Monday, December 12th, 2006
"Doctor Bellows, it's Polland. I'm going over some of Caitlin Bardue's test results and was wondering if you could drop by to talk." Polland looked over at the blessedly quiet room that Ophelia had entered with her usual serene expression, save for a hardness of the eyes that bespoke a promise of death for a certain repeat problem patient of hers. "Yes, here in the next few minutes would be ideal thanks. I want to get this over with as quickly as possible. This girl is a nightmare to deal with. Yes, she's as bellicose as ever, even with... Get down here. I just saw some scanner logs. We have to redo her scans ASAP."
Polland clicked off the telephone and looked at the computer screen. Besides the obvious physical exam, which seemed to be actually going right, none of Caitlin's scan tests or tissue samples had been readily tested. The scans all appeared as though someone had placed a lead sheet between her body and the offending piece of medical equipment. The tissue samples taken had all arced with odd green energy and exploded within moments of being separated from her body, causing all manner of minor havoc in the testing area.
It was bad enough that she was uncooperative and deliberately obstructive, but now it seemed her very body was as well.
He pulled up the scanner file again and sighed. The MRI had gotten no penetration into the girl's body, or the dye used to track everything had failed to take, one of the two. Her Xavier test scores were well within line with what Mahren had shown before his unexpected blitz to the fairer sex. At a 136 IQ once certain psychological issues were taken into account, Caitlin Bardue's intelligence was respectable, if hardly phenomenal for the Academy student body. Unlike most exemplars, she had not seemed to receive any of the usual mental abilities with her transformation. Her physical capabilities had shot through the roof, and were stable well within the mid-high exemplar-four norm. Her endurance and raw stamina were not, however.
As he went back over the raw physical data, the changes were pronounced. Once the docs had found ways to make the areas stable for her insane aura, they now had an accurate read on her physical capabilities. Her bench press weight had gone from her old human bench press weight of roughly 250 lbs. to approximately 1511 lbs. or about three quarters of a ton - once the sudden random destruction factor was eliminated from the testing. Her reflexes had undergone the smallest boost, somewhere between Olympic athlete and greased lightning. Even though she was fast, she was still in line with other exemplar fours, and she had started as a man who had been the baseline equivalent of an exemplar two in strength and a three in reflexes and endurance.
The girl's endurance and stamina were off the charts. She'd admitted to not really having slept for any significant amount of time since the change, with one notable bout of wakefulness that lasted just under ninety-six hours, and only one hour of sleep, which she'd forced. Her strength was almost akin to a hydraulic press. Once she hit her max she just stopped and wasn't able to budge the bar, period, but as long as it was even a gram under said limit she was able to continue pressing it without any sign of fatigue or strain. She had shown that she was capable of running exactly 31.08 miles an hour and held that pace steady for thirty minutes without even breathing hard. Increasing the speed even slightly had resulted in her stumbling and being thrown from the treadmill, twice.
Doctor Polland was not interested in a third time after she had kicked the machine onto its side in a spitting rage. Caitlin's incredibly short temper with the medical profession hadn't been in evidence when she'd first changed, but then she was also somewhat in shock. He sighed and wished to return to that blissful time when she was too mentally drained to fight back. It wasn't like the medical staff at the Academy could come up with a realistic detention or punishment for a nearly thirty-year-old woman, trying to learn how to be female by being drop-kicked into the student body. The fact that she was PART of the student body told him there was more going on here than Carson was telling, and she was being protected from something.
All in all she was a bundle of contradictions. Her blood rapidly solidified into a blood-red metal that was definitively active mystically according to all the tests, and the tissue samples had hardened to a marble-like substance before detonating spectacularly in what some of the more mystically aware staff had dubbed 'mini mana storms.' Add to that her hair was definitely composed of black, metal filaments and her irises visibly and measurably heated when she got pissed. The glowing runic sigils in her irises were spectacular and a bit scary to see when she got angry.
Caitlin looked female, but didn't have any of the hormonal markers in her blood of such, what little they were able to analyze. She also reported that the drugs she had been taking to deal with certain issues, most notably Post-Traumatic Stress, weren't having any noticeable effect. The antipsychotics she had been taking were similarly deadened, making the fact that she had a particular variant of intermittent explosive disorder a nagging worry, for her and for him. He'd called Bellows to discuss that very fact. Figuring out whether or not Caitlin would be prone to another episode like she'd had on Halloween when she'd forgotten to refill her prescription would be a priority.
When Bellows arrived, he nodded to the other man and the two wandered over to the coffee pot. It was pretty much a given that this was going to be a long session. "So dealing with Caitlin has been something less than joyful?"
Polland sighed, "You don't know the half of it. I swear that Amazonian nightmare is the focal point for all of the hatred for the medical community in the world."
Dr. Bellows snorted. "Oh if you think she's bad now, you should try to get her into a counseling session. I chalk up her post-change cooperative streak to pure mental shock, both from the change, and from losing Backdraft."
"God, I miss Cat some days. Like right now. She was the only person who could make that walking ball of rage in there stay calm."
"Don't we both. But for now, what do you have for me? You don't normally call me down here unless you've got a weird one."
Polland nodded and handed a sheet over. "Caitlin in there's Zener card results. Out of five passes with the cards, she's hit zero correct answers. I did it before with her as Mahren right before the blowout, and he'd gotten a zero as well. I can write off one null result as a low-probability event given how many we do in a year, but five in a row?"
"I see." Bellows pondered for a moment. "Could be part of that mage/psychic theory you've been working on. Caitlin's heavily mage-oriented, and some mages do tend to zero out on that test unless they're also psychic or strongly empathic."
"Doesn't wash. Mahren wasn't heavily magic-oriented, and he still drew a null on that test. I even pulled up records of the few times we were able to get that lunatic to sit still for any kind of test, and he's always zeroed out. We never ran more than one pass with him, but I always assumed he was being his usual bull-headed, contrary self. This reminds me, we need to do a detailed purge of all our records pertaining to Mahren. I missed a few when Carson sent the order down."
"That could actually be a possibility here. What about that weird spirit-thing, the parasite?"
"Oh. THAT." Polland leaned back and dug through a file that seemed as thick as his arm. "We have no clue what the bloody thing is, and even Lodgeman's stumped. He's never seen anything like it. We just know that it's a possessor of some sort, it's probably the cause of Caitlin's change, ultimately, and it's trying to integrate itself with her totally. We can't get rid of it without killing her."
"Wonderful. How likely is it that's the cause of her lovely little result with the cards?" Bellows leaned against a counter and sipped at the coffee.
"Pretty likely, although Louis mentioned that she's got a real haywire shielding technique, memory association thing. Since she wasn't able to shield traditionally she sort of trained herself to have a defense. Poke the wrong memory and you get to relive the sensation of getting shot, or something equally unpleasant."
Bellows sighed and shook his head. "It would take a guy like Mahren to figure out how to turn his brain into a minefield for psychics."
"Yeah, and that's about the tip of the iceberg. If these scans are any indication, Caitlin might have the 6th worst case of internal GSD I have ever seen."
Polland leaned back and steepled his fingers. "I'm not finding any signs of organic life. Once Ophelia finishes the physical, I'm trucking the girl out to ARC for the deep scanner. She's pretty much showing all the indicators that her entire body is mineral-based. But I DO want to confirm it before I jump to conclusions."
"Getting her to go along with that might be a trick."
"Maybe I can con one of the devisors here to run a scan."
Bellows nodded. "Have you given any thought to having her examined by one of the mages? Grimes is pretty slick at that kind of thing."
"Grimes and Mahren never got along. It might just aggravate Caitlin even more."
Bellows got a predatory grin on his face. "And what could be a better payback for all the misery that girl has put us through over the years than locking the two of them in a room together?"
Polland considered for a moment. "I'll make the call."
Diamondback grinned as Razor and Jericho nearly tackled her with glee. Her smug, self-assured look was a far cry from the normally shy and subdued posture she held in public. The Grunts genuflecting and intoning "We're not worthy" over and over couldn't have helped deflate her ego much either.
"So how did the shakedown with Ito and Bardue go?" Jericho grinned as he asked.
"I got an A," she intoned in a singsong voice and did short, undulating dance that drew several sets of nearby eyes to her... interesting figure.
"Nice!" Jericho grinned and Razorback immediately did his traditional slamdance/air guitar victory dance.
"And I'm sure I have my first eternal enemy in Hekate, even though I doubt she'd be dumb enough to do anything about it."
"Yeah, after that whole deal with Folder, I imagine most fools are a bit reluctant to get too pissy about sim runs or arena fights."
The mood was broken somewhat as Bunker spotted her MMID card on the displays and bolted down towards the entrance to the arena cackling madly. Her team dispersed to go watch.
Diamondback took a deep breath and realized that besides the lunatic grins of her compatriots, there were wide smiles from a pack of girls she'd never expected to associate with on anything but an adversarial basis, as Team Kimba - or at least the ones who were there - walked up to meet the three of them. The emotions ranged from smug satisfaction to crazed glee.
Chaka was the one to approach first, and grinned wide. "Oh man you should have seen that bitch's face! That expression was priceless when she realized you tricked her!"
Diamondback was a bit taken aback at the response from the Kimba girls, she wasn't expecting the lot of them to blow off her appearance and cluster around her and her friends with grins on their faces. Well there was that Generator kid, who was putting on a brave front while casting nervous glances at both her and Razorback, but she could hardly blame the small child for being antsy around a pair of kids who looked monstrous, more so than most of the Faction Three kids. If Sandra had seen herself as a child she'd have panicked and run for the hills.
Fey was the odd one of the lot, concealing odd feelings of fascination with her even as she smiled. She'd been like that on Halloween as well when she was all decked out like a Gorgon. Diamond was lost in the upbeat emotional current when Jericho jarred her a little.
"Hey Diamond, you're zoning out again." The blind boy gave her a concerned look.
Sandra shook her head and looked at the Kimbas, “Sorry, I'm a bit zonked right now."
Fey, that maddeningly gorgeous redhead shook her head. "Hey no worries. After that little performance with Hekate I'd say you were a bit entitled to zoning out on occasion. Nice job, by the way. Couldn't have handled that dirty bitch better myself."
"Thanks." Diamondback nodded to Bladedancer, "And I got to say, that beating of Nex? Good work."
Chou smirked and nodded, trying not to move too quickly and rip her bandages. "Thanks. Let us just hope the trend continues and we all do as well."
The rest of the Kimbas clustered in to give their words of congratulations as the three Outcasts marveled at the friends they'd seemed to be making of late.
Phobos and Deimos, the notorious Fury Twins, were on their way back to the arena and noted Lancer, one of the Kimbas, was trudging along through the snow in about the same general direction. The two girls gave him a bit of a wide berth even though he nodded and gave a bit of a wave before continuing along. The two of them watched the rather cute boy as he walked with a purpose towards the Arena. They didn't know what to make of these Kimbas, but the rumors from Hawthorne were that the lot of them were GSD friendly. That didn't necessarily make them any more eager to wander up and say hi. Too many times burned by even friendly-seeming kids among the pretties had loaded them with more than their share of social caution.
Even so they still followed, morbidly curious as to why he was moving with such haste, when it wasn't to get away from them. Neither would admit it, but Lancer's dancer physique and smoky eyes drew their attention every time he went past them. The fact that his emotions were a bit less hard-edged than most of the guys on campus made him doubly intriguing. The two GSD girls followed along, trying not to be too obvious that they were, a task made nearly impossible by the sheer lack of people to use as cover.
The twins stopped and sighed as a fairly pretty black-haired girl in a Security Auxiliary uniform met him and the two shared a hug, then kissed lightly before going into the Arena together.
"It's just not fair. We never get to have the cute ones." Deimos pouted.
Phobos shrugged mildly. "Yeah well, what can you do? It's not like we're going to DO anything. When was the last time one of us dug up the guts to talk to a boy without being emotionally overloaded first?"
"Bah. I really hate the truth sometimes. Fuck. Well, we could always go bug the Underdogs when they get off work."
"Nah, they mean well but we scare the shit out of the lot of 'em."
"That fear aura. Why couldn't we have gotten something else? I really hate trying to make friends when they're shitting their pants being near us."
Phobos nodded. "I'm getting tired of being alone around here. Sorry sis, but we run out of things to talk to, and I don't fancy trying to buddy up with Pucelle."
Deimos groaned. "Uh God, don't remind me of her, please! It's bad enough that I have to live with her! If I have to hear one more speech about the plight of the downtrodden GSD types again I'm gonna rip her arms off."
"You said that last week."
"And the week before."
"Grrr... If you weren't my sister I'd clock you one. Hard."
"You love me."
"Well, maybe it's time we took up Diamondback on that standing offer to just hang out with the Outcasts." Phobos looked up at the light snowfall coming down from the sky and sighed. "At least they don't go into a near panic whenever we're around. And they can stop us when we start getting too heated."
"I dunno, they can be pretty violently angry some days. You've seen Jericho mad, and he's probably the most gleefully happy of the three. Then there's that new girl who's just a walking rage bomb looking for a place to go off."
"Well what do you want to do, hang out with Thuban's Faction Three? I hate to break it to you, sis, but they don't react to us any better than the Dickinson bitches do."
"Yeah, I know. I know Diamond and her friends barely register that fear thing we have going, and they don't care what we look like, but think about it. Being around them isn't really safe for us, physically or emotionally."
"You know what, Janine, fuck being safe. I'm tired of being alone, with no friends to hang out with on a regular basis. I'd rather risk a Fury event than keep on trying to gut things out like this. What else we going to do, sulk around and stare at Lancer's ass and wish we were Little Miss Wallflower for the rest of our time here?"
"No, you're right. I'm just scared, Adrienne."
Phobos nodded and laid one of her four arms on her twin's shoulder. "Yeah, me too. But we gotta start trusting people sometime."
"I know. Otherwise we might as well just lie down and die."
"I dunno about you, sis, but I have no intention of lying down and doing anything. Well, maybe if he's cute enough."
Deimos smirked. "Ok sis, you win. Let's give it a shot. At least that way we can at least say we tried if things don't work."
"That's the spirit. Now let's go inside. I'm freezing my tails off out here."
Hank parted ways with Lily as they began moving to their respective seats with their teams. He really really liked Lily, and she made him happy. He wasn't exactly sure if it was love, but she made him feel good. He snorted as he contemplated her codename. Even though she wasn't exemplar hot, she wasn't just a wallflower to him. He watched her wander back to her other friends , then turned and bumped straight into a spitting mad Andrea Elsner.
Bunker bounced off him, and let out a low-grade bout of swearing under her breath. The short blonde girl in digital cammies glared at him and then simply darted past him on her way out of the arena. It was a far cry from the enthusiasm and gleeful mayhem he'd seen from her the night before. He turned back to go towards his seat and saw Deadeye, the grunts' leader shaking his head and smirking.
"Hey Declan, how goes things?" The octopus-eyed sniper/team leader asked.
"Fine. What the hell crawled up Bunker's ass? She looks about ready to chew up a lead bar and spit bullets."
Deadeye shook his head and smirked. "She just finished out her combat final. She's somewhat less than pleased with the results."
"Why, she lose that bad?"
Deadeye snorted. "You kidding? She won in a minute and thirteen seconds. They stuck her up against that girl from Dickinson who's power is to turn into glass. It was like watching George Foreman threatening to beat the crap out of a cripple."
"So easy fight, and that's got her mad?"
"Shit yeah, Bunker was itching for a challenge, you know balls to the wall proving she's just as tough as the rest of us? All she had to do was point her sidearm at the girl and punch in the codes. Glass girl wasn't gonna risk getting shot for the spindle, so she skedaddled. Bunk didn't even have to use her powers."
That was interesting. Hank hadn't known about that angle for the Grunts' personalities.
"So you all hoping for a good fight then?"
"Hope so. Next week when us upper-classmen do our thing I'm hoping to get Stormwolf or Breaker actually. I mean if you're gonna throw down, might as well be against someone who can give you a real run for it, right?" He gave a smirk that told Hank he wasn’t telling the whole story there.
"Guess so. Well, with my team in the Crash this semester I'm pretty sure mine'll be a rough run."
"Enjoy it when it comes, Declan. Because if you win in the Crash, and you're up against a rough sitch, it's worth that much more in the long run. Besides, you don't learn anything from an easy win anyway, ya?"
Hank nodded, then looked Deadeye in his eerie eyes. "Ok. I like that. I'm in, but I'm NOT leaving my friends."
"Would've questioned your sanity if you did." Deadeye nodded. "All right, here's the deal. Sooner or later both our teams are going to wind up playing tag with each other in the simulators. I don't want to hear about Team Kimba's soft spots that can be hit, and I don't want them hearing about ours. Whichever side you choose to play on, you give it your all. If I think for a split-second you aren't you're out. I don't care if I have to meet you on opposite sides of the line for the Kimbas. What goes in the sims, stays there, but I expect to see you pushing yourself in all cases. You read?"
"Loud and clear. When will the Kimbas expect to see sim time? We haven't had any team sims yet."
"That's because you're all Froshes. If you had a Soph or above you'd be hitting the sims from about week three on, because the Froshes start semester two. All the rest of us have to play in the sandbox from the get-go. So that means you're looking at a lot of teams like the Masterminds, the Wild Pack, the Capes, and Outcast Corner who've been playing with the big kids the whole time."
"I thought the Outcasts were Freshmen."
Deadeye nodded. "They are, except for Razorback. He's a Sophomore and he's teamed with them, so they got the drop early. They just picked up a fourth member on the roster. Watch out for 'em in the sims. They’re an absolute nightmare to root out and drag down."
Hank smiled. "Fair enough. Nikki's been working with them for the past couple weeks with their new gig in Security."
Deadeye nodded. "Speaking of which, the clock is ticking."
"Nikki's gonna come talk to you tonight. Much as she despises dragging yet more people into this, Bunker and Mule savaged those Voodoo motherfuckers by themselves. And they need all the help they can get."
"You're not in on this?"
"Nope. Not psychologically safe. Unless you can shield or are immune to magic, just looking at one of those things will make you crazy. Or worse. Like in the old Lovecraft stories."
Deadeye nodded, looking thoughtful. "Thanks for the tip. I'll be talking to Fubar about that, and see what we can cook up. Last thing I need is for Bomber to go crazier."
"What is his problem anyway? Besides being a dick," Hank asked.
"Bomber is a card-carrying sociopath. Don't provoke him, and don't give him ammo. He's just as good at getting under people's skins and breaking down their self-esteem as he is at blowing shit up."
"Thanks for the warning."
"It takes all types man. Better that he's on our side taking orders than somewhere else where we can't keep an eye on him."
Hank nodded and by mutual, silent assent, both boys carried on their merry way.
"There now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Ophelia led a twitching Caitlin Bardue from the infirmary suite where she'd performed the examination. Caitlin's only reply was something that resembled a growl as she walked purposefully past Doctor Bellows and Polland and straight into the men's bathroom.
"So. How did it go?" Polland asked cheerfully, gratified by the subdued and somewhat unnerved expression the girl bore. He couldn't help but smile as Caitlin loudly started heaving from the restroom.
"Oh, it went pretty well. She'll be fine. I don't think the reality of her situation had quite hit up until now." Ophelia's expression was bemused and annoyed all at once.
"So how did you manage to keep her calm?" Bellows questioned. "I didn't hear any crying, screaming, or any loud thumps."
Ophelia rolled her eyes at the two men. "You just have to know how to handle her, and I'll thank you to inform me the next time one of my regular patients has something like this happen. I don't like getting emergency calls about something that is easy to deal with."
"You call that easy? We tried reasoning with her, it doesn't WORK!" Polland's smile evaporated.
"Good lord, you two are forgetting that no matter how she's changed, Caitlin, I guess it is now, is a MARINE." She shook her head. "You don't try to reason with them, or plead and cajole once they've gotten their wild hair up and running. You tell them to grow up, quit acting like a damned baby and do as they're told! It's not advanced physics!"
"Easy for you to say. Mahren was notorious for being a bit loose in the screws up here." Bellows tapped his head. "Add to that she's still uncooperative, won't tell anyone anything about what's eating at her, and will not sit through a full counseling session. And getting her to talk about her past, be it her family, or her time in the Marines is sort of akin to trying to teach a rock to do dog tricks. Never mind her anger management issues."
"Okay. Have you tried a psychic counselor?" Ophelia asked.
Polland shook his head. "Nada. The only psychic Mahren wouldn't pound for getting into his head is Louis, and even he recommends severely respecting Caitlin's mental space."
Bellows nodded. "More to the point Mahren wouldn't even enter a room with a psychic shrink. It was always he'd walk in, figure it out, then leave."
Caitlin chose that moment to come out of the bathroom, gave the three doctors a distasteful look then started heading into the next testing area, praying to get this nightmare over with.
"Caitlin why won't you see a counselor or get a telepath to help you?" Ophelia's exasperation must have been showing, as Caitlin turned and gave Dr. Tenent a weary look.
"None of you are cleared for that information." The girl turned and walked out of the examination area.
"See? Uncooperative." Bellows sighed and rubbed his head. "Every time someone broaches the topic she always gives a variation on that same smartass answer."
"Bellows, you've been at this too long. You try to analyze some things too much."
"Why do you say that Ophelia?"
"That wasn't a smartass comment." Dr. Tenent looked thoughtful. "She was dead serious when she said that."
"How can you tell?"
"Because that's the same expression and tone of voice Mahren always had after the investigations into the two burnouts he's had on Range Four whenever someone asked him about it. He'd told the story a thousand times, and didn't want to talk about it again because he thought he'd failed somehow."
Bellows looked thoughtful. "There's more to this than you're saying, isn't there?"
Ophelia nodded. "Erik had two gunshot wounds that had healed up, and a thin scar line from his left shoulder to his pectoral, and a series of small burn scars all over his body." She noted the look on the doctors' faces. "BEFORE he started dating McQuiston, you twits."
"Did he ever tell you how he got them?"
"No. And at the time I thought he was being a smartass, too. But since then I've gotten to know Erik well enough that if he doesn't want to tell you something he just won't tell you, or will ignore the question entirely. But if he can't tell you he won't make up bullshit excuses to avoid the telling."
Polland nodded thoughtfully. "What the hell could that girl be sitting on that's so damned painful that she won't tell anyone about it?"
Ophelia shook her head. "Not won't, can't. That was her way of saying sorry, I can't tell you that. Period. You guys are mistaking blunt honesty for subtlety."
Jadis Diabolik watched the girl her brother and Nephandus had been talking about before. She certainly didn't seem like much, other than your standard-issue exemplar with a weird taste in glyphed and runed clothing. The invisibility spell didn't seem to be tripping any of the wards that were visibly drawn on the walls, temporary affairs meant to be washed away later. But wherever the girl went, especially after she got done with whatever she was doing with Ophelia, the runes and glyphs glowed an angry red color. All in all it made Jadis wonder if she hadn't been wasting the last five minutes infiltrating the infirmary to get information for nothing.
The docs were boring. They'd been discussing another teacher, the one who'd gone missing, or died, so she'd tuned them out and went to studying the wards that were stenciled in. Jadis really had no interest in the range four instructor, Mahren, beyond the warm fuzzy feeling she got when she considered he'd given her brother, Malachai, detention four times in a row for breaking minor safety rules testing some of his hardware. Malachai had more or less done a dance of joy when he'd found out Mahren wasn't coming back. So had a lot of students, for that matter.
Now the runes... THOSE were interesting, and they all seemed geared towards a specific end, specifically power suppression, and seemed very specifically set. Since they glowed whenever the girl walked by, she was guessing they were attuned to her. When she'd come out of the bathroom, Jadis had followed her straight over to a punching bag, where the girl was currently pounding on the bag with an abandon bordering on a complete loss of cool. She was also growling to herself and swearing. So much for Nephandus' little delusion about the girl being docile. Strike one.
With a bit of watching whatever the runes were, it was meant to suppress something the girl was doing, probably something she had no control over. They were powerful runes. Strike two for Nephandus. You didn't go through elaborate measures like this unless the person you were dealing with was dangerous.
When Jadis opened her senses two things about the girl stood out in stark contrast. The first was the fact that the wards on her clothing filled the same function as the ones on the infirmary walls. And whatever power she was bleeding, it was magic, and it was barely keeping that power contained, even with both ward sets supporting each other. And strike three, Jean-Armand. You are NOT getting my brother killed because you underestimated someone.
As Jadis came to that inevitable conclusion, the girl started drawing in energy, fast and hard, then released it, screaming in a flood of rage at the bag. The emerald-green energy arced, jolted and hit the punching bag, causing it to burn, freeze, and explode and seemingly implode all at once into a cloud of sawdust, ash and ice. Some of the particles floated around the girl like tiny orbiting planets, as Jadis heard peoples' feet pounding down the hallway towards them.
The girl was standing there, stunned, as if she hadn't expected THAT to happen.
Jadis' mind was made up as the girl looked at her hands, stepped back, and threw another violent storm of pure chaos at the remains of the punching bag. An evil grin spread along her metal hair-framed face. I am DEFINITELY not letting my brother get himself killed trying to catch this chicka.
Caitlin stared, stunned at the absolute havoc her rage had wrought as Doctors Bellows, Tenent and Polland bolted into the area with a wild look in their eyes. The motes, burning bits and ice shards were swirling around Caitlin's body like a demented snowstorm as she summed up her feelings simply and aptly. "Woah."
"What happened?" Polland asked.
Caitlin started swatting away the orbital bits and shook herself off, trying to process what had just happened. "I'm not sure."
"Wonderful, time for more tests."
"I hate you."
"We know Caitlin, we know, now come on. We've got a lot to do and my dinner with Raul is getting cold." Ophelia led the girl back into the scanning rooms for more work.
"So damn, must be a pain in the ass moving through all the snow and the cold." Chaka was eyeing Diamondback up and down, with neither a trace of fear or disgust, merely curiosity.
Diamond sighed. "It can be. I can usually get from class to class just fine, but too long outside in this and you'll find me curled up on a heat vent trying to get warm." Her GSD wasn't something she really liked discussing or even thinking about for the most part, but she couldn't feel anything more than honest curiosity from the girls who were considered known troublemakers by most of the staff and student body.
Chaka simply nodded an looked around. "So what's up, we gonna stand around here and wait'll the finals or over, or should we go get some food and go do something?"
Nikki shrugged. "Got anything in mind?"
Jericho shrugged. "Hey me'n Razor gotta go get set up down at Hawthorne. We gots to practice, for a bit. Any chance you lot can go practice that shieldy thing, Fey?"
Diamondback looked in askance at her friend.
He just grinned. "Hey, the elfy one knows what you're shielding against. I figure she's the best one for it to teach."
Nikki smiled, but gave Sandra her space. "If you're up for it, now's as good a time as any. We can hit Poe and settle in and finish up before the crowd comes in."
Sandra looked over at Jericho and Razor. "I'll catch up with you guys later. I'll try to intercept Cait and drag her along, too."
-Sounds like a plan. Get to it, we could use you dealing with these voodoo-fuckers.- Razorback signed, then led Jericho out of the arena and off to Twain to pick up their gear.
"So what are those two goofballs off to?" Chaka asked, looking at the milling crowd, who were intently watching yet another in a string of combats that the girls were getting tired of seeing for the day.
"Probably to set up their guitars for some serious music. You'd never know it from looking at 'em but they're probably the biggest metalheads on campus." Diamondback smirked.
Chaka's eyes went wide. "What, no gangsta rap? No lyrics about bros and ho's and bling?"
Diamondback rolled her eyes. "Please, I'd have killed him YEARS ago."
Nikki chuckled and Chaka grinned. The martial artist had a sunny tone to her voice as she spoke. "Oh damn, I think we're all gonna get along juuuust fine."
Sandra found the two girls' enthusiasm infectious. The other Kimbas had wandered off. Jade had some kind of appointment, Chou needed to get her bandages changed, and the others had already meandered off to the Crystal hall for food.
Diamond noted the flag outside the Arena was green with a mix of trepidation and relief. Relief in that it would be faster just to go to the Crystal hall over the snow. Trepidation in that she'd have to spend more than a few minutes slithering through the snow, and she didn't have any real excuse to bow out and squirrel her way into the tunnels for her own peace of mind.
"Relax, Diamondback." The alien, redheaded elf smirked. "I can feel you getting nervous. Just go with the flow."
"You sound like Jericho." Sandra snorted.
"Speaking of that boy, how is it he's blind, but he can shoot a gun without missing everything or hitting his friends” Chaka looked at Diamondback curiously. "I mean I can tell he's got something going, but I can't figure it out!"
Sandra smirked lightly, grateful for a topic that didn't involve her mutation. "Good, that's how he likes it. Joe's a bit iffy on the whole combat thing to begin with and he's not exactly what one would call scary in a fight unless he can prepare for it. He likes to make sure that people always have to keep guessing and off-balance so he can get away with whatever he's up to. And this isn't a new thing, he's done that since he could walk and talk."
"So is that an 'I'm not going to tell you' statement?"
"As politely as I can, yes. Sorry, I and my friends keep each others' secrets. If he decides to clue you in, I'll talk about it, but we like to keep our privacy. Unlike Razor who's pretty much public about the fact that sonics bone him. He would rather get dumped out than maim random people in a rage."
Chaka nodded. "I didn't know about the sonics thing. And is he really that bad?"
Diamondback nodded. "Yeah, he's talked a tiny bit to me about the voodoos. Don't point that doom shout of yours at him if you want him to stay rational or conscious. When he's fighting those things he stays crazed but, I dunno, focused?"
Nikki nodded. "He's always been just this side of wild with the Voodoo Wolves, but he's never attacked anyone else that we've seen."
"Good. That's a good swap from normal. He gets hurt bad enough and he loses it. I've seen what he does in the sims when he loses it. Anything that moves dies, ally, enemy, anything. We've had more than one innocent bystander event in the city sims. Doesn't happen often, but it DOES happen."
Chaka nodded. "So why's he so prone to snapping? I mean so far he's been a really laid back kinda guy."
Diamond shrugged. "He picked up a weird exemplar gene that makes him almost look like a velociraptor, but he's not. They had a paleobiology guy come check him out. Razor's similar, but not the same as any of the raptor types. So far as anyone can tell the spines are unique to him, and he doesn't have a dewclaw on his main toes. Not that he needs it. When he gets going he can shred steel. The big problem is that his brain has the hindbrain, the part that governs aggression and instinct, overdeveloped."
Chaka winced, but Fey seemed lost in thought. "Damn, Seems like everyone has their problems around here."
Diamondback simply nodded as the three began moving out into the snow and ice. "So what about you guys? I mean what's the big story of the infamous Team Kimba?"
"Just a buncha troublemakers who seem to get along." Fey smirked slightly. "We met on the first day and got lucky in that we all seem to get along."
Chaka smiled. "Weeeellll... It's not as simple as the roomie here suggests, but that's the gist. Add to that the fact that when the popular kids want to play their game of social Monopoly, we're all playing Connect-Four and driving them all nuts. Alas, like most of the Poe crowd, we don't feel this oppressive urge to adhere to social convention."
"Which is a bad analogy for something you dunno how to explain, and are reaching into your ass for the explanation." Diamondback smirked as Toni made a face.
The snake girl wiggled sinuously in place then gave a graceful bow before continuing to slither towards their objective.
"Nice." Fey smirked. "So where do you fit into the 'ol Outcast triangle? I mean you hear stories about Razor from the upper classmen and you can't help but hear about Jericho at one point or another. But hardly anyone has ever mentioned you."
Sandra smiled, letting the smile widen into an evil grin that showed off her fangs. "Razor has reputation as his shield, Jericho has confusion. I have anonymity as my best weapon." The smile fell away. "That and not too many people want to associate with someone who looks like a snake. And the ones that DO have a thing for naga-esque bodies..."
The two girls nodded as Diamond gave a light shudder. Fey spoke first. "I can see where that might be creepy rather than comforting for you. Especially being an empath."
"Hooo-boy. I dunno how you do it girl, but I gotta say, I was expecting you Outcasts to be the future Columbine kids from the stories." Chaka grinned. "However it is you lot keep on trucking without being constantly pissed off at the world or jealous of more normal-looking people, keep it up. And spread it around to the Thornies. I swear those kids need a boost sometime."
"Who said I wasn't jealous? It's just a waste of effort to hate someone for being lucky." Diamond watched as Thuban wandered past with his small entourage of kids who had latched onto him with his Faction Three scheme. "Some people just need to have something to rail against I guess. I'll settle for a cold soda, some spicy jerky and a good book."
"I like you. Don't ever change or we'll be forced to destroy you." Chaka grinned.
"Speaking of people who need a fucking clue..." Diamondback's voice took on a slight Texas twang and she hissed to herself. "Detour. Go that way. Now!"
The sudden diversion of direction caught the Kimbas off-guard. And they actually struggled to keep up without slipping on the ice as their erstwhile companion ducked behind Kane hall.
"Woah woah woah, McScaly, what's with the sudden shift of plans?" Chaka looked on curiously as Diamondback peeked around the corner.
"Pucelle. I'm in a good mood, and if I have to listen to her talk, I'll bite her. And that'll kill the mood."
Nikki covered a wide smile. "Not a fan I take it?" Truth be told, neither was she or any of her friends, having had to put up with Pucelle’s hypocritical “hate the pretties” rants already. It was worse when one realized that Pucelle was, in fact a stunning example of said ‘pretties.’
"I can take a lot of things. I can cope with people being afraid of me, I can deal with their disgust. I can deal with people thinking it's funny to throw food at me and then running cause they know I can't keep up." Both of the Kimba girls exchanged dark looks at that statement as Diamond kept talking. "But what I can't freaking stand is pity, especially not pity wrapped in bullshit friendship and sympathy."
"Yeah one of our friends said that's why the Faction Three kids don't hang out with her." Chaka smirked. "Personally I think it's because they can't stand to smell the garlic and habanero farts, but that's just me."
"You wouldn't happen to have anyone with the last name of Turner in your family tree would you?" Diamondback looked at Chaka.
"Not that I know of, why?"
"Just checking, because for a moment there I had this image of you and Jericho being related."
"Oh god I hope not! I mean what if his fashion sense is genetic? Would it be curable?"
Nikki started snickering.
"No, I'm afraid that condition is terminal. But so long as you don't have a massive urge towards pranks, sarcasm, and a joy for mayhem when provoked I doubt you and Joe would be related."
Toni stopped and gave Diamondback a horrified look as Fey started giggling. "No no no, there is no possible way! I don't have anyone in my family who dresses that badly!" Toni stopped and considered. "Ok besides Grandma, but she's old!”
"Oh I wouldn't worry then, you're probably just cousins and I'm pretty sure the trait's recessive. Your children might have it though."
Toni grimaced and glared at Nikki, who was openly laughing by this point. "Thanks for the support roomie."
Nikki wiped her eyes. "Sorry, I just had this image of you in a neon-pink shirt wearing a green tutu going to the prom run through my head! I couldn't stop it!"
Chaka mock-glared as Diamondback started snickering. "Oh I see how it is. It's a martial-artist thing isn't it? You're prejudiced against Kung-Fu!"
"But you aren't learning Kung-Fu!" Nikki protested.
"See there it is again! You’re prejudiced against martial artists."
Diamondback shrugged, "Well they do kind of remind me of ninjas, and I'm more the pirate type myself..."
"Oh god. I'm doomed." The elfin redhead was chortling, not bothering to hide her mirth anymore.
Chaka turned to Nikki. "You’re doomed? How? I'm the one in danger of developing Jericho's wardrobe here!"
Nikki smirked. "I'm gonna die laughing. I wanna see what happens when we stick you and the Outcasts in a one-liner competition, with the rest of us giving the cues."
"No." Diamondback replied archly. "The world is not prepared to face that kind of thing. Too much of a good thing will kill you too."
"Your senses of humor are a good thing?"
"They are if you wanna stay sane in this crazy world. Speaking of crazy if we spend much more time out here I'm gonna coil up around a boiler for a few hours. I'm starting to feel the chill. Can we eat now?"
"You're the one who had us hide behind Security Central," Chaka pointed out.
"Oh yeah... Details, details, empty stomach, let's go before I eat someone."
Nikki rolled her eyes. "Yeesh, Only at Whateley."
Jericho and Razorback grinned as they began hauling their guitar equipment across campus. Yellow flag days... they were created for guys like them to freak the norms, and by God they intended to get the most mileage out of their appearances in screams of terror. Sadly for Jericho, his wardrobe had caused more screaming, consternation and horror than Razorback’s appearance all year. At this rate the friendly bet they’d made with a jar full of money would fall to the velociraptor boy named Jack. Fortunately Delarose hadn’t caught on yet.
Jericho grinned as the two blithely walked past Emerson, much to the irritation of some of the less forgiving boys on campus. Among the prettyboy dorm, Jericho was the weird, blind nerd-freak who they often openly called a fag due to his manner of dress. And speaking of dresses, Jericho’s kilt was an odd shade of puke green mixed with lime green in a plaid color that hurt the eyes. The dark purple Moiré patterned shirt was nausea inducing. Even Razorback couldn’t look at those weirdly reflective patterns without his stomach lurching.
-Dude, why did you have to pick that shirt out? You know how painful it is to look at.-
“I thought I grabbed the gold silk one. It was supposed to be the third one over in the hangar.” Jericho turned his head toward his buddy.
-Joe you grabbed the purple Moiré thing that made me barf when we met.-
“Shit, bro, I’m sorry. I’ll try to get it changed tonight when we get a moment.” Jericho sounded irritated, and he was. He just happened to have picked out a piece of clothing that was actually designed to make other people sick which was something he usually reserved for dealing with jerks, not tormenting his own buddies.
“What’cha doing near Emerson, faggot?”
Jericho swore under his breath as Counterpoint, one of the few students deeply unafraid of Razorback’s violence level stepped out from behind a tree. The boy was about their age, and he stepped with all the cocky arrogance of someone who thought of himself as a god amongst mortals. The hoplite sword, a Greek-style weapon the bastard carried constantly, was strapped to his hip and sheathed.
“Chris, I thought you were looking out for a worthy fight, not hunting for a cripple to pick on.” Jericho did not want to play tag with the lunatic, and Razorback wasn’t feeling particularly gleeful about it either. Counterpoint was a nightmare in a pitched fight, and Jericho hadn’t exactly packed the bag of tricks he usually reserved for fights with exemplars and other bricks.
A Freshman like them, Counterpoint wore his black hair in a ponytail pulled back away from his blood-red eyes. He was hawkish, and would be attractive were it not for his psychotic demeanor and penchant for terrorizing anyone he could. He wasn’t much taller than Jericho, and Razorback, even in his normal stoop, had to look down to meet his eyes.
“It’s been a slow day, and you just happen to walk by my domain with the reputed worst Ultraviolent to fight, and I just gotta wonder if he’s as tough as everyone says he is.” He gave Razorback a decidedly leering look.
The feral, raptor-like detention king let out a low growl and crouched, spines snapping rigid and upright as the deadly warning rumbled in his chest. He dropped down so he was resting on all fours, in a deceptively submissive posture. From that position, with his hind legs coiled underneath him, Jack could leap an easy thirty feet faster than most people, even exemplars, could react.
“Chris, can we not do this right now?” Jericho looked nervously around at the few people milling about Emerson without moving his eyes from Counterpoint. He could see Imperious and Stygian watching with amused expressions. Counterpoint he was pretty sure they could take. All three of the New Olympian boys were a different story entirely. There was no telling whether or not imperious would watch them smear his boy while he watched, without interfering. The other Emerson assbats milling around were of a similar stripe save Stalwart, and Paul Cambridge wasn’t a fan of Jericho’s raptor-like companion, so it was unlikely they could get backup. Depending on the day, that was a very good thing, as Paul was known for hurting himself more than his opponents.
“Why pass up the opportunity, Jericho? I could play with you two, or I could take it up with the two hotties, especially your little Galatea.”
“What the hell are you babbling about you psychopathic freak?”
“Oh, she hasn’t told you? Little Galatea’s a very old soul. I could have fun with her for hours, but I’d rather have her building what I need for me. Maybe I’ll play my games with your little lamia instead.”
Jericho hit the trigger on his transporter, and a massive rifle/cannon flashed into existence. He aimed it at the bully’s head. Razorback moved into position at his side, hissing nastily at the kid threatening their friends. “And if you touch the girls I’ll kill you, Chris. I really don’t care if the MCO comes for me at that point. You touch Diamondback, you die.”
“Oh please, blind man. Everyone knows you don’t build weapons.” He looked at the two-inch wide barrel contemptuously.
Jericho grinned. “True. That’s why I buy my firepower from Slapdash, asshole, and last I checked his guns have burned you down every time he’s run you in the Sims.” Jericho clicked on the comm he’d gotten from the Kimbas by jerking his jaw to the left. He’d modified it to be a bit less unobtrusive, as he got on the comm. “Security this is Jericho, I got Counterpoint trying to provoke me and Razorback, and he’s going about it the right way, please send someone this way. I don’t want to have a fight with this jackass in the snow by Emerson.” The comm was sensitive enough that he was able to sub-vocalize and keep the psycho from hearing him.
Counterpoint’s cocky look faded slightly, only to return as Jericho noted that Imperious and Stygian were walking in their direction with amused looks on their faces. Stalwart was approaching from a different angle.
“This is Everhart, Jericho,” the woman’s voice came from the transmitter, “Is this something you can avoid?”
“I’m dearly hoping, because two of his buddies are wandering up and I can’t outrun any of them.”
“Keep me posted Jericho.”
Stalwart arrived first. “Jericho, pray tell why you are brandishing a weapon at this knave.”
“Hey bud, me’n Counterpoint were just having a nice, friendly chat while Razor bristles like a pissed-off porcupine.” Jericho looked over at his reptilian buddy. Razorback was absolutely still, not even shivering, the only sign he was alive was the growling, and the steam from his breath leaving his nostrils.
“That’s right Stalwart, we’re just having a chat... with weapons.” Counterpoint gave the knightly newcomer a false grin. “Wanna join the party?”
“Back off Chris,” Jericho lowered the heavy cannon he’d bartered off of Slapdash early in the year. “Stalwart’s not going to start anything. Are you Paul?”
The knightly sophomore scowled at Counterpoint and shook his head. “Nay, I’ll not begin the battle, but to be sure, if one erupts I shall finish it. I have thy back my friend.”
“Wonderful.” Jericho managed to not inject the dripping irony and sarcasm in his voice. He liked Paul, he really did, but the boy really needed to learn how to not get in over his head. Come to think of it Jack and he could stand to learn that lesson themselves.
The other two boys from Counterpoint’s clique on campus, who arrogantly called themselves the “New Olympians”, sauntered up and joined their psychotic friend. The six boys stared at each other in one of the wildest mismatches in history, with the two Outcasts and their erstwhile companion being grossly overmatched.
Razorback’s growling dropped an octave and got louder. He hated the New Olympians with a fiery passion that eclipsed even his personal hatred for the Alphas, and the devil-bitch leader Freya who had graduated in his freshman year. Dicks like the Don and Aries were small-time bullies and pretty gutter-scum playing at nobility. Imperious, Stygian and Counterpoint carried a noble air of abused power and authority. These were the kids who knew they were destined to rule, and they barely noticed the lesser worms as they rolled toward what they wanted. They were also among the most well-built and impressive-appearing students on campus. These kids thought they were Gods, and Razorback despised them for their sheer arrogance
Imperious was the very definition of the word Exemplar. At six-foot, one inch, and all solid muscle, Imperious towered arrogantly over Stalwart and Jericho. His ghost-white hair reached his shoulders in a way that made Razorback immediately think “Sephiroth wannabe” and his eyes were a sky blue color that seemed to peer deeper than the skin. Razorback actually noted the glamour the boys carried for the first time, a lock-on mimic for Fey’s own power, which she tried to suppress. Imperious didn’t bother even trying, taking the awe as his due. Jericho couldn’t see, so to his odd vision the young man was merely big and intimidating.
Stygian held the same air, and height of Imperious, but was more subdued. His aura was more grim, forbidding, and his appearance matched it well. His gaunt, shallow-skinned appearance was punctuated by the solid orbs of black that were his eyes. His stringy, black hair was limp, and had been allowed to grow to between his shoulder blades. Of all the New Olympians, Stygian actually was one of the few people who scared the hell out of Razorback, as much because of his attitude as for his powers. His penchant for calling shades of the dead set the boy’s teeth on edge, and he’d been the direct cause of Jack’s most colossally violent outburst on record at Whateley the year before. That had been a horrible episode, with four students uninvolved in the fight left in the infirmary, and Stygian himself damn near dead. The worst part had been when the corpselike young man had almost seemed disappointed that Razorback hadn’t killed him.
Jericho tapped Razorack three times and dipped a hand into his pocket, palming a small sphere. “Imperious. Stygian. Now I see why numbnuts here wasn’t beating the hell out of us. What brings you to me?”
Predictably, Counterpoint rushed forward menacingly at the smartass comment as Razorback backed up in response to Jericho’s tapping. The blind devisor’s hand whipped across and the small sphere exploded in the psycho boy’s face. Razorback leapt forward and slammed a powerful two-legged kick into his chest, knocking Counterpoint off his feet and throwing him into a snowbank. The boy twitched a few times as the drug released by the sphere knocked him out. Jericho grinned evilly. “Settle down Junior, adults are talking.”
Imperious scowled at Jericho, an expression the boy cheerfully ignored, and Stygian actually had to turn away to hide his amusement. “That was uncalled for, blind one.” His voice was highly annoyed as Jericho and his raptor-like companion dropped his main method of coercion with trickery. “He will remember that and come for you later.”
“Actually he’s not going to remember the last three hours. Me’n Jobe have an interesting little deal going on. He makes the drugs I need for my gear, I keep his med tech fixed. And you aren’t going to tell him.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Pray tell, Jericho...” Stalwart gave Jericho a bemused look as the blind devisor shushed him.
“Because, you want something from me, otherwise you wouldn’t be coming in my direction to talk. You wouldn’t want to be associated with a blind devisor with a horrific wardrobe.”
It was almost as though Imperious noticed the moiré pattern shirt for the first time. He was able to contain the lurching of his stomach as the unnatural pattern rippled across his vision. “Quite. I wish for you to pass a message along to Galatea.”
“Ok that’s the second time you monkeys have mentioned a Galatea, and I don’t know anyone who goes by that name except for a busted up old Greek legend about some dude humping a statue.” Jericho fixed Imperious with his blank, unreadable, white-eyed stare.
“The tall girl with the metal hair and eyes. The one who spends much of her time avoiding anyone but you Outcasts and your hangers-on.” Imperious looked more than a bit disgusted by the thought of hanging out with the mixed bag of freaks, weaklings and psychopaths the Outcasts kept contact with. “I have business with her and you are going to instruct her to come to Emerson tonight to speak with me and my friends.”
Jericho gave Imperious a hostile look, and Razorback growled. “I’ll tell her you want to talk, but I ain’t instructing her to do shit. I’ll pass along the message, but if she says no, I’m not caring.”
“You will pass along the message as given or...”
“Or what?” Jericho clicked the safety off the core ejector and let the safeties on the matter transmitter beacons fall away. “I know you’re a badass, but if you take a step in our direction we’ll stomp a hole in your ass.”
Imperious’ face darkened like a thundercloud. “You really don’t want to make me your enemy, Jericho.” The implied threat was there.
“Imperious, I don’t care how powerful you and your ‘New Olympian’ group are. You fuck with one of us, you fuck with all of us. Please, make a move now. I may be a bumbling, blind Devisor, but Razorback’ll skin your boy and I got enough tricks to make you wish I’d never been born. You screw with Diamondback and you’ll get the Fury Twins crawling down your throat. And ‘Galatea’ as you so ineptly call her, went one-on-three with Bloodwolf’s crew and beat them down. I think all of us will scrap your little Olympian Dream. So please, keep threatening us motherfucker, and I’ll call up a hellstorm you haven’t fucking seen.”
Imperious seemed a bit taken aback. He wasn’t expecting the open defiance. He pushed forward again, though. “Don’t anger me, Jericho.”
The blind Devisor simply stared at him. “I will pass on the message. If you screw with my girl, Imperious, I will call in every goddamned marker I have and squash you.”
“Who would back you and your little freak brigade?”
Jericho smiled as he went down the list. “The Underdogs - keep smirking asshole - the Grunts, Team Kimba, Sara’s Pack, half of Twain Hall because they hate you, Thuban owes me, Caitlin has access to the Range four armory, the Fury Twins will back us, oh and you’re threatening two members of the Security Auxiliaries.”
Imperious scowled. “Pass along the message, Jericho, as instructed. You don’t want me as your enemy.”
“No? You already earned me as yours, you sanctimonious prick. So bring it the fuck on. I haven’t busted up a good ‘fuck with the fat kid’ party in over a year, and I really miss making bullies look like a buncha dumbasses.”
Imperious raised a fist, and found the barrel of one of Slapdash’s special ordinance pieces pointed at his chest. “Very well, Jericho, since that is the way you wish it to be, so be it.”
Imperious and Stygian left without further word, and Jericho and Razorback relaxed, slightly, noting Stalwart’s incredulous expression. “Jericho you are a truly brave man to confront Imperious as such. Few others dare to do so for fear of retribution.”
Jericho safed the Core Ejector and hit a stud on the inside of the weapon and released it to flash out of existence. “Excuse me for a second.” He walked over to a tree and promptly threw up. Razorback was shaking uncontrollably and not from the cold, simply thankful that he hadn’t had to fight Stygian’s dead shades again and moved away from the other two boys to get his body under control again.
Paul Cambridge, perhaps the most foolishly fearless student on campus, realized for the first time watching the scene that both Jericho, his friend from the Devisor labs, and Razorback, whom Stalwart was still firmly convinced of being an evil beast that needed to be put down, had been afraid. He didn’t have fear in his own heart for Imperious or Stygian and their bully-boy Counterpoint (who was still lying in the snow where Razorback had kicked him). As he watched the pair even his own righteous sense of bravery didn’t blind him to the fact that Jericho and Razorback had stood down two of the most powerful upperclassmen in the school.
They had done it while being absolutely terrified of their opponents.
Half an hour after Elyzia Grimes, the magic department’s evocation teacher walked into the examination room with Caitlin, the girl had exited the locked and sealed room by the simple expedient of kicking the steel-reinforced frame out of the wall. She fixed doctors Polland and Bellows with a look of pure rage before simply walking towards the exit, arcing bizarre energies into the protective wards. The runes in her irises were molten as the storm around her rapidly convinced anyone who happened to be in her way to vacate the area, quickly.
Elyzia Grimes, AKA “Morticia” to the students, had just as severe and foul a reputation among the students studying things mystic as Mahren had amongst the students with classes on the firing ranges. It was inevitable that their personalities and personal Martyr Complexes had driven them to impolitely dislike one another. In very real ways both of the instructors had been far too much alike to get along in any way resembling civil conduct. It appeared that Caitlin’s new situation hadn’t moderated the phenomenon at all, and Doctor Polland sighed as the willowy, brunette woman stalked up to him.
“All right Polland, fun is fun, but I want to know who that Golem belongs to. Now.” Her tone was angry and demanding.
“That’s not a Golem, Elyzia. That is a sixteen year old girl, one with a colossally foul temper.”
The woman looked at him and rolled her eyes. “No, she is not. She looks human, feels human, and reacts like a sociopath. But she isn’t human. She’s a construct, one made from stone, steel, some form of crystal I haven’t seen and a hell of a lot of bloodsteel, more than I have ever seen gathered in one place, which means far too many people died in the process of her creation.” She took a breath. “Whoever is responsible for her creation will answer for a lot.”
Bellows looked over at his compatriot. “I think we may have misjudged putting the two of them in the same room.” He turned back to the outraged teacher. “What exactly happened in there?”
“Not much to tell. I figured out she wasn’t human or a mutant within a few minutes, while she sat there glowering at me. After that it should have been a simple matter of determining who had built her, and what the spirit-thing empowering her was, but she refused to cooperate at any stage of the examination. When I told her to sit down, behave and tell me who built her she clammed up and started sparking. After a few minutes she started backtalking and making snide comments. It escalated from there, and she went silent, turned, and kicked the door frame off the wall and left. So my question stands. Who built her?” She glossed over the conversation, and the screaming match that followed.
“Oh my.” Bellows turned the scenario over in his head again and again, reflecting on the fact that his little prank idea could very well have gotten him, Polland and Grimes torn to shreds. He began to develop some serious respect for Caitlin’s self-control. Mahren would have put people through walls, or tried to. “Elyzia, she’s not a construct. We have eyes-on who can vouch, reliably, that Caitlin started human. She’s no constructed thing.”
“That’s impossible. That wasn’t a human spirit running loose inside her, I could feel that much, just a tangled knot of half-formed emotion and experience. If she was human she’d have had to have been a Hollow...” her eyes widened with sudden recognition, “...Man.” Grimes looked back the way the enraged student had stormed away. “It’s not possible. She can’t be...”
“Yes, she can.” Bellows leaned against a wall. “We’re trying to help her, but after this my best bet would be the only way we get her back in here will be at gunpoint.”
“How long until she goes to Carson to rant?”
Polland looked at Grimes with a disbelieving look. “Grimes, when was the last time that one ever went to tattle on anyone? You know better. She’s going to go someplace she can be alone and destroy everything in sight to vent her rage until she cools off. That means either the Range Four gun line, or she’s going out into the woods, pick a spot, and kill anything alive within five hundred meters that isn’t human.”
“So what do we do about her?”
Bellows shook his head. “We let her go, and tell security that she needs some serious alone time. To the tune of making sure nobody disturbs her.”
“Shouldn’t we stop her and get her to her room?”
“No, we can’t force her to do anything. Grimes, like it or not, even though Carson thinks it’s a good idea to hide her for whatever reason amongst the students, she’s a twenty-eight year old woman. We can’t force her to do anything, even if she doesn’t have more than a falsified identity. If we push her any more she might just walk away from the campus, or do worse to herself. I think Polland and I might have pushed her too far this time.”
“You two...” Grimes cocked her head as the pieces clicked into place. Her expression hardened and she glared knives at both of the doctors in a rough approximation of the look Caitlin had shot them. “We will discuss this later, at length.”
Bellows sighed. “All right, I’m going to go find Hartford or Carson. One of them might be able to run damage control here. We seem to have made a slight error in judgment.”
Polland nodded and tried to swallow in a suddenly dry mouth. He had no doubt that Carson would be having very pointed words with both of them soon. “Alright. Elyzia, can you tell me what you got specifically from examining her?”
Elyzia’s glaring, angry expression never changed. “She’s not human anymore, not even alive, truly as you and I know it. That entire body of hers is built as a giant, mobile mystic focus. She looks human, acts human, and even her internal biology is, in cursory fashion, human. But visual similarity is where that ends. As a construct she is a nearly perfect replication of the human form.”
She nodded. “She has a stone body, something similar to marble with odd, crystal properties. Her main nerves are basically mithril threads running through her body, her bones are basically a denser form of the stone with threads of various metals lacing them, not enough to make them stronger, but to do what I think it’s set up for. Her blood is bloodsteel and her brain and the rest of her nerves are literally formed of some kind of crystal. Her eyes are adamant orbs set into her head with inset steel irises, marked with runes I can’t read.”
“That can’t be. She shouldn’t even be able to move.”
Elyzia explained with far more patience than she felt. “That’s why I thought she was a construct, Doctor. She’s not moving out of any biological process. Her body is literally tapping ambient mystic energies from everything around her to keep her both mobile and mostly human in appearance. She has organ structures I’ve never seen before in addition to all the human type ones and mithril-crystal nerve clusters positioned at what most mystics would recognize as chakra points. She is a giant mana battery, and she’s charging constantly, that violent corona she manifests is the overcharge escaping into the world. The more emotional she gets, the more she draws, and the more she releases. Were she to run naked and angry down a street she’d probably destroy anything she came across by accident.”
“Wonderful. Carson’s not going to like this.”
“Polland, I don’t like this very much myself. She’s dangerous, uncontrolled, and if I’m reading this correctly she’s the one who’s been throwing the mystic side and the Astral out of whack for the last few weeks.”
“I didn’t think that was possible.”
“You’re not a mage or a WIZ-Class mutant.” Elyzia sighed. “There are a few things that can cause such things. She’s the only one I’ve ever seen mobile and sentient though. Everyone I’ve ever met who was monumentally stupid enough to disrupt things like she has been doing by accident died because of it.”
Polland looked thoughtful. “How far out can these disruptions you speak of be sensed?”
“Given the magnitude? Probably all the way to Colorado. It may not disrupt things that far out, but there will be... signs.”
“Wonderful, more good news. Let me guess, the more her temper spikes the more noticeable these signs will become.”
“All right, one last thing, something I’ve been curious about for about four years now between you two.”
“I can’t promise I’ll answer that, but you may ask.”
“What’s a Hollow Man, and why did you always refer to Mahren as one? I recall it pissed him off immensely.”
“I called Erik Mahren Hollow Man, because he is a Hollow Man. As to what it is, I’m not sure I want to discuss the nuances of the soul and magic with someone who will merely try to couch my words in scientific claptrap that likely will have absolutely no bearing on the reality.”
“Given some of the things coming from the Kimbas and a certain blind devisor, you might be surprised what I’m open to listening to Elyzia.” Polland shuddered. “These last few days have been more than a little frightening and mind-bending without taking Caitlin into account.”
Elyzia Grimes shrugged. “All right, Doctor, but for this you’re going to have to let go of everything you have ever thought you knew about God and the soul.” She looked at Polland’s suddenly skeptical look. “No, Doctor, I am not saying that God does not exist or that the Wiccans are right, or the Hindi or anyone else for that matter. I have seen plenty of evidence that points to a higher power, more than would point away from one. You must merely learn to accept that in matters spiritual, human perception muddies the details, and makes what would otherwise be crystal clear become rather fuzzy.”
Elyzia’s smirk was ironic. “Free will is a bitch, and everything we see and know is filtered through our own perceptions.”
“I can buy that.”
“All right. What it boils down to is somewhere in his past, Erik Mahren’s soul was damaged, effectively cored out from the inside.” She took a deep breath. “The human soul can’t be destroyed by anything, but it can be consumed or wounded in varying ways. Whether this happened when he was younger or in a past life I couldn’t tell you. Most Hollow Men are born that way, with souls that are empty and scarred over, effectively spiritual blank slates. They don’t really react like normal people, are usually withdrawn, and tend to go along with anyone or anything that gives them direction.”
“That doesn’t seem to fit Mahren, Elyzia.”
“On the surface it wouldn’t, but the signs are there. Unless Mahren was provoked, he would always go with the flow, but whenever he was provoked he always hit the problem with everything he had with no middle ground. Unlike most Hollow Men who pass through their lives from one end to the other, Mahren at some point managed to ‘wake up’ from the spiritual and emotional haze. Hollow Men have deadened emotions, nothing as strong as you or I would feel. While not sociopathic or incapable, they tend to run with an emotional context more because they are supposed to, rather than because they really feel it. A lover might show passion for her paramour more because she feels she should than from any real emotional attachment. A mourner might cry at his brother’s funeral more because he knows he is supposed to than from the intensity of grief. These people don’t function well on their own, they need people around them to help them figure out how to live, and learn to restrain themselves when they actually decide to move.”
Polland still looked skeptical, but he nodded and allowed her to continue.
“But the point is, they’re alive, but not really living. Some recover, but it actually takes an emotional spark to wake them up enough to really feel. Hollow Men are crippled because they are empty vessels that really give nothing and take nothing from around them. They also have wild potential because when they wake up, whatever they take to, they do so with a mad intensity that is hard to follow by someone who doesn’t feel things the way they do. But there is a danger. Should this person fall back to their old habits and just let things pass and always go with the flow, they fall back to where they started, emotionally dead, no drive, nothing beyond survival from moment to moment.”
“So Mahren was just reacting to you because he thought he should feel hostile towards you?”
“Oh no. Even before this, Erik Mahren was wide awake and raging. Whatever woke him up got him pissed off and kept him going. It would have to have been raw, raging emotion that woke him up to the actual world around him, Polland. Far from being emotionally deadened, Mahren would have felt each emotion like a stabbing wound, both good and ill. Fortunately, somewhere after waking up, he learned some measure of discipline and control, which is why he was always locked in the immediate, reactive and adaptive behaviors we have all come to see. It’s also why we all knew Mahren as the iron-disciplined hardass the students all know and loathe. But some things always made his control slip, and you get his pure, pissed-off moods or ecstatic highs that always gave anyone with empathic talent a headache to be around when his control did slip.”
“All right, for benefit of the discussion here, why in God’s name wouldn’t someone who had that kind of emotional backlash be hospitalized in a mental ward?”
“It’s a matter of degrees, Doctor. Just because someone feels with an intensity that deep doesn’t mean they are nonfunctional. Mahren channeled everything he had into whatever he was doing. For him, life has always been an all-or-nothing game. I barely knew the man and I saw it. He drove himself harder than he ever drove any students, and the man almost never missed a trick on the fly. When he put his mind to it he was the most aggressive and adaptive baseline I have ever seen in my life, and he gave himself to Cat McQuiston heart and soul. He loved her so much it probably scared him. The signs were all there, if one knows how to look. And the fun part? He never had a barometer to gauge himself, really, so to him that level of intensity felt normal.”
“How do you know all of this?”
Grimes smirked. “You see, this is where things get fuzzy. I don’t know all of this for sure. I barely know the man, outside of the fact that I don’t like him, or I guess it would be her now. I called him Hollow Man after he figured out what the term meant, and it royally pissed him off, because he thinks it means I see him as something less than human. What it really boiled down to, was that it kept his emotions boiling and helped keep him awake, if only in tiny steps. The fact that we never got along personally or professionally helped with that. The only thing I know for sure is that he’s a Hollow Man.”
“Okay, so besides the emotional issues, what does being like that do to someone?”
“Among other things it makes them extremely undesirable to spirits or demons that would want to cut a deal with an otherwise normal person for the classic ‘Devil’s Deal but it also makes them wildly susceptible to things like mental coercion or possession by dangerous spirits.”
Polland looked up sharply. “Possession. You mean a Hollow Man would attract a spirit looking for a body.”
“Yes, it would allow the spirit to insinuate itself with little fuss. Mahren, however, wouldn’t exactly be ideal in his awake state. His will and emotions are too volatile for most spirits to want to risk getting too deep and caught.”
“What if he were to have ‘woken up’ after the spirit started sinking its hooks into him?”
“Then doctor, it will be a war to determine which one wins and gains ultimate control over him.”
“And the loser?”
Elyzia looked grim. “The loser of that particular contest would face dissolution and absorption into the winner. They would be consumed, and the winner would gain everything the loser had, be it power, knowledge, or something greater or simpler.”
“Shit.” Polland looked back towards the door Caitlin had kicked in. “Do you know any ways to help someone fight back and win over a spirit?”
“Yeah, go to church and pray to whatever Gods you believe in to lend strength to that girl, because at this point, it’s all in her hands.”
Diamondback hadn’t been inside any of the “Normal kids” cottages thus far in the year, so the second-floor Poe study room was nothing like she’d expected. The spider web of ropes and silk hammocks draped all over what the Poe crazies called “Kimba Corner” surprised the hell out of her, and she felt a thin stab of jealousy at the sight. They didn’t have anything like this in Whitman, although the oft-times depressed air on bad days didn’t lend itself to this sort of eclectic, devil-may-care setup. Never mind Mrs. Savage would probably have a fit were someone to set up something like this in the common room of what Diamondback and her few female friends jokingly called “Freak House Femme”. Needless to say they weren’t too popular among the pity-me parade in Whitman, though most of the girls, even the ones worse off, smirked and giggled when they said it out loud.
“How did you all get permission to get this kind of setup?” Sandra’s voice was wistful as she looked at it.
Toni grinned. “Mrs. Horton was cool with it, and Ayla had the hammocks, so we set up a little spot for ourselves to hang out, do homework, whatever.”
“Sweet.” Sandra looked at the two girls in the empty common room and bizarrely felt at ease. The vibes she was getting off them were as though all was normal, the same vibe she got off Joe, Jack and Caitlin. As she dealt with the two forward, seemingly-open girls she felt more relaxed, something usually lacking when dealing with other people. “Maybe if I can talk fast enough, I can con Mrs. Savage into letting us do something like this. If not I bet me and the others can set something like this up in the Noise Farm.”
“Noise Farm?” Nikki smirked at the Naga-like Diamondback.
“It’s what I call the tunnel room under Hawthorne that Razor and Jericho use for their impromptu jam and practice sessions on their guitars.” She ignored the odd feelings of fascination that the elf girl was radiating as best she could, even as she did her level best to avoid staring back. Just because she was a girl didn’t mean she had no appreciation for beauty, and Nichole Reilly had it in abundance.
Nikki smirked, feeling much as Diamondback did, with an added interest in Diamond’s unusual form. It wasn’t an attraction thing so much as it was interesting. She felt Aunghadhail’s curiosity, and wondered how much of her own feelings originated from that ancient spirit. Every so often one of them would bleed over into the other. But two things stood out about the odd girl before her. The first was she could feel two separate emotion sets from her. The second was that the blue and pink ley lines that usually denoted gender were there in equal number, equally strong. It was a truly odd dichotomy, and it really piqued her interest.
“Those two are musicians? Tell me they play better than Jericho dresses.” Toni hopped into one of the hammocks and grinned over at Sandra. “I mean come on, the Thornies have enough issues without having a noise pollution problem.”
Sandra grinned and tested one of the hammocks. “Do you all mind?” At the shaking of heads she slid onto one of the hammocks and coiled up as much as she could in it, about five feet of tail dangling off to trail on the floor. She grinned, displaying the inch long fangs, which, unlike a snake’s, didn’t retract. “Okay, I like this, we are definitely stealing this idea. But no, they don’t play like Jericho dresses. Those two metalheads are actually pretty good at what they do.”
“Small mercies,” Nikki said, wryly. “I’d heard Jericho’s usual wardrobe was bad, but I think he went above and beyond the call of duty today.”
“And he will take every iota of disapproval with a smile on his face.”
Chaka looked over and hopped up to one of the higher hammocks. “All right, so we’re here to learn ‘ya to shield from the Voodoo-Wolves, as Jericho named them. Why does he get to name the bad guys, anyway?”
Nikki looked over as she settled into her own hammock. “Because he was the first one to come up with a name for those rotting abominations?”
Sandra grinned as she semi-propped herself up. “All right, so how does this work? Jericho said that this stuff tends to warp minds.”
Nikki nodded. “Yes, that would be putting things mildly. Myself and Jack seem to have built-in protections, our friend Chou is backed by the Tao and Jericho... Well, Jericho’s blind, but rather like Toni here, it’s hard to inflict madness upon the mad.”
“I am not mad!” Chaka spoke with some heat, looking at her roommate. “I’m delightfully demented. Get it right.”
Sandra grinned evilly. “Riiiiight. Do I detect Jericho genetics somewhere in there? That sounded an awful lot like he does.”
“We have already established that I’m not related to Jericho.”
Nikki giggled, “Sorry Toni, you have claimed thus, but you have yet to produce evidence that proves you right.”
“Who’s side are you on, anyway?” Toni gave the elfin redhead a mock-outraged look.
“Whoever gets me laughing harder. Usually it’s you. Today it’s Diamondback.”
Sandra snickered at the two quarrelling friends. “You two sound like Jericho and Razorback going back and forth.”
Toni looked over suspiciously. “Which one of us sounds like which one?”
“Well,” Sandra began answering truthfully, “Nikki sounds an awful lot like Razorback, although his mercenary tendencies run more toward whoever is prettier, and Jericho just tries to drum up support whenever me and Caitlin tag-team him.”
“Whoever is prettier, huh?” Toni grinned and marched down the hallway. Moments later she came back with a rolled-up poster. “I have the perfect gift for Jack then.” She grinned as she unrolled the infamous poster, the one Peeper has been mass-marketing without her consent that had accrued quite a following, and though Nichole Reilly was loathe to admit it, some nice royalties.
“Toni!” Fey’s outraged shriek echoed through the cottage. “No giving out copies of that poster!”
The chocolate-skinned martial artist grinned evilly. “Ahh, so worth it just for the outraged expressions.”
Sandra shrugged. “Razor beat you to the punch there, Chaka. He already has a copy of that one.”
Nikki actually looked crestfallen. “He does? But... I actually like Razor!”
Toni’s gleeful and triumphant grin faded. “Thus does another good ragging session die a painful and guilt-ridden death.”
Sandra rolled her eyes and shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry about it, Fey. There are two mitigating factors here. One, Jack actually likes you enough to have told you his real name, thus eliminating you as just another poster girl...”
“And two?” Nikki cocked her head curiously.
“None of us have the heart to tell him that said poster wasn’t exactly a consensual thing.” She shrugged. “You may have scared Peeper and Greasy into being more circumspect my dear, but when Razorback finds that little bit out, Peeper’s gonna have to go to the infirmary for the broken bones and to have the poster extracted from his ass. Literally.”
Nikki blinked, and Toni grinned. “Razorback’s unique isn’t he?”
Sandra nodded. “Jack’s never quite what you think, even after you get to know him a while. But he is a good listener. Honestly Fey, if you ever wind up there and see it, he’ll probably chuck it if it made you uncomfortable. Jack’s friends mean more to him than anything.”
The Sidhe girl nodded, somewhat bemused. “So why doesn’t anyone have the heart to tell him about that one?”
Sandra shrugged. “It’s Jack. Everyone just assumes its best not to piss him off, but it’s more the fact that he doesn’t get a whole lot of people willing to actually sit down and talk to him.”
Nikki and Toni nodded. The two girls had seen just how ferocious Jack could actually be, and the contrast of how gentle he was with his friends. They both had to agree that it was best to have the berserker/raptor/speedster as a friend rather than as an enemy.
“Okay,” Diamondback spoke again, “explain this shielding thing, and what exactly we’re up against.”
Nikki sighed. “I was hoping you’d forget about that. Delarose is going to skin me alive for dragging another person into this.”
“I’m not exactly giving the boys much of a choice here.” Diamondback shrugged diffidently. “It’s either include me because I’m not leaving Jericho - who has been my best friend since diaper days - to pull something dangerous without help, or I go anyway.”
Toni grinned, “You know, I can’t imagine where someone would get a fool idea like that into their head.”
Nikki rolled her eyes at her roomie and looked at Diamond seriously. “Okay, but before we start, I have a question. It might affect how this works, so I need to know. I’m getting two completely different emotional reads off you at the same time. I thought I was hallucinating, but they’re separate.”
Sandra groaned. “That would be something I don’t want the psychology freaks finding out about. I don’t know what to call it. It’s me, in both cases, it’s not really multiple personalities, but I dunno how to describe it, honestly. It lets me multitask and hit problems from more than one angle when I’m figuring things out. Jericho’s the only person I ever talked to about it, before we came to Whateley.”
Her whole demeanor seemed to shift, in a way that Toni was accustomed to with Nikki’s shift to Aunghadhail mode. “All right, I can’t sit here while you all talk about me.” The voice was a bit more hard-edged, and slightly deeper, but it was still Diamondback’s voice. Anyone who wasn’t watching her closely would have missed it.
“Oh great, another spirit type?” Toni rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, sure, spirit. I can run with that. Ah, great spirit of snake says you will achieve enlightenment by gnawing on your toes until they bleed.”
Toni grinned. “And will I achieve existential bliss while I’m at it?”
“Sure, why not? Go for it!” Sandra turned to Nikki, “If you start spouting some mystic shit about spirits too I’m leaving. I know you’re some kinda Fae type, but I get enough of that shit from Earth Mother.”
Nikki smirked, “Last I checked spirits weren’t high on my list of options here, but if you’re going for crazy, you’re in the right cottage. And they keep telling me I’m Sidhe.”
“Right, don’t try to extract any promises I might not want kept. Gotcha.” Nikki quirked an eyebrow as Sandra seemed to change demeanors back to normal. She shrugged mildly. “I may be a Wiccan, but daft and uneducated I am not.”
The young Sidhe girl grinned. “Good, that should make things easier. Now listen closely, this is what we’re up against.”
Diamondback listened very closely as Nikki laid out the situation with the Voodoo Wolves, and thankfully let the whole “ancient oaths” aspect of the Sidhe girl’s involvement slide without comment. Nikki found herself going into a bit more detail than she would have otherwise liked, but the few questions Sandra injected were thoughtful, pertinent and insightful. When the tale ended, Sandra was silent, stewing. When all was said and done Nikki could feel the serpentine girl suppressing a cold wash of fear.
Of all the reactions to the Voodoo-Wolves, Sandra and Jericho’s were the healthiest. Both were afraid but controlled, where their friends were eager, or in the case of Jack, simply driven to the raw edge of berserker fury at the mere presence of the things. Toni refused to think about the bleeding horrors they fought, and Chou blocked off her reactions behind a wall of determination. All in all, fear was probably the reaction that would keep them alive. It would keep them from making stupid, cocky mistakes.
“So you’re awfully quiet all of a sudden.” Toni looked at Sandra with a smirk. “Tales of the Voodoos got you a bit too nervous?”
Sandra rolled her eyes at Toni. “I’d be lying if I didn’t think we were all way in over our heads on this one, although it’s not something anyone with a lick of common sense could let go.”
“Great! Check it out, Nikki! Another recruit!”
“The more, the merrier,” Nikki said without conviction. “The chief is going to kill me.”
Diamondback grinned. “Look on the bright side, Nikki. At least the Chief knows that us Outcasts can finish what we start.”
“If you lot are anything like us, that’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Oh no worries about that, oh pointy-eared one.” Sandra smiled at Nikki, the amusement reaching her reptilian-slitted, crystal-blue eyes. “We’re far better at not getting caught than you guys.”
Caitlin saw Nephandus skulking in her direction long before he got near her on her way to Hawthorne. She didn’t know Jean-Armand, per se. She simply recognized him as one of the so-called “Bad Seeds” that included Jadis and Malachai Diabolik, or her personal unfavorite student, Jobe Wilkins. The fact that he’d locked onto her and was following boded ill for her, and given her mood so soon after putting up with Sam Everhart and Elyzia Grimes it boded extremely ill for him if he tried to screw with her.
She brushed a lock of her nearly waist-length, reflective hair from her eyes and glanced back and saw the boy’s odd cyber-golem thing that followed him around like a lost, lovesick puppy, Racking her brains for information was fruitless. She knew Malachai, and had a good idea what he was capable of, but this kid... Besides the fact that he was a typical white-blonde, blue-eyed pretty boy among the low exemplar crowd, she was drawing a blank. Between this and her not knowing much about Razorback’s Ultraviolent status, Caitlin was swearing at herself internally for not paying attention to students who had not graced her range, or detention sessions.
It was little shit like this that was going to get her killed, or worse, tattoo-bonded all because she couldn’t be bothered to pay attention.
Her irritation manifested in sharp arcs of energy in lambent greens, bloody reds and glacial blues. The snow around her seemed to almost flee her presence as the ground seemed to erupt madly with each step. Worry building, she turned towards Hawthorne and the safety of her room. He turned to follow, blithely unconcerned with her knowledge that he was following her. He was one of the cocky ones.
She could run, or see what the devisor boy wanted. Nah. She continued on towards Hawthorne with a purpose. If she got close enough, he’d undoubtedly give up and she wouldn’t have to severely hurt the boy. If he pushed the issue, something she fervently hoped he would not, things could get ugly, and she wasn’t eager to put her self-control to the test unmedicated.
Upon reflection, she’d fallen to the most simple sins, that of pride and complacency. Erik Mahren had been the king of his domain of Range Four and the miscellaneous classes he’d taught, comfortable in his role of teaching the kids to beat people like him in his bailiwick. He’d taught and trained a few hundred mutant children in myriad large and small ways, and gained the respect of the Parkour Hooligans. He’d gotten comfortable, and when things Caitlin should have at least had some basis for understanding happened she found herself floundering, with an incomplete picture.
Take for example the flash of green light at her feet as she stepped across the border of a ten-foot diameter containment circle, two perfect rings drawn in the concrete with symbols she didn’t recognize at first very carefully placed between the two. Erik Mahren was a student of the martial, the physical, and he’d gained a solid understanding of how the various mutants worked, except for the mage types. It was unreasoning prejudice, a common feeling of creeping unease felt by almost every line grunt when confronted with something he could never fully comprehend, yet had to fight. It also left Caitlin absolutely clueless as to her predicament until the currents hiding behind her vision erupted into a storm around her, whipping about her like she was in the eye of a tornado, the edges lashing across her skin, eliciting multicolored arcs of energy to leap from her to the invisible barrier surrounding her, trapping her.
The storm of energy whipping the currents made it hard to concentrate, hard to think, hard to breathe. It was like being weary, pained and euphoric all at once, and she had a hard time seeing past the vortex itself as though the world beyond were concealed by a heat shimmer or nothing more than a fevered illusion. Even as her senses overloaded her body felt energized, charged all at once as the storm grew in intensity and then peaked.
The few seconds felt like hours, and when things finally settled only a thin whirlwind of current flowed around along both circle rings containing her. Nephandus sauntered up, his golem-thing trailing a bit behind, cockily. He had a grin that threatened to take his face as he stopped just outside the circle.
“Ahh, and my prey falls right into my...” Nephandus was cut off mid-sentence by a blur of motion and flash of light, and he fell back on his hind end with little dignity.
Caitlin pre-empted the boy’s gloating rant by slamming her body forward at him. The barrier in the circle flashed emerald green, nearly blinding in intensity as she unleashed superhuman strength against it, bolstered by her own wild mystic aura. The barrier actually gave a bit before snapping back like a rubber band and throwing her to the center of the circle.
Nephandus had actually scrambled back a few feet before beginning to pick himself up off the ground. When he saw the hard gaze watching him from inside the ward, he grinned triumphantly. He came to his feet and sauntered over to the edge of the circle. Had he been more aware of his captive he might not have stood so close. The expression on her face was nothing short of murderous, the runes in her irises beginning to glow a dull orange as they heated.
“I knew that you could not stand against me. Many try; all falter and fail sooner or later.” Nephandus gave her a cocky grin that he considered winning.
Caitlin bit back the series of invective and threats of death and dismemberment. Her response was actually somewhat restrained. “Let me out of this circle or so help me your misery will live on in legend.”
“Really?” Nephandus smirked. “Perhaps you are unaware of who you are dealing with.”
“A trumped up Hogwarts wannabe who’s on the short list for evisceration?”
Nephandus got a briefly fearful expression before he realized that behind the protections of the containment circle, Caitlin was more or less powerless, and he rapidly recovered his confidence. “I am Nephandus, bane of the light and the end of hope! I am the seed of darkness that cannot be stopped.”
Nephandus was getting a solid rant rolling when he stopped abruptly with an irritated look. “Where the hell are you, Mal?”
Caitlin rolled her eyes and began stalking the circle, studying the now-exposed lines and runes for weak points and imperfections she could use to breach the mystic containment. Mal could only have been Malachai Diabolik, one of her erstwhile students who had earned frequent flyer miles on the detention express.
Nephandus reached up to his ear and tapped a devise. “Mal, where are you?” A moment of silence was punctuated with another “Mal?”
“What’s the matter, Blondie, backup get caught in traffic?” Caitlin managed to inject a cheery note to her voice while snarling at the vortex of energy whipping about the nearly-perfect circle. It had imperfections, but none solidly screwed up enough for her to exploit.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back for you. Don’t bother trying to escape, that circle is perfect.” Nephandus turned and began walking back towards Melville with his cybernetic Golem in tow.
Caitlin said nothing as she watched the boy walk away. Sheer frustration prompted the renewed attack on the energy barrier as she slammed her fists and bolt after bolt of eldritch energy into the shield. It didn’t help, but it made her feel better.
Adrienne and Janine walked into the Hawthorne section of the tunnels apprehensively, looking for the specific spot where they would probably find their Outcast buddies. The Fury Twins were antsy and nervous, half-expecting rejection as they heard the telltale riff plays that signified Jericho and Razorback prepping and tuning their guitars. The two of them turned the final corner and watched for a few moments as the boys finished setting their instruments, and Razorback immediately slammed out the opening riffs to “Enter Sandman.”
The twins looked around, seeking as the two boys ripped out the first minute of the song, playing only the instrumentals. Diamondback wasn’t there, which was who they were looking for, and the only thing keeping the two of them there was that rare feeling of excited happiness that accompanied the two boys whenever they got a chance to play their music. For the Fury Twins, and their empathic mirror trait, the good vibes coming off the Devisor and Rager playing the music was like a drug. Moments of happiness for them were rare and treasured things, even if they only felt them vicariously for the most part.
“Hey you two, how’s it going?” Jericho didn’t look up as he and Razorback made some final adjustments on the guitars.
Deimos smiled despite herself at the blind Devisor boy. Jericho was a rare one, not exactly boyfriend materiel, but he was one of the rare kids who could shrug off the terror aura that the sisters seemed to exude constantly. He also couldn’t care less whether his friends were among the beautiful people or wholly monstrous.
“Not bad Joe, we were just in the neighborhood and we, me and my sister, were wondering if it would be okay if we sat in on your jam session you guys do down here.”
Jericho finished adjusting the instruments and nodded to himself before standing. Razorback simply began nodding in response to her question.
“Me compadre and I consider the two of you always welcome Janine. Besides, you look out for Sandra when you can, and even if I didn’t like you, which I do, that’s enough to leave a spot open when you two feel like popping in.”
Razorback gave a chirp and signed something to the tune of –Plus they’re cute, so who cares?- when Joseph Turner absently swatted him. “Bad Lizard, no cookie.”
Razorback started into his seal-like barking laughter and waved the pair over. Razorback was always inappropriate in the humor department, and the two of them had learned to take his demented behavior with the same grain of salt as they did Jericho’s wardrobe.
-Jimmy will be down here with the usual suspects after dinner tonight. Mind helping me set up Sandra’s Microphone?-
Phobos looked over at her sister. “Sandra sings? I thought you were joking about that.”
“And damn well if I do say so myself,” Jericho interjected. “She just doesn’t know we’ll be making her sing for the Thornies tonight. Girl needs to quit being so bloody insular.”
“I did not know that.”
-Sandra’s not exactly known for being a social butterfly, or a performer type. But she did promise.-
“If by promise you mean was browbeaten by you...”
-Volunteered, conscripted, what’s the difference?-
Deimos just laughed.
Phobos looked thoughtful, then asked “Who all is invited to these little concerts you guys do?”
“Whoever wants to come, and can be civil with everyone, so don’t bring Aries, Counterpoint or any of the pricklings who hate on a GSD.” Jericho thought about it for a second. “That was a bad choice of words, given the present company. Anyone who would point at you two, or Razorback and utter the word ‘freak’ is unwelcome at our jam sessions.”
“Okay, mind if I ask a friend along?”
“Who you got in mind?”
Phobos thought about it for a moment. “Ayla from Poe.”
-The Goodkind kid?-
Phobos screwed up her face. “Yeah that’s the one. She’s been really nice to me, and she gets shit on by pretty much everyone we dislike anyway...”
Even Deimos looked doubtful, but Jericho nodded his head.
“Okay, Adrienne, we’ll give her a shot. Just warn her what she’s walking into ok? I know she’s doing me good with my medkits I was selling at the Science Fair, but if she pitches a fit, she’s out.”
“Yeah, I expected that. I think she’ll behave.”
“Bring her along then, the more the merrier.”
Razorback nodded. –I’ll behave too. Maybe the Kimbazoids will pop down too, who knows?-
Deimos shrugged, then moved down to help Razorback set up the microphone amps, moving quickly with her four hands. “We’ll see. You go ahead sis, I’ll help the guys set up back here.”
“Alrighty.” Phobos walked out of the area feeling somewhat happy, maybe today would be a good one.
“All right, now fill in the sections with that rubbery energy I showed you.” Fey watched as Diamondback carefully yet rapidly solidified the shield meant to protect her mind from the warping reality infection that made the Voodoo Wolves what they were. It wasn’t the same as a shield against standard telepathic or mystic onslaught, it was more delicate, and if created correctly, far more durable for its purpose. Voodoo Wolves degraded the effectiveness of normal shields rapidly. Bunker was getting by on pure, pissed-off stubbornness, but that could only go so far.
“How’s that?” Sandra concentrated slightly before tying off the energy. She looked over at Chaka, who was idly spinning her practice kukri on her fingertip like a helicopter blade. How Chaka was able to get the oddly-curved blade to do that while appearing so bored out of her mind made her more than a bit curious.
“Not bad, Jericho wasn’t kidding when he said you picked up on things quickly.” Fey gave her serpentine student one of her patented “melt-the-room” smiles. “Practice that, and you should be able to hold it pretty much indefinitely.”
“Good. Now at least I won’t have to worry about going bugnuts if those things pop up near me. From what I gathered everyone in your little Wild Bunch is probably on top of this ‘Bastard’s’ shitlist.”
“Yeah, that is a good bet.” Nikki grimaced slightly. “I never thought when I came to Whateley I’d be getting hit with something like the Alphas, much less this level of insanity.
“Admit it, you thrive on the attention.” Chaka grinned, looking over at her roommate. “At least things never get boring around here.”
“Be careful, or your wardrobe might abruptly change to match your cousin’s.”
“I am not related to Jericho!” Chaka glared at Nikki. “I have far too much fashion sense to be related to him.”
“So do Jericho’s parents, but there you go.” Sandra gave a mischievous smile. “Just think Chaka, all those lovely off-the-wall plaids, and the kilts... Your future’s so garish I gotta wear shades!”
“You two are never, ever going to let this go, are you?”
“Not a chance in Hell.” Nikki grinned evilly.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to.” Diamondback giggled a little bit.
"Humpf! For that, I'm not finishing that belly bootie that I was knitting for you!"
Sandra looked at Chaka snootily, and blew a forked-tongue raspberry at her.
"You know, there are places where that would make you VERY popular." Toni gave a mock-leer as she said it.
“You’re just jealous that you’re not in my league of awesome sexiness.” At the odd looks from the two Kimbas Diamondback started giggling again. Nikki simply said nothing, going about her business of pretending not to be part of the conversation.
Toni just shook her head. “Are you all this bad over at the Outcast table?”
Sandra buffed her nails on her blouse and smiled. “Worse. I’m on good behavior today, Jack’s not being given ammo here or we’d be seeing nonstop lewd comments and Cait’s not here to cuss like a sailor.”
"Hey, I'm from Baltimore. Most of the sailors that I've heard talk were downright prissy."
"Really? All the sailors I know use 'fuck' to punctuate most of their sentences. Cait just uses all the other words too, rather than getting caught up in one of them."
"You've obviously never heard a B-town boy talk. By comparison, what you said IS prissy."
"Eh, I'm from Texas, so I learned the traditional ways of cussing."
Chaka chuckled lightly, "Remember, if they UNDERSTAND what you're saying, then it's not good cussing. Hell, Rap is really just getting paid to cuss on tape."
Sandra grimaced, "Ugh, rap, no thanks, I'll stick to my Gothy music and heavy metal."
"You DO know that Goth music is just a conspiracy by the drug companies to increase the demand for anti-depression medication, don't you?"
"You have never heard of Nightwish, obviously."
"Just a diversionary technique. THEY want you hooked on Prozac."
Nikki looked up curiously. “Cait, this mysterious friend I hear oft-mentioned and never seen? Another personality hidden amongst your crew, perhaps passed from one to the other in times of distress?”
Chaka couldn’t resist and cut in herself, "It's a 'Man who never was' scam isn't it? You're making like there's another student, and you're secretly eating all her desserts, right?"
Sandra giggled again and composed herself for a rather serious, "Just because you two are unaware of your surroundings is no reason to go off and make baseless accusations!”
"I'm aware of my surroundings! Would I be wearing this T-shirt, if I wasn't in sunny Albuquerque?"
“Yeah, Chaka, about that shirt, Jericho wears that as part of his Tuesday best.”
"I can forensically prove that this was never owned by Jericho."
"No but it DOES indicate you two have similar clothing styles..."
Chaka harrumphed, "My proof? No one is vomiting onto the table. Quod Erat Demonstrandum. Or Zippidity Do-Dah. Whatever."
“I just thought you’d want to know, seeing how you two are related and stuff.”
"Be warned snake-girl! I know Mongoose kung fu!"
"That's fine, I skipped snake style kung fu and went straight to Jujitsu."
"Yeah, nothing like 'upgrading' to the nerfball of the martial arts."
"I like to think of it as lying through my teeth so you won't be expecting the awesome, hurricane-like power of my three months of Aikido."
"You mean that you didn't take the Savate course?"
Diamondback smirked and withdrew a tarot deck from her jacket, “Nah, not my style. Pick a card.” She grinned evilly, showing off her fangs.
"Nah, nah, I'm not buying that one! I know that trick! I pick a card, and three months later, I learn that you've run up $50,000 on my credit card! Get away from me, Lyndon LaRouche!"
"Hmmmm, perhaps I shouldn't have tipped my hand with Hekate until after I’d looted your booty."
Chaka looked thoughtful. “Should'a been 'Get thee behind me, Lyndon LaRouche’.”
“Too late, you failed the invocation; there'll be no getting rid of me now.”
"Besides, I got too many people trying to loot my booty. Get in line, Scaly McSnakypants."
Sandra looked around the common room curiously, noting a helplessly giggling redhead trying to get her breathing back under control. Why help when you can make things worse, after all? “Is this line you speak of invisible? Perhaps in spirit only?”
Chaka grinned as Nikki continued giggling. "It's lined up around the building."
“But it’s all Peeper and Greasy and holographic clones of them”
“But it’s THERE!”
“Poor girl, you don’t know what you’re missing.” Diamondback gave a theatrical sigh and followed up with a wicked smile. “Ah well, looks like I’ll just have to loot someone else's booty then.”
"Yeah, right. Just tell Jericho that Aunt Mildred says that it's his mother's turn to bring the sweet tater pie to the family dinner this year."
Sandra got a shocked look on her face. "Your family suicidal? Jericho’s mother near a stove? Are you MAD???"
"Please! Just 'cuz you melanin-deprived sorts can't take Soul Food is no reason to get down on God's Own People!"
"No Toni, Mama Turner's awesome, and I love her, but you don't ever let that woman into a kitchen, she screws up boiling WATER! I shit you not!"
Toni grinned wider. "Well then, there's your problem! You haven't been eating right! Obviously, several good meals of Mama Turner's Okra Surprise will fix you right up!"
"Oh hell no, last time I did that I turned green, see?” Sandra held up a delicately scaled arm, colored emerald-green with black diamonds running along the back.
"And more will make you right! "Either that, or you'll complete the transformation, eat the entire Sunnydale High graduating class, and become a God."
Sandra giggled despite herself, and actually considered. “You know, that plan actually has some potential...”
“No... stop... please, I can’t... take any more.” The giggling elf finally caught the ability to breathe again as the two mouths went silent for a few seconds.
“Should we let her catch her breath?” Diamondback looked at the giggling redhead clinically.
“Probably, if she passes out and we have to wake her, it’ll be like trying to tiptoe around a PMSing elf.”
Diamondback snickered as Fey went from giggly to indignant almost instantaneously. “Feeling a mite mercurial today oh Sidhely one?”
“I’ll show you mercurial you dirty, rotten...” The three girls broke down to giggling again.
Sharisha and Vanessa watched the three gigglers from the common-room door, and unfortunately Sharisha was a less than stunning example of tolerance. Vanessa, or Vox to the campus at large, hoped her roommate wouldn’t start in today. So far as that hope went she was doomed to be utterly disappointed as her roommate’s mouth engaged before her brain did upon seeing the GSD girl with the two Kimbas.
“Oh great, it’s bad enough that I gotta put up with a buncha boys pretending to be women in my cottage, but now I have to deal with ‘em inviting the freaks in, too? What kinda bullshit is this?” Sharisha glared at the two Kimbas and their “guest.”
Nikki and Chaka froze, absolutely silent and still as panic set in around their brains trying to process whether or not Sharisha had actually broken one of the cardinal rules of Poe Cottage. Every time they flipped the statement around in their brains, they came to the same conclusion, and they were at a loss for how to respond. Sharisha was a card-carrying bigot where the TG kids were concerned, and they were used to dealing with her, and snarling right back at her, but she’d said it in the open next to Diamondback. Both girls had decided that Diamond was pretty cool, but she was a complete unknown, and no matter HOW cool someone seemed to be, you didn’t share with people not from Poe without risking blowing the cover for everyone there.
Sandra’s eyes popped out as Sharisha hit her two major psychological triggers, and she had a panic moment, withdrawing and leaving “Ryan,” the other half of her personality to pick up the slack. Not truly another personality in the conventional psychological sense, Ryan was more akin to the second processor of a computer, handling tasks and sharing the load equally with “his” counterpart. The first thing Sandra’s other realized was the sudden onslaught of panic and nervous look from both Toni and Nikki, like they were in shock that Sharisha would say something, specifically THAT, in front of an outsider. The other thing she realized was that both statements applied equally to her.
Sandra slid out of the hammock she’d commandeered and slithered forward to the two girls who were standing in the doorway. She immediately dismissed Vox, as the girl was giving the loudmouth an equally horrified look. It didn’t take a freaking genius to guess that the two Kimbas were pretty much in the same boat she was given the comments and reactions.
“What do you want, freak?” Sharisha’s attitude was evident, and she was used to the shy, lone Whitman girls who just got out of the way of the more normal-looking people on Campus. She’d just never dealt with Diamondback before.
The slap sounded like a whipcrack, and Sharisha’s head actually hit the wall as Diamond used her insane reflexes to move her arm faster than her opponent could track. “That’s for the freak comment.”
When Sharisha looked back up, she was somewhat stunned as Diamondback grabbed her and shoved her into the wall, again. “And I’ll be seeing your fat, stupid ass in Arena ’77 for outing people!”
Chaka had recovered enough to begin bounding forward when Sandra turned and slithered back to the hammocks, sitting on a lower one and giving Sharisha the evil eye while the large, black girl stood there with a startled and semi-panicked look in her eye. “Beat it, bitch or I’m gonna Chou-slap your stupid, bigoted ass!”
Nikki stood up as well, glaring at Sharisha, fury writ plainly on her face. “I have about had it with you. Get out of my sight or I will remove you!”
Sandra smiled evilly at Sharisha. “I’d get going girly, I think your cottage-mates are about done with you. And if you wanna play now, I’ve got one or two Get-out-of-Jail cards with Delarose I can use for beating you back into the hospital. Or I could just tell the rest of Whitman that it’s open season.”
Sharisha simply turned, and walked away, followed by Vox, who gave an apologetic look before following. She couldn’t even say anything to Diamondback, as Sharisha had violated a cardinal rule of the cottage, and the snake-girl had unknowingly taken her to task for it.
Nikki and Toni turned to Sandra curiously. Sandra forestalled them from speaking about the incident. “Look, I dunno the whole story behind what she said, but if you wanna talk, you aren’t going to catch shit from me, Jack or Joe. For now, let’s just get back to the shielding and collect our thoughts, shall we?”
Nikki and Toni nodded slightly as the two Kimbas went back to the lesson.
Sometimes salvation comes bearing an odd face, or an unexpected ability. In Caitlin’s case salvation seemed to come in the form of a precocious twelve-year-old student of the mystic arts named Clover. The petite child’s blonde curls and innocent, crystal-blue eyes were topped by a black, conical ‘witch hat’. The little girl was skipping towards Caitlin in one of her random “Looking for Kewl Stuff” adventures. Fortunately Clover’s definition of cool was a lot simpler than that of the older kids’.
Clover stopped about six feet away from the circle perimeter. “Hi!”
“Hey Clover.” Caitlin’s mind turned over, trying to think of ways to get some help.
“How did you know my name?”
Telling the little girl the truth, that Caitlin was really “The big Meanie” who had once chased her, Abra and Pally with a bucket of water wanting to see who’d melt wasn’t exactly bright. Nevermind as Mahren, she’d scared Clover into full-on probability mangler mode on too many occasions. Then there was the fact that sharing would run counter to the whole point of playing at being a teenager to begin with... “I know Miss Grimes. I was wondering if you could do me a bit of a favor.”
“Grimsy says I’m not s’posed to let people in circles out of the circles.”
“Would it help if I said Nephandus trapped me in here?”
“NO! Not letting out anything Jay-Arm the wonder-nerd trapped! Not again!”
Caitlin sighed, so much for that option. “Can you go grab something for me?”
“My cell phone. If you go grab it and I can get someone out here to help me I’ll give you fifty bucks.” Caitlin was grasping at straws, and she knew that if it came down to it, she would use lethal force to keep Nephandus from binding her.
“Yer Kiddin,’ right? You’re trapped in a binding circle, and you want a cell phone?” The young girl’s baffled expression was like a splash of cold water for Caitlin’s frantically moving mind.
Despite herself, she started chuckling. “Good God, since you put it that way, it does sound a bit daft, doesn’t it?”
“A little bit. So how do I know you’re not really some kind of monster that looks like a person wanting out so you can eat me?”
“Do you know Gunny Bardue?”
“Well, YA! He’s the old guy in charge of the crazy kids who play with guns!”
“Close enough. Can you go find him? He’ll be able to verify that I’m a student and not a demon, okay?”
Clover gave Caitlin a purely skeptical look until the tall, sparky, Amazonian girl reached into her pocket and produced a fifty dollar bill gingerly and set it on the ground at her feet. A sudden surge caused it to go metallic and melt into a pile of thin slag. Caitlin sighed and withdrew a second one, pretty much the remainder of her petty cash.
“How many demons do you know carry ready cash and ask for help from cranky old marines who know jack about the mystic arts?”
Clover blinked and nodded slowly. It made sense, and the big girl was right. Clover wasn’t really considering that Caitlin was counting on the idea that not too many mystic nasties dealt in dead presidents. “Where did you say he was again?”
Outside Hawthorne Cottage, three voodoo wolves crept into the back area, near the basement windows. Their mission was simple, snatch and dash on the artificer, and possibly infect a student or two. They pried open one of the basement room windows, the one they had noted the artificer inside, usually. The medallions protecting them from the senses of their enemies were intact as they slid into the room, finding it empty.
"Excuse me, what precisely do you three think you’re doing in here?” The abrupt voice of the unassuming, balding man erupted between them, startling them into their unholy half-forms in a frenzy of attack, which passed through Fubar’s astral body with no effects.
“Temper, temper boys. You don’t belong here.” It was the only warning anyone had before a massive pulse of psychic energy erupted, and the first voodoo, a huge Kodiak bear-thing contracted, then imploded in a spray of black ichor. When the mess cleared, the two remaining Voodoos stared at the walnut-sized compacted mass of flesh and bone, which was all that remained of their massive companion, in Louis’ hand. “Sorry to say, I’m not letting you leave here alive.”
The two Voodoo-Wolves fled, straight into the arms of Sara Waite, whom he had alerted, and the new were-cougar girl who had moved in. Louis didn’t exactly trust the demon-girl, but he trusted her a lot more than the proven threat the voodoos had manifested. The yowling, screaming and inappropriate giggling gave testament to just how much he’d panicked the voodoo wolves. They were fleeing so fast they failed to put up a real fight.
When the noise died down Louis stuck his head out into the hallway. “Sara, would you do me a favor and clean up the mess, please? I need to talk to Delarose.”
“Sure, I can do that.”
Caitlin saw the hyperactive form of Clover darting back toward her with a big ‘ol grin on her face. Behind her, face like a storm cloud, was Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue, in his full “I was ready to get off campus and go golfing” glory. Honestly, when she thought about it, Gunny’s golfing attire ranked only slightly below Jericho’s in the eye-throttling department. Big, burly black men were never meant to wear that much plaid and khaki in conjunction.
God Gunny, I thought I’d burned that outfit a year ago.” Caitlin gave an evil grin.
“Yes, and I took replacing it out of your paycheck. Thanks for the quality upgrade by the way.” Gunny Bardue’s angry demeanor softened a bit. “The little bit here tells me you got yourself into a sticky one.”
“I’m not little!”
Caitlin just chuckled at Clover’s outburst. “Yeah, Nephandus’ circle. Little punk was waiting for me. I’m inside it, which seems to be screwing with my ability to identify and bust out of it.”
“So how am I supposed to let you out?” Bardue looked at the elaborate, glowing circle superimposed on the snow.
“How the hell should I know? Break the circle?”
“No! Don’t just break a circle!” Clover gave a panicked look as Bardue reached a foot forward to scuff the mark. “If you break the wrong kind of circle it’ll explode!”
Bardue froze in place, looking at the diminutive little girl who was rapidly backing away from the pair. “All right, Clover. You’re the magic student. How do we break this without it blowing up in our faces?”
Caitlin sighed. “You don’t know, do you?”
“No?” Clover almost cringed as Caitlin and Bardue gave each other knowing, annoyed glances. “I’m not old enough to do the REAL magic stuff! All my magic class is mostly learning how to gather and store essence!”
“You know, we probably should have thought of that before we asked the junior high kid.” Gunny looked rather rueful.
“Yeah? Since when did we ever pay much attention to how the mumbo-jumbo monkeys do business?”
Bardue smirked at Clover’s outrage. “Watch it Caitlin, you’re joining the ranks of mumbo and jumbo yourself from what I understand.”
“Gee, thanks for the support, DAD!”
“Watch your tone with me, young lady, you’re not too old to put across my knee.” The elder black man jerked his head meaningfully at Clover, who looked a mite confused.
Caitlin bit back the scathing retort and all the swearing that was to accompany it when she caught his meaning. She was supposed to be a student. “All right,” she ground out, “I guess there’s no help for it. Can you get Grimes or one of the other teachers from the magic department to come here and pop me out?”
“Wish I could Caitlin, but everyone else has gone home, and Westmont had to go take care of some business back in England. It’s my duty night, so you’re lucky Goldilocks here found me.”
“So what do I do? Wait for Nephandus to get his act together and let me out his way?”
Gunny shook his head. “If push comes to shove I’ll call Carson herself and have her pop the cage. But for now I have another idea. It’ll require another student, but I have a good feeling about her. Besides, if I recall correctly from Westmont’s tales the girl owes you her ass.”
Caitlin wisely refrained from correcting Gunny that students on occasion owed Mahren their asses.
“Okay, you’re the boss. I’m just gonna stand here and plan where I’m hiding the body tonight.”
“You are NOT to maim or kill Jean-Armand.” Bardue’s statement left no room for argument, and even Clover caught the nearly silent “even if the useless little turd richly deserves it.”
Clover blinked. “Can I have my fifty bucks now?”
“Once the circle’s down it’s yours kiddo. I’m not exactly in a position to hand it over yet.” Caitlin pointed at the bill in the snow at her feet.
Bardue popped open a cell phone and dialed. After a brief moment he began talking. “Mrs. Horton? Yeah it’s Bardue... No ma’am, none of your kids have gotten in trouble... No, I haven’t been avoiding you. Yeah, I’m still seeing Mrs. Cantrel...” Bardue gave Caitlin a murderous glare when the shocked look crossed her face, mouthing “I know where you sleep” at his erstwhile adoptee. “Yeah, actually I was wondering if I could borrow Miss Reilly. Crap. She’s gone? Where? Dammit. I don’t have time to track her down. Are any of her friends on Security Auxiliary duty there? Yeah, I’m on the trails halfway between Poe and the Thorny Den, send her off. Thanks.”
“Cantrel?” Caitlin gave Bardue a bemused look.
“Shut it you. I got enough problems without you and the others making sarcastic comments.”
“Would I do that?”
Bardue’s glare only served to elicit a much-needed laugh from Caitlin’s throat as Clover pretended not to understand what the two were speaking of. Just because she wasn’t old enough to be in high school didn’t mean she didn’t understand what was being said. Fortunately her oft-ignored common sense gene kicked in and she kept her mouth shut, keeping the wide-eyed, innocent expression on while taking mental notes to tell Abra and Pally.
Chou was cold and irritated as she walked back towards Hawthorne Cottage. Yet another misfire trying to spend time with Molly had occurred when Mrs. Horton had told her that she was to go meet Gunny Bardue. Honestly she’d been having enough trouble with Fitzsimmons that she was leery about meeting any of the other combat instructors, and her guardians had showed a complete disdain on Parent’s day when during their walk they passed by the gun ranges. She didn’t want to deal with them again if the old, crazy Range Instructor decided he wanted to lampoon her for his classes.
What she found wasn’t what she expected, Bardue dressed like he was on a golf course, little Clover, bedecked in her precious witch hat, or that odd, sparking girl with the runed eyes who’d told her how to beat Nex looking like she was in a barely-controlled fury. As she approached, the old man grinned widely.
“You called for me Sir?” Chou gave Gunny a respectful bow.
“Miss Lee, thank you for arriving so promptly. We seem to have a problem, and we need someone with a bit more mystic sense and training than these two young ladies.” Bardue indicated the circle.
Chou looked at the circle and the girl inside, and for once, simply tapped into the Tao immediately.
Good girl, you’re learning faster than I had hoped. Destiny’s Wave slipped in her silent approval.
It was like the tapestry opened. Gunny Bardue, the grizzled old teacher was an open book and she saw that he was as hard as he acted. She also saw that he cared, and it was hard not to liken him to a bear protecting its cubs. It was painfully clear to her that this one would cheerfully kill and die for the kids on campus.
Clover was in four places at once in the tapestry as Chou tracked the horrific mangling of fate and probability that flowed in her wake, and yet it seemed that it was a natural thing, for the Tao demanded order and chaos in equal measure, and the child absolutely exemplified chaos in an ordered place. She wasn’t predestined to become good or evil, but both and neither, an oddity demanded by her unique place in the tapestry. She simply was a necessary random element.
The odd girl she knew, but it still almost hurt to see and feel the gaping wound in the tapestry that leaked pure rage, grief and frustration, as well as pain. It was contained in a binding that would cause the wound to heal, but the Tao rebelled against the healing, as it would result in an aberrant scar that was like a cancer upon the rest. She couldn’t feel the girl in the Tao, merely the absence of where she SHOULD be, and why that primal force wanted her released rather than removed was beyond her. Fortunately for Chou’s ailing conscience, she would rather not have to kill the girl. The Tao’s will would be done.
While the girl watched her intently, with the runes of her eyes smoldering like hot coals, Chou stepped forward and drew Destiny’s Wave, finding the weakest point in the circle, and gently digging the blade a bare millimeter into the power flows and the lines on the ground. She simply drew back, and the circle died, an event heralded by the odd girl whooping, and darting away from the area in which she had been trapped.
“I’d hug you, but I’m afraid of barbecuing you by accident.” Caitlin gave her a look of genuine gratitude. “You have just made my list of decent humans.”
Chou gave a slight smile. “And what are most humans to you?”
“Oxygen thieves. Mutants too, breathing my precious air…” She said it so wryly, like an old running gag that it was very hard for Chou to feel offended, so she let it go with a smirk.
“So who did this to you?”
“Someone who’s gonna…”
“Caitlin…” Gunny actually growled at his adoptee.
“…Wish I’d never been born when he comes back to claim his victory.” She patently ignored the suspicious evil-eye that Bardue shot in her direction.
“No killing or maiming.”
“You said nothing about humiliating.”
“Or injuring badly.”
“Don’t push yer luck.”
Caitlin abruptly looked up. “Speak of the devil.” She bolted off into the darkness with a manic speed that was surprising, leaving a trail of Technicolor energy and weird occurrences as she tackled Nephandus’ golem and literally beat it unmoving while the boy watched in shock, aghast that she somehow managed to escape his power. The thing literally shrieked in agony every time her aura flared.
Sadly for him he wasn’t able to capitalize on her distraction when Chou, who was following closely, drop-kicked him. Caitlin looked up as she did so. “Aww, come on! I wanted to at least pummel him a little!” She looked down at the golem and delivered another bone-pulverizing punch to the things stone/cybernetic skull. The sudden discharge of energy caused the whole thing to convulse as it seemed to go limp, dead, the spirit inside torn from its moorings and fleeing from the chaotic storm that was Caitlin in the Astral Plane.
“Should have gone after him first.”
“I overestimated the tactical threat this stupid golem presented.”
“Sucks to be you.” Chou grinned.
“Ow, my face! You kicked me in the face!” For some reason neither Caitlin, nor Chou felt horrifically sympathetic.
“You’re lucky Gunny Bardue said I can’t knife you.”
Nephandus squeaked and scrambled away, only to have Caitlin grab his leg and drag him back. He hastily grounded out the arc of energy that ripped down her arm towards his foot.
“Thought so,” Caitlin grunted as she began checking him for random bits and bytes that caused her odd current-vision to act up. “Circe does the same thing.”
“Hey! Those are mine!” Nephandus went wide-eyed and tried to protest as Caitlin began removing every mystic focus, charm and devise on his person, dropping them into a small pile. She simply shoved his hands away as he went into an absolute panic.
“Shut it Nephandus. You are going to walk over to Gunny Bardue over there. Now. If you fail to be at his side swiftly, I am going to give in to my inner maniac and DISMEMBER YOU!” Caitlin shrieked the last words into his face.
Chou looked on, half-amused, half-horrified as Jean-Armand very rapidly retreated to the irritated form of Gunny Bardue. “Why exactly are we terrorizing the Bad Seed nitwit again?”
“Butthead there decided that I’d look good in mind-slave. I wanted to disabuse him of the idea.”
“And you didn’t kill him anyway? I’m impressed with your restraint.”
“Gunny there reminded me indirectly of a promise I made to Carson a while back.”
Chou looked curious. “May I ask what this promise was?”
“I’d rather not go into it, but it more or less means I need to try to keep my temper very firmly in check, unless doing otherwise means I’m gonna die.”
“Are you a rager?”
Caitlin sighed. “More or less. I have a variation on intermittent explosive disorder, and mine’s violent. Clue it in with a healthy dose of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and you can guess that my life can be interesting.”
“Yeah.” Caitlin gathered Nephandus’ items, forced all of the odd energy she seemed to collect into her hands, and loosed it on the pile. The results were.. spectacular, as they melted, froze, crystallized, shattered, then disintegrated with an unholy shriek while Nephandus wailed in protest.
“I gather some of that was valuable.”
Caitlin shrugged. “He really shouldn’t have tried to play with me tonight. I was already in a bad mood.”
“I noticed.” Chou looked back at Gunny Bardue, who had Nephandus grasped by one shoulder and was speaking very quietly to the boy, whose face was going whiter than it already was. “Think we should go back?”
“Give Gunny a sec to talk to Nephandus. I need to calm down a bit. When it comes right down to it, even on my best day I couldn’t hold a candle to the intimidation Gunny’s capable of during one of his quiet chats with someone.”
“Remind me not to anger him.”
Caitlin flashed a patently evil grin. “No worries there. You have to do something spectacularly stupid to get him going for real.”
“Does this particular incident count?”
“Oh yes. This counts in a bigger way than he’s used to dealing with.”
Chou looked back at Nephandus critically, made sure no one else was close enough to overhear, then turned back to Caitlin. “I think we should talk when all is said and done.”
“Alright. You’ve earned that much at the very least. Thanks by the way. I appreciate the help.”
Chou nodded. “You’re welcome. I’m just glad you seem more reasonable now than you did a few moments ago.”
Caitlin nodded. “Yeah, sorry. I have this knack for shaky first impressions, although I think I’m losing my touch. No one I’ve met since I manifested has hated me on contact.”
“Give it time. I have a feeling, given your reaction to Nephandus there, that there’s going to be a line at the door to kick your ass.”
Caitlin grinned, this time with actual amusement. “Well at least I won’t get bored.”
“Want a few of my enemies? I have the Alphas if you want them.”
“Would I actually have to touch any of them?”
“Maybe in hand-to-hand.”
Caitlin looked grossly unenthused. She looked over at Gunny and Nephandus, and noted the expressions. “Oops, there’s our cue.”
The two girls walked back towards Bardue and a very unhappy Nephandus and stopped about ten feet away as the old man gave Jean-Armand the death-glare he reserved for stupid people who are pushing the boundaries of “going to die.” The Bad Seed mage flinched as the teacher began speaking.
“You have a choice now, boy. You can answer to my daughter here for what you were going to do to her, or you can face Carson as soon as I call her back onto campus.” Bardue’s growl could have made a mindless zombie scream in terror and flee for its existence.
“If he is smart he’ll face Carson,” Chou shrugged.
Caitlin just started chuckling evilly. “Oh no, nothing I can do would hold a candle to Carson or Delarose in a full fury.”
Chou raised an eyebrow but said nothing. She was trying to hear Nephandus’ mumbled response.
“I’m sorry, boyo, I didn’t quite hear you.”
“I’ll face your daughter.”
“Wise choice. Stupid choice, but wiser than trying to talk past Carson.” Gunny turned his back on the miserable mage. “Let’s go Clover. Nothing to see here.”
Clover looked torn, and was tightly clutching the fifty she’d retrieved from the snow in both hands. She wanted to see Jay-Arm get pasted, but she knew better than to argue as she followed.
“Nice witch’s hat.” Chou gave the smaller girl a nod.
Clover beamed at her as Bardue led her back in the direction of Dickinson.
As soon as Bardue was gone, Nephandus tried to run. Unfortunately he wasn’t fast enough and he found himself rapidly unconscious in the snow with an angry amazon and a petite Chinese girl standing over him. “You are SO lucky he said I can’t maim you.”
Caitlin looked over at Chou, “Did you have to knock him out so quick again? It’s not nearly as fun stuffing an old sock in their mouths when they’re unconscious!”
“Then I guess I can call it mercy on my part.” Chou couldn’t shake this nagging feeling of uneasy familiarity that had been building up between them since she cut the circle. “Do I know you?”
“I hope not, because I know you.” The whole conversation was kind of creepy, considering that Caitlin’s voice sounded insanely similar to Destiny’s Wave on the occasions she deigned to speak out loud.
Chou cocked her head, curiously. “You helped me with Nex, but there’s something else there, isn’t there?”
Caitlin sighed as she gave the unconscious form in the snow a sour look. "Last time I saw your face it was with that blade in my chest. Your eyes were different though. You here to do it again?"
"Not that I am aware of. Why, do I need to?"
"Hell, I don't even know why ya did it the first time." Caitlin gave the girl an odd once-over, really taking in her features for the first time, while replaying memories of a past life in her mind.
“Well, as far as I know I wasn't the one who did it, so don't blame me.”
"At the time it was a mercy, so I ain't going to bitch. Help me with this will ya?" Caitlin wandered over and hoisted Nephandus’ stone and steel golem onto her shoulder while Chou looked in askance in Gunny’s direction, unsure if this was okay. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill anything but numbnuts there’s ego.”
"I'm okay with that, besides I think you and I need to talk, and not just about getting trapped in circles.”
Caitlin nodded once, her eyes flickering over to the jade blade held by the smaller girl. "Yeah, probably. Name's Caitlin. Thanks for the help."
“Chou, but then you knew that, didn’t you?”
"Yup. But still, you done me a good turn so I'm more than inclined to be polite."
“I am okay with that.” Chou looked down at Nephandus’ form on the ground. “Well, let’s take out the garbage and see if we can’t figure this out.”
“Sounds like a plan. You grab Blondie, I’ll carry rockass here. I know where the duct tape is where we’re going.”
“Ah, well then lead on.” Chou hoisted Nephandus uneasily, as the boy was somewhat bigger than she was.
Chou watched Caitlin half-drag, half-carry the stone form of the golem through the snow in the direction of the Kirby building. Every now and again the thing would jerk abruptly as Caitlin’s mad aura interacted with it.
“Nice work on the circle, by the way. I need to figure out how to bust those from the inside sooner or later.”
“Well it…” Chou huffed a bit, then repositioned Nephandus on her shoulders. “…helps if you have a magic sword that can cut through anything. Otherwise I don’t know if I could have popped you out.”
Caitlin nodded, pacing along beside the other girl. “So where’d you pick that thing up? Word on the street is you’re as baseline as a newborn babe otherwise.”
Chou shrugged. “I got it at a gun show.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“No, I got it at a gun show in Knoxville.”
“I need to go to Knoxville, maybe they’ll sell me that M-1 Abrams I always wanted.” She gave Chou a semi-sheepish look. “I already have enough guns.”
“Okay. I collect swords, but my collection is gone.”
“Sorry to hear it. At least you got to keep one.”
“Yeah but I miss all the others. I had all of the Lord of the Rings blades,” Chou groaned, missing her collection.
“So what brought you to Whateley?”
Chou smirked, “My feet.”
Caitlin raised an eyebrow in response. “That’s a first. Care to elaborate?”
“I walked and rode a horse here from Knoxville.”
“Holy crap, you serious?”
“It took a while but it was safer than riding a plane or anything else.”
Caitlin gave Chou a long look as they approached the Ivy-covered Kirby building. “That’s gotta be a helluva story.”
“I guess, but it’s actually pretty short.”
“Well if you ever feel like telling, I’ll be happy to listen.” Caitlin stopped at the front door. “Ahh, here we are.”
Caitlin shuffled around in a pocket and dragged a surprisingly large set of keys out. She picked through the series of rune-protected keys to find the right one, then unlocked the door.
“After you.” Chou held the door open after Caitlin got it unlocked.
“Ever been in here?”
Chou shook her head. “No, all my mystic training has come from my mentor.”
“Well if you can sense the door and pop the lock, it'll be easier than me finding the spot and kicking it open again. Grimes hates when I do that, and I want Nephy to be a surprise.”
“No problem.” Chou concentrated for a moment, letting her connection to the Tao fill her, then found the invisible catch hidden behind a burn scar on the wall. “Found it.”
“Good. Let's get to this. You can sniff the door. If you can open it, the logic is you belong here so far as the students and staff are concerned. The psychic kids go buggy trying to break in.”
Chou smirked, then focused her chi for a moment and the wall panel dropped back a bit and vanished, revealing a stairway. “This is going to stink.”
“I’d haul him up, but you’re a safer bet.” Caitlin began dragging the golem up the stairs. “Once we get them into the bathroom I’ll go get the duct tape and the smelling salts.”
“Should I keep him unconscious ‘til we’re ready?”
Caitlin nodded, then stopped Chou. “Not the guys’ room. I wanna give the mages plenty of blackmail material, and finding him stuck in a toilet in the guys’ room is just par for the course. This way, please.” She stepped into the ladies’ room.
Chou looked on critically as Caitlin used a fingernail to unscrew the wall paneling on the first stall, revealing the toilet in its pristine condition. “Are you sure you want to do face down in a toilet? I mean, we can get creative here if you want.”
“See, much as I'd love to maim Chumply here I actually promised myself I wouldn't leave him face-down with a steamer. Besides, just in the toilet is NOT what I had in mind.”
“Oh? What do you have in mind for him?”
“Ever see the old movie, ‘Men at Work’?” Caitlin grinned evilly. “Observe.”
As she watched the girl work, Chou reflected that Nephandus was in for a bad day as Caitlin duct-taped his hands around behind the bowl in the kneeling position. She then proceeded to hunt down smelling salts and wake him before she taped his head loosely in the bowl. The piteous whining had no effect on the girl who apparently had done this to people before. She then proceeded to set up the inert form of the golem on top of Nephandus in the same position, like it was humping him.
Chou didn’t know whether to laugh or feel sorry for Nephandus. “Ah... Lovely... Very artistic. Do you have any flowers?”
“I'd say yes, but Earth Mother's Garden... ehhhh, let's just say not worth the fallout.”
“Okay, but you could do some very pretty things with them, to add to the visual.”
“If you want to, feel free. I've done about as much to him as I'm willing to risk.” Caitlin flicked her hand for emphasis, causing an angry red flare of energy to arc across her fingers. “This isn't controllable, and it's potentially lethal. Hence why you carried him.”
“Okay, that makes sense. Is there any way to get that under control?”
“Yeah... But it's not exactly something I'm willing to enter into lightly.”
Chou shrugged again, “What is it? How bad could it be?”
“What's the worst thing you can imagine happening to you personally?”
“Uhm...the entirety of the universe unraveling as the flow of the Tao is disrupted utterly.”
“Again, with the qualifying statement.” Caitlin chuckled ruefully, “Worst thing that can happen to YOU, personally.”
“Oh...my soul being ripped out and consumed for eternity in a pool of liquid fire.” Chou shuddered, remembering the Demon Lord of Fiery Immersion.
“Now imagine, rather than being dipped in liquid fire, becoming a prisoner in your own mind, with no thought, no will, that gets subsumed by another person eventually.” Caitlin led Chou out of the room to Nephandus’ protests, carefully closing the door as she spoke. “That’s why I won’t go into these things lightly.”
“And if you succeed?”
“I dunno, as far as I am aware, it’s never been done.” Caitlin tapped her head lightly, “I have a crapton of lives worth of memories to draw from in here, and none of them are helpful.”
Chou focused, drawing on the Tao a bit to get a better read on the situation. The information was there for her. “I can help you with that.”
“Doubt it. In my case, someone else ‘Helping’ except for one little thing at the end, is a big freaking boobytrap, ending with no more me, and a mindless automaton attached to them.”
“What if the person is able to help without being connected to things?” Chou asked, with certainty in her voice.
Caitlin shook her head, slightly. “Then you couldn't make the final piece. It HAS to be connected to something. Trick is, finding ME in the static. If I want to skip it, I need to find something that is wholly me. But blood, hair, none of that'll work, because it's not my blood, eyes, or hair anymore.”
Chou frowned a bit as the girl’s words rang true in the tapestry, and the Tao seemed to pull back from the idea of directly interfering. “It sounds like you need someone to make sure you are there, in the magical weave.”
“In the weave?” Caitlin looked a bit confused. “please bear in mind I’m kinda new to this mumbo-jumbo shit.”
Chou nodded, “Well, yes. Everything is connected to everything else. I'm not really connected, but that's a different thing than your not being connected. What we need to do then, to fix this, is to find out where you are connected to things, especially to yourself, and get that linked into the spell.”
“Yeah, that’s actually the basic theory that was explained to me. If it were easy someone would have already done it by now.”
“I guess the trick would be to get you into your weave again... You feel.. oddly hollow, which is odd. It is almost as if you are not even in yourself at all...”
“I’m not, this isn’t me.” Caitlin gave a disgusted look at the walls. “Let’s get the hell out of here. Mage sanctums creep me out.”
“Sure. So, this isn't you? I totally understand. This isn't me either.”
“Do tell.” Caitlin let Chou re-lock the doorway again as the pair left the building.
“Uhm...that has to do with the sword and something I really am not supposed to talk about. Suffice it to say that I didn't always look like this.”
“Sounds familiar. I break something, I save a life, and some shit I'm not supposed to talk about later, and BAM! Here I be, wishing I would wake up.” Caitlin was surprised at just how bitter she actually sounded.
Chou sighed sadly. “I wasn't able to save a life and here I am.”
“Can't save everyone. You can try, but sometimes shit happens. Usually when it hurts the worst.” Caitlin said it quietly, remembering lost friends, and Cat.
“Yeah, tell me about it.”
“I'll be honest with ya, normally I wouldn't be talking about this. Hell, I'd have been happy continuing to duck you. It's not something anyone has any right to ask, but if I fuck up, or if someone else gets me first, I don't want to be a damned meat puppet again.”
Chou got an odd look, then started speaking, prompted by her connection to the Tao. “If they take you again, I will drop you, so you can move on to your next life. I swear it by the Tao.”
“Good enough for me. I don't think Gunny Bardue could do it.”
“I will do it, if it needs to be. But let’s keep that from happening. If you need me to, I can guard your back.”
“We'll see. If push comes to shove, my best defense, as Nephandus found out, I'm not as docile as the magey types are likely to believe.”
“That fighting is useful and can keep whatever from tying you to them.” Chou felt her voice become her own again.
Caitlin chuckled darkly, “Much as I keep trying to avoid it, when it comes down to trying to stay alive, I'm not a nice person at all.”
“The Tao embraces good and evil, it just is. Bad things happen and being able to face things like that is a needed skill.”
“Good and evil are just names someone came up with to define what they thought was wrong. Sometimes what one man calls evil is necessity to another. What some claim is good does more damage than doing nothing. Free will's a bitch, ain't it?”
Chou nodded as they walked aimlessly. “That it is, and the universe itself has it.”
“Yeah, well, that's a philosophical question that I'll tackle after I take care of my more local and immediate problems.”
“True enough. I wonder what can be done for you.”
Caitlin started considering, “Honestly everything I poke at, pokes back with the same answer. To become what you wish to, you have to fundamentally understand who and what you are. I thought I did, but the hits just keep on coming, and nothing's as cut-and-dried as I believed.”
Chou cocked her head for a second, as if listening to a distant sound. “Well then, Destiny's Wave says that you need to gaze at the mirror until you realize that this body is you now and that you fill this frame.”
“Destiny’s Wave, my sword.” Chou smirked at the tall girl. “She talks.”
“Pull the other one.”
“No really.” Chou drew the blade out, and Caitlin looked skeptical until it started talking.
Caitlin’s mouth dropped open slightly. “Why do I feel like I just died and went to Dungeons & Dragons?”
“Hey, it is not my fault. The sword was like this when I bought it.” Chou smirked.
“Okay, that’s kinda cool. Creepy, but cool.” Caitlin examined the jade blade, careful not to touch as she did so.
Destiny’s Wave sounded somewhat indignant, “Surely this is one of the least creepy things you have done.”
“Oh, compared to the last few weeks this seems downright mundane, and it scares me that I can say that with a straight face.”
The sword let out a light chuckle. “You say that so well.” She took a more serious tone, “I am, however, sorry for your previous death upon myself.”
Caitlin shrugged. “Trust me. Death’s a mercy compared to what the memories of that life were like.”
“Uh, what are you two talking about?” Chou was confused.
“Like I said before last time I saw your face before being here at Whateley was with that sword sticking out of my chest.”
Destiny’s Wave took the opportunity to clarify, “Not yours, but another Handmaid.”
“Bear with me here, Chou. My memories are a bit jumbled. Sometimes have a hard time sorting out old lives from who I am now.” Caitlin looked about the snow-covered campus. “I think I screamed at Sam about something that happened in Norway back before the dark ages, and I really don’t understand everything.”
“Okay.” Chou shrugged, “So.. what happened, besides the whole ‘I killed you’ thing, which I don't understand.”
“Let's run with what uh - Destiny's Wave? - said and run with another handmaid, whatever the hell that means. I remember it like it was yesterday, same way I remember the first time I saw Jericho's wardrobe. Kinda hard to sort out, but she was very similar to you.”
Chou gave a mischievous smirk, “Well, all us Chinese look alike.”
“No, same face, same build, eyes were different, and she moved like she wasn't an awkward teenager.” Caitlin smiled apologetically, “Sorry, but you are a standard-issue awkward teenager.”
“Well, there is that…”
“Point is, I dunno why this handmaid came after me.” Caitlin shrugged, herself as she talked. “Hell the state I was in you could have explained at length and it would have mattered as much to me as if you told me the sky was going to be puce at high noon tomorrow.”
Destiny’s Wave spoke, adding a bit of clarification, “Her name was Chuan Lien-Hua and she was after you because you were arming an army of the dead with magical weapons. She stopped you so she could stop the army of the dead.”
“Kay. I'll take your word for it. I haven't sorted out all of the memories, I don't think I could in a normal lifetime, and it fits with the kind of nasty shit I’ve been forced to do in the past. The shit I remember at least.”
“So you were stopped by the Handmaid. That is a bit odd.” Chou had a thoughtful look.
Caitlin clarified, “Artificer is synonymous with slave for those in the know. One who'll never argue, nor question, no matter what nightmare you have it inflict on the natural world.”
“Okay...so a slave who makes magical items. Right. I think I understand better. Uh...what do you know of the Tao?”
“Just the basics. I skimmed the Tao-te-ching, I think I’m pronouncing it wrong, once way back in the day. It wasn't exactly relevant to what I was up to at the time.”
“Okay... The Tao is this current that embraces all things and nothing, it permeates everything and all things are part of it. This current flows in balance and the Handmaid is empowered by the Tao to keep that balance. Kind of like a lifeguard/ janitor kind of job.”
“It’s not quite like that...” Destiny’s Wave sounded indignant again, slightly miffed by the American irreverent streak.
Caitlin grinned. “Hey, call it as you see it.”
Chou nodded, rolling her eyes. “So, I am here to do whatever I have to in order to keep the balance be it creation, preservation or destruction.”
“Tall order for a teenager. I hope the dental plan was worth it.”
The Chinese girl grinned. “I didn’t get dental.”
“You’re being screwed. You should demand a raise.”
“Besides, when the Tao needs me, I get all the power of the Tao behind me. If the Tao doesn’t need me, I have no power just training.” She smirked ruefully. “Yeah, a raise… If ONLY!”
“Meh, power this, magic that. In the long run what counts is having a good head on your shoulders, the right training, and the drive to stick it to the wall when it needs to happen.” Caitlin shook her head. A few weeks prior, she’d have dismissed the whole Handmaid of the Tao thing as a delusional fantasy. Come to think of it, she kept wishing the Artificer was a delusional fantasy.
“Well, I am working on that part, but the Tao has provided some nice training.”
Caitlin nodded. “Welcome to Whateley, best training in the world.” She winked, “Unless you’re training to deal with normal people, then it kinda falls apart.”
Chou griped, “From what I gathered I am supposed to be able to deal with anything, which is kind of intimidating.”
Destiny’s Wave spoke next to reassure her wielder, “You can handle it. You are quite skilled and strong where it counts.”
“Deal with it as it comes. You can't do much more, and stressing over shit only screws you in the long run. I'm living proof.” Caitlin mimed hypnosis. “Don’t be like me, Chou, don’t be like meeeee.”
Chou grinned, finally relaxing into the conversation a bit. “I'm starting to get that. I had an easy life before all of this and I have been struggling to keep up.”
“Rough living makes a strong body, and a challenging puzzle strengthens the mind. I'll settle for a pizza, a football game and a couple buddies. Failing that, I have a gun... somewhere.”
“You don't talk like any girl I've ever known, you know that right?”
“So I've been told.. frequently...” Caitlin tilted her head towards a chuckling voice only heard by her, “No, Fuub this is not an invitation to tell stories!” Caitlin gave Chou a solemn look, “Friends don’t let friends spread blackmail material.”
“Fuub… Is he here?”
“Nah, but the nosy bum likes to check in on me from time to time.”
Chou nodded, “Ah.. okay. I have Immortals and the goddamned Monkey King checking in on me occasionally.”
“Rolled up newspaper. Think about it.”
Chou grinned, “Toni uses one of those. It's pretty funny.”
“I saw, last Wednesday or Thursday I think.”
“Really? I don't remember you, but then again I was busy fighting.”
“I was the asshole with the Barrett blowing Demon-wolf-things to chunky tuna. God I wish I’d had some aspirin that worked after that bit.” Caitlin roughly pushed that memory from her head before it could start throbbing with another migraine. “Don’t mind me when I tell you I think all of you are in over your heads.”
Chou gave a snort. “Story of Team Kimba, if you ask me.”
“Yeah, well from what I heard, you lot need to learn the meaning of the word ‘subtle." Caitlin gave a sardonic chuckle, “Oh the irony…”
“Subtle… We can't do that, Chaka won't let us.”
“Don't feel bad. I have Jericho and Razorback. Subtle? What's that?”
“Good point. So, any idea on how to take care of the energy surges, besides really risky?”
“Best thing is what I got, with the wards and runic crap sewn into my clothing. Knocks it back from fission reaction to ow, stop it, ow, stop it, ow, don't touch me.”
“I hope you can find a way to take care of this that doesn't end up with you being someone’s Muppet.”
“I already have most of the pieces. Honestly most magey types define themselves by their power.” Caitlin rolled her eyes, “Morons if you ask me.”
“Maybe you just need to find you own silence so you can hear that last bit.”
“Silence hasn't helped. I’m thinking about making some noise.”
“Do what you have to do, right?”
Caitlin nodded. “Yeah, Heckel always did say I thrived on stress and chaos.”
“Heckel?” Chou raised an eyebrow.
“Old buddy of mine. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.”
“Ah, sort of like a codename?”
“Oh yeah, it is, mostly because him and his brother can't shut up, and they're terminal smartasses.”
“What was yours?”
“Asshole?” Caitlin grinned. “Usually whatever epithet came to mind.”
“Oh... you know... it doesn't sound like this really is part of your life now. Was it some sort of past life?”
“Something I gave up. The friends are still there, I'm not that person anymore... I hope.”
“Okay... So those people are still alive?”
Caitlin nodded again.
“So... You had another life before this, so you were transformed into this?”
Caitlin shrugged, “Like I said, something I’ve been trying to move on from.”
“Alright, here’s how the puzzle works. Give me an item, something mystic, whatever. I handle it for a bit, and I can tell you what it is, how to make it work, how to build it, how to break it. This one's not instinctive because it's unique to each person. I pretty much have everything but that last piece to bridge the gap, something that defines me.” Caitlin gave a wry look, “As you may have guessed, I’m not exactly your standard-issue mutant.”
“Tell me about it. I am a baseline human who can take out stupid powerful mutants or what not, yeah that makes sense.”
“Baselines can always take out stupid powerful mutants. That's the trick. It's also what all the kids here seem to miss, too.”
“I've noticed. It's kind of like those stories about those Dragonslayers. Norms taking out super villains. Kind of motivational in a weird way.”
“Meh, that’s simply tales of the bogeyman that hold the base kernel of truth. Don't fear the pros. Fear the lucky idiot with a gun. He may be an idiot, but he's still lucky, and he has a gun. At least you can fight the pros.”
“Yeah. I was scared in Boston when I fought those guys with guns. Supervillains aren't as scary to me.”
“Exactly. You can see what most mutants are gonna do, hell they telegraph their intent all over the place. But a stray bullet? Much harder to predict.”
Chou gave Caitlin an odd look. “And it sounds like the voice of experience there with the ‘pros’."
“Like I said, I’ve had a checkered past.”
“I have a nothing past.”
“Be happy, Chou. If doing stupid shit was an Olympic event I’d have won the gold, many many times, and I must stress stupid.”
“Yes… But since then I have made up for lost time.”
“Just do like you did with Nex, after you got over the initial ‘Oh shit’ and pulled it together.”
“I'm still pulling it together.”
Caitlin nodded, “It’ll come, but enough fucking maudlin, no point in talking in circles till we depress ourselves. Let's go find our friends, or pick a fight, or do anything but run around in circles hoping answers will fall from the sky.”
“You know, all this has made me hungry. Let's find some food.” Chou looked over in the direction of the Crystal Hall.
“Fooooooood.” Caitlin immediately started shambling towards the building while Chou smirked and followed.
Ayla wandered through the tunnels with some trepidation, both wishing she could find a way to bow out gracefully and determined to see the whole thing through. The inhuman, four-armed redhead leading the way had a pleased smile on her face, and Ayla smiled despite the creeping unease she was feeling that had nothing whatsoever to do with Phobos’ fear-aura. She’d learned to get along with, and even be friends with, the Fury Twin over the past few months, but she was still carting around all of the old Goodkind baggage.
The thought of walking into a room packed with the heavily GSD and the dangerous simply by virtue of existence gave her a bit of creeping dread that she mercilessly crushed every so often for the benefit of her empathically hypersensitive companion. She had gotten to the point where she could cope fairly well with being surrounded by regular, look-like-everyone-else mutants, and Phobos looked human enough to be more tragic than terrifying, but all of her family’s worst horror stories invariably involved someone who looked wholly monstrous.
She was hearing odd, music-like sounds that were impossible to make out, baffled and muffled by the irregular construction of the tunnel system. As the two girls came around a corner she was blasted with the thunder of a full-on bass guitar playing the opening riffs of a Metallica song, one usually accompanied by a bell tolling between each series of notes. Oddly, for once, she couldn’t put a name to the song and the more she thought about it the more agitated she became.
She almost jumped when Phobos gently touched her shoulder. “Relax. You’re getting worked up Ayla.” The girl looked at her with those three emerald-eyes in a pyramid pattern critically. “You know we can do this again, later.”
Ayla shook her head a little too quickly as the music thundered down the tunnel, oddly lacking in any drums to keep the beat. “No, I have to do this now. I really do, or I might never get the guts to try again.”
“You sure?” Phobos looked dubious.
Ayla took a few deep breaths and nodded slowly. “Yeah, I need to do this, Adrienne. If I don’t, then I’ll know I didn’t have the guts to give everyone the chance to show me who they are.”
Phobos smiled and nodded. “Okay, on the upshot, if nothing else, you’ll get to hear some good music. Jericho and Razorback can be a couple of asses sometimes but they do know how to play.”
“Which one’s Razorback?”
“You can’t miss him, big, mottled-black and looking like a spiny velociraptor from hell.”
Ayla blanched. “No I mean which one is he playing?” She didn’t think it was worth mentioning that she’d already seen the champion psychopath of Whateley from a distance before. She was pretty good at picking him out and avoiding him entirely.
“Oh, he plays the lead guitar. Trust me, when he gets going its insane.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
Almost on cue the music stopped and Ayla heard a bit of hissing and snarling, like a wild animal loose, and a male voice cutting in. “Dude, you’ve tuned your Fender three times now, if you haven’t got it perfect you never will.” The responding animal noises came rapid-fire, tapering off and reminding Ayla of nothing so much as herself as Trevor Goodkind, imitating her Aunt Edna nattering on about some minor faux-pas at some party that no one else cared about.
Phobos grinned at Ayla’s bemused look as the notes were played bit by bit, slowly and carefully. “Razor’s hypersensitive to sound. He can hear an off-note that some computers would have trouble picking out.”
The two girls turned the last left and entered into the large chamber the two Outcast boys and Phobos’ sister, Deimos were occupying. She noticed the massive form of Razorback tweaking the amplifier, then his strings on the guitar, playing a few notes, then repeating the process after she noticed the mind-warping horror of Jericho’s outfit of the day. Had she seen the horrendous, purple-silk moiré pattern shirt he’d been wearing earlier she might have vomited. Blindness was one thing, but that was no excuse for this absolute assault on the sanctity of good taste!
Deimos, for her part, was watching with bemused interest and noted that Ayla’s horror wasn’t for the two freaks occupying the room. “You walk into a room with two people who don’t even really look human and its Jericho’s clothing that set you off. I think Adrienne may be right about you.”
Ayla shook off her horrified daze as the other four-armed Fury Twin walked forward with the soft clipping sound of hooves on stone and held out her upper-right, clawed hand. From head to hooves, with three emerald-green eyes, horns, fangs, four arms ending in sinisterly clawed hands, and a pair of whiplike tails lashing the air behind her, Deimos looked like a clone of her sister, were it not for the raven black hair that graced her head in sharp contrast to Phobos’ dark red.
Ayla took the hand gingerly and shook it as the other half of the Fury Twin terror team gave a slight smirk. “I didn’t think you’d actually come.”
Ayla Goodkind, scion of a house that reviled mutants as the monsters in the dark, gave a wan smile. “I wasn’t so sure about myself either.”
“Have you met the guys?”
Ayla nodded, "Of course I know the anti-Christian Dior up there, and I know Phobos, but I have not yet met the rest of the room."
Jericho up close was quite different from the way Ayla had heard him described by the other students around class, or when he was wearing his usually more-baggy attire. Far from a marshmallowy black boy of Belphegor-esque paunch, Jericho was best described as broad, with a layer of fat that covered a frame that could have been terrifying were he to become a professional weightlifter. His face was pleasant to look at, for a guy, and his perpetually grinning face was topped by four-inch long dreadlocks and a pair of bone-white eyes with absolutely no features to them. He simply waved at them before going back to helping his partner in crime tune the instruments.
“And that,” Phobos pointed at the mottled-black nightmare with the Fender Stratocaster, “is Razorback. Say hi, Razor.”
The Fury twins were scary looking to Ayla’s mind’s eye, but Razorback was literally a monster. He actually chirped at Ayla briefly before going back to lovingly tuning his guitar. Ayla watched him with morbid fascination, realizing that even hunched over the way one expected a velociraptor to be, Razorback was nothing short of massive. Mottled black, with brown and yellow patterns running along his body, he towered over the other kids here. Ayla guessed he was slightly taller than Hippolyta in his naturally hunched posture. The thought of what he’d be like if he were to raise himself upright and look down on someone made her shiver. It was hard to appreciate just how BIG the notorious speedster actually was until one saw him up close. The two rows of eight-inch spines running from his shoulders, tapering down to one row of smaller spines along the length of his tail made him look even fiercer. She was surprised to note that his arms were proportioned like a human’s and about as thick as her own thigh, easily.
“What?” Jericho turned his white eyes towards Ayla.
Ayla half-pointed at Razorback. “I didn’t realize he’s that big.”
Jericho nodded. “Yeah. No one really does until they’re either right under him, or he’s diving onto them in the sims.”
Ayla had the sudden thought that she’d probably crap herself if that happened. Not that a Goodkind would say such a thing out loud.
Razorback waved his hands about, letting the sling hold the guitar up, and Jericho gave him an annoyed look before backhanding the big lug. “You watch your fucking language.”
The big velociraptor-thing – boy, Ayla corrected herself - began an odd coughing sound that was almost like a seal barking. She guessed it was laughing when Phobos and Deimos both stifled giggles.
“Why do I get the impression I’m the butt of a huge joke?” Ayla didn’t ask anyone in particular.
“Because you are, it’s called life.” Jericho grinned as he spoke.
Razorback simply stared at her with those crocodilian eyes before stalking forward toward her. Ayla felt her heart leap into the back of her throat and try to squeeze into her nostrils as she instinctively went heavy. She felt like a deer in headlights as she fought back the overriding panic as the boy’s massive, triangular head came within four inches and he sniffed twice. A strange hiss/squealing noise that sounded utterly animal escaped his mouth as he backed up two steps and flashed his hands rapidly.
“Duh, Razorback, I told you that the rumors Aries were spreading were partially true before I invited her here.” Phobos put all four fists on her hips and looked at him irritably. “You really can be dense sometimes, you know that?”
Ayla croaked out, “Which rumors?”
“Razor says you smell both male and female. He pretty much automatically discounts anything that comes out of Aries’ mouth just because it’s Aries.”
Jericho nodded. “My boy here and Aries have a truly special relationship. Aries bullies the Underdogs, and Razorback chases him up trees when he catches him at it.”
“Razor’s one of the Bully-Busters?” Ayla looked slightly confused. The bully-busters were a loose pack of students who liked to smash faces on bullies around campus when they stepped too far out of line for the students, but not far enough to face Delarose or the harsher teachers on campus. Mule of the Grunts was probably the most well-known of the open Bully-Busters, with Jimmy Trauger holding second place whenever someone poked a Thorny.
Razorback gave everyone an odd look then gave a bit of a shriek before stalking over to his guitar case and putting on a necklace with a mirrored silver disc. He clicked something on the disc and began signing again. A monotone, robotic voice issued from the device. -I can neither confirm, nor deny the existence of the Bully-Busters, nor can I recall any activities as such directed at Aries. Even if he is an unusually tempting target.-
-What, you never see a dinosaur talk before?-
Jericho lobbed a water bottle at his buddy’s head. Razor ducked and began barking and growling at Jericho, and the two began an impromptu wrestling match on the concrete.
Ayla stood, somewhat dumbstruck at the Dorky Devisor and the most notorious psycho acting like a pair of goofball BOYS. “Are they always like this?”
Deimos gave her a look. “This is actually pretty tame. Those two have waaay too much fun messing with people’s perceptions.”
Jericho seemed to be having the worst of the wrestling match, but the pudgy boy was laughing like a maniac as he twisted Razor’s arm and grabbed his pinkie. This seemed to be the signal for the play to end as the two stood up, Razor’s finger held gently between Jericho’s thumb and forefinger, his pinkie raised slightly... Razorback shook his head like he was panicked and Jericho grinned evilly and nodded.
“Skidoosh” Jericho dropped his pinkie and Razor let out a shriek that made the hair on Ayla’s neck stand up as he fell over. The boys began laughing at Ayla’s weirded out expression.
“Do I even want to know?”
Jericho chuckled as Razorback stood back up. “We found a script buried on the internet. It’s awesome. You’ll love it when it comes out.”
Ayla just got an odd, half-smile, half-shocked expression... then just started laughing. She didn’t know what else to do.
Sandra arrived in the Hawthorne tunnels before Caitlin, but not by a wide margin. Caitlin had a small Asian girl in tow, and she grinned as she recognized Bladedancer. She’d met the girl once before, in the tunnels, but it had more been in passing, and the rumors slipping out from her friends said she wasn’t too bad to deal with.
“Hello ladies, it’s simply MAHVELLOUS to see you!” She slithered over to the two and gave a confident grin.
“Well, you’re in a good mood.” Caitlin looked at her oddly. “Who are you and what have you done with Diamondback?”
“Oh I am, found out a few things and slapped the shit out of Tempest.”
Chou did a doubletake. “You slapped Sharisha around?”
“Yup. She ran her mouth off about Fey and Chaka. And she called me a freak, so I slapped her.”
Caitlin gave her a look. “What are you not saying?”
“I’m going to be beating her ass in Arena ’77 here in a few days?”
“Because she’s a bigoted bitch?”
Chou gave Sandra a smirk. “Good enough for me.”
Caitlin rolled her eyes. “Whatever you two say. Let’s go see the boys do their music thing, shall we?”
“You seem remarkably unconcerned for my safety.” Sandra stuck her tongue out at Caitlin.
“You kicked Hekate’s ass, I am SO not worried about whether you can kick whoever you’re talking about into the ground, or tailslap her. Whatever it is you do.”
“So what have you been up to, Cait? Hardly seen you since I brought you food.”
Chou simply followed the two girls, studiously avoiding stepping on Diamondback’s tail.
“I was stuffing Nephandus’ head in a toilet.”
“You serious? Jay-Arm?”
Chou snickered. “Yes, she did. I didn’t realize he whined like that.”
Sandra gave a short laugh. “Only when he thinks you might punch him in the face.”
Caitlin raised an eyebrow. “How does that work?”
“Easy, Jean-Armand,” Sandra’s emphasis on his name was hardly complimentary, “is absolutely fearless when you start lobbing magic or psychics at him, likes to brag about how many Daemons he’s bound and forced into servitude. However, he doesn’t exactly have much life experience dealing with football players, bullies and people who will mess up his prettyboy face when he grabs their asses. Threaten him physically and he caves every time.”
“Good to know.” Chou grinned. “I’ll pass that along to Nikki.”
“Oh yeah, you two hang out a lot.”
“What’s that racket?” came a voice from Chou’s back.
Sandra looked around. “Cait, was that you?”
“Ummm, no. That would be the sword.”
“Suuure it is...”
Chou smirked. “She’s right, the sword can talk, and she sounds a lot like Caitlin here.”
“Yes I can talk, and I’ll ask again. What is that racket?” The sword’s voice rang out loud and clear to the three girls.
“Offhand I’d say a rendition of Seether’s Remedy.” Caitlin shrugged. “All in all not bad, either.”
“Certainly better than the usual cacophony I am subjected to, but still not exactly my taste.” The sword’s voice held a fair measure of quietly suffering disdain.
“Ayla likes Brass Monkey,” Chou said by way of explanation. Both of the other girls recoiled in horror.
“Brass…MONKEY?” Sandra’s voice held an edge of panic to it. “Oh my GAWD, someone actually LIKES that crap???”
“I’m with her on this one.” Caitlin got a sour look. “Brass Monkey’s the kinda thing one has nightmares about being subjected to in a police interrogation. I think it’s actually listed as psychological warfare material.” She also failed to mention that her old buddy Heckel absolutely adored the band.
“One type of music sounds like the other in these days to me, but how could something be used for torture be called music?” Destiny’s Wave sounded confused.
“I think she’s being facetious and exaggerating.” Chou smirked and shook her head.
Sandra nodded. “Not exaggerating by much though. That level of discordant noise should be illegal.”
“I’ll stick to Nightwish and Metallica. Brass Monkey sounds too much like a gorilla kicking itself in the nuts.” Caitlin smirked as Chou rolled her eyes. “Back to the cave of doom?”
“You’ve never been to the cave of doom.” Sandra poked her friend in the chest, mindful of the odd, greenish arc that chased her finger.
“Details, details, no pokey the cranky bitch.”
“But Hekate’s not here!” Chou’s comment stopped Sandra and Caitlin for a moment, then the two burst out laughing.
“Oh she’ll fit right in.” Caitlin chortled as Sandra nodded, grinning.
When the three stepped into the large room with the two boys rocking out, they actually got dirty looks from the mixed bag of Thornies, Twain boys and Whitman girls until Diamondback came into view.
“Relax folks, they’re cool.” The snake-girl’s simple statement seemed to mollify most, but there were a few hostile glares, which Caitlin pointedly ignored. She was used to homicidal looks from the kids on the ranges.
Jericho and Razorback were grinning from the makeshift stage with their amps and pickups as the Outcast girls filed in.
“Ah, my ladies, welcome! Sandra, please…” Jericho got a patently evil grin as Caitlin and Chou settled in near Ayla, Phobos and Deimos, “…join us.”
Sandra smiled sweetly at Jericho as she slithered forward to the cheers and jeers of the GSD crowd while giving him the finger. “I’ll get you for this.”
“Take a number and get in line.”
Razorback shrieked out his approval and handed a mic to Diamondback. Then he immediately began tearing into a riff string with his guitar. When the snake girl was just registering the fact that he was playing Jericho abruptly kicked in with his bass guitar and roared into the mic.
“What have you done now?”
The Twain crew howled their approval as two boys rammed out the riffs like they’d done it a hundred times, while Diamondback struggled to keep up with where they were. Jericho knew Sandra, and he knew better than to leave her any room to over-think and get stage fright. As the music played, even without a beat, she started swaying to the music, closing her eyes and pretending it was just the three of them once again. Jericho proved that he could actually sing as he continued the male vocals of the song.
Diamondback started singing with her old friend. Caitlin, Phobos and Deimos grinned as Sandra proved up to the task. Apparently Jericho’s bragging that she had an incredible voice was right on the money.
Jericho turned back and howled again.
The outcasts were in full play mode, and Razorback began headbanging as Jericho tore out the chorus line.
Caitlin found herself moving to the music in her seat, while Phobos, Deimos and Ayla sat there, grinning. Chou sat there, stunned, not having known what to expect, or how to react. As they watched, Sandra began swaying and moving like she was in her dance class. The effect was hypnotic, disturbing, and for the first time, a lot of the kids in the crowd began to realize that she was female, and she could move.
–What have you done?, Within Temptation.
The kids in the room howled their approval all through the rest of the song, and Caitlin found herself caught up in the sudden, unexpected rush as Phobos and Deimos were, roaring at the top of her lungs with the rest of the kids. Differences in age forgotten, the memory of the day’s misery fast fading, she joined wholeheartedly in the simple fun with the Outcasts of Whateley Academy, suddenly understanding, along with the two Poesies sitting nearby, just why Outcast Corner was the name of the team Jericho led.
“Well fuck me.” Caitlin was impressed. As used to kids using some kind of sonic shtick for their music as she was, seeing kids do it by talent alone was surprising, and refreshing.
Half a dozen “Okays!” rang out from around the room, and she couldn’t quite tell who they were, but the sheer absurdity had her laughing with her head in her arms, on the makeshift table. Chou was chuckling to the side while Ayla looked like she was just now beginning to relax a bit. The roommates looked at each other and smiled.
Jericho set aside the guitar and wandered over with a shit-eating grin and many high-fives from his buddies, while Razor hung back to talk to Sandra, who was glaring bullets at Jericho’s back.
Caitlin, Chou, the Fury Twins, and Ayla all gave a clap as he arrived, although Ayla seemed a bit half-hearted.
“Thank you, my adoring throng, I bask in your ovation!”
The lot of them threw bits of paper and gravel at him, but lightly. Jericho grinned and settled into a seat nearby, while the local kids from the various GSD dens settled into conversations with each other, and not a few went up to talk to Sandra about her performance.
Ayla looked thoughtful, and glanced at the irate snake-girl. She spoke after a moment. “You know, the singing was awesome, but that was kind of mean putting her on the spot like that.”
Phobos and Deimos exchanged smirks, as Jericho gave a thoughtful look. “Okay, Ayla, you’re new on the scene so I shall humor you.” He settled back, and Caitlin leaned forward, curious.
Jericho seemingly ignored Ayla’s skeptical look, looking forward, into blank space. “Let me tell you the story of two Texas twins. See, these two twins were my best buds, my partners in crime, me compadres. The two of them lived for the prank, the joke, the vicious play of words, and yes, the occasional spitting and slugging match in the playground. The two of them had everything a pair of kids could want, they were smart, relatively good looking, they had a sense of style, in fact it seemed their only flaw was their friendship with the fat black kid six blocks up the road.”
The blind Devisor continued on. “In reality, while these twins absolutely loved to get in and do shit, to get their hands dirty, to make friends, the both of them had this problem with being atrociously shy and reserved. Both of them had the gift for being social, but most of the time they just liked to tag along with their buddy, creating havoc and pranking and refining the ideas for mayhem he cooked up. They were also whizzes at finding ways out of trouble, which served my fat ass well.”
“However, after a time, I realized that while they had all these things they wanted to do, they didn’t have that self-confidence to jump out and do it. So rather than dragging them along behind me all the time, I’d sucker them, and then kick them in a direction that they wanted to go in but were leery of taking the steps. When they wanted to take a look at the Wiccan thing, I almost had to throw them at the local coven group I knew of. I had to spike their tempers so hard that they got their own at the student competition on the track. Every time, I, or one of our other lunatic buddies, had to throw them to the dogs to prove to them that they were in fact as good at what they were doing as I, and Bruce, and Kaylan, and Willie, and Lord help me, even Cassidy told them they were.”
Jericho got a serious look. “Don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming I carried their asses, far from it. But unfortunately for Sandra, and her twin, the only way to get them to realize that they can carry their own is to startle them, then kick a boot into their ass so hard that their instincts kick in before their doubts can.”
“That seems a bit thin.” Ayla was skeptical.
“Nope, he’s right.” Deimos pointed a finger at the small cluster of kids talking to Sandra, congratulating her. “That’s pure Diamondback. She’s going to glare at Jericho a lot for the next few days, get her confidence, then thank him later.”
“How is that normal?”
Chou looked at Ayla seriously. “There’s the difference between your upbringing and middle-class kids like us. You have the whole ‘act like a Goodkind’ confidence thing. Our parents just tried to guide us towards not making their mistakes in high school.”
“And sometimes it doesn’t work.” Caitlin shrugged. “It took me getting so hatefully mad at life that I should probably be in jail right now to get me to stop playing the wallflower from hell.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s fine, I’ll never understand what growing up rich feels like.” The sparking Artificer gave a wicked grin.
“Touché.” Ayla looked thoughtful. “Why is nobody glaring at me for being a Goodkind here?”
“Because you’re not acting like the Goodkinds.” Chou spoke quietly. “I mean look, would any of the rest of your family be caught dead in here in a room packed with the freakish and nightmare-inducing? Their words, not mine. I’ve seen the press-conferences.”
“Yeah. Is it okay if I admit that I’m trying not to panic still?” She looked at Phobos. “It’s not like I can hide it from you.”
“But you’re doing a very good job of suppressing it.” The red-haired Fury twin pretended to buff her nails on her shirt.
“You did this on purpose, didn’t you?”
Both of the twins got slow, crazed, shit-eating grins. “Now where would you get an idea that I’d do something like that?”
Ayla narrowed her eyes slightly. “I vill haff my revenge!”
“Looking forward to it, dearie.”
Caitlin chuckled. “All right, I’m going to go inflate Diamondback’s ego some more.”
Jericho nodded. “Agreed. Let’s go. You ladies play nice while we rub my best friend’s nose in her insecurities, and tell her not to leave them on the carpet anymore.”
“You, sir, are a bastard.” Ayla smirked.
“And I ate a baby!”
Cait and Jericho arrived at the same time as Jimmy Trauger, Razorback’s so-called cannibal buddy. Caitlin knew better, having had a long chat with Delarose over cards about some of the Ultraviolents on more than a few occasions, even if she wasn’t that awesome at paying attention to the whole picture.
Razorback set his guitar down, gave Jimmy a fist-thumping handshake, and grinned.
"Nice playing guys. Always glad to see you around." Jimmy turned to look at Sandra and grinned. "Damn, Diamond, if I'd known you could sing like that we'd have hijacked you from Whitman and dragged you over here to Hawthorne."
Sandra grinned slightly, showing off her fangs. "Well I still might wind up there, after all I do make a few of the staff nervous with the whole poison-spitting act."
"What's a little venom between friends?" Apparently Jimmy T was in good mood.
"Hey Jimmy, trying to escape the cage?" Caitlin grinned at her fellow Hawthorne inmate.
"You know Caitlin?" Jericho asked.
"How can I not? She visited the common room on movie night and couldn't figure out which language she was using. I STILL want to know what the hell you were saying.
"HEY! I haven't spoken anything but English for the last couple days!"
"I guess God DOES answer prayers!" Jimmy grinned.
Razorback gave out a barking laugh, then began signing.
"Whaddya men you pray for a pony?" Sandra grinned at him. "The Crystal Hall has food whenever you want it."
Razorback signed again. Even Jericho looked a bit disturbed. "Dude, that's just... eww. You eat them RAW???"
Razor nodded enthusiastically.
Caitlin chuckled. "What, nothing wrong with going native. Done it before. Hell, I've eaten spiders, scorpions, bugs, dogs, cats, you name it."
"GROSS!" Jericho and Sandra were unanimous in their opinions of that. Jimmy T just laughed.
"At least you don't have a rep for cannibalism." The shapeshifter kid said.
"Give me time." Caitlin smirked. "I have this feeling I'm gonna have a rep for being one of the most fucked up kids on campus."
"You're a Hawthorne inmate, you're already there."
"So got a question, Cait. You ever going to pick a codename?" Sandra looked thoughtful.
"I dunno. I thought about it for three minutes, but everything I come up with sounds too pompous or obnoxious for words." Caitlin began ticking off the list. "Metalhead, Soulforge, PMS Assault, Bitch-on-wheels, Skullthumper, The Amazing Wiseass..."
"Ugh, you really are too much of a tomboy for your own good." Sandra began thinking.
"OOH! Picking codenames? Can I help?" Jimmy grinned maniacally.
Jericho grinned. "I've always been fond of Amazon, hell, you're built like it."
Caitlin looked at Jericho. "I'm not THAT big."
"Cait, you're almost as tall as Hippolyta, and that's saying something," Sandra cut back, "and you've got that warrior-princess look going on, too hot to handle, bench presses Volkswagens on her off-time."
Caitlin looked skeptical, but let that pass. "So any other suggestions?"
"So what kinda power schtick you do?" Jimmy asked thoughtfully.
"In theory, magic, and I can thump the shit out of things pretty handily." Caitlin looked around quietly, lost in thought. "What I know for sure could fill a thimble, and the staff is equally lost in the sauce."
"How about Mystique?" Jimmy grinned.
"Jimmy have you lost your fucking mind? I am NOT fighting Marvel in court!"
Jericho leaned over. "How about Arcane? It kinda implies both magic and something beyond understanding."
Caitlin shook her head. "Good idea Jericho, but that one's taken. Arcane graduated from Whateley five years ago."
"Galatea?" Sandra asked quietly.
Caitlin shuddered as memories of a time bearing deep purple tattoos flashed through her mind. "Never mention Galatea around me again, please. Those are not pleasant memories."
Four pairs of eyebrows raised at once, but no one seemed to want to pursue the line of questioning when Caitlin started spitting out curses in Greek.
Razorback let out a short, feral shriek, and waited, then he began signing again now that everyone was actually paying attention. Sandra grinned.
"Eldritch." She looked at Caitlin, "Razor says you should be called Eldritch. Magical and poorly understood, but not beyond comprehension."
Caitlin stopped and looked at Razorback. It really was not a bad idea. Plus it seemed to fit better than any of the others. She gave Razor a smile and nodded to him. The six-foot-four spiked lizardman gave a satisfied chirp and began tuning the guitars again.
Jimmy grinned. "Well freshthings, I'd love to stick around and chat, but I have places to go, people to eat... err, see."
Razor gave Jimmy a short shriek and pumped his fist in the air while everyone else sort of laughed. It wasn't as funny when you realize he actually tried it once. Razor and Caitlin looked nonplussed, both had done worse to people.
A grinning farewell later, and Jimmy was off to parts unknown, to do havoc as only a shapeshifter could do.
Caitlin grinned as Jericho looked over, and pointed at a metal table. "Hey Caitlin, gimme a beat for the next song. We're playing Enter Sandman next, just need you to keep a steady pace."
Caitlin began tapping out a slow, steady beat which Razor immediately picked up and began playing Metallica’s song. Slowly it all picked up and Sandra began singing.