked again, and I ... I couldn't tell what he was doing." I shook my head, feeling my eyes tearing up. And I felt weak. So terribly weak and tired. "I ... couldn't feel the sky spirit, so I ... I missed his attack."

"Did you blank out and have an episode?"

"Uh, I ... I think so," I stammered softly. "I ... was being attacked ... by one of my friends. He stabbed me, and I screamed, and then people were holding me and I was sure he was going to kill me. And then ... everything faded."

"Do you remember anything else?"

"I think ... someone said something about Doyle. And ... Mule said ...." I thought a moment, not quite sure what was real and what had been in the PTSD attack, "he said ... he was sure it was a training knife. He ... seemed ... very upset."

Mrs. Carson nodded, not quite able to suppress the half-chuckle. "I suppose you'd be pretty upset if you thought you had a training weapon and it turned out you seriously injured someone, or possibly even killed them."

"I need ..." I started to say, struggling to sit up.

Mrs. Carson was instantly at my side, pressing me down so I couldn't move. "No, young lady," she scolded me firmly, "you are _not_ going to get up. You aren't going anywhere for the next day."

"But ... my classes," I protested, even though I quit trying to sit up. The pain in my guts and her very firm hands made that impossible.

"Can be attended remotely, or you can be excused."

"I ... have a test to give Ayla in calculus," I continued to object to forced confinement. "If I can get my medicine pouch, I can ...."

"Dr. Tenent has already used all the healing magic on you that she dares," Mrs. Carson interrupted firmly. "Right now, you need some rest so your regeneration can finish healing your wounds. Magic can only go so far; the body has to do the rest."

"But ...."

"But nothing." She smiled. "If you behave yourself, I'll talk to Dr. Tenent about releasing you mid-afternoon."

"I'll miss ...."

"Mid-afternoon. No sooner," she said in an uncompromising tone. "_If_ you cooperate. Otherwise, she'll keep you overnight. Now get some rest."

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Kane Hall, mid-morning

Chief Delarose

"Chief?" Samantha Everheart poked her head into Delarose's office.

Delarose looked up from his computer monitor, his eyes bloodshot. "What?"

"I've got more information on the missing student. He hasn't been in any classes this morning, and no-one remembers seeing him."

Delarose sighed. "Can this day possibly get any worse?" he muttered to himself.

Sam started, and then stepped closer, leaning over the computer monitor for a better look at the image displayed. "Yeah, that's him. Bradley Collingsworth."

"What? What are you talking about?"

"The missing student. That's him. I pulled his file to distribute his picture to the security teams."

The chief's eyes widened and he stared at his assistant, then at the monitor. "You're kidding, right?"

"No. Isn't that what you're looking at - the file of the missing student?"

Delarose felt an icy chill on his neck. "No. I didn't know anything about a missing student. These are hits from the security tapes around Laird Hall yesterday before Ms. Franks was injured. Reynolds and his team have been reviewing the tapes to look for suspects who might have had opportunity to swap the training knives."

"Chief, are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Sam asked bluntly.

"A student is in Laird going into the training rooms where Ms. Franks was injured an hour later. That same student is now missing."

"There's more data to correlate," Sam noted. "Ms. Franks reported the theft of one of her magically-enhanced copper spikes from the Mishibijiw creature. Given Mrs. Horton's protections of Poe, it would seem to be an inside job. Mr. Collingsworth is a resident of Poe. Further, there was an incident reported where a ... um ... private poster was copied and distributed. Again, it would most likely have been an inside job from a Poe resident."

Chief Delarose nodded grimly. "It's looking like we have a suspect in a number of incidents associated with Ms. Franks. His code name is Apathy, because he can project a strong emotional sense of apathy, which would be perfect for blending in. Anyone in the area wouldn't care about his presence, and thus wouldn't note it. He'd have an easy time of substituting the knife."

"Or accomplishing the other incidents in Poe. The probability of a coincidence is less than one hundredth of a percent," Sam reported what her 'hive' of processing nanites told her.

"Amend that search order. We may be looking for a suspect for attempted murder," Chief Delarose said grimly. "Let the search teams know what his power is so they can try to compensate. Wireless field cameras are mandatory in case he influences someone on the security team."

"Consider it done. One thing about the search ...."

"Yes?"

"Mrs. Horton has a magic charm that lets her keep track of students. Her charm can't determine anything about Mr. Collingsworth."

"Better check the barriers and the security tapes of the perimeter, then, too. He may have decided to jump ship."

"I'll get an APB with his picture to surrounding law enforcement agencies - just in case."

"Good thinking, Sam. We _also_ have to start looking for a motive. Lots of kids in Poe have opportunity. One of them has the motive. We've got to find it." Delarose stared at the image on the screen for a moment. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to call our beloved headmistress and rain on her day."

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Poe Cottage, before dinnertime

Kayda

I looked at Ayla, waiting with what appeared to be the patience of a saint as I graded his test. "Your hanging around won't help your grade," I said with a sardonic smile.

"True," Ayla replied, "but I will get good feedback immediately so that I can correct any errors I may have made before you decide to give me another test or quiz."

"Your reputation _is_ true, isn't it?" I asked rhetorically.

"That I'm an overachieving, pedantic asshole?" Ayla asked with an eyebrow cocked.

"Well, yeah," I chuckled, wincing slightly at the residual pain in my gut. Despite my regeneration and both my and Dr. Tenent's healing spells, my abdomen was still a bit tender. "But I wouldn't have put it quite that way."

"Oh? How _would_ you have put it?"

I smiled. "I don't know that I'd have included the asshole part. The other two? Yeah." I finished marking the paper, then wrote down the grade in a notebook I was keeping so I could discuss progress with Ms. Bell. "I'm giving you a ninety-eight," I said, handing Ayla the graded paper.

"Ninety-eight?" Ayla asked, a bit disappointed that he hadn't gotten a perfect score.

"Yeah," I replied, pointing to my red marks on the test paper. "You didn't show a critical step in evaluating the limit here, so I couldn't tell if you worked through it in your head or if you made a lucky guess."

Ayla lifted an eyebrow. "Now who's being pedantic?"

"Maybe," I said with a grin, "but I've got the grade book."

"If you want explicit demonstration of every step, you'll get it - no matter how trivial some steps might be," Ayla said; I knew it was a mock threat delivered in a joking mood.

"Julie used to always fuss at me for making her show every step," I mused, thinking back, with a bit of sadness, at the days when Julie was my girlfriend.

"Julie? Your former girlfriend who manifested as a Native American wood elf? The one you and Charge fought to rescue?"

"Yeah," I said wistfully. I gave a half a chuckle. "Your information sources don't miss anything, do they?"

Ayla opened his mouth to reply, but before he could utter a word, the door burst open and my friends spilled into the room - Naomi, Evvie, Laurie, Addy, and Alicia. "Ready to go to dinner?" Alicia asked cheerfully.

I sighed, shaking my head. "Nope. One of the conditions of my parole is that I'm stuck here until tomorrow morning so I don't disturb the doctor's handiwork."

"Bah!" Addy said, sitting down beside me to grab my arm. She paled when she saw me wince in pain at the sudden jolt to my body. "Je suis desole!" she apologized immediately.

"I'd be all healed by now if I had enough essence for a regen-healing spell," I grumbled, "but with everything going on ..."

Ayla smiled. "Your control over storing essence isn't as finely developed as you'd like," he said as if he was the authority on the subject - which is how Ayla spoke about _everything_ he knew something about. "Correct?"

I slowly managed to lift my jaw out of my lap. "How ...?"

Ayla smiled. "Fey was talking at lunch about her new 'special assignment,' which is tutoring you in preserving your essence and not, quote, spewing it all over like water from a garden sprinkler, unquote."

"Mrs. Carson talked to Ms. Grimes," I grumbled.

"Who then gave Fey a special tutoring assignment, followed by Circe deciding that _I_ could use a little extra tutoring in that area as well." Ayla glanced around. "How about if I order some pizza, and we can all have dinner in the common room? You guys, Team Kimba, whoever else is hungry?"

"But not Sharisha?" Evvie asked cautiously. "She's got a bad 'tude."

"And not Vox either, I presume," I added, having noticed a little mote of sadness in Ayla's eyes.

"That sounds like a plan," Alicia said eagerly. "Do y'all s'pose they make mudbug pizza? With a proper amount of good cayenne pepper?" she asked with a grin that broadened at the horrified looks on the rest of our faces.

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Friday, April 20, 2007. Evening
Poe Cottage

A knock sounded at my door, and I looked up sharply from my math book, surprised though I shouldn't have been. "It's open," I called, and then buried my nose back in my book.

Ayla stuck his head in. "We're gathering in a few minutes in the lobby," he announced. "Come on."

I didn't look up. "I ... I can't go," I stammered, not looking at Ayla. "You guys - you're her friends. You love her like a sister. I'm ... not."

Ayla did something that I least expected him to do. He sat on the edge of my bed and lifted my chin to look at him. "Your spirits knew Aung. Shouldn't Wakan Tanka at least be represented to say goodbye? At least out of respect for her?"

"Wakan Tanka will no doubt be there," I replied, lowering my eyes so I didn't have to look at Ayla. "In the astral world, watching. And I can send Tatanka. He knew her."

"And you know Nikki," Ayla chided me. "She needs support from all of us, and that includes you."

"What can I do?" I said uneasily. "I'll remind her of Aung, because of the ... incident with dream-walking, and that won't help Nikki at all."

"You should come. Do I need to have Billie persuade you?" Ayla asked in a way that I couldn't tell if he was joking or not.

I stared at him for a few seconds. "Okay," I relented. Ayla might not have been joking, and I didn't want to find out. Billie was scary-powerful.

As soon as Ayla left, I put on my best buckskin dress, braided and adorned my hair, laced on my moccasins, and then put on the accoutrements of In'oka and Wakan Tanka - the war paint and the furs on my neck and wrists Ayla was waiting outside my door, and escorted me to the lobby, where all of Team Kimba surrounded Nikki like a protective phalanx, and her parents hung as close as they could. Bugs clung closely to Nikki inside the circle, her arm around Nikki to give her whatever comfort she could. With a nod, Ayla led us outside, to an even larger group - the Outcasts, the Grunts in their dress uniforms, the Sidhe students, and more. Poise stood somberly with Heartbreaker and Lifeline and two other girls from Venus, Inc. Stalwart stood rigidly, tall and strong, but there was sadness in his gold and silver eyes, mostly from sympathy for Nikki, upon whom he was gazing with puppy-dog eyes, but probably also a bit because Bugs was comforting Nikki. It seemed that he wanted to say or do something to help her, but wasn't sure what that might be, and so he stood silently. Molly stood halfway behind Stalwart, hiding out of shyness, but there was nothing shy about the way Rythax, the black winged panther, stood tall, his head hung in mourning.

Mr. Lodgeman and Ms. Grimes represented the faculty and school. Wordlessly, Jade and Jinn took up two standards that had images of burning oaks on black banners, while Ayla, Hank, Toni, and Billie hefted a platform on which rested a shield, with the same burning oak adornment.

Chou, pale as I'd ever seen her, looked at Ayla, and getting an affirming nod, wordlessly led a solemn and somber procession to the Grove, a supposed Class X area on the campus that was normally very off-limits. But Chou continued into the Grove, followed by the mourners. The standard-bearers and platform-bearers halted, letting the group that had surrounded Nikki pass and follow Chou. I hung back, still not quite sure of my place in the affair, while beside me, of his own free will, Tatanka manifested, his coat as white and clean as I'd ever seen. I glanced at him, and in his eyes, I saw, for the first time, profound sadness. He turned away quickly, embarrassed that I had seen his feelings.

The standards followed the last of the mourners, and they were followed by the platform, and then Nikki, her eyes downcast and sad, the Sidhe queen's crown on her head weighing her down with its memories and new responsibilities that she now bore. Behind her, his face bearing a deeply-troubled expression, walked Wyatt Cody, wearing a swordsman's outfit with bracers on his arms. Still feeling awkward and out-of-place, I crept in behind the last of the procession.

The sky spirit told me that something was moving behind me, so I held back a moment, not wanting to let anything disturb this ceremony that was for Nikki. The figure moving in the shadows stopped, so with my hand on Wakan Mila, I slowly walked toward the specter. As I drew near, I thought I recognized the figure, and I gasped in surprise, but Mrs. Carson put her finger over her lips in a silent gesture to be quiet. "Mrs. Carson!" I whispered insistently, "You should be with Ms. Grimes and Mr. Lodgeman."

Mrs. Carson sadly shook her head. "This isn't about me," she whispered. "I'm here to pay my respects, but not to take the spotlight. This is about Miss Reilly, and Aunghadhail. Please don't tell anyone I'm here." I slowly nodded, and then she put her hand on my shoulder. "Why aren't _you_ with the group?" Gently but firmly, she turned me. "Go. Join the others."

Reluctantly, I left her side and stepped back toward the circle, but I stopped short, still concealed in the shadows. I really felt out of place, awkward. These were all Nikki's close friends; I was a latecomer to the scene, and really didn't belong. I wondered why I was even there, but at the same time, I knew that, if nothing else, I had to let Wakan Tanka say goodbye to the spirit she'd both fought beside and fought against.

The mourners were gathered in a circle around a pyre, on which sat the woven platform with its shield. Nikki tried to speak, but as far as I was from the group, I didn't hear clearly. When she was overcome with emotion, Mr. Lodgeman and her parents moved to comfort and console her. Mr. Lodgeman spoke a few words about Aunghadhail.

I really felt out of place, a misfit. I leaned close to Tatanka. "You stay. You knew Aung. I ... don't belong here." I turned to leave, but a hand on my shoulder stopped me. I turned to face Caitlin. Without a word, she led me to the circle, to those who belonged here to support Nikki.

Wyatt spoke, and then began to sing in tribute to and mourning for Aunghadhail, and I realized that his spirit was really, really hurt over her loss, and with the spirit, so felt the burly senior redneck who was acting like anything but a redneck. The Kodiak - and by extension, Wyatt - was a healer, in this case, lending comfort and succor to a deeply-wounded girl whose spirit he had known too well in ages past, ignoring his own sense of loss and pain. Wyatt Cody wasn't the womanizing, easy-going, cocky senior he usually showed. There was a very caring side to him, and he was doing everything he could to comfort Fey and to honor the deceased queen.

As Wyatt sang, accompanied by Jericho on the guitar, Mr. Lodgeman cast a spark, and the pyre lit. Quickly, the fire blazed, consuming the symbol of Aunghadhail, marking her passing, while Cody continued his song. And when the song ended, and the pyre was dying down, the Weres let out howls, bellows, or roars, while the Grunts fired off a salute.

One by one, the assembly walked to Nikki, offering their condolences in whatever way they could. Once more, I was holding back, but Tatanka nudged me none-too-gently, and I joined the line of mourners. Despite the number of people, it moved quickly enough, and when it was my turn, Tatanka cut in front of me. The lumbering beast nuzzled Nikki gently, and, weeping, she threw her arms around his neck. When she let go, he nuzzled her once more, and then de-manifested, leaving me at the head of the line.

Without thinking, I manifested Ptesanwi as I hugged Nikki. "We are at peace," we said softly, recalling some of our words with Aunghadhail. "We grieve with you." I felt her wet cheeks against ours, and we hugged for several seconds. As we hugged, Ptesanwi faded, until it was just me and Nikki, two students, hugging as I tried to offer her some comfort.

We all headed back to the campus, less in a procession than a ragged mob, walking silently and respectfully, all most certainly lost in our own private thoughts. The core group, though, reformed into the protective, living shield around Nikki, escorting the weeping girl. I was behind them, bringing up the rear, still not feeling completely a part of the group. And so I saw a figure detach itself from the trees after most of the mourners and friends had passed, and step in front of the protective circle, which halted. Flickering torches cast their illumination on the strong figure. Wordlessly, she walked to the phalanx, and it parted like Moses parting the Red Sea. Mrs. Carson walked silently to Nikki, and then, in the presence of only Nikki's closest friends and family, stepped to the shattered girl and embraced her. She said something to Nikki, obviously, and Nikki nodded, returning the embrace and clinging tightly to the headmistress as Mrs. Carson softly, gently stroked Nikki's hair, soothing the stricken girl who had, according to stories, been quite a challenge to Mrs. Carson at other times. After a few moments consoling the girl, Mrs. Carson departed as quietly as she'd arrived, blending into the shadows of the trees like a wraith, as if she'd never been there.

It was a really, really sucky night. Everyone was doing their best to help Nikki, but not very successfully. To top it off, I didn't sleep well, wondering how I would feel if I lost my spirits, wondering if I'd feel as lost and shattered as Nikki.

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Saturday, April 21, 2007. Mid-afternoon
Near Whateley Stables

Summer wheeled under the guidance of slight pressure from my knees, turning back toward the large round archery target and breaking into a full gallop. She wore a simple halter so that if I dismounted, I could control her, but while riding, I preferred not to use it. I felt so alive on her back, the wind on my face, the sun over my shoulders, as we rode as one. As the target circle neared, I drew another arrow. In four days of intense practice, I could now at least hit the six-foot diameter circle from fifteen to twenty yards away while galloping, and I was slowly increasing my ability to fire multiple arrows quickly. I was not near as good as Mr. Two Knives; he could put five arrows in the center of the target while passing twenty-five yards away, or hit five consecutive dummies lined in a row as his horse galloped past. Compared to him, I was an amateur with a _lot_ to learn, but I'd made a lot of progress in those four days. At first, I couldn't even hit the target from a mere five yards away because I was jostled by Summer's gait. After more practice, we - horse and rider - were getting used to each other, though, and were becoming a team. I was learning quickly how to ride bareback in a way that minimized my body motion, no matter whether she was walking, trotting, or in a full gallop. And I was learning to anticipate the movement so I could compensate.

"Let's go again, girl," I whispered to Summer, drawing another three arrows from a belt quiver as I guided her around for another pass. As I nocked an arrow and drew, I felt the sky spirit telling me about the winds, so I compensated. At the same time, I felt, through the winds and the earth, that someone - or rather, two someones - were watching me from a small cluster of trees beside the archery range.

A little pressure and my horse wheeled again, this time away from the target and toward the trees. My bow was drawn, and as Summer bore down on the trees, I focused on the figures, who I almost immediately realized were two girls sitting at the base of the tree watching. I didn't let down my guard, though - I'd heard a lot of pretty serious stories of some really psychotic, nasty girls like Hekate and Freya.

One girl I recognized as Gateway - Molly - half-hidden behind the other, the one Wakan Tanka had identified to me as the Handmaid of the Tao. Chou seemed unfazed by my sudden turn; instead, she had a rather bemused look.

"What are you doing here?" I demanded, my bow still drawn, as Summer pulled up and stopped about eight yards from the pair.

Chou smiled but it didn't fully reach her eyes, which seemed slightly unfocused - as if she wasn't really paying attention to me. "This isn't a restricted training area," she said calmly, "and not knowing if you wanted privacy, we were watching you practice. You're a very good rider."

"We were having a picnic," Gateway added from behind Chou, "and when we heard your horse, we decided to come and see."

I eased tension off the bow and slid the arrow back into my quiver. "In answer to your question, yes, I would like privacy." I dismounted and took Summer's harness in my hand.

"I understand," Chou replied easily, her eyes now focused on me. "I get that it's wise to keep your foes from knowing of all your talents and weaknesses."

"Some ancient Chinese proverb or something?" I asked with a soft snort.

"Among other places," Chou chuckled. "It's also a common theme in most books on strategy."

"And you're an expert on books about strategy and tactics, I suppose?"

Chou actually laughed at my acerbic comment, apparently unaffected by my tone. "No, but one of my mentors, Guan Yu, is."

That name sounded familiar for some reason. "I've heard that name, but I can't remember where."

Chou gave a soft chuckle. "You probably have if you've watched some anime, kung fu movies, or several video games. He's the Chinese War God and he's very popular. Anyway, he has taken a very active interest in me learning tactical things and martial arts skills."

"I imagine he would."

"You should learn to use a bow, Chou," a voice that I didn't recognize called out from somewhere unseen. "Guan Yu would insist if he were here and saw this display."

Instantly, my shield spell was active, and I had an arrow nocked. "Who's there?" I demanded, looking around intently. How had a third person gotten here without the wind telling me?

Molly's eyes were nearly popping from their sockets at my sudden action; it looked like she was preparing to take some magic action of her own as she half slid behind Chou.

Chou took Molly's hand to calm her, and then turned to me, eyes slightly out of focus again. "It's okay. That was just my sword, Destiny's Wave. You are not under attack."

"A talking sword?" I asked in disbelief, not relaxing my draw any.

Chou nodded, and then very slowly held out both hands palms up before she reached over her shoulder, towards the hilt of the sword I knew she always carried. I then realized what her eyes were doing, more focused on my drawn bow than me. I wondered if my arrow would actually hit her, given her martial skill. Equally cautiously, she pulled the blade free before holding it in her two hands, almost as if presenting it to me. The sword was quite unusual; the blade was colored like milky jade - stone and not metal. The hilt in her hand was wrapped in a rich jade-colored cording, probably silk, I guessed.

"Greetings, Ptesanwi." The voice was not Chou's or Molly's, but seemed to resonate from the sword. It seemed familiar in that way that I'd heard but couldn't quite place. I was startled; there was no way that Chou or Molly knew I was the Ptesanwi. I was really trying to keep the secret - just to be safe. As Chou had said, it was better to not let a potential foe know of all my abilities. And yet I was being called by my spirit's name.

"How ...?"

"The Tao knows, so Destiny's Wave knows," Chou said simply, shrugging slightly.

"The spirit you channel, Wakan Tanka," the sword continued, "is known to the Tao. At times, she has served the balance of the Tao, as do all things."

Wakan Tanka had warned me about the Tao and the Handmaid shortly after I had gotten here, and this was not helping to dispel any of my worries. "You will forgive me for being skeptical," I answered with a frown, "but my mentor's desire is to protect the People and to help them prosper, and from what I know, the Tao's interests have not always aligned with that goal."

"Is it important to debate this right here, right now?" Molly pouted, complaining to Chou, clearly not enamored at the course of our discussion. She was clinging to Chou's arm as if to dissuade her from doing something rash. "We don't need to talk philosophy... again."

"I ... suppose not," I said cautiously, not sure of how to take Chou and her role as the Handmaid or Molly's comment.

"What should I do, Wakan Tanka?" I asked as I sipped my tea. We sat at the fire circle, surrounded by the People who seemed to be ignoring us as they went about their activities. More and more often, the village was occupied so that I could observe, interact, and learn more of my cultural heritage. Wakan Tanka said that it was necessary for the role I would play.

"Do you trust the girl? Not the Handmaid, but the girl?" she asked.

"I ... know only a little of her. She lives in my cottage, and I see her occasionally, but I don't know her well. After your warning, I have been avoiding her."

"That was not the purpose of the warning. It was to make you cautious and aware, nothing more. She and her companion - they are Winkte. Did you not see the bond between them?"

"No," I answered with a frown. "What was I supposed to see?"

"Open yourself to the spirits, and you will see," Wakan Tanka said. "As to your question of what to do, what do _you_ believe you should do?"

"I ... I don't know. You told me yourself that the Tao might be a friend or it might be an enemy." I was a lot more unsure at that moment, not certain where all this was going.

"Rest assured, Wihakayda, if the Tao were an enemy," Wakan Tanka said solemnly, "you would not be alive right now. Nor would I."

I goggled at her words. "She's _that_ powerful?"

"No, the Tao is that powerful, like a calm stream that can turn to raging rapids. It is only when the Tao acts through her that _she_ is that powerful."

"Kayda?"

I cleared my head from my momentary distraction. That was probably not the best time for that. "Uh, yeah? Sorry. I was ... distracted. My spirit wanted to talk to me in my dream world."

"You looked like you zoned out," Molly observed.

I couldn't help but chuckle a bit as I considered both her words and what Wakan Tanka had told me. "It happens. Usually, when my spirit wants to give me advice or when I have a question."

Chou looked warily at me, still holding her sword in both palms. "What did your spirit say?"

"That if you were an enemy, I couldn't do anything about it," I said simply. Maybe it was time to take a bit of a chance. I extended my bow to her. "Would you like to try it?"

Chou's eyes widened a moment, and then she smiled. "Yes. I would."

We walked to the target area, and I tied up Summer to a shrub so she could graze, and then took an apple from a backpack I'd set down on the ground while we practiced. She greedily ate the fruit as I stroked her muzzle.

"She's very pretty," Molly said as I gave Summer the treat.

"Thank you," I replied with a smile. "She was a traditional gift. In the Lakota culture, when a person becomes a member of a warrior society, they give them a horse."

Molly's eyes widened, but Chou looked at me impassively. "Are you a Lakota warrior?"

I smiled. "I'm In'oka, a member of the badger society. That's what my paint markings say, in case you're curious."

We took turns shooting; like Lupine, Chou had learned to shoot with the arrow on the left, so she was quite surprised at how I shot. She was also surprised at how quickly I could get four arrows into the target - although I still had a lot to improve my accuracy when doing rapid-fire. When I did slow shots, I was a lot more accurate. Molly even shot my bow, and she was surprisingly good, much better than she'd thought she would be.

"This is fun!" she declared. "Maybe I should get a bow as a backup," she mused.

Chou grinned. "And you can always see if Bugs will make you some interesting arrowheads like the Green Arrow uses?"

I had an amusing mental image. "Like the kind that go boom - you know, like in Rambo?" Then something occurred to me. "I wonder ... would it be possible to bind a spell to an arrowhead so that it triggers when it hits a target?"

Molly's eyes widened, and she got excited at that, immediately considering the possibilities of 'stored' spells in arrows that she could release from a distance through a bow. I probably had the same expression, because I was considering the same thing. "That would be so neat!"

Molly and Chou asked if it would be okay to have a ride, and while I was a little nervous letting someone else ride Summer, especially since she was used to me, Chou's tale of riding a horse to Whateley from Tennessee convinced me that she wasn't totally inept. While they rode, I kept one eye on them while continuing to practice with my bow. I was hitting five of five human-sized targets from about fifteen yards, placing five shots within about ten seconds. It wasn't bad, but I had a long ways to go to be as good as my tutor.

After giving Summer one more treat in the stables, Chou, Molly, and I walked together back to Poe so we could get to dinner at a reasonable hour. Over the course of the afternoon, Molly had gotten less shy, and by the end of the day, the three of us were joking and laughing, even though Chou seemed to have a competitive streak.

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Sunday, April 22, 2007
Poe Cottage

Sunday morning should have been a morning for sleeping in. Instead, Ayla, Fey, and I were sitting in Kimba Korner, the lounge area at the end of our cottage. I sat cross-legged on the floor, while Ayla occupied a chair in a dignified, rigid, business-like pose. I strongly suspected that we were going to be doing this a lot.

"You need to visualize your essence," Fey said in a calm, tutoring voice. "We'll start with a visualization exercise." She thought a moment, her head half-cocked to one side as she stared up over our heads. "Think of a swirling cloud of ... ping-pong balls."

"Ping-pong balls?" I couldn't help blurting out.

"In the midst of the swirling winds, you have to collect a pile of them and keep that pile together, while you also try to collect more and add to the pile."

"I always hated ping-pong," I said disgustedly.

Fey glowered at me. "Can you keep to the point?"

"Sorry." I closed my eyes, trying to imagine a swirling cloud of ping-pong balls, but I just couldn't. "Too bad she didn't use the money-ball analogy," I muttered to Ayla. "You'd be able to visualize that instantly."

Ayla raised an eyebrow. "Money ball?"

"It's a cheesy contest. The person is put in a ball with money swirling all around them blown by air jets. They have a finite amount of time to collect as much money as they can. So they have to hold what they have and try to gather more," I explained.

Fey's eyes lit up. "That's a _perfect_ mental image for you, Ayles," she said gleefully.

"It sounds very impractical," Ayla retorted. "One would have to focus on spotting and collecting larger bills, ignoring the smaller ones, while still holding the money that had already been retrieved - presumably organized neatly enough to be able to hold without losing it in the swirling air currents."

"That's a perfect mental image for you," Fey repeated with a grin. "You understand business and money, so relate essence-gathering and retention to something involving money." She incanted a small spell to help Ayla visualize the money ball.

"Can I use any mental image I want?" I asked. "The money ball doesn't do it for me."

"Yes, yes," Fey said impatiently. "What kind of image are _you_ thinking of?"

"A blizzard."

Fey thought a moment. "Yes, that would work. But it has to be dry, powdery snow that doesn't clump together easily."

"Why?"

Fey just smiled. "Imagine it for a moment, and we'll draw the analogies after." She repeated the spell so I'd have an easier time visualizing the blizzard.

I closed my eyes and began to picture being in a blizzard, trying to catch snow. It was hard, and the worst part was that when I caught it, it wouldn't stick together in a snowball, so it was hard to hold onto. As I imagined the situation, I tried various scenarios. Piling the snow I'd gathered didn't help; the wind blew it away almost faster than I could gather it. I had to work to compact the powder in my hands into a snowball, which took a lot more effort than if it had been wet, sticky snow, and even then, my snowball was fragile. Collecting more snow to add to my snowball was even more difficult; I could try to scoop snow off the ground, or to catch it, but catching individual flakes was tricky. After a bit, mentally fatigued from the visual exercise, I opened my eyes.

"Well?" Nikki asked sweetly.

"It's ... hard. Keeping a snowball is tough enough, but adding to it is nearly impossible. A snowball of powder doesn't want to stick together.

"And you?" she asked Ayles.

"It's a pointless way to get money. It's hard to pick out large-denomination bills from all the small bills in the swirling air currents full of money, and capturing them is difficult."

"And the point of the exercise?"

Ayla didn't hesitate. "Gathering essence is difficult. Retaining it is tougher. Any slight mistake causes one to lose some of what they already have." I nodded my agreement.

"Which is why you," she looked at Ayla, "need to be extra-diligent about retaining essence, because it's difficult for you to gather it. Kayda and I have advantages that you don't have. And you," she looked at me, "need to learn to keep what you receive from your spirit so it doesn't leak out all over."

Nikki cast a spell, and suddenly, we could see radiant energy - essence - swirling around us, almost like a glowing fog. Inside me was a core of glowing essence, and a stream from somewhere - which I knew was Wakan Tanka's trickle charging. Disheartening, though, was the imagery of my 'core' of essence slowly leaking away, breaking away from my core like solar flares and joining the swirling fog.

While I was doing that, Fey gathered some essence, which looked to be exceedingly trivial for her, and gave it to Ayla. Very quickly, the magical energy dissipated. "No, no, no," Fey chided Ayla. "Think of it like money."

"If it were money, I'd invest it in ways that would give me the best return."

"No, no, no." Fey sighed heavily. "It's ... money you want to keep on hand - in case."

"You mean like a reserve fund of liquid assets to cover contingencies," Ayla postulated. "Something you need to keep close at hand, and worry more about asset value preservation rather than high rate of return."

"Yes," Nikki agreed, and then added, "I think."

With that line of thinking, Ayla turned his mental focus to keeping the essence he had, while I began to examine _why_ I was losing so much.

"Think of something you'd like to have right now," Nikki challenged me.

Immediately, I thought of Debra being with me, cuddling. To my amazement, my 'ball' of essence began spurting 'solar flares' quickly and intensely. I gasped in shock at how easily my thoughts were making essence dissipate.

Nikki nodded. "Now focus on holding your snowball, and then _carefully_ think of the same desire."

The 'snowball' of energy became my primary focus, and every time a little 'flare' occurred, I concentrated on catching it and pushing it back into my little glowing ball of accumulated essence. It was difficult enough as it was, but then I tried to let part of my mind think of Debra, and the ball seemed to erupt in chaotic flares and bursts.

I was thoroughly demoralized about my skill as a mage when we finished. Any mage could cast any spell, provided they had enough essence. Spell-casting wasn't difficult, as Nikki showed and as I'd learned. It was gathering the essence in the first place - a task that I sucked at. Through Nikki's spell, I was now painfully aware that I wasted more essence daily than some mages could gather, and that the skill of storing essence was far more important than learning a few spells. Without Wakan Tanka's supply, I was no more a mage than Ayla who was a Wiz-0, although I had more potential to gather essence. I had little control over keeping my essence, and it suddenly occurred to me that the reason the three little witches wanted to hang around me was to catch my cast-off essence!

Fey sensed my disappointment. "The other students in class have been focusing on this for weeks now, and learned exercises to practice control. You're a little behind on that, but you've got a little more affinity for keeping it - once you learn that control."

"In other words, I suck at this," I spat bitterly.

"In other words, you haven't had much time to practice," Nikki corrected me gently. "It takes time and practice."

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Crystal Hall, lunchtime

I was still mulling this over in the caf, a bit oblivious to the chatter from my friends, but when their talk abruptly ended, I took notice. Alicia and Addy, most prominent in my field of view, were looking up behind me. Surprised that I hadn't felt anything in the sky spirit, I turned and was startled to see a tall gentleman wearing a tailored suit that looked silk, and cut in a Chinese style. He was a good-looking man, and even the suit couldn't hide how well-muscled he was; his long, thin beard gave him a wise elder appearance, and his eyes sparkled with life and energy. Beside him were Molly and Chou, who I hadn't noticed until then.

"Kayda, this is my ... one of my ... mentors. Guan Yu," Chou introduced the older man, apparently a little embarrassed by this

"Um, nice to meet you," I said hesitantly. The man radiated power in a way that was most intimidating.

"We met with Mrs. Carson this morning, in our monthly meeting for training assessment." Chou continued, "It came up that I had done some archery with you, which got Guan Yu interested. After a... discussion, she agreed, with conditions," she glanced nervously at Guan Yu in a way that made me even more nervous, "that we can meet your tutor, because Guan Yu has suggested that I learn more of the bow, including horse-bow."

Something about how she'd spoken and how nervous she was glancing at Guan Yu made me uneasy. I tentatively said, "We'll have to see if Mr. Two Knives is available."

"He's ... expecting us - over at the archery range." She looked down, her face showing color.

"I see. You didn't leave me much choice, did you?" My eyes were narrowed a bit; I didn't like being put on the spot, and my voice reflected my unhappiness.

Guan Yu chuckled, a sound that rumbled in his broad chest. "You have fire in your heart, young one, like a warrior should," He stroked his narrow beard in a way I had seen in kung fu movies. "Yes... you might be an adequate training partner for the Handmaid."

That did not make me feel better. Neither did seeing that Mrs. Carson was waiting by the cafeteria door watching Guan Yu intently. Once outside, the five of us piled onto her club cart and headed off. I was surprised to see her taking an active - and wary - interest in Chou's training. Or mine. Or, perhaps, her mentor. In any case, we didn't say much on the short drive over to the archery range, where, as Chou had said, Mr. Two Knives was waiting on his horse. He also had Summer with him, her halter tied to a bush so she could graze while he practiced.

He had just wheeled his horse for another attack, racing across the range, bow ready, arrows in hand, and as usual, he shot with devastating accuracy, hitting all five man-shaped targets with ten arrows, putting an arrow in each heart and head. Satisfied, he turned the horse and slowed to a trot toward us.

"You have some skill," Guan Yu said, climbing out of the cart and standing tall, his arms crossed and his countenance stern and judgmental. This wasn't the way he was before. Mrs. Carson was rubbing her temples with one hand, looking annoyed.

Mr. Two Knives looked him over, head to toe, eyes intent on everything, and then nodded. "I practice," he said simply, refusing to be drawn into conflict.

"I see you don't ride with a saddle," Guan Yu observed critically. "That throws off the balance of the archer."

"When an enemy raids one's camp in the night, one doesn't have time to saddle a pony before driving off the foe. If one must fight without a saddle sometimes, it is better to practice without a saddle _all_ the time."

Guan Yu nodded, his expression still unreadable, but by his posture, it looked like he approved of the response. "May I see your bow?" he asked simply.

Mr. Two Knives dismounted and handed his bow to Guan Yu, who tested the bow's draw and examined its construction with an expert eye. "It is not as solidly constructed as a horn bow," he said critically. "Nor does it have the same power."

Mr. Two Knives could have taken offense, and from Mrs. Carson's reaction, I judged that she expected him to, but instead he simply smiled. "It serves its purpose. A good archer can bring down a bison with one arrow."

Guan Yu continued to aggressively question Mr. Two Knives for a few more minutes, but he refused to be drawn out. Finally, Guan Yu simply nodded at Mrs. Carson. "He is acceptable, and a far better warrior than the other one," he said, and a bow and quiver of arrows appeared in his hands. He extended the weapons to Chou, who seemed bemused as she took them, "Train hard. I will expect progress." He then climbed into the club car without another glance. After breathing a sigh of relief, Mrs. Carson walked back to the car and the two of them rode back towards campus.

Mr. Two Knives looked over Chou. "I understand you're a baseline," he said simply.

"Yes, sir," Chou answered, exchanging a nervous glance with Molly.

A smile spread across Mr. Two Knives' face. "So am I. And you're younger, so you should learn quickly." He glanced at the two horses. "We'll start shooting from a standing position so I can gauge your skill, and then I'll set up a target for you to keep practicing while Kayda practices her horse archery. Do you know how to ride?"

Chou nodded. "Yes, sir. I rode from Tennessee to here." She saw his eyebrows lift. "So I think I'll be able to ride without a saddle, contrary to what Guan Yu wishes."

Mr. Two Knives smiled. "You have an interesting mentor."

"He's ... the Chinese God of War," Chou admitted, wincing. "He's ... sometimes a little ... difficult. I'm very surprised that he didn't have you engaged in combat, like he did with my previous sword instructor. It was a pretty big mess." That certainly explained Mrs. Carson's presence through all of this, as well as Chou's nervousness.

"One only fights when one has to," Mr. Two Knives observed with a wry smile. "But one always trains."

Chou and I traded shots, and it quickly became a competition. As long as we were shooting slowly and deliberately, she was outscoring me - a little. She was still struggling a little with drawing arrows on the right side of the bow, but she'd learn. It was distracting as well that she had a cheering section in Molly, but Molly had cheered her on last time, too, so it wasn't unexpected. Following about an hour of single-shot firing, Mr. Two Knives had us fire five arrows as quickly and as accurately as we could, and I outshot her both in accuracy and time. At the end, I sort-of grinned at her in mock triumph, to which she and Molly stuck their tongues out at me.

In another exercise, we shot at the upper-body targets instead of the big target circle. This time, Mr. Two Knives stressed accuracy, but said that time was a factor as well. I was averaging between three and four targets hit every round, but I was firing my arrows within six or seven seconds, whereas Chou, though more accurate, took eight to ten seconds per shot. At the end, I mentally calculated my average at three point eight targets hit per round, while Chou did four point two. She didn't seem to notice, so I didn't tell her the score.

After that, Mr. Two Knives moved a target circle so Chou - and Molly - could practice, while I could safely shoot from horseback in another area. I was pushing out my distance slowly; I added two or three yards to the distance I was shooting at the large round target, but I was still having some difficulty with the man-shaped targets, so I actually reduced the distance I was shooting from.

On the way back to the core campus, though, Molly _did_ bring up the scores, as she'd clearly been keeping track, which inspired Chou to do a little 'victory dance'. I replied in a dignified, graceful manner - giving her a raspberry. One thing we agreed to was that we'd have to coordinate our training schedules so we could practice more, and Molly and I talked about trying to lock spells onto arrows. I realized I could talk to Fey about that little problem; she might find it a challenge and a distraction from her loss. Besides, I heard that she used a bow occasionally.

 

* * * * * * * * * *


Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota; midnight

The second son of Unhcegila crept closer to the dwelling; he'd been so close to getting three shamans - and _her_ - only a few days earlier, and then they'd all dispersed while the sun was still high in the sky and he was immobile, hiding from the scorching rays. He'd screamed in rage at being so close and yet losing three shamans, but he'd steeled his resolve and began tracking one of them.

Which led him to this out-of-the-way tiny ranch in the middle of nowhere. He could sense the shaman close by, inside the dwelling. There were three others inside, but that didn't bother him. Though they could give him no information, he hadn't eaten in a while, and he preferred the taste of human flesh.

As the snake-demon crept closer, some cattle in a pasture adjacent to the house began to bellow and moo, loud enough that the demon feared it would wake the sleeping shaman. But the family slept on, undisturbed. The snake-demon could feel the shaman visiting the astral plane, spending time in his dream-world, or that of his wife.

The shaman bolted upright in his bed, a disturbed look on his face. Something very dark and vile had touched his dream-space; he'd flinched from the touch and had awakened, trying to figure out what exactly had caused the disturbance. Beside him, his wife still slept, unaware that her husband had stirred.

He tried to recollect the feeling, to see if he could catalog and identify it, but such an evil feeling had only happened to him once before - and that was in Mission, when the Ptesanwi had been guest of honor. Something had disturbed him then, too, the night before she had flown home.

In previous generations, the shamans had encountered some of the more evil spirits on the astral plane, and so understood the 'feel' of each. But lately, the evil spirits slept, inactive, silent, and few had experienced their foul touch in dream-space. The shaman's grandfather, himself a shaman, would have known exactly what the feeling was, but alas, the only thing he'd been able to teach his grandson was that evil spirits and demons _did_ exist, both in the real world and in the dream space.

He sat and pondered the feeling. It had been thoroughly repugnant, and even thinking of it was disturbing, but he knew that it was his obligation, as a shaman, to know these things in case one of the People encountered it and needed assistance.

A _thing_ crashed through the window of his bedroom, splintering the wall framing around it and sending shards of glass flying every which way. In the dim light, the shaman only saw a dark snake-like shape rearing back, with arms reaching for him. The last thing he realized was that the creature was some kind of demon, just before the scimitar-like teeth rent his body and ate his life-force.

The shaman's wife awoke at the disturbance, and she lasted only a precious few seconds more, but she had time to scream. It was that scream that woke her two sons. Her attempt to flee the bed delayed the snake-demon further. The elder of the two ran to his parents' bedroom, arriving just in time to see a massive dark shape lunge at his mother. He screamed, turned, and fled, grabbing his little brother as he passed his room, and ran into the night, barefoot and in only his pajamas. Behind them, the sound of the house being torn apart was all that was heard, as the screams had stopped the moment life passed from the shaman and his wife.

In the house, as the memories of the shaman were absorbed, the snake-demon temporarily forgot about the other two lives that had fled. Sensing that the other two were out of his reach, and having new facts to think about, the snake demon withdrew from the shattered house, pausing to kill and eat a cow, and then found a shelter for the day so he could think. How was he to find this shaman named Gray Skies?

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