Monday 17th October, somewhere other than Earth
Thulia's work area wasn't laid out as I'd remembered it. For a start, there was a large circular area laid out with some impressively complex spell circles both inside it and circumscribing it. It also looked considerably bigger. I wasn't quite sure how she'd managed that without major remodeling, it just looked like a larger cavern now. I mentioned it to Bruce, who just shrugged.
"It's a workroom, what did you expect?"
I returned his nonchalant reply with a dirty look, which he completely ignored. Whatever they'd done, it was obvious he wasn't going to tell me.
"So, it's all ready for me now?" I looked around again, before asking the really important question on my mind. "And will it work?"
He nodded. "Yeah, sure it will. Thulia's got it all planned." He was pretty good, I almost felt like believing him.
We both ignored the muttered "Oh, that's so comforting" from Caitlin.
Thulia looked at us both, a serious expression on her face. "Bruce, please get Morgana ready, I'd like to get things started.
"Sure boss." He looked past me to Caitlin. "You're just here to watch, right?"
Caitlin just nodded in response, as he carried on. "OK, then when it's all ready, you can stand over here by me" - he gestured at a set of crystal panels, standing on the floor quite a way from the circles. "I'm going to monitor it all from here. Drinks are in the coolbox."
Caitlin gave him a flat look. "I'll pass on the drink, thanks."
Bruce shrugged. "Suit yourself. All the more for me then."
I looked over to where Thulia was busy giving her preparations a final check. "Bruce, what's with all the circles?"
He gave me a sober look. "The inner ones are where we'll be doing all the work. The outer ones... well, I guess they've told you about the energy release if it goes wrong?" I nodded, trying to stay calm. "Well, it's just a precaution, to channel the energy up and away from us." He pointed up to the rock that formed the high ceiling. "See the circle there? If need be, it can be opened and serve as an escape valve. So with any luck we won't all be knee-deep in lava."
Caitlin gave him a look. "And if we're out of luck?"
Bruce shrugged eloquently. "They told me you were fireproof."
Thulia gave her preparations one final look before she turned to face me. There was an odd expression on her face as if she didn't know what to say next. That wasn't usual for her.
"Sit with me for a moment, please."
I looked at her, puzzled and rather worried, as I did as instructed, eyes still fixed on her. She smiled slightly, seating herself opposite me, and then gestured to Bruce and Caitlin. "Please come and watch, I may need your assistance, or at least your witness."
Caitlin just frowned - she'd been doing that a lot since all this started, not that I could really blame her. Bruce had an odd expression on his face. I wished I had more practice in reading his expressions, and it wasn't made any easier by the fact he wasn't human.
"Before we start the operation, there is something I need to explain to you, Morgana." She took a deep breath before continuing. "Now, while you will have access to your own resources during this trial, and of course you have your link to Fire, there may be a time when you need more. As it stands, I cannot help you directly, as I won't actually be with you, at least not physically."
She looked down at her hands, winding the fingers together in the first real sign of nervousness I'd seen from her. Even through all these preparations, she'd seemed so confident and sure of herself. "Morgana, I would like to make a more - a deeper - connection with you, to help you through this."
I was confused. "Thulia, just what sort of connection are you talking about?"
She started to say something, then paused and rethought. "Let me explain first what the issues are. Then I can see how you feel about what I am going to suggest."
Well, that wasn't ominous at all, was it? I could see Caitlin frowning even more deeply, I wondered if she knew something I didn't. "Sure, go on, You know I trust you."
She gave me a rather lopsided smile at that. "Well, the problem is I want to be able to help you more than I can now, just in case it's needed. There are a number of ways of linking us more closely that should make that a possibility. The first would be to make a blood-bond with you - we'd exchange blood and essence, and we'd be linked by blood. But we can't actually do that without a lot of extra work and preparation, as we already share blood to some extent. It would require a lot of time - which we don't have - to modify the usual ritual to what we'd need."
Oh, right. Mind, I hadn't noticed anything as a result of that earlier exchange, but I guess she was talking of something more involved. "OK, what are the other possibilities?"
This time she gave Caitlin a look before she spoke. "The simplest way is to give you what is commonly - and misleadingly - termed a demon mark. It... well, to put it in a simple way, it makes you my servant, and so I can provide you with power." Caitlin had half risen to her feet, obviously getting ready to interject, as she looked me full in the eyes. "But I don't want to give you one."
I could see Caitlin suddenly sit down again, as I tried to work that one out. "You don't? But you said you needed something like it, right?"
"I don't want to make you my servant, Morgana." She looked down at her hands, before meeting my troubled gaze again. "I want you to be with me because you want to, not because a mark forces you to obey me. I want you as you are."
Oh wow. I wasn't sure how to feel about that, but it was definitely something I wanted to think on more when we had the time. I realised I was blushing a bit and made an effort to control myself.
"So what is it you'd like to do?"
This time she gave Bruce a quick glance, but his face was expressionless, at least to me.
"What I want is to exchange a link with you. We would both carry a mark of that bond, but it would be a bonding of equals, not a master-servant one."
I could see out of the corner of my eye Bruce's face becoming even more closed if that was possible, but before I could say anything Caitlin spoke up. "Hang on, you aren't suggesting to marry her or something, are you!?"
Thulia just sat there, mouth slightly open in shock, and I don't think I looked any more composed. Fortunately, our issue of mutual embarrassment was broken by Bruce's gravel tones.
"Nah, it's not like that. Or even something like an engagement. It's nothing formal." He gave Thulia a stern look, one that clearly said 'and it had better not be something like that'.
"So what exactly is it, then?" Yep, that was Caitlin, Ms. Subtle, again. At least that blunt question broke Thulia out of her embarrassment.
"Well, it doesn't really have a human equivalent, I don't think you have rituals that bind like this." She thought hard, obviously trying to find the words to explain before carrying on in a rather uncertain tone. "I think - in human terms - it would equate to a promise ring?"
I just sat there for a moment as I tried to wrap my mind around the idea. I'd heard about promise rings, of course - they weren't that common in the UK, but I'd watched enough American TV shows to get the idea. As I understood it, they were meant to signify an exchange of promises. Nothing binding, but nevertheless something with a definite meaning. And Thulia wanted to do her equivalent of giving me one. I looked at her again, trying to sound composed, even though I was anything but.
"So this ritual, we'd exchange a promise, as it were? And they would be binding on us, and allow you to help me if you need to?"
She nodded, obviously trying to be cool about it. "Yes. It's a mutual exchange." She hurried on "They aren't forever, if we decide to we can cancel the promise. It's not a permanent binding."
I smiled. "Thulia, I would be happy to exchange such a promise with you, if you will accept it." Then I leaned forward, whispering and hoping our two kibitzers wouldn't hear. "And not just because of any help it might allow you to give me." I could tell by the shy smile she gave me that had been the right answer. Good, because I meant it.
Well, there was no point in waiting around. I wanted to do this before I lost my nerve - while I meant every word of what I'd whispered to Thulia, that didn't stop me from trying to slide back into my 'deny-it-all-happened' state that tended to be my normal response to personal relationships.
"So, how do we go about this?"
Thulia stood up gracefully - I so needed to learn how to do that, it looked so cool and slinky. "First we need to get naked." I raised an eyebrow at that, and she actually blushed slightly! "For the ritual!" She half muttered - I was certain she meant me to hear - 'humans, minds always in the gutter!' which at least brought a laugh from Bruce. "Grimes told you to bring your athame, didn't she?"
I nodded. "Yeah, it's in my bag." I had wondered why Grimes had mentioned that to me - I considered for a moment some subtle questioning later, but right now I had more important matters to think on.
So I carefully took my clothes off and piled them neatly, which gave me a good excuse to keep watching Thulia as she slid out of her robe. Yes, I was about to face some critical rituals and I was making sure I got a good look at a sexy naked demoness. What did you expect, I'm a teenager. I had actually seen her naked before, but that had been for a few moments just before my transformation, and I hadn't really had a chance to appreciate how beautiful she was. She had a gracefully athletic figure, and frankly I could have stood and gazed at her all day. Her flawless skin was only marked by a number of tattoos - nothing like my friend Bianca was covered in - but that memory made me look more closely at them. The two most obvious were a band of sorta-Celtic, sorta-tribal markings around her wrists, and they were definitely magical, I could see that. I had to ask her about them, they looked cool and yet so different from Bianca's, but I tore my eyes away before she realised - I hoped! - how much I was staring at her. Worry about things like that afterward, right? My athame was in my bag, so I got it out and waited.
"Just let me configure a circle for this."
I nodded and waited as a circle gradually shimmered into being on the floor. I recognised it - or at least a few of the symbols - as some sort of protective circle.
I turned my head at Caitlin's voice and frowned as she gestured to me to come over to her. From her tone of voice, it wasn't happy cheerful news.
"What is it, Caitlin?"
She gave me a stern look, gesturing to Thulia's preparations. "Are you sure this is a good idea? Binding yourself to a demon? Really?"
I did give her words a little thought. Yes, she was right in a way, it could well be foolish - no, make that bloody stupid - as I didn't really know what I was getting into. But...
"Caitlin, I get where you're coming from. But it's not as if I have any choice, anyway. We know that this parasite is going to kill me, and soon, if Thulia's spells don't work. So it isn't as if I have any choice, even if I didn't trust her, it's the only game in town for me, isn't it?"
She nodded reluctantly, so I continued. "And she didn't have to tell me what she was doing. She could have just given me a mark and made me her slave, I wouldn't have known. Just tell me it was all part of the preparations. Instead, she explained, and instead of that she's leaving me my free will."
"Are you sure she needs to do this?"
I shrugged. "Honestly, I don't know. For some reason it seems important she's able to sense me, or help me in some way, or something. I just have to take it on trust she knows what she's doing." I didn't mention the odd thought in the back of my mind that made me think it was important but had no idea why.
Caitlin gave me another long look. "You can be too trusting, you know. It doesn't always end well."
"Yeah. But sometimes you just have to trust someone."
I wasn't sure what the look on her face meant, I'd obviously triggered some sort of memory or something. She finally patted me on the shoulder. "Go on then. But don't say afterward I didn't warn you."
Caitlin watched the girl walk over to the demoness, and shook her head. She couldn't really deny the truth of Morgana's words, but she was still reluctant to trust Thulia, she had displayed too much power for Caitlin's peace of mind.
"You know, she really isn't trying to trap Morgana."
Caitlin looked down at the squat figure of Bruce. "The trouble is, I can only take that on trust, which so far I have no cause to give her. And why is she so insistent on this link thing?"
Bruce looked over at the two girls. "Well, she may not need it. But Morgana is going to have to face off the psychofágos at some point, and unlike us it really is a demon. And they don't play fair."
Caitlin snorted. "A true demon, not playing fair? I'd never have guessed!"
Bruce smiled, showing a somewhat alarming set of pointed teeth. "Well, if it does, Thulia is going to do what any well brought up young girl does in those circumstances."
"Ah, right. She's gonna cheat, then?"
Bruce nodded emphatically. "Bet your sweet ass she is, mate!"
"Is it dangerous?"
Thulia shook her head as she finished, the symbols, that were apparently etched into the solid floor, glowing. "Not in itself, but we need to make sure we are safe while we do this. Interference is the last thing we need." She stepped into the circle, gesturing me to follow her. I gave the circle a look as if somehow it would reveal its secrets to me, then shrugged and followed her.
Thulia knelt, placing her athame on the ground next to her, two sheets of parchment in her other hand. I knelt opposite, waiting for the next step. She handed me one of the papers. "The spell is written down here. It's not in English but just follow along with me sentence by sentence. It's all phonetic, anyway. We read the first half, then stop."
"OK." I picked up the parchment. It was pretty clear, a number of lines of words, then a gap, and a second set. I kept wanting to stare at her athame. I didn't know what it was made of, some sort of glistening black material with some serious gold-inlaid runes and symbols along the blade, more work in gold and some other metals on the handle, and what looked like a large uncut ruby as a pommel. Ok, I wouldn't have recognised a real ruby if one had walked up and bitten me, but I was already developing a severe case of athame-envy.
"We'll also need this." The long, thin chain she slipped down next to her was interesting. It seemed to be made of gold, and there were delicate (and tiny) symbols covering the links. Cool.
"What is it?"
She gave the chain an odd look. "It's a part of the ritual - I got it from my grandmother."
Thulia summoned the circle into being with a few practiced motions of her fingers. I could feel the quietness I associated with protective circles settle around us, as I settled myself more comfortably on my knees. See, all that BMA practice at kneeling was finally going to be useful!
She nodded approvingly. "Now, when the ritual is done, it will have placed a mark on you. It will hurt a little while it's working, something like having a tattoo done. I'm going to place mine on my shoulder-blade, will that work for you or do you want it somewhere else?"
"I guess that will work as well as anywhere." Thinking about it, it would also keep it hidden from casual exposure, which might be a good idea. "How big are they? I've never had a tattoo before."
She grinned, casting an eye over me - and taking rather more time than I thought was necessary - and I couldn't help blushing a little, even under the circumstances. "Not huge, about an inch across. It will just look like a fairly complicated tattoo to anyone not familiar with them."
OK, I could cope with that. I wondered what my friend Bianca would make of it, though, considering her own impressive array of magical tattoos. "That all sounds fine."
We started out reciting the words slowly, and I felt magic start to build around me. Not just feel, as a pattern started to shimmer into being between us, glowing red as it sat there in mid-air. Then came the less comfortable part. Following Thulia's instructions, we held each other's hand and carefully made a cut in each other's palm with our athames. I winced slightly despite having made an effort not to, as our blood dripped down onto the floor. I put my athame down - I could clean it later - and looked at the crimson slash on my palm.
She smiled at me, picking up the chain. "Now we use this." She wrapped one end around her hand, making sure her blood ran onto it, then passed the other end through the centre of the still-quiescent image between us. "Do as I did."
I nodded, trying not to bite my lip too obviously as the metal rubbed across my injured palm "Ready."
"Good. Now we finish off the spell."
I took hold of the parchment again, following along with her as we read the rest of the spell. As we did, the metal links appeared to glow as our blood slowly flowed along the links until the metal underneath it glowed and the thin coating was glimmering crimson, and the pattern between us became more defined. For a long moment, nothing seemed to happen, then I could see quite clearly a twisted braid of magic running along and around the chain, and the weirdest feeling on my back. It felt like a line of little itchy shocks or scratched tracing across the skin, and I tried my best not to jerk - it wasn't exactly painful, but I had this terrible urge to want to scratch it. It didn't take very long, it just seemed like it, then the spell ended with the pattern fading and the glow leaving the chain. I blinked.
Thulia smiled and nodded. "That's it." She turned around, showing me her back. On her shoulder-blade was a small, not quite circular mark. It looked like a complex and delicate tattoo in black and red. "You have one just like it."
Of course, I did the obvious - and pointless - thing of trying to look over my shoulder and see mine, which brought a giggle from Thulia. I tried not to look too embarrassed. I was saved by Caitlin, who now that the spell was done had walked over, taking a long look at my back, before doing the same to Thulias.
I looked at Caitlin, wondering just how she found them interesting. She must have seen the query in my look, as she continued, half absently.
"As far as I can tell, they are identical. " She gave Thulia a measuring look. "Which would seem to bear out not being a classic demon mark."
Thulia gave the woman a half-smile. "I wasn't lying." Then she turned to me, noting my hand still leaking the occasional sanguine droplet. "Let me fix that up before we start the real business."
She took my hand carefully, making gestures over it as greenish light covered the cut and it faded into a pink line. Cool. I watched with interest as she did the same to her own cut. I really needed to learn healing magic, especially if I was going to continue to go around slashing myself to ribbons.
All too soon we were ready to do the actual ritual. Yes, there was a light at the end of the tunnel and it was an oncoming train. Thulia had led me over to the inner complex of circles for a final explanation of what we were about to do. She stopped for a moment to slide a metal bracer onto each slender wrist. I had no idea what they were, just that they were beautiful and intricate, and Thulia didn't volunteer the information.
Taking my hand, she led me into the central circle. My mouth was dry, and I had to swallow before trying to make a quip to lighten things up. "Not strapped down this time?" I was so nervous that for the first time I couldn't even appreciate Thulia's nakedness.
She smiled and shook her head. "No, but you might like to sit down and try to relax. While your body isn't going anywhere, you are. And it will probably be a shock when it happens." She gave me a quick, hard hug and finally - much too soon! - let go. "Get ready, I'm going to start the procedure."
I nodded, slipping down onto the floor as I got into a lotus position. While I really didn't feel like relaxing, I figured my best bet was the familiar relaxation exercise I did every night. So I settled down, trying to ignore the feeling of pent-up power from the circles, and tried to control my breathing. At least there was one advantage to doing this in the lair of a fire demon - unlike the floor back in my dorm room, the obsidian surface under me felt comfortably warm rather than freezing my bare ass off.
She gave me a grave look. "Now, I have to allow both you and the essence of the psychofágos to leave you. It's necessary to have you fight it, it's the only way to be completely rid of it, and if you were to do that actually in your body you wouldn't survive. Once you are both outside of your body, the demon may attempt to fight immediately, or it may attempt to trick or trap you with various visions or illusions. I can't say what, so you need to remember what the final outcome needs to be, which is you fighting - and beating - the psychofágos. Is that all clear?"
I thought it through. "I think so. Do I ignore these illusions?"
She shook her head. "Not exactly, it will all seem real. Treat it all as real, there's no telling how the psychofágos will mix thought, reality and illusion. All I can tell you is, you will know its true form when you see it."
I nodded and tried to compose myself. I didn't want what would possibly be Thulia's last sight of me to be me quivering in terror. I had survived the cult's dungeon, I could survive this too.
Thulia deliberately turned away from Morgana as she went to collect the final tools she would need. She didn't want Morgana to see the look on her face, hopefully she would be more composed in a moment. Bruce handed her the sword she'd been waiting for with a muttered "Good luck, Boss." as she slipped into the smaller of the conjunct circles, placing the long blade on the floor next to her. She wasn't sure if she'd need it, but she suspected she might.
I eyed her sword with interest. I didn't realise she had one, and this one was impressive. I think it was what was called a bastard sword, a good four feet long, made of some sort of reddish-black metal and inlaid with symbols I didn't recognise. She must have seen me looking at it, as she gestured at it. "This isn't for you, it's in case the psychofágos tries something stupid in here.
She settled herself and started to gesture, complex movements that made the circles and patterns beneath us glow and pulse with magic, twisting curls of essence and fire following her fingertips to trail through the air. Once the circles were active, she started to chant, her words sounding really odd - it was if they were making it to my brain without bothering to go through my ears first, I could feel them resonating in my skull. Not painfully, but with a clear feeling of power that was uncomfortable to be the subject of. She kept going, and my head started to feel odd. It was as if the 'me' - the location you have for yourself behind your eyes - was shifting, moving from where it usually was, but without me moving at all. It was making me feel dizzy. Then she gave a final gesture with both hands, and the power swirling in the air around me coalesced into thick cables of power that wrapped around the core of me and then pulled.
Despite Thulia's earlier explanations, I didn't really know what to expect, and it rather caught me by surprise. I realised that I could look down and see my body sitting in lotus position on the floor, the only thing connecting me to it a thick cord of some sort. I'd read about that somewhere, but what was different from my memories was that the cord wasn't silver as in the books. It looked like it was made of glowing lava, small flickers of flame shimmering along it as it twisted and curled. But I wasn't allowed time to reflect on exactly what it was or what Thulia's spellwork was doing to me. Beneath me I could see, apparently extruding itself from my body, a thick mass of writhing tentacles, glowing a crepuscular greenish colour. It was vile and disgusting, even more so as it seemed to be coming from out of my body. I felt a growing sensation of outrage fill me at the desecration. Whatever the thing was, it didn't seem to want to leave. Not that it was about to be given the choice.
Thulia snarled, a ragged noise more reminiscent of tearing steel than something that should come from such a delicate-seeming girl. If that vicious little piece of hellspawn thought it could stay squatting comfortably in Morgana's body as if it was some sort of luxury hotel, it was gravely mistaken. Not if she could do something about it, and she most assuredly could. Her wings flared out behind her, the delicate patterns of ebony and scarlet burning brightly across them as she channeled more power into herself
Making a gesture as if to reach out with clawed fingers, the bracer around her wrist glowed hot as a set of fiery talons manifested above the creature, their substance catching and digging into its not really material body. It screamed in pain and outrage as she dragged it up, a mass of wriggling obscene tentacles that resisted every inch, the air vibrating with its protests. Finally it was held in a writhing mass above Morgana's body, only a few tenticular strands stretched tight as they stubbornly dug deep into the girl.
Well, she had an answer for that too. Chanting in a voice that resembled the crackling of flames rather than the human tones Morgana was more familiar with, her free hand gestured, and her sword lept into her grasp. The golden runes etched into the dark surface were a study in brilliance, and the edges of the sword itself lit the room as they burned star bright. With another tearing snarl, she slashed it forward and through those stubbornly resistant tentacles, severing them as the creature howled in protest and shot up towards the ceiling.
I looked down to where the writhing mass I assumed was the psychofágos, was hurtling towards me. Oh crap. But it wasn't actually getting closer, as I saw that the ring above us that Thulia had said was a portal glowed crimson and I was swept up into it, followed by the still writhing and screaming psychofágos. Thulia's workroom whirled around me as I was swept away into chaos, splinters of light and darkness whirling about me in a terrible dance. I couldn't even scream.
I came to my senses lying on a hard, rocky surface and went cross-eyed for a moment trying to focus on the coarse, frost-coated gravel a few inches in front of my nose. I'd had better days, most of which didn't involve being pulled out of my body and hurled through chaos like a leaf in a hurricane.
The air itself smelt acrid and dry, making me cough as I scrambled to my feet and looked around. The last thing I remembered seeing clearly was the psychofágos apparently following me - but as I frantically looked around I could see no sign of it. That was good, at least for the moment, although Thulia had been insistent that in order to beat it I would have to confront and fight it. That wasn't so good.
The landscape was bleak, barren, and, I suddenly realised as I shivered, cold. I wasn't used to feeling this cold any more, my link to fire allowed me to draw in heat if I needed it, but it didn't seem to be working as well as normal. I was drawing on it enough that I should have been covered in fire, yet all I could do was turn the cold into something that was at least not frigid. And of course, I was still naked. I wrapped my arms around myself as I looked around for any signs of life, or indeed anything else. While I was just cold right now, I was already worrying about what would happen when the Sun set. I could see it not that far above the horizon, a sullen red orb that really didn't seem to be offering much in the way of warmth.
The ground itself showed no indication of life - no plants, not even an ice-coated tumbleweed drifting past. The parts that weren't icy were covered in a thin layer of snow, so cold and dry that the breeze lifted and spun strands of it across the rocks. The only feature that stood out was some sort of steeply-sided hill that was obviously a considerable distance away. I squinted a bit - it was a long way away, even for my eyesight. No, it looked more like a narrow pyramid, or maybe a fat obelisk, I couldn't be certain. Still, nothing else suggested itself, so I shrugged unhappily and started to head for it. Maybe I'd find people there. Or even a fire, that would be good too.
With the only indication of time being the sun setting - and with no idea how fast that was happening either - I wasn't sure how long I'd been walking when it finally slid beneath the horizon. I reckoned I was well under halfway to the whatever-it-was I was heading for, and as the sky darkened quickly I decided to pick up the pace. So I broke into a steady run I could keep up for a long time - in any case, the extra effort would help keep me warm.
It didn't seem very long at all before it was fully dark. There was no moon visible, but the stars were a cold brilliance that gave me more than enough light to see by. Which turned out to be just as well for me. The landscape was eerily peaceful, the only sound the soft susurration of the breeze that played with the crystals of snow. So the sound of a distant, mournful howl was a shock to me. I stopped and looked around. Nothing was close to me, but as the sound repeated itself I could see in the distance a long, low creature of some sort loping towards me. I had no idea what it was - it was a dirty white, covered in fur, and the only real colour was a couple of cold blue eyes in what I assumed was a face. It vaguely resembled an oversized ferret - sorry, Tavi, your big brother isn't nearly as cute as you - and from the way it was determinedly making its way in my direction it had caught my scent, or whatever sense it was using. Something in the way it moved and howled made me suspect it didn't have my best interests in mind.
I looked around me. As far as I could see, so far there were only one of these things, but the fact it howled worried me, that rather implied a pack hiding somewhere. I'd closed on the pyramid-thing a lot, it was no longer on the horizon, but still some miles away. Certainly no chance of getting there before this thing caught up with me, despite its low-slung appearance it was moving with considerable speed.
There wasn't much of anything except bare rock in this place, but there were some rocks and clumps of rocks scattered around. In the time before that thing caught up with me, I headed for a sizable one, putting my back to it. I hadn't really any clear idea of how to fight an oversized ferret - Tolman really should have covered this sort of stuff in BMA, surely being attacked by a giant snow ferret was an obvious thing to practice - but I figured the old, rend, burn, tear thing would be a promising start.
When it got to me, it paused to examine me. I didn't like that look - not only was it far too hungry for my peace of mind, it was disconcertingly intelligent. I drew on more fire, bracing myself, claws out and glimmering with flame. Just as well, as it suddenly came for me, flowing across the ground with deceptive speed. Its final move was to leap at me, but I had expected that. With a rock at my back, it couldn't easily get behind me - I remembered from old wildlife programs how agile ferrets were - and as it leaped I slipped to one side and slashed it hard with my claws. Thanks for that at least, Tolman.
It gave a screeching howl as my claws raked it, tearing through its fur and leaving deep lines from which dark blue blood trickled. My fire had burnt its fur, and that seemed to be causing it more distress than the wounds from my claws. As I suspected, it turned with a fluid rapidity that almost caught me out, and this time I only got one more set of slashes in before it had pinned me against the rock. Its mouth opened to reveal a distressingly wide away of sharp teeth, not to mention the worst bad breath I'd ever had the misfortune to smell.
I didn't know how I would stand up to that bite, and I didn't wait to find out. I forced myself forward into its attack, pressed so close to it that it couldn't get its jaws close enough, as I kept on trying to carve away at it, my white-hot claws leaving smoking gashes in its flesh. It screamed again, twisting and writhing with a speed I could barely cope with. Despite my best efforts, it finally managed to get its jaws on me, a savage bite on the shoulder that actually penetrated my skin before tossing me down. I'd hoped my toughness would have protected me, but this thing had a hell of a bite. My shoulder was half numb, puncture wounds from its teeth dribbling blood down my side. I couldn't let it do that again, once I was down and helpless I'd be done for.
I could see its muscles bunch ready for another leap, so rather than just savage it again with my claws - while that worked, it wasn't working as fast as I needed it to - I gathered all the fire I could between my hands and waited for its attack. It gave a last growl and leaped, and I rolled to one side at the last moment. Agile as it was, it couldn't actually change direction in mid-leap, and although its head swept around in a terrifyingly fast manner, I wasn't quite in range. I leapt myself, hopefully surprising it as I rammed my fists into what I hoped was its throat and let the fire bloom between them. It didn't howl, it gave a steam-whistle scream, the awful smell of its burning fur and flesh rank in my nostrils as I felt my hands bury themselves in crisping meat. It finally gave a convulsive shudder that shook its whole body and collapsed. I managed to crawl a few yards away from the corpse and nearly did the same.
I rubbed and twisted my shoulder as I stood looking at the dead monster. It didn't feel like anything was broken, although I had some puncture wounds they weren't that deep, and were only oozing a little blood. Considering that I was bulletproof, that in itself was worrying proof of how nasty that thing had been. But standing here looking at it wasn't helping, the only thing that really held out any hope of changing my situation was finding something helpful at that pyramid, so I gave my aching shoulder one last rub and set off again.
This time I kept looking for more of the creatures. It wasn't long before I heard more howls in the distance - this time, it sounded like at least three of them. Looking behind me, I could see them catching up to me, so I broke into a serious run. Right now I wished fervently for Thulia's wings, they would have come in really useful. But I could still hit a considerable speed, and in fact, they seemed to be falling a bit behind me as the pyramid came closer, its edges sharp against the distant stars.
When I arrived at it, I had a few minutes before the creatures caught up with me. A quick examination of the pyramid didn't reveal any obvious openings or doors, it seemed to be made of blocks of stone set so finely together I didn't think I could have got a knife in the cracks. If I'd had a knife. But the top seemed quite large, and the sides steep, so maybe climbing it would be a good idea.
I looked up at the steep side of the pyramid, mentally cursing the builders who hadn't included stairs. Or better yet, an escalator. On the other hand, it might be too steep for those ice-ferrets to claw up. I looked back at the plain and winced at the number of pairs of glowing blue eyes I could see heading for me. Well, there wasn't any obvious entrance here, maybe there was one at the top? Right now it was worth a try. So I slid my claws out and started a long and painful scramble up the ice-covered sides of whatever-the-hell-it-was.
I finally heaved myself over the edge and sat down, looking back. Those glowing eyes hadn't gone away, in fact, I could see a line of them circling the base of the pyramid. The three I'd seen earlier had obviously called their friends in for a party. Happy happy joy, right? At least for the moment, they seemed to have stopped there, so let's see what I could find out.
Well, for a start the top wasn't as big as I'd thought before I'd started my climb. It was only about 50 feet across, flat and covered in a sheen of ice crystals that sparkled like gems in the starlight. Under other circumstances, I'd have thought it a rather attractive look. But there was something half-visible under the frost in the centre, so I walked carefully over to it, before kneeling and brushing the frigid crystals away. Well, that wasn't what I'd expected - I'd half hoped for a door of some sort.
It looked like part of a summoning ritual, one used for evocation. While I'd never made one, I had seen some examples when I'd been researching how to call up Thulia. Since I'd been planning on invoking her via candle, I hadn't bothered much with actual summoning rituals, but an exemplar memory had its uses. So I carried on brushing the frost away from it. Just using my fingers it took a while, and by the time I had cleared it all off the cold was starting to get to me, especially my knees, which were starting to lose sensation. It looked like my limited fire draw wasn't keeping up any longer, so unless I found some sort of shelter, I was going to freeze. Wonderful, things just kept getting better.
I considered the patterns inset into the rock in front of me. I had no idea what this thing would do, but right now I seemed to be running out of options. So I might as well try something, I could hardly be worse off than I was already. Standing up, I walked into the centre, looking around it as I started to gather my essence. Of course, casting in my dragon form had been rather unsuccessful back home, but I didn't really have much choice. Considering what the cold was doing to me in my tougher and heated form, changing to my less durable shape would likely have me frozen to death in minutes. So no choice other than to roll the dice and hope.
I didn't have the chance to gather the essence I thought I'd need before something else happened. The lines and symbols around me glowed, bright enough to make me narrow my eyes against the glare, and I could feel the currents of magic curling in and around them. Had I set off something just by entering? It looked like it. But seeing as how the alternative was to try and fight a whole pack of giant ferrets, I decided to stay still and see what happened. Which, as it turned out, was light and sound so overpowering they blanked my senses in a horribly painful overload.
sQjU5qVccFLd 'looked' at its victim as she stood in the circle. While it would have been useful if she had succumbed to its first testing, it was only a simple one, testing her fortitude. The main use was to provide it with data from which to create a more subtle, and hence dangerous, scenario for her. Its amorphous form radiated a certain satisfaction as it decided what to subject his victim to next. Of course, in addition to making her ready to submit to him, it also should be as unpleasant as possible. It radiated pleasure as it sent her on her way to her next trial. It did so enjoy playing with its food.
My senses finally recovered from the overload they'd just been subjected to, as I found myself on my knees in the middle of a summoning triangle. Which wasn't necessarily a good thing. On the other hand, it was warm in here, which after my recent experience counted for a lot. So I opened my eyes, trying to ignore the blinding headache that was lurking with menaces behind them, and looked up.
Facing me was a woman in a rust-red robe. Holding a rather extravagantly carved wooden staff, which was currently pointed at me. I slowly got to my feet and stared at her. I was about to invoke the classic line of 'where am I?' when she spoke.
" Spawn of the outer darkness, bow to the Blood Witch, Mistress of Demons!"
I looked up at her blankly. I wasn't sure whether to go 'what the fuck?' or burst into hysterical laughter and retort 'don't call me Spawn!' at the pomposity of her declaration. When I did nothing except stare at her, she continued on in a manner that made me realise that while she was currently exhibiting far too many Evil Mage tropes, she was actually serious. Raising her staff in one hand, she started to chant. I didn't recognise the language, it sounded vaguely Eastern, but it was nothing I'd ever heard before. Whatever she was doing, it was effective. The triangle around me glowed a dirty yellow colour, and I screamed as what felt like a massive electrical shock forced its way through my body. A few seconds later I was on my knees, panting hard as I glared at her.
She smirked. "Much better. Now, demon, I have work for you."
My ears were still ringing as I shook my head to clear it before replying. "What the hell are you talking about, I'm not a demon!"
She gave me a look so smug that I tried to step forward to slap it off her face. Only to find that the triangle that contained me had enough power to bounce me back off an invisible shield. I had hoped that as I wasn't a demoness, that the boundary might not have contained me. Obviously, I'd been wrong. So I gave her my best scowl, which sadly didn't intimidate her much, especially as I'd just shown I couldn't get at her.
"Demon, I have a task for you. Accomplish it and I will return you from whence you came."
Um. Well, actually I didn't really want to return there, it was way too cold there, not to mention the unpleasantly aggressive inhabitants. So I played for time or at least information.
"What task is it you wish me to do?" God, I was starting to speak like her, I needed to do something about that before I succumbed to involuntary monologueing.
"Better, demon. You are to help me obtain an item which is important to me. Once that is done, I will release you on the condition you do not attack or interfere with me."
Wow, while I realised I didn't have much experience in demonic contracts - OK, let's be honest, none really - that sounded way too open to creative interpretation by the demon. At least it didn't seem like an open-ended commitment, so it might be worth cooperating to get out of here.
"That seems agreeable." I gestured at the bounds of my confinement. "Just release me and I will help you obtain what you wish."
"Ah, not so fast, demon." She burrowed in her robes, finally pulling out a metal collar. It did finally give me a look at her face, which until then had been hidden by the folds of her hood. She obviously wasn't a mutant, her eyes were quite normal, and judging by her features she wasn't young - probably in her early 30's - and hardly with movie-star looks. I gave the collar an unhappy look - I had lingering memories of being held captive, which she was doing nothing to relieve. She tossed the collar to me - unlike me, it sailed happily through the wards - and gestured. "Put it on and I will let you out. Putting it on will seal our agreement."
I would have loved to have found some way out of this, but I really couldn't see any. Even if I held out, she'd likely only send me back, which wouldn't improve my situation in the slightest. So I made myself control the way I felt and slipped the collar around my neck. It locked with a nastily solid sound. I did wonder if it was fireproof, and if so, would melting it free me? That did seem a bit too easy, so I decided to save that option for a bit, once I knew more about what was going on. Starting by how I could be summoned when I wasn't a demon. That was worrying me a lot. The other thing that worried me was that the wound on my shoulder seemed to have healed. I didn't know how or why, and given the circumstances, anything unknown worried me.
Once I'd locked the repulsive thing around my neck, she gestured with her staff, and I saw the lines delineating the triangle fade. Cautiously I stepped forward, but nothing stopped me this time. Ok, free was good, collared was not, so let's see about improving things one step at a time. I looked around curiously. When I was captive, I hadn't really been able to see anything beyond the woman, but now I could see we were in a large building. Not exactly magical, it looked like a converted warehouse of some sort. There were also a dozen figures in black robes forming a circle around us. Yay, a coven in Basic Black.
So I turned to look at the bitch. What surprised me was the way she was looking back at me. That sort of interest wasn't just for a demon, was it? Oh hell no, she was old, she must have been over twice my age, no way did I want THAT sort of interest from a near-wrinkly like her! Not to mention the fact she trafficked in demons (and yes, I realised how hypocritical that sounded even to myself). So I coughed meaningfully. "Are you going to leave me naked? It might distract your minions."
She actually blushed, confirming my idea of just how she'd been thinking about me. Geez, lady, show some decorum, will you! She made a gesture to one of the female followers, who were moving towards us now the ritual was obviously over. "Get the demon a robe, err, I don't want people to see what she is."
I grabbed the proffered black robe, sneered at it and slipped it on. A number of the male followers looked disappointed, and at least one had an obvious tent in the front of his robe. Good grief. Tough luck, boys, this demoness isn't available. Anyway... "So just what is it you need my help to steal?"
She looked somewhat offended. "I said acquire!"
"Yeah, of course you did. Anyway, what is it you need to steal?"
You'd think she could have just told me what the mystic doodad she wanted was, but nooo, she had to make a production out of telling me as well as her followers. Who judging by the bored expressions on their faces had been told all about this already, but then, someone should have told them that being a minion sucked before they signed on.
So there we all were, surrounding a large table with some maps and the plans of a house while she tried to make out like a genius planner of some sort.
"Now, the Seal of Akkaba is held in the basement of this house. It belongs to a man who calls himself " - she made a disgusted sound - "Dr Miracle, who is the current guardian for it. We are going to break in and take it from him."
Well, at least the plan was simple, somehow I wasn't convinced by her ability to work up a complex scheme. "Presumably he does have protection, wards, guards and so on?"
The fact the sarcasm I was laying on thickly didn't seem to concern her made me suspect she was even less experienced at magically-assisted breaking and entering than I'd initially suspected. Granted, I wasn't exactly experienced myself, but even what I'd learned at Whateley in my short time there had taught me a little about the way to go about these things.
So, after a lot of verbose (and at times rambling) explanations from the woman, and some worryingly stupid questions from her followers, we'd set out for our target. In a couple of vans. I was getting the impression this wasn't exactly serious magic villain levels of enterprise, in fact, I was starting to get worrying flashbacks of the Mighty Squid. Oh well, at least we weren't traveling there on public transport.
I had no idea where we were - it was dark, and the occasional glimpses I saw from the back of the van just suggested a generic American town or city, with no obvious clues to which one it was.
When we finally stopped, we seemed to be just outside of town, judging from the lack of streetlights. Facing us was a long brick wall, that seemed to go on a way. I guessed surrounding something, presumably the mansion we'd come to rob. With a certain amount of muttering, the coven and I emerged from the vans and stood looking at the wall. I wasn't about to volunteer anything, so I just looked at the woman. She was busy staring at the wall, then started to wave her staff around as she chanted something. I could see tendrils of magic curling away from the staff and merging with the wall, so this must be her neutralising the wards. She'd mentioned that in her briefing. I took a glance along the wall and sighed. Looked like whoever lived here wasn't that competent either, some CCTV and stuff would have spotted the large and obvious group of us, standing there in perfectly non-ominous black robes, while she worked.
Finally, she flourished the wand and turned to look at us. "There, the wards have been taken care of. Now get over the wall and get on with it!"
I looked at the eight-foot wall, topped with a charming ensemble of broken glass, and shrugged. But for once, either she or one of her minions had planned, as one of them slid a ladder out of one of the vans, and a second brought out a thickly padded square to cover the glass with. So, to boldly go, etc etc etc. I wasn't going in first, let one of the expendables, sorry, minions, do it. It all seemed quiet, as the woman gestured to me, so I sighed and climbed over the wall. I could have jumped it, but the less I showed her what I could do the better.
Landing on the grass, I scanned the area. The half moon gave me ample illumination, there didn't seem to be anyone but us here. The mansion itself only had a few lights showing, I wondered how late it was? No-one had bothered to tell me the time. As the rest of the coven clambered over the wall, I considered. I didn't want to - no, I wasn't going to - kill anyone here. It seemed to me that the best thing I could do was help make this robbery go smoothly, get away with the McGuffin and hopefully not leave any bodies behind. Well, it was an aim at least.
I'd like to say the group made it's way stealthily across the grass like a well-trained SpecOps crew. I'd like to, but it would have been a lie. Basically, they wandered across, some of them trying to look like they were being secretive, some not even bothering while making slightly less sound than a herd of hungry elephants. It would have made the Whateley instructors weep. For myself, I was trying to keep aware of anything that might suddenly decide to take an unfriendly interest in me, as I'd been taught. At least it was likely anything would hit this mob of losers first, something that didn't make me entirely unhappy.
When we got to the building it wasn't much better. In fact, one of the men was about to try and lever open a window when I put my arm out and stopped him. The woman looked at me with a suspicious glare.
"The windows warded, can't you see the magic?" I could clearly see the line of essence flowing around the frame, a clear sign of an active spell of some sort.
"Well, yes, of course I can! Wait while I neutralise the wards."
Oh yeah, of course you'd noticed them. I was seriously starting to wonder how someone so inept had managed to summon me, it was only the fact that she was wearing boots that stopped me from wondering how she tied her shoelaces without assistance.
Some of the minions actually had to be helped through the finally-opened window, physical conditioning didn't seem to be on the Coven's syllabus. Inside it looked far more like a mundane mansion than an esoteric lair. At least, I couldn't see the essence flow of any active spells, but that might only mean that whoever set up this place knew what they were doing. Furnishing and such all seemed normal, the only odd things were a couple of man-sized stone statues in the corners. I gave them a suspicious look, but couldn't sense anything odd about them. Maybe they were just ornaments.
"So where is this safe hidden, then?" Actually, she'd shown us all on the plans, but to be honest, I wanted to annoy her a bit more. After all, opening the safe was why she'd summoned me here in the first place, apparently.
She gave me a medium-strength glare, then pointed at a rather nice piece of wooden paneling. "Behind that. Remove it and open the safe for me, demon."
What just demon now? What had happened to 'Spawn of the Outer Dark'? Still, I walked over, the moonlight shining in through the open window giving me plenty of light to work with, and examined the panel. Although I could see the fine lines along which it presumably opened, I couldn't see any way of actually opening it, so I shrugged and sliced my claws along the cracks on three sides. Something went crack, and I must have broken something because the panel sagged open to reveal a large, and obviously very solid, safe behind it.
"You're sure this isn't trapped or alarmed?"
She sneered at me. "Of course it isn't, now just open it! I want the seal."
I eyed the safe. If it had been mine I'd have booby-trapped the thing to hell and gone, and as for what Bianca would have done to keep it safe... Oh well, let's hope she was right. So I relaxed and let fire blossom over my claws, the light from them making shadows dance across the walls. At least half the minions stepped back rather noticeably. What, guys, never seen a fire demon at work before? I slowly cut into the safe, gouging a thick, glowing hot track. I had to repeat that a number of times, the safe door was surprisingly thick, and the smell of hot and burnt metal was thick in the air before I was done, making some of the watcher's coughs. Gee, can't you people at least try and be stealthy?.
I gripped the heavy door and slowly and with some effort worked it open. There was a loud screech of abused steel as I got it open enough to get at the contents. I don't know if it was the noise, or the safe being opened, or maybe my fire had set an alarm off earlier, but as I did the lights came on to show a man in robes standing at one of the doors with a rather impressive staff raised in one hand. I hadn't noticed him arrive, but then I had been rather preoccupied ripping his safe open.
"Stop what you are doing and surrender now, and I promise you won't be harmed!"
Well, I was cool with that - I hadn't wanted to be here in the first place - but it looked like the minions weren't too interested. About half of them dragged guns out from under their robes, the others seemed to be grabbing for esoteric weapons of some sort, while the woman lifted her staff in readiness. Me, I tried to look nonchalant like this was nothing to do with me and I'd just wandered in accidentally.
So of course the whole situation devolved into a fight. Which as it was taking place in a mage's lair, seemed likely to favour the defence. I stood and watched as the man either ignored or deflected the various attacks - indeed, the only one who seemed to be giving him any worries was the woman, three of the minions were down on the floor already. I tried slipping carefully back into the shadows, I reckoned there was a fair chance the woman would forget about me. Sadly, not a hope that was realised. She finally stopped attacking long enough to scream at me. "Demon, attack and destroy him."
Oh great, tell him exactly what I am, why don't you? It did cause him to react though. He raised his staff and shouted a few words, and those statues did what I'd been hoping they wouldn't, coming to life. Or, judging by the loud grinding noises, coming to stone. I moved a bit away from the safe, to give myself some room, as the two moved towards me. Not terribly fast, but then they were stone statues, not the sort of thing noted for their lightning speed. Slow enough in fact that I could grab the first one and toss it into the second. They both collapsed, and for an instant I had hoped they might stay down, but they just slowly got up again and headed for me. Wonderful. Tough bastards they were.
Well, things progressed slowly from there. Most of the minions were down, either unconscious, dead, or bound up in some sort of mystical ties. But doing that had allowed the woman to get the upper hand, as the man was being slowly forced back against the wall, making more and more frantic motions to deflect her attacks. Me, I'd been finding that while mobile statues are slow, they hit impressively hard. While I'd been cutting into them, they'd pounded me on a number of occasions, and that was really going to hurt in the morning. Only the fact that I was a lot faster than them had prevented them from doing serious damage. And my claws cut stone pretty well - by the time the fight neared its conclusion one of them was crawling on one leg, and the other was missing an arm and looking like more major parts would come off at any moment.
Preoccupied with my stony friends, it was a surprise when they suddenly stopped moving and just stood there, immobile. I glanced around and realised the man was down, some sort of magical gag stopping him from speaking and a globe enclosing each hand, presumably all to stop him casting spells. His staff was broken on the ground in front of him. The woman was standing over him, beaming sadistically as she kicked him in the ribs, hard enough I heard at least one break.
"Shouldn't we get the seal and get out of here before anyone else turns up?"
She looked at me haughtily. Great, as if she hadn't been bad enough before she won. Then she stalked over to the safe and reached in, coming out with probably the ugliest Aztec-looking gold plaque I'd ever seen.
"Great, you won, you got it."
She didn't answer me, being too busy holding it in her hands and gloating over it. She even ignored her groaning minions, busy picking themselves and each other up. Finally, she slipped the thing inside her robe and paid attention to the rest of us again.
"Very well, now out all of you! And quickly."
I watched the minions scramble through the window again. They did realise they could use the door now, right? She looked around the now devastated room, and with a maniacal laugh of triumph gestured, and smoke and flames started to engulf the flammable objects in the room. She beckoned to me as she headed for the door. I looked at her, then at the helpless man groaning on the floor. No choice. I lifted him in my arms, causing him to shudder - sorry, guy, but better this than you burning, I don't think you're as fireproof as me - and carried him clear of the house, laying him down on the grass.
Which unfortunately attracted her attention. "What did you do that for, I wanted to see him burn in his wretched house. Well, no matter, just kill him!"
I stood on the grass outside the burning house and glared at the woman.
"I told you to kill him, demon! Now!!"
I spared the injured man a quick glance - no help from him, he'd passed out from the pain of me moving him. Then I turned back to the bitch.
"I am not killing a helpless man. You got what you came for, just go and leave him. He can't stop you."
She screamed at me, spittle flying from her lips. "Do as I say, foul creature! I want him dead, to show people I am not to be trifled with!" Then she raised her staff, and my neck felt on fire as that damn collar fed what felt like bottled lightning through me. I screamed and fell to my knees, still watching her.
"This is your last chance, demon! Do as I command and end him, or I will end you!"
I didn't care about her orders. Whatever she said, I wasn't going to kill the poor guy. She might have been a monster, but I wasn't. But also I couldn't take much more of this punishment. Well, I'd been wondering if the collar was fireproof, and about just how much it would hold me - I didn't care what she said, I wasn't a demoness. So I hooked my claws inside it, fire blooming around my hands as it turned them white hot, set myself and pulled outwards hard.
I was surprised at how easy it was. I'd expected, well, to be honest, I didn't think it would work, but my claws sank into the metal, cutting through it with a blaze of sparks until suddenly the two halves fell to the ground in front of me. I grinned up at her shocked face, baring my fangs to make it a bit more dramatic, as I slowly got to my feet, my claws still glowing with the heat. I took a step towards her, and she screamed, turning and running away. She even dropped the seal in her terror. I felt like chasing her down and doing to her what she'd wanted me to do to the guardian, but that reminded me the poor guy needed attention.
I'd barely started to try and see if I could help him when the area was lit by a searchlight from above, and I heard the growl of car engines. I'd been so distracted I'd hardly registered the arrival of a helicopter.
"Step away from the man, kneel and put your hands behind your head!"
Well, the loudspeaker was hardly subtle. I tried to peer into the light, but it was so bright it blinded me, and I could hardly see anything. "Look, he's hurt, I'm trying to help him!"
Which obviously didn't impress whoever was up there, as their response was a burst of shots from some sort of automatic weapon that landed some yards away from me, "Last chance, kneel and hands behind the head or we shoot to kill."
Aggressive lot they were. I sighed, hoping the delay wouldn't prove fatal for the poor doctor, and did as instructed. I didn't expect them to be able to really hurt me, but they might have heavier armament on the helicopter, and in any case, where was I going to go? I might as well co-operate and maybe get some proper help for myself.
I sat across from the two men and sighed to myself. After I'd been arrested - well, I thought I'd been arrested, although they hadn't done any of that 'reading your rights' stuff they did on TV, I'd been questioned and had my robe taken and given a set of bright orange clothing. Well, the robe was rather messy - not to mention bloodstained - but I didn't think orange was really a colour that suited me. Then I'd been pushed into this room and cuffed and chained to a steel table. Gee, you'd think they didn't trust me or something. I hadn't tried to resist, I was still hoping that I could show them who I was and this was all just a mistake. In any case, I didn't think I could snap the chains, they were pretty heavy duty, but I figured they'd melt if necessary. The room itself was bare, just the table, a few chairs, and a beige carpet. So I waited and tried, without much success, trying to work out what was happening, until these four guys walked in.
Black suits, dark glasses, the works. What was more worrying was that two of them were carrying guns - not normal guns either, they looked like the sort of hi-tech toys you'd see around the Whateley labs - and had taken up position in the corners, glowering at me and keeping their weapons pointed straight at me. I tried to look as harmless as possible, but that didn't change their attitude in the slightest.
The other two sat down opposite me. Neither were smiling, they just looked at me until the older of the pair spoke up.
"Well now, we seem to have a little problem with you."
Oh. Well, maybe if I knew who they were we could clear this all up.
"Uh, who are you people exactly? No-one's told me anything since I got here."
The speaker gave me a considering look. It wasn't a friendly one.
"As you claimed to be a mutant, they called us in. We're the MCO."
Crap. And judging by the accents, the American MCO. Double crap. I'd heard far too many stories about what these guys did with mutants they got hold of, and none of the stories were good.
"I know I don't have my MID card on me, but I can explain who -"
His abrupt gesture stopped my attempt at explaining myself in its tracks.
"While you claim to be a mutant, we don't have any evidence of that. We checked out the name and details you gave us, as you don't have ID, but none of it checked out. In fact, as far as we can tell, you don't exist. Which is very suspicious, isn't it?"
"But everything I told your people was true!"
He just sneered at me. "The statements we got from the people you were with indicated you were a demon, not human at all. As you have no ID, and no indication you have any existence as a human, not even as a mutant, I'm inclined to believe them."
I just looked at him with my mouth half open. They believed those idiots! "Look, I can explain - "
He just cut me off again. "I'm not interested in your explanation. Your appearance and lack of ID make it obvious, and while our normal remit is to take care of dangerous mutants, we do have training as to what to do in a case like yours." He looked at me, then reached a hand into his pocket, pulling out a crystal. He placed it on the table in front of me and tapped it, and it started to glow. Not just the crystal, as he activated it I could feel the oppressive magic of a circle around me. I looked down, and could just see the magic twisting under the carpet. Damn.
He gave me a very smug and self-satisfied smile as he and his silent partner stood up and moved back. "Now, we don't wish to bother ourselves with you, so we've arranged for someone expert in these matters to take care of you for us."
I stood up, starting to pull on my chains as the door opened. My eyes went wide in shock and horror as a man in a dark suit walked it. It wasn't his appearance, I'd seen him before, in very unpleasant circumstances. But I'd been told he was dead! Right now, I only had one thought - escape. My chains glowed with heat as I poured energy into them, the metal weakened by the heat as first one, then the other stretched and snapped. He merely raised an eyebrow and made a complicated gesture. The circle surrounding me glowed brighter, and I heard myself scream as a torrent of power sent me tumbling down into darkness.
I woke with a splitting headache - that was starting to be a bad habit - not to mention pain throughout my body. None of which mattered to me under the circumstances.
"Ah, I see you're with us again."
Oh god, I knew that voice far too well. So I hadn't just been imagining things before they knocked me out. I didn't want to open my eyes and look in case they confirmed it, but then my hair was grabbed from behind and my head jerked upwards, my eyes opening instinctively. It was as bad as I'd expected. Abraxus. I didn't understand how he could be here in front of me, I'd seen Pendragon take his head. Hadn't I? My mind spun, trying to reconcile what I remembered with what was going on.
It looked like him, it sounded like him. Even that annoyingly arrogant tone of voice. I shuddered, my eyes sliding away from his face, I didn't want to meet his gaze.
"So nice to have you with us again, Conduit. This time I am going to attend to your treatment personally, you won't be leaving us again."
I couldn't say anything, the terror was taking me over. I did the only thing I could think of to push it away, which was to resort to anger, letting it take me over instead as I glared up at him then spat at him. Of course, if I angered him enough he might just kill me, but after my previous experience with his minions maybe that wouldn't be such a bad option.
He looked down at the wet spot on his robe where my spit had hit him and snarled as he dragged a knife from his belt. The serrated edge glinted in the harsh lighting as he moved closer, and the runes along it glowed with sinister power. I didn't want to die, but I didn't think I could stand any more of his torture, he had come so close to breaking me before, and I dreaded what he would do with me and my power if he succeeded. The man behind me jerked my head higher, baring my throat to Abraxus. Thulia, I'm sorry.
He glared coldly at me, knife moving a bit closer before he stopped. "Oh no, Conduit, you won't fool us into letting you escape so easily." He turned the knife, drawing the blade down my cheek as I felt the cold pain of its jagged edge slicing into my flesh, blood trickling down my chin and spattering onto the floor in front of me.
"Take her away and chain her up, let her think about her fate while I make preparations to convince her to serve me properly."
Hands grabbed me and dragged me across the floor, the rough stone rasping across my bare skin. When I caught a glimpse of the chains binding me I realised why I felt so weak, it was the same cursed cuffs they'd used on me before. I wasn't allowed to stand, instead they dragged me along a corridor and kicked me into a cell, leaving me helpless on the floor. I managed to hold out until the door slammed shut with a heavy thud, then curled up and wept, tears mingling with the blood trickling from my slashed cheek to pool on the cold stone beneath me.
Time passed, I have no idea how much before some guards came in to take me out. Not before they'd amused themselves by pressing their shock batons to my flesh. By the time they'd had their fun, my skin was scarred with charred spots and my voice was hoarse from my screams. I was only partly aware of being dragged out, but once I saw where they had taken me I was shocked into full awareness again.
Standing in front of me was Abraxus and some of his minions. That wasn't unexpected, the surprise was the three people cuffed and chained next to them. Ceri, Bianca, and Tanya. All naked, gagged and looking terrified. They weren't the only ones, I felt the fear bubble up inside me when I saw them helpless in front of me.
Abraxus smiled slowly as he saw my face. "Ah, I see you recognise your friends. Well, as you were so uncooperative the last time, I thought we'd take a few people to help persuade you." He took that evil knife out of its sheath again as he walked over to Ceri, then slowly drew it down her arm, skin, and flesh parting bloody under the blade. She let out a choked whimper past her gag as blood trickled down her arm. "Your sister." Then he moved to Tanya, who I realised that like Bianca was in chains more like mine than the mundane ones keeping my sister imprisoned. This time he drew the knife down her thigh, as Tanya stiffened, her scream only partly hidden by her gag. "Your friend." Then he turned to Bianca. "And the final prize. I believe she regenerates. You can have so much more fun with someone who heals, they don't wear out nearly as fast as other toys."
I wanted to scream and curse at him, but I knew it would only have amused him more. I wouldn't give the bastard the satisfaction. So I watched helplessly as he carved a symbol into Bianca's belly, blood obliterating her tattoo there as she shivered and tried to cry out past the gag in her mouth. I couldn't bear to watch, I shut my eyes, tears running down my cheeks.
"Ah now, little Conduit you should watch. Her blood makes such a pretty contrast to that white skin, does it not?" I felt the coldness of that infernal knife pressed to my skin. "Watch, or I'll remove the gag and you can listen to how loudly I can make her scream."
I did as instructed, shivering. Bianca seemed to have passed out, at least that was something. Although I knew he'd merely wait and then continue when she could feel what he was doing to her.
He gestured to his minions, and the three girls were shoved brutally to the side of the room, splatters of crimson standing stark against the stone making me shudder.
"Now, Conduit. You have a simple choice. Take binding oaths to obey me, or see these three disassembled before your eyes. In the case of the white one." - Bianca shivered violently, and I could hardly blame her - "as many times as it takes to make you see reason."
He gestured to the men still holding me. "Take her back to her cell. Let her think about it for a few hours. But not too long, or I may feel the urge to see just how well her little friend regenerates."
Again I was chained to the wall of my cell. I'd spent so many days here before, I thought I'd escaped. Had I just dreamed I had? No, that couldn't be true, Ceri might have been captured by them but Tanya and Bianca had to have come from Whateley, so my memories there must be true. I shivered in the cold, I didn't know what to do. Maybe I could have held out if it were only me, though I thought I was just trying to make myself believe that. But how could I allow my friends and my sister to be tortured in front of me? This time there would be no heroine conveniently urged here by Thulia's machinations to rescue me. I was never going to leave this place except as the Cults mind-dead slave.
I gazed with hatred at the cell - after all, it wasn't as if I had anything else to look at. Then frowned - something about it was odd. I examined every inch of it, as carefully as possible. No, it was the same cell I'd been held in months ago. It took me a while before I suddenly realised what was odd. It wasn't just a cell, it was the cell - the one I'd been held in. But that was impossible. Manx had shown me pictures of how the base had looked after the AEGIS strike force had finished with it - she said seeing it destroyed would give me closure - and this cell had been smashed into rubble. Which had given me considerable satisfaction at the time, but that meant this couldn't be that cell. The detail, the scratches on the walls, the bumps, all the detail I'd memorised because I had nothing else to do, was perfect. My memory had always been good, but now I was an exemplar it was even better. So if this wasn't the real cell - was I really here? Could this all be some elaborate fiction in my mind? But if that was the case, maybe I was also being fooled into thinking my power was blocked. Abraxus somehow escaping death was something possible, it seemed to happen far too many times to people like him, but rebuilding a cell down to the tiniest detail seemed unbelievable. Even if someone could, why would they bother?
I pulled myself up, then started to meditate. It was desperately hard under the circumstances, but eventually, my mind calmed, and I felt the fire touching me. This time I would see just how much I could summon, and to hell with it being too much for me to handle! Slowly at first, I pulled the flames to me, They got brighter, and more powerful, and I drew more and more until it was a blazing inferno surrounding me. Then I let it all out in a star-bright pulse of heat.
I hadn't really expected anything in particular, I thought that if I was being held in some sort of illusion the power released might break it. I hadn't anticipated what would actually happen. As the flames bloomed out around me, the walls shimmered and broke. It looked like they were made of pixels that had lost their cohesion, shattering into smaller and smaller pieces that whirled and spun around me. I gaped, then redoubled my efforts, the surroundings breaking faster and faster as I screamed and then everything fell apart around me as I spun into nothingness.
sQjU5qVccFLd considered the situation with an emotion that a human would have considered to be annoyance. It'd hoped that scenario would have broken the girl, to a connoisseur like it the flavour of a properly helpless and broken victim was much better than one it'd had to fight, they always seemed to taste tough and it was a picky eater. However, while she had broken free, it just left her more vulnerable. She was intelligent, but that just gave it ways to use that against her. One final trial and it would be all over for her.
Bedlam Hospice for the Psychologically Disturbed, time unknown
"Rob? Can you hear me?"
I opened my eyes slowly, wincing at the brightness of the fluorescent lighting. My eyes felt gummy and unpleasant. "Where am I?"
My vision cleared enough for me to see a man in a doctors coat standing next to me and smiling. "Ah, Rob, it's good to see you awake at last."
Rob? Why was he calling me Rob, my name was Morgana. I hadn't been called Rob since... My mind locked, and I slowly raised my arm to look at my hand. A perfectly normal, undamaged hand. A typical boy's hand. I wasn't sure afterward if I screamed before passing out or afterward.
The next time I woke I felt calmer, almost as if I was floating. I could see a drip next to me, and vaguely wondered if I was being sedated. This time there was a nurse there, rather than the doctor. A rather hefty woman, in fact, she looked more like a warder than anything else. She looked at me as I garbled something, then put a straw to my lips, allowing me to drink some wonderfully cold water from the glass. I swooshed some of it around my mouth until it felt less parched.
"What happened? Where am I. And why am I male again?"
She gave me a concerned look. "I'd better tell Dr. Smithson you're awake, he'll want to talk to you."
So she left me to my very troubled thoughts to go get him. While she was away, I lifted the sheet covering me. Yes, I recognised this body all right, it was the one I'd been living in until I'd been captured and manifested. But how, the chances of changing back successfully when I had a BIT were - well, I understood not quite zero, but about on a par with winning the lottery. Three times in a row. I slumped back against the pillow. This just didn't make any sense. Maybe the doctor would explain to me just what the hell had been going on.
"Ah, Rob, I see you're awake at last!"
Oh great, I had a cheery doctor. Was it too late to lapse back into a coma or something?
"At last? How long have I been out, Doc?"
He gave me a rather measuring look. "Well... actually, about 4 months."
I just lay there for a moment, mouth agape. Four months! "How long! And how am I male again?"
This time he gave me a much longer look, before sitting down next to me. "Maybe I'd better start at the beginning."
I managed to not quite glare at him. "Yes, please do."
He looked at his notes for a moment, then nodded. "You've been here for just over the last few months, most of the time in a coma, although you have had periods of partial consciousness. It all started when there was a robbery at the research facility you were working at."
"Yeah, I know that! When I was kidnapped and experimented on, and manifested."
He shook his head. "No, Rob, that wasn't what happened at all. The thieves used a psychotropic gas they'd acquired when they committed the robbery, and you were exposed to it - quite a lot of it, in fact. Unfortunately you suffered a severe reaction to it, and as a result, you've been here ever since. Judging by what you've said, particularly in your periods of partial consciousness, you've been suffering severe hallucinations. It seems that your mind has been active, but has been busy creating some sort of alternate world for you, possibly as a result of otherwise having no input. It's not uncommon if you cut someone off from external stimuli the mind makes stuff up."
My mind whirled in circles. This was crazy, I mean I knew what had happened to me, the Cult, manifesting as a girl, going to Whateley. It was embedded in my memories, it couldn't just be some sort of dream. Could it?
He obviously saw how I looked. "It's perfectly understandable to be confused, Rob. The brain can play really odd tricks on you in this sort of case. Now I suggest you lie there and rest for a bit - you're still weak. Later on, we'll get you up, and then one of our psychiatric staff will interview you, help you to understand the false memories your mind has created. Judging by our tests, your brain activity has returned to normal now, so once we get you realigned with the real world, there 's no reason why we have to keep you here, and you can go back to your life."
He got up and patted me on the shoulder. I hardly noticed I was still feeling stunned. "Don't worry, a bit of therapy and you'll be fine again."
I didn't respond, I was so tangled up in my own thoughts I didn't even register him leaving. I remembered everything so clearly. All my friends, Whateley, magic, being superhuman. OK, and being female, but I'd mainly come to terms with that. And Thulia. Surely she couldn't just be a figment of my brain going wild on some sort of hallucinogen, could she? She was real, she had to be! Then I looked at myself again. There was no denying the fact that I was Rob again - or, if the Doc was right, Rob as I'd always been.
I didn't sleep well that night, I was chased by nightmares, things that I couldn't remember even as they woke me with a jerk, cold sweat covering me. In the end, I just stayed awake, but my jumbled thoughts were little better than the nightmares.
In the morning, I was woken from a half-sleep by a male nurse. The doctor had been right about me being weak, I needed help to dress. Not proper clothes, some sort of pyjama-like outfit and slippers, but at least he promised me breakfast after. I had managed the toilet on my own, just, but it took me minutes just to gather up the energy to brush my teeth. If I had been sleeping for four months, I guess this was the result.
"Come on kid, let's get you to the canteen."
I nodded. "Say, why weren't there any mirrors in the bathroom?" I'd wanted to see how I looked, and the lack of mirrors had been a surprise.
He chuckled. "Kid, this is a psychiatric unit. OK, you're pretty safe, but some of the people here get violent. Smashed glass makes a nasty weapon. Oh, and better not to talk to any of the inmates yet, some of them are easy to set off."
I nodded, still trying to get everything straight. So I was in a nuthouse, it seemed. Somehow that seemed fitting. We did pass a couple of patients, wearing the same bland pyjama outfit they'd given me. Both had a nurse escorting them. The first one seemed pretty normal, except for the scarily blank expression on his face. The second one stared at me, eyes following me until we'd turned a corner. My nurse must have seen me staring, as he chuckled. "Don't worry about Dan, he's harmless. Poor guy has this fixation he's a lizard, I think he's looking for more lizard people."
Oh, that was reassuring. Still, they fed me breakfast - bland, but at least filling, especially as I found I couldn't eat that much. I quietly kept my head down and ignored the other patients, my nurse watching until I was all done.
"OK, now I have to escort you to Dr. Bellows."
I gave a start at that name. I mean, it wasn't exactly common, and I had long memories of a psychiatrist called Bellows. But when we finally got to his office, he looked quite different. This was an old African man with a long beard, he looked nothing like the Bellows of my memories of Whateley.
"Is there something about me that bothers you, Rob? You're looking at me rather oddly."
I looked at him. He didn't even speak like the Bellows from my memory, the only thing in common was the name.
"Well, it's just... in my memories, you were my psychiatrist, except you looked completely different."
He chuckled. "I see. Well, as I think your doctor told you, you've been in a coma for most of the last four months. Not completely, you did wake, or rather half-wake, a number of times. It's quite possible that your mind integrated the people you saw then with your dreams, I did speak with you a few times."
I looked down at my hands. They still didn't look like the hands I'd got used to. "I still can't believe it was all in my head, everything seemed so REAL."
He nodded consolingly. "Well, yes. The thing is, with no normal sensory stimulation, the mind tends to make up memories - it needs to have some input, or you go crazy. Now, why don't you tell me all about what your memories tell you, and we can take it from there."
Well, that took a while. Hours, it felt like, as I went through what had happened to me since the raid on the lab. He sat there and took notes, making an occasional comment, but basically, just let me go through it all. Sitting there in an ordinary office I was starting to feel maybe they were just fake memories. Finally, I finished, sitting there staring at the floor. I didn't want my memories to be made up out of an overactive imagination, I wanted them to be real.
"Well now, that's a fascinating story indeed." He put down his notes and looked at me. "It seems like you have some interesting issues - well, we all do - but you seem to have integrated yours into your coma memories. For example, this idea of mutant superheroes is straight out of some popular entertainment, as is the idea of a school for them. As for turning into a girl, well, you're a teenager." He raised a hand as I sat up, cutting off what I was going to say. "It doesn't mean you are gay, or transgendered. Just that at some point you've wondered what it would be like to be the opposite sex, and this has been made up as part of your fantasy memories."
It sounded so logical the way he put everything into neat little compartments. After all, I obviously wasn't Morgana, I was Rob. I couldn't control flame - OK, when I was in the bathroom I'd tried, and nothing had happened. So he must be right. Yet despite all that, somewhere in the back of my mind was a red-haired dragongirl screaming to be let out.
I was in the Institute for some days, each day being led through my memories as Bellows explained why they were fake, each day trying to make myself feel like Rob again. The place was bland and colourless - I don't know if that was deliberate, part of the environment for troubled patients, or not, but I was already hating it. I'd asked about my family but was told they wouldn't be contacted until they were certain I wouldn't relapse into a coma, as that would be painful and traumatic for them. It made sense, I suppose, but I missed them. I kept asking them for a pad or computer, so I could look at the internet, the news, anything other than the beige walls of the rooms and corridors. It took a lot of asking, complaining, and a fair deal of outright whining, but they did finally give me a pad.
It didn't help, it just confirmed everything they'd told me. Superheroes and mutants were just the stuff of comics and movies. Magic didn't exist. Everything I read online just confirmed I'd made it all up in my head. So why did I feel like a huge part of my life had been cut out of me with a saw?
I put the pad down by the side of my chair and sighed. I suppose I should have been in bed, but I wasn't sleeping well. The docs said it was likely because I'd been sleeping for so long, it would take a while for my body and mind to adjust. I felt it was more that this place was so boring. I leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes. I wished I could just slide myself back into my dream life, while it had so many issues, it also had so much that I wanted to have again. I drifted off into sleep without really noticing it.
I stood in darkness, looking into a cavern lit by the streams of lava that flowed sluggishly around its edge. Warm air tainted with sulphur and dust flowed past me from the opening into what looked awfully like an active volcano. An obvious path had been worn so smooth in the dark rock of the floor it was almost shiny, leading towards the middle of the chamber. Given such a blatant invitation, I stepped forward, my feet feeling just a comfortable warmth rather than the heat I'd half been expecting. There weren't even any pebbles or dust, the floor was as clean as if swept by an obsessive housewife. At the centre the path led to a circle of obsidian, the edge delineated by a string of characters etched into the volcanic glass. They glowed a sullen red, but I paid them little attention, what was held in their centre was far more interesting. Both in itself and for the way it jarred with the calmness of the rest of the cavern.
Chained there was a naked woman, her lithe body forced into a kneeling position by the heavy chains fastened to her neck and arms. Her bonds melded into two glassy pillars that extruded up from the surface, inscribed with the same unrecognisable symbols etched around the circle. The chains themselves were of silver metal, probably mithril by the odd sheen, but tiny flickers of crimson light along the rough metal seemed to form moving characters of some sort. Head bowed, a wild mane of hair fell forward, concealing her face in a tangle of strands the colour of a banked fire.
I stood at the edge of the circle, watching her for what felt like minutes. She wasn't entirely human - a pair of small horns curled at the side of her head, and the tips of her fingers ended smoothly in claws rather than fingernails. Something about them made them feel natural to her, not some sort of ornamentation, but an integral part of her. Sadness and a certain amount of anger flowed through me at the sight - it was just wrong to see someone like that caged like a wild animal.
As if she knew I was watching her, she moved. It must have been difficult, even painful, in her position - I could see the tension of muscle and tendons play along her back and neck as she slowly straightened up to look me in the eyes. A shiver of fear ran through me as I met her golden, scarlet flecked eyes. I knew that face, I had seen it every morning in the showers at Whateley. Her throat worked as if she was speaking, but no sound emerged. I attempted to move closer, to hear, but I couldn't move - my feet seemed locked outside the ring of glowing symbols. All I could do was to examine her face and eyes for some hint of what she was trying to tell me. Was this me, or some part of me, or just someone who looked like me - and if so, why?
My concentration was broken by a humming noise that reverberated around the cave, the floor shuddering and small fragments of rock pattering down from the invisible ceiling. My head jerked up, trying to find the source of it, but I couldn't see anything. The whole place was starting to quiver, and I looked back at her - I could feel things becoming unreal around me. The last I saw before everything shimmered and faded away in a shower of flame-coloured sparkles was the look on her face. Frustration and fear. And I knew, even though I couldn't say why. that the fear wasn't for herself - it was for me.
I woke with a start, jerking and knocking my pad off the table and onto the floor. My body was covered in sweat, and my heart was pounding so loudly I half expected the noise to attract one of the nurses. I shivered, slowly trying to calm myself. That dream had been so different from the others I'd had since I found myself here. It wasn't like a normal dream, either. The memory was etched crystal-clear in my mind, I could run through all of it as I wished. But it still didn't make sense. I ran through all that I had seen, trying to find a clue. Surely something so detailed was more than just a random dream, it must have a meaning. All I had to do was find it.
I kept concentrating. There was something about the girl, or me, or whoever it was chained up. Something about her that I was missing, that would put all the pieces of this jigsaw together if I could find out what it was.
Eyes. That came to me oddly. What about her eyes? They were, for a mutant as I remembered them, perfectly normal. It was the signature of a mutant, unlike my own perfectly normal ones. Then I froze. My perfectly normal eyes, which due to the odd absence of mirrors here I'd never seen. I looked around my room, but a mirror hadn't magically appeared, there was still a lack of reflective surfaces. Unless...? I picked up the pad from the floor, turning it off. The screen was matt rather than shiny, but if I angled it just right and kept the room light just so...
It all seemed to happen so slowly, as I saw my face reflected in the screen. The face I remembered so well, after all I'd worn it for 15 years. Except as it came into focus, I didn't remember having gold eyes with radial scarlet streaks. Not in what they had been telling me was the real world. I just sat there, looking at them as my mind just went blank. Then I hurled the pad against the wall, not hearing it crash and splinter as I screamed, a howl of rage and longing that kept on growing in volume, shaking the room, until everything around me went blank and formless and I toppled into a void.
sQjU5qVccFLd felt itself shaking in rage. How dare that human child defy him like this! That illusion should have held her, made her helpless and ripe for consumption, instead, somehow, she'd found the flaw in it and escaped. It was not to be tolerated. Rather than be defied again, it would end this now, destroy and consume the child and be on its way.
Date <redacted>, Time <redacted>, Location <redacted with extreme prejudice>
I found myself on my back, stark naked and looking up at the sky. The landscape was weird, it seemed to consist of a flat plane with outcroppings of what looked like large crystals in various colours scattered around, in fact, what I was lying on was hard crystal as well. The oddest thing was the sky itself, a twisting and formless mass of coruscating shades of red and blue that made me feel queasy after a minute of watching it. So I sat up and took another look around, wondering what was going to happen this time.
I groaned and slowly got to my feet. I'd been wrong, it wasn't just the sky that was swirling around. Much more slowly, so were the crystal outcroppings, changing shape and merging with the sky, and re-emerging from it. Looking at them made my head hurt; they weren't obeying the normal laws of perspective, things kept happening, pieces of objects appearing and re-appearing that made me wonder just how many dimensions they were shifting through. I was certain it was more than the three I was used to. For some reason, it reminded me of the corridor leading to the portal room at Whateley.
While I'd have preferred not to look at it, I didn't really have any choice. So far everywhere I'd ended up had been dangerous; it isn't paranoia when they really are out to get you. So I forced down the growing queasy sensation in my stomach and searched around for something more meaningful than a dali-esque wannabe rock.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move. Swinging to face it, I wished I hadn't, as what looked like a bolt of forked lightning struck the ground a little distance away - and stuck there, tossing off smaller pieces of itself that flayed the crystal landscape, making parts of it glow and others shatter. OK, I didn't think that boded any good for me. The light was so intense I had to shield my eyes, trying my best to also keep a lookout. It wouldn't have surprised me if this was a trap to divert me from a real attack.
The lightning kept on getting brighter, continually changing colour as it melted a depression in the crystal. Then it stopped, with an abruptness that left me standing there trying to blink the after-image of it out of my eyes. When I did, I wished I hadn't.
Sitting? Squatting? Resting? In the hollow was a writhing mass of tentacles I'd seen once before, at the start of this mad excursion. It didn't look any prettier the second time, in fact, the bile-yellow tentacles weren't just weaving around each other, they were also fading in and out as the landscape did. It was only the fact my stomach was empty that stopped me decorating the ground with its contents.
It didn't exactly speak. What happened was that words and feelings were hammered into my brain without apparently bothering to use my ears.
"Time to end you, human."
Wow, as if I'd somehow thought this thing had my best intentions to heart. If it had a heart, which it probably didn't. So my answer was to snarl at it as I gathered fire around my claws. I knew what this thing was, and if it thought I'd just give in to it gracefully it didn't know me at all. I felt the distinct feeling of amusement from it as I responded. Not the good type of amusement, more one of sadistic pleasure. No wonder the cult had used it, it was a definite soul-mate to them.
Although it didn't have a face, I could feel it scrutinising me. Then it waved a tentacle, and an almost-solid bolt of energy impacted on the ground between us with enough force to smash pieces of crystal out of the hole it had made. Pieces of crystal which melded together to make a humanoid figure about five feet high. It looked like a fantasy imp, all nasty spiked edges, and hate-filled eyes, as it gave a steam-whistle screech and leaped at me, long crystalline claws extended to rend.
I dodged. Surprisingly easily, actually, so it looked like BMA was paying off for me. This things ideas of tactics seemed to be scream and leap, as it repeated the procedure. This time I leaned to one side and slammed my burning claws down across its back as it passed. It screeched again but didn't look terribly inconvenienced. The thing really didn't seem to learn; instead of changing its tactics or doing anything different, it just kept on leaping and I kept on slashing it. It didn't take very long before it looked like it was coming apart, although I had taken a couple of slashes. Whatever it was, its claws were as sharp as they looked, each contact with them had left shallow cuts on me. Still a bit more and I'd have won.
Which was when the demon made a noise that I suppose could have been called a laugh if you were really broadminded about the definition of laugh, and bathed the thing in one of its energy bolts. It shimmered, and the damage I'd done vanished as the crystal flowed back together. Crap.
So, rinse and repeat. We did this three times, each time it wasn't much of a challenge, but each time I got a few more cuts. Nothing major, but I could see blood dripping down from them. If this carried on, I'd either get cut to ribbons or collapse from loss of blood. So time to try something different.
Despite having been repaired three times, it didn't show much if any sign of learning. The problem was it was so fast and with such sharp claws. So the next time it leapt, instead of slashing at it as I evaded it, I swung around and grabbed it from behind. It screeched in rage, trying to slash me as I pulled it close. Not quite close enough, it managed to get me on the legs, and I winced, using the pain to power my anger, as I channelled my fire into the hands grasping its deformed body. For a moment nothing seemed to happen, and I really hoped this little monster wasn't fireproof, because if it was I couldn't see how I could let it go again without it getting some more hits in. Then the crystal that composed its body started to glow, and cracks appeared all over it. I kept up the heat, squeezing the thing with all my strength, and quite suddenly it shattered into chunks that fell between my hands and carpeted the ground.
"Is that all you can manage, mortal? Let me see what you can do with a more powerful enemy."
Now, why had I expected it to do something like that? It was acting like this was a bad video game, challenging me with individual enemies that got stronger each time. Why it could surely have made a dozen of them and just overwhelmed me? Something about this whole fight just struck me as contrived. Still, it wasn't as if I had a lot of options right now, and I remembered what Thulia had said. 'You have to fight and defeat it to be free of it.' Nothing about having to play with probably endless little crystal minions. So go for broke before I got too weak.
I filled my hands with fire and charged the creature. I couldn't tell if it was expecting that, or worried, even trying to concentrate on its body made my head throb with pain, so examining its features wasn't an option. It didn't move, exactly, though it did shift, and a pulse of energy erupted from it. I ignored it and just closed as fast as possible. There was no point in hanging around when I knew it could throw energy bolts, and I had no distance attacks.
It let me, which if I'd had time to think it through would have worried me, as I got to it and lashed out at a couple of tentacles. The repulsive organs shimmered in a way that hurt my eyes as my fire flowed over them, and quite suddenly I was being pulled against it by more of the damn things. I snarled and redoubled my efforts, fire growing brighter as I channelled as much as I could, not worrying about limits. This was all or die, if this didn't work I was all out of options.
It didn't seem impressed. In fact, it laughed at me.
"Ah, little human, You still haven't realised, have you? I lived in you, I know your power, that power runs through me. It doesn't matter how much of it you use - use all your power, I will always have that and more of mine, you can never win!"
Despite the heat and fire flowing through me, casting a glare on the crystals surrounding us so bright even the reflected light was painful, I felt cold inside. So if it had my power, plus more, it was right, I couldn't win no matter how much fire I channelled. Nevertheless, I clenched my jaw and tried harder. If I let this monster win, I'd never get back, never see friends, family, Thulia again.
I could feel its smug hatred grinding on my mind as I finally realised what I had to do, feeling so stupid I had only just realised it. Thulia, you clever, beautiful, devious, cheating little demoness!! I pushed its thoughts as far away from me as I could, concentrating on the demon mark she had given me. It pulsed hot on my back, and then I felt more power forced into me through it. I screamed, yanking my hands from its tentacles and shoving them as hard as I could into its body, as the fire flared up, pulsing with a blue-white brilliance that almost blinded me.
This time when it screamed I could feel the difference. This time it was scared! I kept going, even as I felt my arms and hands starting to burn. This was too much energy for me to handle, but right now I didn't care. I just kept going, the fiery claws my hands had become somehow holding onto it even as it writhed and tried to get away. I screamed in pain and rage as I gave it everything, and with an explosion of fire the creature broke, the halves consumed by the greedy flames. I fell to my knees, staring at the remains as I tried not to pass out. My arms were burned, and my hands - no, don't look at them. Despite the pain and exhaustion, I felt pride at what I'd done, granted with some help. Despite all its tricks, all its power, and insanity-inspiring appearance, I'd won. I barely noticed as the world around me shimmered and faded, the glowing lava cord I'd seen what seemed such a long time ago now joining me to a curdled space in the air, as I was pulled through it.
Thulia made an urgent gesture of dismissal, as the circles containing her and Morgana flaring off the energy contained in them erupted in a coruscating cascade of sparks as she rushed across the few feet separating them. Morgana had fallen onto her side, her body twitching and jerking as she tried, vainly, to speak. She kneeled, cradling Morgana's head in her hands as she bent forward over her. She winced inside as she saw the lines burnt into her arms and the charred and bleeding hands.
"Ssshh, don't try and speak yet, just relax and let me take care of you."
Despite her words, Morgana was still struggling to talk and get up, her eyes screwed shut in pain. "Hurts... everything hurts."
Thulia let go long enough to make a complicated gesture, and the circle they were in reconfigured itself, the symbols turning a greenish gold.
"Trust me, Morgana. Just let go and sleep while I fix you."
Morgana opened her eyes just enough to look at her, and nodded painfully, her voice still a hoarse whisper. "Trust you..." Then her eyes closed again as another wave of pain wracked her body.
Thulia pressed her hands to Morgana's temples, her voice vibrating eerily as she started to cast the healing spells she'd prepared earlier, her body glowing before breaking out in greenish flames, covering the two girls in a nimbus of soft fire. Morgana shivered once more before her face relaxed as Thulia pushed her down into sleep. She set herself and started the real work she needed to do.
Caitlin cursed as Morgana collapsed, but a hand on her shoulder from Bruce stayed her a moment.
"No, it's OK. Let it be, Thulia has to heal her. We were expecting this."
Caitlin looked critically at the imp. "You were expecting her to get hurt this badly?"
Bruce shrugged. "We weren't sure just how bad, but yes. We already knew she was damaged by the psychofágos before she started, and the ritual was always going to cause more due to the effort involved. She was channelling too much energy through already-damaged parts of her. But it was the only way to drive the psychofágos out of her safely."
Caitlin growled. "Safely? You have an odd idea of safe!"
Bruce gave her a flat look. "Relatively safely, then. Look, this was her only real chance, and Thulia prepped for a big heal before we started. Morgana will be OK, Thulia knows what she's doing."
Caitlin glowered at him for a moment, then relaxed, looking over to the circle where the two girls were deeply enmeshed in fire.
"OK, but if it doesn't work..."
Bruce shrugged, then opened his cooler and took out a can, using a claw to expertly poke a couple of holes in the lid. "Nothing to do now but wait, this will take a little while. Sure you don't want a beer?"
Thulia's working seemed to go on for a long time, the flames ebbing and swirling around the girls until Bruce finally stirred himself and walked out to the spell circles.
The girl blinked, her concentration broken and looked up at him in surprise. "What is it, I'm not finished yet."
Bruce pointed at her hair. "Oh yes, you are, at least for a while."
Thulia looked at her hair, then absently ran fingers through it. The once-flaming strands were now a pale ash-grey, and she looked at them for a moment before nodding. "You're right, I guess. Still, I wasn't far from finishing, she's well enough now her body can cope with healing the rest herself if need be."
Caitlin had walked over behind Bruce, looking critically at the two girls. She didn't comment that both of them looked exhausted, it would have been redundant."So you've fixed the damage?"
Thulia nodded as she got to her feet, for once moving stiffly rather than with her usual grace. "Nearly all of it. As I said, even if I don't work on her again, her natural healing will cope with finishing the job." She moved out of the circle, leaving the sleeping Morgana inside it.
"Just one last thing to do, check that the psychofágos is completely gone. I'm sure it is, but I must make certain." She walked across the floor to the screens Bruce had been monitoring, pausing for a moment as Bruce offered her a robe. She put it on slowly, with a smile of thanks, then started to examine the data on the crystal slabs.
Caitlin watched, then turned to Bruce. "Will this be a problem?"
"Nah, she's out of power for a bit after all that healing, but the test gear doesn't need her as a power source. She just has to run a new scan to make sure we got all the psychofágos out."
Caitlin grunted and waited while Thulia gestured across the display and controls, occasionally glancing over at the sleeping girl in the circle. Fortunately for Caitlin's patience, it didn't take very long before Thulia relaxed with a smile. "It worked. She's completely clear now, she'll be fine" She saw Caitlin watching, and gestured her over to where she could see the displays, where a number of versions of Morgana were displayed. Or rather images that looked more like an anatomy sketch showing the nervous system.
"The first one is the one I took after she manifested. As you can see, the lines showing her power are clear of any contamination." She gestured at the centre panel, which was displaying a similar image, but with dark bile-yellow lines twined in and out of what Caitlin assumed was some sort of representation of Morgana's power. "This is the one I took the other day, you can see the psychofágos quite clearly." She gestured at the final panel. "And this is the one I just did. As you can see, there is no trace of the psychofágos at all. There is still a little damage, but nothing that won't heal itself. She'll be fine."
Caitlin looked at the images. Assuming Thulia was telling the truth, it did look like Morgana had been cured. She let out a long breath and nodded. "You've done what you promised, thank you." She still wasn't terribly happy thanking a demon for anything, but Thulia did seem to have kept to her word. "Can I take her back to Whateley now?"
Caitlin had waited impatiently while Thulia transferred some data to what looked suspiciously like a boringly normal iPad.
"Is this going to take long? I'd like the docs to take a look at her."
"Only a minute or two, I'm just making a copy of Morgana's data for your people."
Caitlin nodded her acknowledgement, and as soon as Thulia took the pad and motioned that she was ready, she picked up Morgana and carried her over to the portal where Bruce was waiting. Thulia followed her, and Caitlin turned, raising an eyebrow.
"I need to explain to your Grimes and her colleagues what happened to Morgana, and how it will affect her."
Caitlin gave that a moment's thought then nodded. "That seems reasonable. But you leave when Grimes tells you, OK?" The girl nodded, gesturing to Caitlin to proceed her as Bruce gestured with a crystalline wand at the portal. It shimmered into being, and Caitlin stepped back into her own reality.
The reception committee had been waiting in various states of worry for them to return. Certainly, Ceridwen leapt to her feet at seeing her unconscious sister, and while Grimes managed a more dignified rise to her feet, Caitlin could tell she was also worried.
"What's the matter? Is she hurt? Why is she unconscious?"
Thulia lifted her hand tiredly to cut off Ceri's questions. "She's fine, everything went well, She's free of the psychofágos, which is no longer with us. It did cause her body considerable stress and damage, but I've healed most of it and she'll be fine in a few weeks." She smiled slightly as Ceri seemed torn between rushing over to examine her sister and rushing over to hug the demoness.
"Elyzia, I think we should get her to Doyle and have her checked over. Just to see how she is now."
Grimes nodded to Caitlin. "Yes, I agree. Can you see to that, please, Caitlin? I'd like to talk to Thulia a bit more about the operation and the effect on Morgana." She looked at Ceridwen and smiled. "Perhaps you'd like to go with them, Ceridwen, and see she's OK?"
Thulia watched the small procession leave and sighed before turning to Grimes. "I assume you'd like to know what happened and Morgana's condition?" Grimes nodded, as the girl continued. "I thought you would. I also have a summary of her current condition and state on a pad for you and your medical team, you might find it useful."
Grimes took the proffered device as Mrs. Horton looked at Thulia. "Thank you, dear. But maybe you'd better sit down while we talk, you look fatigued."
Thulia slipped into a chair with a smile of thanks to the housemother. "I am somewhat. As I expected, I had to heal Morgana afterward, and there was more to do than I'd expected."
Grimes pursed her lips as she examined the girl again. "Yes, I think we'd better go through everything."
Even with the notes, she'd brought, it took a while to explain what Morgana had gone through and the lasting effects it would have on her. Finally, the explanations ground to a halt, and Grimes pocketed the pad. "I'll take this over to Doyle, I'm sure Ophelia will find it useful."
Thulia looked a little uncomfortable. "Ms. Grimes? I realise you want me to go now as we agreed, there's nothing more I can do for Morgana for a while."
Mrs. Horton gave the girl a considering look. "What is it you want, dear?"
Thulia blushed slightly. "Would it be possible to stay with Morgana, just till she wakes up? I mean, I know she's OK, but..." she ground to a halt, not really willing to go further.
Mrs. Horton exchanged glances with Grimes, then made her own decision. "I don't see why not. Just until she wakes up, then a few words with her. Then your promise to us to leave. Will that be all right, Elyzia?"
Grimes gave a small smile. "In view of what Thulia has done, I don't see why not. We have your oath to leave after, and not try to harm anyone here in any way?"
Thulia nodded. "Of course! I just want to know she's all right."
Mrs. Horton chuckled as she stood. "Come with me, I'll take you to Doyle and show you where you can wait."
Monday 17th October, evening, Doyle Medical Centre.
I woke up to find myself in bed. And yet again with a gently beeping device next to me. At least this time I didn't seem to have a drip in me, just some sensors taped to my hand and fingers. But this sort of waking up was not something I wanted to get used to.
I turned to see Ceri sitting on a chair next to me. I was about to respond when she put a finger to her lips. I must have looked confused, as she smiled and gestured to a second chair in the corner of the room, where Thulia was huddled up. Obviously asleep, I had to smile. Looking at her you wouldn't think she was anything but a cute teenage girl. So I turned back to Ceri, keeping my voice to a whisper.
"Well, Thulia and Caitlin brought you back a while ago. You were unconscious, but Thulia said it was normal, that you were just exhausted and needed to rest. But Dr. Tennant insisted on putting you here and monitoring you, just in case." She gave a broad smile. "But the good news is Thulia said it all worked, you're free of the parasite now, it's all gone."
Wow. I let my head fall back onto the pillow as I took that all in. While I had trusted Thulia could do what she'd said, and help me get rid of it, there had always been that little voice in the back of my head saying 'but what if she can't', and knowing that if it was right then I was dead. Knowing that wasn't going to happen now was a big thing. Ceri kept quiet - my face must have been giving away what I was feeling, and my big sister had always been good at reading me. She just kept a comforting hand on my shoulder. Finally, I opened my eyes again, turning my head to look at Thulia. The movement did hurt a bit. Frankly, I felt like I'd just been run over by a bus, or maybe a whole line of busses, but given the alternatives, I'd take that as a definite win.
"How is she?"
Ceri chuckled, "Fine, she's just tired out as well. Apparently, after you'd finished, she had to do a lot of healing on you to fix the damage that thing did. But she asked Grimes if she could wait until you woke up, so she knew you'd be OK."
I smiled. "Yeah. Grimes is like that, she's only fierce when she has a reason, I think."
Cery stood up. "I'm going to wake her up. Then you can talk for a little while. I promised the doc I'd call when you woke, and Thulia really isn't supposed to be here, so she'll have to go home then."
I nodded and sat up as my sister walked over to Thulia and shook her gently. "Thulia?"
Thulia woke up with a start, looking around for a second as if she didn't recognise where she was, before relaxing. "Oh! I'm sorry, you startled me."
Ceri grinned. "Morgana is awake. I thought you'd like to talk for a few minutes while I get myself a coffee."
Thulia gave my sister a wide smile as she got to her feet, walking slowly over to me as Ceri left the room, managing to wink at me as she left.
"Morgana? How are you feeling?"
I looked at her. "Like I just had a fight with a demon." Then I reached out and grabbed her, pulling her close. "And feeling like I REALLY need a hug from you!"
She slid into my arms with a shy smile. "I didn't expect it to be quite so rough on you, I'm sorry."
I broke off her explanations with a kiss. A long one. When we finally broke apart a little, I put my finger to her lips. "Stop apologising. You saved my life - again - and it's all over now." I gave her a slightly questioning look. "It is all over, right?"
She smiled. "Oh yes. The demon is gone, you're free of it now. I didn't quite manage to heal you completely after, but you will heal the rest yourself over the next few weeks. You're going to be fine!"
I closed my eyes as I held her hands. I'd needed to hear that from her, I still couldn't quite believe it after all the demon had put me through. "I still have a ton of questions, you know. About everything that we did..."
She gave me an innocent look I didn't believe for a second, then sighed. "I'd love to, but I did promise to go home once you'd woken up and I saw you were fine."
"Oh? You can't bend the promise just a little?"
She shook her head. "I really shouldn't. If I want to keep visiting you, I need to show Grimes that my word is good and that I don't keep trying to weasel out of it." My face must have shown my disappointment, as she leaned forward and kissed me gently. "Don't worry, we'll have plenty of time now."
While intellectually I knew she was right, I didn't want her to leave. But the door opening for Ceri and Dr. Tennant made me unwilling to go on in front of people. So I gave her hand a squeeze and nodded. "I'll contact you again as soon as they'll let me." I turned to Dr. Tennant, who for once had a smile on her face as she looked at me - over the recent past, I'd got to see far more looks of worry. That was probably a good sign too.
"Now, Thulia, it's probably time for you to leave. I want to check out Morgana some more - I know she seems OK, but we can't just take that for granted." She chuckled again at the look on my face. "It's OK, no major tests, and if everything is fine you can go back to your dorm tomorrow morning. Thulia gave us notes on how to look after you while you finish up healing, and if we need anything else I'm sure you can ask her."
Thulia made a small gesture to the Doctor - I assumed some sort of ritual thing, it wasn't magic. "Thank you, Doctor. I'm sure you will manage everything." She gave me a quick glance before finishing off. "Better you than, me, she was a terrible patient when I was looking after her!"
"HEY! I was not....!"