Metro 2: Running With A Devil (Part Three)
Metro 2: Running With A Devil (Part Three)
Training teams. Is that spelled with one aneurysm or two?
Chapter 5: Practice, Practice, Practice
"The most interesting question of history is always, 'What were these people thinking?'"
—Lois McMaster Bujold (Duv Galeni), Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Friday, January 4, 2008,
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Elve 'Vapaat Taivas' Järvinen addressed the rest of the team over her second coffee of the morning. "Do we all still agree on the Team Tactics course? Over the break, my parents and I arranged for Miss Rogers to design a sim suit that would fit me, along with an updated uniform."
"What was wrong with what you wore during Finals?"
"Aside from the risk of unwanted wardrobe malfunctions, it wasn't as sturdy as it could be. Not one word, Mads."
"But I didn't say anything!"
In response, Mads crossed his arms and slumped down in his chair. He still kept track of who wasn't paying attention to their breakfast goodies, but it was important to convey that he was Not Happy with being shut down.
Abbie said, "That leaves four open periods. Elve and I were planning to take Combat Movement, Basic Pistol, and an intensive language courses. Best to get the foreign language requirements nailed early."
Kris glowered at Mads. "Thanks to someone here, I'm on the regular French track in spite of there being a German club."
"I don't know why you keep blaming me for that. I'm not keeping you from joining the German Club. The Berets prefer French, so you're coming out ahead."
"Come to think of it, which languages do you speak other than English and Danish? I found several languages loaded to my comm unit."
"Thomas and I picked up a dialect of Norwegian that had some of the teachers confused..."
"So he says. You still make it sound like a dialect of Swedish."
"... As if. I can hold a conversation in Ojibwe, Arabic, and Russian, though I still have to rely on the language wares to follow French, Japanese. The others I've kept loaded were Spanish, modern Nahuatl, Lingala, Afrikaans, German, Albanian, and Portugese."
"It looks like on this planet, they're offering Arabic, Mandarin, and Spanish as intensive language options. What do you think, Elve?"
"I didn't feel entirely welcome with the European students group. My appearance may not have helped, but Americans aren't the only ones who forget that Finland is part of Europe. Let's sign up for Arabic. Then we'll know what Mads is saying behind our backs!"
"I don't talk behind your backs!"
Thomas amended that with "When he does talk. If he were a cat, his tail movements would double his communications bandwidth."
Kristian asked, "Doesn't anyone want to know which classes I'm signing up for?"
"Combat Movement with the ladies, Paranormal Law, and Rights and Responsibilities of Good Samaritan Law Enforcement to lock up all but sixth period."
"How did you know?"
"You said you were interested in obtaining a Federal Concealed Carry Permit. You'll need the legal courses for that."
"Oh. Fair enough. I'm thinking of finishing the day with Combat Rifle instead of Combat Pistol 203 sixth period, because I don't have the prerequisites."
Abbie asked, "Are you sure you'll be finishing the day with that?"
Oh, no. Kris was certain that he'd thought out his schedule as well as anyone could, but: "Why? What's wrong with it?"
"Didn't either of these two idjits tell you? We're taking Greater and Lesser Entities during the first Evening period."
"That's wonderful, but I don't see how that affects my schedule."
Mads dug his elbow into Kris' side, "There's no 'me' in 'team' unless you're going about it backwards."
"Kris, your name was the one at the top of Circe's enrollment list. Care to be the guy that tells a sorceress who can get away with calling herself Circe that her class isn't good enough for him? Hope you like slop."
"Something that food eats."
. . . *stab!*
"What the? That was MY bacon!"
Elve flipped through another couple of pages of course offerings. "Here's an interesting one: Dating With A Superpower. It's got to be better than spending every day on weapons and legal topics."
Mads' "Those are important topics!" competed with "As if", "Shyeah, right", and "Ewwww. Can't that wait a couple more years?"
"And now I understand why it's restricted to juniors and seniors."
"Speaking of maturity, or the lack thereof," Abbie said, "As I understand it, Federal Witness Protection doesn't work quite so well in shielding supernatural targets, but at least the school's managed to get Len an interview with a research group in the area."
Mads asked, "Arkham Research Consortium?" as he attempted to spear some more bacon from Kris' breakfast.
"That sounds about right. Why?"
"They're one of Mads' sponsors."
"And Chris is my usual Thursday appointment."
"It would be more accurate to say that you and Paige are his appointments," Thomas said. "Apparently, ARC sponsorship comes with complementary psychotherapy."
"I hope he's getting hazard pay for that. And, would you stop stealing my bacon!"
"Snoozin' is for losin', chummer. By the way, anyone know what's up with the other two who we picked up at Hanscom?"
Kris said, "Sandy said something yesterday about hoping that the Team Tactics course would be better supervised."
"Not really. It was closer to 'I hope to god our wheels guy can keep at least two out of four wheels on the goddamned road.'"
"Y'know, me and Abbie need to find you something to cover more ground faster."
"The last time you two worked together, there was an explosion, two hospital admittances, and a passing aircraft reported a forest fire."
"That's a success in my book!
Saturday afternoon, January 5, 2008,
Sensei Ito's residence, Whateley Academy
Once introductions and small talk wound down, Sensei Ito opened the the weapons class discussion. "It would appear that the weapons class is becoming an irresistible attraction for the school's more exceptional students. This year a 'kinsman' of one of this year's freshmen has specifically requested that we provide a dose of 'reality' to two of our students."
Oscar Bardue could imagine how well that news had gone over with the students in question. He scowled over his coffee. "Babysitting with weapons, and me all out of nerf darts. Who are our two pacifists this time?"
"Raphael Hodges and Mads Møller-Jensen."
Bardue had been midway through swallowing his coffee when his brain cross-referenced the names to the identities of that mismatched pair of UltraViolents. Payback would be a bitch, once he could breathe again without choking.
"What do either of them need more weapons for? Forget for a moment the werewolf who 'attacks little girls', let's talk about the kid who wears a sidearm when brushing his teeth!"
Ito smiled, "Having a weapon is not the same as mastering its use. Hodges has speed, strength, regeneration, and intimidation, but these are of limited use against an opponent that can overpower him or, failing that, remain outside his reach. Jensen has magic at his disposal but otherwise appears to pose all the threat of a fourteen-year-old prep school student with a waiver from PE class."
Suzannah Hagarty spoke up, "While most magicians do tend to forget the warning about hammers and nails, I wouldn't consider this one helpless without his. "
"The problem as I judge it is not that he's helpless without magic. What would you judge his chances at subduing an opponent using nonlethal force?"
"Going by his track record? Not at all good."
"Another way to put it, in line with the jokes some staff members cannot resist forwarding to others' email: Bloodwolf looks like he could kill you but is actually a cinnamon roll. Metro looks like a cinnamon roll but would be happy to remove you from the gene pool if only there weren't so many witnesses in the way. We need to change those perceptions." Ito remembered the meeting regarding those two clearly, "It was Metro's half-brother who expressed to me a disappointment in his traditional combat skills. Given that one's reputation, I was pleasantly surprised that he was more restrained in expressing those concerns than Guan Yu had been, last year."
"Mister Lokisson has the distinction of not only being Metro's relative but also being the person who hospitalized Bloodwolf back in October. Observe." Sensei Ito started a video compiled from the incident.
The first commentary came from Kasai Tetsuko. "Had I known how much the fix was in, or how much blood we'd be needing to clean up afterward..."
Bardue said, "But that's what we're trying to teach these kids. Against an average scrapper, the boy's got a lot of natural advantages. Against a smart, experienced, and downright dirty fighter like Lokisson, or Generator, he's got nothing. That doesn't mean I'd recommend training a bully like Bloodwolf on an easily-concealed weapon. That's just asking for more trouble."
"Consider the mind of a schoolyard bully," Ito-sensei said. "Intimidation is a great part of the appeal - to seem bigger than one truly is. Defense is seen as a sign of weakness, no matter how much a true warrior would disagree. Kasai, do you think you could teach him shield and spear?"
"He will require much coaching before introducing the tinbe and rochin. With one of the more advanced students tasked to assist, this can be done. Perhaps," A faint smile ghosted on the kempo instructor's face. "Perhaps he might even learn to respect or fear his fellow students more."
"Good. Now with Jensen, we have the usual problems of a right-handed beginner."
Chester Fitzgibbon spoke up: "If we're still talking about the queer fellow that Security latched onto, Burlington-Smythe's told me the boy's a leftie, among other things."
"He shoots pistol left-handed," Gunny Bardue said, "But he switches to a right-handed for an assault rifle or holdout easily enough. If he weren't already committed to the weapons class, I'd want to see him in Harry's specialty classes."
Harry Junzo said, "That could be cruel."
Genevieve Beaumont asked, "Cruel to whom?"
"You wouldn't have had to ask that, if you'd ever worked closely with that student."
Amanda Tolman explained for the others, "What Oscar and Harry are talking around is that Jensen presents a couple of cognitohazards over which he has limited control. These are noted in his files, along with his questionable medical and psychological status, and estimated body count. Otherwise, unless provoked, he can easily be mistaken for a 'squishy wizard'."
Hagarty turned green, remembering pictures she'd recently seen in locked-room briefings, featuring who – or what – had ended up "squishy" this past Christmas holiday. "If you do chose to provoke him, make your first shot count, don't play with your food, and never, EVER let the bastard out of your sight."
Wong Ah Lam nodded. She'd heard disaster stories coming out of last term's 4th period BMA class. "From what I've heard, I think he could benefit from studying Baat Jaam Do and Luk Dim Bun Gwan. The butterfly swords are good for developing independent use of both hands, while the long pole favors the use of both hands in concert. If idle hands favor the Devil's work, keeping those hands busy might be the best good that we can do."
Sensei Ito made note of his colleagues' points and said, "Moving along, then. Anna Parsons has continued her training with the kama, not to mention her Wondercute experience . . ."
Sunday, January 6, 2008,
on-board the Miskatonic Express, en route to Whateley Academy
Reading "Counters and Curses" over the last week had been a blast! Gladys 'Damiana' Mann would have to think of something nice for her cousin Jurgen next Yuletide. Some of the workings described were the usual 'eye-of-newt, just add deleriants' fare for the rubes, but some looked legit. That is, they were as legit as they could be for a set of "screw you" workings printed up with critical pieces missing or substituted out for that extra twist of malice. If she hadn't been taught to look out for that sort of thing long ago, she'd have been in trouble before she got to the Table of Contents!
Maybe she should pick up something suitable for Jurgen the next time she was in Boston? Someone said there was a totally out-of-this-world bookstore along the waterfront she should check out.
Sunday evening, January 6, 2008,
Whitman Cottage, Whateley Academy
A beat-up pickup truck rolled to a stop in front of the dorm to let out its lone passenger. Abbie Elliott walked over to the driver's side. The driver, Len Cox, rolled down his window, wincing when it tilted and threatened to fall off its track.
Abbie said, "Well, I guess this is it. I hope the new job works out for you!"
"Me too. Look, from everything I was allowed to see, you should be just fine, but I'll let you know my new phone number when I get it. Just in case, okay?"
"No problem. I'm sure I can get a hold of you through your work number."
"My work number?"
"Len. They're sure to have receptionists and automated call dropping, just like any big business."
"You can still call to let me know your private number. If I'm not in class, I'm either in the Workshop or here."
"Got it. You take care now!"
The truck backed back onto the perimeter road, they waved one last time for now, and drove off.
Not far behind her, Abbie heard a woman's voice. "So that was the young man who gave up pretty much everything to get you back here safe?"
"He had help losing much of it, but I reckon that sums it up, Mrs. Savage. I'm grateful the people here and at ARC were able to give him a chance at rebuilding some of it."
"We do look after our own, or try our best at it. Don't worry, our alumni get plenty of chances to pay those favors forward after graduation."
"Y'know? I'm kind of looking forward to that. Maybe looking forward more to a shower after helping with the moving-in, but still." Abbie shrugged.
"Go on, now. I'm not so old I can't take a hint." Mrs. Savage's smile took the sting out of the gentle reproach. By all accounts, Abbie's past week had not been what she'd want for any of her girls. And yet, her adventure may have pushed Abbie forward along the path of grieving for her parents. And, if Len's intentions ever turn out to be anything less than honorable, she, her Smith & Wesson Model 29, and he would have a pointed discussion about them.
Timestamp 080107060000, Monday, January 7, 2008,
Twain Cottage, Whateley Academy
Unheard by his roommate, a voice began speaking in Kristian 'Rorsmand' Holm's head. That wasn't exactly how the communication was transmitted, but it always sounded like a female adult's speaking voice. "Good morning, Kris. The time is now 0600 local. It is recommended that you begin with your physical therapy exercises. Thirty minutes should be sufficient, followed by your quote: morning routine :unquote. Previous studies indicate that this should allow minimum exposure to facilities crowding by other juvenile males."
"Get your ass in gear or you'll have to wait in line just to shit, shower, and shave."
At times, it was quite useful to have Sophia around, not that Kris had had any say in the matter. At others? The fact that she presented as a female was a bit disconcerting. There were certain biological functions that he didn't want to perform with spectators of that gender present, and he suspected that she found his discomfort amusing. He briefly wondered if Mads did certain things with spirits present or with Thomas linked in or if Thomas did things with Mads mentally linked in... This line of thought was not helping matters, at all.
"Don't forget to allow some time for relief of your current physical arousal."
"Arrgh!" It also didn't help his state of mind to be reminded of such things by an electronic spirit living in his right arm.
Roughly an hour later, Sandy's alarm went off. Someone in the Workshop had rigged the clock mechanism to hop on a tamping plate so that it thumped the sand below it instead of ringing a bell. Kris found it fascinating to watch a mass of sand rise up out of the box that his roommate used for a bed to coalesce into the form of a young man. It reminded Kris of an ancient TV show that featured a genie coming out of a bottle, except naked, and definitely not a woman or a eunuch. Fortunately, this didn't set off the same uncomfortable feelings in Kris that his two friends too often did (which was good because Kris didn't have many pairs of underwear to spare until his clothing arrived from Aalborg).
"Dude. I noticed you keep doing those exercises every morning. Don't you know that weightlifting doesn't do much for exemplars?"
Crap. I haven't told him, have I? "It's physical therapy for my injury back in December."
"That was all healed back then, right?"
"Er, not exactly."
"Not exactly, he says. Fine. So tell the freak how it is exactly."
"You're not a freak. But this is how it is." Kristian mentally commanded the diagnostics port on his right forearm to open. If life were a movie, there would have been various blinking lights inside the opening. Instead, there were a couple of patch boards visible over black skeins of woven carbon-titanium fiber simulating muscles.
"That's, um, different. Not bad different... Wait. You exemplar guys are supposed to heal up from injuries!"
"The doctors found remnants of what they called 'an anomalous growth' mixed in with what was left of my arm. If they'd force-regenerated my arm... My parents agreed with the doctors' plan to clean up the stump enough to graft a prosthetic. Long story short — I still have to work on the fine points of using my arm again and working on strengthening up the graft. Gary said it was gross watching the rich kid show off his new toy each morning, so I had to go down to the weight room to do my exercises."
Sandy looked as ill as a person made of sand could, once his mind correctly translated 'anomalous growth' to 'tumor, maybe even regen cancer'. Still... "Umm. That's a prosthetic. How does being rich figure into that more than 'I lost my frickin arm'?"
"It's directly linked to my nervous system through an experimental system, and is supposed to be as strong as my other arm, so it is state-of-the-art," for another half-century from now, "My parents paid for private travel health insurance before I came here, and the school brokered some arrangements, so I must be rich."
"If you hadn't shown me, I'd never have known."
"Too many people have used that knowledge to steal food off my plate."
"Who'd do that?"
"Aside from my little sister? Starts with 'M'; rhymes with an 'ass'."
Lunch, Monday, January 7, 2008,
Euro-Promotional League Table, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Jadis 'She-Beast' Diabolik walked up to the Beret Mafia's table to find a lively conversation already well in progress. The upset Sidhe berating one of the seated club members had to be the Norwegian girl in Dickenson, Elle Ruud. The snow flurries in the air around her didn't leave many other candidates. The colloquial Landsmål the elfy princess was cutting loose with was another strong hint. Given the Euro-snobs' love of French over 'less-cultured' languages, that had to be going over splendidly.
"Wait, what? You said you guys were going after venison for your Yule feast!"
Blond exemplar willing to put up with Metro? That would be Rorsmand and, given that hunting often implies firearms usage, another odd hand-full of European nerves going *snap*.
"We did! 'Venison' is the word for anything deer-shaped, from Bambi to moose!"
This just in: even the American judge is mildly squicked. Jadis preferred to source her proteins from licensed and inspected facilities not owned or operated by anyone with the Wilkins surname. And now for some more rapid-fire Scandinavian words amounting to No realli! It was dis big! Møøse bites Kan be pretti nasti..
"Could either of you repeat that in a real language?"
Jadis estimated 3-2 odds that the loud response might be a pithy Norwegian equivalent for Screw you and the flea-bitten reindeer you rode in on. If she'd known she'd get such an education, maybe she'd have dropped by more often!
"Look. Kris. From where I was, it looked like it was this tall," Metro's hands marked an improbable elevation, "Best I could manage from a cross-country run was to throat it and hope the rack wasn't as broad as it looked! So, yes, I got a close look but not a great one until it was time to field-dress the kill."
Valravn added, "He did slow it down enough for me and Fen to hamstring it before he could be knocked into a tree."
"That would have hurt. A lot."
"Duh. Watching you bounce off it's knees was almost as much fun."
"So, it was pretty much reindeer shaped, though the antlers were kind of profuse."
"Listen, you. Hunting reindeer isn't legal in Sweden, unless you are Sami or have a Sami guide."
"I wasn't in Sweden!" "Thank god." "Vhat's wrong wit Sveden?" "Isn't Nephandus' mother from there?" "Goot point." Jadis would have to agree with Dynamaxx and Donner on that point.
"Thomas, could you please cc: Kris the picture you took, before he has a heart attack?"
"Gimme a sec. Be right with you, Elsa."
"It's Elle, rhymes with Hell, which..."
"Girl? Don't go there unless you're ready to pay for passage."
Kris looked down at his phone's display. "What the fuck is THAT?"
"Tasty." That's right: provoke the vegetarians in the audience some more.
"You thought that that was a reindeer?
"The antlers branch kind of the right way. Forward prongs to dig through snow, 'n' stuff." Metro helpfully mimed the branching and the digging with his hands and fingers.
Jadis peeked at the image from over Rorsmand's shoulder. Too many prongs even for a big reindeer. If the two grinning beasts next to it had been human she could expect them to be saying See? I did that! All ME! Ignore the other chump. Am I the Bestest Hunter Around or what?. Metro-here did look like he expected to get congratulatory behind-the-ear scratching. As it was, the muzzles were a little short, like a hyena's, but not weird enough to put up with a Jobe Lecture on whatever she was obviously missing, 'do try to keep up', yadda yadda.
Thomas saw Jadis' eyes glaze over, and decided to be helpful: "The goofy one that looks all trompled-on is Mads. The one that didn't need help getting back is Fen."
Reach jumped at the break in conversation, "So... She-Beast! Is there anything we can do for you? Maybe divert this train-wreck, please?"
"Maybe. I just came by to invite Metro to the Bad Seeds!"
No one's face can fall with disappointment quite like a shifter's. Rorsmand didn't look so happy, either. Not happy, but also not surprised. Now she knew her sources had given her an abridged version.
Reach said,"Um, guys? I'm not hearing any of the denials I'd love to be hearing right about now."
Metro looked up and said, "Helene Adelheid, Niels Erik, or both?"
"That's what the official papers say, don't they?"
"Reus quod obicitur."
"Take your time before deciding. Obviously, there are risks and benefits. We'll let you know about the next meeting in case you do want to join. And, by the way, Kristian? The term 'venison' includes not only deer, but also several other game animals. Something to think about before putting an unknown meat in your mouth."
Reach waited until Jadis was out of earshot to ask, "Mads, you aren't thinking of signing on with the Bad Seeds, are you? You do know they're the children of supervillains, right?" Her anxiety bled into her words with the back-home drawl she sometimes cultivated.
"Miss Sawyer, your Intelligence Corps of Cadets has already taken full advantage of their chance to make a first impression on me. Do you recall how that went?"
"But their parents are villains!"
"Miss Diabolik just showed greater courtesy than I was treated with. Maybe you should consider how your own behavior reflects back on your parents?"
Monday afternoon, January 7, 2008,
Meeting Room, Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy
Helen 'CnC' Cooke-Newhouse's parents had always stressed the importance of building and maintaining desirable appearances when building one's brand, and she'd proven herself an apt pupil. Whether that required larger set pieces, like the Melville Cottage meeting room she'd reserved, or smaller touches like having a carafe of the better coffee and a few good refreshments, little should be left to chance. Also, there were subtle things to set up, like which chairs matched and which didn't quite match the others. The better to see which folks considered themselves together or apart. That would become useful information in the coming weeks.
Mary-Joy 'Waikikamukau' Jones was the first of the invitees to arrive, roughly ten minutes prior to the meeting start. She didn't go straight for the goodies, instead asking if Helen had an agenda printed out or if she preferred to address any issues as they came up. She was followed by the three Emerson boys that Helen had contacted. If she had to guess, she suspected that Andy Hohstadt and Jacob Carlson had had to pull Gary Wilkerson away from whatever game he was addicted to. There was a rumor going around that Wilkerson's roommate had requested a transfer to Twain Cottage. It was to be hoped that he wasn't as much of a lost cause as that made him out to be.
Last, and in a tie for least, were Sandy Peters and Gladys Mann. Not that they were late, which would have been annoying, but one was a sentient pile of dirt and the other seemed to have watched too many episodes of Charmed growing up. One thing that Gladys did have going for her was that she was flight-capable.
The meeting was productive, starting with the usual "Who I am, and these are my powers" introductions. Jones' power set made her the closest the team had to a brick, so it was easy to nudge the rest of the team along in supporting her as Helen's second-in-command. As a tech-head, Carlson was a shoo-in for logistics. That left Hohstadt handling intel; not the best use of a tank, but Helen could always remind the rest to keep their eyes and ears open for anything that might give them an edge over the other teams.
After the meeting had broken up, Mary-Joy hung back to make sure that she and Helen were still on the same page. "How long do you think it will take before the boys stop comparing penis length?"
"Was it that obvious?"
Mary-Joy gestured "maybe, somewhat" with a hand. "For now, I'm worried about Bulwark and Redjack freezing Gundeck, Tephra, or both, out."
"What's your impression of Damiana?"
"I know she learns from her mistakes. That nasty accident she had last term turned out to be a one-off. If she opens up some more about her capabilities, I think she could be a significant asset for us."
"True. Well, if you'll excuse me, I need to get my class schedule turned in and verified. See you in class tomorrow!"
Mary-Joy watched Helen leave. Her smile didn't last a second past the door closing, as Helen may have left clean-up to her new second-in-command. "We'll see how that class goes, won't we."
Monday afternoon, January 7, 2008,
Outside the office of Dr. Ophelia Tenent, M.D., Doyle Medical Center
Elve Järvinen didn't mind the minimal padding on the minimalist settee, or whatever it was, set out in the hallway. She just needed to take a few minutes and catch her breath. That's all. Just routine results from a routine test on a routine day. Nothing surprising. Not really.
"Oi! Omae! What's a pretty little thing like you doing in a place like this?"
He must not own a mirror or a measuring tape.
Have we ever seen him indulge in self-reflection?
My point, exactly. Now if someone could admit to her own beauty...
The old spirit chuckled at its host's discomfort.
"Mads! What are you doing 'in a place like this' again?
"Doctor Tenent's also my advisor, " he pointed his thumb back at himself, "It's only natural I should drop in from time to time."
"You're a horrible liar."
"I prefer 'incorrigible'!"
Doctor Tenent's voice carried from inside her office, "Don't even think it!"
Mads shrugged – if she was in the mood to stomp on his straight line, who was he to argue? – and plopped himself down into the seat beside his friend. Not that she got a vote in that determination, in case she came to her senses.
A couple of minutes or so of suspicious silence later, the doctor came out. "Elve, should I call your roommate or make arrangements with your House Mother?"
"If Elve needs an escort, I can handle that."
"What she needs... You know what? I'm going to go out on a limb and sign a provisional clearance for your classes, but it's all contingent on you behaving yourself."
"When have I ev—?"
"Can it. We ARE going to have a serious conversation about your Winter Break activities, but not this afternoon. Consider yourself lucky."
"Er, yes, Ma'am."
Outside the Medical Center
Metro searched his pockets for something. Soon there was an annoying static noise around the two students.
"How'd the exam go?"
"About as well as you'd expect."
"I expect a lot of things, most of which I'd rather not see happen."
"I, I just" The cold dry air did little to help keep the tears at bay.
"Shhhh." Metro guided Vapaat Taivas to a bench close to the brisk-paved path but not too close to the medical building. "Shhhh. It's going to be okay." The mild irony of how many times he'd been the one needing to be reassured wasn't lost on him.
<No, it's NOT! It's never going to be. Don't say things like that!>
Not really knowing what else to do, he risked putting an arm around her, and hoped there'd be enough warmth in the gesture to let her know she wasn't alone. They stayed that way until the tears gave way to words, and words to a decision to move forward again. They grabbed a couple of to-go meals, one for Abbie in case she hadn't left her shop down in the tunnels. Elve had to laugh afterwards, telling Abbie how Mads had not only impersonated her, but pulled it off in front of a couple of girls who should've known better. His motive? "Even one lecture from Miss Phantom of the Soap Opera was more than enough!"
Tuesday morning, January 8, 2008,
Team Tactics I, Arena 99, Whateley Academy
CnC finished listing the Five Team Roles with "... and Wild Cards: Two or more of the above mixed into an unholy union of ass rape,” glowering in the direction of a freshman team that hadn't been vetted by the Atlantean League's leadership before enrolling. Having Myth Directions in the class, headed by the MCO plant, was going to be bad enough without a couple more wannabe groups wasting time and taking up class space.
True to form, the no-name froshie went for the bait.
"Why does everyone always look at me when they say that?"
Gunny Bardue smiled evilly, "Perhaps that's because they know your capabilities so well that they think they can use inappropriate language in MY classroom and get away with it? CnC, you just won Brigade the poll position on today's exercise. Congratulations. Ghostwalkers are second up. Please continue to contain your enthusiasm. Lost Puppy Patrol? You folks get to anchor this relay."
Tuesday morning, January 8, 2008,
Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
Admiral Samantha Everheart (retired) was waiting outside Laird Hall for the last training team of the morning to exit. As soon as she saw the last of them leave the building, she waved them on to follow her out to Range Four.
Or rather that would have been the planned scenario if the team leader hadn't stopped them.
"Ladies, gentlemen. What the hell are we doing?" Metro asked.
Rorsmand replied, "We're supposed to be following Admiral Everheart to the exercise location! Remember?"
"Precisely. That's not Everheart."
"I said that that is not Admiral Everheart. At best, that is a projected hologram. Even if it were Everheart, would any of you follow someone who's too good, or a client too cowardly, to risk their own assets to attend a meet in person?"
"Metro! Precisely WHO do you think you're calling 'too goddamned good'?"
That did sound exactly a lot like the Admiral getting pissed off.
"Ma'am, if you can't be bothered to be here, I won't be bothered to let some random un-fragging-verified hologram lead MY people into the designated trap. So IF you are who you say you are, I suggest you prove it. If NOT, then we can all ... Heh. Took you long enough."
Valravn flew back, grinning at having trapped the projection drone in a Faraday bag. "Just in case it was Everheart, she would have wanted to to hear you shove your hoof past your mouth, down your throat."
"Very well! Team, pull back, take cover."
Two minutes later, Sam Everheart slammed open the nearest doors to Laird Hall...
Metro didn't even lower the assault rifle to announce, "Tag. You're dead. Shall we count the ways now, or are you finished playing games?"
"Oh, we're going to finish this game all right."
Metro signaled the rest of the team to break cover and follow him and the real Everheart.
Fifteen minutes later, the Lost Puppy Patrol's fliers were caked in almost as much soot as the ground-pounders were covered in mud, slush, and dirt. That was saying something given how well the trampled snow had covered the ground otherwise. Rorsmand turned out to be the one to learn about "shrapnel addressed to 'Occupant'", but it had been a brutally hard slog for the small team to finish the exercise. Technically, one could call it a 'win' in that the team made it through the planned exercise. However, Everheart and Bardue were happy to agree – well away from the mostly clean briefing room (Good god, those kids had gotten dirty!) – that if the hologram had been meant as a lure, the entire team could have been easily been dead or captured by that time.
Once the students were in the showers and out of earshot, Sam asked her colleague, "Well. What do you think so far?"
"That depends. What's left of my range?"
"Gunny, they weren't nearly as destructive as last year's Kimbas."
"Hmph. How could you tell without a geiger counter?"
"Fewer explosions. We've got the camera feeds, so we can go over that as... What?"
"Would those be the feeds from the cameras fried by lightning, or would they be the ones that were shot out?"
"That son of a bi-"
"Remind me again who put a functioning justified paranoid up against a holo-projection, and then left his team standing in a kill zone? I'll give them this much: first team in a while to take measures against decoys and targeting sensors on the first run."
"They still need a lot of work. They aren't half as good as they think they are."
"Nothing new about that. Them being so green, you still going with the boy's request?"
"The kids have to learn what they could be getting into. Three of the five came close to not coming back from the break." Sam sighed, because the staff didn't need more work. "We can clean up the worst visuals and sounds before the other students are shown the sim runs for critique."
4th period, Tuesday, January 8, 2008,
Special Topics - Theory and Practice of the Escape, Kane Hall
"Before we start, I'd like to point out that Theory and Practice of the Escape Velocity is being provided by the Physics Department, elsewhere. The Gearheads' Theory and Practice of the Escape Vehicle is being held in a different state altogether. Is that clear Mr. Jensen?"
"I think so, Ma'am. Handcuffs and nylon are still up for negotiation though?"
"Only once I'm satisfied you know what to do with them. After all, this is intended to be a hands-on learning experience."
"It's been some time since I've left a client anything but satisfied."
Reach raised her hand. "Ma'am? Do you two need to go to some place private, to work this all out?"
Mads said, "Nah. Rorsmand watched. The whole time, through his fingers, in fact."
Reach groaned. "Ah should've known."
Imp clarified the point, "It was an educational experience for all involved, including the innocent bystanders."
"That's what the kind folks at WGBH said!"
"And that brings us to our first topic. Exposure. It usually does no good to escape from one situation only to be picked back up again by a neutral or hostile party. It could be as obvious as a traffic helicopter, or your captor's nosy neighbor. It could be as subtle as leaving an exit secured by mismatched equipment: a Master lock when the security company uses Brinks. Any other situations come to mind? Mischief?"
6th period, Tuesday, January 8, 2008,
Special Topics - Martial Arts, Eastman Annex, Laird Hall
Tatsuo Ito looked upon the students assembled at the edge of the mats. On time, wearing required gear, and sitting correctly, all had completed at least one semester of training under him and learned – reluctantly or otherwise – to take a class such as this seriously. He could do no less in return than take their instruction seriously. Ito nodded. “Good. Let me introduce Sensei Tolman, whom all of you know already. Sensei Beaumont, is Whateley’s instructor in Karate and Kendo. Sensei Kasai, our Kempo and Kyudo instructor. Sifu Wong Ah Lam, our Wing Chun instructor. Given the changing dynamics of this class' enrollment I would take this time to thank sensei Kasai and sifu Wong Ah Lam on the behalf of myself and my returning colleagues for joining us this Winter Term. I should trust that our students will take advantage of the opportunities for learning from a wider range of styles."
He cleared his throat. “As before, in previous classes, let us dispense with the necessary but uninteresting. All of you have had me for introductory aikido. Some of you have taken additional martial arts training either here or elsewhere. Some have demonstrated additional need of martial arts training. It follows that there is a substantial variety of martial arts to which one or more of you have been exposed, as well as a wide variety of experience with weapons. Remember that this is also the case to expect outside of this academy! The focus of this class remains classical and traditional martial arts weapons. That will include the weapons your body may provide for you. You will be expected to learn how to defend against such weapons - your own and your fellow students'."
"However! This class is only the start, or at best a continuation, of such training. It would be wise to continue your training in future school terms or years. By no means should you assume that all weapons will be addressed. We will not address conventional munitions, powered weapons, explosives, or any others of such ilk. Such are the province of the Weapons Ranges. The ‘Introduction to the Ranges’ course is but the first of several courses appropriate to such weapons; it is highly recommended."
“We shall start out by working with the weapons you currently favor, if any. Then we shall look into new types of weapons from which you might derive benefit. We shall look at countermeasures for some popular weapons, particularly those your classmates favor. Grades will be based on improvement shown in class, rather than final skill level. Therefore first, after you warm up without setting fire to, or flooding, the immediate vicinity, we shall take the time to see what you already know and use.”
"Bloodwolf, Metro, and Sahar"
Anna was really glad she hadn't been called up with any of those three. But that made her feel kind of guilty, because everyone on her floor was saying that Sahar was a whole lot easier to live with this year now that she no longer had to share a room with Tansy. She was still super-dangerous on her own, but Anna could tell that she had continued to practice since last year. Something about the way she moved made her seem more present. Anna wondered if it was true that Sahar was still working with Chaka to awaken her chi? She was still training and having a lot of fun with Generator, who was on Team Kimba with Chaka, and the rest of her friends in Wondercute. Still, it must be great to have someone like that willing to teach you things like that.
Anna couldn't for the life of her understand at all why Bloodwolf was in the class. Shouldn't running around being one of the biggest campus bullies and all be werewolf-y be enough? According to school gossip, the bully had gotten himself beat up by Ribbon, the Bully Busters, and even a guest to the school. How had that happened? Teaching him any kind of weapons just felt like a bad idea to Anna. Watching him spar with Sensei Ito and grow more and more frustrated the entire time, convinced Anna that the Ultraviolent boy hadn't kept up with anything he had been taught before. Maybe he'd only taken a Survival class? She couldn't envy him the learning curve he faced; the school's martial arts teachers didn't put up with slackers.
Something about Metro bothered both Anna and her spirit, big time. More than Sahar and Bloodwolf, even! Maybe she should ask Phase if there's a word for that feeling you get when you're being hunted by something awful in the middle of the night and suddenly you realize you've wandered into the middle of a graveyard with something even more creepy going? She could tell he was a freshman, not an exemplar mutant, and mostly a beginner from the way he struggled here and there through some basic aikido katas. One of the times he was thrown, he snapped through a forward roll to land on all... four paws? Now he was a really big, really black wolfy thing leaping back at the Chinese instructor. Anna gasped when it snapped at the martial artist's neck, but it had only caught the collar of her gi! Sifu Wong Ah Lam jumped, rotating back and overbalancing the wolf's attack, leaving it the one flat on its back. Even on its, or his, back, Anna didn't think she'd trust it. And then it was a boy scrambling to his feet again, but then he was nowhere to be seen. How was that fair?
Several minutes went by like that, each instructor putting their student through their paces, until it was over. There was some discussion of how they intended to proceed. Then, it was time for the next group to be called up, including her!
Wednesday evening, January 9, 2008,
Kirby Library, Whateley Academy
Abbie Elliott had hardly begun explaining what she and Inaam were hoping to achieve, and already she doubted she'd come to the right person in asking Mads Jensen to help. Maybe she shouldn't have asked why he was at this school with the MCO claiming he was a baseline? Or was asking him a baseline what her big mistake?
"Magicians. How did that one guy put it? One of those old two-dee productions on the media everywhere... Would you happen to believe?" Mads touched his right hand to his chest as an orator might pledge his oath to a crowd.
He passed his right hand over the table as if he were fanning a deck of cards, but in its wake were circuit cards, holograms, punched cards, and card stock blanks covered in code and wiring diagrams. Passing his left hand over the same, this time an old deck of tarot cards were displayed, though some cards were new to Abbie. A flick of the wrist sent the cards tumbling over like dominoes, into his right hand and out of view.
. . . The true secrets, the important things. Fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever. Seven words to make them go without pain. How to say good-bye to a friend who is dying. How to be poor. How to be rich. How to rediscover dreams when the world has stolen them."
"Do not think the world will not steal your dreams, for it will only more surely try."
Abbie said to her friend, "Two things. First, watching a freshman student pretending to be a sixty-year-old sage is creepy. Second, you forgot the part that goes: That is why we are going away— to preserve that knowledge." And third, you come across as being older when you switch back to your normal you.
Did I just use the 'N' word when describing him?
"Nah. I'm talking about magic. Things like that don't go away; they go on. Coming back can be a bit tricky – sometimes a LOT tricky – but it's mostly a matter of going on."
"Mads, you're quoting from a TV show that's got to be as old as I am. My Papa had a copy of the show on tape."
"As long as there's a single surviving record every day is today all day. Maybe that's why the internet never forgets? The Library cannot?"
"Yeah, sure. You had no idea the show was canceled years ago, did you?"
"Nope! Ancient history never was my strong point. If I ever need the timestamp I can go read it off the chip."
Abbie sighed, "Fine. Are you going to be arriving at a point soon?"
"Feeling confused yet? Or, rather: confused, but maybe a little bit curious?"
Inaam spoke into Abbie's mind: I know one of us is.
"Sure. Why not?."
"Welcome to my world. I'd tell you it's the real world but I could be wrong, or mistaken. Or I could be lying. Words become lies so easily, when a symbol is mistaken for the thing symbolized or becomes its own thing without a symbol of its own."
Abbie fidgeted in her seat, "Hm," she hesitated, hoping to figure out the right things to say to the crazy person sitting across from her. Smile and back away, slowly didn't work so well when seated.
"Still want to go on?"
"The world." Mads pointed back at himself, "Mine," at Abbie, "Yours," then brought his hands together to spread them out in an indefinite arc, "and all the others that never were nor ever could be are as if they were and are." He shrugged, "Worlds, words: how would you ever know?"
"It doesn't matter who's right?"
"What matters is sifting what matters from that which doesn't. That which has been, or does, or maybe never did be except that we can Will it so."
"No sell-by dates?"
"Unless the timestamps matter. Then, perhaps, they do."
Mads finished his mad exposition by propping his head up, chin in hand, elbow on the table, and staring into her. Was he trying to unnerve her, or give her time to get Inaam's opinion?
Be very careful, Sister. Mark well both what this one says and what he does NOT say.
Is he lying to me?
Judging by his hearth-flames, I fear he may not be.
You fear he isn't lying? This getting more confusing by the minute!
He never excluded nightmares, corruptors, censors, or unmakers.
"I take it that you don't exactly follow Wiccan tradition?"
Mads put his hand down to sit up straight again. "Not so wise after my karma done run over my dogma. Figuring the calculus of three-fold returns isn't my cup of tea-leaves. For lack of a better label for the tradition, you could call— Well, there was a time you could call us 'chaos mages'. Whatever works, right?" Mads bit his lower lip and looked away for a minute or two while ticking something off on his fingers, but Abbie could still hear him add a pained "Just me the Probie left. How'd we all get that fragged?" all but under his breath.
"It doesn't come with a safety net."
"Trust me: it's not the fall that gets you."
"Right. Changing the subject now. Back to the nerdy quote: What about these crystals, circuits, etc. of mystery?"
"I should make you read Thomas' metamathemagical topologies textbook for that crack." Mads' face twisted as if he'd bitten into salmiakki. Elve had shared that 'treat' with her friends once. Once. That was a whole mouthful of Nope! Mads continued, "Or some of the references I have on file for constructing spirit formulae using known (and I use that word loosely) metaphysical extrapolations. But if crystals are as 'trad' for hermetic ritual as they are in radio receivers, then why not include resistors compounded of resins and metal oxides?"
"Whatever, so long as it works?"
To herself she noted, So the analogy wasn't that much of a stretch? Good to know... "I could almost believe that, except I've never seen you cast a spell with any of that stuff."
"Lots of issues there. Wards– No. Let's go with spells in general. –are all about superimposing your Will on a place for a time. If I was working with anyone other than Tee, I would have to lay out a meaningful description of the goal with circles and arrows and symbols and diagrams... and all the other fancy table dressings so that we're all pulling together in the effort."
"Do I detect a bit of misanthropy there?"
"I think the term is 'dissocial' — this week. As if it's a moral failing to look out for your own interests, in a world that never will, among strangers who are interminably outraged that you failed to center your world around them. Flag that in triplicate for the bolt-lobbing crowd when speccing out any contract."
"You mean 'spell'."
Mads propped his elbow on the table, chin resting on his hand as he leaned in. "Ritual. Spell. Contract. Story. Words. Lies that Bind."
"Ooooookay, maybe not then. Who enforces this mystical contract?"
That fetched an unpleasant smile. "That gets into dangerous ideas like theurgy, demonology, ontology, and other stuff. And that stuff's turtles all the way."
"Getting back to the descriptions and materials."
"That line's supposed to be symbolic!"
"Of the turtles."
"Mads. Eventually, you're going to have to interact with reality here."
"Are we even on the same book here, let alone the page?"
"Check the schematics."
Consider those things that the madman is not saying.
I need to know what he means! Then I can worry about the other.
If you were discussing a project, how would you resolve a difference of opinion?
I would review the specifications document and the assembly diagrams. If that didn't work I might call in the designer.
Why confer with these documents and diagrams?
For one thing, legal liability. But mostly to make the work go smoothly.
How do you know what the words and diagrams mean?
For whatever things that aren't craft traditions, there are entire organizations that do nothing but hammer out what different terms and symbols mean. Once you learn that common vocabulary, everyone can pull their resources together instead of whipping out their egos to piss on each other.
Sister, are we talking about engineering or are we speaking of magic?
Damn it! While we're at it, damn that smug prick!
We may have to wait in line for that.
Said smug prick looked too amused with himself. "... aaaand that is why the Workshop needs as much shielding as Kirby Hall. It follows that scaling the working scales the power and complicates the cooperation needed."
"Out of curiosity – and because my head now hurts – I've got to ask: is that why I've never seen you or Thomas summon the spirits you had me working with in the shop?"
Mads waggled his hand in a kinda/sorta manner, "I prefer to summon spirits and bargain for services well before a job or an op. Less chance of someone else butting in. The ways I've learned to summon a spirit to my aid require materials that are used up whether I succeed or not. That increases the need for success the first time out. Like with my spells it's easy to get hurt misjudging the essence draw, and if the negotiation goes hostile I could end up in bad shape. Plus, for me it's much more personal — not that it doesn't really, really help if I can take my time and not be interrupted by people trying to kill me."
This is true. He offers herbs and incense that have had essence bound to them instead of shaping the essence as he goes. It's compelling to watch even when he isn't asking for one's aid. His spell structures are precise like juggled knives or steel-carved runes. But inside of those structures, the magic dances in time to his soul. It doesn't hurt that he has a deserved reputation for acting more like a spirit-talker than the usual scribes and skull-collectors.
Abbie's focus returned to the discussion, greeted by yet another knowing smirk. "Comparing notes?"
"Yes. Inaam says you're weird."
"I love her too. Just, you know, in a platonic sort of way."
"Afraid you'd get burnt playing with fire?"
"Afraid that some day I'll look down upon the world and say: 'Let it burn'."
Abbie laughed, "I guess there's a spell for that too?" The laughter died as she realized that her friend wasn't smiling at that joke. Not at all. Instead his expression bore some mix of that thousand-yard stare that some vets came home with after a rough deployment and the fey demeanor of a man who looks ahead and sees his own death an acceptable cost. On a precog, that usually meant bad things. She'd had several opportunities to reflect on things her Pa had said and how he said them. Kris, too. Seeing the same on a mage ran her blood cold.
"For that, yes, and for worse yet, available to any who would commit the price and bear the cost."
"You're not talking about money."
"Leveraged intangible assets at a fixed rate, fixed term, on a sliding repayment scale, then. That better?" An unvoiced How much is it worth to you? hung between them like a swinging gibbet.
Step carefully, sister.
Taking heed of Inaam's warning Abbie replied, "Not really."
"Good. Because magical debts cannot easily be forgiven and at your own expiration they are passed on, with the heaviest burdens going to the least able among those whom you value the most. Theirs again likewise if they cannot make good on what's owed."
"But in that case, I would be dead and not likely to be in a place to care."
Mads nodded, "Some people do go through life believing that delusion."
That corner of the library remained as well-lit as it had been before. The anti-surveillance devices still reported operational. Yet Abbie felt as though some shadow had cast its regard upon them. The only thing out of the ordinary was a familiar dark-haired woman approaching their foundering discussion.
Circe stopped a couple of feet from the two students; an intimidating but not a threatening distance. "Mister Jensen, this might be a good stopping point in your ongoing quest to terrify your peers and vex your instructors. Please note, Miss Elliott, that I am not saying your fellow student is wrong."
"Yes, ma'am. I don't reckon I'll have much trouble remembering that."
"May I ask why you were getting a speed-run through our Magical Theory course?"
What the hell are we up to would be more like it. "I asked Mads if he could help me get more in touch with, um, my spirit? I think he was trying to explain what he plans to pitch as just one option, before going ahead with it anyway. I believe that's called a magician's force?"
Both women looked down at magician in question. Cue the numbskull's It sounded like a good idea at the time? raised eyebrows and forced smile when he probably should have gone with Please don't kill me?.
"Magician's choice, but it's an equivocation nonetheless. Mister Jensen, given your history, I would have expected you to steer far from any course of action involving a possible Sorceror's Contract. Would it likewise be too much to hope that you would consider appropriate safeguards?"
"No, ma'am. IF we go in that direction, I plan on using school lab space or requesting one of the working facilities at Doyle. However, the best passage typically requires a steep payment."
"How so? The March of Dreams is not barred to you."
"In which case, I would be bringing them into my own dream-space. It is not a tidy one."
"I see. In that case, see to it that Dr. Tenent is kept fully informed of your progress, and that you both abide by her decisions."
Seeming satisfied with those answers, Circe turned to go back to her recently-interrupted research. After a few steps, she stopped just inside the white noise generator's range, and turned to stare directly back into Mads' eyes, "You are remembered outside of these gates. Do move these 'study sessions' to Kirby Hall lest you start reminding too many others why you should be."
Abbie watched Circe walk away. Everything about the woman radiated confidence and an understanding of her place in the world. She was a whole lot less sure that she'd want a tenth of her wisdom. Over the five months since she'd arrived at Whateley Academy, she had begun to learn that knowledge has a price but wisdom had a cost. Then again, stupidity and foolishness were pretty damned expensive as well, and speaking of fools, drunkards, and madmen. . .
"Even though she's one of our teachers, there's always some reminder that we're meeting with the real deal."
"What do you think she meant about being remembered?"
"I don't know. That could be a problem." Not knowing who presented the problem nor how it might come about made things tricky. It might stick out at times, but Mads decided that keeping an alarm spell going might be a wise precaution. "In my line of work, it's better to be forgotten than it is to be memorable."
Chapter 6: Ships and Strings, and Sealing Wax
"Here's to the babies in a brand new world
Here's to the beauty of the stars
Here's to the travelers on the open road
Here's to the dreamers in the bars"
—Michael Kenneth Been, "Let The Day Begin"
Thursday evening, January 10, 2008,
The Nations Longhouse, Whateley Academy
HOW did I let myself get roped into this? Metro asked himself.
If he had to be honest with himself, there wasn't any good reason to have been avoiding the group's meetings. Tatanka didn't run his horns through every person that got on Pejuta's bad side, and it had been weeks since Wihinape had sliced anyone open.
Once inside, Mads recognized several people, some among the club's Tribal Council. That was good. Being almost the only newcomer, he was immediately on the spot to introduce himself. That was daunting. Tribal custom and Anglo-Saxon law didn't mesh well on the best of days.
"... I think we can safely leave it at a vested cultural interest" was good enough to table the discussion until after the meeting, after which he and Pejuta discussed his status with her spirits. That was entertaining, although Wakan Tanka was entirely wrong to suggest that he and Waabizheshi were like two beans from the same pod.
Kristian was also entirely, totally wrong to agree with Old Grandmother when the topic came up later.
Saturday morning, January 12, 2008,
Information Technology Boot Camp, Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
HOW did I let myself get roped into this?
Oh. Right. The team needs someone other than Metro to handle comms, encryption, intrusion countermeasures, and so forth. And Kris is a team player, right?
Emilie Holm had had all the usual problems and rare successes with maths in primary school. Kristian Holm had continued living well enough without needing to know more about computers than the fact they were useful for running software written by antisocial misanthropes. By that standard, it should be Valravn taking this class, not him. Ironically, Thomas had as much love for electronics as he had for airplanes. Kris wondered if he could get a waiver for his "Information and communications technologies" graduation requirement by declaring himself a "People Person".
Resigning himself to his fate, he set his books down by an empty seat in the front and center of the room.
The class syllabus was recognizable in that there was an outline with dates on it. Nearly everything else was written in an alien dialect of English tech-speak. His heart only sank further as his empathic ability picked up on how many of the other students were looking forward to spending their Saturday mornings at a keyboard.
Four hours later, Kristian stumbled back out into sunlight. He could follow what they'd gone over so far, and this "social engineering" thing that had been mentioned sounded like something he could do, but it would still be a slog to finish the course with a passable grade.
@Sophia. What do you think of the class?
@Rorsmand. It is within your capabilities.
@Sophia. You say that now. Wait til I screw everything up.
@Rorsmand. Kris, the real screw-ups don't take that risk and never learn from their own mistakes.
@Sophia. Did Mads put you up to that pep talk?
@Rorsmand. Of course not! Elve informed me of Abbie's bet with Thomas.
Saturday morning, January 12, 2008,
(Gadgeteer and) Devisor Lab, Whateley Academy
The main challenge, as Abbie saw it, was narrowing down the capabilities that were needed, from a universe of possibilities, to those that would be "sufficient". Ideally, one would also want to aim for the intersection of designs best suited to providing Kris, herself, and Mads better mobility. Of the three, Mads could fly, but only when channeling the right spirits, and it felt as if he was doing that too much lately. Her own problem was weight. She wasn't petite, and as an exemplar her bones' density had increased with her strength. Kris? They'd worry about getting him on the damn thing when it's finished. Duct tape would work, and might solve some other problems ...
A few stations down from Abbie, Mads was hashing out some ideas for beating electronic jammers. The electronics were simple: one set of circuits that cause LED lights to pulse based on an outgoing stream of data, another set to detect those light flashes, and amplify the signal upstream of an analog-to-digital encoder. Between the two, he was planning for some pure f—ing magic. Going by the principles of similarity and contagion, he reasoned that if one half of a crystal were lit up, the other half could light up too, so long as the original were split in such a way that their magical links weren't severed. All he had to do was choke the optical buses he was used to down to something that wouldn't be horrifically expensive when it came to outfitting a team with gear. He could use existing synchronous communications protocols to keep things easy. An eight-by-eight grid, intrinsically linked to Hod and, by extension, Hermes felt doable.
At the end of class, Abbie reveled in getting to be the one yanking Mads out of a lab for a change. Last term there had been a few too many comments about "devisor fugue", "critical failure to eat", and so forth. Asking him how he planned to add additional devices to the communication channel once the original crystals had been chopped and set in place shut him up for most of the following afternoon.
At dinner it was agreed that "A master key, consisting of an eight-by-eight master matrix, populated with an irregular array of eight different gemstones should not only do the trick but allows for the Principle of Contagion to be brought to bear. It might make even diagnostic checks easier as well." was mage-speak for "I got this covered."
Monday afternoon, January 14, 2008,
Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
Chou 'Bladedancer' Lee felt honored to be asked to work as a teaching assistant in the Special Topics in Martial Arts class. She'd learned much from Sensei Beaumont in last year's class, and her work with Mr. Two Knives and with Caitlin showed her the importance of one-on-one teaching. She worried this might undercut her plan to downplay her abilities until she found out she would be assisting the instructors with only a handful of students.
From the start, Sifu Wong's student presented challenges she hadn't had to deal with before. For one, the guy was a Hawthorne Cottage resident for both medical and psychological reasons. Some of his powers were barely controllable, making it unpleasant to be around him. Second, the flow of his chi was even worse: even Chaka could not figure out how much of the problem was caused by under-developed lungs, a patchwork nervous system, his second heart, or needing to channel a spirit in order to compensate for a lack of endurance. If she lived long enough to set aside her Handmaid duties to teach others, she'd surely need to know how to teach people who weren't in perfect health.
Destiny's Wave had been helpful, gently reminding her that Alex Farshine hadn't been in the peak of physical condition when he started out.
To that she replied, "One hour a day isn't going to be enough, if the guy's hoping to see results within the time we have."
"Do you not teach your friends tai ji quan in the mornings? Leaving out the sparring, he may be able to benefit from that. Perhaps he may also learn that he can trust you?"
"You may be right."
The sword's reply felt somewhat smug. "I endeavor to provide sound advice to each Handmaid."
Bladedancer waited for Metro to exit the men's locker room, having skipped the shower herself because a) most guys try to change out as fast as possible, and b) Poe's showers weren't just better, they were amazing. There turned out to be a case c), in which Metro himself planned to use Hawthorne Cottage's equally new showers.
"Metro? Do you have some time when we could talk?"
"Depends on the topic. I'm going back to Hawthorne. We can talk on the way."
"That would be good."
He lead the way to one of Laird Hall's outdoor exits, which didn't see much use in January. Chou felt a brief change in the flow of his chi as he cast an illusion of himself as a regular prep school student (school uniform, no antlers or fangs, a healthy reddening of the cheeks from the cold).
Picking up on her confusion, Mads said, "Even if it weren't a red flag day, until the weather improves I'm supposed to avoid the tunnels."
"That doesn't make a lot of sense."
"It does to all the animal spirits, their hosts, empaths, and other overly-sensitive espers I torque off just by existing."
Note to self: enclosed spaces might be an issue.
Mads cast a line out, hoping to catch Chou's reasons for the walk and talk. "Since we're headed towards Poe, I assume you're not planning on asking for a date. Not that it wouldn't be an enjoyable one, but I might have to turn you down."
Chou chuckled at the loony suggestion in spite of herself. "Not exactly, no. I was monitoring your chi in class."
"If I have chi, I can't be dead yet. Right?"
"You were saying?"
"I think you would benefit from learning and practicing Tai Chi. There's a group of us from Poe that practice together each morning."
"That would be you, Fey, Pounce, and all of Pounce's fans?"
"Have you been spying on us? Or were you paying that much attention to Pounce?"
"I might have followed someone else as they walked back to Poe."
His body language suggested it wasn't just a someone. Right! That's why he made the joke about a date... unless he really is that much of a jerk?
"Maybe I should make Valravn get up early and join in?"
Chou Lee sighed. Jerk confirmed.
Wednesday morning, January 15, 2008,
Some remote village near a border that GNN could hardly care less about
The sun loitered high in the sky, baking everything caught in its baleful glare to khaki dust and dry desolation. If it noticed the sounds of men and boys shouting or gunfire, it gave no sign of that.
The video focused on a building occupant scuttling away in attempted escape. Perhaps in another world, under kinder stars, he could have been raised to dream of building a better world instead of the service of never-ending nightmares of destruction. And, perhaps, he noticed that the only motion in the dead air of the streets was that of the dust afarit, for he stopped and looked up.
When he saw them, one a winged person made up of black smoke and ashes, stooping in a mad descent toward the spot he stood, transfixed. The other, a pale distant beauty, whose wings were oddly truncated although the refracted prismatic light passing through them was doubly beautiful for all that. Doubly beautiful and doubly terrible: as she neared he beheld bone white fragile blades emerging from her head, arms, and back. In that moment, he knew that the Most Merciful and Exalted in Might had forsaken him.
Those were the last visions ever to trouble his mind, as steel ball bearings and electrical balefire ripped through his burning flesh. Some few pieces of metal ricocheted until they came to rest in the parched dust.
Team Tactics I, Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
The lights in the briefing room came back up. Admiral Everheart addressed the assembled students.
"It has come to our attention that there has been some discontent regarding how Gunnery Sergeant Bardue and I have assigned scenarios to the different teams registered for this course. I am disappointed that it must not have been obvious that each team has differing strengths and weaknesses. We are saddened that so few paid attention to the first classroom session during which we explicitly told you all that some tactics would need to be adjusted to fit a given team's composition."
"The preceding was footage from a building clearance exercise. The following is from one of the crowd scenario runs that drew complaints."
Unknown urban location
Smoke and fog clung with a ghastly grip to broken and boarded up buildings under a cold, smoke-smeared sky. The symptoms of civil breakdown festered with each refuse bag ripped open and left gutted of whatever reusable scraps could be found. Sporadic gunfire popped in the distance.
A handful of people scuttled into and out of view. Newcomers: their faces weren't as gaunt as the others, and one could see that they didn't belong in this place when they scrambled for cover, checking doorways for unlocked entrances in the face of an oncoming menace. Had there been witnesses, they might have looked on in horror to see that a couple had brought their child to this place. Another contrast: the approaching rabble could have been any color under the dirt and grime - some of it glued into place by congealed blood caked on as Hell's own warpaint.
One needn't have worried for those few strangers, but for the larger mob. As they came into the intersection, their peripheral members found no open doorways either. Some pulled at seized doors repeatedly. Perhaps they hadn't noticed wedges or globs of translucent polymer sprouting from door frames and locks. Whatever guttural mutterings that passed for speech took on a pitch of confusion. Where had their quarry disappeared to?
Three claps flatly echoed from walls hemming the group in. Atop a building, the child seen earlier smiled at the assembly. Then it started. The wind was already howling when the vortex of burning petrochemical sludge engulfed those below. Those who had avoided the fouled air began to be herded in by lightning or hurled masonry. One might have wondered that there was no visible resistance to their entry, only strange tearing sounds or those of something falling to the ground.
The child stopped concentrating on the horror, allowing the smoke, heat, and whatever else had been manifested, to disperse. Nothing remained standing in the small square, save a pile of burnt bone fragments and seared shreds of flesh were once there had been people. He hitched up his scarf to filter the smoke and dust from the air, and walked away from the morning's work.
Team Tactics I, Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
Gunny Bardue disregarded the handful of students trying to reach a trash can or maybe the nearest head. He said, "Some of you maggots have seen fit to complain that because some exercises were completed too quickly for your taste, or some set aside for individual critique, we must have been demonstrating favoritism toward your fellow classmates, in spite of the fact that Ghostwalkers scored higher on both sets of exercises, against both simulated and red team forces."
Gundeck took the bait. "But, Gunny, the Ghostwalkers have been together since last year! They don't count."
"It's true that they first registered as a team in May last year, so they've had more opportunities for time in the simulators." He ignored Pejuta's eye-roll at that, and continued. "Every other sophomore, junior, or senior in this class could have done the same over the past year; most chose not to. However, they are largely as new to the class materials as you are. There's still one very important thing you've forgotten about."
Everheart said, "You've forgotten that Gunnery Sergeant Bardue and I are the instructors for this course and WE decide what counts. That is also why you and rest of Brigade will be turning in a two thousand word essay on the roles and responsibilities of students and instructors in the teaching environment, followed by a presentation of your conclusions first thing Friday morning."
"Do we have any further commentary from the Peanut Gallery? No? Good. Because we still have a class to teach here."
Saturday morning, January 19, 2008,
Devisor Lab, Workshop, Whateley Academy
"Smithy, I was just thinking that it could be useful to reprogram a nanite hive to maintain the structural integrity of the glider. What do you think?"
"Not happy with the epoxy-bonded carbon fiber?"
"Meh. I'd been thinking I could get a better starting material by polymerizing graphene nanotubes using epoxidized ferrocene, but the resulting material doesn't play well with organic solvents."
"How well does it play with organics dissolved in something like water?"
"Why would I care about that?"
"...I'm sure there's a joke I'm missing, but I don't get it."
"Then how about you writing down whatever you've got in your lab notebook, and getting back to our class projects?"
"I suppose I could do that."
"Lord, give me strength."
Saturday afternoon, January 19, 2008,
Whitman Cottage, Whateley Academy
"Don't that beat all!" Abbie complained to her roommate, Elve. She avoided slamming the room's door. Barely.
"Doesn't what beat all?"
"Guess who's now on the restricted departures list, just in time for the Boston trip?"
"Rorsmand, Smithy, and Valravn?"
"You left two out."
"I didn't. Students on the UV list are automatically restricted."
"That sounds like something I'd hear from Faction Three."
"I got it from Mads, but that doesn't mean they'd be wrong to say so."
"No, they wouldn't be wrong; hardly anyone else would care enough to look into it. What about you?"
"Severe GSD, so Admin has to sign off on 'precautionary measures against exposure'."
"Look, we all know why we were matched up against Brigade yesterday. Gundeck's been gunning for Kris since before December, and he's either pissed at or jealous of Mads."
"What?" They were still roommates back then!
"Kris finally told Sandy, though something rotten must have come up to get him to do that. You know we'd never have heard about it from him."
"It can't be just Gary being jealous of Kris. Or anyone being jealous of Rut-roh."
"The sniper, counter-sniper, and artillery exercises might have pissed them off."
"I don't see how. We're not the only team with a chant-n-ranter. And anyone can spot."
"Abbie, Pejuta has this whole act going as if she's allergic to the twentieth century; Absinthe and Damiana don't even shoot arrows. Our guy? Were you paying attention when he called in an airstrike on Everheart's position last week?"
"My ears were still ringing from the howitzer."
"Right. So, I think that's when Bulwark and Redjack went back to complaining about favoritism."
"Still, that doesn't excuse the boys starting a brawl in the Arena and us taking all the blame for it."
"All for one and one for all. And here we all are. Besides that, they're boys. Testosterone poisoning, each and every one."
Abbie laughed, even though the overall point wasn't so funny. "What do you think we should do about it? Doing nothing, or more of the same, just gets us a repeat performance."
"That would depend on their goals as much on ours. Who stands to lose the most?"
"Us, if we're not more careful about not letting people push our buttons. I've heard that the instructors sometimes reassign folks when the training teams don't work out."
"That's a possibility. Brigade is having trouble finding a use for Tephra, except as a tactical sacrifice. Isn't there a Dungeons and Dragons joke about characters disarming traps with their face?"
"They're called 'paladins'. I don't get it either."
"Anyway, if they could pick up Thomas in an exchange, they'd have a flying striker. I don't see them picking you up when they aren't hurting for tech or tanking."
"Flight isn't everything, but me and Mads have been kicking around some ideas about that. Maybe the idea is to get us to boot Mads? Except, they'd have to take Thomas with him and I know Damiana thinks Thomas is a bit of an ass."
"Thomas is an ass." Elve smiled. "So's Mads, but he's less of an ass about being one himself".
"And Kristian has a nice ass, which that makes them bookends. Very, very dysfunctional bookends."
"Doesn't that put a whole new slant on the 'package deal'?"
Abbie threw a pillow at her roommate.
"Okay! Changing the topic: don't you have a work-study assignment?"
"Federal holiday weekend. Most departments are running a skeleton crew, so there's no point in checking the repair log until Tuesday."
"Homework, maybe? There is no way I'm spending the next three days cooped up in an all-girls dorm talking about guys that have NO interest in dating me."
"We could check to see if any of the Ranges are open?"
"Girl, do you see antlers on my head? Let's shoot for a couple of match rounds. Maybe later we could drop by the Library, see if they have any beginner-friendly Arabic-language films?"
"We should order in some food and invite Tira and Eliza."
"Sounds like a plan!"
Eastman Annex, Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
A perq of taking a martial arts course was the ability use practice rooms during off hours without having to join an established club. Mary-Joy Jones' sleek black and white skin didn't endear her to N'Dizi's Tigers, as it was a spiritual gift of the Maki, not a matter of African ancestry. As far as the Dragons were concerned, either her mixed Filipina and Maori ancestry made her the wrong kind of Asian, or somehow proved she wasn't devoted enough to the martial arts.
The real problem was that – intensive course or not – they were two weeks into a seven-week term. She knew the Special Topics course pulled in some of the best fighters on campus, but she couldn't help comparing herself to the people around her. Even a psycho like Bloodwolf was showing more improvement than her! She checked the sign-in boards. All of the single-study rooms were occupied, so she picked a partially open studio at random, then headed to the locker room to change into her gi.
Mary-Joy walked into the studio, looked around, saw Metro, and had to stop herself from walking right back out of there. She guessed the boy had been there some time, as he was working on forms she wasn't familiar with. Two mini-drones hovered around him. That looked like an accident waiting to happen: even though he wasn't moving very quickly, the nine or ten feet long long pole that he was using had reach and leverage on its side against the flying toys. She sniffed the air, remembering something that had been said about how difficult it was to be near him for any length of time.
You do remember that we do not hunt by smell, don't you?
Sure, but that doesn't explain why so many do complain of something like a musk or worse, a pong, about him. What I am getting here is a feeling like someone walking over my grave.
This taniwha comes from a tribe of pakehakeha from across the sea and is kin to their Hine-nui-te-pō.
How do you know this?
For better or worse, the kākahi of the Far North know his people and their ancestors. I can block these aspects of him, if you need that?
Let's try that. I don't believe his team accepted our apology.
Was it delivered with respect due a kaitiaki?
I don't think it was.
"Am I in your way?"
"I asked if I was in your way. The studio's large enough for me to move to another area if you prefer to practice here."
Close up, it was easier to see that the guy was half a foot shorter than Mary-Joy, sweaty spiked hair notwithstanding, and looked even shorter standing there breathing hard and holding his pole.
No. Not that pole. The orca spirit laughed in her head.
"Er, no. You're fine where you are."
"I do try." Surprise! He could even smile when he wasn't destroying things!
"That's not what I meant. I mean, I don't think we've seen you using that in the sims. It's not something I think any of us would have expected of you."
"Oh. Practicing with the long pole is partly to build core strength. Some day I might end up more of a danger to others than to myself, but until then I have to make do. I already known I'm at too much of a disadvantage against some attacks."
At least the discussion had started out civil! Reasonable or not, she was still disappointed that he might be taking his frustrations with a couple of testosterone-poisoned boys out on the entire team. "You're referring to yesterday?"
Reading her mood-shift, he shook his head. "Not really. Some folks in the family weren't impressed with how I handled myself back in August, even if I did survive getting stabbed in the gut. Talk about ungrateful!"
"It's easier to heal the injury that doesn't land than the one that does."
"True. Anyway, I should let you get to your practice... Oh! One more thing."
"I'm not your enemy, Mary-Joy Jones, unless you choose to make it so. Just thought you should know that."
"Understood." She set her gear down and began her warm-up exercises, now even more uncomfortably aware than before that one of Metro's sleeves was gathered up under a white band marked 'UV'.
Not my friend either, unless I choose to work for it.
How valuable are 'friends' too easily gained?
She didn't have a ready answer to that.
With prodding from the spirit she carried, she put her mind back to the routines that she'd come to work on. It was one thing to know the steps and the positions; integrating the feel of muscles and ligaments moving bones and joints with her intent was another. She didn't hear the other student finish his own practice and gather up his gear, nor did she notice him the brief time he sat and watched her. Only once he was at the door did she catch sight of him nodding his farewell to her, over a gym bag slung on his shoulder. For a moment she could have sworn the hand holding the door was nothing but old bones strung together. Then he was gone.
What was that about?
Something you needed to see, even against tapu, if it were allowed to be seen.
What if it wasn't allowed?
He's small, barely a mouthful, but there are worse males to look at here.
Now I'm not hunting enough?
Nope. Not at all. Maybe you need to cover more territory, or find a more active pod. Either one works.
Sunday morning, January 20, 2008,
Kirby Hall Labs, Whateley Academy
Mads Jensen had just finished drawing a circle in charcoal on the floor of the lab space when Thomas Jensen let himself in. Thomas quietly went about checking that no materials were missing from his storage locker and bench space. Once he was satisfied that nothing had walked off since the last time he'd used their shared lab he took a good look at what Mads was up to.
"Doesn't it usually work better if you leave an opening?"
"The charcoal marks are just a guide for the corn meal. Could you turn the ventilation down while you're over there? I want to burn some incense before anything starts. The usual 'Trespassers Will Be Violated' warning."
"I thought you were set on breaking them in slowly with a meditation ordeal?"
"I was. I am. But I'd rather have protection up, just in case. So, I'm looking at using frankincense, myrrh, rosemary, along with some belladonna in the mix just for me."
"That's why I'm not so sold on doing this today. Adore freaked out when I dragged you up to the Common Room this morning."
"She's not supposed to be awake and watching the news at those hours. It's not like I can suppress my glamour twenty-four/seven... You probably freaked her out more."
"How do you figure that?"
"You weren't head over heels in lust for her."
"Not my type. Thom would have been interested, but even if her wings were functional that lust aura kills the deal for me. I take it I'm here to play sitter?"
"Not much room left, but I can set up a small circle over in the corner and mark in a bridge between the two."
"That should work."
An hour later
"Now, you've been talking about astral perception and astral projection as if they're basic skills. But when I looked into what's been published about the subject, the impression I get is that they're anything but. Furthermore, nothing you've ever said suggests that you've even had the time to learn such things. What's the real deal here?" asked Abbie.
"Ah. Well. You see, some of that's a cultural difference and some goes into the reasons why discovering one's talent for magic can be called 'awakening'."
He's trying to talk his way around something. Again.
How could you tell?
His mouth is open. Remind him about the dangers of keeping his crew in the dark.
"Mads. Is this how a jarl treats his shield-bearer?"
"She's got you dead to rights there."
Mads sighed. On the plus side, she'd be discounted as crazy if she repeated most of what he didn't want to tell her. However, having others bear the brunt of that when stuff gets real didn't look like much of a plus. "Where I'm from, those abilities are common among magicians, to the point that those lacking them are called names behind their backs. To complicate matters, magic swept back in so hard sixty or so years ago, that something like one percent of the population spontaneously Awakens."
"Where you're from. Sixty years ago? Really. So, how is it that there are weres running around that are older than that? What about the time that the Nunnehi protected Franklin, North Carolina, from an old-fashioned Union torching? Hell, Circe probably has enchanted dresses older than sixty years." Abbie squinted at Mads' face, picturing the gears grinding in his head. "I'm not suggesting that you should ask her if she does, so stop thinking about doing just that."
"I wasn't ... nevermind. What counts is that I was in a very bad place at the time, so I don't remember when or how it happened for me, other than my sanity depended on it. No method tested for Awakening a mundane has held up under peer review, either. Trying to make you into a union member probably wouldn't go well."
"I imagine that some of those proposed methods didn't make it through ethics review."
Mads furrowed his brow, thoroughly lost. "What does ethics have to do with research?"
Abbie just stared at the idiot for good long while. "Fine. You know what? I'm going to let that go. Now how does meditation play into what we're trying to do, when you don't know how you do it?"
"Push comes to shove, there's a couple of ways to make astral projection happen. Where meditation comes in is that it's a well-known method to purify a person's mind-space for planar travel, which has its own hazards above and beyond astral travel."
"What happens if we skip the prep?"
"If you're lucky, nothing happens. If you're less lucky, nothing happens for a very, very long time. Other times, I'm told that the general effect is as mentally comfortable as a tense traffic stop by a SWAT unit while under the influence of a cocktail of deleriants... and you're not buying a word I'm saying."
"Nope. If you have to be a functioning magician to pull off planar travel, and you don't know how that happens, I got no reason to spend the weekend on meditation instead of getting something worthwhile done."
"I didn't say a magician has to make the trip alone. It's just that it's more likely to work if everyone pays their own toll"
"What have you paid?"
"It's a long story."
"From what I see on the floor, the room's already booked."
Three years earlier, Vorreiter Thaumaturgic Support Training Center, Detroit
"I see we're short a few people, so I'll wait a few more minutes before we get started." Capt. Humphrey saw a uniformed kid double-check the room number. "Excuse me? Yes, you. Where's your escort to wherever it is that you're supposed to be?"
Instead of being scared off to find whatever in-house tour group he'd been tagging along behind, the guy smiled and walked up to Humphrey and saluted. "Lt. Gunnison, reporting." Humphrey hesitated a moment before returning that salute. For one thing, Gunnison was way too young. For another, his hair hadn't grown back from recent cranial surgery. Worst of all, there was a Mads Gunnison listed on the roster.
"Let's make that Why are you here?"
Mads had his cover story on speed-dial. He shrugged, as if it were the usual same drek, different sack to pound it in, "I'm assigned here at HQ, and this is the first in-house initiation group open that met my current supervisor's requirements." That should sound enough like a reassignment to fly.
One quick way to tell the assets from the kiddies: "Identification?" "Here." Gunnison handed over an internal pass instead of broadcasting his data to God and Country. It wasn't even the right color for ... Oh, holy shit. That's not the kind of clearance you give a fourteen-year-old kid!
The guy was still smiling, from the cheekbones down. "Alpha Romeo tree two four seven seven India Alpha four niner." The code string was a one-time authentication, allowing an extended (but carefully redacted) records retrieval. Internal fragging Affairs. No wonder their division was only going to let him train here — where they could check up on him and everyone he interacts with. "Are we good, Captain?"
"Yes. Take a seat, we still have a straggler."
"You know, that's sounding less and less like something a person should be taking on by themselves. No offense, but that definitely includes you."
"That's why I requested to get in with an initiation group. Some preparatory rituals just aren't practical for a solitary, so there's that, but having people looking out for you is a Good Thing. The downside is that there still ain't no one getting you past the Dweller on the Threshold but you, yourself, and your Shadow, and it'll be dredging up emotional dirt what you aren't coping with and don't want anyone else knowing about you."
"Wow. It just keeps getting better, doesn't it."
Three years earlier, Vorreiter Thaumaturgic Support Training Center, Detroit
Capt. Humphrey made sure that he arrived early enough to see what condition his charges were in. He'd sent them off with instructions to get to know each other and decide how to approach the coming initiation. There wasn't time for living under a vow of poverty or for each to go out and prove their worthiness. A couple of years back, one gung-ho group had gone downtown for matching scarifications to prove they could take whatever came their way. The guy who'd bailed out on that nonsense was the only one still working in any capacity.
Some time in the early morning hours Andrew J. Patricks had earned himself the moniker "Drano". Even the backs of his eyes were hurting too much rotgut and too few hours of rack time later. By that time, Amber Vicenzio had owned her callsign "Rack", while sharking a go-gang out of their lunch money. He vaguely recalled Jolene Hendricks answering to "Hips" after they'd staggered out of a club they'd poured themselves into after finally dragging the Probie and Kobie out of the trog watering hole they'd been (mis-)led to.
After Patricks, the Probie was the next one to limp in. Gunnison looked like he'd been worked over by professionals, but that manic grin left Humphrey wondering how bad the other gang looked. The worry only increased when he saw that Jeremy Corbin-Bean seated himself between Patricks and Gunnison.
Bella Ong, the straggler who'd had come in from Seattle, sat in the center seat of the second row, behind Bean. So far, the Filipina Adept looked to be in the best shape of the bunch — no worse than 'rode hard and put up wet'.
On time though last, Vicenzio and Hendricks strode in. If he'd had any takers, he would have bet that they hadn't slept alone. Or for very long.
Capt. Humphrey wondered whether he should have pointed these people to a body shop instead. "Before we get started, are there any reports that need to be taken care of?"
He acknowledged Gunnison, who asked with feigned innocence, "Captain, may I ask what reports you were expecting?" Since when did records suppression include...? Oh, right. MIB.
Ong: "The risk of injury was understood beforehand, even if some individuals underestimated the potential severity."
"Right. Moving on. Have we made any decisions yet?"
Ong replied, "Under no circumstance does Gunnison pick the watering hole."
"I meant with regard to the reason we are gathered here."
"I think I can speak for all when I say that even with combat boosters, meditation will be more than difficult enough."
"Somehow, I can't picture you chanting Om Mani Padme Hum for hours on end."
"You don't have to chant a mantra when using focused attention, but it might be easier than counting breaths — which is a lot like chanting a mantra when you think about it. Open monitoring methods are among the more difficult to practice while sitting in one place, but that sort of mental discipline, by training you to let go of your thoughts, works so well on a shooting range or when conducting surveillance that I can't recommend them highly enough."
Thomas said, "You'll find that that sort of mindfulness or even a no mind state will make it much easier to talk to Inaam over your natural spirit link. Also! Don't get caught up in any 'which is better' wanking. Letting ego get the better of you means you might be taking the wrong approach."
When did Thomas learn to speak without using sarcasm? "What if I wanted to use a mantra?"
"Best to pick one that won't give your intentions away," Mads said. "Chanting in Latin or Hebrew is a great way to convince people that they've got a mage that needs shooting."
"There's no rule against just picking something that you can repeat over and over until it loses one meaning and gains another back." Thomas paused, "'Henry the 8th' might be a poor choice. Please use it around Coyote. It might help to choose something that fits your objective. Pura Fé's 'Mahk Jchi', Jonathan Larson's 'Will I?', Rita Coolidge's 'Cherokee Morning Song', each have simple lyrics but build to different feelings from that starting point."
"'Cherokee Morning Song'? Are you kidding? I can hear Pucelle ranting about cultural appropriation from here!"
"If the Europeans had appropriated that instead of everything else, we'd all be much better off."
"Mads? Do you own a mirror? You've got to be the palest person on campus this side of Vamp."
"That doesn't make me wrong! But, that reminds me: a repeated drum pattern can be effective as well."
Three years earlier, an early morning, south Detroit
In Mads' opinion, a day spent meditating was likely the best thing a person could do for a novacoke crash. Most people on a crash aren't good for much else anyway. Judging by the faces around him at the meet-up, that part of the plan was working well for everyone. Mama Bear didn't approve at all, but she still had the coffee brewing and set up IVs to run the brutally expensive peroxygenated flourocarbons.
"... difficult enough." Their decision made, Humphrey led the group to the space secured for them. Assuming they made it through, they wouldn't be far from the designated medical support stations. One couldn't just leave a planar traveler on the floor for the hours or days they'd be out, leaving their jump-suited bodies unoccupied and comatose. One thing he wasn't going to warn them about was the fact that the door would be locked behind him. Six people, four days, one head.
The first order of business was to call in the spirit that Hips was working with, to guard the group against mishaps. Six doses of Long Haul ensured no one would be sleeping for the next 96 hours. Kobie and Probie flipped a coin to see who would over-cast a body improvement spell on each person to help ensure that everyone made it through the first mind-over-body hurdle of the extended meditation practice. That left three days to get through the more complex period of inner examination as the subconscious pulled up distractions to avoid losing comfortable self-delusions to the sharp sword of truth. At this stage the performance-enhancing chemical mix would help by improving oxygen transport to all parts of the body, active or not. The biggest gamble would be whether the desert jewel peyote would help or hurt on the second day. Drano had access to a spirit that could hold a mind link together for the six would-be initiates in case one needed to be talked down from a dark or corrupted vision.
None of them had anticipated that linking up as they had might draw the attention of the Dweller on the Threshold before they were ready for it. Both the spell and the Dweller were mental and magical constructs after one fashion or another.
"... in my own defense, I didn't think that the mind-net spell was a great idea."
Thomas said, "Wasn't the issue that you were still getting flashbacks?"
"Those don't mix well with spell-casting. Mind you, I also had more experience with psychotherapy than any two of them at the time."
Abbie said, "I'd've thought the peyote was the risky additive."
"Not that it's safe, but it's something well-known and understood by medical personnel — like jimson weed or fly agaric."
Three years earlier, Astral space near downtown Detroit
"Mads Gunnison, or whatever your name is today, don't you have any bears to be baiting?"
He wasn't certain of where he was or where the voice was coming from, but that didn't stop him from answering. "I don't know. Go ask Makwa that question. I'll wait."
"Yes. I think you will."
Mads' eyes beheld blue sky, brown stone, and leafy green. Whether prompted by instinct or panic or panic, it didn't matter as his hands clamped down on the rope he was rapidly descending. Training kicked in and he got his booted feet out in front of him before he could face-plant into the cliff and go back to falling. His relief was short-lived. No matter where he looked, he couldn't see anyone on belay.
Heart pounding in his throat and sweating bullets from the adrenaline surge, he searched for any point in reach that he could use to set protection.
"You were still okay, right? It's not like you could have died out there, while your body's sitting wherever it was."
"Have you ever heard the maxim 'As Above, so Below'?" Abbie shook her head. "Basically, what happens in one realm happens in the other, if conditions are met. If I'd gone splat, back at our launch point there would have been the closest approximation of hamburger that my dying nerves and muscles could manage."
"Which is to say it would be kind of messy, and the med techs wouldn't be happy."
"Couldn't you have called on a spirit to help?"
"The goal is for the practitioner to get themselves over their own drek. Plus, we've been over this in class — lots of spirits consider possession nine-tenths of the Law."
Three years earlier, Astral space near downtown Detroit
"What the hell? Where's the kid?"
"He's a little tied up at the moment. You know how those Corp Kiddies are — always getting Mommy or Daddy to pull some strings to get them in on the cool stuff. If something goes wrong, they can just press their panic button and bail out. What do you say to that, Amber? Here you are, after busting your hoop to get into a good school and then out of it with a double major, temping or taking breaks to build up your reserves, and he just waltzes in. That doesn't mean your comrade, Davey, is much better. You can change your name, buy a new novel to match, even pull a hitch with the Navy to cover training costs, but isn't that what Humanis wanted you to do?"
Before either one could object, Rack and Drano were gone too.
"Not too surprised are you, Jer? Still think you'll make it past me this time? Not happening, and you're going to take these girls down with you. Maybe if you're lucky Jolene here might show you her greatest tricks collection as a consolation prize. No, Jo? Or maybe Bella can welcome you on her squad, or rather, what's left of it. Seattle's rough, but walking a beat's far better than having no job when rent payments come due."
And then there were none.
"How did you come to know about any of that happening?"
"Some parts came through over the mind net. The rest they told me later. Now let's stop stalling, and start with both of you going through that breath counting exercise we talked about. "
Two hours later
"Remember that your soul resides in a body. That body is in a room, in a building, on a school campus. Now feel your breathing pick up its pace and your heart beating a little bit faster. As the seconds tick by, become more and more engaged with the world around you. And ... welcome back."
"That was... the opposite of intense? Except something felt different."
"Yeah. Meditation doesn't make your problems go away; it's still a good way to set them aside for a time."
"And you say everyone in your group pulled an eight hour shift of this while hung over?"
"Trust me, it's easier to sit still for hours when you're solemnly wishing you were dead! Ready for lunch?"
"We just got started. Check the time."
"I've got 1146, how 'bout you?"
Lunch, Sunday, January 20, 2008,
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Abbie Elliott set her lunch tray down across from Elve. Kristian looked up, worry lines deepening as he picked up on her mood. Undeterred by any witnesses, she pulled a magazine out of her book bag, rolled it up, and swatted the back of Thomas' head.
"What was that for?"
"That was for suggesting 'Will I?' for a mantra! That song is about death you callous prick! Bad enough getting 'Henry the 8th' stuck in my head!
"Nothing speaking to the human need for compassion or mercy?"
Elve said, "You see, I've always thought that the song was meant as a prayer."
"I could see that," said Thomas. "A prayer for hope, I guess."
"Or acceptance of the inevitable."
Mads said, "Or maybe Abbie just isn't into it? We could look up some plainsong. Hildegard of Bingen is the polar opposite of whatever Brass Monkey is doing to music with a bent and rusty fork."
"You know, I'm thinking that I should do some of that research myself. No offense intended, but I don't think that my go-to source for things like this should be taken out of Native American tradition. I can't see Church music being my kind of thing either."
"You could look up Sufi practices. Just remember that that the best sources won't always be in Arabic."
Elve said, "That could be worked in with our homework. Don't any of the rest of you have homework or class reading to catch up on?"
"'Pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one to explain how they relate to next week's Lotto numbers' is going well," Thomas said. "Summoning? I'm almost to the point of browsing The Goetia for ideas. I should've taken that Paranormal Law course like Kris, and gotten that out of the way."
"When you take it, don't schedule it after lunch. Sandy and I are both having some trouble staying awake in there."
"Nothing's perfect. So, we take a break for now, pick back up tomorrow morning, maybe with Doctor Tenent?"
"Why do it that way?"
"So I don't get yelled at and my shot records lost?"
Three years earlier, Astral space
Amber woke up propped up against the tree near where they'd laid out all their climbing gear: harnesses, ropes, cams, stoppers, and so forth. Looking around to get her bearings, she realized that they'd picking one hell of a desolate spot to go climbing and that she was alone out there, except for Patricks. Nice to know that he'd turned out to have lived up to his nickname.
Looking more carefully at the sitch they were in, she didn't much like what she saw. The sun's low angle only gave maybe a couple of hours of working light. She just knew that with darkness this place would be getting cold, and that the cold wouldn't do much to deter predators. The wide, deep, empty space that started maybe a foot from where Patricks was standing stock-still had to be a cliff.
In her best crisis helpline voice she called out to him, "Patricks, I need you to step away from the cliff. Just one foot behind the other. Do you understand me?"
The violent head shaking in response was never a good sign.
"Okay, okay. Let's take it easy. Try to calm down."
This was just great. Amber had originally gone into enforcement to help society put an end to racist groups like the one Patricks had come from. Now look at where she was. She couldn't afford rookie heroics either. A flying tackle might be exhilarating for a whole two or three seconds. Trying to grab him from behind would put push to shove; making taking both over the brink. That all assumed he'd prefer taking his chances with the ork over jumping. She did have plenty of rope...
Calm down. That was easy enough to say when you have someone behind you who probably wants you dead, and in front of you your own worst fears.
Sad to say, Patricks wouldn't blame Vicenzio for pushing him off a cliff. Like his parents, he'd been raised to believe that goblinization was the hand of God revealing the sin and sickness in a family. He'd been taught that the resulting hideous creatures were entirely sub-human and needed to be run out of places where God-abiding people lived. But when the unexplained genetic expression came to his sister, he'd had to decide if her blood on his hands would be worth his soul's salvation.
"Do you know where any of the others are?"
"We can still work with that. Talk to me: why did you change your name?"
"B-because if my family found me, they'd find my sister. They'd kill her. I just know it."
"Then I guess you'd better make it through this, huh? As soon as an autopsy pulls up who you were..."
Patricks stayed silent at that. Still not good.
"What made you do into a dead-end job like the Navy? All work, measly pension if you survive long enough."
"I'm terrified of heights. Rappelling out of a helicopter wasn't very appealing."
"Don't ships still have masts that have to be climbed for repairs and such?"
"I found that out after I'd enlisted."
"Yeah. That sounds like a military recruiter. Corp recruiters aren't much better. Sneakier in some ways."
"This one's got a better rep than — ack!"
Amber was badly over-balanced when she reached for the guy, which meant she wouldn't be on her feet afterwards. The throw itself was something her old sensei wouldn't have been proud of, but it worked. Too bad the soil cliff face wasn't as stable under her weight as it had been with Patricks standing very still.
With his fears' hold of him broken, AJ didn't waste time assessing how he got where he was. It was sufficient that Vicenzio'd faked out a rope behind her and that it held when he tugged on it. He got out as far as he could staying just beyond the ork's reach, ignoring the betrayed look in her eyes. If she grabbed just him, they'd both go down. He worked a knotted loop into the rope and slowly tossed it to her.
The knot slipped when Amber caught it, threatening to crush her hand, but she held on as Patricks dug his heels in and began to haul her back to a point her feet could get some purchase. In the struggle, some rock and soil rolled out into empty space.
Seconds later they both heard shouts over the sound of their labored breathing. Whoever it was, they were below them, and the day wasn't getting any warmer.
Morning, Monday, January 21, 2008,
Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy
The room they'd signed out had most of the usual hospital room furnishings and equipment. However, it was considerably larger than the other rooms to accommodate an open area twice again the size of the area taken up by medical equipment and supplies. The walls were painted with low-gloss white paint and the floor was a nearly seamless light gray terrazzo. Closer inspection would reveal a permanent circle incised into the floor. Those who could do so, might perceive several series of protection and healing wards placed under the paint all around the room, even worked into the "random" color chips of the terrazzo. While patients might be grateful for their healing afterwards, too many visible occult trappings tended to make many nervous.
This morning it was occupied by three students, one of whom was drumming a cadence while the other two appeared to be doing not much of anything.
Thomas ceased drumming and said, "Who wants to spout the obligatory Star Wars quote?"
Mads looked confused; he'd let himself go deeper into his own headspace than planned. "I keep hearing about them. Any recommendations?"
"Be careful to whom you speak of that heresy in the Workshop. Anyway, should we wake her up?"
Mads scanned the room's warding, invisible to the mundane eye, but not imperceptible to his inner eye. There were no signs of strain. The only indication that things had not gone as planned was the fact that Abbie was deep into non-REM sleep. At least she wasn't snoring.
"She should be in her own dream-space soon, if not already. As things stand, either of us should be able to track down where she is, back out, and lead Inaam there. It's not the same thing as bringing them together to a higher plane, but I'm thinking it could be a step in the right direction."
"If we want to move her from the chair to the hospital bed, we're going to need some help. She's heavier than she looks."
"I'll see about flagging down some orderlies." Mads got up and stretched the kinks out of his limbs.
"Use the telephone instead of completely wrecking the sacred space, idjit."
"Mads, listen. She shouldn't be this deep that fast. I'm not kidding: I won't wait for a signal to pull you out if I don't like what I see."
"Sou ka. Before you do anything, give Dr. Tenent a head's up."
Three years earlier, Astral space
As far as Mads Gunnison could tell, his day was not likely to suck any less any time soon. The air was dry, the sun was low, and he was certain that he hadn't signed off on vintage mountaineering gear. He'd only gotten two pitons placed and himself secured when he heard a rockfall above him. He tried to flatten himself against the cliff face as best he could but his right shoulder still got tagged. There wasn't much point to choking back the shouting, not that he could.
"Can anyone hear me down there?" echoed as loudly as the call itself.
"Yes! Stop dropping rocks on my god-damned head already!" It may not have been the most professional response, but it was heart-felt.
"Do you need assistance? How many are with you?"
That had to be someone from his initiation group. Was it too much to ask that they'd be good at this climbing nonsense? "YES. Just ME, one bad arm, and the ROCKS down here." Just in case he was wrong, Mads tried reaching up. BAD bad idea.
"What just happened down there?"
"It hurts when I raise my arm!"
"Then don't do that."
I am going to kill them slowly.
"Patricks, please tell me you've had least some basic training for this."
"Make it AJ or Drano. I know the theory, but there's the whole 'long way down' part I never got past."
"Amber or Rack to you, then. I once took a semester off to earn some money as an arborist. Girls like me don't get the best jobs. I can talk you through it as we descend, but I gotta know you have my back."
"I'd had do anything but this, but yes, I will have your back."
"Good. Because for the record I'm a city girl and I hate being stuck in a situation like this after dark. Did you notice something when the kid called out?"
"Aside from the fact he didn't ask for help?"
"There was that. We also heard him clearly, which means he doesn't have a filter mask on. If the wind shifts to drop ash fall on this place, we're all fragged. It would help if we had a spotter to make sure we followed on the best route down and back up."
A new voice came from the branches above the two setting up for the descent. "That much I can do. Thunderbird's Song, at your service. But only because I'd rather not let the idjit get us both waxed." Both looked up in the direction of the voice, and saw a roiling mass of smoke and shadows. "What? You humans look like you've never run across a pacted free spirit."
Hallow of Inaam al-Baajalat
Mads took a deep breath when he arrived in Inaam's Hallow. The dry air seared his lungs, but it was clean. He could see a broad mix of carob, cedar, date palm, and other beneficial plants. Turning, he took in the site of Inaam's workshop. Off to one side, he saw a flat-roofed and white-washed residence. Some window screens were open to take advantage of the morning breeze. He hoped that that meant somebody was home, but still took the time to memorize the pattern of energies that made this place what it was should he need to return.
Mads knocked at the bright lapis blue painted door and was soon rewarded with Inaam's smiling face. She beckoned him inside, so of course he followed, not expecting the bone-crushing bear hug she wrapped him up in as soon as the door closed.
"I knew it was you even if you did change your appearance!"
Smiling at the young man's confusion, she guided/dragged him to a full-length mirror. Still short, but he had to admit that the brown skin and curly dark hair he'd adopted in Cairo looked good against the blue ssedria and ghlila, and red cap. He could have done with a more European style of trousers, but the white linen was light enough to stay cool. Then there was the contrast to his much taller (2m, easy) host. Inaam was wearing her hair in dark scarlet braids, gathered behind her head, that cascaded down her back like a miniature river of lava. She might have been wearing a blouse and underskirt, but the multicolored thoub she wore drew the eye away from such speculations.
"Now that you're here, we can talk about what you have planned for today..."
Dream-space of Abelyn Elliott
Whereas Inaam's space was hot and dry, Abelyn's was hot and humid, the air burdened with photochemical blue smog, and the warm, sweet scents of hay, honeysuckle, blackberry, and wild rose. Honest to god, there were cicadas making noise in the distance. Mads didn't need to see the Elliott's Auto Body and Repair Shop sign, the terracotta dirt under his feet, or the sun dress that Inaam now wore to know where he was. He was certain that Abbie had never seen him in khaki shorts, an untucked blue oxford cloth shirt, and a cheap rep tie.
"You look like one of those old comic strip characters she likes — the one with the kid and the tiger, but dressed like the one with the big-nosed penguin."
"I'll try to remember that when I compose my next suicide note."
"Still having trouble trusting humans?"
"I can't blame me for that."
"Anyway, this gets us back to the problem at hand. Abbie can't come to me, since my hallow is within her. I can't come to her here without being caught up in everything she feels she's lost. Er... this isn't a vote for Tír na nÓg, Avalon, Annwn, or anything else fae-related."
"Can't imagine why. Circe might be glad that we're paying attention in class. Let's see about getting our third vote." Mads led Inaam around past the business office to the back where a brick house and sheds were shielded from the road and from neighbors. He knocked on the front door.
"Coming! Just a minute!" A minute or two later, Abbie opened the door, then almost shut it right after.
"Woah, there! Aren't you going to invite us in? It's kind of hot out."
"Come on in, then. Wipe your shoes first! While I'm up can I get you something to drink: water, iced tea, I might even have some Cokes."
"Tea?" "Tea would be nice."
"So this is what the late 20th century looks like."
"By the way, what kind of shoes are these? I don't like them."
"They're docksiders. 'M not sure if I should be surprised to see you wearing them or not. Do you ever wear anything other than boots or uniform shoes?"
"Not if I can help it."
Abbie sighed before coming back from the kitchen with drinks for her guests. "Has Sis explained the problem with meeting up here? I can take this in small doses, but sometimes it's hard seeing this place where I grew up, knowing that I can only see Ma and Pa in my dreams."
"I only see the biologicals in my nightmares."
"That just ain't how a person's life's supposed to be. You do know that, right?"
The boy just shrugged: water under the bridge. "I do have one location we could go. The downside is that it's supposed to be a secured training facility, so we should be greeted with by at least an armed squad or two. Best place I know of for surprising anyone trying to trace me by any of my foci."
"We wouldn't happen to meet any of your old friends, would we?"
"Not a chance. All five of the folks I started training with are dead. The corporation's all I have there now."
"I think that's a good enough reason to go somewhere else this time around."
"Do you have a picture of them on you?"
"Sure." Mads dug out his own wallet and flipped through a selection of photos before passing it over to Abbie.
"Inaam, I think you should take a look." Abbie handed the wallet over, still open to the photo.
"That's ... interesting."
"What? It's a standard snapshot, reduced to 2D."
"Mind pointing them out by nickname? I assume you have them memorized."
"Duh. In the back we've got Drano, Rack, and Kobie. Front's Hips, Probie (i.e., me), and Dragon Lady."
Inaam bit on her lower lip to hold back her first through third responses before saying, in a strained neutral tone, "I think I can see where Rack got her nickname."
"Huh? Not in that picture. I'd need to see if I have a video clip saved somewhere to show her in action."
"To show her. In. Action?"
"Yeah. She was one hell of a pool shark. You kind of remind me of her, come to think of it – hairstyle and height does it, I think – but you have to see her game to appreciate it."
"Explain 'Hips' then."
"Believe it or not, those are natural. Surprising for someone who worked as a dancer through school, right? Oh, and she hated being called out by her last name. Always said she was a damn sight better than some bottle of hooch and expected to be treated that way."
If I killed him now, he'd probably haunt me... and then he'd decide that that was the plan all along.
"Let's go back to where you dumped me and Inaam after all the work that went into forging your athamé. We at least have some knowledge of the place going in."
"I'm sure I've been in worse spots. Let's go."
Three years earlier, Astral space
The first rays of sunlight that angled around peaks to the east reflected from frost crystals on the sparse grass still hanging on to existence at the cliff's top. Patricks was the first to scramble up over the edge. He double-checked the ropes that supported Hendricks. He set to work securing a new anchor for the rope they'd need to haul up the third member of their party. He waited for Hendricks to call back up that that was secure before digging in his heels to belay her ascent under the air spirit's watchful eye.
Only once they'd finally hauled the unconscious Probie up did Patricks allow his stomach to empty itself off in the bushes. They might have been "only" projections of themselves, but that felt every bit as real as the numbing cold. Rack's healing took, so they didn't have to wait long for him to come around. The Dweller still had one last point to make: the sun-warming ground cracked a few feet away from the cliff face, followed by a deafening roar as countless tons of rock surrendered to frost heave and gravity.
"Congratulations, you may proceed."
Astral Reflection into Nightmare, The Quad, Whateley Academy,
A maddened canine howl keened out across the darkened Quad. Something older than wolf, no less dangerous, and it was out for blood.
Mads listened to the full call. "This could get painful."
Abbie replied, "It's just one of the weres hunting on the reservation. It might sound eery, but no big deal."
Mads continued looking for cover. "It's dark, we're out in the open, there's no one around, and that's not a werewolf." Maybe the chapel? He motioned for Abbie and Inaam to follow. He tried raising Rorsmand, but there was far too much RF noise for a connection. That couldn't be an accident.
Dillon Chapel, Whateley Academy
Of course the door was locked. Mads starts rummaging in his jacket for a lockpick set.
"I've got this," Abbie said, keeping her voice low. "Aced Survival, remember?"
Inaam told Mads, "Invisibility would be useful right now, wouldn't it?"
"Wouldn't help. Thomas can always come to where I am, invisible or not."
"That doesn't sound much like him, unless Air Wolf is a viable thing here. If he can always find you, why are we breaking into a chapel?"
"You two hide. I'll see what I can do."
"That's the worst idea I've heard all week."
"Guys, we're in."
Inaam hauled Mads into the building by the scruff of his neck. The vestibule was dark, but not dark enough to hide that happening in the doorway.
Once the door was closed Abbie asked, "What's the deal here?"
"Someone has decided to play 'bait' without setting the trap, even though you're tougher and stronger than his other half."
"We're in danger – from Thomas? – but Mads thinks he can talk his way out of it? I don't see the problem."
"I don't think he plans to talk the other out of whatever's happening."
Mads grumbled, "I can't. That's not how the story goes."
The lights came on throughout the chapel. An unknown man spoke from inside the sanctuary: "Mr. Møller is correct. That is not how the story goes at all." Two armed men stepped forward from either side of the room, flanking the three. "Miss Elliott, I should inform you that your associate is far less bulletproof than you are, and he needs his blood more than we do. Erik, cuff the girls."
"This is a House of the Lord!"
"Sister, I don't think this one cares much."
"On the contrary. The pews come in handy for seating guests." The man paused, no doubt subvocalizing some commands over his own comm gear. Several tense minutes passed before more men entered. One of them went over to Mads.
"Ditch the rags, kid. What kind of show the girls get is all up to you."
Not entirely likely. Mads began disrobing all the same, concentrating on the enforcer and the leader and their reactions. His twelve-year-old self argued through tears for letting him drive them through this part. His fifteen-year-old self sat back to evaluate their options.
Abbie couldn't look away from the boy's slow, deliberate disrobing. His body language didn't match the situation, as if he were enticing his audience to watch, and perhaps engage in something unspeakable. She wondered if this was what people meant when they talked about not being able to turn away from a train wreck. Soon the boy was naked with the exception of a mismatched set of arm bands. "Leave them for now," the leader had directed. At the end of the grotesque show, Mads was handcuffed again and frog-marched to the altar at the front of the chapel.
Inaam kept silent. Abelyn would need all her support if they were to get through this. Something about the wards on the building kept her from dematerializing and going for help. Whoever had set this in motion had too much information on them. She knew things as well. While they were forced to await whatever came next, she carefully allowed some of her power to diffuse into the chapel, edging the temperature up.
The enforcers jumped at the sound of the outer doors being slammed open. What lead the way into the chapel justified their nervousness. A nightmare made flesh pulled on its chains: all black, the thing's muzzle was short, more like a bear or a pit bull and half again as large as any wolf. Abbie realized that the group must have hired mutants for this job because she doubted that even with exemplar-augmented strength she could have held back that beast when it lunged after Mads. It then struck her that these people were going to kill a friend of hers in one of the most brutal ways possible and there was nothing she could do about it until she finished picking the handcuff lock.
"Ah! Now we have our final guest of honor. Not very communicative, is he? Or in control of himself. I must wonder if he's hun—"
Abbie stumbled and lost her footing in her attempt to intercept the beast. As she hit the floor, flames exploded overhead and arced around to the gunmen faster than they could move away. Tears filled her eyes but couldn't drown out the bestial growls and screams of pain just feet away from her. In the deadened quiet that came after she didn't notice her handcuffs being removed, paid no attention to Inaam holding her. Once again, AGAIN, she'd been useless when people she cared about were being murdered.
Mads' voice cut like a cruel knife to her ears. "Abbie. Abbie, it's me. Could you just, I don't know, open your eyes? That's all, just open your eyes." Pretending to be someone so recently killed was a sick joke.
"Sister," Inaam picked up where the boy'd left off. "It's over. Come back to us, please."
"Or, she could just sit there and think about the horrible job she'd made of lockpicking. That works for me."
THAT was Thomas, all right.
The left hook was all Abelyn Marie Elliott.
Too bad that Mads had placed himself between the two. The two boys yelped in pain in tandem, then and when the Exemplar 3 realized that that really might be Mads. The cracked rib he'd taken in his martial arts class hadn't fully healed.
"What? How?" Abbie was thoroughly confused by this turn of events, "Goddammit Mads, what the hell did you do this time?"
"I'm not the one who needs to stop beating herself up over not being able to prevent her parents' deaths." Mads looked her straight in the eye to emphasize he was being serious. "Even if you'd been there, there's only so much that's physically possible. We don't live in a comic book."
Thomas' voice was hoarse as if it still hurt to speak. "Says the jerk who was contemplating suicide to prevent the conditions of that ritual from holding true."
"If you're going to keep talking, I'm looking for gauze. You're spitting blood."
"Excuse me for not having opposable thumbs at the time."
"So! Everyone ready to head out? No point in facing the Dweller on the Threshold and not crossing said Threshold."
Early morning, in the month of Muharram,
Near the gates of The City of Brass, Elemental Plane of Fire Within the Sphere of Gaia
Four travellers stopped a respectful distance from the majestic cut stone and vitreous tile gate marking the eastern gate to the city before them. The walk had been pleasant in the cool morning air, all that much cooler for being a winter month.
One of the guards approached the group, stopping a couple of paces in front of them. His hand remained free of his sword, though it was clearly visible. He did take note of Mads' horns, checking twice to see if the young man had a true shadow.
"Greetings, travelers. To whom do we owe this visit, if your business be lawful? From where are you come?"
Mads replied, "I am known as Mads Jensen." The gestured toward Thomas, "Thomas Jensen." Turning to, and stepping aside for the ladies come forward, "I am given to understand that Lina bint Bulus al-Haddad and Inaam al-Baajalat are known in the city."
Abbie explained, "Lest there be confusion, we have worked at Master Muqaddim's forge. Mads has a habit of leaving details to tend to themselves."
"Have they ever not had a way of working out?"
The guard said, "If this is so, consider yourselves welcome. Where did you say you were from?"
"I didn't. Inaam is native to this world, but does 'New Hampshire' hold much meaning to you?"
"It does not, although I have heard of New York."
"A few days' journey north of there, depending on how you make the trip."
Master Muqaddim's workshop, Ironsmiths' Way
"Lina! Inaam! Father, they came back!"
Following closely on the heels of their shouted greeting, two young djinn tackle-hugged the two young women. In another place they might have been scolded, but they clearly saw the two as family returned.
"Can you stay this time?"
"Are you going to be helping father?"
"Where have you been since we saw you?"
"Lina, why does that kid have horns?"
A woman came out from the private quarters behind the shop. "So pale! Those boys with you aren't sick, are they? Dareeb, Ilyana! Let the girls speak. Come, come."
"No more than any other boys at school. They're from a colder climate."
"Where did you meet them if I might ask?"
"Did I not mention that Mads commissioned two daggers from me?"
"That madman! I see, perhaps."
Master Muqaddim's home, Ironsmiths' Way
Sanaya set her teacup down upon the low table she shared with Lina. Her husband had already left with Inaam. Somehow the two young men had convinced her children that cleaning dishes could be a game, before finally taking the hint that they should make themselves known to the Emir's staff. One might think they did not understand that such positions such as theirs did not come except by the Will of the Almighty and were meant to be accorded honor in accordance with the duties that accomplanied them! She'd needed fewer questions to get to the story of recent events from Lina.
The realization that she'd not be welcomed in her husband's forge before that may have helped.
"If we were to remove those facets of the events which have meaning only to you and Inaam, what would be left?"
"I don't think that Thomas was supposed to be with us. I think that Ma'adh recognized the beast as him from the start."
"Do you truly have wolf-man creatures living near that school?"
"As hard as it is to believe, yes."
"Should they have responded to a hunt in their territory?"
"Now that I think about it, that does seem odd."
"No more odd than two young men being convinced that one will murder the other."
"I would think that would be a nightmare for anyone."
"Thus it would not be a suitable test of character." This was something that would require more thought than hasty action. Sanaya shooed the girl she regarded as a niece off to change into work clothes. Muqaddim would never admit it, but he doted on Lina and Inaam just as much as she did.
Mads and Thomas
It would be no exaggeration to say that Mads and Thomas took their time winding their way through the stone and plaster lined streets. The first trying to take everything that his senses could register, the other looking for whatever patterns or sense could be make of the warren of ancient footpaths, streets, and alleys. That's not to say that they didn't pay attention to the marvels of architecture, what was been sold by the many vendors they passed, the people definitely not following them, nor the lengthening shadows of the day itself.
The guards posted to watch the entrance to the Emir's estate at the heart of the city might be excused for judging the two young men poorly for the dust on their clothing. That they both claimed to be sons of the Jinn within the very lands of the jinn, ifrit, and more beside, only made sense as a jest. Give the boys their due, they didn't try the usual nonsense about who their parents were or how sorry the guards would be.
"Very well. We were advised to come here to offer our regards as befits the ruler of this city and some lands beyond. You are witness to the fact that we have come and have been bidden to leave. Is this not so?"
"It is so that you have come and are requested to leave, yes."
"One more thing. Would you know of any who might offer honest, paid work to two visitors to this city?"
"You'd be better served by running home to your parents."
"That is advice not commonly given to those without parents to shelter them."
Thomas put his hand on Mads' shoulder and said, "Let's go. Maybe the rookies following us are good for alms."
Later in the early evening, palace gate
"Corporal!" The guard at his post snapped to attention. It wasn't often that the Emir's vizier came calling on perimeter security. "Two of His Highness' expected guests are nowhere to be found! Nor is the watcher we tasked to ensure their safety!"
"I've no recollection of visiting dignitaries. Don't nobles take great care to be noticed?"
"Under normal circumstance, yes. Those in question are from such distance that travel allows for no stray baggage. Unless they hired a porter – and from where would they even have money to do so? – they would have to have come on foot."
"There were a couple of schoolboys who claimed to have business with His Highness, but the previous watch sent them home to their parents."
"Sent them. Home?"
"I believe so. No harm done! Oh, and there was something about being followed."
"The previous watch told them to go home? Why would he even admit that?"
"He said he felt compelled to share the story as he witnessed it."
much later in the evening
There's something disconnected about the view from a balcony at night. Tonight the moon glowed a ruddy red in reflected earthshine, the colors of blood and flames far too connected to Thomas' recent memories. All of it, above and behind, lay in contrast to the brass-hued light thrown out from the true forms of the city's inhabitants below it. He shivered in spite of the temperature. He felt a touch at his elbow. Of course he wouldn't have heard bare feet walking across the carpet behind him.
"We're not high enough up, you know."
"What has that got to do with anything?"
"To jump, and fail? Too much pain to go through if it doesn't work the first time."
"Then explain to me how there's a point to all this," Thomas' hand swept in an arc that encompassed here and out there, "when it takes so little to strip away mind and reason?"
"Everything dies. Until then, we all muddle through best we can."
"You led with the pommel."
Mads shrugged, "Had to break the cuffs first, enchantments after. You're way too tired. Past time to hit the rack as it is."
"Sure you can. Get in bed and close your eyes."
Thomas shook his head, but yielded to a gentle tug. The things he put up with for peace and quiet.
In the early morning dark he asked, "You know I came in to pull you guys out, not push on through, right? Worse is coming, isn't it?" Mads didn't answer in words, but pulled Thomas' arm a little closer to his chest.
Vizier's office within the Emir's palace
"Asim, my friend, please sit and tell me that we can make amends for yesterday's diplomatic incident!"
The Vizier stood to greet the emirate's Chief Sorceror, as well as to obtain a cup to serve tea with. This was not only polite, but a signal to his secretary to hold all business until his guest departed.
"I've divined the Counts' location thanks to the diplomatic dispatch they recieved this morning."
"Abdul Muqtadir, the content of the dispatch is privileged, but not the destination!"
"Please do not make a habit of that."
"In any case, I received a dispatch shortly thereafter confirming that the Lords of Shadowsfall are traveling on their own recognizance, but if the Emirate has matters to discuss with the Hyacinthine Crown one or both of them can make themselves useful by delivering such communications."
"Was that all?" May it be made so by the hand of the Merciful!
"I presumed that the admonishment to Knock it off with the scrying was addressed to myself."
The Vizier blinked a couple of times, then reminded himself that this was a sorceror that he was talking to. "What did you discern about our guests, assuming they were the focus of the scrying?"
"First and foremost, that it is a bad idea to look too far into their futures. The gates of vision are themselves barred. Their purpose for being here poses no danger to us or our people. Our actions may become a determining factor in ... something."
"What of their past? If one knows the flight of an arrow, the swift can deflect or avoid it."
"They are young, as mortals are, but the trail of ashes and blood behind them is far older."
Abdul Muqtadir massaged the bridge of his nose. "It is far too easy to offend the Fae Courts, and whatever actions we take are sure to be judged against their overarching pride."
"Is it not said of the Fae that their gifts are understood in accordance with the recipient? If His Highness has a breakfast appointment open, I have some options in mind."
And so it came to pass that the duly-appointed representatives of the Hyacinthine Crown broke their fast at the leisure of the Emir of the City of Brass. The Royal Physician then did take note of their health and soon prescribed a suitable dietary course for the duration of the visit. Indeed, given their interests in security, it was provident that they could be honored with cadet appointments amidst the Guards for the duration instead of a humdrum physician-appointed system of exercises. All of which served to keep the two occupied with honorable activities (if witnesses are to be believed) and mostly out of trouble until it was time for them and their companions to depart from the province.