Blood Sisters (Part 2)
A 2nd Generation Whateley Academy Story
Abraxus's Study, Secret Island Base
Abraxus looked up from his notes as his acolytes entered.
Samantha stepped forward, long practice allowing her to keep her face expressionless at the grating tone of her master's voice. "As instructed, Master, the two have been placed together for the last day. How much longer do you wish us to leave them together before we continue the procedure?"
Abraxus considered her information. While he still had considerable time before Samhain, he wished to get these inconvenient preliminaries out of the way so he could concentrate on the profitable use of his new resource. The child's persistent stubbornness was annoying him, and he didn't like things that annoyed him.
"I believe it is now time to break her completely. So we will proceed as follows; Illyrius, remembering that she needs to remain a virgin, I want you to force her to understand she is now female. Making her realise that is a new fracture in her self-image that we will exploit. Once you have finished with her, we will make her watch while we work on Manx. Seeing the heroine helpless and screaming should destroy the remains of her pathetic resistance."
Illyrius nodded in obedience, a very unpleasant smile on his face. "I understand, Master. Does it matter if I do additional damage to her again?"
"As long as you don't injure her permanently, you may" - he gazed very coldly at his sadistic subordinate - "within reason, indulge yourself."
The man paled slightly at the look, before stepping back and bowing in submission. "It will be as you wish."
Abraxus didn't bother to address such an obvious statement. "The child is near to breaking now. Seeing Manx will have given her hope, now it is time to destroy her self-image and rip that hope away from her. Then she will belong to me."
The Cells, Secret Island Base
Manx sat back against the wall and thought through the possible options for some time.
"Rob? I have a few questions."
The girl looked at her, and shrugged slightly. "Go ahead. She gave Manx a twisted smile. "It's not as if I have anything better to do."
Manx looked at her thoughtfully. "Actually I think I may have a way of getting us out of this. It's not a good chance, but it's a lot better than nothing."
That got Rob's attention, and fast. She sat up abruptly, eliciting a hiss of pain as the motion stretched her injured back, but she didn't even seem to notice.
"Ask me anything."
"Those cuffs you wear. They stop you using your powers, right?"
"Well...as far as I can tell, they seem to drain all my power away. I can't do anything with fire, the way Thulia showed me I could, and it seems to drain my strength as well. It must be letting a little through, or I wouldn't look like this..." the girl touched one of her horns in an odd, almost shy, motion. "But I can't do anything useful."
Manx nodded. "Push your wrists closer to me, I need to take a closer look." Puzzled, Rob wriggled around to present them as she was told, while Manx took a while to examine them carefully, moving each locked cuff gently from side to side as she looked them over, before finally leaning back with a thoughtful expression.
"Now, I'm not a trained mage, but I have had some exposure to magic as part of my training. I only recognise a few of those inscriptions, but the bits I do look like some sort of binding runes. I would presume the cuffs place a restriction on your power." Rob was looking confused, so she continued. "A lock. And if that lock is broken, it won't be locking your powers any longer." She slid fingers through her hair, finally coming out with some pieces of what looked like plastic wire. "I'm pretty good at picking locks, and they weren't as clever as they thought they were when they searched me." She flicked each of the pieces carefully with a fingernail, making the pieces of smart memory plastic pop back into their lockpick forms, then gave the girl a long, considering look.
"Now exactly what did this Thulia tell you about your powers...?"
It had taken Manx some time to unlock the girls bonds - whoever had designed these cuffs had given them a tricky mechanical lock as well as their magical properties. Trying to pick a complex lock when your fingertips could barely reach it wasn't the easiest of tasks, even with all her training - but eventually she'd managed it. The expression of relief on Rob's face as she felt them unlock was gratifying. It was still giving Manx an issue thinking of such a pretty girl - and despite her obvious travails her underlying beauty was quite obvious, just as obvious as the fact the girl herself had no idea about how she really looked - as 'Rob', even after hearing her story. However while the girl was obviously in poor physical shape, she was a lot more worried about her mental state. While these people hadn't broken her yet, and she was still trying to make light of some of it, she could hear the brittleness hidden underneath. She was a tough kid, but still a kid, without the reserves and training of an adult, and it was clear to Manx she couldn't handle much more of this. So the plan they'd sketched out was going to take advantage of the first opportunity. Which hopefully would be before they dragged Manx out and locked her down in a torture rack. Granted, she was hoping she'd be able to help - as soon as Rob had been dragged out by a pair of thoroughly unpleasant-looking guards she'd started work on her own cuffs, but they were being more obdurate than the girls’ bonds had been. In theory, given the powers she had described, Rob should be able to handle a couple of men without too much trouble. The worry she had kept hidden from her was that when they brought her back to the cell she wouldn't be in any condition to do so. At least working on her bonds gave her something to distract herself with, she was terribly worried that the obvious faith Rob had put in her ideas would end up badly. She still wasn't at all happy with the plans she'd worked out with the girl, but they were better than just sitting here. While she hadn't mentioned it to Rob, given that no-one knew she was here the likelihood of anyone coming to her rescue was negligible. They were going to have to get themselves out of this, and doing nothing wasn't an option.
I tried not to stumble as I was pushed along the corridor. That would only have got me a stab in the back from the electrical prod the guard behind me was carrying, and I still had far too many burns from the times they'd played with me in my cell. I was terrified that if I fell it would show my manacles weren't locked any more. It wasn't the easiest thing to do to hold them so they still looked securely fastened together, but the guards were taking more amusement from my obvious fear than in watching my hands. It wasn't as if I was acting oddly, given the circumstances - I didn't need to act at all, I really was terrified, after what they'd done to me last time I'd been dragged from my cell like this. The look Manx had given me as I was dragged out was sustaining me a bit - she seemed to be confident I could take advantage of this and carry out the plan, but I was far less certain. It all depended on what they were going to do with me - our hope had been that it resulted in me being brought back to the cell, at which point I would use my powers to take out the accompanying guards and release her, if she hadn't managed to free herself by that time. That was a lot to put on me. But at least that was doing something; better to go down fighting than back in that cell until I finally broke down and agreed to obey them.
At least we had a plan, albeit a fairly desperate one. My preference had been to use my strength to break Manx's bonds as soon as she'd unlocked these damnable cuffs, but she'd told me no. The cell door looked very solid, and if I'd tried and failed they would just make sure that next time those cuffs would stay locked. Each time the guards had visited the cell, they'd been in groups of two or three. While those numbers weren't bad odds for the pair of us, unless we were very lucky one of them could have signalled for help before we're emerged from the cell and taken them out. That was if we could have got out, Manx couldn't reach the locks that held us to the wall, and with those in place we wouldn't have much reach. Which would, as Manx had carefully pointed out, been bad, since we had no idea just where we were in the complex, and it was unlikely a cell was positioned conveniently close to an exit. Plan B I wasn't really keen on either. It was based on them deciding to put pressure on me again before anything more drastic happened to either of us, and there was always the chance they wouldn't. But she seemed to think there was a good chance, so this had been raised to plan A and a couple of much riskier options planned for just in case this didn't work. Given what I knew about what my powers did - which wasn't that much, to be truthful - she'd run me through a number of different possibilities. Most of which were, when it came down to it, pretty nasty. Given what was likely to happen to the pair of us if we didn't get out, Manx had made it very clear that I should stop being queasy about some of the things she was suggesting I do.
I felt my heart hammering as we got to a door that was etched deep into my nightmares, and had to bite my lip to repress a whimper. Not the most sensible thing to do when you have fangs, as I felt the warmth of a small trickle of blood run down my chin. Just the sight of that door made my resolve start to crumble at the edges. The guard beside the door just gave a nasty grin as he pulled it open, and my two escorts shoved me through. This time I did stumble, as the heavy door slammed shut behind me.
Even though I knew intellectually I had a surprise in hand this time, looking up at the man who'd been systematically torturing me caused me to cringe. Which just made him smile sadistically. He moved closer, slowly walking around me, and I didn't even try to suppress a shiver as his eyes explored my naked body. I could almost feel his attention, like a slimy caress slithering across my skin. The hot heavy sound of his breathing as my naked helplessness obviously excited him, I could hear him breathing faster. Looking straight ahead, I tried - without success - not to tremble as I waited for him to finish, remembering Manx's words. Wait until they are off guard, don't rush. You'll only get one chance at this, so make it count. I could feel a trickle of cold sweat slide slowly down my spine, holding my hands close to make sure the manacles looked normal. I had to hold myself together, that last session here had almost broken me - indeed, if it hadn't been for his sadistic amusement in whipping me till I collapsed, I would probably have done what they wanted. No matter what Manx had said, I knew deep inside I couldn't take another beating like that; I could almost feel the cold blackness of despair taking me over again. That desperation helped a little, it gave me the strength I needed to get ready to try our plan. I hadn't told her, but from what Bruce had told me I knew what happened to people they used and discarded. Thulia may have changed me in ways I wasn't even sure about yet, but she'd also given me the power to fight back. I wasn't going to let either of them down by giving in now.
He rubbed his chin slowly as he looked at me again, dragging out my suspense as long as possible.
"You know, for a monster you aren't bad looking. Especially if I just look at your body."
I didn't say anything. I didn't think I was a monster, deep inside, and his calling me one just made me angry. That was good, it countered some of the terror I was trying to push aside. I'd only become a real monster if I agreed to obey them.
His tone was casual, almost conversational, as if he was musing rather than confronting a humiliated captive. "My master has decided you are not to be raped - yet. It would diminish your value for some of the initial ceremonies. However..." this time his attempt at a smile was far more of a leer "There are some duties a girl like you can perform for me that won't reduce your value to us." He pointed at the floor in front of him. "Kneel."
I did actually consider disobeying him, but I had a gut feeling that the moment of decision Manx had instructed me to look for and use wasn't quite here yet. So, despite the momentary flare of anger, I knelt - not as easy a thing to do as you might think with your hands bound in front of you, made even harder by making sure it looked like I was still bound and helpless.
"Good girl." In his mouth, those simple words were transformed into something perverted, as he slowly undid his belt, then casually pulled his pants down, exposing himself to me. I felt a knot twist and turn inside me. I knew that no matter what, I wasn't going to do this. I couldn't do this, if I did it would mean that I had really changed, that Rob was truly dead and gone. Or...my mind raced for a crazy moment - not in the way he wanted. Reaching down, he slid fingers under my chin, pinching it hard as he forced my head up to look at him. "Now, you mutant freak, you are going to satisfy me. Or..." here he slid a hand slowly up and down the braided leather thong at his side, lovingly caressing the jagged pieces of metal inserted into the knots, the dark stains of my blood on them reminding me of our previous session here "I will have to remind you of your place until you do."
It wasn't difficult at all to feign an expression of horror on my face, but I did my best to hide the sudden gleam of opportunity in my eyes. Instead I nodded, trying to project the image of a broken slave, as I raised my hands, slowly cupping him between them, still careful to hold them together so my cuffs appeared solid and locked. It was such an odd feeling - OK, I'd done this to myself before, but doing it to another man made bile rise in my throat as I felt the warmth of his flesh. But this, finally, was the moment I'd been waiting for. So even as I held his balls in my hands, I looked up at him, lips curling into the first real smile I'd had since Thulia left. "There's something I should tell you."
A flicker of surprise fleeted across his face for a moment, but I didn't give him any time to react. I only had one chance at this, and if it failed Manx and I were both dead or worse. And besides, after the way he had treated me, and no doubt many others in his vile career, he so deserved this. So I widened my smile, wriggling my wrists as the inscribed cuffs jangled, the chain that supposedly locked them together falling to the floor between his feet, leaving me unbound. Unlocked as they had been all this time, they had no longer been stopping me from touching the source of my power, and all I had to do was release it. His eyes widened in shock at the sight, but before he could do anything more, my hands and arms burst into flame, living fire that curled lovingly over and around my flesh. And his.
His eyes bulged like a frogs as he screamed, a high pitched noise that was more a whistle of agony than a scream, as I squeezed with both my hands and my power, the heat that crisped his flesh and turned his genitals into blacked, carbonised remains that broke into charred fragments in my hands just feeling pleasingly warm to me. His expression of agony only lasted seconds, before his eyes rolled back and he collapsed unconscious. I looked down at his body, seeing him reap the reward of his own actions, and all I could feel was satisfaction. A fleeting thought crossed my mind that indeed, maybe I was a monster now, surely a person wouldn't feel like this? I'd just savagely mutilated, maybe killed, a human being and all I could feel was a gleeful rush of triumph to match the manic grin plastered across my face.
I could hear the sound of my panting loud in the room as I looked away from the mutilated body, trying hard to get myself back in control. The fire had felt so good, it had taken an effort to reign it back in and not to destroy the room. There were still two guards to deal with outside this room, and Manx to free.
The cuffs were still around my wrists, as I absently wound the length of chain around my hand, looking around the room to see if there was anything useful here. Nothing, really, unless you considered some very nasty-looking torture implements useful. So I padded softly over to the door as I considered my options. There had been three guards outside. My best hope that there was one at least still there - I wasn't sure if I could find my way back to the cell on my own, and I'd need an ID card for at least one of the doors. So I licked my lips as I tensed. I'd only have one good chance at this.
Gripping the handle, I yanked the door wide. The two men who'd brought me here were still there, turning to look at me, eyes wide in surprise. I grabbed the nearest one, my claws tangled in his shirt as I lifted him and rammed him against the metal door. He slid to the floor with a soft moan. The other guard was still reaching for his shock prod as I danced a step closer and slammed my chain-wrapped fist into the side of his head like a hammer. I think a bit too hard, as my fist actually sank into the side of his head and he fell silently, a pool of blood spreading from around his skull. Oops. Still I only needed one. Jerking the obviously dead man up, I tossed him into the room behind me, then pulled his companion in before closing the door. I needed to have a peaceful little conversation with this guy.
I had to slap him a few times before he regained enough consciousness to be useful. When he did, he tried to skid back along the floor, his eyes wide open and staring. Afterwards I realised that a naked, crouching apparent-demon, hand and claws dripping with blood, was more scary than I realised. Since his back was to the wall, he didn't go far, my claws inches from his eyes.
"Now, we're going to have a little chat. And if you don't cooperate - my eyes deliberately looked over the two bodies next to him - you'll just wish you were like them."
He just nodded, making a sort of strangled gargling noise which I took to mean acceptance, at least for the moment. My grin widened, making my fangs even more obvious. "Good. Now here's what you're going to do..."
I padded along behind the guard, keeping a very close eye on him. The floor felt chill against my bare feet, but I didn't care - I was free again. So far, so good, the man had seemed scared enough after seeing what had been done to his boss and companion. We finally stopped outside my cell door, as he looked back at me with eyes still wide from fear.
"Open it. And don't even think about trying anything clever." I leaned a little closer, letting him see my tongue slide slowly across my bloody hand. God, it tasted bad, but I wasn't going to let him see that. "After all, I'm still VERY upset..."
The man gulped audibly, almost dropping his keys in his hurry to obey, and I kept practising my nastiest, most insane grin as the door opened with a metallic groan. I shoved him in, grabbing the keys as I followed, and nodded to Manx, who was already sitting up with a welcoming smile. "Now free her."
Manx looked down at the cowering guard. "Now, little man, you're going to tell me where they put my equipment."
She'd picked her cuffs while she'd been waiting, but hadn't managed to reach the ones chaining her to the wall. The pause while she had been released from her constraints had allowed him to recover some of his bravado.
"Or what? You're a hero, you won't do anything to me." The unspoken thought that his bosses were a lot more likely to do something nasty and possibly fatal to him was obvious on his face. Manx just smiled.
"Oh dear, do you really think I signed some sort of agreement not to hurt scumbags like you? You know, 'the hero promises not to do anything nasty to the evil minion', despite the way you've been treating me. And besides..." she bent down to whisper "just who's going to know?"
The guard gulped audibly. Manx decided to put on a bit more pressure. "Of course, all I can do is mutilate or kill you." She pointed to the girl standing next to him. "She's a demoness. She can eat your soul and leave it in eternal torment in hell!" I played along with her, smiling and licking my lips very slowly. "That would be nice, Manx. They really haven't been feeding me properly." The acrid smell of the man losing control of his bladder suggested he might be more compliant now.
"Better take some of his clothes."
I looked at the helpless guard, then gestured pointedly at the large wet stain soaking the man's crotch darkly. "I think I'll wait until I can find something drier and less smelly."
Manx looked at the naked girl, and shook her head. "Sure? It's better than nothing."
I shrugged and gestured at myself. "Truthfully? After all this time I've sorta got used to it, weird as that sounds. Besides, it might distract a guard or two."
Manx considered ordering her, but then decided it wasn't worth wasting time. And the girl did have a point. Most men tended to hesitate when they ran into a naked woman, and right now they needed every little bit of edge they could get their hands on."OK, now first up we need to send out a message for help. After that, we try and sneak out. No heroics, none, nada. Got that?"
I wasn't happy at the idea of just running away - I guess I was still on an adrenaline high from the success of our plan. I must have looked slightly disappointed at the instruction, as Manx sighed audibly.
"Don't look so upset, once we are clear we can watch them take this base out. Hopefully with extreme prejudice."
This made me a lot happier. "Do we get popcorn?"
"No, we don't get popcorn! Bloody teenagers". The teenager in question just smirked, and Manx sighed yet again. This was going to feel like a long escape.
While on the face of it the underground base was a labyrinthine lair of massive proportions, it wasn't, in reality, anything of the sort. Tunnelling is, after all, expensive, even with the aid of devisors or magic. I think the way the passageways tended to look the same had made me think it was a lot bigger than it actually was. The layout the guard had given us seemed accurate, but Manx looked tense, her eyes flicking continuously from side to side. Despite her obvious worry, the communications centre was where we had been expecting it to be. She gestured me back, and I sighed and did as I was told. OK, I thought I'd done pretty well so far, but she was the expert. Even so, having to stay back and look out for any unexpected arrivals was a bit of a let-down. I held my breath as Manx opened the door very quietly, paused a brief moment, then hurled herself into it. There was a brief burst of noise, most of which seemed to indicate soft squishy guards being hurled against hard and immobile objects, then it went quiet as she stuck her head out and gestured me in.
My estimate had been pretty accurate, there were three guards scattered across the room, all of them unconscious and two of them bleeding quite badly, which didn't seem to concern Manx in the slightest.
"Keep the door just open, and let me know if anyone appears."
I nodded, and did as I was told, as she sat at a desk and started to do technical things with a radio. Still, I couldn't help but keep looking back frequently, especially once she started to talk quietly. It didn't take long, and most of it seemed to be code words and phrases that didn't mean much to me, until she stood up and turned to me.
"Now, we have help coming. So our next job is to stay alive and out of the way till they get here. Oh..." She bent down and tugged the t-shirt off one of the guards. "Here you are, at least this one is clean."
She did have a point, and at least she'd offered me the shirt that wasn't bloody from the way she'd treated the guards. So I slipped it on. It hung like a tent, so I grabbed the man's belt as well, using it to pull the oversized garment in a bit. I had to wrap the belt nearly double around me, but Manx was gesturing impatiently.
"OK, now we get out, but if possible I'd like to get my kit too. We should be able to recover it on our way to the exit; I can feel where my powerstone is, so it shouldn't be too hard, as long as they kept everything together."
I just nodded. I presumed she had a good reason for wanting it, given that it would mean hanging around here longer, which was already starting to make me itch between the shoulder blades. As it was, my worries seemed a bit overdone. We slipped like ghosts up the passage - well, OK, she did, I just tried not to sound like a charging elephant - and stopped at another door marked only with a number. Manx stroked a key-card against the lock - I wondered where that had some from, I hadn't seen her take one off the guards. She really was a lot better at this sort of thing than I'd realised, and my hope of getting out of this place rose. Slipping open the door, she vanished inside for what seemed like an eternity, but was really less than a minute, coming back out with a small bag of what I supposed was her missing equipment. She was rapidly putting stuff from it into the belt that was now around her waist, even as she gestured to me to follow her again, mouthing 'now we get out'. I had absolutely no objection to THAT plan.
Sadly it seemed that our luck had finally run out. We'd got to the final corridor, and were even close enough to see the locked and barred exit, when an alarm started to sound. It was a horrible atonal screeching, and we took one look at each other and ran for the exit as fast as possible. Even as we got to the door, things got worse. First, it was shut, heavy bars closing off our way out. Second we could hear the thud of heavy booted feet heading in our direction.
"Are you strong enough to break that down? We need to get out NOW."
I gave the door a critical look as we skidded to a stop in front of it. Those bars were a lot heavier that the stuff I'd mangled after I manifested, and I really wasn't sure. However...
"Stay behind me, I don't know how contained I can make this. " Grasping the door around the unreasonably substantial lock, I concentrated hard. Heat blossomed around my hands as flame coated the lock. Sweat trickled down my face as I tried not to lose control, but to pour heat into the lock, as the mechanism quickly blazed white-hot and then slumped molten in a shower of sparks. I yanked the door wide as the half-molten lock collapsed, slapping at a few burning spots on my shirt.
"Don't touch it, it's hot,"
Manx gave me an almost amused glance as she pushed me forward. "I guessed that. Now run."
The doorway let to a short upwards-sloping tunnel. There was another door closing the end, but Manx just skidded to a halt, twisted and slammed her foot into it, hard. The flimsy construction crumpled as she tossed it aside. "It was only camouflage. Now let's get away from here, we need to hide until rescue arrives.
It was night as we emerged onto the surface. I hadn't realised, after all this time I had lost track of the time of day. Manx tore off in the direction of a small copse, and I didn't waste any time following her. Still, the air tasted so much better here than underground, even if it was a lot colder. Even as we reached the trees, we could see lights blazing from the entrance behind us, and the shouting of orders. They didn't seem terribly thrilled by our escape. Tough, that. Manx slipped through the trees like her namesake, with me following her. For the first time I realised how much better I could see in the dark - I'd noticed before my vision was sharper, but this was the first time I'd not been in bright artificial light since my change. It helped a lot, I wasn't sure if Manx realised how hard she was to follow in the dark.
For a short while, we outdistanced the pursuit, trying our best to keep to cover. It didn't go away, though, we could hear and see the signs behind us. The problem was, as we finally broke out into the clear, that we'd run out of island to escape into. The downwards slope we were on led to a medium-tall cliff, and we could hear and smell the sea breaking against the base of it. Manx grabbed my arm, pulling me to a halt before we got close to the edge.
"Damn, I'd hoped for a bigger lead. We just have to keep quiet and hope they don't reach us first."
I could see the lights getting brighter; they were spread out, covering any possible escape route.
"What if they catch up with us?"
Manx gave me a look. "Then we jump. We don't let them take us again, we take our chance in the sea. You can swim, I hope?"
I nodded. I didn't want to say I wasn't sure just how well I could manage with my back - as it was, the escape run had left me exhausted, I guess I was in worse shape than I'd realised. But, she was right, I'd rather take my chances in the water than fall into Abraxus's hands again, I had a feeling he wasn't too pleased with me right now.
"Damn right I can."
"Good, then we keep quiet as long as possible, but if they catch up we jump. Don't worry, I'll look after you, and help is on the way."
I must admit she was good, she actually made it sound like a sensible, workable plan instead of the desperate gamble it actually was.
So we hid as best we could, watching our tormentors come steadily closer, as Manx occasionally glanced anxiously at the sky. I crouched there, trying not to shiver in the cold wind coming off the sea. Time seemed to concertina; surely they couldn't be closing that fast? Finally they broke out onto the grass we'd crossed to the cliff, men in battle gear and at least one mage, judging by the dress.
Manx looked at me, and nodded. "Get ready."
I nodded, gulping down my fear. Jumping into the black, cold North Sea at night wasn't really a good option, but it looked like we'd run out of others.
A Hotel room, somewhere in London
"We have something."
Thulia's eyes snapped open at Bruce's words. She'd been taking a short rest from their constant overview of the island. Ever since her pawn had arrived, they had been keeping a possessed seagull circling just outside of the boundary imposed on her, hoping for something to happen.
Bruce cradled the stone he was using to control the reconnaissance gull carefully. "Some sort of disturbance, close by the entrance to their tunnels."
Thulia nodded as she carefully eased the stone from his hands, the seagulls beady eyes glowing crimson for a moment as she took control of it. "I can see..yessss!!"
"She's escaped, and with the hero I sent after her. Come on, come on both of you, run for it..."
Thulia kept the gull circling in slow lazy circles, watching avidly as the pair made a run for the edge of the island, then moaned as she saw the pursuit chasing after them.
"Come on, run! Jump off that damned island - get clear, then I can rescue you..."
Despite her heartfelt pleas and instructions, the pair jerked to a halt as they reached the cliff edge.
"Noooo! Don't stop, jump! Dammit, Bruce, isn't there any way she can hear me?"
"You know there isn't, you can't do anything on the island itself. "
Thulia watched in frustration as the scene unfolded, cursing with a vocabulary that impressed even Bruce. "Why couldn't we get a proper weaponised seagull?"
Bruce sighed deeply. "Because what you're doing is already pushing it further than we should, that's why. But it may not matter. Looks like someone else is taking an interest."
Thulia bit her lip as she watched the assault shuttle roar in over the sea. She HATED being so helpless, but Bruce was quite right - it was simply impossible for her to move onto or over the island as long as Abraxus was alive, although she was more than willing to adjust that particular state if she got the chance.
AEGIS Dropship, over the North Sea, 10 minutes earlier.
Pendragon finished checking his combat suit and turned to the display at the front of the dropship. The rest of his squad was already examining the data, apart from Warspite who was sitting in the centre of the craft, his suit plugged into the datanet. But then, no-one wanted most of a ton of power armour trying to peer over their shoulder anyway. The screen was currently showing an image of the target, a satellite feed giving real-time data which was overlaid by various other intel sources by the battle computer. Unfortunately, the base that was their main interest seemed to be underground, at least nothing terribly obvious showed up except for a suspiciously level area that could double as a rough landing strip.
"We're 10 minutes out. Two HERMES vertols are following us, but they won't be there for about 20 minutes. We'll need to sanitise a landing zone, they are geared up for handling a magic threat. We have an EW Tornado on its way from Coningsby to handle any tech defences, it will be overhead just after we get there. They will suppress any missile fire and targeting radars, as long as they aren't using devisor tech. As the base is apparently owned by the Cult of the Red Ba'al, we don't think that's too likely. We've warned the crew it's a hostage sitch, they won't launch any missiles without our say-so unless it's absolutely critical. If you need them, their codename is Raven for this op. If it all goes batshit on us, they have a pair of Typhoons with Storm Shadows spooling up. Bear in mind that means taking out everything on the surface, so if they turn up don't be on the surface..."
Pendragon snorted. "Thank you Derek, as usual you're a source of comfort to us all." The weapons officer just grinned, as Pendragon continued, eyes fixed on the screen. "I think the best thing is to go in hot, drop us at the hover. Land behind us, you can give us fire support if that's practical. Remember we have two friendlies on the ground, and we may not be able to identify them, so be careful. Make sure you have the non-lethal stuff in the bins in case you can't tell. Don't bother with smoke or tear gas, Storm Front would only blow it away. The tall man in the smoke-grey costume beside him nodded.
"Derek, if I go down, feel free to use either. If it looks like the best option, I'm on channel 4, so keep an ear out."
The officer shrugged. "I'll have it ready in case, but if this is a typical island the natural wind might make it useless anyway."
Secret Island Base, about 300 feet above it
"There's something going on down there, boss."
Pendragon cursed under his breath as he saw the confusion on the primary display screen. Overlaid on the image of the ground were a number of groups of people. The mix of low-light and infra-red imagery showed them clearly against the cooler background of the island itself. The worrying thing was that there were three main groups, all of which were converging on two people who were positioned rather too close to the edge of a cliff. Once, just once he'd like to do one of those jobs where everything went to plan.
"Can you ping Manx's transponder?"
Derek nodded, and for a moment one of the shapes on the cliff edge flashed on the display. Well, that was what he'd already suspected from what was going on. Looks like it was time to play the cavalry.
"OK, our people are the two at the cliff edge. I want to do a hot landing as close as possible. Can we get there and between them before they get caught?"
"Not likely, boss. But we can land pretty close."
Pendragon thought furiously. "Flash our lights. I want our two to see us, I don't want anything stupid happening when we're so close. Let's sow a little confusion amongst the enemy."
The craft screamed into its landing approach as the groups on the ground finally converged, the team poised and ready to leap out as soon as they slowed to a hover. He could see their spotlights reflected off the grass below, and quite a few of the people were looking up at them. With any luck the glare wouldn't help them see in the dark at all. And then there was the faint sounds of music coming from outside.
"Derek, how many times have I told you I hate Wagner?"
He couldn't see the Tactical officers broad grin, but he just knew it was there. "But boss, Ride of the Valkyries is traditional..."
The sudden appearance of the jumpship had caused enough confusion in the mercenaries to cause them to stop their advance on the two cornered women. While they couldn't see past the glaring searchlights to see exactly what was about to land on them, it obviously wasn't anything good. So they dithered for a few vital moments between falling back and seeing what the hell it was, and keeping going so not as to incur the wrath of their current employer. That delay was all the assault needed.
The dropship's assault door slammed open, followed by Warspite, who'd simply allowed himself to fall out as the doors slid apart, to land with a massive thud that drove his armoured feet into the earth as the ground shook. Not that that particularly worried him, as his concussion cannon swivelled around, tracking across the mercenaries in a very obvious implied threat. Behind him, Storm Front and Blue Isis landed, with considerably more grace and less force, under their own power, while Pendragon and Gunner swung down on the assault cables.
Warspite's speakers blared out, laced with subsonics designed to intimidate and frighten the listener.
"Surrender now and you will not be harmed. Be advised we are authorised to use deadly force."
Either the message or the sight of Warspite was having an effect, as the mercenaries wavered. Most likely because the armour was instantly recognisable, and they knew that their heaviest weapons would likely just annoy the operator when they scratched the paintwork. For a very brief moment Pendragon hoped that they would surrender, but then the shadowed area under the ship was lit by a bolt of lightning, as the screaming threats of one of the mages in the forefront pushed them into action. The lightning itself did little damage - a wave of her staff had allowed Blue Isis to deflect it to one side - but it looked like the men were in fact scared enough of whatever their own leaders would do to ignore the teams suggestion to surrender. Ah well, thought Pendragon, business as usual then.
The front of the dropship dipped, as the forward mounted chaingun swept an arc between the mercenaries and the team, sending earth and rocks flying as the heavy calibre bullets chewed a clear space. Not for long, but buying more than enough time for the team to swing smoothly into long-practiced action.
Abraxus snarled in rage as he saw the assault team tear into his mercenaries and acolytes. While they only seemed to have one mage with them, they were obviously experienced at handling magic threats as well as his mercenaries. Given that they had obviously been called in by Manx, he didn't expect that to last long, more magic support was likely to arrive soon. For a moment he weighed the odds. If he used his full power, it might reverse their success, but would it be enough before reinforcements arrived? Or should he just cut his losses and save himself. Of course, the rest of his forces were expendable, but he snarled out loud as he thought of losing all the effort he'd invested in this experiment. His eyes swept across the chaos that was the battlefield, as he noted the two figures trying to remain unnoticed at the cliff side. Maybe it would be possible to salvage something after all.
We'd stayed as low as possible as we watched the fight. The arrival of the dropship had made Manx grin like a thief and push me back down. I was confused for a moment, but as soon as our rescuers started their obviously well-drilled attack I realised why. There might have only been five of them, plus their well-armed ship, but they were tearing through Abraxus's men like a chainsaw through a crowd of zombies. It was all really quite spectacular, even if we were a bit too close for comfort. Then something occurred to me. These were his men, but where was the boss? Was he still safe in his lair? I turned to Manx to ask her, but before I could open my mouth a bolt of lightning blasted down from the sky, tearing at the grass between us and sending us sprawling. Oh, right, he wasn't in his lair at all. Wonderful.
Manx rolled to her feet in a fluid motion, as Abraxus stalked towards us. He was still wearing his robes, but this time he had some sort of funky power glove on one arm, and I could see it glowing with power. Come to that, in the moments the ongoing fire-fight didn't distract me, I could see a deep purple glow around him as well. Manx didn't even pause, as she closed the distance between us, moving from side to side as she dodged the next two bolts he summoned, a knife having appeared in her hand from somewhere. I realised far too late I should have told her about the magic, as instead of thrusting the blade into him as she obviously intended, it stopped short, snapping off at the hilt. Manx reacted quickly, trying to slide away from him, but he gave a nasty grin and made a gripping gesture with the glove. She came to an abrupt stop, then screamed as her wrist bent in a way it obviously wasn't supposed to do. As she dropped to the ground, her hit her with the glove, electricity crackling around her as she slumped.
OK, running to try and do something to help her was, I admitted later to myself, bloody stupid. I was what this whole debacle was about, I should have run and hid and waited for the good guys to win. But after she'd rescued me, all I could think was to help her. As I said, bloody stupid really. Abraxus smiled in triumph as I closed on him, raising his hand, presumably to hit me with another of his damn lightning bolts. I managed to surprise him, though. As he raised his hand, I let the chain I'd wrapped around my arm when we escaped, flick forward. It didn't do any damage, but it did hit his arm and the bolt blew chunks from the ground yards away from me. A few pieces of stone hit me, one leaving a cut on my cheek, but nothing that slowed me down, as I hit him in the gut, as hard as possible.
Well, it did have an effect, he grunted and slid a foot or so back, Great, whatever that purple glow was, it was shielding him. It was like a bad Star Trek episode. I hit him again, but all he did was smile. And in my desire to help Manx, I'd got too close. His arm lashed out, and the metal glove grabbed me around the neck, squeezing hard. How the hell had he got so strong, it felt like he was trying to treat my neck like a tube of toothpaste. Pain flared through my neck as I choked, trying to take a breath.
Pendragon cursed as he saw Abraxus close his gauntlet around the girl's neck and lift her clear of the ground. Her legs kicked wildly at his torso, but the sorcerer's protective force-field was much too powerful for her feet to do anything more than bounce off. He could hear her cry, choked off as the man's hand squeezed down, and her hands scrabbled uselessly at the metal fingers that were squeezing the life out of her.
"Now, you will stand down and surrender, or I will snap her neck like a twig!"
Mages are always so bloody dramatic, thought Pendragon, as he tried to see some way of getting the girl from his clutches, but the man was clever enough to be holding her in front of him like a shield.
"Kill her and there is nothing to stop us taking you down."
"Oh? Really?" the villains tone was smug as he slowly started to move backwards. Only to stop suddenly as the girl, without any warning, burst into flames. She was still struggling to get free, but the flames curling around her didn't seem able to hurt him through his magical protection - all it was doing was reducing her clothes to ash. Even so, it was obviously annoying him, the forcefield sparkling and flaring around his gauntlet as it deflected the energy. Pendragon could see the snarl on his face as his grip tightened even more, causing the girl to give out a pitiful strangled cough. Which might not have been the best action to take, as the fire suddenly changed from what was already a steady blaze to a white-hot inferno that leapt and crackled around the girls form - and his gauntlet. Even in his armour, Pendragon took a few steps back in an automatic reaction to the blazing fury, the blue-white flames lighting up most of the area with stark brilliance as the girl blazed like a piece of magnesium.
Far from trying to throttle his captive, Abraxus was doing his best to drop her, but while most of his protective field was holding, his gauntlet was obviously burning, as with a scream of pain and rage he finally managed to force his hand open. The girl tumbled to the ground, collapsing in a heap as the mage drew a three-tined sword. With one hand, as the other was still smoldering, the smell of burnt meat brought to Pendragon by an errant breeze as droplets of molten metal spattered onto the ground. Hate-filled eyes locked to the girl, he forgot in his pain and rage that he didn't have her to use as a shield any more. Pendragon was about to leap forward and interpose himself, but even as he tensed there was the hollow boom of Warspite's concussion cannon, and the mage flew backwards helplessly, arms and legs flailing as the blast hit him right in the chest.
The girl was trying - unsuccessfully - to struggle to her feet. Seeing that, Pendragon leapt past her, running at full speed towards Abraxus as he struggled back to his feet. Taking the energy of the blast had totalled his already stressed protective field, and left his robes smoking, but he still managed to raise his sword as Pendragon rushed him. Considering what Warspite's cannon did to most targets - normally best described as 'splatter' - Pendragon was quite impressed with the man's shields. Tough bastard or no, Pendragon was determined to end his threat here and now, his own sword held ready to attack.
Abraxus snarled at the hero as he raised his sword to parry. Pendragon simply twisted his sword as the two blades hit, pushing the defending sword out of line. With a series of hard blows, he kept the man stumbling backwards, unable to do more than to give ground to stop the gleaming metal from slipping past his guard. Pendragon wasn't particularly impressed; as usual, the mage had no real skill with the weapon. It was probably magical, but with his essence depleted by the need to power his now-faded defences, it was little more than a fancy piece of metal. He thought for a moment about disarming him and forcing the man to surrender, but thought better of it. As usual, they had looked up the Cult on their way to the island, which had informed him that this particular mage had a number of warrants out for capital crimes, as well as a lethal force authorised judgment. He smiled as he gave a final stroke that pushed the sweating man's sword well to one side. While Britain no longer had a death penalty, after reading what some of his crimes had been, he really didn't see the need for one more trial. His blade blurred as it swept sideways, the adepts head neatly severed from his body, as he stepped back to avoid the spurting blood, the body collapsing to the ground.
He gave the body one final clinical glance before he turned back to what remained of the fight. Very little, as it turned out; with their leader down, and faced with what was obviously a full assault team - not to mention the arrival of two more vertols, already busy disgorging men - what was left of the defenders were busy surrendering as fast as possible. At least, those carrying guns were, there were a few bodies in robes lying unmoving on the grass. As usual, the paid grunts were hoping for survival, while the adept's followers seemed to have fought to the death. He looked around for the girl who Abraxus had been holding; hopefully she was OK, whatever that burnout had been it had looked nasty. He found her sitting on the ground, naked and shivering - either from cold or reaction, he wasn't sure - while Manx carefully folded a blanket, that she'd acquired from somewhere, around her shoulders. Manx herself looked a bit battered, and was obviously favouring one wrist, but seemed more concerned about the girl. As he approached she looked up at him, a guarded expression on her face.
"Did you get him?"
Pendragon nodded to Manx, letting her see the blood on his blade, and she smiled in relief. "Good. A fitting end for a very nasty piece of work."
"He's dead? Really?"
Manx patted the girl gently on the shoulder at her hopeful question. "Very dead."
She smiled slowly, a pleased expression that worried Pendragon somewhat."Oh. That's good." Then she slowly slumped sideways as everything finally caught up with her and she fainted.
Pendragon bent forward, taking a better look at her. She was very pale, and he looked at Manx. "How is she?"
Manx looked carefully at the body she was still carefully supporting. "I think she'll be OK, but she needs medical treatment badly. And she's a mutant, I hope what she did wasn't an actual burnout."
Pendragon nodded as he made the necessary arrangements on his communicator. "You too, Manx, I don't like the way your favouring that arm."
The woman shrugged. "It's not too bad, just my wrist. I'm a lot more worried about her." She must had caught Pendragons questioning expression, as she carefully slipped the blanket to one side, letting him see part of the girl's back. He winced. "I'll get them to expedite that medevac."
AEGIS Headquarters, London, Medical Section.
Manx stroked her key-card through the door reader, then waited for a moment as it bleeped cheerfully at her and allowed the surprisingly sturdy door to swing open. Most hospital rooms weren't so robustly constructed, but then most hospital rooms weren't designed to hold mutants and other power manifestors. Patients had been known to have accidents when injured, or on drugs, and the heavy-duty construction had more than paid for itself.
She examined what she could see of the girl in the bed as she walked over to the doctor. Despite her GSD, her face was surprisingly attractive, now she wasn't trying her best to scare veteran mercenaries into wetting themselves. She would probably look better if she wasn't so gaunt, Manx thought to herself.
"So, Doc, what's her status?"
Doctor Baines finished making some notes on the patient, before reluctantly admitting to herself that Manx was indeed there and unlikely to go away of her own accord unless she actually spoke to her. "All things considered, quite good. She's weak, exhausted and her backs still a bit of a mess." She pointed at the IV drip plugged into the sleeping girl's arm. "From what you told us, they were keeping her cold and malnourished, standard stuff for helping them put pressure on someone." The Doctor looked again at one of the pictures by the bed, one showing the girl's back. A network of raised scars and nasty purple lines criss-crossed it, and frowned. "By the way, what happened to the people responsible for doing that to her?" Manx didn't reply verbally, instead she just gave a slow satisfied smile that bared her own canines. Doctor Baines made a small and very insincere tsking sound. "Oh dear, how terrible. I'm sure it was an absolutely unavoidable accident though."
Manx took a look at the notes and the medical readouts. Doctor Baines tolerated that for about 10 seconds before she gave a derisive snort. "Stop pretending they mean anything to you, Manx. You wouldn't recognise an EEG if it walked up and bit you. Very well. I'm feeding her by IV, to help her recover. Her back, and some additional bruises and contusions she picked up have been treated, nothing terribly serious for an exemplar. We checked out your report of her collapsing, but it wasn't a burnout, thankfully. She just ran out of energy and collapsed with exhaustion. Hardly surprising, really. And no, you can't speak to her yet. I'm keeping her sedated until at least tomorrow while we do some more tests and allow her to recover. James will be along later to do a second healing on her back, after that we should be able to tone down the painkillers. Now shoo like a good kitty."
"I'll be back tomorrow, Doc. I really do need to speak to her as soon as possible." The Doctor nodded, as she took Manx's arm and ushered her out firmly. "Tomorrow, then, but no sooner. And let me know first, from what I've heard I want some appropriate drugs ready in case we need to calm her down."
AEGIS Headquarters, London, Admin section
"Please take a seat, Ms. Jones."
The young woman sat carefully, trying not to show her anxiety. Dr. Stevenson watched her carefully, trying to project an air of professional calm before he continued.
"Now, the first thing is that your sibling is quite all right. I'm sorry about the delay, but the Doctor is doing some checks, so we have a few minutes to talk."
"Talk about what exactly? If my brother is fine, why all this distraction, I'm his sister, I have a right to see him!" The woman drummed her fingers on the chair arm. "Or should I just call my lawyer right now?"
Stevenson made a placating gesture. "Please, we aren't trying to distract you. As I said, Rob is fine. But there were some...complications...involving what happened to him." He hurried on, as it was obvious Ms. Jones wasn't getting any calmer. "I understand from your records you are a registered mutant?"
Ceridwen Jones looked puzzled, as she tried to work out what this had to do with her missing brother. "Yes, I am, but what has that to do with anything?"
Dr. Stevenson folded his hands in front of him. "Well, it seems your brother also had the gene, and while he's been missing he manifested."
Ceri bit her lip. When she'd manifested herself, she'd looked up all the things that might have happened to her, just in case. "Was it bad?"
Dr. Stevenson looked her in the eye. "Well, yes and no..."
AEGIS Headquarters, London, Medical Section.
I leaned back against the soft pillow with a sigh. It was so good to not feel agony every time something touched my back. Apparently, I'd been healed while I was still asleep, although the Doctor had told me they wanted to keep an eye on how it was going over the next few days. So I turned to one side to look at my sister, who was sitting there looking at me thoughtfully. She waited until I was looking at her, then smiled slightly.
"You know, it really isn't fair."
I blinked. "What isn't fair?"
"Well, while coming back from the dead has a long and noble history, I don't think you're supposed to do it looking so much prettier than your big sister."
I just lay there, mouth open slightly, as she finally broke into laughter on seeing the look on my face.
"I didn't exactly PLAN this, you know!"
"Yeah, I know." She leant over, patting my hand. "Look, it doesn't matter. Not to us, not at all. You’re alive, you're in one piece, and as soon as they let you out of here you'll be fine."
I made a face. "Yeah, but I'll still be a girl."
"So? Look..." she thought for a moment. "Do you love me?"
"Of course I do, Ceri! Your my sister, you know how I feel."
"Yeah. Now, lets say there was a lab accident at the Uni, and I got hurt and burned. So badly I was disfigured and crippled. Would you still love me or would that change your mind."
Oh. "You know it wouldn't."
She nodded firmly. "Exactly. So why do you think your family wont love you just because of this?" she waved her hand vaguely over me. "Look, I know it's a big shock and all, but just think how much worse if could have been. You've seen the pictures of some mutants on TV, haven't you."
"I guess." I still wasn't convinced, but the main thing right now was that my family wasn't going to up and leave me just because I'd changed sex. OK, I hadn't really thought they would, but it had been a worry that had nagged at me ever since I'd manifested. You hear stories...
"And anyway, it's not like you're the first mutant in the family."
I looked at her oddly, until I finally worked out what her smirk meant. "You!?"
She nodded, grinning. "Yes, me. I manifested when I was 14 - you, of course, didn't even notice - and now" she lifted her head in a mock-heroic pose - "now my master plan is almost complete, and soon I will rule the world! Bwahahahaha!"
I couldn't help it, I sniggered. "You need a lot more work on that evil laugh. So what are you?"
She shrugged. "Well, actually... just a gadgeteer-1. So boring the government tested me, gave me an MID then patted me on the head and told me to go away and not bother them again."
"You know, I've been thinking..."
"Oh, did it hurt, Rob?"
"Ha de bloody hah. No, seriously. I can't keep calling myself Rob, can I? It's not exactly a girls name."
Ceri looked thoughtfully at me. "No, it isn't. So have you thought of one you like?"
"Well, I don't want anything too girly, if that makes sense." She nodded, which gave me the nerve to continue. "I was thinking Morgana - especially as I have magic now."
"Hmm. And you always liked her in the stories, didn't you."
"Yeah, I always felt she got the short end, you know? Sort of made out to be the villain because they needed one."
Ceri grinned. "So you're going for the evil queen idea?"
"Oh God no. But I have to be realistic." I gestured at myself. "I'm not the person I was, so a new name is sort of a break."
She looked at me, head tilted a little. "I see your point. A new name for a fresh start. Just remember that you're still my younger sibling, no matter what you look like." She took my hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "It's a good name, I can see you as Morgana."
AEGIS Heaqdquaters, London. A private office
Robert Stevenson put down the thick folder he'd been flicking through with a sigh. It seemed a shame to have to put the girl through yet another interview after all she'd been through, but the regulations were clear, and they were there at least in part to protect her. The situation she was currently in wasn't safe or stable in the long term, and he hoped she and her guardians would be sensible enough to take his advice.
Morgana had never been in a mage's office before, so had no real idea what to expect. Lots of weird ideas, but in fact it just looked like a pretty normal room, modern even. Apart from the wall to ceiling books that covered one wall, and some of the somewhat odd items on display in some cabinets opposite them. She looked nervously at her sister, who gave her a reassuring smile. It wasn't convincing, she really wasn't any good at them. Ceridwen was a very good engineer, but she'd never be described as a successful people person.
The man who greeted the two women was that indeterminate age between 30 and 50. If it hadn't been for the copious white flecks in his neat beard, Morgana would have said he was younger. When she shook his hand, his grip was surprisingly firm. So much for the classic old, frail wizard trope that the films and tv loved so much. He was politeness itself as he offered them chairs then seated himself behind his desk, looking at them, but there was something about his manner that unsettled Morgana, as if this was all part of a polished performance. He didn't seem at all concerned with her appearance, but she supposed an experienced mage had seen much stranger things.
"It's a pleasure to meet you both" He nodded to Morgana "and in particular you, Ms. Jones." He patted a worryingly thick folder on the desk in front of him, and she felt herself blush faintly. He obviously noticed, because a small smile flickered across his lips. "My name is Dr. Stevenson, and I've been tasked by HERMES to tell you about the options you have available after your experiences."
Morgana grimaced slightly. Experiences. That was a delicate way of talking about being forcibly transformed, locked up and tortured by a crew of Grade-A magic nutjobs.
Her big sister was already looking worried. "Dr. Stevenson, you make that sound like we don't have any choices of our own. Surely after all that's happened we aren't going to be treated like criminals!"
Dr. Stevenson held his hand up in a conciliatory gesture. "Quite the contrary, Ms Jones, but there are a number of issues that have to be dealt with. Both from the point of view of your, um, sister and also certain legal requirements." Both of us must have looked puzzled, because he sat back in his chair. "I think it would be best if I first laid out the situation from our perspective, that will give you the background as to why we are going to suggest a course of action." Ceri and I exchanged glances, then she nodded. "I think that would be a good idea, I would like more information.
Dr. Stevenson gave us his best reassuring smile - which I had to admit was way more effective than Ceri's - and made a production of opening the folder. He barely glanced at it, which rather gave the game away.
"Now the situation we find ourselves in is that Morgana here has manifested as a mutant with considerable power, as well as changes in her appearance. As the reports we got after she escaped, as well as the preliminary testing we have done, show we now have a reasonable idea of what those powers are. The most important, from HERMES point of view is that she's an active mage now. In the power terms the MCO uses, she's a WIZ-4." His lip curled for a moment. "I don't really like their terminology, it's so imprecise for magic, but it will do for the time being. What this means in practical terms is that she's active at a power level that will result in uncontrolled magical manifestations, at least until she receives the proper training."
"The problem is, we have to consider what's best for you, Morgana, as well as see to your schooling. For the bulk of mutants, that isn't a major problem. Either their power isn't strong, or is pretty harmless, like your sister, or its low powered and we can train them to be safe in a few months. Then they can go back into the normal school system. For those that have other problems, like GSD, that make a normal school environment challenging, we have a couple of boarding schools. But in your case, we can't use those options."
I must have looked confused, because he smiled at me and carried on.
"It isn't so much we don't trust you, Morgana. The issue is we also have to consider the other students. Frankly, you are too strong; if anything happened to get you mad, a fight, bullying, the sort of things that happen at school, and you struck out, you could seriously hurt or even kill someone, even if you didn't change to your altered form. In all good conscience we can't put other students into that position."
Well, I supposed he did have a point. They'd shown me just how much the weights I'd lifted in what I was starting to call my Dragonform were, and I'd had a shock. OK, I'd always been pretty strong, but over a ton was ridiculous.
"It's especially an issue because of your magic. You need to be trained; even if you decide against a career as a mage, we still need to give you enough training that you aren't a danger to people around you. But sending you to our Academy isn't going to work. Late mutant students tend to attract bullies, or at least hazing, and while the staff are practiced at handling magic, they aren't expected to cope with a student who can break their opponent into pieces if they get mad."
My sister looked at the man thoughtfully. "Dr. Stevenson, you've told us what you can't do, so what options are available to us? Home schooling?"
Stevenson shook his head. "While private schooling is a possibility for some mutants, we wouldn't recommend it in your case. You see, there is another problem, which is the Cult of the Red Ba'al." He must have seen my wince, as he carried on quickly. "While we eliminated the base you were in, and we don't think they passed on any data about you, we can't be certain. We are making investigations, of course, but these take time. If other parts of the Cult know about you, you and your family would be in grave danger. We could arrange some sort of witness protection arrangement, but that would of course disrupt your life considerably, especially for your sister as she is still at University."
Stevenson paused for a moment to shuffle some glossy papers out of the back of the folder, then pushed them across the desk to the two women.
"Now the good news is that there is a solution to the problem. There is a private school in the USA, Whateley, that teaches and trains mutants with power levels or appearance that would cause issues in mainstream schooling. That includes a quite reasonable set of courses on magic. They can teach you what you need to control your magic and powers, in an environment where you won't be singled out because of your appearance." He took off his glasses, making a production of cleaning then to give them a chance to glance over the papers. Ceri finally looked up at him with a doubtful expression.
"It does look good on paper, but it's in the USA. And it mentions cost... Our trust fund is very against anything involving the capital, they wouldn't even pay for my University course. I don't think we could afford it."
Dr. Stevenson nodded. "Yes, I am familiar with your financial situation. Fortunately that won't be an issue. First, most of the costs will be paid for by a government fund - it's a long standing arrangement, it's uneconomical to set up such an establishment in the UK. Also, in view of her actions, AEGIS are paying the rest - they sponsor occasional students as well. "
Ceridwen was still looking doubtful, as she looked over at her newly minted younger sister. "What do you think, Morgana?"
I looked up from where I'd been skimming through the brochures. It looked great on paper, but then private schools who wanted to part you from your money always did. "I guess...it does seem the best thing, as Dr. Stevenson said, I need to be trained not to be dangerous. And it will stop you worrying about me while you finish off your degree."
Dr. Stevenson coughed. "There is one other thing you need to be aware of. As I mentioned, there is the possibility that The Cult of the Red Ba'al might attempt to deduce Morgana's original identity and take action against your family. However if Morgana attends Whateley, her family will come under the protection of the schools benefactors and sponsors." He could see from the confused expressions that they hadn't understood the implications, so he continued. "By a long standing arrangement, the families of students are sacrosanct, under penalty of, hmm, extreme sanction by the sponsors. Since the sponsors include many superhero groups, neutral parties of considerable power, and, shall we say, some very powerful people and organisations on the wrong side of the law, no sane person would attempt anything against Ms. Jones."
Ceridwen shuffled her papers into a pile. "Can we have a little time to look through these properly and talk about it?" Stevenson nodded. "Of course, and the schools website is on the paperwork. While I wouldn't want to rush you, their Autumn term starts soon, and it would obviously be better for Morgana to start then. We would like her to vanish among the other students at the start of a new term, just in case."
Taking a business card out of his wallet, he passed it to Ceri. "Give me a call when you've decided. If you don't decide to attend, I'll have to look at some alternatives, but my personal recommendation would be Whateley.
Starbucks, close to the AEGIS HQ Building, London
Ceri found an empty table in the Starbucks and settled down into it with a sigh of relief. The last few days had been hectic, to put it mildly. Finding her little brother was actually alive - even if he was now her little sister - after they'd all but decided he had to be dead, was amazingly good news, but that hadn't reduced all the work that had to be done. So she'd taken a break and left the AEGIS building to get a coffee and catch up on her emails. The building itself had been shielded, except for the public ground floor, and she didn't want to negotiate a crowd of ogling tourists right now. So she sat back in the soft chair, sipped her latte and started to go through all the messages on her phone. Suddenly vanishing for a few days had left a surprisingly high number of messages, and she couldn't exactly tell people the truth.
"Excuse me, are you Ceridwen Jones?"
Ceri looked up in surprise at the soft voice. Why would someone be looking for her here? Then her eyes went wide as she took in the odd pair standing looking at her. The man was fairly nondescript, short, wide, with one of those faces that were so ugly they were sort of attractive. It was the girl that caught her attention. Not so much her slender figure, or the face that looked too lovely for anyone for a model, it was the fact she could have been her little sisters cousin. There was a very definite resemblance there, although - she peeked quickly - the girls ears were normal, and rather than red a wave of ebony hair tumbled down her back. She wasn't stupid, she'd listened carefully to her sister's story, and given the way she looked there was only one person this could be.
The girl smiled, almost shyly. "Yes, I'm Thulia. May I sit down?"
"Uh..sure.." Ceri looked worried. "How did you know...?"
"That you'd worked out who I was?" The girl grinned as she eased herself into a seat. "Your face did rather give it away."
That didn't reassure Ceri in the least. If what Morgana had told them was true - and she had no reason to doubt it - this 'girl' was an extremely powerful mage, and probably not human either.
"Please, I don't mean any harm." Thulia bit her lip, looking apprehensive. "I'm here because I need your help."
Something in the girl's voice - uncertainty, maybe even worry, made Ceri pause in her initial idea about jumping through the plate glass window to get away.
"I swear on my power, I am not here to hurt or harm you or yours."
The way she said it, almost as if it was a ritual, made Ceri lean back in her seat again. Of course, she was hardly an expert in these things, but if she was remembering correctly someone like Thulia couldn't swear lightly on her own power. And Rob - no, Morgana, she had to keep thinking of her like that now - had made it clear she had helped him, probably saved him from a fate that really WAS worse than death, and had only changed him in order to save his life. Besides, she was more than slightly curious about the demon-girl who Morgana seemed rather fond of.
"Ok, then what is it you want from me?"
The raven haired girl dithered for a moment before replying. "Well, first - is Rob OK?"
"Pretty much - oh and she's calling herself Morgana now." The statement brought an amused snort from the man, and she looked at him a bit more closely. "If this is Thulia, then you must be Bruce, right?" The man nodded, as she examined him again. "Aren't you supposed to be green and scaly?"
That brought a soft giggle from Thulia, and a long-suffering look from Bruce. "Well, we're both in disguise - I thought people might notice otherwise."
"Notice him just because he's green and scaly? In a Starbucks in London? Please..." The two girls both grinned at him, which just brought another patient sigh."Anyway, back to your question. Morgana is OK, she's safe, but honestly I can't describe her as fine." It took her a while to go through what had happened after Thulia had been forced to leave, and some of the details caused the girl to wince deeply.
"I'm so sorry, I really am!" Demoness or not, unless she was a sublime actress Ceri couldn't doubt the honesty of her emotions, her voice was almost a wail. "But I didn't have any CHOICE.. all I could do was to arrange for that superhero to find out about her."
Ceri nodded as she placed her hand over Thulias and squeezed it gently. A small part of her wondered what her friends would say if she told them she was dispensing comforting words to a teenage demoness in Starbucks. Probably ask her what she was smoking and how could they get some of it.
"Look, from what I hear it wasn't your fault. And if it was you that set Manx after her, you saved her again."
Thulia took a minute to compose herself.
"I wanted to see her, but that building is shielded. I can't enter it without setting off all sorts of alarms." She took a deep breath. "That was the other favour I had to ask of you."
Ceri looked puzzled. "Uh...I can't get you in - I'm only allowed in to see Morgana."
"That's what I need." The girl rummaged in her purse - Ceri allowed herself another moment of unreality at the idea of a demoness with a mundane purse - as she brought out a short candle. It looked odd; nominally Ceri supposed it could be called red, but it looked more the red of solidified blood than the paler red of wax. She reached out and took it carefully. It felt warm against her fingers, and she gave it a suspicious look.
"This wont hurt my sister, will it?
"Oh no!! Ask her to burn it, and look into the flame. It will just allow us to talk for a little time, that's all."
Ceri eyed it dubiously. It could be some sort of trap for Morgana. But then, why bother? If Thulia could get at her behind the wards of AEGIS headquarters, she could certainly get at her when she left, and Morgana couldn't stay penned up in there forever, just in case. "Do you swear it won't hurt her?"
Thulia nodded, making a strange symbol in the sir that glowed for a moment. "I so swear on my power."
"Ok, I'll take it to her."
Thulia's face brightened immediately, and Ceri suspected that if there had been room between the tables she'd have hugged her. She wasn't quite sure if that worried her or not, which was worrying in itself. Instead, Thulia sat up straight in her seat. "Ceridwen Jones, I owe you a favour. I will not forget that."
Ceri shook her head. "That isn't necessary, I'm doing this for my sister."
"Nevertheless." Thulia stood gracefully. "I have to leave. Thank you, Ceridwen."
Ceri sat and watched the odd couple leave, then shook her head. It looked like her brother turning into her little sister was only the start of the weirdness.
AEGIS Headquarters, a room in the Medical section
I looked at the blood-red candle my sister had given me, thinking on what she had said. It all made sense, this was the London HQ of AEGIS, of course it would have wards against demons. Or whatever Thulia really was, I still hadn't worked that out to my own satisfaction. And if this candle let me talk to her, that would be nearly as good as seeing her in person. Listening to my sister talk about meeting her had made me realise just how much I'd missed her. Judging from the way the thing glowed purple-ish to my sight, it was a lot more than just a normal candle.
I'd been allowed out of bed today - that had been a relief, as had been getting the drip removed from my arm. I'd only been allowed a semi-solid diet today - which had sucked, literally - but my doctor had seemed pleased with how my stomach had handled it, and I'd been promised proper food tomorrow. I was so looking forward to that. Looking thoughtfully at the candle again, I pulled the small table in front of my chair, setting it down. Then looked around for some way of lighting it. After searching for a couple of minutes, I chuckled to myself. "Stupid, why do you need a match?" Leaning forward, I carefully touched the wick with the tip of my finger, a tiny flame dancing on it as the candle sputtered and caught. Leaning back, I watched the flame steady then concentrated on it as I'd been told. It was so pretty...
I must have nodded off for a moment, staring into the flame. Everything was bright and flickering around me. Except for the girl standing looking at me.
"Thulia!" I wasn't sure if I'd said it out loud, as a moment later she was in my arms, pressed close against me. It really wasn't hard to pull her even closer. She purred and snuggled a bit closer. I could smell her hair, sort of cinnamon and smoke. Somehow the two worked for her.
"I'm so sorry."
I looked at her and shook my head. "Stop being silly. Ceri told me what you did, I know there was nothing else you could do. And it all worked out OK."
"Except for me turning you into a girl."
"Well, yeah, that is an issue." I looked at her again; right now, cuddling a beautiful girl - and at this moment I could care less about her origins - close, made me regret my change of sex. On the other hand, if I'd stayed my old self I wouldn't have been in this position with her. Even under my current circumstances, I was feeling, well, odd. So, ironically, I defaulted to doing what I'd done as a boy, I changed the subject.
"How are we doing this, anyway? Where are we?"
Thulia slid her arms around my waist - whatever my feelings, it seemed like she was quite comfortable. "We're inside the candle flame, of course. It's not a spell I can do easily, but after what I did, you're my blood sister now, so it's easy."
Oh, of course we were. Actually, looking around it sort of made sense. For a sufficiently bizarre value of sense. Blood sister. I rather liked the intimate sound of that. "If I ask how, you're going to say you can't tell me, aren't you.
Her hand stroked my cheek, softly. It felt...good. "I'm sorry, I promised to teach you, but I don't think I'm going to have the time. Your sister told me they are sending you away. And I have to go away myself - we don't have schools like you, but I have studies and duties I have to attend to."
"Yeah. I don't really have much choice. But they did promise I'd get to learn magic there, so...next time, you can explain."
She opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it again, thinking before she replied. "After all I've done to you...you want there to be a next time?"
I didn't know what to say. So I just nodded slowly. The smile I got in response told me that was the right answer.
While we'd been talking, I hadn't realised the light was growing fainter, I'd been, well, distracted. It hadn't escaped her notice. "The candle is dying, we don't have much time."
Then she kissed me, hard. I think so, anyway, my mind sort of went numb as my body responded quite enthusiastically. Until at last the moment was broken, not by us but by a last flicker, as the candle died and I was alone in my chair again, the echo of warm, soft lips touching mine fading, even as I tried to hold on to it.
It had been a really hectic few days. The most difficult thing had been convincing my family that this Whateley place was really the best option for me, Aunt Ree in particular had been insistent that I should stay with them, and damn the danger. But eventually she'd agree that it did seem to be the only want to both keep me safe and get me the training I badly needed. That had been the argument I'd made with her, but really it was to keep them safe. I think Ceri had worked that out, she'd always known the way I thought much too well, but she kept quiet and helped me.
Once that had been sorted out, it was a whirlwind of getting everything ready in a few days. Dr. Stevenson, who seemed to be masterminding this, had insisted I be slipped in at the normal time with the other new students. Doing that, and hiding me in the crowd, made sense, but it certainly kept us busy. Arranging with our Trust fund to pay the money to me that had been going to my guardians for upkeep was surprisingly easy - I suspected someone pulling strings behind the scenes, dealing with them was usually like taking candy from a baby - almost impossible. New papers, passport, bank card for my shiny new US Dollar account - and how they arranged all that stuff in a few days, I had no idea. I suspected magic. Even the man who they'd brought in from the MCO to produce my shiny new MID had been helpful, but apparently he was a sort of permanent liason to AEGIS to do that when they asked. I did wonder if the MCO in the USA would be as helpful, the stories didn't indicate that, but in the end I couldn't work up the nerve to ask anyone. The main issue had been in choosing a codename; apparently I had to have one to put on the MID card. That had taken some thought. The obvious one was something like DemonFire, but telling everyone I was some sort of demon when I rather looked like one seemed tempting fate needlessly. So I settled on DragonsFyre. I did have horns and stuff, and anyway dragons are really cool.
There were a few issues about what they would actually put on the card - apparently, the standard power testing they'd done had raised a few questions, particularly about how exactly I was connected to the Fire Plane. They'd wanted to hold me back a few weeks until the next time their national centre near Birmingham was available - apparently they had much better gear, and could test me safely. Once they'd read the report from the assault team about what my fire had done, they weren't so keen on testing it in their local lab. But Stevenson vetoed that as too much of a security issue, especially as Whateley had one of the best testing facilities in the world. So I had more tests to look forward to. Joy. Yhey settled for Exemplar-3 and Wiz-4, albeit with mutterings from the testing staff, and stamped my MID Provisional in big red letters.
I'd wanted to pay a visit home, to say goodbye, but Manx had vetoed that. "Just in case the Cult is still looking for Rob Jones, we dont want you to be associated with his family." It made sense, but saying goodbye in a room in AEGIS just wasn't the same. There had been more to that - Ceri told me that Rob Jones had been declared officially dead, which made me really depressed for the rest of that day. It just rubbed in that my old life, friends, everything, just wasn't there any more.
They had only let me out once, with my sister to help me do some shopping, and Manx as an escort. With some sort of fancy magic necklace that disguised me a bit as well. paranoid, much? But actually, it was good to be reassured by the level of professionalism they showed. Of course, the shopping trip itself was fraught - not with villains, but the shock of having to buy female clothing. I realised why, after all I was a girl, and that wasn't going away, but I'd sort of been hoping I could stick to stuff I was familiar with, like t-shirts and jeans. Fat hope.
Ok, I did get a few of them, but some of the outfits my sister decided would work made me look, well, hot. There is something just a bit weird about looking at your reflection in a mirror and getting turned on. Plus all the other stuff a female apparently needs to travel, even with accepting I'd buy a lot of my stuff at Whateley - apparently they had a truly massive store on campus, which made sense if they had GSD students who couldn't exactly go down to the local shop - we'd stuffed an oversized suitcase full. It made me glad I was a lot stronger now. When I asked how I was going to know what to get, Manx just smiled and told me to get stuff that I'd like to see a pretty girl wearing. Both she and my sister seemed to find my expression hilarious. Sadists.
Then Manx and my sister spent all evening showing me how to wear some of it - I'd like to find out what torture artist invented the bra - and a rush course on how to act female. At least, as Manx pointed out, I was a teenager, so I had a bit more leeway in things like makeup and deportment, and as long as I stuck to jeans in public I should be OK.
Finally we'd got everything ready, and the prospect of leaving, which had been a comforting few days away, was right in my face. At least Manx had offered to take me to the airport and see me off, I was so nervous I don't know how I'd have been able to manage it on my own.
Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5, 0500.
Even this early in the morning, Terminal 5 at Heathrow was busy. I looked around and winced as I saw an armed policewoman making her way around the concourse. I'd hoped there would be less people, even under normal circumstances I was nervous about being around the crowds. I'd never liked them before my change, and now I felt even more insecure around them. It was all I could do not to touch my hair to check the tips of my ears were still hidden - I'd been warned not to do it, but...
"Don't worry, kid, everything will be fine."
I looked up at Manx, who was smiling reassuringly. The woman managed her own disguise so much better, apart from the glasses hiding her eyes you couldn't have told that she was anything more than a baseline.
"I wish my family could have come to the airport. "
The older woman shook her head. "Best not, we have to go through a special channel, and there are a lot of cameras around here. No point in giving someone an opportunity to connect you."
I knew she was right, but still felt miserable. It was all very well adults telling you starting at a new school in a different country was exciting and a wonderful experience, THEY weren't the ones who were going to have to undergo it. I had a considerable amount of suspicion that, having gone through some enriching school experiences themselves, they were keen to make other people suffer the same fate.
"Come on, let's get you checked in."
Picking up my bags with a sigh that brought a quick grin to my companions face, I tried to look a bit more cheerful as I followed Manx to the end check-in counter, marked 'First Class and Special passengers'. Yep, special, that was me. Only not in a good way. Still, I passed over my passport and tickets when the smiling woman asked, making sure the additional cards were slipped into the passport as I'd been told. The woman's professional smile slipped just for a moment, then she recovered. If I hadn't been looking carefully, I would probably have missed the casual press of a button on the desk. The woman rattled off the usual nonsense about baggage as she weighed the suitcase, then slipped an overweight luggage tag around it before letting the belt slide it out of sight. I suspected that the barcode on my bag probably indicated to make sure to open and inspect it, but it all looked normal enough.
"Do you know where you need to go now?"
I didn't answer the check-in girl, but looked at Manx, who nodded. "Yes, the Special Reception Area. Come on Morgana, I'll show you where it is."
Picking up my carry-on I followed Manx over to a discrete door close to the escalators, one clearly under the gaze of two CCTV cameras. The woman tapped on it, and there was a surprisingly solid click as it unlocked. I was still hoping that the MCO people inside weren't quite as gun-happy gung-ho hotshots as Tales of the MCO made them out to be. Granted the show was set in America, but there had been a few episodes set abroad. Far too many for my peace of mind had included very big guns and lots of explosions. At the time I had quite enjoyed the show, but that was before I had changed into one of the MCO operatives targets.
The reality of the room was far more mundane than my overactive imagination had made out. In fact it didn't look much different from the normal customs entry area, apart from the fact that a couple of men were sitting at a desk drinking coffee. I did notice my bags had mysteriously managed to get in here from the conveyor belt, as Manx proffered the older of the men her AEGIS ID card. He nodded and slipped the card into some sort of reader on the desk. He didn't seem too worried, but the other man looked a lot less calm, as he gave her a rather stony look.
"Ah, Manx. Are you travelling today?"
Manx shook her head. "No, I'm just escorting Morgana here. It's her first trip since she manifested, I'm here to help her through the procedure."
The man stood up, looking at me. "I'm Agent Smithson, and this is Agent Crombie from the USA. " He smiled a bit at my expression. "Don't worry, he isn't going to shoot you." Agent Crombie didn't seem to appreciate the joke, he just kept up his stern expression. Smithson sighed slightly. "OK, as its your first time I'll explain what happens. As a registered Mutant, when you travel abroad you have to declare yourself to the airline and to us. The first bit you did already at the desk; you need to do that every time. Failure to comply with this is a serious offence." I nodded, looking serious and compliant. The Agent smiled again. "Don't look so worried. It's necessary, no-one wants someone with dangerous powers on an aircraft without knowing it, it makes the pilots nervous and then they can't get to sleep. You have the card, Abner?"
Abner, presumably Agent Crombie, slid a checklist in front of him. Unlike Smithson, his tone was cold and official. "As an MCO Agent authorised by the US Government, I must inform you that any misrepresentation by you in regard to our checks is considered a serious offence in the USA, and will be treated accordingly." I tried to give him my best cute, innocent young girl look. I wasn't very good at it yet, but I had hopes. Sadly it didn't seem to affect the zealous US Agent, who led me through a long series of questions about what I was carrying. Basically it was the usual customs list on steroids. Though I did wonder at some of the questions - did people really try and carry energy guns or bio-agents through in their hand baggage? As he led me through the list, Agent Smithson was ticking off some of the boxes on yet another form.
"Purpose of your trip to the USA?"
"I'm going to attend school there. Whateley Academy."
Crombie looked unhappy at the name, but Smithson just grinned. "Ah yes, it's that time of year again, isn't it. Right, now we do all the usual customs things. Open your bags and put them by the scanner. We have to go through them all."
I stood there looking uncomfortable as the men looked through my bags, then slipped them through something that looked a lot more hi-tech than the usual security scanners. It certainly beeped and chirped a lot more. I bit my lip as I watched, while I knew this was normal for flying, seeing them do it all made it feel more invasive. Then they needed me to go through a scanner myself. First doing the usual things like take my shoes off, take all metal off, then the more embarrassing bit - removing my hoodie. Which showed to their expert gaze that I really didn't look completely human. My hair was arranged to hide the tips of my ears - for this at least, having a thick mane was useful - but if you knew what you were looking for you could see something was odd.
"Hmm. Are you going to travel with that coat on all the time?"
"I was going to, Sir. I was told it's best not to get anyone upset at the sight of me by remaining inconspicuous." I liked that wording, it made me seem less unhuman. Smithson waited while I worked my shoes back on before carrying on with his briefing.
"Now, you don't actually need to go through a pre-check like this one as long as you have shown the airline your MID. But if you don't, you might be taken aside for questioning and checks either before or when you arrive. If you need to make a connecting flight, that can be a problem. So at major airports like this, we have arrangements to clear you before you fly. That way all you have to do when you go through customs at the far end is slip your clearance card in your passport with your MID." He handed me what looked like a blank credit card with a pin chip and magnetic stripe. "Don't lose it, or they will make you go through all this again."
So, gathering my bag, I looked at the door for a moment.
"Don't worry, kid, you'll be OK." Then Manx hugged me, hard. "And remember, if you find you get nervous flying, you have the pills the Doc gave you."
I nodded, hugging her back, then straightened and headed off for the waiting room. I hated waiting rooms, the sooner I could be on my way to Whateley the better.
An undisclosed location, not on Earth
"Grandmother, I have a favour to ask."
Tanau looked back at her with an interested - and calculating- look. "What is it, little one? I assume from the way you look it's something unusual."
Thulia sighed - her grandmother was always way more discerning that she expected.
"I need to find out the fate of a human." She rapidly ran through what she knew of Abraxus, his fate and (thanks to her contract) the man's true name. As she wound down, she was treated to a piercing look from her relative.
"And just WHY do you want to know his fate? Judging by what you've told me, I think I could give you a rather close idea anyway."
"After what he did...I want to make sure he's punished. He's slippery, I don't want to find he's managed to slip through a loophole of some sort."
"Hmm. very well, let me see what I can find out." Her grandmother turned to one side, fingers glancing across a symbol-inscribed piece of granite as she watched the results of her efforts scroll through the air in front of her. Thulia watched her work; even though the system was old-fashioned, she occasionally found it surprising that someone as old as her grandmother could actually use modern techniques. She made herself keep quiet as she watched, despite her impatience. Finally Tanau turned and looked at her again.
"Do you want the good news or the bad news, granddaughter?"
Thulia bit her lip. "Both."
"Very well, It seems like your acquaintance certainly has a record deserving of considerable punishment. But." she paused for a moment. "It seems your suspicions were well deserved. He seems to have some sort of contract with Red Ba'al, to be taken on as one of his servitors."
Thulia cursed, expertly. Her grandmother watched, an amused expression on her face until Thulias diatribe finally stopped. "My, I see Bruce has been a bad influence on you."
"It's not FAIR! He deserves to be punished for what he did. I want him to SUFFER."
Tanau stroked her chin in thought. "Vengeance, Thulia? What did he do to upset you so much, that isn't like you." Thulia blushed deeply. "Uh...will you promise to keep it between us? I think my father would be mad if he found out."
The woman snorted. "Your father is always mad about something. Go, on, tell me everything."
"Well, it all started when I got a backer for my research..."
"Well, that's certainly a fascinating story. And I can see why you want him to suffer. "Tanau gave Thulia a keen look, and it was obvious to the girl that her grandmother had worked out the bits Thulia hadn't really mentioned - indeed, that she wasn't even sure about herself. But then, given Tanau's area of expertise, that wasn't really a surprise.
"So, can you help me do anything?"
Her grandmother was still eyeing her, deep in thought. "I'm not sure about vengeance, it never ends well, for either party. "
Thulia opened her mouth to protest, then stopped as Tanau raised her hand. "However...will you settle for justice?"
The girl looked at her expression again, considered what it meant, and slowly nodded.
"Good. Now, do you still have that fancy computer system you were working on?" Thulia nodded, wondering where this was leading. "Splendid. Then I am going to, hmm, arrange to get you a copy of his contract with Ba'al. I want you to let me know of any loopholes. I'm sure a thorough search will find a few..."
Thulia thought about that for a moment, then smiled. It wasn't a very nice smile. "And then?"
"And then, I will have a word with the Blind Lady. I think I can get her support for this."
Fifth Circle of Hell, Fortress of Dis. Administration and Legal department.
"Let the accused stand forward."
Thulia and Tanau stood looking on, long hooded robes concealing them from the crowd. Thulia's skin itched; she'd never been here before, and she really didn't like it. The whole place felt greasily evil, despite the veneer of a legal proceeding that covered it. Or maybe that was just another part of it. If that hadn't been enough, the ebon-skinned demon guards certainly would have. She shivered under her robe as she looked at one. She didn't belong in this place, but needs must. The only thing she liked about this place was the pleasant heat, although judging by the sweat trickling down the faces of the humans they were less happy about it.
The man who called himself Abraxus stepped forward, a smirk on his face. Thulia had to restrain herself from hissing at him. The clerk looked down at him from his lectern with no expression.
"You have not tried to defend yourself against a very long and indeed almost extravagant list of charges. Have you anything you wish to say before I pass sentence?"
Abraxus smirked even more widely. "Well, you see, I do have a prior arrangement. With Red Ba'al, so I believe I am to be in his service. Which means I am not subject to your authority."
The clerk scowled, He hated these sort of get-out clauses, they always messed up his paperwork, and it was difficult enough to get everything correct here at the best of times. And if he got anything wrong, there would be Hell to pay.
Abraxus gave him a list of details. The Clerk was still scowling as he entered them all, then waited, Finally his face broke into a smile.
"It appears that there are some errors in this particular contract. "Abraxus just stood there, spluttering in disbelief. "Indeed. As it stands, it is irrelevant. So we will proceed with the sentencing." he turned to his assistant, who handed him a sheet of parchment, the edges already turning brown in the heat.
"Yes, Seventh Circle, Phlegethon, torture subsection."
Abraxus stood stunned, before he started to scream curses and threats, which the Clerk simply ignored. The guards grabbed Abraxus by the arms, pulling him away, as an opening appearing in mid-air, the smell of boiling blood making the air reek even worse than usual. Thulia smiled, moving slightly, letting the man see her face under the hood. His eyes bulged. "You!!!"
She smiled a little wider. Her grandmother was right, it was more satisfying to see the Blind Lady receive her due that to just wreak vengeance. No words were necessary, as the guards tossed him through the opening in the air. She turned to Tanau as she heard the screaming start, only to be cut off as the portal closed. "Can we go home now? I don't like being here, and I think we are all finished now."