Ain't no need to go looking for trouble, when trouble already knows your name, your family's name, and if you had a dog, it'd know that one's name too. Or: "How Smithy's Christmas Break broke".
"I went into the woods today to see what I could find
I saw a fox and he told to me run away and hide
He said take your chances, run and hide
He said take your chances, run and hide"
—Cilla Jane, Into The Woods
Late afternoon, December 28, 2007,
Downtown Franklin, North Carolina
Abelyn Elliott was window-shopping - such as one could without driving all the way in to Asheville or Atlanta - and missing the big sales larger cities offered during the 'After-Christmas' season. Of course, minding her own business was no guarantee that others would mind their own. From behind her, she heard some guy call out to her.
"'Scuse me! Hey, wait up a sec? Ah, hell. Th' damn sidewalk's icy enough already."
She turned, and regretted doing so almost immediately. She'd been warned about Len Cox being eccentric to the point of getting involved with the local H1 chapter. Then again, they were out in broad daylight, and she had to have better footing in her hiking boots than him in those cowboy boots. Abie never quite understood the fascination so many guys, living the better part of a thousand miles from the Great Plains, had with cowboy boots, She didn't look but wouldn't have been surprised if the guy was wearing riding heels.
Sister, doesn't he sound more distressed than angry to you?
Yes. I can't say I was expecting that. That doesn't mean his intentions are good.
Of course not.
The young man managed to continue his approach without making an obvious fool of himself. "Hi. You're Abbie, Miss Decie's granddaughter, right?" The man reached out his hand to shake. "I'm Lenard Cox, but everybody calls me Len."
As they shook hands, Abbie judged the guy was in his early twenties at best. Also, he was looking around rather anxiously - as if to see if anyone else had seen him, or her. Red flags were beginning to pile up.
"Okay, Len it is. So, you?" Abbie let the question trail off under a raised eyebrow, so the other could get to stating his business and be on his way.
"I was wondering if you might be needing a ride back to Miss Decie's place? It's just, well, it gets pretty dark early this time of year, and most ladies your Grandma's age shouldn't be driving after dark."
"I could have driven myself you know."
"And you just visiting? Even if you've got a learner's permit, you'd still need an adult driver, and y'can't know the roads so well as to be running around at night." A look at his watch and then over in the direction of the old rail depot underscored the hint that time was important.
"I take it you've a car nearby?"
"Naw, but I do have a truck. What with all the backroads, 'n half of 'em ain't even paved with crush-n-run..."
"I get the picture. I do. My father owned an auto repair business back home in Eliz'bethtown."
"Oh. Right. Shame what happened to your folks. They ever catch them as done it?"
"No. It was ruled an accident by the coroner and the Highway Patrol."
"Accident... right. Look, my truck's just over this way." Away from the depot. "You can call your grandma or whoever and tell them that I'm bringing you home? Been a while since I've been up that way, really."
Abbie made a small production of pulling out her cell phone - actually a dummy handset linked to the comm set that a friend from school had gotten her - and placing the call.
Line not in service.
"Len, do you know if anyone else's phones might be out? I can't reach the house."
"No. I don't. Try 555-3131, and leave a message, would ya?"
"What number is that?"
"I'm sure someone's told you."
Line not in service.
"Let's just keep walking. It's not as if nothing's happening. You wouldn't happen to, um?"
"My father's people have always been blacksmiths, miners, and such. Mind games ain't my thing."
Abbie let the guy chew on that for a moment while she placed another call, bypassing the usual circuits. This one went through.
"Elve? Hi. I was planning on calling later, but I've met this guy Len..."
"Len Cox. What do you have against North Carolina guys?"
Said aggrieved 'North Carolina guy' told the empty air around them how UNC was a pretty damned good school and all...
"Yeah. He's offered to take me home, so it might be an hour or so. Your folks still there?"
"Oh. But you did get a good visit in with them?"
"Right. You're free to see how jealous you can get Mads and Kris."
Len looked at her oddly, "You stringin' two boys along? That can't end well."
"All right. If you don't hear from me, you know what's up. See ya!"
Abbie disconnected the call.
"Two guys? Not hardly. I'm not even sure whether Kris is more interested in me or Mads, while Mads gets possessive over anyone willing to associate with him. Some days I think both of them need a good swift kick in the head."
"Now I'm sure nothing good's gonna come of it."
A distant train whistle echoed the sentiment.
"How about we worry about that later? Did you hear that? You'd think there'd be more people out for a train pulling in."
"Yes. And NO. My truck's the red Chevy up ahead. Let's hope we're the first two to get to it. Can you handle a shotgun?"
"Better'n some boys back home."
"I might just have t' hold y' to that. Let's go!"
Late afternoon, June 20, 1993,
Franklin, North Carolina
Summer. School is out; the grass and the trees are green. The warm days feel like they'll last forever, and, maybe if you're young enough to avoid catching cynicism from the adults, having them last forever feels like a good idea.
Emily Cox had errands to run after church, so taking Lenard over to play at Wesley's Park was bound to be a nice break from having the boy roaming the forested hills around home. She knew some of the families there that had also had a mind to let the kids settle down a bit after a whole hour or so (depending on the pastor) of behaving better than a pack of savages. Her wild-eyed boy may have had too much Scotch Irish for him not to act like a hellion from time to time, but she could always hope for him to grow into better behavior, or was she just kidding herself again?
Lenard was sitting on a swing and swear-to-God absolutely not thinking at all about jumping the fence to poke around the boggy area behind the park because he might dirty up his good shoes if he didn't take them off first, because that would be wrong somehow. That clearly was one of those because-I-said-so rules because what's so bad about trees and frogs and stuff. Maybe he could catch a salamander or something?
An older kid came over from some other area before that salamander hunt even could begin. He sat on the next swing and started it rocking back and forth, which, come to think of it was better than just sitting. The older kids at school didn't have much use for Lenard, or any of the other younger kids unless they were related, so he knew that George had to be on the level about being new in these parts. Lenard lost track of the time walking around, collecting neat-looking twigs and scraps, and talking with his new friend. He only noticed the time because of a train whistle he thought he heard far away. George had been asked to look out for him, hadn't he, so what about it getting to be late was a problem? He had to agree with the older boy's logic that if there was a Depot Street, there just had to be a train depot around close to it. Didn't his mother say something about picking them up there so George could get home too? Just in case, they left the bundle of twigs and a message George wrote out for Len's mom to find.
Emily was only a little annoyed that Lenard hadn't stayed completely within the play area, but there wasn't that much dirt on his shoes or anywhere else. One of the other mothers said that some older kid – Jordan, or was it Jackson? Something starting with a "J" – got sent over to make sure the younger boy didn't wander off. For what must have been the umpteenth time, Emily Cox was glad her family didn't live in some big city where mothers needed to watch their kids like a hawk. She didn't need to have that over her head with maybe, God willing, another child on the way.
Late afternoon, December 28, 2007, Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina
Several back-roads and almost as many stories about who lives where, Abbie was thoroughly lost. The sun was well below the western hills and mountains before they arrived at her grandmother's home. Len pulled his truck in beside Mrs. Tipton's own pickup. If the woman had already set out for town, then someone else had to be driving. Len and Abbie got out.
The lights were on inside. Going by what one could smell from out front, someone might still be busy cooking dinner. Len and Abbie had just stepped up onto the porch when the front door opened.
"Kids these days! They don't go anywhere without a personal telephone, then go about using them for anything but placing a call!"
Abbie blushed at that while shutting down her comm gear's recording functions.
Len just said, "Miss Decie, we'd've called before, but reception in these parts ain't near as good as it is down east."
"Lenard William Cox, I wasn't born yesterday. A young man like you'd not be sweating like that over no phone call." The woman scraped her toe on the floor a bit as she said, "Come on in, before you both catch your deaths of cold."
Abbie walked in to the house ahead of Len. Her grandmother tossed a bit of powder from a potpourri dish across the threshold, then closed and locked the door.
"Len, go ahead and call your folks, let them know you'll be staying here a while."
"Grandma, when I tried calling here earlier your line was out."
"It wasn't out the last time I talked to someone. Len?"
"Got a dial tone?"
"There you go. Nothing to be worrying now, though I suppose you'll be wanting to catch up with your school friends. You can do that while I set the table."
"... hold on, Mom. Ma'am, I don't mean to put put y'all out!"
"Len, if it were that much of an imposition I'd've already had you back out th' door..."
Abbie went back to "her room", which had been her mother's years before, to call off whatever hair-brained schemes her roomie and the boys might have cobbled together. As it was, there'd been enough time for Kris' little sister to plan multiple travel itineraries, and Mads to start compiling dossiers on L.W. Cox and his associates. Didn't anyone make time for relaxing during the holidays?
"Ya, sure," Thomas agreed, in a horrid impression of a Swedish accent, "Ve vent hunting da moose, yeah? Had hooptie big smörgåsbord fer de Yul."
"Most people celebrate Christmas," groused Kris, "with family and with the people they thought they had known for years." Ouch.
"Funny thing about that..."
Elve spoke up, "Boys. It sounds like all of you could use some rest. I'll contact Security to inform them of the possible false alarm, so Abbie can eat supper like civilized people. Anything else before we hang up?"
Mads added, a flat tone in his voice, "Abbie? Pay attention to what this Cox fellow has to say about this afternoon. I ran some voice stress metrics on what he said. If nothing else, he was playing it a bit too diplomatically."
"You've already run that through before I've forwarded it?"
"Did anyone really think the gear he provided would be secure from him?"
"No. But we're still going to have go back over all this when we all get back."
"Duh. We really need to make some time to go over filming for panoramic reconstruction and so forth."
"You boys behave. Hanging up now."
We're going to have to expose you to Monty Python. Crazy thing is that a moose would be called an elk in Europe where the idjits are.
Should I assume it's an edible creature?
Picture a huge deer big enough to weigh as much as a buffalo. Huge antlers, too.
In which case I'm sure they feasted well.
At least none of the knuckleheads complained about a moose biting their sister.
Wait. Are you sure we are talking about a normal animal?
You'll see! Besides, I think normal went screaming out the window the day I got to Whateley.
One part of Abbie's brain balked at Thomas getting involved with the traditional masculine ritual of a deer hunt. Flash-frying the poor thing with lightning just didn't strike her as sporting. Another part lurched to a halt when she tried to picture five-foot-four Mads stalking some six-foot-plus moose through a forest in winter. Probably with a very big freaking gun. The two of them together? Brrrrr.
Her brain held off on proposing flash-fried Moose McNuggets until after she'd eaten.
All things considered it wasn't long before the conversation at the dinner table turned to the day's events.
Mrs. Tipton said, "I almost hate to ask, but how did you two manage to run across each other? The town's not that small."
"I was walking up Main Street toward the Indian mound - I figured I could call for a ride once I got to that cafe a block away from there - when I heard Len calling out my name."
"That's true. I'd just finished getting a haircut. Wanted to get that taken care of before I head back to Asheville next week."
"So you just had to show a pretty young girl from out of town that your truck could still bounce its way over half the Nantahala forest's fire trails?"
"No ma'am! It wasn't like that at all! I sw-"
"Have a care boy, before you go finishing that sentence."
"Yes ma'am. I was just intending to offer your granddaughter a ride, out of respect for family, but it would've gone better if we'd started out sooner."
"Er, the train was running early, and a bit light on cargo I'd wager."
"Nothing to do with those malcontents you've been running with since you got back?"
That was putting it plainly. In the shocked silence that followed, Abbie noticed that the table setting set for the young man was mismatched and the plate cracked. Surely, there were more subtle ways to make a point?
"Miss Decie, we may disagree on many a thing, but there are legitimate dangers to the human race out there. Abbie here being a mutant don't change that. If anything, it may have put her in a worse position once she heard that inbound whistle."
"I take it that you heard it too."
"Ma'am, I'd appreciate if this didn't get back to my parents, but let's just say that I have no doubt that a certain train is pulling into Tallulah Falls as we speak."
"I... see. You're thinking that Abbie was at risk?"
"A spirit-ridden girl from a family as old as your'n? The conductor'd eat the penalties for pulling up to the Market in Atlanta after midnight. Among others. Both your phone number and that for the local chapter of, you know, happened to go out of service."
This conversation has gotten uncomfortable. How could he perceive me?
That is a good question.
Abbie asked, "Now that you've brought the subject up, how'd you get the idea I might be a mutant? I haven't been flashing my MID around."
"Your grandmother and my mom are second cousins one way or another. Besides that, there's that something about exemplars which you've got, and like I said: spirit-ridden."
"If you're seeing spirits hanging around, maybe you need to get tested by a professional."
Mrs. Tipton cleared her throat and said, "I think this topic has gone far enough for the night. Both of you need to eat some more food, and Len, you'll be staying the night."
"And since I've already set some milk and a bit of rum cake out, there's no reason to be opening and closing doors after dark. Cold enough as it is, I say, without letting more in."
Some time after midnight, Inaam woke Abbie up. They both heard voices somewhere about the house's front room: low, but tensely pitched for a quiet, but heated, argument. As she got dressed, Abbie thanked her Survival 101 instructors for drilling into students' heads the need to always be ready to leave some place on a moment's notice. Getting from her room to the front door without being heard stepping on the creaky old wood floorboards would be a trick and a half. Hell, if one of her friends could sneak up on a cat while wearing service dress shoes, it had to be something she could learn!
She settled for waiting at the door to her room for the ten or so minutes the talking went on until the house's front door was closed and steps could be heard in the hallway.
"Go back to sleep dears," Mrs. Tipton said to no one in particular. "Just some fools who didn't know their place is all."
Saturday morning, December 29, 2007, Tipton residence
Len and his truck were both gone by the time Abbie woke in the morning. She and her grandmother went about morning chores without discussing it.
Over a well-buttered piece of toast Abbie asked, "Grandma, what was all that about last night?"
"Some bad things have happened to that boy's family, some of it on them in my opinion. Be that as it may, I reckon they aren't quite over yet."
"You're not going to tell me just what though, are you?"
"It's not my tale to tell, Abelyn."
"So why'd Len leave already?"
"He said he needed to head home bright and early if he wanted to finish visiting with his folks and make it to Asheville by noon." Mrs. Tipton let that sink in if it would while she drank some more coffee. "That reminds me: there's some things I wanted to show you before you left. If you're going to be spending the summer with that stubborn old man on your father's side (How such a nice boy like your father could be related to that old coot, except by a shotgun marriage or other dealings, I'll never know!) you'll need to be able to look out for yourself some more."
"I got the impression on Parents' Day that you two don't see eye to eye on some things."
"If I weren't more of a lady, or that Mrs. Carson so fast (Your Aunt Ethel's no slowpoke!), that horrid old man would have been needing stitches."
"It's kind of strange how they try to be so strict on visitors, but the rest of the time it seems they let the bullies get away with so much."
Decie Tipton took another slow sip of her coffee. In the morning light ghosting through the light rain outside she looked both older than her years and yet about Abbie's mother's age. Memories can do that.
"Child, a woman needs to be able to stand up for herself and for those depending on her. Never forget that. Having people you can trust around you is good, but there'll come times when you're alone. "
"Mr. Anderson and Imp said much the same in my Survival class."
Abbie smiled, "She says she prefers that, or Miss Imp, or The Fabulous Imp, even out of class. You'd know her if you met her. I'm told the only thing she's serious about is art."
"It takes all kinds to make a world. Pity we didn't get to meet, if that's the way of it."
"Yeah. So you think they're working on getting us to learn to handle things on our own?"
"Of course they are. Maybe get an education out of it too, if you apply yourself. Private schools are fine for teaching some things, but a lot of those kids come home knowing everything about Homer and Aristotle and not a thing about making a home for a family or about living with people who aren't just like them."
"I don't think those things are even on the curriculum."
"Education has fallen off quite a bit since I was a young girl. You haven't been letting yourself get bullied have you?"
"Just the usual locker-room nonsense. There must be a law somewhere that there's always got to be some girls putting all the others down for not being as pretty or rich or whatever as they think are. And there's always some boys who have to be jerks too."
"That could be true. But?"
"But most idiots back off from a girl who can shift a Chevy small block V8 by herself. Plus, the girls in my dorm try to look out for each other. That helps. Friends too."
Where do I fit in?
The sister I should have had?
Ha! I hate to admit it, and I'm not sure why, but I think Cox was right to worry yesterday.
I was armed.
Not against everything. Remember that!
"Even so. Your spirit you didn't pick up on the danger posed by people on that train, did you?"
"There's a good chance your friends wouldn't have either. The phone lines weren't out but they must have seemed that way to you. What else could have been lying in wait, what with you having sight and mind misled? You could have been fooled into shooting someone who wasn't there or an innocent bystander."
That put a nasty spin on the "magic punks PK" rule of thumb from school.
I can help shield your mind by virtue of being bound to you, but she raises a good point.
"I see your point. But I'm not a magician myself."
"There's ways to protect yourself without being one. Your mother should have taught you some of that, but I guess she thought she'd have more time before you'd be on your own. Parents do that. For now, no going into town by yourself, young lady! Who did you get a ride with - you didn't leave a note unless somehow the rain got to it?"
Abbie struggled to remember the name of who had stopped by, not coming up with any answer for several minutes. If a name came to mind, it was someone else, or she couldn't figure the events leading to meeting or leaving that person. She felt literally dumbstruck and in her mind she felt Inaam struggling the same. All the while, her grandmother's gaze held her own pinned in place with no escape.
Finally the older woman spoke "So that's the way of it. You stay here and finish your breakfast. I've got calls to make. By the way, when do your tickets say you're to fly out?"
"Monday evening out of Atlanta. D'you want me to go get them?"
"No, no. Just checking. I need to pay a visit to an old friend and I'd wondered if you might have enough time to accompany me."
"I'd love to!"
"Good, then it's settled."
Sunday afternoon, December 30, 2007, Interstate 40, eastbound
So it was that one thing followed another, as they will. Abbie woke to find herself in a jacket turned inside-out, wearing an old red gimme-cap, huddled against the passenger-side door of a pickup. Rain beat upon the roof of the cabin and against the windshield. Through the side window Abbie could somewhate make out a lead-gray sky hung low over sodden dark trees and pastures.
The driver kept his eyes on the rain-slicked road as he said, "Welcome back, Miss Elliott!"
Abbie tried to stretch out cramped muscles. "Where are we?" she asked. How long had she been out of it?
"About ten minutes outside of Asheville, give or take some." The guy sounded an awful lot like Len, but there was something more of a drawl in his words.
"You've been asleep most of the trip."
"How does that work out? I was just eating breakfast with Grandma Tipton and... Did something happen? Something must've happened." This was not good at all. Abbie could feel that Inaam shared in her dismay, but it didn't yet look like either could do much about the situation.
"That would have been yesterday morning I think, about when Miss Decie realized you were bespelled. Tried getting help for you from a friend a' hers up the road, but nothing to do for it but for me to come take you on through to Asheville. There's supposed to be some snow coming and there's no need for you to be missing your flight back to Boston."
"This spell - is it permanent?"
Len laughed, a bitter dry laugh with no humor to it. Abbie was glad he was keeping his eyes on the road, as she wasn't sure she wanted to see more of what lay behind that. "There ain't a conjury, cantrip, or grand working, that's truly permanent nor without flaws to it. That doesn't mean it can't be hard to end one. Or that it can't be tied up in others."
"Sounds like there's a story behind that."
"Maybe. Some days I think I might even live long enough to tell it."
"Oh. By the way, your cap stinks."
"Never noticed, myself."
Abbie reached up to take the thing off. The driver reached over to stop her.
"Don't. Just keep wearing it until we're settled in. Alright? We do not need more trouble."
Abbie kept quiet for the next few miles. She searched her memory for when and where her holiday trip had gone sideways. They left the highway for a somewhat residential area before she decided to apologize for the trouble. "I'm sorry if all this has put you out. I know you meant to be back here yesterday..."
This time Len's head jerked right to face the girl, his eyes searching hers for some sign of a lie or a joke. He then swore, turning back in time to stay on the pavement. "That bastard son of a whore..." The truck sped up.
They pulled into a run-down but serviceable apartment complex. Political and band merch decals on vehicles ranging from decent to learning experience gave away the large student population among the residents. Halfway around to the back, they were directed by a policeman to continue past a blocked-off parking area. Not much smoke was still visible, but enough to show there'd been a fire put out recently. They passed a couple more apartment buildings before pulling into a parking spot.
"I'm guessing that this one isn't your building. What now?" Abbie asked.
"I could attempt transporting a minor across state lines, but if that pisher got word out ahead of us, we might just end up chasing our own tail into an ambush."
"I should call the school to let them know there's a problem."
"What if someone's monitoring the nearby cell towers?"
Abbie thought to herself It's Mads' toy: if he's really a techie like he says, there's got to be an app or two for checking for things like that...
"We pick one direction, make the call, then head off in another direction once it's over."
"Okay. I've heard worse plans. I want to fill up the tank first before we do that."
The truck lurched as Len started the engine and put it in gear. Same old song, just a different tune.
Wednesday afternoon, December 26, 2007,
Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina
Len choked back on the ancient rage tinting his sight red as he drove nowhere in particular. Ever since he'd gone back to the place that used to be home, he'd wondered how things stood between him and his family. Seven years of being afraid he was still only two steps shy of falling in with one troop or another, and seven years of hanging on to his sanity by his fingernails.
This year he knew where he stood. On the outside. Again.
Thirteen years ago his family'd gone so far as to give his younger brother his name in even trade. Except no such trades with the Gentry were ever even. They'd always said otherwise, but still seemed disappointed with what they'd gotten in return. That was their own damned fault.
This year his father had actually asked why Len couldn't be more like the boy who'd traded his soul for a more advantageous Choosing at the Market and hadn't looked back since. One of his cousins had snickered at that, thinking Len's hearing must be as duller'n'a dullahan's.
Once more, he jammed an old red cap on his head and walked out before someone would need to be carried out. He pointed his truck east towards Asheville. As much as he'd worked getting into college, that must be where his future lay.
Sunday evening, December 30, 2007, Not quite nowhere if they have a McDonald's, right?
Jim Redmond was pleased to see the pickup truck featured on the latest BOLOs roll into the parking lot in mostly one piece. In places the thing looked like the Bondo'd spots had been patched with more Bondo. If this Cox weren't a student, he was doing a damn fine job at making that impression. Jim waited to see if the kids had been followed before walking into the fast food joint behind them.
"Imagine meeting you two here! Mind if I take a seat?"
That's right, kids. Too late to bolt without making a scene.
The girl started, but recovered quickly. "Not at all, we're just waiting on a friend."
Jim placed a laminated ID card on the table, face side up. "Maybe I could be that friend?"
The older boy picked up the card, knocking a small ring he wore against it. He stared at the picture on it and then at Jim. Satisfied, he nodded.
"Could be. How far you fixin' to go?"
"Not to South Carolina nor even Charlotte if I were you."
"Go ahead and eat up. I might happen to know a place you two can lie low for day or two until the smoke clears. I don't recall whether the kitchen's been restocked, so - better safe than sorry."
Monday morning, December 31, 2007,
Uwharrie National Forest
Abbie woke up on an unfamiliar cot in an equally unfamiliar cabin. Her head felt mostly clear, but that allowed her to assess two more immediate problems. One, she needed to find a bathroom or outhouse, whatever, half an hour ago. Two, there was a guy stretched out on the floor next to the cot. Make that three problems, as the guy in question had started growling in his sleep.
The man we met last night showed us the 'facilities'. There's a composting toilet set up behind that curtain in the corner. No need to exit the wards in the middle of the night.
I don't suppose there's a shower as well?
I believe the answer to that is still 'Can you swim?'
Could be worse.
You say that now, Sister. It wouldn't be the first time you were – how should I say it? – overly optimistic.
It did get worse. The cot barely survived Abbie's attempt to step over the Cox boy in the middle of his nightmare. She fled to the bare privacy afforded by pulling a curtain closed. Too much had piled up on her to be asked to take on one more embarrassment. Tears falling down her face, she dearly wished she had never left home. If that miracle were too much to ask of God, not leaving the relative safety of the school would do.
"Um, Abbie? Or do you prefer Abelyn?"
She sighed to herself. How could he have forgotten so quickly? "I usually go by Abbie; it's Smithy when I need to use code names."
"Code names. So you really are a mutant? I didn't catch everything when you were on the phone."
"I thought you said you'd heard about it from your mother?"
The silence in the cabin stretched out uncomfortably until Cox replied, "I... I don't speak too much with my family any more. Christmas Eve was so tense I ended up driving back to school the next morning."
What? Twenty-fourth plus one day doesn't come out to the twenty-ninth in my world.
"Are you going to be much longer? I, uh, kind of need to go too, and, uh – please don't take this the wrong way – but if we're going to have much in the way of breakfast I hope you know how to cook."
Even for a boy, the distress sounded real. Abbie grudgingly dried her face, wiped, and stepped out to wash her hands and face. A red-faced Len rushed past her without even complaining about the seat being warm (not if he wanted to survive the next few minutes).
A few things in the small refrigerator/freezer needed to be tossed out. Some science experiments weren't meant to be. But the bacon, eggs, and some potatoes and onions, looked safe enough to cook up in one of the cast-iron skillets hung upon the wall. Len looked at the skillet as if it were an alien artifact ready to lash out at any moment. Maybe it was just the way she was able to ignore the heat building up in the metal implement? Not that a kitchen got as hot as a well-stoked forge, unless the whole place was on fire.
The quiet threatened to go on forever if someone didn't say something. "You know, I always pictured you H1 fellows as the outdoorsy camping and grunting in the woods types; not stymied by a basic bacon and eggs breakfast..."
"Who? In Oberon's blackest fornicating HELL-b'set rath TOLD you that I had anything to do with that trash? Do I even look THAT stupid?"
"You, for one! Right before we got in your truck."
"You were unconscious by the time we . . . That sonuva-! Fine! When th' hell did I tell you that?"
"Friday afternoon. Right after you got your hair cut, or so you said."
"I didn't even lay eyes on you until yesterday when I drove back out to meet up with Mrs. Tipton. An' aside from that 'Friday’s hair and Sunday’s horn goes to the dule on Monday morn.' Didn't your folks teach you anything?"
"Plenty. At least they did until they were killed!"
"Ava and her husband are dead? When did that happen? Damn. Not that anyone would've bothered to tell me."
"This past August, so four months ago. Don't expect me to feel sorry that you didn't know after you bringing it up yourself."
"That. Wasn't! Me."
Something in the look of Len's eyes reminded her of someone about to drick out or go rager. That'd be pretty ironic for someone wearing a red cap. It would also be pretty foolish for someone who didn't know his way around a cast-iron skillet to be provoking someone holding one that was still cooling in her hand. On second thought, this could be either a very bad time or a good one to be provoking whoever she just spent a night with.
She had to know. "Who are you? Really."
He closed his eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. This got old a long time ago.
Opening his eyes again, Len looked directly at Abbie. "The name my birth parents gave their first-born son is Lenard William Cox. I prefer not to be confused with William Lenard Cox, their second-born son, though I have cause to believe that he has no such scruples about using my name to his benefit. You might want to plate the bacon so you can finish up the cooking. Or if you don't want to set it down, you could just let it burn ya."
"I took the code name 'Smithy' do you honestly think a barely-warm skillet's going to bother me? So, what are you two, twins?"
"Try trade-ins. An' it's every last bit as screwed up as that sounds."
The atmosphere in the cabin was still tense when they heard a key in the front door's lock.
If I rush the door, maybe any first shots will go wide, thought one.
Damn it! My purse is too far away. Need to start wearing a holster, thought the other.
"Good morning, folks! I won't ask how you're getting along, seeing as how I could hear ya halfways up the road," the man who'd introduced himself last night as "Jim Redmond" said as he walked in carrying some bags of groceries. "It also explains some of the crazier phone calls me and my friends have been getting. And I quote: 'Do we need to send Count Mass back sooner rather than later?' :unquote."
Len asked, "What the hell's a 'count mass'? Some rock band?"
"Not mass. The name's spelled m-a-d-s. Or t-r-o-u-b-l-e. Before school let out I thought I heard someone mention that he needed permission to travel for some reason. There could be complications on his end."
"Got it. Mother always said that high school boys are more trouble than they're worth. Having married one, I always figured she'd know. Anyhow, got some supplies." Jim handed the Harris Teeter supermarket bags off to Len. "Probably just as well your friends from that school can't get here to jump in the middle of a situation that's mostly under control. Maybe if we were talking about a licensed sorceror it might be different."
"Wiz Three good enough?"
"Seriously? But a freshman?"
"Freshmen. Both him and his, um, partner."
Len shrugged at the term, "Partner. Yep. That's what they call 'em in Atlanta. Some of the customs 'n mundies say worse things, but pots 'n kettles burn black all alike."
"Len, I should ask if you think you can handle sharing this place with a 'mundie' until we're ready to move the two of you?"
Abbie broke off from cooking the eggs to say, "At least I can cook!"
"That far along, son?"
"It's not like I'm pregnant nor anything! But, yeah. I'm guessin' so."
"That complicates things. I can set up some wards and some warn-offs that should keep the others out for now, but you both need to be thinking about your situations going forward."
Abbie said, "I gotta say I'm still in the dark about what's going on between him and his brother, not to mention how I fit into all this."
"Have you seen any of your grandmother's work? The last time I paid her a visit, she had all kinds of pottery she'd made in her studio out back. There's a long line of artisans in your family. Customs'll pay a good premium for talent."
"I hope you're not saying that just to get more eggs." Abbie pasted on a smile as she doled out scrambled eggs to the plates set out. "The other one said something about me being 'spirit-ridden'."
"Was that why you were going on about H1? Because you might be a mutant?"
Abbie went over to her purse to retrieve her MID. "I am a mutant," she said, placing the laminated card on the table.
Len took in the few codes he recognized off the card. "Crap. That... would justify that tossrag taking on that much risk. I don't know what he can do, but maybe y'all should call in your boy."
"Like I said, calling more people in at this point is only going to complicate matters. Where would the boy be coming from?"
"Huh." Jim sat back, arms crossed and staring into the shack's ceiling, while thinking about how best to fit the next puzzle pieces. An itinerary ending in Berlin, New Hampshire, wouldn't fool a one-eyed village idiot, making Boston the next best air destination. The catch there being that there's only so many places to fly out of the region that wouldn't be bird-dogged, except for Pope AFB. Plus, the longer the girl was out in the open, the better the chance to pick up her trail.
"Well," Jim said, "I don't think we'll be catching any flights today, but Wednesday evening or oh-dark-thirty Thursday might work out. Just be ready to go when I get here, and try not to kill each other. Or anything else!"
Hours later and miles down the road
"Happy New Year, Frank!"
"Man, you sound like you could use some extra-strength holiday cheer. Who knew that your kids could get into so much trouble?"
"I heard about that so-called unexpected seismic activity in Colorado last year. Listen, I think I've got part of a solution to one of your problems. That's if you can have someone make a pickup at Hanscom."
"Right. Right. I hear you. Also, if you can arrange for a couple of kids going by 'Metro' and 'Valravn' to fly out tomorrow? All I know for sure is that they do a bit of magic, and one of them packs cold iron."
"Frank? Frank, you're breaking up. I could've sworn you said something about watching out for whales. Look, I'll send you the details on our end as soon as I get them."
"You too, Frank, you too."
"I went into the woods today to see what I could see
I saw a deer and she told me that she was free
She said stay awhile, don't be afraid
She said stay awhile, don't be afraid"
—Cilla Jane, Into The Woods
Monday evening, December 31, 2007,
"...Gud bevare Danmark.”
The traditional close to Her Majesty The Queen's New Year Address found Mads Møller-Jensen taking another look at an invitation, one which had been hand-delivered shortly after Yule, as if by staring at it so he could divine whatever hidden intent lay behind it.
The Royal Steward is commanded by
The Queen to invite
Mads and Thomas, Lords Shadowsfall
To the Deadwinter Ball
It may be important to note that this invitation was from a different Queen, not that that made attendance any more optional. Evelyn Beaulieu, Mads mother, caught him worrying about it again and said, "That can wait until after supper, can't it?"
"Yes, but I still think I'm missing something."
"What's to miss? The Steward isn't tendering the invitation by whim, but on orders, and therefore the business you have with them is official. It also shifts the responsibility for your sponsorship back up to the monarch. The only thing curious is that a hand-written invitation should have a blank line to be filled in. On the one hand, they're handing out a blank check; on the other, anyone could have filled the spot you're taking."
"Could this be in reference to the trouble Abbie's gotten in?"
"What are the odds that it's just a coincidence?"
"Sometimes, it's not enough to be known in certain circles — one must be seen to have a certain amount of favor. I'd recommend against torquing off either dignitary mentioned."
Lars asked, "Mads, how much trouble are you in this time?"
"Over that? None. Yet."
"So is it marching orders then, or an example of the parade route?"
"Lars," Evelyn replied for Mads, "When dealing with any of the Faerie Courts, what's left unsaid in one's company can be as important as what is said. Never forget that though they may look human, they are not."
"So why is the grifter demanding to see his manager?"
"Doubling down is a time-honored way to make another player fold even though he may have the stronger hand."
"Are you holding or folding, bror?"
"Both." Mads touched his chest as if he were holding a hat in salute over his (upper) heart, "I will, of course, be guided by the wisdom of Her Majesty."
"Why do I have so much trouble believing that?"
"You just haven't met her."
Several hours into the New Year later
If either Mads or Thomas had thought they could just sneak back into Evelyn's apartment unnoticed ... Thomas could blame too many passings of the parting cup, but Mads didn't have the advantage of that excuse. The lights came on bare seconds after the entrance door was closed.
"Boys, you were invited to one ball. Where else have you been, and is that lipstick on Thomas' collar?"
Mads looked up to the offending telltale. "I hope that's what it is..."
"Lady Amaltheia said she didn't want me to leave without indelible memories of her."
"... or it could be poison after all. I really hate to cast Detox; T's a pleasantly mellow drunk."
"You'll both have to do better."
"Er, for the record? The Royal Steward agrees."
Evelyn shook her head. "There's still coffee in the pot. You both look like you could use it."
Way too bloody early in the AM, January 2, 2008,
Vesterkæret, Aalborg, Denmark
Whoever it was that decided that exemplars have to recover from a proper New Year's celebration before the rest of the world must surely be in dire need of being shot. Repeatedly. At least he didn't have to worry about leftover Kranskage going to his hips anymore. Knowing that his parents and older sister (assuming she's made it home yet!) would be sleeping off last night's let's empty the bottle toasts, Kristian Holm grudgingly rolled out of bed to shuffle to the front of the house. It hadn't dawned on his groggy mind – still missing a recently-vacated warm bed – who'd be so uncouth as to be banging on the door.
If he had, he might have had the presence of mind to try to bribe Frida to send them away. Instead, he opened the door to two of his classmates from school, one of whom must have found a source of coffee.
"Happy New Year!" the shorter of the two announced.
Thomas Jensen, the taller of the two, rolled his eyes before muttering the same, adding "Just so you know: we're here for you."
"Think of it as a friendly extraction," Mads Jensen started to say before being cut off by Kristian.
"Don't you mean 'distraction'?"
"Nope! Not unless you're into that kind of thing...", Mads raised an eyebrow, his questioning counterpoint to a crooked smirk, just in case.
Kristian decided it was safer to let the two guests in, than to let any neighbors – or his parents – overhear whatever Mads would consider a suitable distraction. Probably something involving an excess of inflammable materials left over from the New Year's Eve fireworks.
As he entered, Thomas pointed out, "Either way things go, you'll be needing a change of clothes, passport, your repair kit, and some hard currency. You might want to pack whatever clothes you want to wear for Sky High before we leave, unless you prefer to leave your wardrobe choices for the next several months to the munchkinette."
"For example, does she enjoy Hello Kitty? Lots of clothing inspiration to be had there."
"Generator. Aaaaaannnd the rest of Wondercute."
Kristian asked himself, not for the last time in his Whateley career, Does it still count as an abduction if your friends and family are in on it? He kept the question to himself; even to him it sounded ungrateful and he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. Instead he went with "What's the rush? School doesn't start again until Monday. That's almost a week away."
"We're flying out today. Abbie ended up in more trouble than we all thought. I thought you were copying the traffic?"
"Shouldn't there be plenty of time to get to the airport? "
"Yes, and no. Don't forget that someone needs to say their goodbyes, and all that."
"My parents probably heard the banging on the door."
Thomas said, "Not you. Him. In Copenhagen. Speaking of which, are you going to invite your aunt in?"
"What?!" Kristian ran to the door.
"Do you think we should've told him to put on more clothes?"
From another part of the house, toward the front, someone young, male, and terribly embarrassed sounded rather upset.
Mads yawned. "Nah."
Wednesday Afternoon, January 2, 2008,
Office of the Headmistress, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Each new term, Whateley Academy students and staff manage to come up with some new and unusual set of problems to complicate or delay their arrival. The sub-orbital, jet-propelled pickup truck was a recent high-water mark that Elizabeth Carson had no desire to see surpassed during her remaining term as Headmistress of the school. Yet, she had summoned one of her more capricious and flamboyant instructors to oversee getting a group of students safely back to the school.
"Christine. Under other circumstances, I would call in a more senior staff member to chaperone this group of students."
"Preferably one with a more boring background as well?"
"You'd be surprised how many times I've relied on Lillian Dennon's ability to keep unruly teens and adults in line. Unfortunately, she isn't welcome in Boston, and I'd rather not send her to Bedford."
"Hmmm... A man doesn't get in a situation like this every day."
"Bedford, Massachusetts, not Bedford Falls. We've a student who's been the subject of multiple attacks, along with a not-so-innocent bystander flying in to Hanscom Air Force Base very early tomorrow morning. Three others are on a red-eye flight to Boston, inbound from Heathrow."
"What about Security?"
"We're shorthanded thanks to other misadventures. However, one of the students you'll be picking up at Boston Logan has completed the Defensive Driving for Overland Vehicles course. I have an envelope of papers to hand off to him, once you've left the airport. You may want to pick up some Xanax in the infirmary before you leave."
"Will either one self-destruct at the end of this message?"
"We're talking about teens. Be very careful what you ask for."
Wednesday Afternoon, January 2, 2008,
SAS Flight 189, westbound over the Atlantic Ocean
A stray thought had been bugging Kristian, one which he'd normally set aside as an unnecessary worry, but over the past couple of weeks he'd been learning that some things shouldn't be left quiet.
"Mads, did it occur to you yet that this early trip back might be connected to whoever you pissed off two weeks ago?"
"Don't exclude yourself from those enemies lists, Kemosabe. Passenger lists aren't that hard to compare to social networks."
I didn't want to know that, or so Kristian thought.
Thomas said, "Besides, that's only the fourth - no, fifth - time anyone's tried to kill him while inside a big metal coffin flying by virtue of engines designed to convert themselves to shrapnel in case of malfunction." Kris didn't need empathy to read Thomas' extreme dislike of aircraft. Not many people would still be white-knuckling the armrests two hours into a flight. The ongoing refusal to acknowledge the existence of windows was also a good hint.
"Oh. I guess the other three guys missed? On TV, every shot is a hit except as needed for the drama!"
"There was the one time with the helicopter rigged to blow up. Then there was the transport that his friend took control of. I'll admit he splashed both jet pilots. There was that one gunship that may have survived contact. Yet he still thinks of aircraft as 'safe and reliable'."
Mads shrugged, "As long as I get a window seat, I'm cool."
"In case you were wondering, that's exactly what doomed the jet jockeys."
Kristian was beginning to wish he'd been provided a different seat, on a different aircraft. "This could still be part of a trap laid in response to any number of provocations."
"Only if certain parties we don't know much about are aligned with certain other unknown parties, in which case yeah we're fragged. Or, we could be heading back too early for the trap being set, assuming there is one already, and not some other form of ambush to be sprung at some other time. Too much double-thinking makes for crazy people thinking."
Pot. Kettle. Black.
"So what are we supposed to do?"
"Doing what we're supposed to do hasn't always worked out so well, Kris. You're in a plane. Right now: what can you do against an imminent threat?"
"Er ... that depends?"
"You could be preparing yourself to respond to events we can logically expect to happen once we land. Lost baggage, shenanigans at Customs, kidnapping — although I think airports tend to see more political assassinations."
"Right. I didn't think of that. Any of that." So much for going with reason. Kristian had never had his parents' knack for intuiting what other people might do.
Thomas said, "Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Kris. Everyone gets things wrong, even, no, especially the stuff they think they're supposed to know without asking. Your bad taste in deodorants for one thing."
"Were you two comparing notes over Christmas?" That was– That was something he should have taken the opportunity to do with Mads. He could have easily left out any of the bad topics.
"Yule. But no, it's one of those things illusionists and shapechangers are most likely to get wrong, so it's worth paying attention to. There are noses and sensors that can pick up on aroma molecules outside of an illusion's effects. Some of those noses are even attached to the shapechangers in question. Changing how you smell is a routine precaution just like changing the travel route for your work commute."
"I'll have to take your word on that."
"You shouldn't. That's why everyone's taking Team Tactics. It's the things you think you know or assumed your crew knows that gets people waxed."
Regret and recrimination hit Kris like a wall from his right.
"... if not waxed, shellacked," Mads said.
Thomas said, "You had the green light to get rid of both of those mudsuckers."
"I know. Can't blame a guy for wishing he could have rehabbed his assets."
"Not your job, and not on that job."
Thursday Afternoon, January 3, 2008,
Kane Hall entrance, Whateley Academy
An institutional-white passenger van pulled up to a parking spot close to Kane Hall, to drop off its first passenger — a heavily-sedated and hypothermic employee of the Knights of Purity who had unwisely decided to intercept the van and its passengers. That he'd made this decision unilaterally after being ordered to stand down meant that Imp didn't have much luck in fobbing him back off onto his employer. The New Hampshire State Police had pointed out that since the man was an adult with no outstanding warrants they didn't have space to put him up. Imp had counter- pointed out that the vehicle had limited space left, only to be told "Well then, you'll just have to be creative."
When he finally noticed that his Security force coworker was having trouble dealing with the former KoP employee, Metro rummaged through his backpack for a 3-ounce bottle of duct tape adhesive solvent. Now that he thought of it, using that was sure to be safer for the van's paint job.
At Whitman Cottage, the driver let Waikikamukau off, along with her and Smithy's luggage. At Twain Hall, the driver dropped off two more students, Tephra and Rorsmand, with their luggage. The next two stops required driving across the campus to Poe and Hawthorne Cottages, where only luggage needed to be unloaded. The last personnel (Metro, Imp, Valravn, Smithy, and Len Cox) finally exited the vehicle at Kane Hall.
The Tired But Still Fabulous Imp motioned for the others to gather 'round. "Now, what have we learned from today's events?"
"Mage rides shotgun."
"That's a good one Abbie. At least now we know to do that and we know why. What else?"
"Just because we have to go to Boston doesn't mean they like it when we do."
"Just 'cause we can go into a town where half the folks look like misanthropomorphic fish, that doesn't mean we should."
"Thomas, Len, you're both correct. How much the Boss Lady yells at me will determine which one of you is more correct."
"There's no bag limit on stupid people."
"Bzzzt. Technically true, but try again."
"I should not use stupid people as speed bumps to test my vehicle's suspension even if that is a reliable method of getting them out of their battle armor."
"Still needs work."
"I should not use stupid people as speed bumps for testing my vehicle's suspension when my prospective shieldmaiden is trying to give her oath, even if that does provide a measure of entertainment while getting the stupid person out of their hopelessly-cracked battle armor."
Len asked, "Why is it that they're called 'shieldmaidens' instead of 'swordmaidens' or something else? "
"Because there's no point in carrying a shield to battle if you're unarmed, and no point in having a bloody weapon in the other hand unless you plan to use it on someone... except if the weapon is a handgun, because if that's bloody you're probably using it wrong."
"Come on kids, let's get you signed in so you can do whatever voodoo you need to do to whoever over in Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo Central."
Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy
The check-in for an expected, for once, guest went fairly easily. Given that he'd been told that Whateley Academy was some high-end kind of prep school Len expected more security presence. Then again, not all the security measures in place needed to be obvious. Also, anyone who could take time off over Christmas and New Year's would be a right fool to do otherwise, right? He sure wouldn't have blamed any of his high school teachers for wanting to get away from that place. Thinking about what else he may be overlooking took up much of the time spent en route to the next stop.
"All y'all sure that that Sam Everheart isn't just using her Daddy's credentials?" Len said, "She looks barely older than Abbie here."
"Considering that the Admiral is over fifty, you might want to consider apologizing to Abbie," Thomas said. "Preferably before she pounds you into the pavement."
Mads said, "She's been rebuilt using more nanites than I've ever seen in one place. Sheds them too, at the most suspiciously convenient times"
"Oh. So they're not just letting me roam around here unsupervised."
"They'd only do that if they did not like you. Seriously. Because you do NOT want to get lost in this part of the White Mountains."
"Might do to remember there are some dark and wild parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains where I'm from too."
"That is why you are all here, isn't it?"
Len turned to meet the woman who'd spoken. If he'd seen her on TV, he would've happily said she was the spitting image of Morticia Addams. Standing right in front of him, in a comfortable dark woolen sweater and denim jeans, and accompanied by a black freaking cougar, he decided to keep that comparison to himself.
"I'm Elyzia Grimes, a Mystic Arts instructor here at Whateley, and this is Merlin. If you'll follow me, we can talk more inside."
"Beg pardon, Miss Grimes, but the door's right in front of us. I didn't think we could get that lost."
"That's the entrance for the Psychic Arts Department."
"Yes, ma'am, but it's the same building, isn't it? I'd've thought either Metro could find the right door, or that that Count Mass that people were talking about might already be here."
"You are correct in some ways, incorrect in others. Humor me."
Part of the way around the building, Miss Grimes stopped the group. "Mister Cox, Miss Elliott, would you mind describing for me what you see here?"
Inaam spoke in Abbie's mind, There is magic woven throughout this area, perhaps to keep people out?"
Look, off to the right of where people've been walking. Paw prints. Merlin's got a Mini-Me running around!
Cats do as cats will do. If I concentrate on us just seeing the magic here — See?
We would've walked right on by if we weren't looking for the door, wouldn't we?
The best illusions don't call attention to themselves.
"Sorry, ma'am! I was talking to myself. There's an illusion over this area that makes it look like a blank wall and normal plantings instead of an entryway. The difference is that people have walked out from here, not just past the spot."
"Good. Please remember to sign up for the Avatars course next semester. Even though there are good reasons to discourage avatar hosts from advertising their status, you all do need to understand the benefits and risks involved."
Miss Grimes opened the outer door to the side entrance they were using. The sooner everyone was inside, the better. Just being seen with certain students could put Len Cox on multiple watchlists.
Len had wanted to ask, but Abbie got to it first. "Why is the entryway hidden? People already know which teachers and classes are here."
Thomas sniped Grimes' answer. "Because we can. And, it drives the psychic students crazy enough to try pranking us back. It also confuses the hell out of Kris, which is always entertaining."
"Fostering a sense of friendly rivalry goes a long way toward maintaining morale."
Miss Grimes led the four down two levels and out into an empty hallway. "Before we proceed further, have you given any thought to how you will handle this matter?"
Mads nodded. "I think that we should grant a full hearing of the complaints at hand. To do so, we will need a space that can be ceded to us for the duration. We should also desire one or more witnesses to the complaint: a representative who may speak for the school and one for the Medawihla Tribe."
"Wouldn't you want one to speak for Shadowsfall March's sovereign?"
"No. That falls on Thomas and me. These two have been required to arrange travel and accomodations for their case to be heard. Those who wish to appeal to a higher authority than either of us should do so as well. As it is, we'll need a lab that can accommodate seven chairs within the bounding circle. Blackthorn char, a censer, so charcoal, tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass, sage. Smudging the area should provide some protection while the circle is open."
"That sounds reasonable, although I would recommend considering above, below, and center."
"Frankincense, myrrh, rosemary."
"Very well. You may use Lab 8. I will place the necessary calls while you are setting up."
Kristian watched the van drive away until it was completely out of sight. Now that the mad rush to get here was over and fatigue was starting to settle in, he felt ... abandoned. It wasn't like he'd imposed himself on Mads and Thomas; if anything, the reverse had happened!
Sandy spoke up. "You know, even if they weren't going to stop at Emerson, the least they could have done was to drop you off closer to the building!"
"They thought they did, I think. Before the holiday break I requested to be transferred either to Twain or Poe. I should have checked earlier to see if that was granted."
"Poe? You look pretty normal to me!" Sandy frowned. "Not that there was much of that to compare with today."
"I'd rather finish the year in a madhouse than stick it out with a roommate and others who don't approve of my friends."
"Welcome to my life." Sandy's wry half-smile didn't even begin to suppress the anger and reminded grief he was feeling.
Kris reminded himself Don't ask if you don't want to know, but still asked, "Why did you come back so early, if I may ask?"
Sandy's smile broke. "Came back to help box up Avery's stuff. Between attending his funeral, the H1 protest there, and other things," He looked Kristian straight in the eye, "I just couldn't put it off."
"What?" Why the hell don't people tell me these things? "When did that happen? No one told me anything."
"Just another GSD freak bites the dust. Except some of it was MATD after all. His parents said they'd, they'd had their Christmas early s-so Avey could open some presents while he still c-could."
Kris' anger at the 'GSD freak' comment froze in his heart at the bitter sadness rolling off Sandy. He decided that The Guy Code could go screw itself, and grabbed Sandy in a hug. "I'm sorry." He held on until Sandy's breathing and his own evened back out. It still hurt, but maybe there was something useful about this empathy he'd been stuck with.
Sandy sniffed and cleared his throat. "Nothing I can do about it, I guess. Right! Grab your stuff and we can check with Mr. Filbert. He should be able to find out where they're stashing you. If you want..."
"I know I have time to help with Avery's stuff."
Common Room, Twain Cottage
The two young men walking in were, given the circumstances, the two that Conrad Filbert least wanted to see. Even though he knew better, seeing Avery Saunders' former roommate again made his death feel that much more present. There'd be the House meeting once all the residents were back. Until then, he'd have to ride herd on the gossip pipeline and all the reactions that would come out of the news. Speaking of gossip, the box of personal effects that had been helpfully labeled "faggot" before being dropped off wasn't going to help.
"Welcome back, boys," the Twain Cottage House Parent said, "I just wish it was under better circumstances."
"Sandy just told me about what happened with Avery."
The sober look on Kristian Holm's face told Mr. Filbert much of what he needed to know about the prospective transfer student, but... "We've been notified about your transfer request. It's catching us short on space; why don't you step into my office and wait there while I get Tephra started?"
"I offered to help him pack for Avery," Kristian paused to think about something, "No obligations, just, no one should have to handle that alone."
Filbert had been warned that Rorsmand was over-serious for his age. "Alright. You can still bring your luggage in, and stash it there for now."
Kristian's face reddened. "This carry-on bag is all I brought onto the plane."
"I find that somewhat hard to believe."
"I was overtaken and dragged out of bed by the Mads and Thomas Cannonball Express."
He'd been warned about that chink in the boy's armor as well. There could be serious drawbacks to having him in the same Cottage as Bloodwolf — it was a miracle there hadn't been incidents last term. "Very well. Let's get this started."
An hour later,
Mystic Arts Practice Lab 8
Elyzia Grimes saw that with a minimum of alterations the bare white room had been changed. Four braziers were set up at the cardinal directions, and within the boxed area they established a broken double ring had been drawn in charcoal on the floor. A fifth brazier had been placed at the center of the rings. Seven seats were provided, two occupied by the young man and teen girl who'd been rescued in North Carolina. The scents of tobacco, sage, cedar, and sweetgrass permeated the air in the room, unperturbed by the room's mechanical ventilation.
It was almost a shame that the changes made were to be temporary (They'd best be temporary!) as the present configuration would have made a good starting point for a class discussion on the possibilities and dangers posed by practicing the Craft. Her job this evening was to maximize the former while minimizing the latter and coping with whatever actually happens. She closed the lab's entrance once Circe and Ben Donner – witnessing on behalf of the Academy and the Tribe – entered the room.
Ben Donner smelled other, less innocent, scents than just the herbs. That was a drawback of his bear-keen sense of smell. Human fear- and exhaustion-sweat were reasonable. According to Miss Grimes, all four youths had had long and exciting trips to get here. Beyond that, he could also smell stale blood, ozone, damp decay, death, and of all things, wolf and pine marten. The smoke from sacred herbs smoldering in the braziers covered up none of those things.
It didn't seem that the teachers were in a hurry to make introductions, so Ben spoke up. "If I understand this scheme correctly, I'm here as the Medawihla representative because this space will be symbolically connected to some location outside of the Reservation. But is that why you're smudging the area with those specific herbs? It's not necessary to pretend this is Native medicine on account of the reservation, or of me being here."
The shorter of the boys making last minute checks turned around. "What? No. Mama taught me that tobacco, cedar, sage, and sweet grass belong with the cardinal directions. She in turn got that from her elders." He set his gear down, walked around to the much larger man, and stuck his hand out to shake. "Welcome, I'm Mads Christian Møller-Jensen. Waabizheshi nindibendaagoz." No kidding. That would account for the reek of weasel. The boy was also the source for the rest of the worst. Teenage boys weren't known for meticulous hygiene, but would it have hurt to introduce this one to soap?
"Ben Donner, and it's complicated." Ben hesitated for a moment – after all, the young man was a magician – but he reached out and accepted Jensen's handshake.
"Works for me. You already know Circe and Miss Grimes. Over there is Thomas Hrafn Jensen, and then we have Lenard William Cox, Abelyn Marie Elliott and Inaam al-Baajalat."
Ben was left unsure if the girl indicated was Abelyn, Inaam, or something more complicated? "If I recall correctly, Waabizheshi is Marten in English," Ben sniffed the air and was hit much harder by the smells of sweat, blood, death, and wolf. He wasn't able to hide the distaste. "But I smell Wolf on you, among other things."
"My lineal half-brother is Wolf. If you and the ladies would please enter from the east and choose a seat we can get this show on the road as soon as the Canuckistani is ready."
"Waiting for you to do something useful. As usual," was Thomas' reply.
Once everyone else was situated Mads entered the wheel and walked around the center before kneeling. He lit the centered brazier, which soon produced lazily curling smoke that carried a balsamic and green herbal bite to it. He met Thomas at the gap left for the ritual space's entrance, then knelt again to draw the remainder of the inner circle in charcoal. To the other participants, the floor seemed to pitch back, then forth, but settled in place. Thomas completed the outer circle and they fell out of the world.
A borderlands clearing downstream of, and well below, Shadowsfall Bridge
Outside the doubled circle the space was hemmed in by a dense, green, mist-laden forest. The sounds of moving water to the south and east explained the mist hanging in the air. There was light enough to see by, but no sun in sight to provide it. Wherever they were, it was too warm for New England in January. Their hosts, seated, were now dressed formally, mostly in black. The man who'd been introduced as Lenard Cox now wore iron boots and a disturbingly red-black cap. That must have been the other source of blood-scent Ben had caught earlier. A tall, heavy-set, young woman flanked Abelyn Elliott, standing behind her seat. Her eyes and tusks were the pale color of ivory, and she wore her hair braided into rows of garnet flame. This just kept getting complicated.
Thomas spoke, "On behalf of myself and Count Mads, and for the Hyacinthine Crown to which we owe allegiance, I welcome you all to Shadowsfall March. In case anyone present was wondering, I personally would not recommend stepping outside of the bounding circles. Time flows differently in these realms to that back at Whateley and one might find the wait for rescue inconvenient."
Circe said, "It is interesting to finally see this place from the canyon floor. It seems to me that we aren't entirely within the realms of Dream?"
Mads said "This is a border land between and part of both Dream and Death, and in a time in which it doesn't need to be populated." At Circe's nod of acknowledgement, he continued, "Let us get down to business while we may. Miss Elliott, I would like to hear your side of this incident, followed by Miss Al-Baajalat, and then Mister Cox. For propriety's sake, please stand while you are addressing Count Thomas and myself. We are both Lords Shadowsfall, and have similar surnames, so for this inquiry let's use first names as needed for clarity."
"Where would you like me to start?"
"When and where you met Len Cox, whichever one that was."
"That would be last Friday afternoon in Franklin. That's where I should go on from?"
"I recall you were in some distress when you called your roommate, so start there."
"Like I said, it was Friday and I needed to get out of the house for a spell, so I was doing some window-shopping in town ..."
Office of the Headmistress, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Elizabeth Carson had been waiting for this appointment for hours — starting with the second frantic phone call she'd received on her office's secured line. Christine was trying her best to look chipper and unconcerned, but like a cat's, her tail often gave away her moods. An offer of coffee was accepted without comment.
Carson said, "You'll no doubt be pleased to know that the Haggets Pond Conservation Area fires are under control."
"That wasn't entirely our fault."
"Based on the released videos I must agree that the Lamplighter was ... overly enthusiastic. Interstate 495 was tied up for hours behind you."
"Why is there never a Boy Scout around when you need one?"
"The Colonel who called from Hanscom Air Force Base said something similar, along the lines of it being a military base, not a jamboree."
"Oh, that guy who showed up to stop us from leaving? Rorsmand's the one who did the knot tying. I'm certain he didn't pee himself until Metro started whispering in his ear."
Carson rubbed her eyes. The more she knew, the worse it got. "I'll try to forget I heard that. As to later events, the Massachusetts State Police has already dropped the kidnapping charges based on a lack of substantive evidence."
"Who got kidnapped?"
"There remain a number of competing theories regarding that."
"The more the merrier!"
"None of those theories account for the decision made to go into Innsmouth, of all places."
"By the time we got clear of the KoP boys, we knew we were being tracked. Given the strong chance that scrying was in use, Metro suggested we lose that tail by passing through one of those towns listed on the Defense Against the Dark Arts off-limits list."
"Innsmouth is at the very top of that list. There are very goods reasons for that ranking. As you may have guessed, Mister Jensen's plans for evading an angry bear usually involve a detour through the den of something bigger, hungrier, and more dangerous."
"I was more concerned by the attitude positing the best defense in driving as being a good offense."
"Unless pending criminal charges or civil actions are involved, please don't elaborate on that."
"Probably for the best. I almost forgot! The Xanax did come in handy. The 'batter' we picked up stopped screaming real quick once that hit his bloodstream."
"Why was he screaming?"
"Metro was driving the van when he regained consciousness."
"Why would that cause ... to which part of the vehicle had the Knight of Purity been duct-taped?"
"Funny you should ask that. The hood. And just so you know, we stayed five mph under the speed limit. The streets in Innsmouth are a little bumpy. So... When do I get to do this chaperone thing again?"
Thursday Evening, January 3, 2008,
Mystic Arts Practice Lab 8, Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy
"... Home again, home again, jiggity-jig, and none the worse for wear. Er, Circe, Miss Grimes, I assume the school has a secure lockup for things that need to remain untampered. Who should I see about that?"
Circe replied, "Mads, your assigned room in your cottage should be sufficiently secure for this weekend. Thomas' room is not. Bring the crystal to the department office Monday, and it will be taken care of."
"Thank you. Also I would like to thank you for standing witness, along with Ben Donner," Mads nodded to the man, " and also to Miss Grimes for setting things up. Abbie, could you get Len checked in at the Guest House, and maybe escort him to dinner? Whitman's a bit closer to there than Hawthorne."
"Oh, I see how it is. First you ask me to watch your back; next thing you know, you're bossing me around!"
"It could be a lot worse!"
Circe said, "Many of the Daoine Sídhe would have exacted a favor or a boon of equal weight, by their own accounting, to the spells cast on you. The price might be increased threefold if they felt slighted. Those are not the only people with whom you may expect to cross paths at the risk of your soul or your sanity. There will be a class on Greater and Lesser Entities this Winter Term. I expect you to be in that class and be prepared to take it as seriously as your blacksmithing. Misters Jensen, I expect the same of the rest of your team, without exception."
Ben Donner walked over to Mads. "Son, just so you know, I will be informing our Council head about what happened. Eloise is also, not coincidentally, the tribal representative to the Native American student group here. If you were being honest with me earlier about your training, I think she would be disappointed if you continued to skip meetings, whether you're eligible for band membership or not. I don't know if you've seen how well panthers deal with disappointment..."
"I live down the hall from Paige."
"Then I don't have to tell you that it would be best for all concerned not to be a disappointment."