The Curse of the Dragon Queen
A 2nd Generation Whateley Academy Story
The Curse of the Dragon Queen
by Bek D Corbin
June 06, 2016
The problem with going to a top-flight school like Westchester Montessori is that when you get into the Middle School years, they really believe in piling on the homework. Okay, I understand and appreciate their position on keeping parents involved with the kid’s progress and all that, but come ON! Finals are over, it’s the last week of school, and this my last year! Next year, I’m transferring over to the Trinity School in Manhattan! What is the point of an essay on the impact of the Iraqi insurgency on Chinese economic policy?
Jake, Mike, Nick and Matt were all grumping about their assignments as well, but we knew what we had to do. According to the Montessori brochures, that would be rushing home and eagerly doing those homework assignments on the kitchen table with parents and sibs gathered around, joyfully sharing the learning process.
We were all up for what really matters: a quick pickup game of B-Ball. Hey, Basketball: it’s not just for Inner City kids anymore.
We were walking down the sidewalk to the courts, nattering away about Lebron’s chances this year, when I spotted the first one. And you know how it is: when you see one guy ‘inconspicuously’ watching you, you see another and then another, and then you see the first guy again, and you start figuring out patterns of overlapping surveillance, and getting an idea of their teams. They were operating in teams of three in bounding relays, the team on duty on foot, and the relocating teams in different makes of cars. Given that they were pulling this crap in White Plains tells me that these guys are not Cops or Feds; in White Plains, they’d bend over backwards until they were standing on their own heads to keep to the exact letter of accepted procedure. If they wanted me for something, they’d have had them call me to the Principal’s office back at Montessori. If they were keeping me under surveillance, they’d do it from at least three times the distance, with a third of the people. They have budgets to worry about.
These aren’t the cops. That isn’t a big relief. I don’t worry about the cops anymore. The problem is that the guys who usually, well, not worry, but concern me, are a lot slicker than this. I mean, I spotted the first guy half a block away from the school. That means that these guys aren’t anyone that I know about. And considering the kinds of people that my father and my mother deal with, in very differing ways, that really worries me.
I made a production of taking my Montessori blazer off, and hit my panic button. Dad would be alerted, and White Plains PD would be notified, and various measures were brought to bear. By the time we got to the basketball courts, my ‘smartphone’ gave two sharp silent buzzes, a long gentler buzz, and then another two sharp buzzes. The randomizer on the remote transit portals home had been disengaged, and all the portals in this area were valid. If- no, when it got nasty, I could head to the nearest transit portal and be home. I won’t be able to use that portal for a while, but hey, Summer Vaycay is right around the corner and I’m not coming back, so who cares?
Okay, if these guys are as clumsy as I’m making out, they’ll wait until I’m busy playing ball, and then use that opening to reposition themselves as to cut off the logical points of exit from the courts. They’re assuming that I’ll try to keep any departure as quiet as possible, and go for the ‘where’d AJ go? Dunno,’ exit.
As always, spot the assumptions and exploit them for everythingyou can.
I matter-of-factly downloaded all my homework crap onto a thumb drive from my tablet, and left my tablet in my blazer pocket. Hey, tablets are easy to replace, but Dad is very big on taking care of homework. I waited for my turn in the game and set Nick up to make a truly epic slam-dunk. On the off-chance that any of these guys were watching the ball, figuring that the game was the key to our actions, I waited until Nick went for his big splashy slam-dunk, and sprinted for the chain link fence. That section was the sort of measure that parks in places like White Plains make in order to avoid charges of Negligence; it was just tall enough to be considered a reasonable measure, and not an inch more. I clambered over itand hit the ground running at a gallop.
Okay, these people know who I am; therefore it’s reasonable to assume that they know who Dad is, and they know about the transit portals that he’s got set up throughout the Five Boroughs, oh, and out here in Westchester, too. So, they’d probably have a man, if not a team, stationed at the nearest transit portal in case I got past their grab teams. Of course, I couldn’t be 100% sure that they know precisely which one is the one that I’d pick, so they’d have guys on the two closest; so I headed for the third closest, paranoia being a good policy in situations like this.
And when I got there, it’d been voided.
Okay, these guys are slicker than I thought.
Okay, let’s assume that most of the nearby portals, all seven of them, have been voided so that I’d run myself ragged trying to get to one that hadn’t. But there are five more portals in Westchester. There’s one that’s a good quarter mile from here, but that’s as the crow flies, and I’m not a crow. There’s another one that’s further, but along a straight line.
Then two separate teams of three spotted me at the same time.
I’m going as the crow flies. I’ll set off every burglar alarm, territorial dog and panicky housekeeper in White Plains, but under the circumstances, that’s a GOOD thing.
I went over a back fence into a yard, through the house yelling at the top of my lungs, out the front, across the street, over another fence into another yard, over the back fence, repeat. From the noises behind me, those two capture teams were doing their level best to get past the chaos and confusion that I’d left in my wake. White Plains PD was going to be very busy soon.
I repeated that maneuver, but just barely managed to avoid getting hit by a car in the middle of the street, which slowed me down long enough for one of their cars to spot me. Spotting the oak that was the post for the transit portal, I kicked it up to a flat-out sprint, had my transit key talisman out in my hand and managed to touch it to the bole of the oak just as the capture team was about to nab me.
I passed through the dragon line, and arrived-
-somewhere that was NOT the transit nexus in Dad’s townhouse in Brooklyn Heights.
The room was circular, roughly 20 feet or so, and decorated in cool, yet not frosty colors of powder blue, with a compass rose radiating out from the center, where I stood. But the room was dominated by the tall, majestic statuesque woman standing there, flanked by two men in armor. The woman was dressed in dark red bodysuit with a serious keyhole that clung to her like spandex, though I knew that it had an armor protection rating that was higher than Kevlar, with mid-thigh high black boots with stiletto heels, dark purple lacy opera gloves with elaborate bronze ‘cuffs’ with inset ‘rubies’ , a dark purple lace sash around her waist that was cinched by a large ‘ruby’, a long flowing dark purple cape with a high collar what was fastened by an even larger ‘ruby’, and she carried a tall rather sinister black staff with a huge ‘ruby’ encased at the tip. Long flowing midnight black hair flowed down from the ruby-tipped crown worked into the gold mask that partially concealed her face and eerie gray eyes glittered from the eye holes of the mask. She cocked a pose and proclaimed, “At last, I HAVE you!”
“MMMAAAAWWWMM!” I hollered. “What IS this? I’m not supposed to visit until Summer Vacation starts!”
“What? Can’t a mother see her little boy?”
“Look… we all agreed on protocols and… hey, what’s with the supervillain outfit? And the armed guards?”
“Well…” Mom said hesitantly, “to be honest, I couldn’t be 100% sure who’d pop out of that transit nexus, and I knew that you’d alert your father the second that you saw my men, so I had to be sure.” With that, she opened her arms for a hug.
Well, what do you want? She may be the Witch Queen, mutant sorceress and supervillain, but she’s still my mother. I walked over and gave her a big hug. “Hey, how did you manage to subvert Dad’s transit system anyway?” Hey, he will want to know. She may be my mother, but she’s still a dangerous wanted felon.
“Oh, not to worry, sweetie,” she assured me with a kiss on the cheek. “I haven’t broken your father’s security. I just overlaid a transit lock over that gateway, and keyed it to work before your father’s gate kicked in. The real hard part was finding all of your father’s gate points. The White Plains coven had a real time finding and scotching all of them.”
“You have a coven in White Plains? Isn’t White Plains a little… upscale… for you?”
“Oh, since you left to live with your father, I’ve completely re-thought and re-structured my business model!” she gushed.
“MOM,” I groaned, “No matter how much spin you put on it, your Witch Cult thing is basically a Pyramid Scheme. You recruit desperate suburban housewives, you dazzle them with your magical ability, and you invest a fragment of that Witchfire in them. Then you tell them that they can work magic. BUT, it still takes YEARS to learn to work magic safely, and while they’re working their fingers to the bone to learn how to do magic safely, you’re collecting your ‘dividend’ from them, and socking it to them for ‘dues’. They’re the ones who do the real dog work in that ‘Magical Protection’ racket of yours. They do all the work, and you reap all the benefits! You get money, magical power and you can pretty much tell them to do anything you want; what do they get out of it? The shabby pretense of being… ooohhh… witches…It’s a shuck, Mom, and a shabby, pathetic shuck at that!”
“I know,” Mom smirked, “That’s why I changed it!”’
“Mom,” I growled, “It doesn’t matter how much you finagle it, you’ll always run into the TANSTAAFL rule. The one thing that Magic and Engineering will always agree on is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch!”
“True,” Mom purred, “but just because there’s no such thing as a free lunch doesn’t mean that you can’t figure out how to make the food you’ve got a lot more appealing.”
“You’re playing word games, Mom.”
“No, no! Not word games!” she insisted, “Now, I’m providing them with Value!”
“Providing them with value’,” I drawled suspiciously. “That sounds good. So, exactly HOW do you ‘provide them with value’?”’
“Bear with me.” By this time, we’d exited that very blue room, walked through a hallway, then through an exterior office with a small crew of busy women, and into a good-sized rather luxurious private office. Mom sat down behind the impressive desk and continued. “It was a couple of years after you left me to live with your father. I was going through a bad patch, where several of my operations had hit brick walls wearing capes and tights, I’d lost a bunch of operating capital, my credit was wearing thin, and my Witch Cult was fraying at the edges. We were running into that stupid ‘TANSTAAFL’ law right and left, and I was losing members pretty regularly. I even had an entire coven walk out on me. Anyway, I was thrashing around, looking for something, anything to distract the rank and file with, to buy some time while I figured out how to dig myself out of the hole I was in. Out of pure desperation, I picked up and looked through one of those cheapo paperback ‘Secrets of Witchcraft Revealed’ books.
“It was complete crap, of course, the guy who wrote it just copied down stuff from some old bogus ‘powwow doctor’ book from way back when, which was just as bullshit then as it was now. I remember, I was asking myself what sort of yutz would buy this bunch of swill, when it struck me: my Rank and File would. The women that I’d recruited were, like you said, bored and desperate suburban housewives and middle-class businesswomen; they didn’t want to raise demons or enslave their neighbors or any of the crap that I was having them do. And I was only doing that because, well, that’s what you DO with a witch cult, right? But they didn’t want any of that! They wanted pretty much what that old powwow doctor was selling: how to use magic to get stuff that they wanted. Nice, simple magic to cure ailments, catch thieves, avoid the attention of nasty neighbors, win in court, and stuff like that. I thought about just shilling that crap to the Rank and File, right out of the book, but when I cast an Augury for it, the Oracle said, ‘Idea needs work’. So I thought about it a little, and it occurred to me that those musty old spells didn’t really relate that well to modern problems. So, I bought a bunch of Women’s magazines.
“GOD, did I hit the mother lode! Every issue was selling solutions to various problems! Can’t get ahead at work? Try this! You can’t relate to your kids? Try that! Can’t stand your In-laws? Try something else! And of course, those two perennials: how to get laid, and how to lose weight! I killed an entire weekend, throwing together a whole bunch of minor spells for this and that, but- and this one I’m really proud of- I started off with a spell to help the caster get rid of emotional baggage.”
“And they bought this?” I asked incredulously.
“Are you kidding? They went NUTS!” Mom insisted. “They LOVED it! One member told me that that 10 minute ritual did her more good than 10 years of psychotherapy!”
“Really! But then, I’ve always considered psychotherapy as a scam, anyway. But after that, I was on a ROLL! Spells to get ahead at work, spells to help your kids at school, spells to figure out who’s lying to you or cheating you, spells to know who your enemies really are, spells to know what your enemies are planning, spells to find stolen things- one member used that, and found over two million dollars that her boss had been embezzling from their firm!”
“She got a reward for returning the money?”
“What return? We’re talking two million dollars that was stolen from a multinational corporation that doesn’t give a shit about its employees, and everyone knows it! She invested the money in the businesses of four other members of her coven, and they’re doing great! One member in Scarsdale says that my ‘Location, location, location’ spell has completely turned her business around. Now she’s got three stores, and she’s getting kudos for ‘innovative use of unconventional spaces’! I’ve got spells for knowing what the general public will buy, how the local markets will react, for bonding with your kids, for finding a no-strings fling, for finding a steady back-door lover, for creating a distinctive new look that really works for you, for knowing your boss’ deepest fears and most sensitive secrets, for knowing the perfect time to strike; hell, I’ve got one member in Albany who’s mopping up the place with my ‘Win in Court’ spell.”
“And how are you- or should I say they dealing with the Balance issue?” I asked archly. The Law of Balance, that ‘TANSTAAFL’ rule, says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, just like Newton’s Second Law. Or, as they put in the mystical biz, ‘For every boon there is a price’.
Mom smirked back at me. “Good for you, Lex. I see that your father has been teaching you things beside Truth, Justice and the American Way. What Truth and Justice have to do with the American Way, I’ll never know. No, the Law of Balance only kicks in when a working imposes change on the external world. The beauty of the spells that I’ve been selling my membership is that they don’t influence the outer world; they simply change the caster’s way of seeing the world. Nine times out of ten, they already know the answer to whatever they need; the spell just frames what they already know in a way that they can use. There’s no exertion of magic, so there’s no boomerang.”
“So, you’re like the Oprah Winfrey of black magic?”
“Hey, do NOT dis Oprah to me, young man!” she snapped. “That woman is a GENIUS! My operations have been booming since I started studying her business models! When I stopped thinking of my membership as ‘the suckers’ and started thinking of them as ‘My Girls’, things just clicked!”
“But you still keep them in a sublimated state of terror, right?” I pointed out.
“Well, of course!” she breezed. “I’ve read my Machiavelli! ‘It is best to be both feared and loved. But it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both’. But I am loved and appreciated, while the membership is also very aware that I can be deadly when provoked, and best of all, I’m necessary.”
“Necessary? You mean, they think that if they get rid of you, their magical power will disappear?”
“No, I’m leaving that wrinkle under wraps, just in case I need it in an emergency. Never let anyone know that you’ve got a gun in your desk drawer, son. I’m necessary, in that I’ve used the fact that my covens are all groups of women in the same area. I’ve formed them in to investment groups that buck up each other’s businesses and so forth, and I prime the pump of these groups with funds from my supervillain ventures, and from select investors.”
“Investors?” I asked suspiciously, “And exactly WHO are these ‘select investors’?”
“Oh, small businessmen from the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia region, who don’t mind a meager return on their investment, as long as it’s a regular and reliable return.”
“In other words, you’re using these ‘investment groups’ to launder money for Organized Crime.” Wow, from Martha Stewart to Don Corleone in 60 seconds flat.
“You say ‘money laundering’; I say… ‘economic stimulus’.”
“Isn’t your membership a little worried that these guys might decide that they own a big chunk of the Girls’ businesses?”
“That’s sort of the point here, sweetheart,” Mom said with a smug little grin. “Most made guys are a little superstitious; they really don’t like the idea of messing with the Witch Queen. And the last Wise Guy who messed with any of my covens woke up with a copperhead the size of a boa constrictor in his bed. He repaid every penny, apologized to the girls personally, and hasn’t set foot in Yaphank since. The Wise Guys know that I can and will hand them their balls if they try anything. And My Girls know that I’m the only thing keeping those Wise Guys from trying anything. They also know that if anyone says anything to any of the Authorities, the odds are that all that money and property will get RICO’d, so they keep a very close watch on each other. So, I’m loved, feared, respected, and best of all, necessary.”
“So, maybe you’ll be thinking about going straight?” I asked, daring to hope.
“I’ve thought about it,” she said. “I did an augury for it, and the oracle said, ‘you’ve had better ideas’. I thought it over, and I came to the conclusion that while it’s tempting, I’d probably go nuts if I tried to go straight. Lex, the simple fact of it is that I love being an outlaw. I love not playing by Society’s rules. I love calling my own shots. I love gambling for high stakes. I love getting away with it. Hell, I even love those by-the-skin-of-my-nose escapes from near total defeat. LEX, sweetie, I’ve seen how straights live. There’s a reason why that show was called ‘Desperate Housewives’! Most suburbanites really do live lives of quiet desperation! If I had to live like that, with all the compromise and frustration and banality and bullshit, I’d go totally APESHIT!
“Lex, when I meet with my membership in person, you know what I see in their eyes? Envy. And they don’t envy me the money, or the magic, or the killer bod. Well, not that much anyway. What they really envy is my freedom. I live the kind of life that they dream about. But they know that they’re schnooks, that they don’t have the nards to do what I do, and hooking up with one of my covens is the closest that they’ll ever really get to being as free as I am. Hell, they joined up just because I AM the Witch Queen!” She paused and considered. “You know, I think that if I turned around and became just another schnook, they’d rise up in revolt!”
She waved that aside and said, “But let me tell you about my masterstroke!” I shuddered. You’ve got to be a supervillain kid to really appreciate the horror we feel when we hear our parents talking about ‘masterpieces’ and ‘magnum opuses’. “Do you remember about the Aryan Exaltation?” Her familiar, the almost obligatory black cat, jumped up into her lap and she started to pet it in the required ‘Master Villain expounding his scheme’ manner.
“I’ll take that as a ‘No’. Do you remember Wulfin the Purifier? That big overblown comic opera Nazi bitch who tried to steal the Gorias Stone?” I drew a blank. “Okay, do you remember when you were little, and you snuck into Dr. Diabolik’s townhouse in Manhattan, and tried to steal this big honking purple gemstone, because you thought he’d stolen it from me, and you bopped all over New York, trying to get away from everyone who was trying to get that rock away from you?”
“Oh, right, right,” I grimaced. Hey, I was SIX! Do you remember what you did in Kindergarten? “Oh, right, the Purifier… Are you talking about that freaky ‘exaltation’ force that she used on her goons?”
“Yeah, but it’s not a ‘Force’,” Mom corrected me. “I know, it’s nitpicking, but you’ve got to be careful when you talk about these things. A Force doesn’t need an external power source; don’t ask me how the damn things work, nobody knows. The Purifier’s Aryan Exaltation feeds on excess life force, which just means that her thugs have to eat about 15% to 20% more, but given the way that Americans treat food, that’s not a big problem.”
“That’s right…” I remembered, “You finessed the Purifier into trying to suborn you with her ‘Aryan energy’, like she had with those ‘Cadet Crusader’ dorks, but you just absorbed it and took it over, right?”
“I had a containment device ready,” she admitted. “There was no way that I was fool enough to mix my Witchfire with her juice under uncontrolled conditions.”
“Still, you kicked some serious ass that day,” I remembered fondly. “Once Jadis Diabolik spelled out how the Purifier’s power network ran, you drained a couple of her captains of their energy, and ripped out a big chunk of Wulfin’s own energy.” Okay, that might require a little explanation. Mom is a magical mutant, but unlike most Wizard-type mutants, who just have a turbo-charged version of the trait that baseline wizards use to draw on ambient magical energies (at least that’s what Mom tells me), Mom has an ability to drain magical energy out ley lines, magical critters, magical items, and even other sorcerers, and add it to this sort of mass of magical energy which she calls her ‘witchfire’. Mom can draw on the Witchfire to cast spells and other various effects, and she ‘invests’ it in her Witchknights (those are her personal guard, the guys in the armor; basically, her enforcers), her Shadowknights (think ninjas), Witchmen (pretty garden variety henchmen, who work a ‘Men in Black’ vibe) and of course the witches in her covens. The thing is she gets ‘dividends’ of magic back for every investment she makes. The more the Witch-whatevers grow in their personal power, the more Mom makes in ‘dividends’. Wulfin the Purifier did more or less the same thing with her ‘Aryan Energy’ (or Exaltation, or whatever; gimme a break, it’s been nine years), only her goons became more generically superhuman, stronger, tougher, faster, and like all that.
“Well, what was I supposed to do? She was threatening my little boy!” Mom went all gooey with the thought of my toddler years. Then her face went hard. “Mind you, I still wanted to strangle you, after you had me chasing you all over New York, with half the super-powered community trying to catch you!” No kidding. I may not remember all the details of that day, but I sure as hell remember the paddling she gave me afterwards!
“Anyway,” she got back on the track, “I wasn’t fool enough to try and meld that fragment of the Purifier’s Aryan Exaltation with my Witchfire. Hell, stabilizing that fragment was a major feat all it itself! And getting-” she waved that aside as well, “after a LOT of testing- and accidents- I figured out that I couldn’t merge the two fo-er, fields, I figured out that I could synchronize the two fields, so they fed on and amplified each other, sort of Yin-Yang like. Both fields are stronger- not a lot stronger, but stronger- and more stable.”
“Okay, and what do you get out of it?”
With a smirk, Mom held up one hand and lifted her desk with the other. And Mom’s desk wasn’t some flimsy, cheapo, maybe 90 lbs. if that thing from IKEA made of particleboard. No, it was a good, well-constructed massive thing of dark oak, and it weighed 400 pounds if it weighed an ounce. “I can lift three tons, I’m commensurately tough, and while I’m not Wolverine, I have a definite healing factor going on. No more ‘squishy mage’ for me!”
“And you also upgraded your Witchknights and ninjas,” I said. “Okay, that’s a definite step up on your kickass profile. But that hardly qualifies as a master stroke.”
“Not just my Witchknights or even Shadowknights,” she said smugly. “My Rank and File membership.”
“WHAT?” I yelped, “You gave a bunch of undisciplined, unpredictable suburban hausfraus super-strength?”
“Relax… relax…” she chided me. “Why would I do that? Remember, these women don’t really want that kind of stuff. Superstrength is mostly a guy thing anyway. What they really want are solutions to their day-to-day problems, magical tricks that cut through all the mundane bullshit. What I did was I pared down the charge to just a spark of the Aryan Exaltation, which synched with the Witchfire already in them. Yes, it made them stronger, but only in keeping with their physiques. What really hit them was a boost to their metabolisms.”
“Their… metabolisms…?” I asked with a touch of dread.
“NO, I didn’t turbo-charge their metabolisms, so they’ll burn out in a few months,” Mom growled at me. “YES, I made sure of it. I killed a lot of dogs to be sure, but I made sure of it.” The cat shuddered at the memory. A cat is repulsed by the memory of what happened to a bunch of dogs. Be afraid, be very afraid. “Oh well, they were all on death row at the pound, anyway. But I found a regulator, and the Aryan Exaltation simply bolsters their metabolism, so they’re healthier and their overall physical wellbeing increases. Well, the fact that when I introduced the Aryan Exaltation, I also induced a posthypnotic suggestion that they actually enjoyed Yoga, swimming, jogging and going to the Gym helps, too. But now they sleep more soundly, they recover more completely when they sleep, they digest more efficiently, they void their wastes more effectively, they heal better, they resist toxins and disease better; they’re not just in better health, they’re able to improve their overall levels of health more easily and stably. Most of them have lost at least 30 pounds, lots of them are well on their way to gaining their ideal weight, and their overall body tone is better. And since they’re healthier, they have more energy and they’re more confident and motivated, and they’re able to apply that energy, confidence and motivation to improving their lives. Since health and confidence are sexy, their appearances are better, and their love lives are improving. Their libidos are up, and since they look better and are more confident, they can get laid more easily. They can achieve orgasm, even multiple orgasm, more easily and more profoundly, which means that they’re more content, which means that they’re easier to live with, which means that the rest of their private lives are better. AND, best of all… they owe it all… to the WITCH QUEEN.” Mom beamed a big smile at me and even the cat seemed to smirk.
I shot the smirk right back at her. “Okay, and what are YOU getting out of it?”
Mom’s grin went slightly feral. “Every time they have sex and orgasm, I get a jot of magical power from it, as though they’d performed a tantric sex ritual. It’s a byproduct of the act that would normally go to waste.”
“Even the multiple orgasms?”
“Especially the multiple orgasms.”
I blinked at her, totally croggled. “Okay Mom, I admit it: that’s a masterstroke. Good One!”
“I am ROLLING in it!” Mom exulted. “Money and magic! With the magic that I’ve got on tap, I’ve managed to enchant not only one but two backup power crowns, a backup power scepter and I’m working on a third, a backup altar, not one, not two, but THREE orbs of power- you can never have too many power batteries, dear- and I’m working on special armors and weapons for elite squads of my Witchknights and Shadowknights, and I’m working on my own transit nexus through the Tri-State area! WOO! And not only are my covens stable, safe and prospering, but the bitches who walked out on me earlier have heard about my improvements, and they’re begging me to get back IN! ha-HAH!
“I’ve got three really ambitious coven leaders who have been really growing in their personal power, so I’m making moves to create whole new covens in west Pennsylvania, eastern Virginia and Connecticut. I’ll install them as lesser witch-queens vassal to ME and let them handle the headaches of breaking in whole new regions. If it works, I’ll have even more power, those bitches will too busy running their own patches to give me headaches, and they’ll need me- oh, and my Witchmen, Shadowknights and Witchknights- to back them up if anyone gives them trouble. If it doesn’t work? Well, I’ll have fewer troublemakers to worry about, and their organizations won’t be directly connected to mine, so I’ll be able to cut them loose without too much problem. AND, best of all, I’ve got one coven leader who has a daughter who’s getting ready to pledge the Delta Rho Theta sorority!”
“Lex! Think about it! Sororities! Enclosed semi-secret organizations of Professional class and lower Upper-class girls who are away from their parents for the first time, and they’re game for just about ANYTHING! Most of them would probably be messing around with bullshit paperback book witchcraft anyway… and I can offer them the REAL THING! They’ll have spells to help them with their classes, for connecting with power cliques, for scoring with cute boys, for throwing killer parties, and for getting over killer hangovers! And Delta Rho Theta is a nation-wide sorority! Think about it, Lex! All I have to do is get that ONE GIRL into Delta Rho, have her start up a coven, and in ten years, I could have covens in Delta Rho houses NATION-WIDE! And then… covens of witches using their magic to get corner offices and partnerships and like all that ON WALL STREET!” Mom let out a pretty standard ‘supervillain laugh of anticipated triumph’.
I wondered who to be afraid for: Mom or Wall Street. Yeah, she’s got a plan, but let’s face it, Mom’s a pretty standard supervillain on the magical thinking front. It WILL blow up in her face somewhere. And for her sake, I hope that Mom is remembering the old supervillain rule about the secret exit, the packed bag and the loaded gun.
Well, I hated to trash her good vibe, but hey, I have homework to do! “So. Mom. Why did you bring me here?”
“Mom, this is all very well and good, but we have protocols that we agreed on, and you could have waited a week or so to tell me about all of this. So, why did you jump through all those hoops and put those poor rookie Witchmen through the wringer to get me here?”
Mom sighed and sobered down a bit. “Okay, okay, it hasn’t been all white wine and dark chocolate. I had a couple of covens go toxic on me, one coven leader got way too ambitious and I had to slap her down the hard way, there were a couple of bad reactions to the Aryan Exaltation and this one vampire decided that he really liked the taste of the Aryan Exaltation and started picking off my coven in Tenafly.”
“Vampire? What did you do?” She pointed at one of the shelves, where a human skull was set. Well, at least it seemed like a human skull… except for the long sharp canine fangs. There weren’t any eyes in the sockets, but there was an eerie sense that something was trapped in there. There was also a sigil of some sort painted on the skull’s brow. Oh well… I guess that you can’t call it murder… I mean, he was already dead…
“And then THIS pops up. Have you ever heard of the Dragon Queen?”
“The Dragon Queen?” I sneered, “You’re kidding, right?”
“I wish I was,” Mom sighed. She pointed a remote control at a wall and a HD monitor slid down. It lit up and displayed a figure out of a cheesy sword & sorcery movie, and I’m not talking about a muscle-bound barbarian in a wolfskin loincloth. It was a statuesque woman wearing a suit of green chainmail that might as well have been spandex for all it concealed a figure that compared well with Mom’s. She was working a mixture of ‘badass babe’ and ‘sexy witch’ with a red batwing cloak, several large red jewels, a black half-mask that included a pair of horns for that all-important ‘Malificent’ look, and a fall of flaming red hair. I had the fleeting thought that the only reason I hadn’t seen this chick’s pinup in one of my schoolmates’ locker was that Montessori checks on the lockers too often. “This is Mary Louise Dobbs, aka Melusine DesRais, Martine Dubois, Melody Levescue, and others, but mostly the Dragon Queen. She’s a very confusing mix of things; rumors include an Origin, some sort of weird splicing thing, being imbued by some kind of dragon spirit, and possession of (or by) some sort of talisman. Her big thing is energy manifestations that take the form of streaming dragons, but she’s picked up a lot of other magical skills, and she’s very good with illusions. As a matter of fact, that image you’re drooling at is an illusion. THIS-” she viciously snapped the remote and the image changed to the jarring image of a booking shot of a short, dumpy, potato-faced, mousy haired woman in her 40s or so, wearing orange scrubs and scowling into the camera “-is what she really looks like under that illusion. Which rather explains why she feels the need for those bad romance novel noms de guerre.
“The reason why you haven’t heard of her, other than her own lackluster track record, is she’s spent the better part of the last ten years in the Jug.” The ‘Jug’ being the Federal Ultra-Max paranormal prison in West Virginia, just spitting distance from Wheeling. “But last year, somehow one of her old gang, a guy called ‘The Warlock Knight’ managed to break himself and Dobby’s old squeeze, Lord Balefire, out of Thunder Mountain.” She switched between images of two guys in fancy overdone fantasy plate armor with blazing broadswords, to two more images of booking shots of two guys, about 20 to 25 years apart in age, and the younger guy really didn’t look like the sort who’d become a supervillain. “For some bizarre reason, despite the fact that Draggy was knocking boots with both of them- dear God, men really will boff anything!- they regrouped Draggy’s old organization as best they could and broke her out of the Jug.
“Since then, they’ve been knocking around the Boswash area, pulling jobs to build up a war chest, and pulling off some very weird jobs. I think that Draggy’s initiated a Great Quest to renew her power.”
“Ask your father. This is all very well and good, but the uncanny bitch set off her Great Quest in the middle of fucking NEW JERSEY which just happens to be part of MY TURF! Several of her shards fell in the sacred places of a few of my covens, which was very interesting for them for a while, but then Dobby and her knights of Spamalot came in and busted up the altars in Long Branch, New Brunswick and Morristown. When I sent my Witchknights and Shadowknights after them to drum home the message that you don’t DO that to My Girls, three of my guys came back on stretchers and two didn’t come back at all! I CAN NOT LET THAT STAND!” she snarled as she hammered the desk with her fist.
“And how many of their guys got hurt or killed?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter!” She pointed at her power crown. “AJ, I don’t take this crown very seriously. It’s just a shtick, an affectation. BUT I take it seriously enough when it comes to My Girls and My Guys. You do NOT come into my parlor and shit on my people like that! They deserve better!”
“Okay,” I said, glad that she was taking some responsibility for her people, but worried about how she was gonna do that, “aaannnddd… what are you gonna do?”
She reached into her desk, pulled out a thick folder. “What am I gonna do? I’m calling the COPS, that’s what! Or, since the Cops don’t handle this sort of thing, and I sure as hell can’t try to get the Magus to handle it, I’m handing it over to your father. This is why I brought you here. This is all the information on the Dragon Queen’s outfit, their MO and habits, and other pertinent intelligence that my organization has been able to piece together. I need you to give this to your father.”
“Sweetie, after over 20 years in the supervillain business, I’m just pulling myself up out of the C-list, and I’m finally making MONEY! The Dragon Queen is a flake, but she’s a powerful flake and a nasty flake! I’m not risking my guys to take her out, not when there’s a superhero who’ll do it for free!”
“Gee, that’s real noble of you, Mom.”
“Sweetie, it’s how your father would want it. Besides, that woman’s both an escaped Federal prisoner and a Clear and Present Danger to the General Public.”
“And you’re not?”
“I am a businesswoman and community leader, informing the authorities of a dangerous threat,” she said primly. “Oh, and that reminds me.” She reached into her desk again and slid over a silver bracelet in the shape of two intertwined dragons, with three large colored stones, red, blue and green, set into the pattern. “That’s not for you. Give it to your father. Tell him that we secured several of the shards from a few of our altars before Draggy could get to them. Don’t ask; he’ll know what I mean. Between that talisman, the information I’m giving you, his own efforts, and the Rules of the Quest, he should be able to find the Apex nexus that Draggy’s looking for and slap that bogus bimbo down HARD.”
“You’re still getting Dad to do your dirty work for you,” I pointed out.
“Sweetie, I don’t really care WHO does it,” she said with a gusty sigh. “The real point is that the Dragon Queen is dangerous to everyone, and someone has to do it. If your father thinks that the Magus should handle it instead of him, FINE, wonderful! It shows that he’s finally growing up a little. If not? Tell your father that I’d prefer to see the bitch in a coffin, but I’ll settle for just having her back in jail. But I’d consider it a personal favor if she spent a few days in a hospital jail ward before she got shipped back to the Jug.
“Oh, and AJ…” she gave me the dreaded ‘Stern Mom’ glare that stung even through her mask. “Don’t take this as an excuse to go playing Jonny Quest. This is the extent of your involvement in this affair. I do NOT want you tagging along with your father on this. I’ve been very patient, and my Summer Vacation time with you is coming up. I want you fit and healthy for our stay in Karedonia.”
With that she cleaned up her expression and was June Cleaver in a supervillain costume again. “So! While you’re here… how’re your classes going?”
My dad has been described as ‘Lex Luthor, if he’d decided to become Batman instead of Bruce Wayne, and gone with magic instead of tech’. Mostly by his sidekick, Pixie, who has that kind of sense of humor. And his operations base under the townhouse in Brooklyn Heights does have a distinct ‘batcave’ vibe. And I could definitely see where she was coming from. The gleam off his bald head, that penetrating stare, that sense that he knew more than you did, and he was using it better than you were, combined with that no-nonsense laser intensity… especially when it’s pointed at YOU. Or, far worse, at me. “And exactly HOW did this happen?”
“C’mon, Dad!” I whined. “It was an accident! I was at the transit nexus, and that stupid FILE thing started to slip! I was juggling the damn thing, trying to keep loose pages from getting out- and what’s with the hard text dossier that could choke a hippopotamus, anyway? Why didn’t she just put it on a thumb drive, like normal people?”
“Do you honestly think that I’m putting anything that comes from the Witch Queen on MY database?”
Okay, I could see that. Dad hasn’t survived in the face of really horked-off dark mages this long by being Mr. Trusting Guy. “Anyway, it was slipping, and I needed both hands to keep it from getting all over the place, and I didn’t have my jacket, which I left at the B-Ball court and the bracelet didn’t fit in my pocket- so I just jammed it on my wrist so I could get a firm grip.”
Pixie sniffed at the bracelet on my wrist. The bracelet that Mom had given to me. The bracelet that Mom had very pointedly told me wasn’t for me. The bracelet that wouldn’t come off, no matter how hard I pulled. Pixie cracked, “Well, on the upside AJ, the stones just make your eyes POP!” Pixie seems to think that it’s her duty to defuse tense situations like this with off-the-wall humor. I think she took a class in it or something.
Dad grabbed the bracelet and slowly but firmly tried to pull it off my wrist. No go. He peered at the bracelet on my wrist through a talisman that looked suspiciously like a boutique monocle with a baroque frame and a triangle laid over the lens. “There’s a definite mystical connection between you and it. Did you do anything to this bracelet before you put it on?”
“Dad, I didn’t have time!”
He tucked the monocle talisman away in his utility vest, which for some mysterious reason has a carrying capacity that rivals Batman’s utility belt. And by ‘Batman’, I do mean the ‘where’s my Bat- Porpoise-Treat-Sardine receptacle?’ Batman. He gave me another of those ‘Pin you to the wall like a bug with his eyes’ looks. “How sincere do you think your mother was about this ‘Dragon Queen’? Is there any chance that you accidentally activated a trap designed for Pixie or myself?”
I thought about it for a moment. “I don’t think so, Dad. I mean, it’s kind of… slipshod? Scattershot? A lot of effort for a long shot? And Mom wouldn’t risk cheesing me off with a cheap shot like this. Dad, if she was gonna make a move against you, she wouldn’t involve me. And she’d do it in a way that wouldn’t be traced back to her in any way. And she’d do it after I’d gone to spend the summer with her, so I wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire, and I’d already be with her so-”
“Okay!” Dad cut me off. “Those are excellent reasons, good thinking, Son. But still, I had to consider it. Your mother is-”
“A dangerous wanted criminal,” I finished for him. “Yeah, I know.” Then a thought came to me. “Hey! Maybe my mutant trait finally kicked in, and I bonded with this bracelet thing by accident! Pixie! What color are my eyes?”
“They’re gray,” Pixie said, looking into my eyes. “But AJ- they were gray BEFORE.”
“Son, just because your mother is a mutant doesn’t mean that you’re a mutant as well,” Dad started on one of his favorite spiels. “Yes, the odds are much higher that you might have inherited one or more of her mutant traits, but you still have better odds of winning the lottery! And even if you are a mutant, that doesn’t mean-”
I cut Dad off before he segued into one of his other favorite rants, ‘Mutant powers don’t solve everything; training, planning, preparation and discipline do’, “What it means is that I’m stuck to this bracelet,” I held it up, “which Mom said would something something, the Rules of the Quest, something Apex Nexus. What are the Rules of the Quest?”
“A magical theory that’s making the rounds. I’ll explain it when- IF- you ever initiate into the Mysteries. Until then, you’re best left out of these things as much as possible, and from the looks of these dossiers, you’re safest if you don’t get involved with this from here on.”
“Ah, Dad?” I rapped a finger on the bracelet. “I’m involved. Mom said that this was the key to finding the Dragon Queen, and unless you’re gonna lop off my hand and reattach it, where this bracelet goes, I go.”
Dad gave out a deep martyred sigh and gave me a look that said that he heavily suspected that I’d planned this, in order to come along on what I thought was a rollicking adventure. Well, can’t blame him there. And who IS this ‘Jonny Quest’ guy they keep bringing up? Dad looked at Pixie and asked, “How much do you know about this ‘Dragon Queen’?”
Why would Pixie know anything about the Dragon Queen?
But apparently she does. “Well, not much, it’s been nine going on ten years since she’s come up as anything but a punch line in snarky joke. But the important things to know are that she’s a Batson Super-Sorcerer, she’s a flake, but she’s a nasty flake, and she’s got a big honking ruby that she uses as a power focus. She’s powerful, but she doesn’t follow the general rules that are used by non-Batson sorcerers. Or at the very least, she’s able to ignore a bunch of ‘em, as long as they bother someone else. Like I said, she’s a flake, but she’s a nasty flake. As long as she gets what she wants, she don’t care what happens to anyone else. And she has, or at least she HAD a big ruby that she used as a power focus. But it got broken when she went up against the Swordswoman and her sidekick, the Shieldmaiden, nine years ago, which is why they locked her up in the Jug, instead of the Prison Without a Name, with the real mystics.”
Dad snapped his fingers, and pulled out two of the dossier files. “According to the Witch Queen’s files, two of the men that helped her escape, Lord Balefire and the Warlock Knight, also had large gems that they used as power focuses, which were either taken from them or destroyed. But if they were able to escape from the Iron Mountain holding facility-”
“Then one of them has found a way to make a NEW power gem!” I jumped in. “Or at least something that passes for it well enough to break out of the stir! And this big working that the Dragon Queen is pulling must be her trying to make one for herself, only do it RIGHT!”
Dad gave me a withering ‘why are you involving yourself in this?’ glower.
I just shot back a ‘hey, I’m involved, no matter what, so what would it hurt?’ look. Then he looked like he was gonna start up the, ‘What can you tell me about your mother’s operations?’ thing again. I shot that down with the ‘we have an agreement: I don’t rat you out to her, and I don’t rat her out to you’ glare. Well, Dad wouldn’t respect me, if I just sat back and said ‘yessir, whatever you say, sir’. He’d be happier in the short run, but he wouldn’t respect me. It makes for some tense moments, but hey, that’s life.
Pixie broke that up, saying, “So, if Draggy-Ass is pulling a Great Quest, then she’s trying to re-create her power gem. But if she’s pulling a Great Quest, then there has to be a theme. You can’t just say ‘I’m off to find the big whatchamacallit!’ and go find it.”
“Well, Mom said that the Dragon Queen set off her ‘Great Quest’ in the middle of New Jersey, and that ‘shards’ ‘fell’ in various inconvenient places,” I pointed out. “If you can find out where the center point is, maybe you can figure out what the progression is.”
Dad gave me a reluctant nod, and pulled out some maps from Mom’s dossier, and compared that to some maps that he had. Then he grumped, “There’s no use for it. We’ll just have to do this the hard way.” And then we spent the next 15 minutes wrestling two of Dad’s special maps out of storage. The maps were 10’x10’, made of wood from New Jersey, and the undersides were studded with little boxes full of dirt and stuff from various locations in Jersey. Laying the very heavy but paradoxically delicate maps on the floor, Dad had me take off my shoes, and he did the same. Walking very, VERY carefully on the map, he led me to the center and started swinging a pendulum, using the bracelet on my wrist to guide his scrying.
“No good,” he sighed. “The scattering didn’t happen in the center mass of Jersey.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, looking down at the map. “Pix, what are the dates that Mom gives for the Long Branch, New Brunswick and Morristown raids?”
She rattled off three dates that were very close together.
“Are any of the sites we know of in the state’s central area?”
“eerrrr… Nope! Not as far as yer Mom knows, Squirt!”
“Dad, dig it: all the raids that we know about are on or near the edge of the state! It’s a CIRCLE!”
“No,” Dad mused, looking at the map carefully. “Not a Circle… an Ouroboros. A snake- or dragon- eating its own tail.” Levitating us off the map (I have no idea why he didn’t levitate us onto it in the first place), he walked to the side of the map representing the southernmost part of the state. He waved his pendulum over one part and got a reaction that you could see from across the room.
“The Pine Barrens?” I asked, totally underwhelmed. “What’s in the Pine Barrens? I mean, all they really got in the Pines is needles.” New Jersey gets kind of a bad rap. Yeah, it’s got its share of urban blight and all that, but there are also big chunks that are very nice; I mean, there’s a reason why they call it ‘the Garden State’. And despite being plunked squarely in the middle of the BosWash urban sprawl, at the southernmost part Jersey is quite rural, a low-lying pine forest that has a, well, kinda weird reputation.
Dad smirked superiorly and said, “AJ, the Pine Barrens have a strange history. The Lani Lape name for the area was ‘Popuessing’, which means ‘the Place of the Dragon’, and the Dutch called it ‘Kildrake’, which means ‘Dragon’s Stream’. And it happens to be the home of… the Jersey Devil.”
“The Jersey Devil is a dragon?”
Dad gave the pendulum in his hand a sour look. “I’d say that that it’s close enough to suit the Dragon Queen’s agenda.” He waved the pendulum over the part that had ‘sugar sand’ and evergreen needles from the Pine Barrens. “I’d say that she set the definition of her Quest to limit it to the state of New Jersey. She started in the Pine Barrens, where she could set up her initiating ritual without too much interference, and she circled the boundaries of the state. And to make the dragon eat its tail, she’ll return to the place where it all started…” he stabbed a finger onto the map at the Pine Barrens, “In the place of the dragon.” In case you hadn’t noticed it, both of my parents are huge drama majors.
Dad murmured something about making some preparations, and faded into the shadows. Well, he’s the Shadowmage, he does that. A lot.
But my conversation with Mom about her business reminded me of something that I’ve been meaning to ask Dad for a while. And since getting a straight answer out of Dad is like getting an honest story out of a panhandler, I went to someone who will give me a straight answer. Occasionally. “So, Jen,” I asked Pixie, “exactly where does Dad get his money? I mean, I’ve noticed that Dad isn’t Old Money enough to be doing the ‘Millionaire Playboy’ shtick, and he does the ‘Shadowmage’ thing pretty full-time, so… how does he afford all of this?”
Pixie smirked and answered, “Well, yer dad got his start in all this when his mother- yer gramma- got targeted by this uber-icky vampire named Lepra Netrebnic. Now, Netrebnic wasn’t one of these new-fangled ‘gee-I’m-so-pretty-I-sparkle’ vampires. Naw, he was an old-school, withered up old freak what really did look like he just crawled out of a grave, and targeted yer gramma because she had this piece of cursed jewelry- long story, don’t ask. Anyway, Netrebnic was such a freak that there was no way that he could just go into a bank and do business, and being a couple of hunnert years old, there was no way that modern banking wasn’t gonna notice that this big chunk of interest-heavy money was owned by the same individual. And in this Computer Age, finding new names that he could hide his money behind was getting harder and harder. So, he created this no-name numbered bank account down in the Bahamas or somewhere, and used that to handle his expenses. Yer Dad found out about this, figured out the details, and moved all the money into another account, shutting down Netrebnic’s cash flow, and really limiting some of his swifter moves. And after he staked Netrebnic, well, it wasn’t like that money belonged to anyone else, did it? Leastways, not anyone alive…”
“And Dad’s been living off that money ever since? MAN, that account must have been HUGE!” I mean, Brooklyn isn’t Manhattan as far as property values and living expenses- hey, what IS?- but Brooklyn Heights is not what you’d call a depressed neighborhood, no-how!
“Naaawwwt quite,” Pixie hedged. “Y’see Squirt, New York is right behind London and Paris on the lists of ‘places I must go and make someone’s life miserable’ that most Occult yahoos have. And most of them finding dragging around money just as annoying as Netrebnic did, for most of the same reasons. And since the 1980s, most of them have figured out that they can use their magic to make money by screwing with Big Business one way or another, and they can also gain a lot of protection that way too. So yer Dad has this whole nasty bag of tricks, magical and legal, for freezing accounts and generally messing with their money. It really trips the creeps up, and they’re so busy dealing with that that they don’t see the Shadowmage coming for them.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, seeing a problem, “if Dad is dipping into those mysterious numbered bank accounts, how does he deal with the Laws of Balance and Intent? If he’s targeting occultists who are financially successful, doesn’t that change his intent from Justice to Personal Profit?”
Pix shook her head with a smug smirk. “Nope! Y’see, HE only targets occultists who are being predatory. His main thing is saving people’s lives and keeping those black magic types from foisting all their bad karma down other people’s throats, and stuff like that there. The thing is, once he decides that, _I_ start shuffling our money around, based on how this guy or that going down will affect the market, selling short, and fancy moves like that. Your Dad has already made the decisions on who he’s gonna move against, and how he’s gonna do that, based entirely on the Greater Good. I just make our money moves based on those decisions.”
“And this works?”
“Squirt, if any creepizoid ever catches up with your dad, and you decide to take up the mantle of the Shadowmage to avenge him… you’ll inherit a TON of money to do it with.”
“Okay, but Jen?”
“What’s this bit about ‘Squirt’? I mean, I’m three inches taller than you!”
She floated up with her sparkles so she was looking down at me. “So? Yer still a Squirt!” And she gave me a peck on the forehead.
Why did I think that this was going to be cool? If I’d known that it was gonna be this boring, I never would have put that stupid bracelet on my wrist! We were just driving around this stupid pine forest. Technically, this was the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, but there were towns and private houses and farms and businesses and all that crap on it. Do not ask me, I didn’t come up with this shit. We were just driving around from one New Jersey strip town to another as Manny, the electronics guy, rattled on band usage, and like all that. Every so often, Dad would take one doodad or another out of his utility vest, wave it over that stupid bracelet, and make a note in a book. Then Manny, got very interested, and told us, “Something weird’s happening. See if you can spot a cell-phone router tower.”
As we entered the next half-assed excuse for a town, Ginger, the driver of our Hummer, said, “Cell phone router, just to our right.”
And as we exited that self-same half-assed excuse for a town ten minutes later, Jaroslav, the big Czech who basically acts as the ‘roughneck’ (as in he does the heavy lifting, works with tools, and like that, as well as being pretty damned good with his fists) for this crew, said, “And another one just on the edge of town. Why?”
“The other routers in the area were picking up the slack,” Manny answered. Manny is the last of the red-hot trekkies. And I’m not talking Enterprise, or Voyager, or DS9 or even the Next Generation; I’m talking ST: TOS. How big a nerd is he? He’s got a CGI poster of Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols, not Zoe Saldana) in a Gamesters of Triskelion silver lamé bikini having an ‘equipment failure’ as she fights a green-skinned Orion slave girl in another silver lamé bikini. Still, he is very good with Communications gear. But then, so is everyone else on this team. The only one here who can’t carry their own weight and two other people’s is, well, me. “There are two routers in that town, but ain’t no one talking. There’s some encrypted traffic, but nothing on any of the mainstream bands.”
“I noticed that that town was mighty empty,” Ginger drawled. “Nobody on the street, nobody in a car, no cars on the street, and the convenience store, the coffee shop, the diner and the bar were all dark. Not closed, just dark. And there wasn’t anyone in the booth at the gas station.”
“In a place as isolated as this, if you doing anything wrong,” Jaroslav opined, “you can do three things: you can lay low and hope no one spots you, you can pay off a few locals to cover for you, or you can take everyone prisoner while you do what you come to do.”
“And in a place this small-”
“Hobb’s Tree section of Hamilton Township,” I read off from the Wikipedia entry that I’d accessed (hey, if I’m useful, maybe they’ll let me come along on more of these trips! Hopefully one that’s actually cool…), “population 230, down 40 from the last census, main industries are Swine, Poultry and Raisin farming, and a chicken processing plant. No schools-”
“Hobb’s Tree…” Dad murmured, like something was clicking. “Ginger! Drive to position #14, and set up. Remember you’re-”
“We’re a US Geological Survey team, drilling a hole for a water quality survey,” Manny cut him off. “Our plates and ID are valid with the USGS, and any pro-forma inquiries will come back as valid.”
“Jaro and I will set up a drill,” Ginger took over, “But after a few feet, the drill will gum up.”
“Sugar sand is no good for the drill,” Jaro continued. “It gets into the bit and we have to stop and clear the bit every five minutes. Is very annoying, and clearing the bit is very finicky work and makes a half-hour job take hours.”
“Manny’s the senior geologist on this survey and will handle the rockhound spiel,” Pixie chimed in, “and I’m the cute perky little intern who’ll keep anyone from looking too close while Jaro and Ginge work on the bit.”
“And I’m a high school student who’s along for the ride, for extra credit,” I droned. “I’ll be kicking back and playing an Android game, bored out of my skull, for that extra little touch of credibility.”
Dad nodded, satisfied that his team of competent professionals (and me) knew what they were doing, and slid off into shadows at the first patch of darkness we hit. Like I said, he does that. A lot.
As the Shadowmage slid through the darkling passage between patches of darkness, he seethed that AJ had managed to insert himself into a mission. Even as he felt a surge of pride that the boy had managed to pull it off. Dammit, he just couldn’t make the boy understand how dangerous the Occult was. And not in the obvious ‘curses and demons and astral parasites and predators’ way. No, the real danger of the Occult was the way that it pushed everything else in your life aside; there was room only for the Occult, because if you tried to have anything else, the Occult, in one way or another would reach out and eat it- or you. If you turned your back on it for more than a second, it would ambush you. If you had anything- or anyone- it would take them. He had a son. A SON! But his son- as he had at his age- saw only the dark glamour of the Occult, and like most young people, saw danger as adventure. He didn’t understand how the Dark just kept coming, day after day, night after night, waiting for that one unguarded moment.
He’d have to do something. Later. Right at the moment, one of those forces of darkness had made a mistake. The ‘force of darkness’ in question was dressed as the common conception of a ninja. And even given the fact that they’d improved on the camouflage potential of kuroko, Japanese stage hand outfits with the adaptive quality of Nieblcamo™ didn’t help this clown blend into his position. The scout’s incompetence and impatience certainly supported Pixie’s take that the Dragon Queen was a flake. Only a flake would think that a ninja suit would make this incompetent an effective field agent.
The reason for the ‘ninja’s’ impatience soon became clear; his replacement arrived, and the ‘shinobi’ almost immediately disappeared behind a tree. He reappeared a few moments later, much relaxed and adjusting the fit of his pants. Then he set off in a suggestive direction with a trot that suggested that he had at least a nodding acquaintance with woodlore. The Shadowmage followed him, moving from one patch of darkness to another, easily done in the Pine Barrens. The ‘ninja’ made an over-elaborate approach to a dilapidated building that showed telltale signs of having been repaired and then disguised as decrepit again. Instead of obscuring his trail, all the fool did was make his objective unmistakable.
The Shadowmage didn’t wait for the ‘ninja’ to plow through the site’s security. Instead of going in after the ninja, which would have been playing to the Security’s strengths, he took advantage of the site’s slipshod construction and slipped through one of the weak points. Once past the third-rate monitor, he penetrated further into the disguised complex. As shoddy as the security here was, his SOP was to penetrate, and either neutralize or turn a lair’s security system to his advantage. He followed the poorly laid-out wiring to a small, barely larger than a broom closet, security room. Well, at least the main terminal was locked down. The Shadowmage quickly picked the lock on the board and-
-the entire floor of the cramped little room opened up, and he dropped a good thirty feet into a 40’x 40’, brightly lit room that was heavily warded. A panel opened up, and a man in bad Fantasy Comics red enameled plate armor with a definite Satanic theme, complete with a black cape pinned by a large square-cut emerald brooch, came in holding a large black bastard sword inscribed with very unsettling red runes in both hands in a very competent style. There was the sound of another panel scraping open, and the Shadowmage was aware of at least 3, more likely 5, possibly 7 men, also in plate armor from the sound of it, stepping into the room behind him.
And it occurred to the Shadowmage that maybe, just maybe, Pixie had done the Dragon Queen a disservice when she’d dismissed the villain as a flake.
Let’s take the situation as read, shall we? We’d just gone through the whole song-and-dance for a couple of county sheriff’s deputies. Pixie came over and asked me, “Andy, would you go get the three of us some Diet Cokes from the fridge?”
I did the sullen balky kid shuffle, but went into the Hummer. In keeping with his paranoid nature, Dad’s SOP was based on the notion that he’d have to assume that the people he was dealing with were at least competent, and that we’d have to deal with close hostile observation. He’d come up with some security protocols that, to be honest, I think he got from watching some old Cold War era spy movies. ‘Andy’ meant ‘get your father on the radio while we keep our watchers busy’. ‘Three’ was a threat evaluation on a scale of 1 to 5: a real threat, but not desperate. ‘Coke’ meant ‘get into the armored niche while we deal with this’ and ‘diet’ meant ‘keep an eye on what’s going on, and bug out if it gets too hairy’.
At least I’m pretty sure that’s what it means. ‘Coke’ could mean ‘fire up the Hummer’ and ‘diet’ could mean ‘be ready to put the pedal to the metal, and get us the fuck OUT of here’. I mean, Dad really tries to pack as much meaning into a single sentence as he possibly can.
So, I might as well split the difference. I hit the ‘quiet ready’ stage for the Hummer and opened up the ‘oh crap!’ pod, which had an exit hatch for the bottom of the car. I hit the ‘quiet buzz’ alert for Dad’s own phone-
-And quickly got the ‘I’m up to my ears, don’t try to come and save me’ ultra-response. Oh crap.
I looked out the window. Pixie and Manny were having a very loud, very animated discussion, well on its way to becoming a flat-out argument about Geology (which neither of them really gives a crap about). Ginger and Jaroslav were standing off to the side, awkwardly not looking at either of them, obviously not wanting to get dragged into a pointless confrontation. They were quietly checking the perimeter for approaching hostiles as Pix and Manny gave them a rationale and something that stealthy types would try to use as a cover for moving in.
Then Jaro stopped Pixie and Manny’s yammering and told them that the soil was just too loose for the drill in that spot, and they’d have to move the drill 20 yards northeast and start from scratch. I admit it, I locked on that one. I knew that it was a code for something, but I was drawing a blank. Then there were a couple of sharp thuds on the Hummer’s roof. With a glance, I saw a bunch of guys in Ninja camo with some sort of funky ‘dragon theme’ masks step out of the trees, and then there was a guy in bad fantasy black mixed plate-and-chain armor with a tattered blue cape fixed by a brooch with a HUGE brilliant cut blue gem. He had a glowing blue not-lightsaber out, and it looked like they had the crew well and truly flanked. I heard a sound of the car door being opened, so I ducked into the pod and hit my phone’s ‘autopilot evasive move’ ultra. The Hummer jolted forward a few feet, hitting… something… and from the sounds, shedding a few guys up top. It kept going until it hit a tree, at which point I hit the ‘ditch’ ultra and the pod dropped me out the bottom. Then the Hummer drove off on automatic, and it would perform several turns, swerves, stops and reverses that should confuse the hell out of things.
And me? My orders were to get the fuck out of there, and for once I was following orders.
I lit out through the pine trees at top speed, jumping over cricks and from fallen trees to rocks to confuse my trail. To be honest, I had no idea if anyone was trying to follow me, but if Dad was there, he’d tell me to assume that I had a trained, disciplined and committed tracker behind me just out of my hearing. One of the sucky things about having a raving paranoid for a father is the way that he’s right so often.
I felt myself start to get winded, so I shinnied up one of the pines, did the ‘ninja tree-jump’ a couple of times, and settled myself up in the branches of one of them to rest for a few. I was getting my breath back, when I heard someone stumbling through the bushes. I reduced my profile (as Dad would say), and kept quiet. After a few minutes, a girl about my age came running through. She paused, and I was able to get a reasonable look at her. She was definitely cute, if a little on the scrawny side, with long fine honey-blonde hair, a nice face, and a figure that had probably just made it through that ‘knees and elbows’ thing. She was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt over a t-shirt, and all of it had seen one washing too many. She stumbled, and cussed as she tied her sneakers, which had come undone and tripped her.
Now, I ask you, what red-blooded American guy with any prospects of heroism (let alone super-heroism) could pass that up? Lacking a Bat-line (or any kind of cool utility belt at all; The Dad is so unreasonable about that), I swung down to the lowest branch and dropped from there. She snapped to at the sound and she started to make a run for it, but I stopped her with, “Don’t! It’s cool!”
Okay, looking back, I can see how dorky that was. But hey, it worked.
She looked at me with big scared doe eyes and asked, “Who are you?”
Remembering my cover (which Dad had only drilled me on for two hours driving down from NYC), I said, “My name’s Matt. I was down here on some stupid last second field trip, so’s I could get out of Summer School. Then these weirdoes attacked the guys I was with, and I just got out in time. What the fuck is going ON here?”
“I dunno,” she said with this weird not-quite-foreign accent. I vaguely recall that Pineys are sort’a their own weird thing, with not mixing much with ‘outsiders’. “They came in a coupl’a weeks ago, and… Oh, screw that, I gotta get to Hobb’s Tree!”
“Ah, Hobb’s Tree is a little less’n a mile that way. I think…”
“Not the TOWN! The Tree!”
“The Tree?” I’d pulled out my smartphone and was about to turn it on to access the GPS, when I caught a look at her reflection in the plate. Or, rather, I didn’t get a look at her. The plate was nice and clean and reflective, but her ‘reflection’ was just this blur.
Awww… MAN! Not AGAIN!
Okay, I fell for this crap once… okay, TWICE… but give a kid a fucking break! ‘She’ shooed me in a direction, and as we passed through a patch of sunlight, I checked out ‘her’ shadow. Yeah-up, not only wasn’t ‘she’ a she, but he was bigger’n me, and had the horns for that dorky ‘dragon’ mask those ninja knockoffs were wearing. Another glamour, playing off my own expectations and shit. Oh, somebody’s gonna get it in the neck for this, and it ain’t gonna be ME this time.
Despite my egging ‘her’ on for a few details, the ninja kept it as sketchy and cryptic as possible. He guided me through the thick pine forest, until I could make out a dark patch that was particularly ominous. Even for the Pine Barrens. Okay, I know where he wants to take me, Dad’s gonna want to know that. But going there on this wiseass’ terms is just plain stupid.
The Pine Barrens is absolutely rotten with cricks. That’s part of that whole ‘aquifer’ thing, the reason that this region is a National Reserve, despite all the towns and farms and sech. As we were passing over yet another picturesque log bridge, I ‘slipped and started to fall’. The ninja grabbed my arm, which I reversed, and used the force of our fall to break his arm on the bank of the crick.
He gave a shriek of pain, which I stifled, and then silenced with the sap I found on his own utility harness. I gave him a second sap to be sure, and a third, ‘cause, well, he had it coming.
I dragged him into a clump of thick grass and stripped him of his harness and anything else he had on him. I used the handcuffs from his harness to bind his hands behind his back, and turned his hood into a gag.
Pixie didn’t pick up when I called her. That could mean a lot of things, but given the way I left them, it probably means that the fight has gone from Tactical to Strategic, and they’re hella busy. Okay, it’s been a while since Dad was ‘up to his ears’, which either meant that he’d resolved it or it was really nasty. Either way, there was no way that I was going in that patch without either Dad or Pixie. Or maybe the New Jersey National Guard. So I texted both of them, and set my cell to ‘transponder’, which would only run enough power to give a responding bleat if either of them made a call. But that meant more or less shutting my phone off. Which meant that the best I could do was find a place to hide, hang tough, and wait for Pix or Dad to come find me.
And, of course, that was just the absolute worst time to start thinking about the Jersey Devil. So, of course, that’s just what I thought about, that patch being just about the most perfect home for a devil that you could ask for. Well, besides an IRS office, anyway.
I admit it, I’d more or less psyched myself into jumping at damn near every noise, so my ears were sharper than a razor in the Great Pyramid. That’s the only way that I could have heard Dad coming. When Dad is in stealth mode, let alone shadow-walking, even freaking Daredevil would have a hard time hearing him. I damn near melted off the tree with relief. I was about to drop out of the tree and give him the 411, when I recalled that Dad would rag me out major if I did that, especially in a high-risk situation. So I gave him a buzz on the phone, and…
Nothing. He didn’t react. I checked the range feature, and it said that he was within walkie-talkie range, but not phone-to-phone text range. But he’s right over there…
I checked him in the reflection on the plate of my phone. It looked like him, all right. But they probably know that the Shadowmage is in the area, and how hard would it be to dummy up a black cloak and outfit that could fool someone from this range? I’ve never seen Dad walk stealthily in a forest terrain, let alone a pine bog, so I had no way of telling from the way that this guy was moving. He’s almost silent, and Dad’s got silent down pat; on the other hand, I know that the opposition has stealth agents, and they have experience in moving on this terrain. Dad would tell me to assume that this guy is bogus, and to take him out ASAP, and then search him for any clues. If it’s Dad, he’ll handle me no problem, and I’d rather take a bruise than one of Dad’s lectures any day.
Okay, gotta Dad-think this. Even if I survive this, there’ll probably be a quiz later.
Okay, the best way to handle this is to let the asshole think that he’s zoomed me, like I did with that cross-dressing ninja, and see WTF he wants. Get him into a vulnerable position and take him out. If at all possible, get information before I lower the boom. Come up on him from behind, so if he reacts to take me, then I know that it’s a simple grab. If he tries to zoom me, then they want me somewhere specific, probably inside that dark patch of trees. If they just want me in a bag in one piece, he’ll be all cryptic and try to get me inside the dark patch before he jumps me; if they want me for something in particular, he’ll start pitching me a spiel the second we’re in speaking range.
Okay, that’s as Dad as I can think without underwear that’s too tight.
I waited until he was focusing on the wrong direction, swung down to hang from the lowest branch of the tree, set myself and dropped, as quiet as a feather on velvet. Keeping myself as squarely in his blind area as I could, I moved up on him with the sap ready, and spotted a handy twig to ‘accidentally’ step on. Just as I was ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille, something black zipped out of the shadows and jumped the bogus ‘Shadowmage’. There was a furious battle that went too fast for me to follow, and suddenly one of the *ahem!* ‘Shadowmages’ was face-down on the (soggy) ground, and the other one was standing over him. Now my first reaction was that Dad would mop up the place with anyone trying to impersonate him. But how do I know that Dad won? I mean, I have no real idea how tough these people are…
Besides, Dad would ream me out major for assuming.
But then, as though he had already considered that point (a definite plus for him) the winner turned the loser over and removed his mask. The face under the mask was bruised to hell, but quite obviously not Dad. Which is just SO Dad. I started to say something, but Dad gave me the ‘shush’ gesture with a finger to his lips (under the mask, of course), and gestured me to follow him. We skulked through the underbrush and went into that spooky patch of trees through a side way. Okay, it’s one thing to just go in there the front way, but let’s face it, whatever’s going on here is probably in there, or at least the big giveaway is in there.
The (grove? copse? wood?) whatever was just as dark and creepy as I’d dreaded, and I worked overtime coming up with ideas as to why Dad didn’t just shadow-walk us in there. Then we broke through what appeared to be a ring of trees, with a clearing in the middle where there grew- definitely in the past tense- a large gnarled tree- don’t ask me what kind- and if that thing wasn’t haunted, then there is something seriously wrong with the world. “Hobb’s Tree,” I said, the factoid coming to me that ‘Hob’ is an old English euphemism for the Devil.
Dad nodded and gestured me over to the spooky-ass tree. We climbed the trunk of the tree until we got to this one decayed-ass looking cavity. Dad pointed, first at the bracelet on my wrist, and then at the hole. “You want me to stick my hand? In there?” I asked, squicked. He nodded. More as a delaying tactic than anything, I asked, “So, is there anything that I should know?”
And he locked for a second. Then he just shook his head. “Why aren’t you saying anything?” I asked, the hackles on my neck rising with suspicion. He froze, and I repeated, “Answer me!” And then it clicked: a double impostor? One impostor takes out the other impostor, so I’ll accept the ‘winner’ as the McCoy? MAN, these people spend WAY too much time being sneaky!
I managed to clip him with the cosh that I’d taken from the other ninja. Then I pushed off from the tree and dropped, hoping to hit the ground running. Pity it didn’t work out that way. The terrain was a lot better for sneaking than it was for running and I slipped and stumbled a couple of times. Still, I was halfway across the clearing and was picking exactly how I was gonna lose myself in the deep dark creepy woods, when a dark purple bolt of something snaked its way into my path and blasted a clump of grass to bits. I immediately jinked 45 degrees to the right, but another bolt cut me off. I stopped and turned to spot who or what was doing this. There were at least a dozen dragon-ninjas popping out of bolt-holes in the grass, like a bunch of trapdoor spiders. There was also a guy who looked like something off a Heavy Metal cover, with a big-ass whacking sword; oh, right, he’s ‘Lord Balefire’ (jeez, what a lame handle!), one of the Dragon Queen’s main guys. And speaking of the Dragon Queen, that could only be her, floating maybe 10 feet off the ground, winding up a streak of purplish energy in one hand, cocking the hand and pitching it-
-right at ME.
I tried to duck it, honest I did, but the damn thing followed me! I took the blast square in the chest and knocked me back a good five feet. Why it didn’t just blow my chest clean open, I had no idea. I hit the ground and just barely stayed conscious, and my first clear thought was to play dead, ‘cause if I didn’t, they’d make sure that I was. I shut my eyes, and someone poked at me. Then someone yanked at my left wrist. A male voice said very matter-of-factly, “It’s stuck. I dunno how it got stuck on his wrist. Hell, I don’t know how they got in that thing in the first place.”
“Oh, I have an idea,” said a female voice. “Now the question is, how do we get that thing off of him? We could just drag his ass up there, but it would be a bitch.”
“Please!” scoffed a deep male voice in one of those posh Brit accents. “And you call yourself an American! One thing I like about Americans is their penchant for simple, straightforward action. Just hold out his arm by the wrist.” Someone took my hand and pulled my arm so that it was straight out from my body. My blood ran cold as I heard the scrape of steel and the Brit let out a grunt for gathering his strength. I made myself stay still. Just as the Brit let out his striking cry, I reversed the hold that whoever had on my hand, grabbed him and pulled him between me and the sound of the Brit’s voice.
There was a meaty chopping sound and a scream filled my ear. But I was jazzed enough to use that opening to feel at the ninja’s utility belt and found a nice assortment of grenades. I grabbed as many as I could, pulled all the pins and threw them, pulling the thrashing body of the ninja down over me. Okay, the concussion grenades totally trashed the net grenades and scattered the smoke, but the tear gas grenades hung together. Fortunately, while the ‘martial arts movie fanboy’ mindset is still very much around, most professional stealth operatives are pragmatic enough that handguns (a 9mm HK in this case) are standard issue with most combat harness loads. I copped that and one last concussion grenade and parted the scene under the cover of the tear gas at top speed. I heard someone coming up from behind me, so I pulled the pin on the last grenade and tossed it over my shoulder without breaking stride. Once it went off, I stopped, whipped around, and let off a few rounds. I didn’t hit shit, but the ninjas hit the ground on pure reflex. Lord Balefire was charging after me in bounding strides, sword blazing with hellfire (or balefire, you absolutely gotta) and the Dragon Queen was going for height, probably for the better firing vantage.
Lord Buttfire vaulted over to me and came down with his sword ready to strike, which just goes to show that they must be showing anime in Federal Prison. But as he came down, a spike of darkness lanced up from the ground and caught him square in the chest. Dad- the real one this time- ran out of the base of the spike and pushed me to the ground. Lord Bullfart hit the ground hard on his side, and the Dragon Queen yelled, “Lawrence!”
Once I was down on the ground, Dad reached into that Vest of Infinite Holding of his and made a sweeping casting gesture. A swarm of bats erupted out from his hands and swept over Lord Balefarce and the dragon-ninjas, and when the swarm passed, they were all wrapped up in snares that were well anchored to the ground.
The Dragon Queen lowered, looking like, well, a shabby, none-too-imaginative schlump’s idea of an enraged warrior queen. She scowled at Dad, and whipped two of those purple energy-wyrm things of hers around her hands, like she was warming up for some serious ass-whupping. Dad hunkered down, and rummaged around in his vest for something. Personally, I really hoped that it was a +10 amulet of bitch smacking-down or something. But just as he was about to play his card (or grenade, or whatever), that guy in the fancy armor with the raggedy blue cape, the one who attacked our drill site? He came riding out on a small cloud like it was a skateboard, his not-lightsaber glowing and aimed right at the small of Dad’s back.
“Heads Up!” I yelled as I fired at Sir Spookalot. I fired five rounds, and actually managed to hit with one. Sir Tattermore went down, but seriously, I think that that was more because that cloud thing was unstable than I did him any real damage. But Dad turned to face the threat, which left him open for the Dragon Queen. She didn’t blast him; instead she sent those two ‘dragons’ she was twiddling around to wrap themselves around him. As Dad wrestled with the ‘dragons’, Sir Heavymetal got to his feet, turned his not-lightsaber back on, and advanced with malicious intent. I shot at the Ignoble Knight, emptying the clip, but hey, I didn’t hit shit. Hey, whaddya want, I emptied a clip of 12 bullets and hit once. In real life, in combat at any real range, for an untrained shooter that’s pretty damn good.
The Warlock Knight (if I remember correctly) ignored me and went at Dad with his not-lightsaber over his head with both hands for a killing blow. But just when he was about to strike, a ball of bright white light hit him square in the back and exploded, damn near blinding everyone. “Yadda-danda-danda- danda- DA!” Pixie ‘bugle-called’ out as she flew out from the cover of the trees, leaving her trademark trail of sparkles, “Chhhaaawrrrggge!” Sir Hell-what-a-bore was briefly knocked for a loop. What Pixie’s light-bursts lack in sheer damage, they more than make up for with their ability to disrupt magic.
Pixie threw a few more pixie-bursts at the Dragon Queen, which knocked the hell-bimbo off her pins, giving Dad his opening. Dad pulled out a pewterish looking dingie with a dull green gemstone set in it, and sort of spooled up the dragon-things, like twirling up spaghetti on a fork. Dear Gawd, is that guy ever not prepared? He took the dragons and chucked them at Sir Clatterbang, and the Warlock Knight was the Knight Who Said, ‘Get this crap off of me!’ There were shrubberies all around, but what does that matter? But by this time, Lord Balewire had recovered (more or less) and yelled in a way that wasn’t very polished, but really did remind you that, yes indeed, once upon a time, the British really WERE the badasses of the world, “Well, what are you WAITING FOR? Defend your QUEEN, you maggots!” And he threw a bunch of peach-sized balls in the area between him and where DQ was mixing it up with Pixie. Where the ‘peaches’ landed, a gout of flame shot up, and a guy in yet more chivalric plate armor stepped out with a bigass flaming sword at the ready.
Well, that’s one way to get troops onto the field.
A good 12 of these guys entered the field, and those dragon-ninjas were the worst possible place for them to be: namely, I had no clue where. And with ninjas, that’s a bad thing. From there, it got nasty. I wish I could give you more of a blow-by-blow, but with those ninjas around, I figured that the safest place to be was low to the ground, keeping an eye out for sneakiness. Not that I was scared or anything. But Dad would’a had a strip out of my hide if I didn’t. Worse, he would’a yapped at me for an hour. Anything but that!
Not that I was really safe. Lord Balls-of-fire was whipping up an extra-large apocalypse-grade fireball, and it looked like he was gonna chuck it at us, no matter who got charbroiled. And that thing looked big and hot enough that it would have a blast area only slightly smaller than- well, this clearing. Oh gimme a break, he’s not gonna throw something like that! He’d take out his own men!
Oh shit, he’s gonna do it!
But just as he was in the process of actually throwing it, a reddish blur came out of nowhere and snatched me off the ground. It- or rather she, as it was a woman in a red chainmail mini-dress outfit with a black cape, boot, gauntlets and a bronze winged mask that wasn’t quite a helmet, but not by much. She airlifted me over to where Dad and Pixie were standing. There was another woman in a similar outfit in blue-and-white. Lord Blazingpain let fly, and there was a huge, earth-shattering KABOOM!
When the flare subsided, we were still there. The blonde woman in the blue-and-white outfit was gesturing with both hands, and there was a silvery transparent wall protecting us. There was a blast area that radiated out from us, with no damage on our side, but the grass and stuff on the other side was totally trashed, a smoking ruin. Well, except for streaks that trailed out behind the Dragon Queen, Lord Balefire, the Warlock Knight, and the dragon knights. They didn’t look hurt. They were all on fire, but none of them even looked scratched.
Oh. Oh, I get it.
Lord Barleycorn has it rigged so that not only doesn’t his side get trashed by his powers, but they get ‘buffed’ by it, if you get that GEO reference. Nice trick. I briefly wondered whether to clue Mom in on that one; it’s a good’un.
But the Dragon Queen wasn’t gloating. Rather she was looking at the two new players on the field with this ‘Lady of Shallot’ gawp. “NO!” she squawked, “It CAN’T BE! Not YOU! Not HERE! I came all the way to New Jersey, just so that I wouldn’t have to deal with YOU!”
“No, no, no,” the big strapping brunette in red tutted at her with this big ‘I got an ass-kicking here, special delivery, and it’s got YOUR name on it’ grin on her face, as she manifested a red energy sword. “That’s not it. You’re supposed to say ‘Swordswoman! Shieldmaiden! Curses! I should have known that you two would show up to ruin my plans!’.”
“Hey, it’s TRADITION!” the blonde, ‘Shieldmaiden’, I’d say, smirked. “And then you’re supposed to say that you were expecting us, and break out your big surprise that you had prepped just for us!” she paused, gave DQ a prompting look. “You DID remember to prepare something, just for us, didn’t you?”
The Dragon Queen wilted in a way that was an open admission of ‘No’
“Aaawww…” Swordswoman and Shieldmaiden drawled sardonically at each other in chorus, “What a SHAME!” Then, as one, they launched themselves at the Dragon Queen, who was holding back in a very Wile E. Coyote ‘oh no here it comes again’ cringe. The Dragon Knights tried to form a shield wall between DQ and the two superheroines, but the Dynamic Damsels (don’t tell them that I called them that) knocked them aside like bowling pins.
But Lord Balefire and the Warlock Knight stepped between the two wonder women and the Dragon Queen, “Oh no y’don’t!” Lord Breakwind snarled muscling his way past the Swordswoman so that he was crossing swords (or not) with the Shieldmaiden. “Now we know how that works, and we’re not playing that game! Have at you, ye stupid little bint!” The Swordswoman crossed blades with the Warlock Knight, and while I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I have no doubt that rather sad ‘Star Wars’ references where being bandied about. Of course, Dad and Pixie got in on the fight, and kept the Dragon Knights busy while the Swordswoman and Shieldmaiden tried to get past her guards to the Dragon Queen.
And me? I got down close to the ground and whipped out my digital video camera. Hey, this is gonna totally RULE on YouTube!
But in all the excitement I’d forgotten that there was another player-or set of players- on the field. But then ninjas are very good at being forgotten. Somehow, do not ask me how, but when Lord Blazingfarts threw his big boom-ball the ninjas used that to take cover under the sod, and pretty much burrowed under the turf unseen as to flank our side. Nice trick; I’ll have to mention it to M- er, no, Dad would have a fit if I told her. She’s sneaky enough as it is. You think that your family politics are strained? Does talking to your mom leave you vulnerable to charges of Aiding and Abetting?
Anyway, the dragon-ninjas popped out from under the sod like gophers- huge, nasty, horned, knife packing gophers- grabbed me and wrestled me to the ground. “We have him, My Queen!” one of the ninjas yelled as they got me face on the ground with my arm twisted behind my back.
“Finally!” she snapped, “Balefire! Dragon Knights! My Warlock Knight! Prepare for the FULL WRATH OF THE DRAGON QUEEN!” In other words, she was gonna copy Baley’s boom-ball bit. She wound up a really big dragon-thing and aimed it right at the Shieldmaiden. But Dad was prepared (hell, is he ever NOT prepared?) and he slapped a spell-slip onto the Shieldmaiden’s force wall just before the dragon-thingie hit, and slipped into SM’s shadow. I think that both of them cheated: DQ did something to the dragon that punched right through the Maiden’s shield, knocking the Maiden, Swordswoman and Pixie for a loop. But Dad’s spell slip also did something to the blast, and the Buckethead Brigade was also knocked for a loop. Dad stepped back out of a convenient shadow, and it was the two of them.
But not for long. Dad spun around inside his cloak, and dozens of dark figures sort of erupted out of his cloak, and then he was gone, with no idea which one of the decoys was him. Well, the Drag Que-er Dragon Queen had no idea (which seems to be on par for her); I knew exactly where he was, which was right in the middle of the dragon ninjas, showing them how a real master of dark fighting does it. Seeing my opportunity, I grabbed a couple of concussion grenades from the harness of one of the ninjas that was down. Hey, I dunno what I’m gonna do with it, but I figure that whatever happens, having concussion grenades can’t hurt.
Dad didn’t agree. He grabbed me by the hand, made me drop the grenades and practically dragged me over the grass in the direction of the trees. But that got us away from the ninjas, and the Dragon Queen threw one of those dragon-bursts at us. It hit the ground near us and exploded, throwing both of us head over heels. Then she sends another dragon-thing, only this one latches onto the bracelet and starts pulling. I guess that she wanted the bracelet and didn’t particularly care whether she ripped my arm off getting it or not. As the dragon-thing pulled me back across the clumps of grass, Dad catches up with me and holds on. Then Pixie, who’d come to by then, joined in keeping me back, and then Swordswoman and Shieldmaiden joined in the tug-of-war.
Well, maybe if that thing rips off my arm, Mom will get me a kewl cybernetic replacement in Karedonia.
Then the bracelet slipped off my arm, and the dragon-thing zipped back to ‘mommy’ before we could do anything about it. The Dragon Queen snatched the bracelet, looked at it carefully and squee’d, “FINALLY! Cover me, Boys! I’m going in!” As Beetle Balefire and Sir Tincan and the rest of the Bucketface Brigade formed a shield wall, the Dragon Queen flew toward the tree. Both Balefire and the Warlock Knight did the thing with the peach/ball things, only this time instead of knights in dingy armor, what popped out didn’t look all that human. Downright demonic, as a matter of fact.
Oh, this does not look good for the home team.
As I held back, the rest charged at the front line. As the Swordswoman and Shieldmaiden charged the icky-nasties, Dad tries to slip past them as best he could, and Pixie took to the air. For once, Dad ran into someone as sneaky as he was, and he and Lord CanofSpam went at it. Pixie went right for the tree, but despite throwing as many pixie-bursts as she could, she couldn’t stop the Dragon Queen from ramming the bracelet into that hollow that the fake-Dad had tried to get me to stick my hand into.
Ew, it grosses me out, just thinking about it.
Then the Dragon Queen whipped up yet another of her dragon things and tossed it down into the hollow with the bracelet. The spooky tree glowed and groaned and shook. Then it sort of spasmed, and a huge gold-and-black draconic figure erupted out of the hollow, like that big demon-guy in ‘Midnight on Bald Mountain’. Rearing up, it spread wide bat-wings and let out a roar that rattled the little bones in my ears, from over 100 yards away. Pixie pegged it with one of her pixie-blasts, but it was like a gnat biting a rhinoceros. The dragon just lashed out and knocked Pixie out of the sky with one of its claws. Along with everyone else on our side, I hauled ass over to where Pixie landed. Hey, she can be a smart-mouth PITA at times, but still, she’s one of the nicest people I know!
Pixie was okay- stunned, but in one piece. Of course, that just got us all clustered tight together in one place. The Dragon Queen gave this big triumphant speech and ordered the dragon to fry us all. Shieldmaiden had just enough time to put up one of her shield walls before the dragon spewed out a constant stream of hot flaming devastation. The shield held, but just barely, and you could just see the Shieldmaiden working hard to keep it up.
“Yes, yes, YES!” the Dragon Queen gloated, “ROAST their asses! But don’t kill them! At least not the Swordswoman- or the Shieldmaiden, either, my loyal Warlock Knight- no, I want HER all for myself!”
“NO!” Lord Balefire barked, “None of that stupid gloating and getting revenge blatherskite! NO, this time, we take care of first things first!”
“But… I told you…” the Dragon Queen whined, “She…”
“I know, I know!” Balefire said more reasonably. “And we’ll get to that- LATER. But, as I said, FIRST THINGS FIRST!” He snapped his fingers, and one of the knights came trotting up with a case. He opened it up and took out this… arrangement with a large milky white stone the size of a freaking cantaloupe with three empty sockets sticking out the sides. “Your little pet has them on the ropes, but that won’t last forever. So, FIRST we upgrade these alchemical paste surrogates into real power gems, and THEN it’s playtime!” He took the large emerald and stuck it into the square socket. “If nothing else, it will give you complete control over that dragon. You may have created it, but that thing is a being in its own right. The only reason that it’s attacking them right now is that it’s more or less that thing’s basic nature. You may have some influence upon it, but once it gets tired of trying to batter down that shield, there’s a very good chance that it might turn on US out of frustration! THIS,” he pointed at the dingus, “will stabilize the beast’s core matrix- whatever the hell that means- and lock its essential being in ways that will provide complete control. And look at it-” he gestured at the dragon as it clawed at the shield, “do you really want THAT under anything less than complete control?”
The Dragon Queen pouted a bit and looked at the large milky white stone in the center. “What does that do?”
“Well, the alchemy wonk who made these things for me said that it… er… well… it was all very… alchemical… and… wonkish…”
The Dragon Queen and Warlock Knight shared a look; he shrugged and pulled the blue stone from his cloak pin. With a muted snarl, the Dragon Queen pulled a big cabochon-cut red stone from her sash-buckle. They each fit their stone into the appropriate socket. “Okay,” DQ said, “so how do we use these to stabilize that thing?”
“Simple! We use its primary nature! And what’s the primary nature of a dragon, let alone a newborn dragon?” He attached a collapsed rod to a socket at the bottom of the dingus, and telescoped it out to fell length, like an extreme selfie-stick. He poked at the dragon’s muzzle with it, and the beast snapped at the talisman, swallowing it whole. It gulped the thing down, looked around for something to maul, and was making up what passed for its mind whether to resume clawing at the frustrating screen of nothingness or to lash out at the specks that had presumed to control it. Then a look that passed over its face that, in a more developed being, might described as ‘hey, what exactly did I just eat?’
And then, like something out of an old Warner Brothers cartoon, it just exploded.
“ooohhh-Kaaayyy…” Shieldmaiden drawled uncertainly as she relaxed a touch, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“Well,” Pixie answered, “from the look on Lord Barrel-face’s mug- what I can see of it through that helmet- I’d say that it was a bad thing.”
“Well, on the upside,” Shieldmaiden said, bucking up a tad, “I’d say that given their track record, that right about now is just perfect for a little cathartic backstabbing.”
“Why would they backstab each other right now?” Dad asked.
“Let’s just say that Baley and Queenie have a very, ah… ‘Ike and Tina’ relationship.”
“Who’re Ike and Tina?” I asked. All I got was that ‘Kids! They don’t know nothin’ look.
The haze of dragonfire cleared, clarified, and then whirled in a vaguely dragon-ish stream around a cantaloupe-sized gem that throbbed with an energy that pulsed like a heartbeat, with an arrangement that included three shining gems, one blue, one red, and one green sticking out from the side. It took a minute for it to register that this was the thing that Lord Ballyarse had thrown into the dragon’s maw. Lord Billygoat brayed (against species) like a jackass as the huge gem floated into his hands.
“WELL DONE, Lawrence!” Draggy cheered, a huge grin on her face. “But the dragon…?”
With a gesture, the stream congealed into a huge vaporous dragon, manifested a distinct beak, horns and claws, and Lord Balefire sent it into the force wall, shattering the field, and sending Shieldmaiden sprawling. “JACKIE!” Swordswoman yelped, picking up her sidekick and cradling her.
The Dragon Queen let out a peal of vicious laughter, and held out her hand. “Give me the jewel…” she ordered. “I’ve spent the better part of TEN YEARS planning in detail exactly what I’m going to do to those two. I’m going to start with the little blonde slut, and make her lezbo buddy watch…”
“Aaannnddd… WHY would I do a stupid thing like THAT?” His Lordship asked, jerking the jewel away.
“What?” DQ bleated, sheep-eyed.
“Do you REALLY think that I went through all of this, just to hand this over to YOU?” Baley sneered. “After what you pulled on me at the Rat-Trap, nine years ago, throwing me over for THAT puling little puke?” he jabbed a furious finger at the Wardrobe Pawn. “After having to listen to that putrid milksop pining for MY WOMAN for Nine Sodding YEARS? LIKE HELL!!”
“Well, Jackie,” Jenelle said conversationally to Shieldmaiden as she started back into consciousness, “it looks like you were right on the money about it being back-stab time.” She handed her a dollar.
“What happened to ‘First things first’?” DQ shrieked. “We have FOUR… maybe four and a half, I’m not sure what’s going down with that kid… superheroes on the ropes here, two of whom need to DIE horribly right in front of me, and you’re playing ‘keep away’ with my POWER FOCUS?”
“Oh!” I said, the connection clicking, “So, ‘Ike and Tina’ are those couples that play those stupid ‘bickering and backstabbing as foreplay’ games?”
“They’d better not be!” Pixie glared at Dad, who gave a ‘what did I do?’ confused gawp.
“YES, First Things First!” Balefire roared, drawing his sword and looking right at the Warlock Knight, who was sort of standing there, flat-footed. He made a grab for the rack of power gems, but he got a backhand from Balefire, right in the face that would have broken the neck of most men. “With this dragon, I can handle those four without breaking a sweat! So the REAL priority is getting rid of THIS mewling cuckolding little nancyboy!”
“LAWRENCE! No! You know what he means to me! You know what killing him would DO to me!”
“Know it?” Bastardfire barked out a nasty laugh, “That’s the entire POINT, you silly cow!”
“Wow,” the Swordswoman said dryly, “It’s ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ in spandex…”
“I’ll see you in HELL, Boy Scout!” Lord Balefire yelled as he raised his what-a-bastard sword over his head to strike.
*BLAM!* Lord Balefire lurched forward, a huge dent suddenly appearing in the back of his helmet, and sprawled on the ground, throwing both the jewel harness and his sword away from him.
“You’ll excuse us for cutting in,” called out a very familiar voice, “but this was getting way too Eugene O’Neill for this part of Jersey.” And looking over to the source of the voice, yes indeedy, there was Mom, floating maybe a foot or two off the ground in full Witch Queen ‘dressed for kicking ass’ glory. Backing her up were four lances (and by ‘lance’, I mean a squad of five guys) of Witchknights sporting a nasty blend of modern firearms and medieval melee weapons, and a sprinkling of Shadowknights (y’know, her personal brand of ninja), including one guy prone on the ground with a sniper rifle, who loudly chambered another round into the smoking gun.
“WHAT?” Dad yelled, “You said that you were going to let ME handle this!”
“Yeah,” she sneered, “but I figured that that wouldn’t send the message that you do NOT come onto MY MANOR, fuck with MY GIRLS, and kill MY MEN!” she finished snarling. Then she lightened up and said with a smirk, “AND, I’d be a chump to pass on a nifty little power-up, now wouldn’t I?” Then the smirk faded when she spotted me. “And WHAT is HE doing here?”
“What?” DQ bleated, “That’s a Barret Light 50! That’s an Anti-TANK gun! You almost blew his Head Off!”
“Oh, you’re right. Duke, give ‘im another shot.”
The shadowdragon let off another round, but the Dragon Queen gestured and the dragon-whatever-it-is put itself between Baley and the bullet. Then it roared and charged at Mom and her crew. Mom threw up a protective wall that held it off, and the dragon bounced off it and sort of had a hissy fit. DQ dived for the big jewel, but Pixie knocked it away from her with one of her pixie-blasts, which seemed to do strange things to the dragon. Mom yelled out, “Okay, Boys, THIS ONE’S FOR MARTY AND JAKE!” The Witchknights charged with a lusty roar, which suggests that maybe Mom’s theories about esprit de corps just may have something to them.
The Dragon Queen threw another handful of those peach-things, brining some more of her Dragon-Knights onto the field, and from there I lost track of what was going on. It was all a big blur of blasting and stabbing and hitting and biting and saying of hurtful things that weren’t strictly called for, and that big jewel thing was the football that everyone was fighting for. It would have ROCKED on YouTube, but my camera got busted.
Finally, the Dragon Queen got the jewel thing, held it up high and started to chant something in (very bad) Latin. *BLAM!* Duke, the Shadowknight with the Barret, who hadn’t had a clear shot before because of all the running around and close combat, put a .50 slug right through the ‘dragon’s heart’ crystal. I think that that’s the last time that Mom’s gonna let Duke use the Barret. The crystal cracked from side to side, as Lord Tennyson says, and all hell pretty much broke loose, as the dragon set to mopping up, well, pretty much everyone. But Dad was prepared! Y’know, someday Dad’s not gonna be prepared, and I’ll have a heart attack from shock. He pulled out an amulet, a spell-slip and a couple of phials of something and sort of jury-rigged them on the fly. Then he set off to find the ruins of the crystal thing, which still had Lord Balefire and the Dragon Queen’s power focuses in it. It took some doing, but he managed to get control of it, and fixed that whatever it was that he’d jury-rigged fixed in the center. Go Dad!
Then he got dogpiled by a bunch of dragon-ninjas, and he lost control of it. I saw an opening, tackled the ninja with the dingus, and sapped him down hard. Just as I was looking around for either Dad or Pixie, the Warlock Knight came out of fucking nowhere and grabbed me in a choke hold. He dragged the dingus- and ME- over to a clearing that the Dragon Queen had somehow created that no one was entering. WK shoved me at DQ who looked at me and cooed, “How thoughtful! All this, and he even provided a virgin sacrifice!”
‘Virgin’? Oh, that’s just hurtful. Mean, nasty, unnecessary- and, okay, right on the money. But still, hurtful.
The Dragon Queen clanged a dagger on the inside of the circle of the dingus, kind of like when they ring a triangle to call that grub’s on in all those old westerns. Then she pulled me in front of her, with the dingus against my chest. As Mom screamed in sheer maternal horror, the dragon thing came screaming right at the Dragon Queen. Or, rather, ME.
Now, I would love to describe it for you, but, really, this is one of those times when words simply aren’t enough. So, let’s just say that it was intense, and I had a sense of this incredible power form inside me, and fill my entire body. I heard the Dragon Queen go ‘hah?’, but she recovered and said in a loud theatrical voice, “And SO it is DONE! Arise and SERVE ME, My Dragon Champion!”
All around us, everyone had stopped stock still, looking at us, trying to figure out wtf had just happened. Mom was horror-struck, Dad was grim (but then, he usually is), Pixie was aghast, the Swordswoman and Shieldmaiden were wary, the Warlock Knight was growling like a jealous dog, and everyone else was just trying to figure out where this was all going. The Dragon Queen grinned at me and gestured for me to kneel.
So I popped the bitch one on the mouth.
It wasn’t a haymaker or anything, but I still knocked her literally off her feet, and sent her back a good five feet. The Warlock Knight came roaring at me with that not-lightsaber, so I opened my mouth and let some of that raging fire inside me out. A wave of roiling purple flame washed over him, and he had a sort of Warner Brothers cartoon moment, as he stood there kind’a crisped. One of the dragon knights came at me with a sword, and then suddenly there was something in my hand, I swatted at the incoming sword, and *shing!* the dragon knight was looking at the stub of his sword, where the blade had been cleanly sheared off. “Oh. Crap,” was all he said.
“AND to make a long story short, we basically just kicked the Dragon Queen’s ass, and her boys as well, and handed them over to the New Jersey State Police,” I wrapped up. “And after that, well, Mom and Dad’s truce sort of kicked in,” I gestured at Dad, the Swordswoman and Shieldmaiden who were all standing on one side of the room while Mom and her whatever knights were standing on the other room, both pointedly ignoring the other party. “This is one of Mom’s abandoned lairs, but it’s connected to a transit nexus, which is how we were able to get you here.”
“Fascinating,” Jadis Diabolik said with a flat tone. “And why were THEY involved?” she pointed at the Swordswoman and Shieldmaiden.
“Oh, Shieldy and I go way back,” Pixie, who was standing next to me, answered. “I got most of my info about the Dragging-Ass Queen from her, and well, they are the leading experts in kicking that crew’s armored bee-hinds, so when we heard that the Dragon Queen was poking around, we called in the pros for backup!”
“Well, sha-ZAM!” Diabolik murmured dryly. “Okay, that’s explained. Now… why am _I_ here?”
“Well, after the mopping up was finished,” Dad answered with a snarky glare at Mom, “SOMEONE had a maternal meltdown, and practically TOLD the Dragon Queen that AJ was her son, instead of some random kid on a field trip, which she’d more or less assumed up to that point.”
“Which wouldn’t have happened, if he hadn’t BEEN THERE in the FIRST PLACE!” Mom snarled across the room. “What was he DOING there?”
With an embarrassed chuckle I explained to Jadis, “heh, Well, when Dad found out about me, there was an, ah, difficult custody battle…”
“Difficult?” Pixie snorted, “After it was finished, one of the lawyers involved went into a monastery! He said that he promised God that if he got out of that alive, he’d take holy orders, and he didn’t dare go back on the promise!”
“The point, Miss Diabolik-” Mom started.
“FROST,” Jadis corrected her, ah, cooly (well, she did!) “I go by the name ‘Frost’ now.” Well, that would explain the outfit she was wearing: in contrast to the red-and-black number she’d been wearing the last time I saw her (okay, it was nine years ago, but still…) she was wearing a frost blue bodysuit with matching shoes and gloves, with a white bolero style short jacket over that with a matching belt, and a white fedora with a frost blue band. Instead of the Batman-style utility belt she’d been sporting last time, the only obvious equipment that she had with her was the slender black walking stick with the jeweled cap. But she had a pair of suggestive bracers on her wrists, the ‘snowflake’ pattern belt buckle was large and subtly marked with symbols, and the wraparound sunglasses that she was wearing were sturdy enough that I suspected that it was packing more electronics than a surveillance truck.
“Very well, Miss FROST,” Mom resumed, “my understandable show of concern for my only child aside, there’s the material point that when the dust settled not only was that idiot Warlock Knight nowhere to be seen, but all three of the power gems that they’d created with that fool Quest were gone!”
“They weren’t technically power gems,” Dad interrupted her. “More like they’re arrangements that combine providing a mental context for their powers with a link to some unspecified power source.”
“And your point IS?” Mom demanded.
“Power gems are one thing, those are another,” he pointed out. “Anyone can use a power gem, but only the Dragon Queen and the other two can use those crystals.”
I leaned over and murmured to Jadis Di, er, Frost, “My hopes for Mom and Dad and me living together as a family died early on.”
“The POINT,” Mom resumed, “is that idiot Warlock Knight is out there and he still has his power item, and he’ll probably break that stupid bitch out the first chance he gets.”
“He would,” the Shieldmaiden sighed. “And he’s sharp enough to have prepped exits for himself and her. Not sharp enough to stay away from that bitch, but I’ll bet that he knows how to get her out again.”
“There! And she’s made no secret of the fact that she regards the dragon… whatever it is… inside Lex as her personal property, so-”
It was taking too long, and I could tell that Dad was gearing up for yet another distracting comment, so I cut in, “They want to send me to that Whateley school. Mom says that I’ll be safe there, and it’s supposed to be a great school anyway, and if anything weird happens to be because of this dragon thing, that’s the best place for me to be to get immediate help with it.”
“And I’m an alumnus, so he’s both a legacy, and they’ll have access to my old test results,” Mom said. “My WAA ID is ‘Witchfire92’.”
“Okay then, but… again, what do you need ME for?” Frost asked, “Just contact the WAA and have them connect you to Admissions.”
There was another tense moment, both sides bristled at each other, and I, as the only real neutral in the mess, explained, “They don’t want to owe each other anything. That would mean giving up something, anything…” I grumbled under my breath, “I’ve been putting up with this for seven freaking years…” I bucked up a little and said, “You were the only third party that they could agree on.” She lowered her glasses and gave me a curious look. “Don’t Ask…”
“At least I know that you’ll be reasonable in your demands,” Dad said sternly, “and not ask for a ‘Get Out of Jail Free card’, or some other blank-check nonsense.”
Frost gave a martyred sigh, reached into her jacket and pulled out a smart phone. It was significantly larger than should have fit into that jacket. As she tapped away, she said, “Okay, I can guess most of the technical aspects from the story you just told me, and the lab rats at Whateley can nail down the specifics. Is there anything else that they should know about, before the kid gets there? Like, were there any weird developments with the shards from that shattered crystal, or anything like that?”
“As a matter of fact… Yes,” I gave him a mental nudge, and a long, lizard-like creature, basically a golden dragon the size of a small cat crawled up onto my shoulder. “I call him ‘Smokey’.” Smokey gave Frost a friendly chirrup and looked at her curiously.
Frost pulled down her glasses again and looked at Smokey curiously, but instead of the surprised questions that I was expecting, she asked, “None of you happen to know Lindsay Fellows, or her father, would you?”
After a chorus of denials, Dad asked, “And who is Lindsay Fellows?”
“She is, hands down, the leading authority in the field of Dracomorphic Phenomena.”
“I thought that Professor Roy Leung at the University of Washington was the leading authority in that field.”
“He got most of his material by ripping off Lindsay. But then, it’s not exactly what you’d call a crowded field.”
“Do you think that you can get this Fellows woman to go to Whateley to see about this?” Mom asked.
“Well… let’s see what I can do…” Frost swatted around files on the hologram screen of her smartphone a little. “Ah! You’re in luck! She’s linked in.”
“You know her?”
“You could say that.” And then, “Hey, Lindsay! Yeah, it’s me. You free for something? Cool! Are you anywhere near one of those transit gates that your father set up? Great! I got something that I think you’ll want to see. I’m connected to a transit network in New Jersey. Do you think that you can synch the two, and get here to give your expert opinion on something? No, I don’t want to prejudice you. I think that an unbiased first impression will be important. GREAT!” She handed the phone to Mom, who started yammering at someone in very detailed technical terms.
Dad came over and looked at Mom on the phone suspiciously. “And what will this expert expect for her services?”
“Oh, probably same as me: we’ll do it as a service for the school. We went to Whateley together.”
Oh that was just what Dad wanted to hear. <sarcasm/>
A very tense half-hour or so later, a woman stepped out of the transit nexus.
Let me sum her up like this: she was pretty much what every het American guy wants as his College Sweetheart: she was lean but with all the right curves, and she really rocked the short-shorts and plaid shirt tied off over the U of Wash T-shirt she was wearing. She had long curling copper-red hair down to her shoulders, and a long regular face; to sum up, she was just hawt enough to be exciting, just regular enough that you didn’t have to worry about fighting off every horndog in the state, just wholesome enough to be comfortable around, just smart enough to keep you interested, and just sweet enough that she wasn’t a doormat.
God, if you’re listening, when the time comes, I want one of THOSE!
She looked around uncertainly at the, let’s face it, very weird group in the room, but she brightened up when she saw Frost. “Jadis!” The marmalade cat sitting on her shoulder let out a very unfeline chirrup of greeting as well. She rushed over and gave Frost a big hug.
“So, Linds, how’ya doin?”
“Aaahhh… whaddya want? It’s college.”
“Just say the word, and I can twist that asstard Leung into knots that an Eagle Scout couldn’t untie.”
“Don’t. I can’t have my friends coming to fight my battles anymore. It’s bad enough that I have to keep a rein on Pern here.” The cat gave an aggrieved mewl. She waved that aside and looked around. “So, where are we, and what’s this thing I’m supposed to check out for you?”
Mom stepped forward. “Miss Fellows, I am the Witch Queen. This is one of my abandoned lairs that we’re using as neutral grounds for this. What we-”
And then Dad stepped in, and it got complicated until Jadis Frost let out a shrill whistle and yelled, “ENOUGH! Linds, here’s what you’re here to give your expert opinion on.” She gestured for me to come forward. “This is AJ, these two’s son.”
“LEX!” Mom snapped.
“Whatever.” Frost gave Lindsay the Reader’s Digest version of what I told you, and chivvied Smokey up to let Lindsay get a good look at him. Lindsay held up her arm, and that cat walked along it to poke her nose at Smokey. Then there was a blurring, and the cat turned into a dragonet that was a little larger, had a different muzzle, and its horns weren’t black, but other’n that, was a dead ringer for Smokey. Lindsay let the dragonet down onto the ground, and ba-da-BING! It was suddenly, like 20 feet long, with a wingspan that shoved people off to the side, and a neck that bent under the ceiling. Smokey gave out a squeal of surprise and ducked behind me, only just daring to peek out.
“Pern! Behave yourself!” Lindsay swatted the big beast, who shrank down to cat-size. Then she coaxed Smokey out from back of me and picked him up. She looked him over and said, “Interesting… Pern is basically a personalization of my dragon manifestation power that I’ve allowed to stay stable for years. If Pern was destroyed, I could re-create her; she wouldn’t be the same. Years of personalization would be lost, but I could re-create her. Not that I’m gonna let that happen, Sweetie,” she cooed to Pern. “But this? This is something else entirely. He’s connected to you AJ, in a very primal way. What that way is, I’m not sure. Well, at least not without further tests.” She gave Smokey a sharp look. “Can he grow, like Pern can?”
“Dunno. How about it, Smokey?” Smokey gave me a squeak as to say that he was game. I settled him on the floor, and he gave it his best. He could grow, but he could only grow as big as, oh, a St. Bernard dog. Smokey tried to get bigger, but he only wore himself out. Totally bummed by it, he slumped into my arms and shot nasty glares at Pern who was sitting on Lindsay’s shoulder, gloating.
Well, I couldn’t have that. Smokey may be a biologically impossible fluke of magic, but he’s MY biologically impossible fluke of magic! “Well, can Pern do THIS?” I gripped Smokey by the neck and sort of ‘drew’ him like a sword. On whatever instinct I have no idea (and I sort of doubt that he does either) Smokey stretched out and gained an edge, so that his body and tail became the blade of a golden sword. His neck was the grip and his wings the guard.
Lindsay looked at him pop-eyed. “How are you DOING that?”
“I have NO IDEA,” I admitted, “but he kicks ASS like this.” Borrowing a trick I read about that Saladin is supposed to have used on Richard the Lionhearted, I borrowed one of Mom’s scarves, tossed it in the air so that it settled on the edge of Smokey’s blade as I held him out. The scarf was cut in two by only its own weight on the edge.
“I did a few rule-of-thumb tests on it,” Dad said clinically, “and they suggest that it has a monomolecular edge, while being harder than tool steel, but much more flexible.”
“Do you have to call Smokey ‘it’ Dad?” I asked. “I mean, he has feelings, y’know. The Smokester broke the form, wrapped himself around my shoulders, and looked at Pern smugly.
“Wonderful,” Dad grumped, “Now he’s got the pet I wouldn’t let him have, AND a deadly weapon that he can play swashbuckler with.”
“Well, it tried to bite him when he tried to take it away,” Mom said smugly to Lindsay.
“And he can charge the blade with some kind of ‘dragon fire’,” the Swordswoman added. “Doesn’t seem to hurt the critter; if anything he seems to enjoy it.”
“Yes,” Mom cut back in, “my guess is that Lex is displaying a variation of my basic mutant trait, which is an advancement of the basic mage’s ability to recreate a reservoir of magical essence within themselves. It’s sort of like my Witchfire, but definitely its own thing.”
“Yeah,” the Swordmaiden agreed. “He’s definitely stronger, and while it didn’t register at the time, I definitely saw the kid take a couple of magical blasts that should have laid him out. Not only is he still thinking straight, but he bounced back like he got pegged with a softball.”
Mom nodded. “Absorption of projected magic. That’s another thing he got from ME. He didn’t absorb enough magic to jump start his own magic, but it probably primed the pump for that dragonfire.” Then she seemed to realize it. “Not that I’m complaining,” she said to Swordswoman and Shieldmaiden, “You’re minding your manners wonderfully. But aren’t you masked crusader types supposed to ride off into the sunset when all the fighting’s over?”
“Don’t worry, we will,” the Swordswoman said, “Just as soon as you recalibrate that thing,” she jerked a thumb at the transit nexus, “to send us back to Denver. We didn’t exactly ride here on fiery steeds at the speed of light, y’know.”
“Not to worry, I handle that,” Jadis said as she looked up from her smartphone. “But first things first. Here’s the projected tuition costs for sending AJ- or Lex, whatever- to Whateley.”
She handed Dad the smartphone, but Mom snagged the phone first. “Don’t you bother yourself, I’ll handle thi-urk!” Even through the mask, you could see her eyes pop, “HOW MUCH?”
“Well, that’s how much it tallies out to.”
“But it didn’t cost that much to send ME to Whateley!” Mom objected, “My father was so cheap that he made me take the Greyhound BUS instead of the train! There’s no way that he would have put up with anything like THIS, even with 20 years of inflation!”
“Well, you probably got a scholarship that accounted for most of it,” Frost answered. “Most students going to Whateley have scholarships that account for at least some of their tuition and expenses, and some really strapped students have all their expenses covered by one scholarship or another. BUT from what you’ve told me, there’s no way that either of you parents qualify for any scholarship. And Whateley has a track record for socking it to parents who can afford it. God knows, they socked it to my father for my brother and me. Hell, he once said that he raided Odessa just to pay for my Freshman year.”
“It costs this much to send a kid to Whateley?” Mom said with pure horror.
“Well, not usually,” Jadis said, “but then, in many ways, you really ARE a ‘worst case scenario’. First of all, AJ is the son of a superhero. We can’t afford to assume that that won’t become known in the absolute worst places. Yes, there’s Whateley Neutrality, but there’s always a wiseass who just doesn’t give a shit about that, so he’ll have to have extra protection. That will cost.
“Next, AJ is also the son of a supervillain. That’s even worse, and believe me I speak from experience here, there are people among the White Hat, and Black Hat, and even the civilian crowd, who’ll try to pop a supervillain’s kid, just for the bragging rights. That’s even more protection.
“Then there’s the fact that you both need to be protected- FROM EACH OTHER- as well as everyone else who might try to use AJ or his records to get at one or both of you. Oh believe me, they’re going to sock it to you both for that, just for the tsuris.
“Then there’s the fact that AJ already has a supervillain- TWO of them!- three if Lord Balefire survives- after him. They’d have be brain-dead to not figure out that he’ll be sent to Whateley.
“AND, there’s the fact that he’s a Magical mutant. Magical students get socked worse than anyone, even the Advanced Technology students.”
“Do you have any idea of how expensive competent teachers in the Mystic Arts ARE?”
“They get paid that much?” Mom asked, aghast.
“It’s not their salary,” Jadis said. “As you’re no doubt aware, there are two kinds of Mages: the ones who are living hand to mouth and would kill for a steady job, and the ones that don’t need a steady job, because they can make money just by snapping their fingers. Of course, the world being what it is, it’s the latter kind that makes decent teachers. No, the teachers we want at Whateley don’t want a salary. What they want are competent assistants and access to rare and exotic materials. That’s how Whateley gets good teachers: access to rare and exotic materials. Of course, those materials cost an arm, a leg and a first-born child, but Whateley has some GREAT sources! Especially since the ‘Three Maidens’ period.”
“The Three Maidens?” Mom peeped with piqued greed. “The Three Maidens are connected to WHATELEY?”
“Not anymore. Two of them graduated. They drop in on the school every now and again, just to perk up the school’s reserves. But… their Junior year? Now. That. Was. EPIC!” then she waved that aside. “The point here being that the Mystic Arts program is very expensive, and it doesn’t return a profit, the way that the Advanced Technologies programs do. Whateley has great contacts for the materials we described, but still, it’s very expensive!
“And then there’s the fact that he’s a mystic mutant with a unique asset,” Frost jerked a thumb at Smokey. “He’s a prime target for occult predators of all stripes. Where else but Whateley could he not only be safe, but get trained in how to protect himself?”
Dad made a dismissive noise and said, “Oh Please! If it will be THAT great a burden, then maybe _I_ should take care of it!” He grabbed the phone from Jadis, and looked at it. He has the cowl of his outfit enchanted so that it always casts that concealing shadow over his face (it’s a very popular look), but I could still see his eyes glaze over and his face go pale. He made a quiet sick noise.
“”Oh, c’mon, Shady!” Pixie snapped as she looked over his shoulder, “It can’t be THAT ba-ooohhh… migawwwdd…”
“Okay, but the first year is always the most expensive,” Jadis said. “There’s testing, the kids always make mistakes, there are ‘getting used to the place’ incidents that have to be patched up- or rebuilt… But the sophomore year isn’t quite as expensive. Usually.”
“This… isn’t the entire tuition?” Dad asked in tones of horror. “This is for ONE YEAR?”
“Can you think of another school where AJ would be safe until the Dragon Queen finally gets caught? Let alone one with Whateley’s mystic arts curriculum and acceptance rates at the college level?”
Shieldmaiden looked over Dad’s other shoulder and made a noise. “Hey, we’d love to help you out but… most of our money is tied up in Real Estate.”
Dad screwed up his face and gave Mom a desperate look, “Weeellll… maybe we could split the costs on this one? Share it out equally?”
Mom nodded. “Yeah… but even so… do you know how much I’m gonna have to steal, in order to cover my half without totally trashing my finances?”
“Oooh!” Pixie squeaked. “Maybe we can help each other out! Hey, Witchiepoo, you know a LOT more about the dark side of the occult scene than we do, especially the really, ah… high-rollers? I’m sure that we could come to a, ah, mutually beneficial understanding.”
“Pixie, I’m not going to persecute mystics, just because they have money and SHE doesn’t like them!” Dad thundered.
“So? She knows the Black Hat set, she knows what they’ve done… so, let her fing- er, describe them, tell us what they’ve done, we check it out, and if they’re as dirty as she says they are, we drop the hammer on ‘em. Of course, we let her know that we’re gonna do it, ‘cause, well, what creepizoid wants to fight a war on two fronts, hah?”
“Yeah,” I chipped in, “and Mom, didn’t you tell me that a couple of your covens went toxic on you? What did you do about that?”
Mom perked up at the thought of that. As Mom, Dad and Pixie clustered together to do the Complicity Dance, Frost took her smartphone back and took me aside. “So, do you answer to ‘AJ’ or ‘Lex’?”
“Pick one, and stick with it.”
“Okay, so will you be attending Whateley using your mother’s family name, or your father’s?”
“Neither. We already dealt with this at Montessori. They came up with ‘Blackstone’ as a neutral name that doesn’t compromise either side. All my transcripts will be under ‘Blackstone’. ‘The Great Blackstone’ was some big name stage magician, way back when stage magicians could be headliners.” Frost made an ‘okay, that makes sense’ squeak, and entered that into her smartphone. “By the way,” I said, taking advantage of Mom and Dad’s huddle, “is it really gonna cost that much to send me to Whateley?”
Jadis gave a snicker. “As a matter of fact, NO. I amped up the costs by a factor of about five.”
She jerked a thumb at the ‘rents, who were in deep discussion, the Swordswoman and her sidekick having joined the confab. “I’ve seen couples like that before. They only way that neither of them won’t try to turn something about all of this into some sort of power play, is if they both think that they actively need each other, and that the other side is holding up their end of the bargain. Oh, they’ll figure it out… some time in your Junior year. And by that time, you’ll be settled in at Whateley, they’ll be committed to this partnership, and they’ll have other crises to keep them busy. And what the hell… the school always needs money. Let’s face it: these days, if a school isn’t a cover for a R&D lab or a Pro Sports franchise, then they’re a money pit.”
As Frost and I thrashed out a few more details, Mom and Dad came to some sort of agreement. Looking like she thought that she’d come out on top, Mom clipped over to us and said, “Well, THAT looks promising! But that’s for later. Right now, young man, you need to go home and pack your bags! We’re heading straight out to Karedonia! Even the Dragon Queen isn’t ditz enough to make a play for you there!”
“NO,” Dad said heavily, “There’s something that he has to finish up first.”
“Don’t you remember? You have HOMEWORK that’s due?