Metro 1: Chewing Through The Straps (Part 3)
Metro 1: Chewing Through The Straps (Part 3)
Part 3 (of 4)— Sometimes, the past has this way of creeping up on you. Sometimes we plan for it. Sometimes we can't. Sometimes, it's best to just cut and run.
Chapter 19: Wake-up Calls
Monday Morning, September 24, 2007,
As much as Geneviève 'Spark' Etincelle enjoyed most of her classes, at least those on the designated 'tech' track, there was little to love about waking up on a Monday morning to get ready to attend them. She reached over to silence her alarm clock as quickly as an Exemplar could without smashing it, snoozing it for another quarter hour. A few more minutes: enough for a warm snuggle in her roommate and lover's arms. A light scratching against the pillowcase as she leaned back warned her that Harley, now Harlan, would be sleeping elsewhere for the next day or so. How did that old British pop song go? "I hate Mondays"?
Waking up as a boy, with the fuzzy-headedness that came and went with it, left Harlan Sawyer in full agreement with the anti-Monday sentiment. Bad enough that over the weekend Ace had conned Interface into sneaking into Poe, managing to get him picked up by Security, but his own overnight gender change just added insult to injury. Damn it. Even when nothing happened, he still liked cuddling up with Jenny! He figured that injuries to GPA and reputation were the next insults due the Intelligence Cadet Corps members: the list obtained from Vamp and Phase's room named Chaka, Cheese, and Aquerna as the investigative targets. It would be difficult to come up with a list of students less like the three he'd been tasked with than that one; nor one more likely to make them all look like chumps and bullies for investigating them.
For now, nothing to do but tidy up here, then head over to the room he'd be sharing with Thiago for the next few days.
Kenya 'Rez' McAllen barely noticed one of the Spy Kidz' occasional thorns in the proverbial side trudging out the cafeteria doors as she made her own way in. After all, it's not like he had to wade through the usual flood of rumors and hearsay, on top of classes, that she and the others had signed themselves up for. Speaking of which, she decided to wait until after the caffeine hit her bloodstream before checking her email. Thus she was awake enough to not add her opinions on the planning, execution, and outcomes of the weekend op against Vamp until she'd read through the entire traffic related to it. No one likes Monday morning quarterbacking, and the 'I need to talk to Zenith about the upcoming Team Phoenix sim runs' excuse worked better than she would have expected.
Maybe she could design a set of filters to summarize threaded messages coming to her inbox? Stripping all the irrelevant noise should cut out at least half of Ace's usual contributions. After that, all she still would need to do was figure out how the Cadets could investigate one of the few friends she had at the school without costing her that friendship. She hoped that Darren and Harley would back her up on the idea of not interrogating the Team Kimba martial artist like some kind of common criminal.
"... and that brings us to the 50-minute mark on September 24th, session 4, subject Metro. Note that staff show no signs of developing a tolerance to the subject's entropic field effects." Turning off the recording, Dr. Hewley realized that it was close enough to noon to shoo the student away for a break from him lunch break. "Metro? I think that that will be all for the physical testing today. Why don't you go ahead and get some lunch? We can pick back up at 1 o'clock down in Lab R."
"I thought magic testing was also being scheduled for today?"
"It is. We're hoping that the equipment in Lab R can identify what, if anything, other than magic can explain that feeling of unease that most people feel around you. There's also an alarming mishap rate documented in your medical records, which could be an uncontrolled warping effect."
"Not psi-based, then?", the boy asked.
Dr. Hewley shook his head, "Everyone in that testing section called in sick today. Some of them even put in their requests last week. Thus that may be pended for now, based on today's results."
"Do keep in mind that retaliation against testing staff, even indirectly, is frowned upon. Also, your magic testing will be carried out directly by the Mystic Arts Department. That's at 2 o'clock, sharp. You'll be meeting in Circe's office, so do be on time."
Metro smiled, "Got it. Slow roasting over an open fire by department head."
"I wouldn't recommend repeating that in front of her. By all indications, she's the genuine article."
"No worries either way, Doc, but thanks for the warning!"
Crystal Hall, Euro-Promotional League table
The "late" end to the powers testing (According to rumor, the researchers usually carry on through lunch) meant that Nate was already at the vents, so Metro guessed at the crowding, set a mental timer for allowable stay time, and headed up to the mezzanine level. A little bit more testing was needed to see if he could judge others' exposure limit by how fast Kismet morphed into a crabby ... person. Unknown to Mads, there were no fewer than half a dozen club members who appreciated his ability to drive Korrende Mitterand away just by existing, but most were too polite to ever say such a thing in the presence of either student.
At least there were other people he could torment in return. "Harlan, how's it going? You know, you'd look a lot cuter with a shorter haircut. Number four, off the collar, and are there ears under that mop?"
"Ha, ha. Then y'all can laugh at me when I turn back and start looking like G.I. Jane." That's right, Harlan 'Reach' Sawyer was one of the few heterosexual people Mads knew who moped about being a member of the appropriate sex for his girlfriend. Other than Ayla. Maybe Chimera, but they were a special case even when Jimmy T was their boyfriend.
"What's got you so chipper today, anyway?" To Harlan's eye the kid looked like he'd been run through the wringer a time or two.
"Mon, dieu! They actually stopped to let you eat a meal?" Geneviève really was a sweetheart.
Metro scowled, while Valravn tried to keep from chuckling.
"No, they stopped to get rid of me."
Metro gave his 'special meals' meal-pack a dirty look, "Maybe they're trying to fatten me up for Martinmas? Except I'm not a goose." Looking over at Charge and Phase, he spoke up a bit, "Hey, Ayla? They gave me enough to feed an extra one or two people. Wanna try some?"
Phase managed to maintain his royal cool, while still turning pale at some of the labels he recognized, "I think I shall forgo that particular pleasure. As I understand it, the cafeteria intends to be tracking your consumption. Would you want them preparing even more for you for each meal?"
"Er, no. I still haven't had the heart to ask the chefs precisely which species of whale they use."
Did someone just shine a green light on the table?
Valravn angled his head to observe the offending package closer, "Nope. Looks like they started using walrus. I guess we now know how John Lennon died after all."
"That's nice," Metro yawned, wincing a little as his right side stretched, "Who's John Lennon?"
Thomas went for the extra point, with his own exaggerated wince, "Aaaaand they must have upped the arsenic - there's garlic on your breath." Reach actually leaned away from Mads after that comment. Score!
"The testers 'ave not tired you out too much, 'ave they?"
"No. I put a few extra hours in on the job, and then I got caught up working on my enchantment assignment and missed out on some sleep."
"The same happens all the time to devisors, including myself. Luckily, I 'ave 'Arley to look out for me when I get too much caught up in my work." Spark wasn't holding on to Reach's arm possessively, not at all.
Valravn asked, "What's the problem? I thought you had it all laid out for Saturday's lab?"
"I need to have the folding sequence on the origami worked out exactly right before mapping out which animation glyphs belong where. I want it all to happen smoothly, too. Then, I can work on the layout for essence uptake and storage."
Sensing the discussion was about to veer a little too closely into devisor-land, Reach was feeling less than sympathetic, "At least y'all don't have surveillance assignments on top of your homework, like we do."
"Heh. There is that." Mads raised an eyebrow, "Other than this Lennon dude, anyone I know, or will end up having to know?"
"That's ICC business, so I can't say. You should know that by now."
"Let me rephrase that. Sir Wallace is still your advisor, right?" The other boy nodded. That much was 'public knowledge.' "Is it someone that Sir Wallace assigned you to surveil, or a group of people your group's chosen to bird-dog instead? And by 'your group', I mean Ace." The last bit was almost a snarl. Not hard to sell when one is chowing down on vaguely poisonous ground mystery meat.
"I'd still rather not discuss the individuals."
"So, Ace it is. "
"I didn't say that!"
"You sooooo wanted to, though. All the times you all go haring off to harass people for no good reason makes it a matter for Security, sooner or later. By the way, where'd Phase and Charge go? Phase'd be a good one to ask for info, from what I've heard."
Spark swallowed some water, "They left after you started talking about eating whales and John Lennon."
"I couldn't afford whatever he'd charge, anyways." Reach was starting to look a bit dejected.
"Reach, the only way to learn the 'going rate' is if you ask. For all you know, it could just be a favor or service."
Valravn interjected, "Bumping off his roommate in their sleep might put you in his good graces. As long as it doesn't come back on him."
Reach *twitched* at the mention of the roommate. So. The black bag job against Vamp was considered successful, and they're most likely acting on that without further vetting. Great. The Dickinson girls named should have at least set off some warning bells.
"Apart from that cheery prospect from the Poe Lunatic Asylum, you can still ask your friends for help, yeah?"
"I guess so."
"I know so. B'sides, it's not like Sir Wallace is following them around himself to double-check your work." Metro chuckled, "Unless he is." The smile slid back off the boy's face as he looked down at a meal portion that wasn't getting smaller by itself. Nope. Experimental tapping didn't help. "Maybe I can get this all down before testing starts back up if I walk around some. Later!"
Chapter 20: Yesterday's Sins, Tomorrow's Memories, or Is It The Other Way Around?
[ Author's Note: Runic and Siofra were created by Kaitha39 ]
Monday Afternoon, September 24, 2007,
Laying aside her divination tools, Circe took some time to reflect on what they may have meant to convey. Given her environment, one had to discount the over-representation of trumps in the layout. Many of the students here were hoping to model themselves after heroic, villainous, or godly archetypes (certain Olympians notwithstanding). As such, the nuances that the four suits offered had far less appeal.
Then there was the student she'd agreed to evaluate. It was tempting to blame the discrepancies amidst his initial Wizard 1 rating and subsequent events on Hakim's focus on alchemy. Or perhaps a personality clash was at fault: the two got along only slightly better than Caitlin and Elyzia. They even sniped at each other in the same gutter dialect of Arabic. As head of the department, she probably should do something about that, but it was just too entertaining to have a kid who looks that much like the older boy from "Nanny McPhee" cursing like a Cairene cabbie with Tourette's. Besides, his allergy to orichalcum had been prominently noted in his files. A metal beloved of the Atlanteans, normally only a bane to the descendants of monsters and gods or the foulest of bindings; none of which were strangers to said Atlanteans.
Perhaps Circe had asked the wrong questions of the cards?
The young man looked up from his work at cutting a felled tree to useful sizes. Some for kindling, some for shaping and carving, some rough-split for building, a goodly amount more than that to ward off winter's chill or to cook a meal if supplies laid aside suffice. If supplies didn't suffice, then services would serve as well. Narfi Halfdan wiped the sweat from his brow out of his eyes. For all the tales he'd been told, and all the times he looked up at the heavens, the closest he'd come to divining the future from the pattern of clouds was to avoid the rain already falling down on his head!
He'd listened as ravens spoke of snows come early this season: at least the towns close to the coast might be spared some of his distant kinsmen's late-season raids. That could also mean that Vali's services as a sell-sword might not be so highly valued. Best lay in more of the better wood for carving and other items the young man could sell instead. Their croft was small and isolated, limited to what the two men could hold and maintain. Nary a maiden nor even a still-fertile widow favored either of them with so much as a glance, killing any hope for strong sons and daughters to come along and help with the work. Moreover, it was work that wouldn't get done standing around and woolgathering.
Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy
One of the many advantages to be had from technology was the ease by which many persons could now be contacted. One of the disadvantages was the ease by which one could now be contacted by those in dire need of being strung up by their heels. With razor wire. It almost could go without saying that the Greek sorceress had a special incantation reserved for telemarketers not comprehending that 'Do Not Call' means Do NOT Call. Dialing a rarely-used sequence of numbers, she was rewarded with:
"What has my father done this time?"
"I'm in good health as well, thank you for asking."
"Circe, you never call this number without a very good reason, or a very bad one, both of which have the foul habit of involving my father."
"Don't we all have embarrassing relatives here and there?"
"Thank you, but I must refuse the offer."
"You can't fault me for trying. So, still teaching at Sky High?"
"Actually, I am calling with regard to one of our more high-spirited students."
"In which case, could you please convey to the sociopathic twit that no, she will not be using MY name professionally?"
"I have it on very good authority that Marvel Entertainment's lawyers will be quite happy to disabuse her of the presumption."
"I can well imagine. Even I receive a C&D letter every other year. One of these days, I just might invite the motherless harpies for a meeting. So, if it's not her, who's the miserable sod in question? If he's destined to be my guest, it's possible I may be able to answer some of your questions or complaints."
"Perhaps. The principal question is exactly who one Mads Christian Gunnison is. That's what he claims as his birth name, although he's an exact genetic match for the currently-missing Mathias Møller, or Count Mathias af Rosenborg. There was also something mentioned on his application about a Shadowsfall March address that we haven't yet verified."
"Shadowsfall. Lovely place. I'm guessing from the names he's Danish or part-Danish?"
"Yes. So you can guess why I might be contacting you."
"Indeed. That ... sounds like quite the character. If I were to hazard a guess from your description, I'd say he's maybe a couple of inches taller than you, probably looks too young for a high school student, has an inordinate fondness for ordnance and munitions for a spell-caster, maybe needs to work on his Danish?"
"That's a very close guess. For now, his Arabic is more colorfully expressive. Minimal competence in French, which is odd when considering the hints he's dropped about a cousin in Guinee."
"Of course, although 'cousin' isn't exactly the term I'd use. Here's a wild guess: he's very *ahem* attached to an air spirit. Because committing to things like pacts to elemental spirits always make perfect sense for novice casters to try their hand at."
Circe smiled at the sarcasm, "I forgot to mention the antlers, although I've heard he insists on calling them horns."
"Antlers. That's new."
"He was brought here to our trauma center in early August, by a Deputy Sheriff Wednesday, with a stab wound caused by a Mythos-tainted dagger. Long story short, treatment for the wound required triggering what could best be called a 'burnout', resulting in a number of physical changes. Hence, possibly, the antlers. One of his counselors blithely suggested that they may have been caused by imprinting on a parental figure. I've resolved to wait until finals week to arrange for said student to see 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' - immediately before one of their counseling sessions."
"May I say up front that that's cruel and unusual? I heartily approve and would love a copy of the video. As to the rest, first, I categorically deny that I have ever worn the ridiculous headdress that I've been depicted as wearing. Second, Deputy Sheriff Wednesday? Please tell me you are joking."
"I thought it more odd than humorous myself."
"I notice that you've said nothing more about the air spirit."
"He's also enrolled as a student, and has chosen the codename 'Valravn'."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"Then you do know the students, or at least of the students?"
"I know of two souls that have been playing variations off the old alchemical marriage/sacred twin archetypes for a long, long time. In particular, the cautionary story of a certain half-Dane seidhr-worker murdered by a úlfheðinn closer to him than a brother has been reworked and embroidered enough times that the two would act as a grounding rod for magics based on certain sagas. However, those two are NOT supposed to be on your plane."
"Knowing my father and my uncle, I wouldn't put that past either of those two conniving bastards. Pro tip: keep them far, far away from your love life."
"Hela, they cannot be any worse than the Olympians."
"Circe, how closely are you related to Pegasus? Not Bellerophon, the rider: the horse, Pegasus."
"Point taken. Is there any chance that the boys know what has been done?"
"One of them must suspect something if he's calling himself a valraven. The other? No. Not at all."
"One final question before I have to get ready for conducting some tests. Did Gunnison have an active faerie glamor when you've met? One reminiscent of a Sidhe glamor, but in his case being around him for any length of time is much like walking through the aftermath of battle."
"In the old days, that might be considered an advantage."
"The world was a different place in our youth."
"Yes it was. If we're talking about the same person, in this incarnation his British ancestry takes after one or more daoine sidhe bloodlines, not too different from myrkálfar. Hence the ties to a certain Seelie Court the schmuck never should have gotten mixed up with. That's yet another reason they should not be on your plane. No, what you describe is not at all normal for a nix, the Each-Uisge, even one of the Ghede."
"If we find out more, should we keep you informed?"
"Please. I do try to maintain cordial relationships with my half-sibs' families, even Sleippy's."
"I've wondered how your father managed that."
"WE'RE still at a loss to explain Mr. Seahorse. We just make sure to send the tackiest Mothers' Day cards we can find."
At first, Vali Wulfhereson only attended the Sabbath services when his hosts in town did so. There was no harm to be had in hearing their little fathers preach. Narfi didn't place much stock in the priests' tales of a murdered god reborn, but even he would not deny the possibility. As the winter drew on, he did seem more distant as Vali's trips into town more often coincided with the seventh-day celebration - the short days and heavy snows favoring him staying in town instead of returning to their croft before sunset.
There was also Æscwen to think about. She seemed to favor Vali, having heard of his prowess in battle. That the prowess came as much from Odin's gift of the wolf's fury as it did his skills seemed to have been skipped over as unimportant. However, neither she nor her family had any more interest in finding a match for his lifelong friend and companion than any others in the neighboring thorps had. After one sermon that seemed squarely aimed at Narfi - although many of those nodding and agreeing had made the trip to request a seeing or interpret other omens or dreams, some more than once! - Vali ended up drinking too much ale and sleeping with the other animals. Setting out early the next morning, his head was hurting as much as his pride. He resolved to have a discussion with Narfi about coming between him and the woman he'd come to think of as a suitable wife. While they were at it, a few words about holding on to phantom gods and demonic perversions was a long time coming as well.
That night, few were able to rest a full night for the howling of wolves in the valley upland.
Only two days later, Vali brought a pack of his belongings and other goods into town. He confessed his sins to the priest whose sermon on personal purity of body and soul had opened his eyes to the multitude of sins the former úlfheðinn had grown accustomed to. By springtime Wealh was wed to Æscwen. In time, they removed themselves to an abandoned farmstead which they and their children would repair, maintain, and extend.
No mention of the seidhr-worker said to have lived in the area, though there was a story told by a woodsman from a neighboring town, of coming upon the weathered corpse of a man who had been bound to a crude altar of stone. Bound by his own entrails by the look of it, dried and weather-burnt until the bloody horror resembled rusted iron bands. He and his sons gave the poor bastard as good a burial as they could, knowing he'd died a violent and unclean death.
Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy
At the knock on her office door, the chair of Whateley Academy's Mystic Arts Department called out "Come in, Ayla."
Ayla walked in to the office that was becoming a fixture of her education. "Didaskaleh, I was given to understand there is some task which you wanted me to observe or take part in?"
Circe motioned Ayla to a seat near her desk.
"As my apprentice, yes. You will be observing powers evaluation testing of one of your freshman classmates. I will expect you to provide your own conclusions when we meet again next Sunday. The student is expected to be here at 2 PM."
"Is there anything I need to know about the student ahead of time?"
Circe's eyes danced in amusement, "Only that the initial powers testing assessment seems to have been in error, and that his identity is in doubt. There is even a possibility that the student is much further away from home than his citizenship papers suggest. There exists evidence for and against both the assessment and the student's origin."
"That sounds like one or more illusions, if not delusions, are in play."
"Be wary of such distinctions, Miss Goodkind. There can be instances– aside from the infamous 'Big Lie'– in which not only may objective reality be less compelling than 'mere' illusions or delusions, but also less true." Circe stopped to think about which direction to take the lesson at hand, "At our next session I shall have a list of popular works that you may find interesting in that regard."
"I look forward to it."
To Wealh and Æscwen as they lit the evening's candles, it seemed as if they'd prayed three days non-stop for little Ælfred's fever to break. Or if, heaven forbid, it weren't Heaven's will that he live, then a measure of ease in his passing. A stray morbid thought nosed its way into the anguished father's mind. It was almost as if he could hear Narfi mentioning that many illnesses, like spells, get three chances to run their course. He would have known if there were a ready cure, or failing that - and my how that man hated to fail at that - would have known the old songs to comfort the dying and their loved ones. At those unwelcome memories the aging warrior broke down and prayed that anyone who'd yet listen to a sinner such as him take pity on the child and not visit his sire's sins upon the innocent.
The grieving family scarce took note of the distant barking of hounds scenting a prey that had gone to ground, nor later of the sound of iron-shod hooves coming up the road toward the little farmhold. They did hear voices raised in argument just outside their door, but given the uncertain state of affairs with first Æthelflæd of Mercia and now Æthelstan of Wessex contending for control, the wisest course for action was to stay as they were and not venture out into the cold, still night. Instead, they kept to their vigil. The argument ceased without progressing to the cries of battle, although it would be an agonizing wait before the horse and hounds could be heard riding off.
In the morning, they found Ælfred sleeping quietly. His forehead was cooler to the touch, though it would be a while yet before full health could return. His parents thanked Providence for the miracle.
Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy
Promptly at 2 PM, a knock on the office door announced the latest (but not late!) arrival. The student was neatly attired in the standard Whateley Academy uniform save for detailing that hinted at Cecilia Rogers' expertise. Military-styled sandy-blond hair, clunky glasses, hazel-green eyes, roughly Ayla's own height and weight, along with the marked-down apparent age that went with the size - the only thing truly remarkable about his appearance was that his skin tone looked healthier than Phase remembered from the occasional lunch or evening meal.
"Ma'am? Mads Jensen. Codename, Metro? I'm here for powers testing, but ... am I intruding on something important?"
"As a portion of the testing will be recorded, yes, code names are appropriate. I believe you already know my apprentice, Phase?"
"Yes, ma'am. I do."
"Good," Circe replied. "You can set your books down at the conference table. I need to get a couple more items before we start testing, but I'll be back shortly."
"No problem, ma'am, I needed to speak with Phase for a moment, myself."
The boy finished walking over to the conference table to set down his backpack as the mystic stepped out.
"So. Phase. I did want to apologize for making you and Charge so uncomfortable at lunch."
"There's no need to apologize, but I am curious: do those prepared meals actually contain whale meat?"
"It's by-catch, mostly from the few species that aren't endangered, but given the reasons the meat failed the original inspection, I don't give them much hope."
"Failed inspection?" Holy crow! "And you still eat it?"
The other student shrugged, "Bioamplification of mercury and other metals. Better availability for me, less drek handled by the staff nutritionists, safer for everyone else."
The following couple of hours were eye-opening. Phase had had only had limited interaction with Metro at mealtimes, and then rarely without Valravn present. Flying solo, the boy's enthusiasms seemed muted until Ayla realized that he was no longer covering for Valravn's difficulties at 'reading the atmosphere'. The obverse side of that coin was that no one was around to cover for his sparse knowledge of current events or popular culture, neither of which should be needed for magical powers testing. As a result, it didn't seem that Mads was withdrawing into a shell, rather that he was approaching the testing as a professional going through a routine skills review.
As during previous testing with crystals enchanted to measure Essence draw, repeating the initial wizard rating was underwhelming. Perhaps the fact that Metro had a different approach to magic than most of Phase's classmates and teachers had something to do with it? He seemed to have a 'different approach' to most other things. The testing then shifted to the alternate evaluation methods which Phase was there to learn about.
Circe managed to burn a lot of trust by inviting Metro into a charged Fool's Circle.
He walked into it, all right.
"Bud you thaid I coul' go in!" sniffed the aggrieved magician, still holding his nose after bouncing face-first off the boundary.
"Phase, could you go for more facial tissues? I suspect Valravn will have forgotten to stop for them on his way here."
"Certainly. Is there any chance I could get an explanation of that code name - does he know what one of those things is?"
Metro's eye flashed, and near him so too did one of the testing crystals, "'e's nod a thingk!"
Phase's apology to the outraged magician was interrupted by a taller, dark-haired, and clearly more upset boy walking in to the office.
"Goddammit M–." He choked on the personal name as if he knew of the recording, then spat out "Metro. HOW did you manage to hurt yourself this time?"
Metro accusingly pointed to Circe, "She tol' me to walk in! 'ow wuz I do know?"
Valravn growled back, "We. Have. Been. Over. This. In class. Repeatedly."
"Dithn't look like one ug doze. Got tissue or toileth paper?"
"Circe, may I take Mister Crash-n-burn here to get cleaned up?"
"That may be for the best."
Once the two had left to clean up, Phase told his mentor, "I know Valravn from Poe Cottage, and Metro from the Euro-Promotional League, but as I said we haven't talked much. I think it's not difficult to see why."
The essence monitors finally flickered to life after Metro cast a healing spell on his bruised face. Encouraged, Circe brought out another series of monitoring crystals keyed to a variety of magics before trying again with the Circle, to see what changes might result from cutting the magician off magically from the local universe.
"Don't close the circle after he's in." Thomas had suggested. Once Metro was within the circle, the crystal dimmed in response and the boy soon complained of headache. The circle safely held the junior mage until he gave the situation a sigh of frustration and "told it that I was the caster" to make it allow his exit.
Circe asked her student, "Phase, remember what I said earlier regarding illusions?"
Circe then asked. "Metro, how long would you be able to mask your astral seeming to imitate me?"
"Longer than I could hold the physical illusion, were that needed. That comes at a risk of breaking my links to the foci I use. There's also another danger of extended masking: depending on the forward observer used, a targeted ritual casting aimed at you during that time could end up targeting me instead. Just about every practitioner I know of opts to appear mundane or maybe a low-powered version of themselves. Thomas?"
"It is considered to be 'borrowing trouble' at best. I'd expect one of Coyote's or some other Trickster's followers to choose to do something like that."
"Could Metro fool you with the technique?"
"No. I always know him."
"Which makes one of us," the subject under discussion snarked.
"I'm telling your therapist you said that. Again."
"Anyone else in the market for a barely-used boyfriend?"
"You mispronounced 'much-abused'"
Metro's training was sufficiently Hermetic for Circe to guide him through simple examples of conjuration and summoning. The process was slowed by Metro deciding to 'interpret' some aspects for Thomas. An arched eyebrow directed at him suggested that Phase's own mentor expected him to be following those discussions. Nonetheless, nothing grossly suggested that the initial WIZ-1 rating was anything more than generous until Circe gave their subject free rein to demonstrate transfiguration and illusion.
Phase would come to deeply regret stating that he could spare his school uniform.
He should have known to run when Metro asked if he could incorporate nearby materials should he 'run out', without specifying of what materials or even for what purpose.
A further Omen of Bad Things To Come was revealed when Ayla's magic perception was flooded with myriad shades of reds and oranges, sparked here and there with yellow. 'So this is what it's like to be in a Chaote's gunsights.' The magic 'tasted' odd compared to Fey's. There was some the same 'otherness', but in almost every measure this lay opposite to being in the presence of Aunghadhail, Daughter of the Burning Oak - even more 'human' in some way.
That would have been one hell of a lot more comforting if the colors that weren't didn't also frame the unholily gleeful expression on the young magician's face, when he should have been (just maybe?) concentrating on his work.
Yes, 'unholily' is a word, thank you, Diz.
The next thing Ayla's stunned and horrified mind registered was appearing to now be dressed in a variation of one of Helena Bonham Carter's dresses from the role of Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII. The chemise, petticoat, and kirtle managed to lift his breasts without creating the 'boobs on a plate' look popular with so many Ren Fair reenactors. His rather expensive utility belt somehow ended strapped just over a farthingale made of synthetics instead of steel, hidden by stiffened edging on the over-gown. The lined oversleeves also provided concealed holdout pockets. A disturbingly many concealed pockets. Somewhere, there was a pomander, and maybe a scented locket. Ayla could smell them both.
For a moment, even Circe seemed at a loss for words. Finally, she conjured a three-way mirror so Phase could survey the damage done to his remaining dignity. Ho-ly crow. Twenty-four of them. Baked in a late Renaissance pie. A very hawt Ren pie.
"Were I to examine the kirtle, would the concealed plates overlap?" Not exactly the question one would expect from the ageless sorceress.
The next ten solid minutes were taken up with discussion of the finer points of historical armoring techniques as applied to feminine dress along with varying options for padding or support, all amidst the challenges of incorporating modern materials to blunt the effects of contemporary ballistics. All that would have been quite interesting in other circumstances. The fact remained that Ayla, a young mutant who desperately wished to regain his male form, was currently encased in a dress that would have left Merchant Ivory fans drooling. Meanwhile it was dawning on him that he'd agreed to let a literal Merchant of Death magically do whatever amused him to the clothing next to Ayla's body.
Finally, Circe looked over to the others watching the scene and asked, "Does everyone think my apprentice has seen enough?" Seeing enough affirmation, "Metro, if you would?"
The gown and under-dresses didn't even morph. They disappeared in an instant, pomander and all. The uniform had still been radically altered to the point that it would pass as business wear under a casual viewing. Closer inspection would reveal light battle armor of a design Phase was certain was not in production. Moving to get a closer look in the mirror, the young businessman could swear he felt movement consistent with bellows joints and detailed articulation. Given the number of gadgeteers and devisors running around loose on campus, who'd dismantle first and ask permission later, leaving the testing session in the gown was beginning to look like the safer option.
"What just happened?"
Circe explained, "That was a multi-sensory illusion, not manifested ectoplasm, masking an extended transmutation spell. The entire point of the talk about armoring was to see if Metro could maintain the necessary concentration while I worked at defeating the illusion. Phase and Valravn, I suspect that you two could perceive the spellwork, but had difficulty determining what was real and what wasn't. Also: speaking of ectoplasm, I'd recommend that you refrain from doing anything to encourage Thorn and Metro to team up against you."
The testing series wrapped up with divination. Even in light of earlier discussions Phase was still confused when Circe brought out a pendulum and a series of maps, "to find the person associated with this". "This" being a small object left wrapped in silk. Most of the maps were quickly discarded. The remainder soon were sorted into two sets.
Metro said, "Before we continue, I have a few questions about this. Does the item belong to A person, or more than one?"
Circe gave the question some thought.
"One person. Not a joint ownership, if that's what you mean," she said.
"Okay. We have a problem that may not be appropriate to be recording in conjunction with powers testing."
"What sort of problem?"
"This is probably from a murder investigation, so I am hoping that we aren't tampering with evidence." Metro searched Circe's aura for her reaction and did not like what he saw. This wasn't being conducted as a matter of speculation into magical theory.
"On what basis would you conclude that?"
"If the divination hasn't gone completely off the rails then the owner is currently in more than one location. That suggests dismemberment."
"Couldn't someone be masking their signature to appear to be the owner?"
"Yes. Although for long-term impersonation, I think I'd want the original dead."
"If they're that identical they should be locked down in the same psych ward."
Circe frowned, "Let us narrow down the locations further if we can."
"Final question: this isn't part of the formal testing, is it?"
"No. It is not."
Several more minutes passed as Metro attempted to narrow his mental focus as closely to the tenuous link between the concealed object and its distant owner as he could manage. Two more maps were set aside from one pile before he penciled a circle similar to the pendulum bob's circling above the map sheet. He wrote down some notes beside the circle before switching to the other remaining set. This time three more maps were set aside before he completely lost track of the mystical trace. Another circle drawn.
When the boy looked wearily up from his work, his eyes were bloodshot and there was a bruise beginning to show on the side of his face. Phase took a wary glance at Valravn, who'd stayed completely quiet through the divination work. He was just in time to see the other boy open his eyes and nod back at him. It was hardly a motion, but Ayla was sure that Thomas didn't need to be told that Metro'd somehow hurt himself during this working.
"How far?" Mads asked.
"How far away are the two sites? I suppose I should ask how far off the final error circles are from your own divination as well."
"The closest site is at perhaps an order of magnitude less certainty, although I have a theory as to why that would end up so," Circe responded while jotting down notes of her own. "The other describes a much more precise location than I obtained earlier. The person there is unlikely to be moving."
"Is it precise enough to organize a search?" Phase asked.
Circe noted that "There are a couple of superhero groups in the general area that we could contact."
Metro interrupted with, "People we could be leading into trouble without more legwork on our end. My end at least." The look on Circe's face may have read 'Remember that I'm the teacher here', but the student pressed on. "This has to be a cold case or no one would be resorting to divination. Likewise, there must be additional complications to the incident, or the local metas would have already performed the scrying."
"Why would you want to take part in the search? Don't you have enough work to do here at school?"
"In addition to my work-study shift, yes. However, in forensic work like this, the more you hand off tasks to others the muddier the trail. We're looking for a male victim, pre-teen, definitely dead, maybe buried. I might have an obligation in such matters as, based on your earlier reaction, it must be Mathias Møller we'll be looking for."
"I should warn you that you won't be given permission to take days off for the search. How then do you propose to carry it out?"
Metro nodded at that then looked over at Valravn, as if asking a question. "First, establish jump points so we don't have to spend an inordinate time on astral travel. Second, recon the area to see how best to set up a search grid. If we're lucky I might be able to triangulate a better position at that step. Third, more recon."
Circe followed up with, "If there is a trap or other surprise waiting for you there, what will you do then?"
"Dial 9-1-1, call for backup, GTFO." The boy shrugged, "It could be anything, or nothing. If leaving the area won't make things worse, that's often the best way to proceed. It wouldn't hurt to have the contact info for the local metas and police."
"And hospitals, Mads. Don't forget that."
"I'd rather avoid that, but that's part of any incident response prep."
Feast of All Souls, 951 CE,
Earlier in the day, Old Man Wealh (Sometimes 'Vali' when his mind wandered through his youth) had received the sacraments of Penance, Anointing of the Sick, and the Viaticum. As it had been a quarter of a century earlier, the small farmhouse held all the man's treasures in life, his small family. This time it was little Ælfred, a father now himself, praying by the light of a candle for intercession or for an easy passing. Sadly, even if the old man revived, he'd not last the winter. Toward midnight he heard, as his father once had, the sound of iron-shod hooves approach and then stop by the door. Once again, there was an argument beyond the door. Ælfred quieted his son, lest those outside take note.
Instead, he heard a reedy whisper from the bed, "I remember one night, praying that you not be taken before your time. There was a rider that stopped outside the door that night as well. I never knew what that was about."
"Hush, father. Conserve your strength if you can," Ælfred urged. "If you please, I can tell you of the dream I had that night?"
"Yes, please do."
The boy had heard the commotion outside, but he'd seen his parents were busy at prayer. He quietly walked over to the door to see who was outside, perhaps come to visit. What he saw was strange indeed. Outside the door was a nobleman - he had to be of noble birth, all arrayed in the finest silver-buckled tack and harness, a cloak of purest black around his shoulders - riding a fine jet-black steed. Gathered at the feet of the horse were a number of dark hounds. Had not the moon been so full he'd surely have never seen them at all. More curious was the nobleman's headdress, a brimless cap as some soldiers wore, adorned with a stag's full attire.
At the very threshold of the door stood another man, one shoulder against the door-post, his foot braced against the door so it could open only a crack. None could have gotten in or out the house save they go through that man. In the bright moonlight, the boy could clearly see the man's dirty blond hair, thin build, and clothing of an outdated Danish cut, though he could only see so much from the man's back. Although Ælfred could not make out the men's words for the strange language they used, from the back and forth verbal parry and riposte he deemed that they'd been haggling over something. He could not say for sure that the nobleman had left empty-handed. When he had left, the man slumped down as if exhausted and directed him to head back to his bed, saying there weren't two obols between the lot of them to pay his passage.
Seeing his father had fallen back into sleep before the tale ended, and hearing no more noises at the door, Ælfred gathered up his young son to make ready his bedding. That tended to, and prayers said, he too fell asleep.
In the early morning hours, Ælfred was woken by a soft knocking at the door. This time he opened the door. Before him was a near-twin to the man who'd argued with the fey nobleman years before. Shorter, much younger, and dressed in black wool, white linen, lavender silk, and the most outlandish of fine hats. Curiously, though the young man's clothing seemed more somber than the other's, so too was his demeanor that much less so.
"Well, Ælfred, won't you invite me in? It's cold outside, though colder nights are yet to come."
"Who are you?"
"Uh-uh. A boon for a boon."
"An' you have no ill will towards this house and those it shelters, I bid you welcome."
"Thank you. I am called Mads Gunnison - among other things. Some of them even suited for certain young ears that should be sleeping at this hour."
Ælfred groaned at the poorly-suppressed giggle from the pallet of straw.
"You're different from what I remember."
"Er, you could say that that was a different me. Albeit one killed by a wolf he'd’ve trusted with his very life and soul, all for the sake of a shiny bright god who'd himself been killed by someone else. Poor vengeance, and no justice to be had."
Ælfred had heard much of what his father had had to confess. Frankly, he was now afraid of what one of those 'other things' this specter had been called might be. A frowning specter that now seemed to be able to see into his soul.
"He told you." There. Matter of fact. His father had killed many, in defense or in service. One time, long ago, it had been murder.
"I'm not sure how I should feel about that."
"He's done penance! He has. Surely …"
"... but I've never been able to forgive myself. It's why I've always been so strict with you about finding some other way."
The specter gestured that Ælfred should bide. He then walked over to the old man.
The old man asked, "Narfi? Is that you, or some demon wearing his face and come to take me to the burning lake where I belong?"
The stranger knelt close to the dying man's bed.
"Narfi was a long time ago for me. England's quite a different sight in my time than the Danelaw he knew."
"Then who? Why?"
"Why? Because this is the time you say goodbye to this life. He, I, we couldn't bear to see your life end for the worst. So, I've been called to step in." Mads' look shifted from puzzlement at what we could or should say, to one that hinted at past pain. "Who? Someone who knows a bit about bad life decisions."
Ælfred spoke up, hoping for some measure of pity or compassion for his father, "What happens now - to him, and us?"
"I'm not sure. I have an obligation to Brigid to conduct your father to his appointed destination, but I know I won't remember it after. I guess you'll just have to take care of your family and raise them up properly. Edmund, do you want to say goodbye to your grandfather?"
"That will have to do, I guess. Vali? Argh. What did people wear a thousand years ago? Here." The outlandish specter held out his hand to the dying patriarch. As their hands touched, Wealh's clothing was changed to something a nobleman might wear. The specter smirked, "Betcha Narf couldn't do that!"
"No. I don't recall that he could."
"C'mon, your coach is ready AND we don't have a k-round aimed at our heads. Trust me, that's a good thing." As he left the way he came, the specter bowed to Ælfred and Edmund, "Thank you for your hospitality. A blessing on your house, for as much good as can come of that.
Oh, yeah. Your father isn't headed for one of the bad places, or at least he wasn't in one when we do meet. I think. No one tells me these things."
Closing the door behind him, and thanking the Great Spirit for cleaner air, Mads nearly collided with his charge. Said charge was staring in shock at a taller, and much, much younger version of himself.
"Goddammit, Mads. What the Hel are you doing here? Is that who I think it is?"
Mads rolled his eyes. "I'm not stepping out on you, if that's where this is going."
"You can't BE here!"
"Then how are YOU here, Thomas?" Mads stage-whispered to Wealh-neé-Vali, "He's really called Song of the Thunderbird, but most folks find 'Thomas' less of a mouthful. Don't worry. There won't be a quiz."
"Look, you can chew me out once we're inside the coach. He's got places to be before the Devil doubles back."
Later that Monday Afternoon, September 24, 2007,
In retrospect, perhaps the earlier portion of the day had been too quiet - budget meetings and other routine headaches aside - leaving this afternoon as the karmic payback in Elizabeth Carson's disfavor. Mrs. Carson rubbed her temples, sure of an oncoming headache.
"Circe, are we certain that this location is valid and that the search will require a mage? Specifically that one?"
"Based on the answers I got in response to my questions, I believe there is at least some cause to suspect caution is needed. Metro does have some experience in contested retrievals."
"I know. His former colleagues were happy to provide examples. Still ..." Mrs. Carson let the implied question hand in the air.
Circe, followed up on that, "It is extremely unusual that a family would disappear leaving nothing behind that could be used as a sympathetic link. Whoever was responsible or aiding them knew how magic and some esper skills could be used to trace their whereabouts. A separate acquaintance of the family has stated that she would expect certain parties to have interfered. Furthermore, I've reason to trust Admiral Everheart's assessment that Mr. Jensen has an appallingly good instinct for lethal complications."
"Could you explain to me how is it that we now have a lead?" There has to be a reason to veto the entire insanity of this.
"Mads Jensen himself." Circe seemed a little too pleased.
Mrs. Carson took the bait, "Go on."
"Because of events this weekend, he was scheduled for more powers testing today. I took the liberty of combining a few drops of his blood with a commercial thumb drive, and let him try to use that as a sympathetic link for divination. As you know, asking a precog or diviner to divine a location via something of their own is like asking a centipede for a description of how it walks. In this case, we know that Mads Gunnison and Mathias Moller are nearly identical genetically, with a very high probability of linking magics. Logically, blood would call to blood."
"Did you test your own hypothesis to see if it worked for you?"
Circe continued, "Yes. As expected, I found that someone matching the blood sample was at this school. My pendulum scrying also turned up an area somewhere in southern Illinois. Mathias' parents lived in Chicago but he attended a private day school in St. Louis by living with one of his cousins there. Mads claims to have been born in Chicago, but his parents - and I use that term loosely - resided in Detroit. It should be noted that the school he says he attended in Pennsylvania does not enroll K-6 students."
"What then did we gain by tricking our own student into scrying himself? Using a pendulum and maps, he should have seen that he was zeroing in on his own position."
"Of course we had the maps facing down. The local hit could be charitably stated to place him somewhere between Montreal and Boston. Again, he was self-scrying and the school's wards would not have worked in his favor."
"Thank heaven for small mercies," the school's headmistress replied.
"The other is in a wooded section of Gurgens Park, north of the Sangamon River."
Mrs. Carson said, "I'm familiar with the area. It would take forever to find one, or even three bodies, in a wooded area like that except by accident. That means the local authorities and resources aren't going to be very interested in what could still be a wild goose chase. Very well. While I'm sure to regret this, I'll agree to it so long as it doesn't interfere with their work. Anything there that's waited this long can wait a bit longer."
Monday, September 24, 2007 - After Classes
The Quad, Whateley Academy
If Ceilidh 'Siofra' McKenzie needed any more proof that Mondays were designed for grumpy grownups, today would be it. Not only had Dr. Tenent asked if she could come by the Medical Center on a Monday because a "nice young lady friend of the school's headmistress is hurting all over" - that wasn't bad, just unusual - but they'd sent a boy to escort her. Like she was a little baby who couldn't find her way there on her own! And! He was wearing a UV band too. It was different colors from hers, but it still meant "ultra-violent".
Mads 'Metro' Jensen was almost of a mind to agree with the obvious 'Why him?' sentiment. If they really wanted to avoid triggering a phobic rager, they could at least let him put his UV band in his pocket. Then again, he wasn't sure that that wasn't one of the few things keeping Ceilidh's babysitter, 'Lifeline', from going rager on him when he showed up. Almost by instinct he looked up. Great. Just frakking great. Speaking of going rager…
"Dispatch, Shortstop. On the Quad, en route Doyle with Siofra, picking up hostile inbound, visual ID Iron Star, over."
"Roger, Shortstop. Dispatch will guarding channel 43 for the next ten or so."
"Roger. Kicking 43. Shortstop out."
Figures. Boys just love playing 'Cops and Robbers'! Ceilidh wondered which one Iron Dork thought he was supposed to be.
"Well, well, well. What do we have here? Siofra, or whatever you're calling yourself, Princess. Don't you know you're supposed to have a proper escort on-campus? Not one of the school's more notorious perverts, and an ultra-violent one at that!"
Siofra's escort spoke calmly, "Just a moment, Ceilidh. Okay? Iron Star. To my knowledge, there are no court orders requiring me to stay a set distance away from minors. So, there's no reason I cannot escort Siofra on-campus."
Putting it that way made the boy with her sound like a Robber. That was fine as long as he didn't try to steal her tiara or purse.
"You're still a f-"
*ahem* "Language, Mr. Hastings."
Wow! Where did Scary Mr. Delarose come from?
Bobby recovered quickly, "Sorry, Chief, but this 'student' here should have a proper escort, not one of those–"
"Iron Star. I would recommend not completing that sentence with what you undoubtedly have in mind in front of a young lady like Miss McKenzie."
Chief is still Scary, but at least he recognizes her for who she is! Bobby's still a poopyhead, so that makes the one the Cop instead of the Robert, right?
"But she's! And he's!"
"Not interested in girls that way?"
"Jensen. No helping."
"Iron Star, don't you have somewhere else to be? Metro. Perhaps the same also applies."
"Right, Chief. Getting right on that. By your leave?"
A few less annoying minutes later,
"Shortstop and Siofra signing out."
What was that word for a really new cop? Oh, yes.
Rookie boy fiddled with his collar a bit before going into the Clinic. Some kids do that when they really don't like being in a hospital. Dr. Tenent was there to escort them to the patient's room.
"Miss Fields was rescued this weekend from, eh, somewhere off-plane. We've been able to bind a spirit to her hallow and purify most of the toxins that she'd accumulated, but the time dilation effects and other damage were severe. Siofra, after Metro here tries his healing spell, we'd like him to look for where Donna's still hurt to guide you in your healing. Just like I said over the telephone. Remember?"
"Sure thing!" That wasn't exactly what she'd said, but boys are boys. I.e., stupid.
The two students followed her into the room as the doctor introduced them. "Donna? I've brought in Mads and Ceilidh. Don't let looks deceive you with these two."
"Ceilidh. That's a pretty name. What a lovely dress, too!"
She seemed nice, and they talked about dresses and important stuff, while the boy did whatever he did. Mostly staring. So like a boy.
To Mads, the 'spirit' felt like Mrs. Carson's, just far smaller. Judging from the pain Miss Fields was still in, along with her general exhaustion, it must have been quite busy to feel that diminished. The liver and kidneys seemed to have taken a hell of a hit, and her bone marrow and lungs were under some strain. Hm. Dr. Tenent probably wants him to demonstrate whether he learned anything in class about gathering and transferring essence too.
So, when the Rookie finished staring at Donna, he seemed to be a bit dazed - like some patients do when they're on a lot of medications. Even if he did start to ramble a bit, he was polite when he told Ceilidh about where he thought Donna was still sick. All through it he asked Donna how she felt and even asked Ceilidh how she felt. Going by his and the doctor's smiles, she'd done a very good job. It didn't hurt that Donna acted like a nice lady, and not like some of the jerks they got in. The boy looked really surprised when she healed him with that same "all over" healing Donna had needed (Dr. Tenent had guessed right, that he'd need it) but he did stop holding onto the bed rail so hard his knuckles were white.
Later that evening,
outside Dickinson Cottage
Maggie Finson was having a Monday kind of night, too. "Runic, I swear to–"
Leanna cut Maggie off, right there. "Uh uh. I hear that's something mages aren't supposed to do."
"Just hear me out. That thrice-bedamned freshman took your sister to the Bistro for ice cream and hot fudge topping AND extra sprinkles, then dumped her back on me just in time for the sugar to kick in! Every one of the little monsters wanted ice cream after that!"
"How did you manage to torque off one of the froshes?"
"I don't know!"
Meanwhile, back at stately Gotham General Hospital Doyle Medical Center
Liz Carson's voice still sounded tired over the telephone, "Ophelia, please tell me you have good news."
Might as well start with that. "Miss Fields' condition is considerably improved. Siofra really came through for us with just some minor guidance from Metro. I just wish ... ah, never mind." 'Great going, Opie,' she chided herself.
Suspicion replaced exhaustion. "You just wish what?"
"... that he'd be here next semester, so I could arrange for him to back up his spellcasting with more medical training!"
"I see. How long does he have?"
"At this rate, a month, two if we're lucky.”
"I'm given to understand that Circe has made something of a breakthrough regarding the missing boy tied up in all this. If there is a curse and if his situation is that bad, I don't see any other choices but to let Metro spring what could be a trap."
Ophelia thought about the known possibilities, weighed against her patient's 'luck', "I should be dead set against that," the doctor said, but finally, after thinking more on the likely outcomes, relented. "Try to give us a bit more of a head's up on this plan."
Liz agreed. "You'll get it once I know more myself."
Tuesday morning 4 AM, September 25, 2007,
Hawthorne Cottage common room
Every night for the year before coming to Whateley, Thomas has watched him. At first in anger, then caution, nowadays he isn't sure. But he's learned the signs that have led to the other becoming lost in his own head, buried in some pit of memory-brewed horror. But this night, for some unknown reason the other slipped away completely. His hearts still beat a dull syncopated tattoo. Yet this wasn't the slack motionlessness of deep sleep, but a palpable absence. And for the first time in a long time, the spirit that had once styled itself as Thunderbird's Song knew fear.
He'd even dove down to follow what he could of their mutual connection, recklessly vacating his own body with neither spotter nor guard. For a few brief minutes he imagined that perhaps they were back in Africa on the midnight road to Guinee. But no, he found himself meeting an older version of himself at the door of some historical recreation. It had to be that, as time travel was something that simply did not happen. The other he'd been in search of was dressed in his Petro livery, conveying that other him to a funeral carriage - a role he'd not be suited for until after his own death. Struck mute by the stark reminder that everybody dies, he didn't hear yet another make his appearance. Unlike the others who had just departed, this one looked well-suited for burial: cut, bitten, gutted, and worst of all the very image of the one he'd been searching for, maybe not even a decade older.
Looking down the road the carriage had disappeared upon, the specter mused, "I thought it had hurt when you, rather he, killed me. I had had no intention to get in the way of having a wife and a family, you know, but in the wolf-rage Odin put in him he couldn't ... or wouldn't? hear me out. Now, tonight is the night that he follows his love to whatever reward they have, and it just hurt too much to watch him go. To walk out of my death as well as my life one last time."
"You asked for intercession."
"Please move on."
He woke abruptly from a troubled doze and more troubling dream, prompted in part by his charge shifting in a lighter sleep. It could have been comical under other circumstance, but somehow the other had managed to get one arm around his back and with other hand grabbed onto his shirt with a death-grip, he saw the gesture for what it was, a cry from the heart: "Please don't leave me."
Thomas spent some of the sleep-deprived early morning hours thinking up some sarcastic remark about whatever Mads had done to trigger one of his worse nightmares. He even rehearsed a couple of variants depending on how much the other boy remembered. Once or twice he went back over hypothetical arguments over it all before breaking down and asking who would ever listen that Mads not remember how that other person had died. As usual, when Mads did wake up, blinking eyes still filled with confusion and the lingering disbelief that anyone would waste their time on him, what came out was a quiet "Go back to sleep. I'm here. Try to get some rest."
Chapter 21: Promises to Keep and Miles Yet to Go
"Fightin', killin', wine and women, gonna put me to my grave
Runnin', hidin', losin', cryin', nothing left to save
But my life"
—Ken Hensley, "Stealin'"
Tuesday, September 25, 2007, Lunch, Crystal Hall,
Euro-Promotional League table
"Did Nate beat you to the vented seating today, or did he literally beat you?"
Thomas was painfully aware that Mads looked like hell today; neither one needed Kristian to point it out. However it was proof that precogs don't get everything right.
"Had trouble sleeping last night, on top of work." Metro replied, sitting down with his lunch tray. For a moment he pondered the double coffee he'd gotten, looking as if he were unsure whether to drink it or inhale it. One huge improvement over the previous day was the cafeteria's attempt to make the food he was being served look like food instead of backpacking or army rations. The poison labels were still good for clearing a space next to him at just about any table. "So, yup, Nate and Killer were already seated."
Rorsmand nodded, "I'm sorry to hear that." He then tried to fix Mads with his best stare. "Any time you want to talk about whatever's bothering you, you know I'm willing to listen. Right?"
"Right. Kris, I prefer to forget nightmares if and when I can. Usually works out better for all concerned." Maybe the coffee was a drinkable substance? Metro eyed it carefully while opening the meal tray. Not that it should move, but days like today it could move. "Anyway, as of yesterday the researchers are going with Wizard 3, and maybe hand-waving 'electric organ discharge' under 'minor GSD'."
Thomas said, "I really don't know why they were making such a fuss about that. You're maxing out at what, 400 volts or so? I just thought my fingers were ticklish." Mads' face flushed a deep magenta from neckline to past his hairline, signaling that 'ticklish' might not be the correct word for his end of the exchange. Fortunately, the discussion moved on to other topics.
Before everyone bussed their plates and headed off to their next classes, Mads made a point to ask Phase if he knew of any upperclassmen that might be available to chaperon himself and Thomas for part or most of the coming weekend. Among the other traits being looked for were not minding a fair bit of walking and maybe a little bit of digging around, and being able to do what they're told and keep quiet about whatever may be found.
"I am a junior this year," interjected Kismet, "and I'm wondering who among the upperclassmen would be willing to take marching orders from a freshman?"
There was no humor in Metro's thin-lipped smile, "Korrende - only those that wish to survive to graduation if something goes wrong."
Phase coolly asked, "I presume this has to do with what was under discussion previously?"
"I'll send you a list of people who might fit the bill. Convincing any one of them to aid you would be up to you."
"Thank you. I look forward to hearing from you."
To Reach's ear, this exchange had all the earmarks of a potentially illicit operation. The fact that it wasn't being pitched as a joke, and the serious looks on the faces of the likely principals further clarified that this wasn't a local trip to the movies. Maybe Phase really wasn't 100% on the up-and-up? The rest of the ICC members might not be interested, and it may be nothing to be interested in. Something just told Harlan that - win, place, or show - he wouldn't want to be betting that ticket.
Thursday afternoon, September 27, 2007,
JROTC drill field
Cadet 1st Lt. Agustin 'Telluride' Garcia Rodriguez, or 'just Gus', was convinced that he must have forgotten something terribly important in the confessional in a past life and having Cadet Overkonstabel Mads 'Metro' Jensen assigned to him was his ongoing penance. He'd been warned by a couple of classmates that one of his 'ROTC buddies' was looking for a weekend chaperon. Two of them, actually, but they'd even enlisted a third to help outflank him.
"Let me get this one straight. You want a chaperon to go with you some place unspecified, to do something unspecified, and on top of it you expect to be in charge of the show?"
"Welllll, Sir," Metro drawled, "We could just go and do the thing, but at least two teachers and my boss think that would be a horrible idea. Oh, and Holm here says he knows it's a bad idea, but his precognition isn't helping much beyond that."
Rodriguez decided then and there that if the gomer in front of him tried 'puppy-dog eyes', someone would be doing push-ups until his face fell off. "Your boss? What is your work-study assignment anyway? I've rarely seen you near the ROTC facilities outside of drill period." Call one bluff at a time.
"I thought you knew? Chief Delarose. Technically, I'm on work-study as an Auxiliary Security Officer. I'm more often at Kane Hall than anywhere else," Jensen replied. It seemed that mentioning The Chief didn't have quite the same effect on the JROTC officer as it would one of the campus troublemakers. Oh, well.
"And the teachers?" Rodriguez wasn't certain he'd take Imp's judgment. For one thing, she was an art teacher. However, if she was in fact a retired criminal, then a bad idea in her book might be a very, very bad idea.
"Circe," The hell? "and Gunny Bardue."
Rodriguez reflexively scanned the three cadets' surface thoughts (The Psychic Arts Department had a posting of students to not ever scan except in dire emergency. No one paid much attention to it, but the walking, talking, PITA in front of him was listed on that posted notice as receiving weekly counseling from ARC Red.) All three freshman were deadly serious and telling the truth. Damn. "What did Gunny have to say?"
"We mostly went over exfil options," the cadet shrugged, "Everything else is just SOP modified for terrain and objective."
Rodriguez did not at all like the sudden differences of opinion as to what each cadet considered 'SOP'. "Let's consider for a moment that I agree. At what point do you propose to let me in on the plan, especially the exfiltration options?"
(The other) Jensen replied, "We'd be holding a pre-op mission review in one of the study rooms at Poe Cottage, say Saturday at 1200 hours. I'd like to be en-route by 1300. Please note that en-route, if I call for an abort, we do so, no questions asked."
No pressure. None at all. Just because the three cadets in front of him weren't the only people listening in on the conversation, that wasn't an additional cause to worry about the cadets in his charge. Not at all.
Gus just knew he was soon going to be regretting this.
"Thank you, Sir" Jensen dug into a pocket to hand his officer a slip of paper which read: "That's just Reach on surveillance. They're nosy by nature."
Saturday afternoon, September 29, 2007,
Gus Rodriguez was just signing in to the Visitors guest book when he noticed one or two people headed his way with focused intent.
"Can I help you?" asked the first to arrive, a middle-aged matronly woman who could only be the notoriously territorial house mother, Mrs. Horton.
"Yes. I'm here to meet with Cadet Jensen and... Cadet Jensen." The boy wasn't entirely sure he was imagining the temperature drops at the mention of the two names. "I'm Gus Rodriguez, code name Telluride, by the way."
"May I ask why you'd want to meet those two, here?"
The tow-headed boy walking up to them said, "It's not at all what you're thinking Mrs. Horton!" His eyebrows scrunched down a bit, "Probably much worse, but while Gus is cute in his clean-cut, Boy Scout kind of way, he's not interested... "
"Jensen, I am not a Boy Scout!" came the indignant response, while the house mother nearly choked.
"Neither am I! Good thing, ennit? Once you've checked in, the study room is over this way." The boy glared at Mrs. Horton at the end of the check-in mention."
'Bella, Mads is Out and Gus is a telepath.'
'Louis, that is no excuse!'
'In fact,' the psychic voice chuckled, 'Poor Gus is now wondering just how insane Thomas must be to put up with Mads, when Risk and Flux are both rooming in Poe and are probably available. '
Gus did look a little pale, and he was getting checked out. "Nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Horton. I apologize for Jensen, he's not normally so... "
Bella took a little pity on the young man, "Forthright?" He nodded frantically. "It's my understanding that the noisier he is, the lower the danger."
"Oi! I'm still right here, you know!"
"I'll take that under consideration, Ma'am."
After that exchange, Gus was even more confused as to what to expect. The cadet who usually walked around with an arrogant "this isn't my real rank" attitude had been replaced by an overly-cheeky teen. Walking into the study room itself was another shock. The lone table was covered with maps and annotated printouts. Once they were inside, Mads hooked up a set of transducers to the walls and door. A muffled 'thump, thump, thrrrrrr-ump' noise reminded him of some dance clubs ... acoustic countermeasures?
"I have to apologize for the late start. I had to finish a project for class this morning, so not all of Thursday's recon is accounted for. Here's a copy of the op plan as of early Thursday evening when we talked. Did you pack an overnight? Good."
The vast majority of the plan seemed to hinge on Metro's and Valravn's divination skills and not so much on a chaperon. There had been an astral recon Thursday night, but it had been hampered by limited time on-station and the fact that dormant spells and beings might not show up under a cursory review. Saturday afternoon then, would be taken up by travel and a North-South traverse along a railroad and power line right-of-way between Gurgens Park and Carpenter Park.
"What's up with these areas marked as 'Areas of Concern'?"
"We didn't find any records of major Havana Hopewell Culture burials in this area, but the Sangamon River does meander. So, we have some areas that are or have been active - hell, it could just be hippies with drums for all we know at this point - but no idea why. How well do you perceive astral beings and spirits?"
"Guys, I'm an exemplar and a telepath. If you need someone who can handle something as rare as those skills, you'll need someone else."
Metro smiled unpleasantly, "That's why if Thomas or I tell you to run, you do not ask why, you bloody well run for your life."
"Do you really think you can handle some thing that scares a Wiz-3 into running and is only visible astrally?"
"Good man. That's the solid thinking we need."
The second day would start with a long east-west traverse, marking pendulum swing directions as they go. The afternoon was reserved for a tentative approach to the most likely site(s), special attention to be paid to various booby traps. One of those considered possible was annotated in Gunny Bardue's handwriting as "just sick". Gus flipped ahead to the objectives, then back to the note. He agreed with the assessment, and recognized it as an old tactic used in irregular warfare. But wait, there was more. Grave desecration was one of the nicer points.
"You expect me to do what? While he (pointing to Mads) does what with WHAT?"
Valravn snarked, "I think he's getting it."
"And YOU are okay with all this?" According to unit scuttlebutt their relationship wasn't at all like that.
Thomas closed his eyes for a moment before speaking. "No. I am not okay with it. First off, you or some bystander may be attacked, killed, and/or worse. Second, there is a risk that Mads will end up in a location or a situation that favors an attacker more than it favors him. Once you're clear, I will be following him."
"Most of these places exist only in myth. How do you expect to find him?"
"I always know exactly where Mads is. I don't always approve, but I do know."
Metro and Valravn had actually put together a thorough briefing. Sadly, that meant that there weren't any new developments to scrub what sounded suspiciously like a suicide mission for one or both freshmen. Even transportation had been handled by reserving a car at the local airport. That left only the question of getting to said airport before sundown. "We're going to try to not get you lost along the way." was not the most comforting answer. Nor was the admonition to follow exactly in Valravn's footsteps if he ever wanted to see home again. Not when the first leg of the trip appeared to involve walking into an off-campus area sometimes referred to as "the Grove". By the time that the third randomly-taken turn led the hikers into a parking garage instead of a grove of trees, Mama Garcia's boy was convinced the two had not been kidding. An hour later, they were in line to rent a car at the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport.
Saturday evening, September 29, 2007,
After spending most of a day with Metro and Valravn, Telluride had come to a number of important conclusions:
* Being the only person with a valid driver's license can be very good thing.
* It was true that animals of all kinds and sizes do not like Metro. At all. Even mosquitoes veered away.
* Let the kid who speaks Japanese order at the Japanese restaurant. In Kansai-ben. Then let the owner explain "Osaka no Baka" once the kid's out of earshot.
* Anything said to the one might as well have been said to the other.
* Wherever Metro learned to drive, with one hand on the wheel and the other on his holster, is one place that no sane person ever needs to go.
Gus was very much relieved that Metro had lived up to one of the implications of his code name, and chosen a nice Bed & Breakfast in nearby Sherman, Illinois. He was far less relieved when one of the owners greeted the boy and asked how much he was enjoying going to school in St. Louis. Had it been four years already? What with the Springfield Slasher making the news after that ... Anyway, he'd hardly changed! Thomas was white as a sheet. Mads dodged the question saying he was now at a school in New Hampshire, but he and a couple of friends had managed to take advantage of a free weekend for hiking and sightseeing.
Away from the front desk, Gus' conscience prodded him to object to the cost of the room when the person paying for it announced he just might sleep in the tub.
"The bath includes a jacuzzi. Low-chlorine, aerated water is worth the upgrade price for medical reasons. That the owners don't exactly support H1 also justifies bringing my business here. But ... if you need help keeping the bed warm, I'm up for that too!"
0630 Sunday morning, September 30, 2007,
For Telluride, morning brought new revelations:
* Some people really do take their firearms to the shower with them.
* Illusions are great things, except when they drop while certain persons are without a shirt.
* Some people should be more thoroughly encouraged to sleep behind heavy psi shielding.
* Like most couples, the loudmouth has no idea just how X-rated the quiet one's dreams really are.
To be fair, Gus' roommates - he'd insisted on one room, the better to keep an eye on the other two - were no worse about having loud or x-rated (in any gender combination) dreams than the other boys he lived with in Emerson Cottage. But one of the reasons he was no longer a Boy Scout was that his Scoutmaster had been a combat veteran. That made campouts something the emerging telepath dreaded, even though being out in the sparsely-populated Colorado wilderness was something he still enjoyed. Whoever they really were, both of Gus' charges had seen, and been severely injured, in combat.
They were also nowhere to be seen, or heard.
Gus had managed to calm down, shower, and was shaving when he heard low voices outside in the room. That was all the warning he got before Thomas marched Mads into the bathroom, "You. Shower. Now. I'll get the windows open before Gus passes out."
"Oh, waah. Baby," was the unasked-for reply. Seriously. The Thornie was excused from PT for reasons, plural, and pleural from the gargly rasp in Mads' voice. As to ventilation, it's not that the boy stunk worse than anyone else in from a jog, it's that the bathroom was now filled with the scent of a predator with a side-helping of a promise of death. The senior cadet could not imagine what it would be like for some of the Avatars to share close quarters with the guy. Gus got a bit of a shock from the faucet as he finished shaving.
"Sorry!" came a voice from the shower, nearly echoed by a "Dammit, Mads!" from the other room.
"I said I'm sorry."
Two years plus in Emerson, and showering after martial arts with some of the light GSD students wasn't good preparation for seeing all of Metro's gill slits reflected in the mirror, visibly irritated from the earlier run. Torn velvet on the boy's antlers was also cringe-worthy. The similarity to sunburn left Telluride feeling sympathy itching. It was Metro who winced at that. Oh. Aura reading. Right.
Mads announced "Shower's free" as he left, rubbing his hair dry. It would probably look a bit nicer left tousled and spiky.
"How do you know I wasn't headed for the shower after I shaved?"
"Hmph. Y'r hair's damp."
"And shouldn't you be shaving?"
"Nope. No body or facial hair, just a sideburn trim. Oh, you might want to finish up soon. The Canuck treats the showers like a bird bath."
Somehow the three managed to get ready for the day without mishap or scandalizing the community. Telluride was acutely conscious that what looked like a shirt and trousers meant for camping or hiking was covering for some high-end close-fit body armor instead of base layers. Metro mistook his gaze for sticker envy and said, "Gus, it's as expensive as it looks, but you never ever cut corners on safety gear, armor, or weapons."
"I know that. I'm just feeling less convinced that letting you play bait with that little armor is the right thing to do."
Metro smiled, "One of these days, Foob's going to have to teach you how to see through illusions."
Valravn shook his head at that. "You need to take that Powers Theory course. Not only does that illusion affect how everything around perceives you, but the mental imagery you have to hold onto in your surface thoughts makes it worse for Esper talents. Gus isn't even noticing that he doesn't see your antlers."
"So! Who's hungry? I'd like to get some grub down before setting out on fieldwork."
Gus felt a hand clap onto his shoulder, as Thomas spoke, "Don't think too hard on that. He'd do it just to see you turn green."
1130 Sunday morning, September 30, 2007,
Gurgens Park, Springfield, Illinois
A second north-to-south-to north line of readings narrowed the field down to the Murphy's Law choice of search areas: a wooded area of near-interlocking oxbow sloughs and muck in the northwestern part of the park. Limited direct access and miserable conditions would keep most fitness enthusiasts and trail bikers away, while providing an optimal setup for anti-personnel measures. Stagnant water all around was no boon to most honest spellcasting, either.
Telluride favored the northern approach, as that would be the most likely walk-in route for anyone intending to bury something out there. Metro favored the southern approach as the least expected, and wettest. Valravn broke the tie in the older student's favor by pointing out that the unknown party would have been setting any traps behind them. If they came up from the south and had to make a break for it over land, they'd be running straight into any trip wires, setting surprises off on the person right behind them.
Two hours later, they'd covered a third of a mile. With the help of a "guidance spirit", as Metro called it, they'd also flagged half a dozen foot traps and other delightful surprises. Now the three boys were faced with what appeared to be a baited pit trap that had had one hell of a magical "lure" cast on it.
"Now that we're sure to be on the clock, let's go over a couple of things one more time. Do we have the transponder set so the location can be found by authorities?"
"Check. Plus coordinates."
"Telluride, do you know the route we took coming in and can you avoid the obstacles as you exit?"
"Good. You and Valravn both have contact info and locations for police, the St.Louis and Chicago teams, and emergency response?"
"Yes." "Of course."
"Here's the information you'll need to pick up a flight out of Springfield. You're already booked for this evening, but if you cannot make the flight for any reason, here are the numbers to call. Only one of them is Whateley, per se."
"Valravn, remember that you're handling overwatch on Telluride. No surviving witnesses to open a formal investigation means we've wasted our shot."
"Let's see. We have some buried metal along the sides of the pit, let's look for monofilament leading to munitions. Hey, if your marks don't want to fall in, sometimes you have to push. Swamp muck and spikes. Yuck."
Telluride reminded himself to have as pointed a discussion as possible with certain instructors on just who or what the school has enrolled here. It was no longer just the afternoon heat making his palms sweat inside the gloves Metro had insisted on. If he didn't know what Metro was looking for with magnifier and whisk brush, he'd make a joke about playing Indiana Jones. Or CSI. The cold, dead look in the boy's eyes reminded the junior of Everheart briefing the sim teams after one of the more brutal scenarios. 100 percent professional, but a profession that came with a body count. The bastard was even wearing a UV band. When did that start?
"Okay, boys and ghouls, we know the pit is warded so we need photography as soon as I spring the door and the Prize Patrol lets us know what we've won. Valravn, make ready to brace the door open with those tree limbs. Telluride, activate the ghost-walking charm on my mark. Get that evidence we need - and then run. Guys? In case I forgot to mention it, it's been nice knowing both of you. A little epoxy on the hinges ... and showtime!"
Neither Valravn nor Telluride were entirely ready to see what had probably been a twelve-year old boy - judging by the short dirty blond hair visible - naked, bound, gagged, and partly impaled on the spikes, nor the practice claymore rigged as if it would blow if the boy struggled at all to get free.
The swamp seemed to loom up around them as something born of unclean water and fouler deeds awoke.
Looking up at the victim's twin, they heard him look over his shoulder and say, "Guys. I said run. Don't. Look. Back."
Chapter 22: Just One More Damned Thing After Another
"Living this life has its problems
so I think that I'll give it a break.
Oh, I'm going back to the family
'cos I've had about all I can take."
—Ian Anderson, "Back To The Family"
Midnight, September 30, 2007,
Between the fieldwork, the crime scene investigation, and the astral overwatch on Telluride's flight back east, Valravn was exhausted. If he'd even had a question about how bad he looked, all he needed do was see the look in faces of the B & B owners.
Shauna had heard something through the grapevine, one of her nephews being a police office. "Those poor people! Four years and no one had ever thought to look for them?"
"The police said that some of the extended family had hired private investigators, but the case went cold until now. I, um, I hate to ask this of you, but," Thomas let the statement trail off. He didn't have his other half's gift for unmitigated bovine manure.
"But we should have known those darn kids were skipping school on daddy's credit card. Must've slipped out before dawn. Left a window open while they were at it, too." Roger complained as though he'd been stiffed a deposit, "Give Liz Carson our regards, will you?"
"Will do, sir." Thomas grabbed his pack and headed out. Halfway to the street, he turned right at a turn in the sidewalk that wasn't there, and so, neither was he.
oh-frag-me-sideways-thirty, October 1, 2007,
Office of the Headmistress, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Elizabeth Carson looked down on a steadily-thickening file atop her desk, massaged the bridge of her nose, and sincerely wished that coffee would do her some physical good at this hour. Even in a blue flannel shirt and jeans, she still cut an impressive figure. Not that the student parked in front of her desk was in a condition to appreciate that, or take much comfort from the informality. Instead, Agustin 'Telluride' Garcia-Rodriguez had been intercepted by Whateley Security deboarding his flight into Logan International Airport, and all but dragged back to the school. At best, the boy was exhausted, distraught, and more than a bit shell-shocked, but he also wasn't disappeared 'for questioning'.
Gus idly wondered if the two students NOT present had known a train ticket wouldn't ever be needed?
"Mister Garcia-Rodriguez, let me start by assuring you that when I agreed to this outing, this is not the outcome I had in mind. I trust that the same applies to you as well?"
"Ma'am! Let me assure you that I had NO intention of seeing either cadet come to harm. Not on my watch!" Having had no rest in the past 24 hours and instead finding himself at the center of a multi-agency murder investigation in conjunction with the disappearance of two foreign nationals, one of whom turned out to be a material witness in a military friendly fire incident under investigation, was placing more stress on him than the seventeen-year-old had expected when he signed up for this.
Any of this.
Gus was also fairly certain that if he did manage to eat anything sometime today, it would come right back up. Occasionally, he could still see that kid…
"... as I understand it, one of them made a pass at you only two days ago. That night you spent the evening with both boys, in the same bedroom, a rather expensive room paid for by one of them - who just happens to be the first to go missing," Chief Delarose remarked, standing behind the boy.
Mrs. Carson pressed, "From where I sit that does look suspicious, at least. You should be aware that sex-"
That was one straw too many for Gus to be expected to carry.
"Ma'am, I will have you know that I do not give a DAMN about where you sit or how suspicious it looks. And if YOU ever GAVE a damn, you'd be out there LOOKING for Mads and Thomas RIGHT THE, fmrmph!"
The next thing Gus realized was that he was face down on the Headmistress' desk, in an arm bar maintained by Lady Astarte and staring down the business end of the Security Chief's sidearm.
This was only getting worse and worse by the minute. They must have even called in the head of Psychic Arts department on him! When?
Fubar's projected voice was unmistakable. "He's back now, Elizabeth, and deserves an explanation."
"Mister Garcia-Rodriguez, Gus, if I let go of you do I have your word that you will sit down in that chair, and listen to what we have to say?"
Lacking a sword to fall on, expulsion almost felt the easier choice at this point, but "Yes, ma'am."
"Gus, I do apologize but this was necessary to allow Louis a reason,"
"More of an excuse."
"Perhaps, to bend the Code of Ethics on your behalf."
Mr. Geintz stepped in, "Yes. Am I correct that Metro had informed you that he had enemies?"
"Yes, he did. But there was no one else around at the site!"
Gus was sure of that, wasn't he? Or was he too wrapped up in the search?
"No other persons that we know of, no. Before your flight arrived in Boston we received some bad news regarding the investigation. This is now the second Mythos-related incident related to him in the past few months. Pushing your buttons like this was the fastest way to get past your mental defenses to search for secondary injury to you from this one. As you know from your classes, an experienced telepath is vulnerable to hiding such things from themselves until things deteriorate."
"His last words were 'Run. Don't look back'" Madre de Dios. He just left that kid behind. Kids if you count... NO!
"He's back again." Mr. Geintz sounded very worried.
Now it was the Chief's turn to help in dealing with the survivor's guilt, "Son, you were at the top of a very short list of people who could be trusted to let Jensen run this operation his way, and do exactly what was asked of you."
That reminded Gus. "What was 'his way', Sir? Half the time, he's a goofy kid who really needs to clear the air with his best friend; the rest he could be mistaken for, I don't know ... spec ops?"
The Chief's hesitation in answering suggested that maybe Gus didn't want that question answered, after all.
"A bit... darker than that," the former operative answered, " But there's no rule that says he cannot be both, is there? Do we need to emphasize that that part of this conversation does not leave this office, and the very real risk to you if it does?"
"Good. I know of more than one agency that will be happy to hear that."
Translation: 'Congratulations, your education and employment options just became that much more specialized.'
"What happens now?"
Mrs. Carson finally smiled, a faint smile at that, "To you, you mean? You'll receive a pass for today's classes, so you can clean up and talk to a counselor later today. As planned." That seemed to have surprised the teen, then again, this one wasn't one of her habitual troublemakers.
Noting his surprise, she chose to explain. "When I ask a subject-matter expert their opinion, I do account for that in planning. Every person in this room, plus Louis, has benefited from counseling: I recommend you make use of it as a resource. I cannot make you not worry about Metro and Valravn– welcome to the club– while they are *ahem* currently 'dealing with sensitive issues touching on their visas' Very diplomatic, very sensitive, couldn't make the flight back, and you don't want to know how much that's very much like those two."
A mild evening in late August, 2003,
northbound U.S. Interstate 55 from Springfield, Illinois
As his rented car sped north into the early hours of morning, its driver reveled in his small part of the organization's master plan. He'd long known it was the nature of history that in order for destined events to occur, all actors must take their allotted places. If they failed to do so, then it fell to those with a clearer vision to take corrective measures. In this instance, two entities had abandoned their designated receptacles in this world and taken up residence in some other realm. That could not be tolerated.
To counter such foolishness, a trap was designed. Once set, acting through Similarity it would inevitably draw one of the two to it while preventing unwanted discovery. Once sprung, a minor servant constructed from pruned branches of its bloodline - waste not, want not - would capture the spirit for delivery. If needed, it could take the place of the spirit's abandoned receptacle that now baited the trap. It even provided energy to the servant! The second spirit required by classical lore, lacking remaining receptacles of its own, would have no choice but inhabit a container chosen to be suited for its task.
Perhaps when he reached Chicago, his team leader might allow him time to release some of the building tension he felt. The intimacy required by the ritual that created the servant had set nerves afire that he wasn't sure could be found in his disused medical texts. Rearranging bone and sinews, and the sewing of flesh and skin had awakened in him a clarity of focus that he feared he might never feel again. To then prepare the bait for use: that had been pleasure of such intensity as to induce him to claim virginity prior to these acts.
In his severely dissociated state, the man (for such he had been, and it was only foul luck that he'd been one of the candidate receptacles for that second spirit) likely never even noticed the captive bolt stunner being meticulously placed to his third eye chakra. The double-bagged contents of the rented car's trunk compartment joined the driver and other choice leftovers for rendering. Waste not, want not.
Late in the day, September 27, 2007,
Office of the Headmistress, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
"Mrs. Carson, I realize the school has rules regarding underclassmen leaving campus. And, I know that poison ivy and sunburn should be the greatest risks pertaining to a routine survey of empty woodland…"
"I'm hearing an objection to the school's policy - a very well-justified policy at that - about to be raised, aren't I?"
"I... It's just,"
Even at this late hour, long after drill, the headmistress noted that her student was still in his JROTC uniform as he stood up in agitated frustration and walked to the window at the back of her office. The moon should be full that night, but the overcast skies left the campus view darkened save for an occasional flash of late-season lightning.
"How do you do it?"
That was an odd turn. "Do what?"
"How do you justify to yourself exposing innocents to these lines of work, knowing it may NOT be a one-time walk in the park, but maybe a one-way trip?"
Elizabeth nodded at the student's 'ultra-violent' armband, "You cannot be wearing that armband and suggest to me that you have never killed or gotten someone killed."
"In cold blood even, and I do not wish to discuss that. I think it underscores my point." The last statement was barely a broken whisper.
"There you have it."
"You've lost me, ma'am."
"In some ways, we're both lost. Wait, let me finish. Every year, I and everyone else on staff do everything in our power - including things you would and do object to - to prepare each student for the very real dangers they may face. Every year, some of those students and staff die along the way. Can you understand then, why I may never fully forgive Frank for hiring you? Every year, I'm notified of alumni who didn't need to die just for being who or what they are. Each one an innocent who I could not save. Would you like to know their names? Because I assure you that I can name each and every one of them, picture their faces, remember the faces of their grieving loved ones."
Elizabeth Carson could see from her student's stricken expression that he couldn't do the same.
"To forestall the foreseeable and avoidable dangers and developing bad habits, I give out a lot of detentions. For the rest," she tapped on the plan the two had been working on, "If a situation cannot be avoided, I bust my ass to ensure that my students have the best preparations and support I can provide. Haven't you once already waltzed into my office to call me out on one of those?"
"I was hoping for levity, ma'am."
"Is that what it was, Major?"
At least he had the grace to look embarrassed.
Elizabeth continued, "Is Telluride the best fit for this plan?"
"He's a good man and has a bright future ahead of him. This ... I'm having trouble dealing with what we could find. Just the immediate fallout - he's going to need help afterward."
"Mads, that's my job, and this is not, by far, my first rodeo. You want my trust; you're going to have to trust me, and yourself. Oh, yes. One other thing."
"When your English placement testing is redone, and it will be: no sandbagging. I expect your writing to be commensurate with what you've demonstrated on this assignment. Now, get out of my office and get some rest."
Location? That — is an excellent question!
Consciousness returned slowly to the young man. First to creep in was his old friend Pain, assuring him that he was, indeed, still alive. Judging by the weight on his back - so much for just rolling over - and the moss against his face, he must have tripped somewhere at the end of his run. Most of the gear he'd brought translated well enough to the less technologically-oriented Shadow Lands. His armor and clothing were already beginning to adapt to the local metaphor. He'd worn and be-spelled the components a bit much over the past weeks, so that was his own fault. He still had a few choice words to spare as he verbally reconfigured the menus from a near-incomprehensible dialect of Icelandic to Or'zet. Nishnaabemwin would have been more comfortable to use, but this place was too far removed from the Summer Lands.
Nothing burst into fire, although a couple of words might have glowed a bit blue, so he was probably not on or in Middle Earth. Nonetheless, where he did find himself was more than dark, humid, heavily-forested, and chilled enough for his tastes. Wet 0-5 degree weather could easily promote hypothermia in the unwary. To something like the tupilaq set on his trail, it would be quite lovely. He resisted the urge to hum "Springtime for Hitler".
Depending on relative time ratios, his partner could be right behind him (How long had he been unconscious?) or it could be days until backup arrived. It all depended on the route one took. Probably days, hopefully not months. Winter was soon to arrive in these lands. Snow would be deep and game animals scarce. Brushing himself off, and straightening his kepi, he chose to travel north cross-slope in hope that the forest may check his pursuit more than his own travel. He watched for a break in the tree canopy or a rush of moving water that might accompany a steep drop in the darkness. Now and then he also checked for spells such as may hide a trap or otherwise waylay a traveler.
Leagues behind him, an eight-limbed nemesis sought the lost young man. That mockery of life had been constructed to feast on his life-blood and imprison his spirit. The dark bindings that held it together could not bear even the shortest and darkest of days. So it must perchance secure a hiding-place to safekeep those bindings from the sun. No matter. It sensed its prey already hemmed in between mountain snowfields, the oncoming winter snows, and itself. Time favors the patient hunter.
Through one might not yet notice, and the other not care, strangers did not go entirely unnoticed in these lands. Messengers made their rounds. Courses of actions were considered. Even a wager or two were staked.
Another young man appeared in the forest, in similar manner to the one who'd passed this way ten days before. Taller, of darker hair and sky-filled eyes, one of those who'd rather over-fly the forest boughs or run a hunter's course over roots, rocks, and dead-falls. Seeing that human senses would be too dull for his purpose, he packed his clothes away, muttered an imprecation on behalf of his spine's health, and allowed his human form to fall away.
Nose closer to the ground, he soon crossed his pack-mate's spoor. Recrossing the path he'd soon take, he barked out a call no cub need to hear repeated. Similar, too similar to the other's, but where the one had been healthy - this, whatever it was, was not healthy at all. Even the old Root-Gnawer might turn aside in disgust. Worse still, the one was surely tracking the other.
As custom demanded, the midnight-furred dire wolf announced his presence and intent to hunt. To the north he'd go, and woe betide those who'd impede him.
Three days' tracking led the hunter past whatever foulness prowled a picket line around a settled clearing - held back by healthy wards beyond those the wolf's pack-mate was able to cast. Old memories stirred behind the wolf's lapis eyes. Sensing no immediate danger, he clothed himself in human form and clothing. He dearly hoped the mistress of the manor could provide healing to soothe an abused and aching back.
"Heil og sæl!"
Looking up into laughing green eyes for a precious few moments before their owner buried his head in the other's neck and tickled his nose with flaxen hair, Thomas Jensen briefly forgot how much more his back would be hurting from the flying tackle. He settled for a low growl that only encouraged the other. Encouraged him quite a bit. How much daylight did they have left?
a point overlooking the river Gjöll
A cloaked figure stands still, looking into the abyss at his feet. He listens now to the icy blade-filled water far below. Behind him, a statuesque female stands apart in private observations of her own. He winces at the long-delayed splash.
"Ayep. That's gonna leave a mark."
"Was it necessary to conjure an anvil marked with runes and sigils spelling out 'Acme Anvil Corp'?"
The woman sighed, "Be that way. The false bridge was a nice touch, but next time? Use a bigger anvil."
"So, now we wait?"
"Is it not enough that we've prayed foreign prayers the entire nine days to get to this point, little wolf? He'll return from the river with the tupilaq unwoven and the govi filled, or he won't. We only need be on the other side to hail the victor."
"Of this round."
"Then what? Crossing the monster's paths as I have prevents returning to school until Ormamánuður."
"After we've pried the fish from your mate's mouth and paid due respect in my daughter's hall, we should be back to my home in time for Ýlir. I could use some help around the farmstead; the two of you both have things to learn - skills I've taught your ancestors."
On the Occasion of a Death
It's whispered beside the watch-fires in certain mead-halls that in payment for certain poetic embellishments the Foreigner allowed Snorri Sturluson the afterlife of his ancestors. Misfortunate isn't it, that he died on his knees in his home's basement?
Nine days his faithless spirit walked; he arrived at the amazon's gold-thatched bridge.
Nine nights his heart quailed; he was close serenaded by the moon-hunter's songs.
Should not a law-speaker and skald be honored from gate-post to door-post?
Two princes a vanguard against mishap; to a high seat he was silent brought.
Three nights the welcome-feast "Hunger" was set before them, "Famine" brought forth to carve it.
Three days each guest was served from the abundance. The honored guest called for his stirrup.
"Do you like not the company provided to you?" The grave-witch asked,
"Have they spoken aught ill against you?"
"Nay, Lokisdottir, they have not.
Does not the younger not sit here mute, whilst the elder crouches moon-struck?"
"Do you like not the company provided to you?" The shining lord asked,
"Have the servers not fed you well?"
"Nay, Hildolfarson, they have.
Yet I ken neither plate nor cup shared out between the two at my sides."
"Do you like not the company provided to you?" Nanna grief-bearer asked.
"Have you not heard tell of Sigyn's son, throated and gutted in Grimm's honor?
Have you not heard tell of Hel's father's son, blooded in Aes' frenzy?"
"Nay, Nepsdóttir, I have.
For my Master doth remember such iniquities unto the seventh generation."
Wolfen tongue beside him then gave voice to human speaking.
"Have a care, doom-speaker, that Danu not remember your own seventy and sevenfold,
That War-Wolf and Battle-Crow accept wergild for Mercian and Dane,
When the bastard comes calling on Har Megiddo plain."
Nine days the spirit walks, Huginn talks,
Nine nights a heart beats double, Muninn dreams,
Washed in rivers of blood, all forgetting
Old doom and passed wyrd, such as only the dead must know.
Thursday afternoon, October 4, 2007, JROTC drill field
Was it only a week ago that Cadet 1st Lt. Rodriguez had been looking forward to the day his platoon was no longer plagued by Metro's and Valravn's presence? This week, even during drill he found himself wondering where they were and how they were faring. Out in the Real World of deployments and patrols it must be ten times worse, wondering when the hammer would fall.
But, this being Whateley Academy, he found himself scanning his platoon's surface thoughts. Telepathy was good for that.
"Maybe the Canucklehead finally caught a clue? Nah. Complete closet case."
"God, I hope they ARE getting laid, anything to calm down that hyper kid."
"Y'know, 'assume the position' sounds a whole lot dirtier when The Madman screws up and has to do it."
"Lieutenant Rodriguez! Sir, do you know where Cadets Jensen and Jensen are, by any chance?" There it was, one of the questions Gus least wanted to hear after four days and counting of "We hope, but we don't know yet."
"Holm, if I knew for certain - other than a complete diplomatic snafu way above my paygrade, I'd tell you."
Rorsmand's eyes narrowed, "No, sir. I think you have an idea, but you've no intention of telling me."
"If that were the case, what else would you have me do?" Gus returned the freshman's stare, "After all, I'm not Jensen's handler."
That was an implication Kristian hadn't expected, "I have no idea what you're talking about! He's a friend of mine, and I'm concerned about him. Sir."
"Then I'm sure that once Frick and Frack decide to show back up you'll be one of the first to know. Drill's over. Dismissed."
"Yes, sir." The cadet saluted, turned on his heel before he could lose any more of his temper, and walked away.
Thursday evening, October 4, 2007,
Euro-Promotional League table, Crystal Hall
Halfway through the meal, Reach noticed that the conversation had been dragging more than usual. Maybe she was just feeling extra-grumpy because Imp had Ace, and by extension, the whole ICC, committing time and resources to a wild goose chase this past week. Or maybe it was just disappointment that after all the work she'd put into getting Spark to eat a decent meal at the caf', an extra helping of Kismet's attitude was turning out to be two helpings too much. Usually, just having Metro at the table would have driven her away by now. Speaking of which...
"Hey, Kristian, you seen your compadre around? I haven't seen hide nor hair of him or Valravn since that trip they had last weekend," Reach said.
"Clearly they must have misjudged their choice of chaperon. Perhaps they are– what is that expression?– 'thumbing their way back' as we speak," Introducing Belgian foot to oversize mouth in 3, 2, 1... "If they'd have asked me, I would have been happy to keep them out of trouble."
"Det tvivler jeg helt på." Kristian dumped his tableware and napkin onto the serving tray and stood up. "Excuse me." It didn't take much empathy to see that the boy was walking away pissed.
Reach also thought she saw Phase look as if he'd remembered something distasteful. "I think that I'm finished with my meal as well. If you would all pardon me? Adalie, maybe we could study together later?"
"Mais, bien sûr, Ayla" And whatever the deal was, either Charge wasn't privy to it or she wasn't about to let on. Hard to tell with her sometimes.
Sketchier and sketchier.
(End of Part 3, “Chewing Through The Straps”)