Kayda 8: The Best Days of Our Lives (Part 2)
A Whateley Academy Adventure
The Best Days of Our Lives
I count the steps the distance to
The time when it was me and you is so far gone
Another face another friend
Another place another end but I'll hang on
It's a winding road
It's a long way home
So don't wait for someone to tell you it's too late
Cuz these are the best days
There's always something tomorrow
So I say let's make the best of tonight
Yeah let's make the best of tonight
Here comes the rest of our lives
Best Days - Graham Colton
Sunday, June 24, 2007 - Late Night
Kayda's Home, South Dakota
Danny Franks staggered into the kitchen looking haggard, and pain was evident on his face. Groans of agony punctuated the silence as his mom flipped on a light and then stared, wide-eyed and mouth agape, at her son.
The boy recoiled from the ceiling light, holding his hand up over his face and turning away, while tears leaked down his cheeks. "No light, please!" he insisted in a raspy whisper. "It hurts!"
June Franks flipped off the overhead light and dashed to her son, wrapping him in her arms and clutching his head tight against her breast. "Another one, Danny?" she asked, feeling the helplessness of a mother with a sick child.
"It hurts, Mom," Danny cried softly, tears now streaming down his cheeks. "Make it stop, please!" he begged."Do you want to try Grandma's herbs?" June asked softly, holding the boy's head. She winced as her hands felt soft, furry tissue above where his ears should have been, but biting her tongue, she said nothing at the evidence that Danny's changes were continuing.
"Uh, huh," the boy mumbled softly. "The Vicodin isn't working."
Slowly, tenderly, June led Danny to the sofa and eased him down on his side. Softly stroking his tear-stained cheek, June hurried back to the kitchen and, since the opening between the two rooms was a large archway with no door to shield Danny from light and noise, turned off the main kitchen light, working instead from a dimmer light in the pantry. As quietly as she could, she opened a cupboard door and pulled down some small glass jars, each with a handwritten label. Hearing him cry out in his extreme discomfort, June opened one of the jars, recoiling from the sweet, pungent aroma which issued forth from the coarse, brown, liquid-soaked herbs inside. Eschewing the stove, she grabbed a ceramic coffee cup, filled it about halfway with water, and then popped it into the microwave.
She was watching her son when the microwave beeped that it was done, and before she could turn back to the now-hot water, Danny opened his eyes to complain about the noisy beeping. June gasped when she saw the shine of the pantry light reflected in eyes. Another sign of his changes - the distinct colored reflection of Danny's tapetum lucidum, the same reflective layer found in cats, including mountain lions. No matter how many times she saw that unnatural reflection she gasped in surprise; her son was not supposed to have eyes like a cat.
With pain in her heart, June turned back to the microwave, and working quickly, added a spoon of the wet herbal mixture to the water. This was a last-ditch attempt to stave off her son's pain; she knew what grandma had given them. As a Lakota shaman, Little Doe knew how to make all sorts of herbal potions, including a very highly-regulated mixture that was an extremely powerful narcotic with some hallucinogenic properties. Normally, it was given to a Lakota person when they went on a dream quest, where the person needed to be totally and completely distracted from their physical body so they could fully experience their dreams. As such, the brew neutralized almost all pain even better than the strongest medicine June knew of. And if they weren't Lakota, and her mother a registered shaman, they could have never gotten the powerful mixture. But June knew none of its other properties.
A twinkle of light dashed through the cup, and the vapors changed to an intoxicatingly sweet aroma with hints of sage and lavender; June thought for a moment that Kayda, her now-daughter, probably knew how to make the same brew along with the other magics she could work. She banished the stray thoughts; Kayda would be home in the afternoon, and right now, she had to focus on her other child.
Hurrying to Danny's side, she squatted down beside the sofa and tenderly lifted his head, wincing at the twinges of discomfort and pain evident on his face as she moved him. Holding the cup, she helped him navigate it to his lips and sip - once, twice, three times. In moments, the tears stopped flowing, but June worried about the glazed look entering Danny's eyes. She helped him take another few sips, and then, putting the cup on an end table beside the sofa, eased him back down to his side, propping his head with a small throw-pillow.
When his breathing was regular and soft instead of gasping in pain, June pulled an afghan off the back of the sofa and draped it across Danny, then settled into a chair near his head. Even if it was late, and she was tired, she had a motherly vigil to maintain, as she'd done so often in the past when one of her children was ill or injured. She was not about to change that habit.
Sunday, June 24, 2007 - Late Night
The March of Dreams
Wearing a traditional Lakota man's outfit of buckskin tunic and pants and moccasins, Danny found himself on a prairie with rolling hills and waving knee-high grass. He looked around, taking in the magnificent vista of the azure sky, dotted with small puffs of clouds skittering rapidly to the east, a magnificent yellow sun beating down with warm, welcome rays. In the distance, over a hill, the scattered tiny clouds had formed into something different; the thunderheads towered over the other clouds, and beneath them, a part of the horizon was clouded and dark and fuzzy as afternoon rain poured down to refresh the ground below.
Danny had been in dream space before, so he wasn't startled, but he'd always had Kayda to guide him. Now, though, he was alone. Unless ...
He looked around again. "Kayda!" he called - once, twice, three times, letting his voice echo and die down between calls as he awaited a reply. But there was none.
Overhead, there was a scream, and Danny looked up, startled. His amazement grew even more when he saw an eagle circling above him, looking down at him. As he stared, the eagle circled lower, and dropping its talons, it approached his arm, flaring out its wings to slow itself as it passed him, and then with a mighty flapping of its wings, dragging itself back into the sky to circle and approach again, repeating its motion.
And suddenly Danny knew. As the eagle approached again, he lifted his arm, holding it outstretched and trying to be fearless and calm, which was difficult knowing that the eagle's talons could rip his arm to shreds. The eagle grasped his arm, but instead of tearing into his flesh, it gripped his arm tightly, fluttering its wings until it perched upon his outstretched arms. Danny gazed in wonder at the magnificent bald eagle, looking so stately and proud as it stared right back at him; it was heavier than he'd expected, but he forced himself to hold his arm steady.
"She who you seek is not here," the eagle said to him.
"My sister - Kayda?" Danny asked hopefully.
The eagle shook its head. "Why do you ask? It is you who seeks, not I. If you do not know who you seek, how will you know if you've found her?"
Danny frowned, puzzled. "I ... need to find my sister. She's ..."
"She is the Ptesanwi," the eagle replied. "And she is not who you seek."
"Then ... who? Who is it I seek, if you know so much?"
"The one who has answers to your questions. The one who can explain to you. The one who can help you."
Danny furrowed his brow in thought a moment. "Wihinape? Where is she?"
"Does the mountain lion hunt on the plains?" the eagle asked simply.
"No," Danny answered hesitantly. "She hunts ... in the hills and mountains."
"And there it is that you will find her."
Danny's brow furrowed again as he looked around. "Even if I had a horse, it is many days' ride, and I don't even know where I am," he objected.
"You are in the march of dreams. Everything is as near as your hopes, and as far as your fears," the noble bird replied enigmatically. He saw the confusion writ large on the boy's face. "Speak true, young warrior. You fear to talk with your spirit."
"No!" Danny protested. "I ...."
"If you did not fear it, you would be close to where she hunts," the eagle replied fiercely. "Since you are far from where she hunts, you fear speaking with her."
The boy flinched; what the bird said was wise - and likely true. "But ... she has the answers I need!"
The bird nodded. "And you fear to hear the answers. You are afraid that she will say that which you do not want to hear." There was silence as Danny contemplated what the eagle had told him. "You must decide, young one - which do you fear more? Hearing a truth that you don't want to hear, or suffering because you fear the truth?"
Danny stared at the bird, thinking. "I ... I guess ... suffering," he finally admitted.
Even as he spoke, the prairie, with the sunshine and clouds and distant rain, dissolved around him, fading away as a new image asserted itself. In seconds, Danny found himself standing by a mountain stream, the mountain breeze cool on his cheeks and the smell of pine sweet in his nostrils. The eagle was no longer on his arm, either.
A throaty growl to his left caused him to spin in place, his eyes seeking the source of the noise. Standing on a large rock, downstream of where he stood, was a large, sleek mountain lion, staring at him as if in shock.
"Wihinape?" the boy asked cautiously.
"How is it you come here?" the big cat asked, bounding in two leaps to his side. "You are not a shaman."
"Uh, I don't know," Danny stammered. "Unless ... Grandma gave me some herbal stuff for pain. She said it's used in dream quests?"
Wihinape smiled, and her form flowed to that of a buxom cat-girl of about fourteen, but clothed this time. "Then that means you seek answers if you are on a dream quest."
"I ...." the boy thought aloud, not quite sure what to say. "I don't know what I want."
"You want to know what's happening to you," Wihinape purred. "You want to know if you're going to change more."
"I ... guess so. Yeah."
Wihinape nodded. "You are changing," she said sadly. "I cannot stop it."
"How ... how much?" There was genuine fear in Danny's trembling voice.
"I do not know," Wihinape answered, and then turned away, looking down. "I have failed you, brother of the Ptesanwi," she admitted in a soft voice. "I promised I would not change you, but I am failing to keep that promise."
"But ..." Danny didn't quite know how to handle this; some reflex had him reach out to the girl's shoulders.
She shook her head, pulling away from his touch. "I cause you pain. I cause you regret. I .., I have failed you." She let out a very heavy sigh. "There is only one way I know to stop your pain, that I can keep my promise without hurting you."
"I do not fit your hallow," the cougar-woman said sadly. "I ... must leave you. Otherwise, I cannot keep my promise. I cannot stop the pain, nor can I stop the changes happening to your body."
Danny's jaw dropped. "That'll hurt you! You said so yourself when we met with Kayda! It could ... destroy you!"
"No, I ... told a lie to Ptesanwi to stop her," she lied, and her false statement was totally transparent; she wasn't fooling Danny, nor was she fooling herself. "When I leave, it will stop your pain."
"Um ... but ... Kayda said it will hurt me if you leave!" he finally said.
"The Ptesanwi can heal you from that pain. She cannot heal you if I cause you pain or if I cause you to change."
"Kayda said that happens a lot - that the shock of losing a spirit can make a person insane! I ... don't even want to think of ... going insane ... or of what it would be like if you left," Danny stammered, "I ... I don't want ... I don't want you to ... get hurt."
"If I don't leave, you will be the one who gets hurt," Wihinape replied softly.
"And you, too!" Danny said forcefully. "We'll both get hurt if you leave!"
"You are hurting if I don't leave," Wihinape countered, shaking her head sadly. "And you are not happy with me, or what my spirit might do to change you." She sighed heavily. "It will be for the best if I leave." She turned to face the boy, determination burning in her eyes. "You must summon the Ptesanwi, so she can perform the ritual, and in that way, save you from the pain I cause."
"I ... I don't want you to go!" he finally said, shocking even himself with that admission. "I won't let her do that!"
Wihinape turned, and Danny could see that she'd been crying. "Then we will find a way, somehow." For the first time since their joining, Danny hugged the cat-spirit, finally admitting to himself that despite her teasing and sometimes whimsical, sometimes mischievous ways, he'd grown fond of her and was afraid of losing her.
Looking over Danny's shoulder as he hugged her, the cat-spirit smiled.
Monday, June 25, 2007 - Late Afternoon
Franks' Home, South Dakota
The door burst open into the house, and I practically bounded in, a suitcase under each arm and joy in my heart. I glanced around, looking expectantly for my brother Danny, but I didn't see him. "We're home!" I announced loudly in case he didn't know as I got out of the way so the other three - Addy, Alicia, and Mom - could come in from the sweltering June heat and humidity.
"Ah didn't figure it'd be as hot and humid this far north as it is back home," Alicia said as she dropped her suitcase on the floor beside her. "Ya kinda expect it in the swamps and bayous down home, but not here!"
Mom chuckled. "True, but it cools off a little more in the evenings here, and we get a lot of snow and cold in the wintertime to balance things out. Now, Kayda, why don't you show the girls to the guest room?"
"I know where it is, Madame," Addy replied quickly. "I can show Alicia without you 'aving to trouble yourself."
Mom tilted her head down slightly and rolled her eyebrows upward in her 'motherly-disapproval stare', which Addy had experienced over spring break. "Now, now," she chided the French girl, "remember - you are not to call me Madame, rapelles toi?"
Addy smiled, slightly chastened. "Oui, je me rapelle."
Alicia watched the exchange with a slightly concerned look on her face. "Then how are we to address you?" she asked, bewildered.
"You can call me June, dear," the older woman replied.
"Or Mama June," Addy said with a giggle. "Come," she turned toward the family room, through which the stairway up to the bedrooms was found. "Let's get our luggage out of the way."
"Oh, Kayda?" June said as I bent over to pick up my suitcases, "We put up the old bunk bed in your room with your bed, so the three of you can have 'sleepover' nights without having to tramp up and down the hall all night."
I beamed. "Thanks, Mom," I said with true affection before following my friends upstairs.
"Oh, and Kayda?" Mom called out after the girls, "try to be quiet, please. Danny is resting. He had a very bad headache last night."
I returned to the archway between the kitchen and the kitchen-dining room. "Again?"
Mom nodded. "Real bad. Vicodin wasn't doing anything, so I had to give him some of your grandma's special mix."
My eyes nearly bugged out. "Mom! That stuff is ... really, really potent!"
"Mom told me how much to give him," she reassured me. "Enough to take away his pain."
"Well, that explains it," I muttered. Seeing Mom's quizzical expression, I explained. "In dream space last night, Wabli told me that the 'brother of the Ptesanwi' was looking for me, but he really wanted to find Wihinape. He was dream-walking. That's what Grandma uses it for mostly - dream quests." I winced when I remembered what Wakan Tanka had told me about the potion. "Do you know what that stuff does?"
Mom bit her lower lip. "Besides take away his pain? No, Mom didn't tell me anything else."
"It's mildly hallucinogenic," I said cautiously. "No wonder he was dream walking!" I read my Mom's expression. "As far as I know, it's not addictive, and it won't cause any damage to him, either physical or mental."
Half an hour later, after unpacking, flopping on the beds and having some girly chat, complete with giggles, we came back down, dressed much more casually than we'd traveled. We all wore jeans and a T-shirt, although I had my ever-present tomahawk and knife. We came around the corner into the kitchen, and I grinned. "Hi, Daddy," I said with a huge smile and a bounding hug for Dad. It was no longer awkward to call him Daddy, which was a very girly way of talking.
"Hi, sweetie," Pete Franks replied easily, sweeping me off my feet and twirling me around in a very loving hug. "I'm glad you're home!"
"So am I," I replied enthusiastically. "Daddy," I said as Dad put me down, "you know Addy. This," I gestured to Alicia, "is my friend Alicia Thacker."
Dad stepped to her and shook her hand. "Pleased to meet you. Are you one of the girls who kept Kayda out of trouble last week?"
Addy and Alicia grimaced simultaneously, glancing at each other. Mom noticed, and turned to me, a stern motherly expression fixed on her features. "Kayda! What did you do?"
"We went fishing, and I did a little hunting!" I said meekly, divulging the truth, but not the whole truth.
"Kayda!" Dad snapped, knowing somehow that I'd omitted some details.
"She shot a couple of feral hogs," Alicia began hesitantly.
"Okayyyyy," Mom said warily, gazing my way with a stern expression and knowing instinctively that there was a lot more to the story. "And?"
"One of Alicia's cousins wouldn't stop trying to hit on me, so I took my bow out hunting."
"Bow-hunting feral hogs?" Dad exclaimed, mouth agape.
"At night," Alicia added.
"Kayda Louise Franks!" Mom began, but Dad slowly smiled.
"Did you get him?" he asked.
"Two, actually," I replied. "I had to use my tomahawk and knife to finish them off after the bow-shot." I did my best to ignore my mother's gaping mouth. "They're tough!" I added. "I one-shotted bison in the simulators, but those hogs take a lot more damage to bring down!"
I could tell that Mom was winding up to let me have a 'tender, motherly lecture', but a noise behind us interrupted her. Everyone spun to the noise.
Danny stood in shorts and a T-shirt, looking quite haggard and uncomfortable. "Can you please keep it down?" he asked with a fatigued expression, his eyes only narrow slits and visibly cringing.
I was shocked - he looked really, really bad. I couldn't help turning to him and wrapping an arm around him out of my concern. "Are you okay?" I asked.
"No," he whined softly. "My head hurt really bad last night!"
"Did Grandma's stuff help?" Mom asked, striding to his side.
Danny looked at me. "I ... I think I dream-walked last night," he said hesitantly.
"You probably did," I said reassuringly. "The stuff Grandma made for you is used for dream quests. Do you feel better now?"
Danny nodded feebly. "Some. It still hurts, but not as bad." He sat down at the kitchen table, and Mom got him a cool glass of water.
Dad sat across from Danny. "I'm thinking of selling the dealership," he said out of the blue.
I was stunned. "But ... why?" It didn't make any sense.
"Roger and I got a hell of an offer, and with both of you at Whateley next year, not having the dealership would give us more time ... to travel and visit," he replied.
That made sense. "Okay."
Alicia sat down beside me, staring at Mom, like she had been for a while. I noticed, and it seemed a little weird, but I decided to say nothing, even when her gaze followed Mom getting a pitcher of iced-tea from the refrigerator.
"I'm thinking about maybe getting some hired help," Dad continued. "Without you two," he looked at me and Danny, "it's a little too much for me to handle the farm by myself."
"Where are you going to find help?" I couldn't help but ask. "With Danny and me being ...." I didn't need to complete the sentence; things in town were getting a little touchy because of our mutant status.
Dad shrugged. "For the summer, I can probably arrange some kind of internship with SDSU, but after that?"
"Kayda," Alicia interrupted, still with an eye on Mom, "how long has your mom glowed like this?"
I recoiled, my eyes wide with surprise. Mom exchanged a glance with Dad which I noticed, and Addy frowned. "Um, Alicia," I said hesitantly, "Mom's not a mutant. She's not glowing!"
Alicia gawked at me, and then she started giggling. "That's not what I'm talking about!"
"Then ... what?" I was confused. Based on their expressions, Addy and Danny were as confused as I was, too.
"She's ... glowing!" Alicia repeated, rolling her eyes in exasperation as if her meaning was obvious. "The way a woman glows at ... a certain time!" It still made no sense, and Alicia could see that I was still confused. "Kayda, how old are your parents?"
"Um, mid-thirties," I said without thinking. That didn't help me; it seemed totally unrelated. "Wait," I said, struggling to put the pieces together. It didn't ... and then the pieces suddenly did fit together. My jaw dropped as I turned to Mom. Dad had risen and circled behind her, holding his arms around her from behind, and the two of them were smiling. "You're ....?" This was not possible! Was it? "You're ... pregnant?" I squealed in disbelief. Addy, too screamed happily and rushed to hug Mom.
"How far along ...?" I stammered, confused.
"About seven weeks. We just got it confirmed," Mom explained, "and we weren't going to tell you for a while, but ... since Alicia figured it out ...."
Alicia grinned. "Ah've got enough cousins that Ah've seen a lot of pregnant aunts - enough that Ah know that special 'glow' pregnant women get, so Ah kinda figgered out what was goin' on."
"But ... when?" I asked, and suddenly more pieces clicked together. Seven weeks - that was about during my ... ordeal ... with Jamie's murder. And when they were traveling to get to Whateley. And the morning when it was all over and they might have had reason to celebrate. I gasped - this was definitely TMI.
"One thing," Dad said, smiling at me, but I could tell the smile was a little forced, "do you think you can talk your spirit into keeping this one a boy? If it's a boy, I mean?"
I know Dad didn't mean anything by it, but Danny flinched from his words, knowing as he did that Wihinape was changing him, and dreading that it would result in him being a girl. Dad noticed, and he slipped his arms from Mom and clasped one beefy hand on Danny's shoulder. "Not that we've given up on you, sport," he said softly. Light reflected as tiny sparkles off the tears in Danny's eyes at Dad's support.
Monday, June 25, 2007 - Evening
Franks' Home, South Dakota
With the narcotic pain-killer making him drowsy, Danny stretched out on his bed sleepily, gently setting his head on his soft pillow. His headache was still there, and if anything, despite the medicine, it was getting worse.
"I need to stretch a little," Wihinape said in his mind.
Danny yawned, trying to ignore the pain. "Go ahead," he answered his spirit without thinking. "If it helps ...."
With a soft snoring, Danny drifted completely asleep. With permission from her host, Wihinape stretched out, feeling blessed relief from the misfit hallow in which she was awkwardly crammed. Stretching her arms and legs, she worked out the cramps in her limbs.
With a start, Wihinape realized that she felt arms and legs moving, that she felt the blankets sliding off a body. Amazed, she looked down - and gasped. Then she started crying. In stretching as she had, she'd pushed her host's body too much.
Standing up, she spied the mirror on Danny's dresser, so she strode cautiously to it, studying the body in the reflection. She admired her eyes in the reflected image, and she knew he'd changed enough that she was seeing clearly even though it was dark in the room. She reached up and stroked the boy's hair, absently wishing that she was running her fingers through her own long, flowing strands of tawny hair as they fell down her back and front.
Feeling the pain coming back, she squirmed her spirit in his hallow, and suddenly she felt her fingers running through much longer hair. Opening her eyes wide in surprise, she stared at the long tawny hair her fingers were playing with. A glance in the mirror showed, to her shock, her long hair on the boy's head.
Slowly, it registered on Wihinape that there was something wrong with her hands. She gasped as she pulled them from her silky hair and held them up, staring at the finer, delicate hands with long nails reminiscent of claws. They were her hands, just like it was her hair.
Wihinape sat back on the bed, agonizing over what she'd done, desperately trying to figure out why he was changing despite her best efforts to not change him. She'd promised him, and it was happening anyway. Suddenly, something that had been there all the time caught her attention. The headache! It was now just a bad ache, not the overwhelming pain it had been.
Frowning she concentrated on listening; sounds no longer echoed painfully in her ear like they had. Standing up, she crossed to the window and swept aside the blinds, gazing out at the relatively bright, silvery moon. Not even the moonlight increased the pain. Puzzled, she stood staring at the moon, wondering what had changed.
Changed! She stared at her hands and wondered. Thoughtfully she concentrated on her hearing, recalling what it should be - tuned to nature, sensitive to the faintest of vibrations, able to hear the slightest noise of a critter creeping around. When she heard the unmistakable sounds of a mouse scurrying in the attic above, she smiled as she realized the pain was reduced even more.
Realizing what was relieving the pain, she closed her eyes and pushed against the tightness she had felt ever since she had bonded with Danny. With a purr of delight she stretched, reveling in feeling of her body moving the way she remembered. She arched her back, feeling her breast bobble on her chest as the last vestiges of the headache vanished.
Stepping back to the mirror, Wihinape admired the tight, muscled, flexible body before her, reaching up to run fingers through her long tawny hair, turning side on to pose sultrily before the mirror. Smiling in delight, she moved to the window and playfully posed in the moonlight, standing tall, stretching luxuriously, and purring with pleasure, her tail twitching in a way she hadn't felt for a long time. In the sheer delight of feeling a physical body once more, she forgot about her promise to the boy and turned, relishing the sexiness of the reflected image, luxuriating in the feel of real flesh and muscles that she hadn't felt for so many millennia. Yes, she thought, licking her lips and smiling at the tiny canine teeth that were made visible, she was still very sexy.
Monday, June 25, 2007 - Evening
Franks' Home, South Dakota
"I'm worried about Danny," Mom said as we sat on the screened-in porch in the front of the house. With a cool evening breeze and comfortable lounge chairs, it was a nice way to spend a summer evening. "I think we're going to need to take him to the hospital,"
I sighed, looking at Mom sorrowfully. "A hospital can't help him."
Mom stared at me for a few seconds, and then she nodded. "But ... they're getting worse! I don't know how much more of this he can take!"
"I know," I said, feeling my own worries. Danny was a brat, but he was my brother, and I really hated to see him suffer. Even more, though, I hated that I was helpless to relieve his pain. We could give him more of Grandma's dream-quest potion, but that would leave him zonked out like a druggie, and nobody wanted that.
"So, how bad is this thing with Danny and his hallow?" Mom asked, taking a sip of tea herself.
Steadying myself with another sip of tea, I set the mug on the table, cradling it in both hands and staring at it. "It's bad, and it's not so bad. Danny ... Danny is actually a pretty decent Avatar. The problem is that Wihinape is a pretty powerful spirit too. She's as powerful as Tatanka," I admitted. "Danny ... It's complicated."
"Is it as bad as that poor boy you tried to help by expanding his hallow?" Mom asked.
I cringed at the memory. "His spirit was too powerful for him. It ... Wihinape ... Danny ...." I shook my head, not able to find the words to adequately explain. "It's different."
"Different how?" Mom pressed.
"Danny and Wihinape are pretty well-matched. Maybe too well," I mused. "The problem is that even my spell can only stretch a hallow so far before it affects the body."
Mom looked at me and whispered. "And this is how you hurt your friend? Your cuwe ki?"
I nodded, unsuccessfully fighting tears. "I took her gift! Her gadgeteering genius! She can't do anything anymore and it's all my fault!" I bawled into her shoulder as Mom held me tight and tried to comfort me.
When Addy and Alicia came out onto the porch, I sat up and wiped my eyes. "Maybe at Whateley, we can find some way to help him," I offered. It was a faint hope, but it was something for Mom to clutch at.
"Do you think so?"
I bit my lip, and Mom noticed, even in the dimly-lit porch. "I don't know," I admitted finally. "There's a lot that we don't know about avatars and spirits," I explained, "and lately, there are a lot of spirits showing up that, frankly, don't fit any of the older theories they used to have."
"Like yours?" Alicia suggested between sips of iced tea - which she had initially found appalling, because unlike Southerners, we didn't sweeten our iced tea nearly enough!
"Yeah," I replied. "Like Wakan Tanka and Tatanka. And Lanie's and Wyatt's spirits."
"Was that like Fey's spirit, too?" Addy asked, to which I nodded.
"The old theory was that spirits were just ... a kind of energy. Now, though, there has been a surge of spirits that are ... sentient, intelligent. Their powers are much broader than the old theories postulated. And they can manifest themselves."
"And you're saying that slut-kitty is ...."
I shook my head, sighing. "Mom, you have to accept the fact that Wihinape is with Danny. She's a part of Danny. It doesn't help for you to have nicknames like that."
Mom stared at me for a moment, and I thought she was going to go all stubborn on me, which she excelled at sometimes. "Are you saying ....?"
Her question went unfinished when we all heard a noise on the roof above us. Mom started to move, but I held up my hand to still her and the girls. I felt something, like Danny's spirit. Only it felt wrong.
Whatever was on the roof leaped, rustling into a tree close to the porch, and as we watched in silent astonishment, a nearly-naked teen girl climbed, cat-like, down from the tree. Pausing to shuck off the boxer shorts she was wearing, she padded lightly across the lawn toward the trees that sheltered the house from the wind.
"What ...?" Mom asked, astonished and fearful.
"Shhh," I hushed her, pointing to the naked girl. A quick, very soft incantation heightened my vision so the scene seemed as bright as if it was mid-day, and I repeated it for Mom, Addy, and Alicia.
The girl stopped by the tree-line, now very visible to us because of the magic spell, and with a great stretch, her form shifted, flowing fluid-like. In seconds, in place of the teen girl was a tawny-brown mountain lion, which turned toward us, looked for several seconds, and then scampered into the trees.
"What ...?" Mom began, afraid of asking the question on her mind for fear of the answer she knew was coming.
"That," I said with sickening certainty, "was Wihinape." I looked back at the tree line to where the mountain lion had vanished. "Or rather," I corrected myself, "that was Danny's body manifesting Wihinape."
Mom raised her hand to her mouth, a tiny whimper slipping from her throat, as my words confirmed what her eyes had told her. I clutched her hand tightly, reassuringly. "Well," I said, trying to sound objective, but failing miserably because it was my little brother, "now we know."
Monday, June 25, 2007 - Late Evening
Eastern South Dakota
From a small cluster of trees, a pair of beady eyes narrowed, focused laser-like on the house, as the enormous tail coiled in preparation. A wicked grin showed evil, scimitar-like teeth in a huge mouth beneath the intent, snake eyes, and the creature's fingers, capped in razor-like claws, flexed in anticipation.
A light in the house turned off, and the snake-demon moved, silently, stealthily, taxing his own patience; the prey was within his grasp. It was no time to get hasty and ruin the hunt. As he settled within a few yards of the house, he looked around. There were other dwellings in this strange village, but luck was with him - the house was on the edge of the white man's village.
One of the noisy, smelly iron buffalos of the white man charged past a hundred yards away, but the snake-demon ignored it. It was time.
He exploded from his coil toward the dwelling, using his own head and body as a battering ram to smash through the flimsy structure in a hail of wood splinter and flying insulation and plaster. The shaman was abed, as he fully expected, but his attack surprised the shaman totally ... even more than he'd hoped. There was no time for even the simplest of protection magic before the shaman's body was torn asunder in a fusillade of teeth and claws. And then the shaman's life force was no more. The snake demon grinned with pure evil; at last he had succeeded.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007 - Early Morning
Franks' Home, South Dakota
The girls and I were seated in awkward silence at the table as Mom struggled to cook breakfast. Needless to say, she was highly distracted, because of the events of the night before had her pretty rattled. None of us knew what to say; how does one talk after seeing one's little brother manifest a very sultry cat-woman and then turn into a mountain lion?
"At least he ... it ... came back last night," Mom said to try to make conversation.
"Yeah," I said. "I ... felt it, in my dream space, so I woke up." I looked at Mom, who looked tired and emotionally wrung out, and I could see that she'd been crying, probably a lot. I got up and went to give her a big hug, which she probably needed. "Mom," I said softly, "remember what you told me?"
Mom shook her head, starting to sob again. "No."
"You said, 'No matter what you look like, it's still you inside. And I still love you.'"
Mom looked at me, her eyes moist with tears. "You ... you remember that?"
"Mom," I said earnestly, "that's what helped get me through a lot of my problems - knowing that, no matter what, you still loved me because I was still your child on the inside, even if the outside changed."
She nodded, fighting her tears. "He ... he looked so peaceful in bed this morning. Like he'd slept the best he had in days." She looked directly into my eyes. "But ... it was him! Not her. Not that ... animal!"
I sighed; I didn't want to do this part. "Mom, do you remember when I changed?" She nodded. "It didn't happen overnight, did it? It took a while. And my change was accelerated because of my burnout."
"So ...?" Mom started to ask before her voice choked off.
"If it's like the vast majority of mutations, it may take Danny a long time to change. Every time she manifests, it's probably going to change him a little bit more," I explained. "Spirit-induced change takes time."
Mom nodded on my shoulder. Then she shook, and I couldn't tell if she was trying to laugh or cry. "I always told your father that I wanted a daughter," she finally sputtered, actually half-laughing and half-sobbing, "but this is ridiculous!"
We hugged for a few minutes with Mom crying on my shoulder - long enough that neither of us noticed Alicia and Addy getting up and taking over the cooking duties.
When Mom lifted her head, she gasped. "What do you think you're doing?"
"We are cooking breakfast," Addy replied.
"You're guests!" Mom protested, wiping the moisture from her eyes on the back of her shirt-sleeve. "You're not ..."
"Non?" Addy countered with a broad grin. "When I visited last time, you told me that I was to think of you as family. In a family, all 'elp with chores, n'est c'pas? So we are just 'elping!"
"So y'all can just sit down and let us finish," Alicia drawled.
"But no 'ot sauce!" Addy interjected with mock fear. "Can you make the crepes, and I'll make the filling?" she asked her roommate.
"See what I have to put up with," I giggled to Mom. It was just what she needed; the friendly humor broke through her funk.
Mom and I both realized someone was watching us, and we both turned, though she was a little more startled than I. Danny was standing in the kitchen archway, and for the first time since I'd been home from school, he looked rested and relaxed.
Mom bounded to him, enveloping him in a smothering, motherly hug. "Are you okay?" she asked in a worried voice.
Danny tried to squirm out of her protective, motherly hug, without much success because she was so practiced at it. "I'm fine!" he complained. "My head doesn't hurt." From within Mom's protective shield, he glanced at me. "Whatever you did last night worked, because I slept good and I don't have a headache."
I winced as I glanced at Mom, seeing her grimace when she looked at me. "Um, Danny," I started hesitantly, "I didn't do anything."
He was bewildered. "But ... you had to have done something! I don't have a headache!" he protested.
"Danny," I started, and then gestured for him and Mom to sit down. "How much do you remember about last night?"
"I had a bad headache, and Mom gave me some pain meds. Then I went to bed," he replied. "And I got up this morning."
"Did you have any dreams?"
His brow furrowed as he thought. "Um, yeah. I think." With his eyes closed to shut out distractions, he struggled to recall. "Um, Wihinape took me out and showed me how she hunts, when she's in her mountain lion form. We ... we stalked a calf, I think, but I told her not to kill it because we ... we weren't hungry." He wrinkled his nose, opening his eyes. "And ... I didn't want to do that - to kill something like that and eat it."
I grimaced, pretty sure I knew what had happened. "Danny," I pressed the issue, "what's your worst fear right now?"
My kid brother frowned. "Um, changing?" he said softly, fearfully. "Into her?"
I nodded. "Last night, you did change into Wihinape's form. Forms," I corrected myself. "Both of them."
Danny's eyes widened, and in disbelief, he looked at Mom, hoping she'd reassure him that what I'd said wasn't true. Unfortunately for him, all she could do was grimace and nod. And when he saw Alicia's and Addy's confirming nods as well, he started to tear up. "I ... I couldn't have!" he protested. "I was in bed ... sleeping! The stuff you gave me ... it kept me asleep!" I was afraid he was going to start bawling.
"What did you do to me?" Danny demanded of his spirit.
I sighed heavily. "You dragged me into your dream-space again!" I complained. "Tell Wihinape to stop doing that!"
"It wasn't intentional, Ptesanwi," Wihinape apologized before turning to Danny. "I was very sore from being cramped. I stretched ... and ... it changed you."
"You promised you wouldn't!" the distraught boy cried.
"I didn't mean to," Wihinape said regretfully. "I ... just stretched ... so I wouldn't be so sore. I didn't know that it would change your body."
"Then ... why aren't I changed?" Danny asked, confused.
"I don't know," Wihinape admitted after a few seconds. "You should ask the Ptesanwi. She knows more than I."
I forced myself back out of dream-space, hoping that every time Wihinape wanted a conversation with Danny, she wasn't going to accidentally yank me into the discussion.
Danny opened his tear-filled eyes, looking down at the floor. "She ... she said she stretched, and that she did manifest." He looked up at me in desperation. "Is that what she's going to make me look like - like her human form? Or her mountain lion form?"
"I don't know," I answered once more. "There aren't many cases of sentient spirits, and fewer gender-mismatched spirits." I hoped he didn't read through my lie. Jamie, Nikki, and I were all cases of gender-mismatched spirits, and we had all changed gender. Danny was already scared enough by all this and I didn't want to add to it. "Grizzly, Lanie's spirit, has been both male and female over many millennia, but Lakota spirits are different. I don't know if Wihinape can change gender like Grizzly does"
I paused to sip from the coffee which Addy had just set before me. "Danny, I want you to try to manifest Wihinape again."
"No!" he shouted in response. "I ... I can't! I don't know how!" he protested. "And ... what if I get ... get ... stuck?" he added, sniffling. "I ... I just can't!"
"Let me ask her something first, then," I suggested. When Danny nodded, I incanted, touching his forehead, and we slipped into dream-space.
I sat on a log, beside Wakan Tanka and across from Wihinape. Danny was there, beside her, looking frightened. "Wihinape, I need to know - can you show as male, like my friend's spirit Grizzly does?"
Wihinape shook her head. "I cannot do that. I am female! I have never been anything else."
"Wihakayda," Wakan Tanka spoke softly, "The spirits of the people, as you suspect, are different from Kodiak and Grizzly. Wihinape is the model of female grace and agility of Lakota women. She cannot assume another form."
I sighed, nodding my understanding. "I had to ask." After a moment, I looked at Wihinape, who was absently stroking Danny's hair. It was then that I noticed his hair was more tawny in color than the medium brown it had been. Another of Wihinape's influences? "I want you to manifest your form in the real world, like you did last night."
"I didn't think you saw me," the cat-woman said, scowling.
"You are a hunting cat," I chuckled. "You are supposed to know what's around you."
She glared at me for a few seconds. "Very well."
"Please don't!" Danny whimpered to her. "What if ... if you get stuck? If I'm stuck - looking like ... like that?"
Wihinape sniffed indignantly. "What's wrong with how I look?" When Danny gulped and winced, caught in an unflattering implication, she chuckled. "Very well, Ptesanwi. I will manifest myself."
I looked at Mom, who was watching me carefully. "She will manifest."
"I don't want her to!" Danny protested again. His objection didn't matter; his body began to shift, and in moments, his body was that of Wihinape in the cat-woman form. In that form, his ears were furry, tawny triangles atop his head, with long, flowing tawny tresses hanging down just past his shoulders. We were used to the cat-pupils, since he had them all the time now. "Satisfied?" he asked, wincing at how he sounded and glancing unhappily down to see a very curvy female body pinched and squeezed in his clothes, especially in the chest and rear-end. Almost like it was a cliché, he started to lift his hands toward the unfamiliar mounds on his chest, but then, blushing, he forced himself to not touch them.
I suppressed a chuckle; I'd been through the same experience, and I understood only too well how teenage male curiosity worked. "Who is in control right now - Wihinape, like last night, or Danny?"
"Me," Danny mumbled, in tears. "But I can feel her - like being in this form draws her closer to me."
I figured he was freaking out. "Calm down, Danny. You changed back last night, so it'll be okay." I hoped. But I didn't say that part aloud. Instead, I quickly got a coffee cup of water and then opened my medicine pouch, quickly making the calming tea. "Here."
He looked uncertainly at me, and then drank the brew. The result was almost instantaneous; his worry wrinkles disappeared and the panic in his eyes vanished. "Better?" I asked, to which he simply nodded in reply.
"At least you have clothes on," Mom said sarcastically.
"We saw her shift your body to a cougar, too. Can she do that now, too?"
For a second, Danny seemed distracted, and then he nodded, standing - and wincing once more at how it felt to move in the unfamiliar female body. Again, his body flowed quickly into that of a mountain lion, albeit with clothes on. "Like this?" he asked.
I nodded, while Mom, Addy, and Alicia sat or stood back a bit, eyes wide open at having a full-grown mountain lion in the kitchen, even if they knew it was Danny and was wearing his pajamas.
"Okay. Now change back."
Watching a mountain lion screw up its facial expression in concentration was amusing - or rather, it would have been if it hadn't been my kid brother. After several seconds, his eyes opened. "I ... can't!" he complained, his voice cracking in distress.
"Let Wihinape do it," I urged him. "She knows how to do it."
Danny nodded, and then his body flowed back - through the female form, until he was sitting on his haunches on the kitchen floor. He looked down at himself, at his hands, chest, and feet. "I'm ... I'm me again!" he said joyfully. "I didn't get stuck!"
Mom swept him into a hug again, grateful that her son was back to being her son. I, on the other hand, studied him carefully. Through my shaman magic, I looked for any tiny little change in him, but I didn't see anything obvious. And I was starting to formulate a theory about his interaction with his spirit. But I wasn't an expert; my theories and ideas would have to wait until we were at Whateley and I could talk to the power experts - and even they might be baffled.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007 - Afternoon
Franks' Home, South Dakota
"That's odd," Mom said as she hung up the phone with a puzzled expression.
"Mom isn't answering her phone," Mom answered.
I shrugged. "She probably forgot to charge it while she was traveling and it's out of juice." Grandma wasn't a technophile by any stretch of the definition.
"I don't think that's it," Mom answered immediately, a little worried. "I tried her home phone, too."
"She's probably at the store or the post office," Danny suggested. The four of us - three girls and Danny - were enjoying some fresh-baked cookies and we were amazing Danny with Whateley tales.
"I thought of that," Mom replied. "I checked with the phone finder app. Her phone is at home." She worried her lower lip for a bit. "Something isn't right," she decided. "I'm going over there."
"I'll drive," I suggested. I didn't get to drive my truck at Whateley, so I was taking every opportunity to drive while I was home.
Alicia and Danny hopped right up into the truck, but Mom and Addy struggled a bit; my truck was lifted about four inches, with big tires and wheels, so the cab was quite high off the ground and I hadn't installed a side step rail yet. Honestly, it would have been difficult for me, too, if I wasn't an exemplar. I'd have to get rails on it.
"And you said my dad was a crazy driver," Alicia chuckled as we drove toward Grandma's. She lived just on the edge of town; she either said she lived in town or in the country depending on who she was talking to and how rustic she wanted to sound.
"You should have ridden with Lanie," I shot back with a grin. "Ever been in a car doing two-hundred twenty?"
"Non," Addy shot back immediately, "and I 'ope to never be in one!"
"Way cool!" Danny chimed in excitedly. Since I was friends with Lanie, he obviously was hoping to get a chance to ride in Lanie's car when we got to Whateley.
"Two twenty?" Mom asked, astonished. "You didn't tell me that part!"
"It wasn't a big deal," I said with a shrug. "It's flat, straight roads and not a lot of traffic. You can ...." I stopped, my eyes riveted forward. "That's strange," I muttered.
Grandma's truck was in the driveway, so she was home, but what had caught my attention was debris we could just see on the opposite side of the house from the driveway and garage. "What the hell?"
Mom was focused on the same debris field; it looked like splintered wood and siding, and as soon as I stopped the truck behind Grandma's truck, she was out and running toward the house.
"Wihakayda! Stop your mother!" Wakan Tanka shouted in my head.
"I feel it, too!"
Slamming the shifter into park, I leaped from the cab and chased mom; fortunately, I was much faster than she was, and I caught her as she was reaching for the doorknob, key in hand. "Stop! Something's wrong here, Mom!" I fairly screamed at her.
She looked at me, quite startled that I'd basically pulled her off the porch by force. "Kayda!"
"Mom, there's something very wrong here!" I repeated. "I feel it. Wakan Tanka feels it!"
"What ...?" she started to ask.
"Go wait in the truck!" I ordered, a lot more sternly than I'd ever spoken to Mom before. When she stared blankly at me, I continued. "Mom, please!" I guided her back to the truck and helped her in. Actually, it was more like forced her into the truck. It was her mother's house, after all. "Stay here. Keep her here, no matter what! Lock the doors," I directed the others before turning back to the house. I had a thought and glanced over my shoulder. "Alicia, start the truck and get ready to drive out of here if you have to. Fast. As fast as you can."
Instinctively, I brought up my shield and then took my knife and tomahawk as I worked around the house toward the debris. The closer I got, the worse it felt. I looked at the house, at a large, gaping hole which had been torn directly into the side, with the roof, absent support, drooping into the hole. It was as if a bomb had gone off outside the house, blowing most of the debris inward, into the house.
And suddenly, with a very sickening feeling, I knew what had happened. It was the same as the shaman's death I'd investigated with HPARC. It had the same feel, which was the same demonic sensation as I'd felt when we'd fought Snakey.
Cautiously, I crept into hole, my eyes adjusting to the lighting, and then I turned, sank to my knees, and threw up, overwhelmed by the blood and guts and body parts splattered about the room.
Dad was in the truck with Mom, comforting her in her extreme anguish, while I stood outside the house, phone in hand. Alicia had taken Danny and Addy back to the farm in Dad's truck, and I'd called Whateley Security and HPARC, and finally, the sheriff. I couldn't let Mom in to see the mess; there wasn't anything identifiable left of Grandma anyway, and with the obvious demonic energy contaminating the house, it was too risky.
The sheriff came up with his siren blaring and the lights flashing, screeching to a halt behind my truck. It wasn't Sheriff Clarkson, but a new one who'd been elected in haste after Sheriff Clarkson and his deputy had been jailed by the state police a couple of months earlier. But it wasn't any improvement; in fact, it might have been worse. Tom Dinkins was a close friend of Doc Robinson - who was well-known for his hatred of mutants - and just as much a muto-phobe and bigot. Unlike Clarkson, Dinkins was openly a member of Humanity First!
"Get out of my way," he snarled at me when I stepped to intercept him and keep him from the house.
"You can't go in," I said bluntly.
"I can go wherever the hell I want," he snapped back. "Are you obstructing an officer in his official duty?" His hand slipped down to his sidearm, and he sounded almost eager for me to protest so he could arrest me.
Dad joined me, providing a little backup. "I have every reason to hate you bigoted sons of bitches," Dad replied, "but even an asshole like you doesn't deserve to have his mind scrambled by remains of a Lakota demon!"
The sheriff was starting to move forward, but he stopped as Dad's words sank in. "What?"
"This was an attack by a Lakota snake-demon," I explained. "It's ... essence ... can warp a person's mind. If you go in there, you'll end up insane. Or worse."
"How do you know?" he demanded.
"I'm ... a shaman," I replied, knowing he was going to not believe me. "I've fought this type of demon before. I've seen the results of his attacks before. If you go in there, the residual demon energy will leave your mind empty - if you're lucky. If not, you'll never be sane again."
I could tell he didn't believe me. I pulled out my phone, selecting a number. "You know of the Homestake Paranormal Activity Research Center?"
"I've heard of it," the sheriff answered cautiously.
"They've investigated and documented several cases of attack by this type of demon. They're specialists in this. And even they can't go near this without some serious magic protection. Call them if you want verification." I held out my phone toward him.
He was quite obviously mulling over what I'd said, trying to decide what to do.
"It's your brain, not mine," I said with a shrug and more than a bit of snark.
"And I suppose you're not affected?" he asked sarcastically.
"Yes, I am," I retorted calmly, "but knowing shaman magic, I can shield myself and others from the demon taint."
Sheriff Dinkins squared himself. "Then use it. It's my job to investigate."
Nervously, I glanced at Dad, who nodded grimly. "Okay." With a couple of memory reminders, I incanted the spell on the three of us. "It's only good for fifteen minutes or so - at least if you want a margin of safety."
The sheriff started toward the door, but then stopped. "You go first."
"Damned brave of you," Dad muttered angrily. Nevertheless, he went with me to the porch, where we unlocked the door and walked into the house.
Surprisingly, the kitchen was untouched and normal, but when we turned to the living room, we saw utter devastation inside the house. It was like everything had been very deliberately and methodically torn apart. Wincing, I led Dad and the sheriff down a short hallway toward the smashed master bedroom. Grandma's study and the guest room were likewise torn apart, smashed almost beyond recognition.
I hesitated in the hall; I could see through the door which had been smashed open by something large, large enough that it had shattered the door casing and part of the wall to make a passageway large enough. It was about the size of the snake demon I'd already fought and defeated. Light came into the bedroom through the broken wall.
Cringing, I stepped cautiously forward into the bedroom, knife in hand and feeling bile rise as I fought to not be sick again. Dad took a step in, looking around for only a second before he turned and ran to throw up. Behind him, the sheriff sneered, only to join Dad hanging over the edge of the porch wracked by dry heaves after emptying his stomach.
I went back out, putting my hand on Dad's back. "We have to get away from here. I don't know how much longer my magic can protect us."
Nodding in understanding, gasping for breath to try to fight off the intense nausea, he grabbed the back of the sheriff's shirt and tugged him with us away from the house.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007 - Late Afternoon
East River, South Dakota
Hidden in a burrow he'd had to excavate - partially under the burning rays of the morning sun, Unhcegila's second son curled his body around the precious object. It had taken longer to dig a hole, but he had no choice, since the only man-made tunnels were too small. The result was that he was tired and his skin still burned from the morning solar exposure. But he had it.
"Father," the snake demon called when he'd saved up enough energy to channel a psychic message.
"Yes, my son?"
"I have it," the snake-demon said simply.
There was a long pause. "Are you sure?"
"As certain as I could be. It has a magical taste that seems like what you told us existed in ancient times," the snake-demon reported.
"And the shaman?"
Unhcegila, sequestered in the suspended animation section of HPARC's deep subterranean caverns, grinned, and then began to laugh in triumph, an evil, disturbing, mind-bending sound. "My other son makes progress. Soon I shall be free."
"I felt the presence of her," the son added. "I could have killed her."
"You were wise to not try. She is stronger than you know," Unhcegila chided his son. "How long will it take you to return to the mountains?"
"Two or three days. It is slower moving with the object, and it takes me time to dig a new burrow to protect myself from the daytime sun, and the days are long."
"I will use the time to think of a place for you to keep the object until I can be freed."
Wednesday, June 27, 2007 - Morning
Near Grandma's Home, South Dakota
I was grateful for Alicia and Addy; they were troopers, fixing dinner and breakfast and just generally helping out, because Mom was so distraught she couldn't do anything. Dad wasn't as bad, and he'd gotten Uncle Roger to run things at the dealership so he'd have a few days to help Mom cope with things.
I hadn't felt like eating. I'd barely had anything for dinner the night before, either; none of us had. The whole family was in shock, and Mom worst of all for obvious reasons. It was impossible to believe that Grandma Little Doe, so bright-eyed and full of wisdom and cheer, was gone, and so violently killed by a Lakota demon. "I'm going to ... to make sure things are safe, and to meet the HPARC people," I explained, even though I really just wanted to find a place to curl up and cry. I was starting to feel like it was my fault; if I hadn't become the Ptesanwi, I wouldn't have attracted the attention of the demons, and Grandma would still be alive.
Driving numbly, crying all the way, I didn't really remember the trip, only that I was at the house where a Deputy Sheriff was watching a perimeter Sheriff Dinkins had marked, on my recommendation, to make sure no-one entered the building. There was a helicopter in an adjoining field, marked as belonging to the Army National Guard, and a few people were walking around the perimeter, using odd instruments and taking pictures.
Hazel Two Bears heard me coming and was in the driveway to greet me even before I shut off the motor. I sat in the truck, bawling uncontrollably for a few minutes, before Hazel opened the door, which for a diminutive woman, was quite a feat. I ended up in her arms, crying on her shoulder for I don't know how long.
"It's not your fault, Kayda," she said, somehow guessing what was on my mind. I suppose my shocked expression didn't surprise her. "There have been several deaths of shamans under rather ... violent ... circumstances," she admitted. "There's no reason for you to believe that this is because of you."
"But ...." I sputtered, confused at how she'd guessed and not in the slightest bit convinced. "If ... I wasn't ... If I'd been ...."
Hazel shook her head firmly. "Kayda, don't." She held my shoulders and gently pushed me back so I was staring into her eyes. "Do not second-guess yourself. That way leads to paralysis, inability to make decisions, constant worry about what the future will hold."
"It ... it was Unhcegila's son," I cried softly. "Just like ...."
"And it was Unhcegila's son who we think killed three other shamans and several non-shamans," Hazel said. "There is no pattern to the attacks. We've analyzed it every way we can. There is no pattern!"
After a while, I walked with Hazel over to Dr. Schmidt, who was talking with Sheriff Dinkins. I'd been so buried in grief that I hadn't noticed his arrival.
Dr. Schmidt turned to me, not quite sure whether to greet me as a friend he hadn't seen for a while, or to offer his condolences. The expression on his face was a mixture of both. And then he glanced at the Sheriff and winced. A feeling of icy dread cut through me at the look on his face.
"Kayda, there's something you need to do," he said hesitantly.
It took a second to figure out what he might be talking about, and then it hit me like a hammer. "No!" I mouthed, abhorrent at what he was implying. I looked at Hazel to deny what I thought he was going to ask, but she had the same grim expression.
"Kayda," Hazel said softly, wrapping her arm around my waist and holding me close to her, "I know this is hard, but you're the only one who can do this."
I don't ever want to remember the details. All I know is that was the worst two-and-a-half hours of my life. I don't know how many times I renewed my protection spell. I have no clue how many times I went in, or how many times I staggered out, vomiting or convulsing with dry heaves. At some point during my gory task, Dad showed up, but it wasn't until it was all over, when I decontaminated the grisly contents of the body bag and handed it to the Sheriff and it was safe that he came over and wrapped me in a hug that I very desperately needed. What got me most, I think, was finding her wedding ring and part of her bearclaw necklace.
There was a tree out behind Grandma's house, a large elm tree that had stood for who-knows how many years. It used to have a tire swing hanging from one branch for Danny and me to play on. Now, it was a tree I could lean on and cry, wailing my anguish at the whole thing. I was later told that Aunt Ida wanted to come and comfort me, but Dad knew - somehow - that I needed to be alone.
It didn't matter what Hazel had said; it was my fault. Unhcegila and his snake-demon sons had slept for over a century - until I manifested and got Ptesanwi's spirit. His snake-demon son had attacked me, not anyone else. Now, it had killed Grandma - because I was the new Ptesanwi. I put my head on my updrawn knees and cried and cried, and cried some more.
Eventually, I realized that there were people watching me. Lifting my head, I expected to see Dad and Hazel, but instead, there were nearly a dozen men, Lakota warriors all judging by their dress and face paint, all standing, silently watching me. I started when I recognized a couple of them from that night on spring break - so long ago, it seemed - when I'd found them watching over me, providing silent protection against the possibility of attack from my home town. They were Ghost Warriors.
"Can ... can I help you?" I managed to stammer, wiping at the tears rolling down my cheeks. If they were up to no good, my intense grief and self-recrimination had left me in no condition to fight.
One of the men glanced at his companions and took a half-step forward. "We heard the news, and have come to mourn Grey Skies."
"What?" My jaw hung open at his words. I'd heard one of them mention Grey Skies at Spring Break. After a moment, I shook my head. "I ... I think you're mistaken," I replied cautiously. "It's my grandma. Grandma Little Doe. Not this Grey Skies you're talking about."
The man looked at his companions, puzzled. "No, it is the shaman Grey Skies," he replied with conviction. "We met her here many times."
It was my turn to be confused. "Grandma - was a shaman? Calling herself Grey Skies?" But why? It made no sense to me at all; she had a secret life she'd kept from me - and probably Mom? But why? What did it mean?
Retrieving and decontaminating the ... remains ... of Grandma wasn't enough; now I was working through the house, all by myself in that scene of blood and devastation and mayhem, finding and removing all demon taint that was on the structure, furniture, knick-knacks, clothing, and anything else inside the house. It was tedious and thoroughly unpleasant, and I felt like I was surrounded by death. It was also quite fatiguing; every so often, I'd go outside and sit to drink some tea. Sheriff Dinkins had left, but one of his deputies was there, and he looked at my beverage like he suspected it was drugs.
In her study, the last room I had to clean, I came upon a acrylic case and pile of books which had been knocked from a shattered shelf of books and other references. I paused over that, remembering my curiosity at the strange, rough, brown ball it held, with no labels or plaques or anything on the case to identify it. I'd asked Grandma many times when I was younger, and she always gave me a wry smile and said that it was her 'softball'. With a laugh, she joked that it was a prize from her school days, when they had to improvise for their games. And then she'd get a semi-serious look and say that someday, maybe, I'd get the honor of keeping the softball. For some reason I couldn't identify, it felt ... strange. Not foul like something contaminated by Snakey's demon taint, but ... very different. And in a way, familiar.
I was still pondering the strange feeling, and was about to look for the softball when I heard a phone ringing. For some reason, that little bit of modern technology and noise was a welcome relief, so I turned from the task and started following the sound. I found the phone in the broken rubble that had been a nightstand by Grandma's bed; it stopped ringing just as I picked it up. Out of curiosity, I looked at the display on the now-silent phone.
"Chief Bear Claws"
My heart leaped into my throat, and I nearly fell over in shock. In disbelief, I tapped on the phone display - Grandma had never gotten around to locking her phone - and found that there were five missed calls from the same number, and a message.
I shouldn't have, but my curiosity was too great. With a couple of taps, I had the message playing, also from the same number - Chief Bear Claws, the old retired chief that had made me feel suspicious at Spring Break.
"Grey Skies, this is Dan. I had another phone call from that school's security. They implied that they know I had a connection to the events, but so far, I think I've thrown them off the trail. I need some help, or they might trace things to you."
Events, security, that school, Chief Dan Bear Claws, tracing things to Grey Skies - that meant - Whateley - and all of M2's attempts to get rid of me. My whole world spun; I think I screamed as I collapsed.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007 - Noon
Franks Family Home, South Dakota
I came to with a start, and for a moment, I was confused, but as I sat up, I realized I was on the living room sofa in my own home. I looked around and found Dad and Aunt Ida watching over me, very concerned. "What ...?" I started to ask.
"Are you okay?" Dad asked immediately. "When you screamed ...."
I had to collect my thoughts. "I ... screamed?" It didn't make sense. "I ... was in ... Grandma's house?" I wasn't sure if it had been a nightmare, or if it had been real.
"I found you on the floor in the bedroom," Dad explained. "You must have fainted."
My eyes popped wide open, and I stared at Dad. "Was ... was there ... a cell phone? With me?"
"Grandma's phone," he answered, bewildered. "It was in your hand. You were holding it like you were trying to crush it!"
"Nooo!!!" I wailed again, confronted with the reality that it had not been a nightmare. My grandmother Little Doe - she had been the one behind trying to get me to leave Whateley! To what end? To go live in safety on the reservation - as the Ptesanwi? Why? Unless - she thought I'd bring prosperity to her tribe? "No, no, no!" I cried again, burying my face in my hands. My own grandmother - had been behind the actions that nearly got me killed! I passed out again.
"Kayda?" A hand was holding mine, and the voice was soft and sweet. I could smell the faintest hint of perfume, but the pieces weren't going together well.
I struggled, and my eyes fluttered open, my bedroom room slowly coming into focus. More importantly, the faces over mine came into focus - Addy and Alicia were there. Or was it another dream or nightmare? My world had been turned so upside down that I didn't know. I launched myself at Alicia, who was closer, wrapping my arms around her and burying my face in her shoulder; if she was real, I needed a friend to cling to.
"Are you okay?" she asked me, genuine concern only too apparent in her voice.
"N .... no," I muttered slowly, feeling another round of tears about to overwhelm me.
"What's wrong?" she asked, concerned.
"Oh, Alicia," I blubbered, "I ... I found out ... Grandma ... Grandma was ...." I was having no small amount of difficulty forming a coherent sentence through my emotional turmoil and crying. "Grandma ... Grey Skies ... Chief Bear ... Claws," I continued to try to explain, but it was disconnected words with no rational connection. "Whateley ... M2."
"Shhh," Alicia gently cradled my head, patting my back with the other hand. "Calm down Kayda." She held me until my wailing and crying abated a bit. "Slow down. Now what's going on?"
"Grandma - she's Grey Skies!" I blurted out, and the pronouncement started another deluge. "She ... Chief Bear Claws ... M2 had his number!"
"What?" Addy was confused by my incoherent stream. "Your grandma is Little Doe!"
I shook my head, sniffling. "She's ... the Ghost Warriors ... called her Grey Skies."
"She's Grey Skies? The one who had the Ghost Warriors protecting you during Spring Break?" she asked.
"She ... her phone ...." I stopped to wipe my cheeks on her shirt. "Her phone had ... a message ... from Chief Bear Claws." Even saying that much was like being stabbed in the heart once more. If it was true, then what she'd done felt like the greatest betrayal in history. "He ... he said that school called ... about the incidents, and M2, and ...." I couldn't continue.
"M2 - he's the kid who tried to kill you?" Alicia asked. I nodded mutely, crying. "And ... he's somehow connected to Chief Bear Claws?" Again I nodded. "But ... how does this connect to your Grandmother?"
"The Ghost Warriors said ... she was Grey Skies. The Chief ... called her ... Grey Skies," I repeated. "He left a message ... that security called. They ... think he's linked ... to M2 ... and the events." Every word felt like it was another twist of a knife of betrayal - held in my Grandmother's hand.
"Okay, Kayda," Alicia said, almost in disbelief. "I'm going to get on the phone to Whateley security." I nodded without saying a word. "Chief Delarose can investigate better than your Barney Fife of a sheriff."
Wednesday, June 27, 2007 - Afternoon
Franks' Home, South Dakota
Addy and Alicia helped me down the stairs to the dining table, where Dad sat with Danny, watching me very cautiously. Hazel and Dr. Schmidt were also at the table. Alicia helped me sit, and then sat beside me.
"Are you okay, honey?" Dad asked with a very worried expression.
I nodded slowly. "How's Mom?"
"She's sleeping," Dad reported. "Doctor Martin called in a prescription for something to calm her down."
"When you screamed, we thought ... something bad had happened," Hazel said solemnly. "And we didn't dare go inside, in case ..."
"Then ... how ...?"
Dr. Schmidt smiled and shook his head. "Never underestimate the determination of a concerned father."
I looked at Dad, totally surprised, and he nodded. "What happened with you? I found you clutching your Grandma's phone like ... like it was a life vest."
I glanced at my friends; I couldn't tell Dad and Danny. Danny wouldn't understand, and it would shatter any memories of Grandma that Danny was going to need to get through her loss. And Dad? If I told him, he'd eventually tell Mom. Mom didn't need to deal with that as well as losing her mother. "I ... I don't really remember," I stammered. Seeing looks of concern from Dad and Danny, I lied, "I ... felt something really bad ... in the spirit world. Like ... the snake demon." I shook my head sadly, hoping that I was convincing. "It was like flashback ... to when we fought him in Dunwich. I guess ... it overwhelmed me."
Dad nodded sympathetically - I figured he was buying it. But I got a curious look from Hazel; I guessed she wasn't. "Is the house safe?" Hazel asked, changing the subject but still giving me a strange look.
"Yeah," I nodded. "The study was the last room. I was ... trying to figure out why it felt like ... some weird magic," I continued, wrinkling my nose. "Not ... tainted, but ... strange." I sighed. "And it seemed ... almost familiar somehow."
"Where did you feel this?" Dr. Schmidt asked, curious.
"In the study," I replied.
Hazel touched my arm lightly. "I think a little fresh air will help you here," she suggested. I knew exactly what she meant.
"Okay." A little unsteady, I walked outside with Hazel holding my arm and helping steady me. We walked to the horse-corral near the barn, leaning on the fence to gaze at the animals.
"Now, Kayda," she began, "what aren't you telling your Dad?"
I started, surprised at the blunt question. "I'm ...."
Hazel laughed softly. "I'm a mother and a grandmother. I know when young people are hiding something."
With a heavy sigh, I decided to level with her. "I think ... Grandma Little Doe was really a shaman called Grey Skies who had the Ghost Warriors helping me - and maybe intimidating or threatening the kids in my town who ...." I cut off, unable to say the words, shaking my head instead, as if to shake out a bad dream. "And her phone had a lot of unanswered calls from Chief Bear Claws out in Mission," I continued. "The odd thing is that he left a message that I think means that Whateley security had talked to him about the incidents ...."
"Those would be the attacks on you, right?"
I gawked at her, surprised that she'd heard, and then chided myself. Because of who I was, of course she'd know what happened to me. She had her sources. "Yeah. And he was asking for help from Grandma to throw them off the trail."
"So you think your Grandmother was trying to get you to leave Whateley?" Her eyebrows narrowed. "To come home, and then probably to go to the reservation to be the Ptesanwi for the people?"
"Yeah," I said, wiping at more stray tears.
"No wonder you're upset," Hazel said sympathetically. "I presume you're not telling your Mom and Dad?"
"Especially not Mom."
She nodded. "Probably smart." She turned to look at the horses again. "What is this about some magic feel?"
"I don't know," I shrugged. "I was cleaning up in the study, and I found the display case for Grandma's softball - at least that's what she always called it. It ... had some weird feeling to it - not demonic, but ... different."
"Softball?" Hazel's eyes were round. "Did you know your Grandmother was the keeper of a sacred artifact?"
It was my turn to goggle at her. "What?"
"I don't think anyone remembers where it came from," she said, "but there is a Sacred Ball which a shaman of renown has always kept. I think that's what your Grandmother had."
I frowned, and then figured where I'd find an answer. Touching Hazel on the forehead, I said a little incantation.
"Cante waste nape ciyuzapo!" Hazel said formally when she saw Wakan Tanka sitting on the log.
"Greetings to you, too, my child," Wakan Tanka replied.
"I need to know something," I interrupted the formalities.
"What would that be?"
"Grandma had a ... ball," I answered. "A brown, rough, slightly oblong ball. She kept it in a case in her study. Hazel said she might be the keeper of a Sacred Ball, some kind of artifact."
"She is correct," Wakan Tanka answered plainly. No riddles, nothing inferred. Just a plain answer. That scared me.
"Long ago," Wakan Tanka began to explain, "a shaman stole something from the Bastard and escaped while the Bastard fought all living beings and tore the world asunder. Since that time, it has been kept safe by the people, passed from shaman to shaman. I don't know, though, if anyone remembers what it is or why it must be kept safe. I don't even know what it is or why it was important to the Bastard, only that it's very important."
"And Grandma was a keeper of this ... ball?" I asked. Wakan Tanka just nodded. I felt a shiver course up and down my spine multiple times. I suddenly realized where I'd felt such magic before. "If this falls into the wrong hands ...."
The grim expression on Wakan Tanka's face told me more than I really wanted to know.
"Pick up your phone!" I urged softly, ignoring Hazel, Dad, Danny, and my two friends. I hadn't explained anything to them, but had just quick-timed to my phone and hastily dialed a number. I had a mission to focus on, a task that had to be done, and that was a distraction from Grandma's deception and betrayal. It was what I needed at that moment.
"Hello?" the voice sounded a little tired.
"Nikki? It's me, Kayda."
"Kayda?" Nikki sounded surprised and concerned that I was calling her out of the blue. "What's up? Is something wrong?"
"Lots of stuff, but I absolutely can NOT tell you on the phone," I answered. "Listen, you have to get out here ASAP. It's very, very, very important!"
"But ... I'm in the middle of ...." the red-head started to object.
"Nikki, this is VERY important! On a scale of one to ten, this is a fourteen! Please!" I urged her. "Do I have to have Mrs. Carson call to tell you how important this is?"
There was a gulp on the other end. "Um, I'm going to have to work on getting tickets ...."
Hazel jogged my elbow. "Tell her we'll have an Air National Guard jet pick her up. She's in Kansas City, isn't she?"
"Are you in Kansas City?" I relayed the question.
"No, I'm in Washington, DC, and ...."
Hazel was already frantically texting on her own cell phone. "That's even better."
"Hang on a sec, Nikki. Dr. Two Bears is checking on something."
After a moment, Hazel said, "Tell her to text her location to this number," she rattled off a phone number, "and they'll send a helicopter to take her to Andrews Air Force Base. There'll be a jet waiting for her. And tell her to take a Dramamine if she's prone to motion sickness - those recon jets can get wild at supersonic speeds."
"Where will they land?" I asked Hazel.
"They said the closest airport than can handle their jet is Mitchell. And it's just under an hour flight time."
"I'll ..." I saw the determined looks from Addy and Alicia, "we'll meet you in Mitchell in about a little over an hour. I'll explain in the ride up from the airport."
"Okay. See you in a bit." She hung up her phone.
I clicked it off and read the confused expressions on everyone's faces. "Grandma was the keeper of a very old, very important relic. We have to make sure Unhcegila doesn't get ahold of it."
"But ... Nikki?" Addy asked the obvious question.
"I'm not certain," I replied cautiously, "but if it's what I think it is, and Wakan Tanka's explanation fits, then it may be the only one of its kind left in the world, and Nikki is the only one in the world who would know what to do with it."
Wednesday, June 27, 2007 - Early Evening
Near Mitchell, South Dakota
"Are you going to talk to us, Kayda?" Alicia asked as I drove down highway 37 at a slightly insane speed.
I could tell the two girls were very concerned, but I didn't feel like talking. And we had Danny, since Dad wanted to focus on Mom at that moment. Grandma had betrayed me - horribly so. I could have been killed! What was I supposed to feel after discovering that?
"We are not going to let you keep sulking," Addy said bluntly. "I know 'ow 'ard it is to lose someone special ...."
"Someone who tried to manipulate you into leaving your school?" I burst forth angrily, unable to control my anger and shocking my truck-mates. "Someone who tried to get you to be a good little Indian and go to her reservation as a tourist attraction? Someone whose actions almost killed you several times?" I was way past grief over Grandma - I was furious. Hatefully angry.
My outburst was met with silence for several miles. "I ... I didn't know," Addy apologized. "I'm sorry."
That broke through my shell - she'd lost her mother, not grandmother, and she was trying to help me, but in my anger at Grandma, I'd let loose at her and Alicia. "No," I said contritely. "I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that."
There was more silence, and I could see the totally gob-smacked expression on Danny's face. Now that I'd let the cat out of the bag, he deserved to know. "Grandma apparently wanted me to go to the reservation," I explained to him, trying to hide the bitterness and recrimination that wanted to come out, "to be Ptesanwi and help bring prosperity to the tribe." I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly in an attempt to control my anger. "She got a retired chief ..."
"The creepy Bear Claws guy from Mission?" Danny asked immediately. I had to give him credit for his memory.
"Yeah. She had him contact M2 - Magic Mikey - at Whateley, to try to make me leave." I cringed inwardly. "He ... did some things that ... almost killed me a couple of times." I couldn't suppress the shudder. "And he got tangled up with Speakeasy ...."
Addy's eyes were wide as saucers. "The one who tried to frame you for murdering 'Eyoka?"
"Yeah." I drew another deep, slow breath. "So ... yeah." I didn't know what else to say.
"No wonder!" Alicia said, gently putting her hand on my forearm to show her concern and support. Addy sat in the back, shaking her head in disbelief, while Danny sat silently, overwhelmed by what he'd just heard.
As I turned off of the highway toward the airport, a very sophisticated, new military reconnaissance jet swooped low overhead on its landing approach. "Just in time," I said, eagerly changing the subject. No sooner had we gotten out of the truck than the same dark-colored jet stopped on a hardstand, and even as the engines spooled down, a swarm of National Guardsmen chocked the wheels and got a ladder, while another, larger swarm carrying weapons deployed around the aircraft, all the way up to the security fence separating us from the jet. They were not giving us warm, welcoming looks, but nervously fingering their weapons.
The figure crawling out of the back seat looked small for an Air Force pilot, even though it was clad in a green flight-suit and wearing a helmet. No sooner had the person stepped on the ground than the helmet came off and she shook her head to free her fiery-red hair. A female member of the Guards came over to help her out of her flight suit, while two guys fought over retrieving a small bag from the cockpit area, their eyes fixed on the girl. I giggled, glancing at Addy and Alicia. "Some things never change."
Danny stood, gawking at Nikki as she wiggled out of the flight suit, her curves going to and fro as she pulled the restrictive garment off. Satisfied, she brushed her clothing to smooth it, then with a smile, took the small bag from the two gawking airmen. Their eyes were riveted on her every step as she strutted our way.
If there hadn't been heavily-armed guards at the gate stopping me, I would have run to give her a hug. As it was, we had to wait until she passed out of the controlled access area the guards had placed around the jet that was probably top secret or something. "Nikki!" I said, hugging her the moment she emerged from the gestapo-like cordon around the secret jet, elated that she was here.
"This must be that little pest you always talked about," she said with a smile, looking at Danny, who was stuck in a mouth-agape stare at the incredibly-beautiful Sidhe girl.
"Yeah, this is Danny, my kid brother."
"What's all this about?" Nikki asked.
"Let's get in the truck. I really don't want ... other ears ... possibly hearing this." We climbed in, Alicia surrendering the front seat to Nikki. I glanced in the mirror to see Danny sandwiched between Addy and Alicia, looking a little shy. In seconds, the two girls were teasing him enough that he fuzzed with embarrassment, which delighted them and embarrassed him even more. I suspected that he wasn't going to go back to normal for a while.
As soon as we turned onto highway 37, I started to explain. "My grandmother was a shaman, and a keeper of a ... of some kind of sacred relic." I glanced at Nikki and saw I had her full attention. "According to Wakan Tanka, it comes from the time of the Sundering."
That got those violet eyes of hers wide open, and she was bolt-upright in the seat. "Did you say the Sundering?"
"According to Wakan Tanka, it was stolen from the Bastard by a shaman, and kept secret - and safe - for something that was supposed to come."
"Describe it please!" Nikki urged, trying hard to keep the excitement out of her voice.
"It's brown, pretty rough in texture, like ... scaly? And a bit oblong and about maybe a little smaller than a softball."
"Do you think ...?" She was afraid to complete the thought.
I sighed. I was going to have to tell Nikki. "A ... snake demon ... like we fought, killed my grandmother a couple nights ago," I began.
"I'm so sorry," Nikki said sympathetically.
"Don't be," I snapped back when the rage at her resurfaced momentarily. "I found out some things about her that I wish I'd never known." I trembled with anger as I forced myself to take another deep breath. "Anyway, she was the keeper of a relic, and when I was ... cleaning up ... the mess ...," a shudder of revulsion went through me at what I'd had to deal with - which I wouldn't wish on anyone, "I found the remains of the case she kept it in."
"What made you think ...?" Nikki started.
I anticipated her question. "The case had a magic residue, a feel to it. Probably rubbed off from the ... thing." I took my eyes off the road long enough to look at her. "And I recognized the feel - like Sidhe magic. Like your magic." She was nearly speechless. "Yeah. It's either a Sidhe relic, in which case you need to help get it, or it's a ..."
"A World Tree seed!" Nikki said, eyes wide with wonder. Then she frowned. "Wait, you said 'get it'."
I nodded grimly. "The snake demon that killed Grandmother probably has it. We have to get it before it can hide it in Paha Sapa - the Black Hills. If it gets there, the inherent magic of the place might make it very hard to find. And I don't want snakey's dad Unhcegila ever getting control of something potentially that powerful."
Nikki nodded. "Agreed. Just one thing."
Thursday, June 28, 2007 - Very Early Morning
Franks' Home, South Dakota
"I'm coming with you!" Danny insisted stubbornly.
"Danny, you don't understand," I countered. "This is very dangerous. I can't let you risk it!"
"Dad said you had to watch me!" he shot back.
"I'll drop you off at Aunt Ida's."
"You can't." He smiled smugly. "Aunt Ida went with Mom and Dad." Our parents were spending the day with Mom's little sister and her family for mutual support and comfort. She needed it.
"Shit!" I swore, looking down and shaking my head, exhaling slowly in frustration. "Okay, I'll drop you off ...."
Danny squared his shoulders. "And just how are you going to track him?" he challenged me.
"With ... with magic," I replied, knowing that, at any kind of range, my magic was quite inaccurate. Tracking him was going to be tough.
Danny muttered something, and immediately his form flowed - through the female slut-kitty form all the way to mountain lion. He looked up at me with a feline sneer. "Wihinape says she's better than your magic at tracking," he said smugly, which sounded partly like a sultry feminine purr. I wasn't going to tell that Danny, though. Yet.
I sighed with exasperation. "Okay, you can come, but on one condition." Dad was going to kill me. Last night, he'd accepted - grudgingly - Hazel's word that what I was after was exceedingly dangerous to the whole state and probably the whole country. If Unhcegila got the world tree seed, he'd have a source of power beyond possibly even Fey! He'd also admitted - also grudgingly - that I was the only one who could fight Snakey and not be driven insane.
"What?" he asked, eager to go but wary of what conditions I would impose.
"You stay away from the fight," I said sternly. His face fell, and then I could practically see the gears turning as he worked to figure out an angle around my directive. "I'm not kidding, Danny. One glance from this snake-demon can melt your mind! He's really, really nasty! You have to stay away from the fight." The more I thought about it, the more worried I was. Snakey had two nights of travel, and we had to find him somewhere in the desolate, less-populated, barren lands of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. And then I had to fight him, and I didn't have backup this time; I was the only one who could face him and not go insane.
Thursday, June 28, 2007 - Early Morning
Near the Missouri River, South Dakota
"Well?" I stood on the sill of the cab with the door open, so I had a little more height to get a better view.
The mountain lion glanced my way and gave me a snort of disdain. "Don't interrupt me!" Danny snapped. "I'm not very good at this yet!"
I headed off the response that had started to form. Wihinape was right - he wasn't very skilled, but she was helping. And she was right about her tracking ability compared to my magic. I had a vague, general sense of the snake demon - somewhere west. Or northwest or southwest. That was as close as I got at this distance. Wihinape, though, could sense the very faint traces of his foul smell on the terrain.
Danny stopped, nose to the ground. "He was here," he said. "And ...." Thoughtfully, he loped off into a pasture, easily clearing the barbed-wire fence that surrounded it. A few seconds later he was back, looking rather nauseated. "Don 't look!" he cautioned us as he stepped behind the pickup. A form flowed upward as Wihinape shifted his body.
We'd started at the house, with Danny changing into a cougar and explicitly chasing the scent, while we tried to keep close to him driving along the roads and section lines. But he was fatiguing and couldn't keep up a fast pace. We found him sitting beside a section line, looking tired and miserable. While he shifted back to human boy form, I listened to what he'd said about the trail and did a little plotting on my phone's map application. We'd covered a few miles, enough that we could see snakey's travel direction was almost a straight line.
Alicia had been the one who came up with a way to keep from wearing out Danny - we drove a few miles, then turned north, pausing near where the straight-line path should have led and letting Danny, as a cougar, pick up Snakey's scent. With another mark on the map, we repeated the process. If we couldn't find the scent, then we'd have doubled back and tried closer to the last known scent position. But that would be good news - because it would mean that Snakey was not in the Black Hills yet.
Wihinape wanted to stay in cougar form while we rode, but the first time we passed a car and saw the occupants gawking in terror at the mountain lion in the back seat of my pickup, we knew it'd only be a matter of time before we ran into some county cop who'd be quite upset to see a 'wild animal' in the pickup with us. So we agreed - Danny would do the mountain lion form to track the scent, and then turn back to his normal form for the ride. What I wasn't telling him, but which Nikki had figured out, was that doing all this shifting was getting him some badly-needed practice controlling his shifting.
Of course, he couldn't wear clothes as a mountain lion, and when he changed back, he was buck naked, so we had to arrange a way for him to change without girls gawking at him, which only made him embarrassed and got him stuck in his 'fuzzy' form. That seemed to be his greatest difficulty with shifting - he couldn't really control shifting to or from fuzzy, but tended to become fuzzy when embarrassed, and couldn't really shift out of it until the source of embarrassment went away.
"I'm ready," a female voice said from behind the truck. We turned, goggling as the slut-kitty form, clad only in Danny's shorts, crawled into the back seat.
"What ...?" I started to say, gob-smacked at the display in front of me.
Danny blushed, and I was afraid he was going to go fuzzy on us again - which would set us back by another fifteen or twenty minutes. "Wihinape says she's getting tired shifting back and forth all the way. It's less tiring to shift from ... this," he winced, keeping his eyes from looking down at his semi-nude body, "to mountain lion form." Alicia, Addy, and Nikki were staring at his curvy body with a mixture of amusement and amazement. In Alicia's case, there was probably a little envy mixed in.
I shook my head; if Mom was here, she'd have been apoplectic at the display. And I was worried that staying in that female form as well a shifting to the mountain lion form frequently was going to hasten Danny's ultimate changes - whatever they would be. I decided not to bring that up, but to change the subject. ""At least cover yourself!" Addy and Alicia helped Danny pull on his T-shirt - which although it covered him, really only emphasized the soft, feminine mounds on his chest.
"What was with the green face when you came back over the fence?" I asked as we started to move again.
Danny's grimace was almost audible. "We found ... part of snakey's dinner," he said, his voice unsteady. "He ate ... part of a cow."
"You've seen dead animals before," I shot back.
"Wihinape ... wanted to have a snack."
Thursday, June 28, 2007 - Early Evening
South of Wall on Highway 44, South Dakota
"Oh, shit," I muttered unhappily.
Nikki wrinkled her nose, alarmed at my sudden mood shift. "What?"
"Just what I was afraid of," I muttered angrily. We were on highway 44, south of Wall. "He's in the Badlands."
"Are you sure?" Addy asked, worried at my tone of voice.
I pulled to the side of the road and tapped my cell phone. "Here's his trail." I showed them my map, with the x-marks for actual positions that Wihinape / Danny had detected Snakey, and a line showing his projected path. "Right now, my sense says he's somewhere between northwest and northeast of us. Right in the heart of the Badlands."
"Is that bad?" Nikki asked, wincing because she'd probably already guessed my answer.
"Yup." I looked at my watch unnecessarily. "We've got about two, maybe two and a half hours of daylight left."
"Options?" Danny asked curtly.
"One," I held up a single finger, "we can go further up highway 44, and then circle back up 240, and try to narrow down where in the Badlands he might be."
"By plotting intersecting 'cones' of probability based on your magic sense?" Addy asked.
"See, y'all did pay attention in math class," Alicia said with a chuckle; probably to try to lighten the mood.
"Then we go hunt for him." I said, causing Danny to cringe. He knew the country well. "It'll be hot, dry, and dusty. We'll burn up a lot of energy, and we'll need every drop of water we've got."
Danny nodded. "Which means I'll have to track him?" he guessed correctly.
"I could conjure some water," Nikki offered.
"And it'll be dark soon. So we don't have much time to hunt." I shook my head. The method we'd been tracking snakey had been effective, but it was painfully slow.
"Two, we go up highway 44 and wait to try to intercept him when he's moving again," I said, holding up a second finger. "The problem is that it's very, very unlikely that he went straight through the Badlands. It's pretty rugged terrain, and he's not going to spend energy going up and down the rough hills. So it'd be a guess where he comes out and intercepts highway 44."
Nikki winced. She was very determined to get the seed - if that's indeed what it was - and didn't want to take a chance that Snakey could slip through our grasp.
"Three, we go up to highway 79 and wait for him. The terrain isn't so unforgiving as the Badlands, so it'll be easier to intercept him."
"And the downside?" Alicia asked, knowing there had to be one.
"It'll be very late, or very early tomorrow morning when we intercept him, and if we miss, it's only a few miles into the Black Hills. And then ...."
"Not good," Nikki said needlessly.
"And for either of the last two options, we won't have the sunlight working for us. He can't fight well in the sun. But if it's dark..." I shook my head. "He can see very well in the dark. We can't."
"It sounds like we oughta go huntin' for him," Alicia said in her down-home way. "Least for a couple of hours. If we can't find him in that time, we can fall back to the highways. That'll give us three chances to find him."
"The problem is," I added, "once it gets dark, I'm the only one who can safely fight him."
Addy, Danny, and Alicia exchanged glances. "Then we better get moving," Addy said.
Thursday, June 28, 2007 - Early Evening
The Badlands, South Dakota
"What's it look like?" Nikki glanced outside at the late afternoon sun inexorably approaching the horizon, and then looking back at my map. We'd stopped on highway 44, and then went back up 240, getting 'readings' on his approximate direction.
"This area," I pointed to an intersection of two cones, "is where he's at. I'm guessing it's about two-hundred-fifty square miles."
"Ouch!" Danny said, cringing.
"Yeah, but if we use his general direction from his last location," I scribbled a line on the touchscreen, "he should be only a few miles either side of here." An area of the map lit up. "Which is only about fifty square miles or so." With that, I turned the truck off the small highway, following a rough trail up a ravine between the craggy, sandstone hills.
"This," Danny said enthusiastically, probably to Addy, "is why we have four-by-fours."
We drove for a while, and then I stopped. "Time to earn your pay," I said to Danny. "Get a good drink, and then you've got to start tracking."
With a nod, he drank a couple bottles of water, and then shifted into his cougar form. It looked like it was getting easier and easier for him to do.
"Danny," I called out as he started loping off beyond where I could drive the truck.
"Yeah?" he stopped, turning back to me.
"Promise me that when you think you've found him, you'll keep your distance. No heroics."
"Promise me!" I said sternly. Danny may have been a brat at times, but one thing I knew that Mom and Dad had taught him was that when he gave his word, he kept it.
"Okay," he muttered, unhappy that I was extracting such an oath, "I promise." He turned and loped off, pausing every so often to sniff the air or the ground.
"Addy, turn the truck around. I want you two to promise that if you don't hear from us in two hours, you'll drive to Wall and call Hazel at HPARC for help. And if you see something that looks like snakey coming, you'll drive as far and as fast as you can to get away from him." She nodded grimly.
"Okay, Nikki," I said with a determined frown, "let's go." I pulled on a daypack that had several bottles of water we'd bought during a gas stop in Presho, then slung my bow over my shoulder. A quiver of arrows hung from my waist, strapped to my leg to keep it under control, and my knife and tomahawk hung off my belt. Nikki held her sword, Malachim's Feather, and her own bow was over her shoulders, too.
We followed Danny's tracks for about twenty minutes, then saw them vanish up one of the steep, rough hills. "He's over there," I said firmly. "I'm starting to sense him more. He's close."
"Going up, then," Nikki said before she did a quick incantation. The next thing I knew, we were inside a magic bubble-shield floating up the hill, and after surmounting it, back down the other side.
Danny was waiting for us at the bottom of the hill, looking patiently up the other side of the wide ravine. "He's up there," he said, looking at a dark spot on the side of the hill. I followed his gaze, and saw something that looked like recent excavation, judging from the pile of rubble beside the dark spot.
"Father," the snake-demon called out urgently. "She is here!"
"She followed you?" Unhcegila asked, astonished at the new development.
"It's just her," the snake answered. "I will defeat her easily."
"No!" Unhcegila roared at his son. "You are too close to success. You must get the sphere to me!"
"She will come after me!"
"Then stay in your lair."
Snakey stayed silent for a long time. "Very well, father. My burrow is small. She cannot stand to fight, and she will be helpless. She will not be able to attack me from behind."
"You must be patient, my son. She is in rough, dry country. She cannot stay long without food and water. She will have to leave."
Thursday, June 28, 2007 - Early Evening
The Badlands, South Dakota
I shook my head. "He's there. And he probably knows I'm here. If he's smart, he'll stay put and wait us out, or wait for us to go in to get him."
"I take it that would be a bad idea?" Nikki asked.
"Yes," I nodded grimly. "A very bad idea."
"And you say sunlight hurts him?"
I glanced at the horizon. "Yeah, but we're running out of that."
"Okay, then." Nikki turned toward the dark opening, which was becoming less noticeable as the sun set, and she incanted. Something that looked like a fireball flew unerringly at the cave opening, vanishing into it. Almost immediately, a burst of light shone forth from the cave, like a dozen arc lamps had been lit inside and a lot of light was spilling out.
The unearthly shriek of agony was immediate and nearly deafening, and with it, the demon burst forth from the cave like a coiled snake striking blindly. It tumbled down the side of the sandstone hill, but even before it reached the bottom, Snakey had regained its balance and was sliding purposefully toward me.
After being surprised momentarily, I let an arrow fly, and the special arrowhead exploded in a shower of essence, right between Snakey's arms, causing another shriek of agony, but I couldn't follow up; I had to drop my bow and pull my hand weapons because he was just too close.
"Nikki!" I called out as I dodged Snakey's clumsy first strike," he left the seed in the cave!" It was clear that the seed was not in Snakey's possession at the moment. "I'll keep him distracted."
"I'll get it later," she called out, letting one of her own arrows fly.
Unlike my arrow, Nikki's explosion of essence seemed to fizzle out as it tried to penetrate through Snakey's thick hide. "What the heck?" Nikki exclaimed as I dodged yet another strike, managing to get a solid blow from my knife on one of Snakey's arms.
"Go get the seed!" I repeated frantically.
She thought for a moment, and then scrambled up the slope toward the opening, while I took advantage of him being momentarily distracted watching her to get a good blow into his side with my knife.
With another shrieking roar, he pulled his side away from me, at the same time whipping his tail toward me. I noticed the movement too late; I had only started to incant my shield spell before the tail smashed into me and knocked me across the floor of the mini-canyon.
I think I screamed in pain as my ribs smashed against a rock, but I had the presence of mind to roll away from the impact, which was a good thing, because the snake-demon's tail obliterated the rock I had just hit against. I managed to land a good combination of tomahawk and knife against him.
I didn't have to look to know that the sun was low enough in the sky that it was blocked by a ridge; we no longer had the daylight advantage against the snake-demon. We had to end the fight quickly, or we'd be in darkness and he'd have all the advantages.
Incanting my shield spell, I dashed toward him, ducking and rolling to avoid the swipes of his vicious claws, and came up beneath his massive belly. My knife plunged into his belly, and he shrieked in agony again. Unexpectedly, he dropped his entire body, intending to smash me beneath him. I rolled to one side, and his body hit a glancing blow on the shield, causing me to squirt away like I was part of a game of marbles. The impact on an outcropping stunned me; I rolled to the side, knowing Snakey would probably make a follow-on attack, but things seemed to move in slow-motion, and my ribs hurt.
Dammit, it's always my ribs.
Danny watched, feeling helpless, as his sister was dashed against a rock and collapsed in pain. He knew he should be fighting with her, but he didn't know how.
"Give me control!" Wihinape demanded suddenly in his mind.
"Let go. Let me have control!" she demanded again.
Confused, Danny let his muscles go slack.
Immediately, Wihinape grabbed control of their feline body. With a powerful leap, they vaulted in two hops down to the ravine floor, and then leaped onto the back of the snake-demon, who was coiling to smash at Danny's sister, who though she was quickly shaking off the effects of that last hit, was still a bit groggy.
Their claws dug into his thick hide, and they scrambled up his back, slashing with every step, causing the demon to halt his attack on Kayda and thrash about to try to dislodge the mountain lion. But their claws were long and sharp, and they stuck to Snakey though it felt to Danny that they were riding a bucking bronco.
Snakey changed tactics, dropping to his belly and then trying to roll and slither, to either crush the mountain lion or scrape it off on a rock, but Wihinape was wise to the ways of prey, and she deftly scrambled off him before he could either crush or smack them, and then she leaped again, dodging his flailing arms with their knife-like claws and slashing at snakey's throat.
The wounded snake-demon slashed again and twisted to bite, but the agile cat had slipped away again.
"This is cool!" Danny said.
"Shut up!" Wihinape snapped at him. "I need to concentrate!"
Holding the precious object under her arm, Nikki scrambled down the steep slope. Light was fading fast, but she could still see Kayda struggling to get back to her feet while Danny - as a cougar - tore at the snake-demon.
With her hands encumbered, Nikki couldn't use her bow, and she was too far away to use her sword, so she quickly incanted, her fingers dancing a spell pattern, and then she stretched her right hand out toward the snake demon. A concentrated jolt of Sidhe magical energy leapt from her hand, arcing like a bolt of lightning to the snake demon.
It should have charred the snake-demon into a crispy pile of ashes. As much energy as Nikki loosed should have nearly destroyed the Lakota demon. But the energy seemed to dissipate in its hide, as if it was a giant magic absorber. Some got through to the demon, and he shrieked in agony, but not enough to stop him. He turned, alerted to a new danger, and seeing the girl holding the sphere he had finally located and taken, he roared in rage.
Puzzled that her magic hadn't worked against the snake-demon and seeing him coil with the obvious intent of launching himself at her, Nikki invoked her shield bubble and catapulted herself upward, lifting herself and her prize out of reach of the monstrosity. She was just in time; the snake-demon crashed into the spot she'd stood only moments before.
Coiling for another strike, the snake-demon turned toward the girl in her bubble, and as she watched his actions, he locked his gaze upon her.
I was back on my feet, just in time to see Nikki vault up out of reach of Snakey, but she was watching its motions, and he turned toward her.
"Nikki!" I screamed a warning, terrified, "No! Look away!"
It was too late - she was looking at Snakey when he locked his gaze upon her.
For several agonizing seconds, I stood frozen in place, watching what I knew was the destruction of my friend's mind from the demon's foul taint.
"Hah!" Nikki laughed aloud, startling me. "You blinked first! I won!"
Unhcegila's son was startled; one of his chief weapons was the ability to drive his foes insane with his foul essence. But that hadn't worked. He'd met the gaze of the red-haired girl, and she laughed at him! He screamed again in rage, coiling to launch himself at the offending female human.
I had the opening I needed; scrambling up the steep, rubble-strewn hillside, I launched myself at Snakey, my knife in my hand, and just before I hit the beast, my arm arced downward, the knife puncturing Snakey's tough hide. I wrapped my other arm and legs as best I could around the beast's body while I poured essence into my knife, and thus into the demon.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Wihinape leap onto Snakey's back, digging her razor-sharp claws into his thick hide and scrambling toward his head.
Writhing and screaming in pain, the snake tried to claw at Wihinape with its wicked talons, but the cat was far too nimble and avoided that as she climbed to his head. Deliberately, her talons clawed into the eyes of the beast, shredding one and then the other, while the snake flailed about wildly, trying to rid itself of the annoying attacks. And all the while, more and more essence was pouring into the body, causing it to convulse mightily as it tore snakey apart from the inside.
Seeing the tables turned, Nikki dropped to the ground, and with one hand wrapped around her precious cargo, the other wielded Malachim's Feather deftly, slicing at the flailing arms of the snake-demon with deadly effect. Having severed one arm at its 'elbow', if you could call it that, she drew back and plunged the sword into Snakey's belly, right between its arms.
Between Wihinape's slashing attacks, my essence, and Nikki's deadly blows with her sword, Snakey convulsed a couple of times and then slowly sank to the ground. Wihinape and I let go, and the remains of the beast rolled ungracefully down the hill, ending in a heap at the bottom.
We walked slowly down the hill, wary of tricks by the snake-demon, but it didn't take long to realize that it was well-and-truly dead.
Thursday, June 28, 2007 - Mid-Evening
HPARC, Lower Levels
"Son?" Unhcegila called out urgently. He'd felt a disturbance in the energy connecting him with his son, and he feared that there was trouble. "Son?" he called again.
There was no answer. He tried once more. "Son!"
When no answer came after two or three minutes, he shrieked in anguish and anger - he'd lost his son, and had lost the sphere which he so desperately needed. The caverns in the seven-thousand-foot-deep former mine rang with the psychic energy of his death cry, setting off alarms in the HPARC control center.
"I hate those things," I muttered, glaring at the snake-demon and wiping my blade on its hide before resheathing it. Then I looked at Nikki. "How ..." I began, stammering. She'd met Snakey's gaze and had been unaffected.
Nikki grinned. "When my magic didn't work, I strongly suspected that he wasn't attuned to Sidhe magic, and thus not to Sidhe. His gaze might drive humans insane, but my body and mind are Sidhe, so it had no effect - except to confuse him for a moment."
I winced. "That was a hell of a gamble." I turned to Wihinape, who was casually licking her paws. "And you! I told you to stay out of this!"
"And let you be killed, Ptesanwi?" she replied casually. "I don't think so."
"You could have been hurt. Or killed. Or driven insane!" I chided Danny, who I knew was in the feline body.
Wihinape chuckled. "You aren't a warrior - yet. You have trained hard, and you fought well, but as you can see, I fought better because I've fought so much longer. Eventually," she added with a laconic smile, "you might learn to fight half as well as I."
I ignored the verbal jibe. "Change back so we can get back to the truck."
"I can travel much easier in this body," Wihinape argued.
"Yes, but you're probably altering Danny the longer you're in this form." I remembered something. "And let him have control of his body."
"Not while he's near that ... thing!" she spat distastefully. "Or did you forget that, when he's human, he'll be affected by the demonic energy."
"Oh, shit," I swore. "That's right." I looked at Nikki. "We can't leave him here like this. If someone finds him, they'll be corrupted."
"Can't you decontaminate him?"
I shook my head. "It took most of my essence to kill him. I don't have enough left."
Nikki smiled, as if she knew a secret. "I can give you all you need."
Friday, June 29, 2007 - Just After Midnight
Highway 34, Eastern South Dakota
"And ... are the combat finals like this?" Danny was still so pumped from the fight that he couldn't possibly rest, even though he was obviously tired. "I mean, when you're fighting in them?" He was eagerly going on and on about the fight with Snakey and how good Wihinape had been, and I could tell that Addy and Alicia wanted nothing more than to sleep.
"Be quiet, Danny," I snapped at him. I was fatigued from driving all day, worn out from the fight, and nearly exhausted from all the spellwork to decontaminate Snakey.
"But ... that was so cool!"
"What did you do with the ... with it?" Addy asked.
"Oh, yeah," I felt like face-palming. I hadn't told them all of that part, and with the excitement about the World Tree seed, it had kind of been forgotten. "After Nikki gave me some essence, I decontaminated him, then we put him back in his burrow so no-one will find him. A team from HPARC will be here tomorrow to retrieve the body."
"Can I call Whateley?" Nikki asked, still cradling the precious seed in her lap.
I pushed a button on the radio, engaging a hands-free phone feature. "Go ahead."
Nikki fiddled with the controls until she had a number that she'd long-since memorized. On the fourth ring, the phone picked up. "Whateley House," the groggy voice answered unhappily.
"Mrs. Carson?" The hands-free phone played over the truck speakers and had a mic in the dash, so we all heard the conversation. "It's me, Nikki Reilly."
There was an audible groan on the other end. "What did you do now, Nikki?" she asked, obviously feeling put-upon by the constant troubles of Team Kimba and Nikki.
Nikki shot me a grimace. "Um, I'm with Kayda, and ...."
There was another groan. "Do I want to know?" Mrs. Carson asked rhetorically. After a second, she continued, "Okay, what happened?"
I spoke up. "Grandma Little Doe was the keeper of a sacred artifact," I explained. "She was killed by another snake demon, and the artifact was taken. When I was ... cleaning up her house, I recognized the magic residue, I called Nikki so we could retrieve it. Before it was used by the wrong forces."
"I see," Mrs. Carson said, her voice now alert. "And this artifact?"
"It's something very, very old," Nikki said cryptically. "From before that time. It's a part of something I thought was gone from the world. I was hoping to find one ...."
"You mean it's ...?" Mrs. Carson knew better than to speak openly of what Nikki had.
"Where are you now?"
"Driving back to Kayda's house." Nikki glanced at me.
"About sixty miles from home," I provided a little more accuracy.
"I was hoping you had an idea of where and how we could keep it safe," Nikki explained.
"Hang on a sec. I'm going to get Charlie Lodgeman on the phone."
I glanced at Nikki, giving her a reassuring smile. We'd had a battle, and it hadn't been too bad this time. I was improving. Still, my ribs and left arm hurt like hell, and I hadn't had the spare essence to do a healing. Nor had I told Nikki, but I think she suspected based on how I was moving.
When Mr. Lodgeman got on the phone, the three of them had a lively discussion about the 'artifact' and how to keep it safe, all without ever once mentioning what it was or where they might keep it. It said a lot about the culture of Whateley that Alicia, Addy, and I understood very clearly what and where they were discussing, but Danny looked totally confused. Eventually he'd learn.
By the time they finished the discussion, Danny had fallen asleep on Alicia's shoulder - and he was in his fuzzy form. And I don't think Alicia minded one bit. Even considering he was my brother, he was kind of cute in that form.
HPARC arranged to 'borrow' a C-21A Learjet to fly Nikki and the seed to Whateley the next morning. Nikki managed to get them to delay the flight until the afternoon, because we were all very tired, and after having tasted Mom's chokecherry jam, she was eager to try chokecherry syrup on pancakes for breakfast.
When I pulled into the driveway, Mom and Dad were both waiting anxiously. Danny and I got huge hugs, and then we gave them a quick recap, while Danny fell asleep again on the sofa. Mom was still very, very distraught, but having to focus on guests provided her a necessary distraction. When she wasn't sure she had any one-hundred percent natural fiber bedding, Nikki just smiled and opened a gateway to a pocket dimension, from which she extracted sheets that would work for her.
Mom just shook her head at the demonstration of magic. "I need you to make me one or two of those," she commented with a smile. "I never have enough storage space!"
At Nikki's insistence, we hauled the mattress from the spare bed to my room, and us girls had a sleepover. Because it was well after midnight, and Nikki and I were quite tired, we went to sleep almost immediately.
Saturday, June 30, 2007 - Mid Afternoon
Franks' Home, South Dakota
All of Friday and Saturday morning had been hectic, and Danny and I were rather wrung-out emotionally. We'd taken Nikki to Mitchell to meet the Air Force plane - she got a flight all to herself to travel straight to Whateley, no MID or MCO or any other interference, and I wondered who had pulled the hardest - Mrs. Carson, Hazel, or Nikki's dad. Alicia and Addy helped with chores like gathering eggs, and Alicia was curious about milking our cow - Addy had done that during Spring Break and had no urgent need to improve her meager skills in that area.
We mostly stayed out of the way of Mom and Dad; Mom was in pretty bad shape with grief, especially arranging services for Grandma, and she didn't need a herd of guest teenagers making her life more difficult than it was. Addy and Alicia cooked lunch and dinner for them, and I know both Mom and Dad appreciated the help.
We were at a memorial service for Grandma, me wearing one of my more elaborate and meaningful Lakota outfits, with the paint and my In'oka furs at Mom's insistence that I honor Grandma that way, even though I felt quite out-of-place and I was fuming at what Grandma had done. Mom and Dad were going to take her remains to the reservation, to her home ground, for a regular Lakota service the next week, but that Saturday was a simple service with no casket. With the ferocity of Snakey's attack, I knew for an absolute fact that what was left of her probably wouldn't have filled a paint can - and when I thought of that, my stomach churned uncomfortably.
I wanted to sit in the back of the church, but I had to sit with family, and Dad was very, very insistent. Heck, I wasn't even sure I wanted to be there, given the powerful sense of betrayal I felt the moment our little quest for the World Tree seed had ended, but I couldn't tell Mom or Dad about Grandma's dealings. Mom was too distraught to notice my mood, Danny was withdrawn, and Dad was too busy dealing with arrangements and comforting Mom, but Alicia and Addy noticed.
A lot of Mom's and Grandma's friends filed into the church, passing by the front pew to express condolences to us, although they were a little puzzled by the presence of Alicia and Adalie, who were there to provide emotional support for me. Many of my old friends' families attended, but several of the girls and boys from my class were very noticeably not offering any words to me. Enough did, though - like Rich - that I wasn't totally upset by their shunning.
There was as collective gasp when a group of about a dozen Ghost Warriors, in paint and native outfits and the markings of their warrior societies, accompanied three shamans into the service. They went directly to Mom, and the shamans did a minor blessing ritual, while the Ghost Warriors stood, arms-crossed, scanning the assembly. The shamans were in ceremonial regalia that was almost never used, which showed that they had a tremendous respect for Grandma. No doubt a few of the people gulped at the sight of the warriors. While most people would assume the shamans and warriors wore costumes, I could tell from the markings that these were the most elite Lakota warriors and very, very important shamans.
After their ritual with Mom, the shamans came to give me obeisance, much to my embarrassment and shock of the assembled friends. Then one by one, the warriors did the same, all unashamedly weeping for the loss of their shaman leader.
I blanked out the service. Torn between grief over losing Grandma and rage at how she'd tried to manipulate me, I really didn't pay any attention. We were sitting before the service, and people streamed by to offer words, and the next thing I clearly remember is that we were in the church basement for a reception.
At a break in a conversation, Addy nudged me to get my attention. "What's with those guys?" she asked, nodding her head toward the Ghost Warriors. They all stood rigidly against one wall at the reception, arms crossed and clearly watching over me.
"They're ... kind of an honor guard," I said with a wince.
"I noticed that when some people get near us," she continued, "they straighten and look more ...."
"More menacing?" Alicia asked, glancing at the men.
"Oui," Addy replied. "Why are all the girls looking so un'appily at us?"
A chuckle sounded behind us. "Because they're totally jealous," Julie's voice sounded mellifluously.
I turned and was met by a huge hug and a warm smile. "I thought you were in Minneapolis with your aunt."
"I was," she replied. "But when I got the news ...." She actually considered Mom and Dad to be more like family than her own mutant-hating parents.
"You met Addy at spring break," I said to her, "and this is her roommate from school, Alicia. She's from Louisiana, so if she talks funny, you'll have to excuse her."
"Hey," Alicia feigned outrage, "Ah do not talk funny!"
"Oh, oh!" Julie interrupted. "Potential trouble."
A couple of not-quite-friends were strolling our way, trying and failing to look cool. "Hey, Julie," they said in greeting. "Br ... um ... Kayda." One kept glancing at Addy, while the other was stealing peeks at Alicia. "Nice you could be home, but it's too bad about your Grandmother."
I was thoroughly tired of hearing platitudes about 'so sorry', and 'it's too bad', but I had to go along. "Thanks." Clearly, they were waiting for introductions. "Jeff and Jack," I went along with the little formality, "these are my friends from school - Adalie Vitesse and Alicia Thacker. Jeff and Jack Dawson are from my old class here."
"They're fraternal twins," Julie added in case there was any confusion about how two dissimilar-appearing boys could be in the same class.
"Ah. It's nice to meet y'all," Alicia drawled, really emphasizing her Louisiana Cajun accent.
"Oui," Addy chimed in. "It is nice to meet friends of Kayda who are actually friendly."
"Addy is from Chaniers, France, and Alicia's from Baton Rouge, Louisiana," I explained for the boys, adding a touch of 'foreign mystique' to the girls.
"Um," Jeff winced slightly; I knew he was more than a bit shy. "We're gonna have a get-together at Twin Lakes tomorrow."
"Yeah," Jack contributed a little more confidently. "Grill some burgers and dogs, probably put up a volleyball net. Tom's takin' his dad's boat out, so we'll probably do some water-skiing." He looked at Alicia. "Do you water-ski?"
"We don't do that much where Ah live," Alicia said with a grin. "Gators." The boys goggled at her, wondering if she was serious.
"Besides," Addy added, "tomorrow, the three of us are flying to France to spend time with my family." She smiled, shooting me a wink. "'Opefully, it will be a little less 'ectic than visiting 'ere 'as been!"
Jack opened his mouth to reply, but then his eyes almost bugged out, staring across the room. We all followed his gaze, seeing that most of the people in the room were doing likewise.
"Oh, shit," I muttered softly.
Danny was beside Lisa Clark, a girl he'd had a crush on since third grade. I was surprised that she hadn't been one of those shunning him once it was discovered that he was a mutant, too. But what was even more surprising is that she'd done or said something that embarrassed Danny, because he was in his kitty-boy form, with light fur and cat-ears atop his head. Even across the room, we could hear her squeal of delight. "Oooh - that's so kyooooot!"
Many of the adults were looking on in shock and horror, while Dad just hung his head, shaking it.
"Should we go rescue 'im?" Addy asked.
I chuckled. "Not yet. Look." He'd gotten the attention of all of his class-mates who were in attendance, and while the boys were chuckling at him, almost every girl - including those from my class - was swarming him, all with the same look of curiosity or outright adoration. The girls who were smiling or petting his fur or giggling grew by the minute, as did the background squeal of general delight from the horde at how cute and adorable Danny was.
"'E 'as no clue 'ow popular 'e's going to be next year." Addy deadpanned.
"When Wondercute sees him," Alicia predicted with a wry smile, "he's doomed!"
"Would it be considered cruel to introduce him to Jade?" I asked with a chuckle.
"Imagine if 'e was wearing a 'Ello, Kitty' shirt when she met 'im!" Addy laughed aloud.
"That'd be too cruel," Alicia sighed. "So are we gonna do it?"
I couldn't help but giggle. "It'd be fun," I admitted longingly, "but Mom'd kill me. So ... probably not." A grin appeared. "But I can still think about it."
Saturday, June 30, 2007 - Evening
Franks' Home, South Dakota
I could hear the sounds of Addy, Alicia, Dad, and Danny looking around outside for me, but I wanted solitude at the moment. I had a lot to think about. Grandma Little Doe, so full of stories that delighted two little boys, getting friends who were warriors and shamans to share tales when we visited her home when we were young and she lived in Mission. A grandmother who never had a harsh word for her grandchildren, even when we misbehaved - with a mere glance or word of disappointment, she'd have Danny and me so remorseful that we were begging for forgiveness - and then five minutes later, she'd be baking cookies for us. Sure, she embarrassed me with the young warrior ritual at my birthday party long ago, but secretly, I adored her for how special it made me feel.
Then there was Shaman Grey Skies, a manipulative, cunning woman who was not above lying and deceiving her own kin to advance her own personal goals. Hiring Magic Mikey through her pawn Chief Bear Claws to torment her own granddaughter and drive her from school - and for what? To be a pawn of the old shrew to try to bring glory and prosperity to her tribe, even if it cost her grandchild innocence and liberty?
Every time I thought of Grandma Little Doe, the image in my mind would shift into a sharp, evil, haughty old woman whose very countenance invoked fear. And yet, when I thought of Grey Skies, I couldn't help but think of the loving, kindly grandmother who'd doted on her grandchildren so. It was difficult to reconcile the two faces of the same person - someone I loved and someone I hated. When a memory of Grandma came to me, I found myself crying almost uncontrollably at losing her, ready to retch at the indelible memory of picking up small fragments of my precious grandmother. And then the phone and its damning message, and the tears dried up and I wanted to scream in anger, to hit something, to give vent to the fury at how she'd tried to manipulate me, even putting my life in danger. Had she ever truly cared about me, or was I just a tool to further her own agenda?
And then something would cause doubts about her being evil, and a fond memory would surface, and the cycle started anew.
I don't know how many times I went through that before I became aware that Dad's head was poking up through the access hole, looking at me. I wiped at my tear-stained cheeks as he climbed all the way up the ladder into the barn's cavernous hay-loft, occupied mostly by bales of hay. Without a word, he strode over and sat beside me, wrapping an arm around me and pulling my head to his shoulder.
"I know that was hard for you," he finally said. "And I know your mom appreciates it."
"No, you don't know!" I spat bitterly. "You can't know how I feel!"
"That you can't decide if grandma was a dear, kindly, loving grandma, or a manipulative shrew?" he asked. My jaw dropped as I stared, semi-comprehending, at him, seeking some kind of confirmation that what I thought he'd said was what he'd really said.
"Your Mom and I know," he said softly. "We know all about Grey Skies and Chief Dan."
"But ... how?"
Dad sighed heavily. "Last week, when you were in Louisiana," he began sadly, "we got a phone call from Chief Bear Claws." He nodded at my look of disbelief. "He was afraid of ... of your grandmother, because he'd failed, and he wanted to come clean with us - before ...."
I frowned. "Before what?"
"Kayda, your grandmother was sometimes the sweetest lady in the world, but she also had a cruel, stubborn streak in her." He shook his head. "The Chief had a heart attack two days after he called us. Your mom thinks that grandma did something, because she was a powerful enough shaman to do that."
My eyes were wide open. "Grandma ... killed him? Because ... she was afraid he was going to talk?"
"No, she didn't kill him," Dad answered. "He's in the hospital in Rapid City recovering. It was probably a warning to him to keep his mouth shut."
"I ... I don't understand."
"He said that Grey Skies - your grandmother - was determined to get you to the reservation, to lead the People. She felt that it would be safer for you to be there - because the MCO doesn't have jurisdiction over Tribal Law."
"They almost killed me!" I screeched at Dad. "Several times!"
"I know, honey," Dad said sadly. "I know. And if I'd have known then, I probably would have brought you home to protect you."
"But ... why?"
Dad shook his head. "I don't know. When your Mom and I confronted Grandma about it, she said it was to protect you, but she didn't deny that she thought it would be best for the People." He sighed again. "I think in her own mind, she was convinced she was doing what was best for you and for her tribe." He lapsed into silence for a bit. "She was always very headstrong even if she wasn't the most logical-thinking person."
"Stubborn, you mean."
Dad nodded. "Now, let's go inside. Your Mom is worried about you, and so are your friends. And I think you and she need some time together to talk and try to deal with this whole mess. She's as conflicted as you are, I'm sure." With that, he stood and helped me to my feet.
Sunday, July 1, 2007 - Around Midnight
Dream Space of the Ptesanwi
The moon rose high and silvery over the camp, lighting the entire landscape in quiet, soft light that took away much of the gloom of the night. Even with the fire burning in the fire circle, the light of the moon could not be denied a place in helping illuminate the scene, to chase away the shadows of the night.
Only it was gloomy, of that there was no doubt. Even the flames in the fire were subdued, as if refusing to dance gaily about at such a time of somber reflection.
Wakan Tanka carefully poured tea for the four of us - Mom, Danny, herself, and me - and then distributed the primitive fired-clay cups. We sat in silence, drinking our tea, each lost in thought about what had transpired.
Mom looked totally exhausted emotionally. I felt like my guts were churning as my emotional rollercoaster threatened to overwhelm me, feeling alternately like crying and then like raging against my grandmother. Danny, I think, was totally confused; I don't think he believed what Mom and I had admitted about Grandma's role in trying to chase me from Whateley.
"What do we do now?" I muttered to Wakan Tanka, having absolutely no idea why she thought a dream-walk would be useful.
My mentor sipped her tea. "First, you must admit that Little Doe was flawed like every other human being. There is no such thing as a perfect human."
I suppressed a snort; I knew a few kids at Whateley who thought they were perfect. "What good will that do?" I mumbled.
"As long as you think of her as perfect," Wakan Tanka advised, "your memories of her failings will be much more painful and conflicted."
"So Mom wasn't perfect," Mom said sadly. "I knew that. But ... doing what she did to Bra ... Kayda?" I was startled by her slip of the tongue; she hadn't called me Brandon in a very long time.
"Mom," I turned to my mother, "how am I supposed to forgive her for that? I almost got killed, several times! And Magic Mikey was a pawn of Speakeasy's plot!"
Wakan Tanka looked sadly at me. "And yet, you have fond memories of a loving, caring grandmother, true?" She looked at Mom. "You knew long ago that your mother was stubborn and had her own agenda, true?"
Mom stared into dream space - and we were a family supporting each other. Just like we were supposed to.
Sunday, July 1, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Joe Foss Field, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Mom wrapped her arms around me in a big hug. "I wish you weren't going right now," she sniffled, a few tears leaking from her eyes.
"How are you doing?" I asked, worried about her. I'd at least had the 'quest for the World Tree seed' to distract me for a bit.
Mom shook her head. "I ... I don't know," she admitted. "I ... I'm confused. I suppose like you and Danny are."
"Yeah. Confused is a good way to describe it." I clutched her tightly. "Remember what Wakan Tanka said - we have to try to remember the good stuff, because she was human, and not perfect, like all of us."
"I know. Have you ... forgiven her?"
Grimacing, I shook my head. "That's going to take a while, Mom," I admitted. "Maybe a long time. Maybe never. She hurt me - a lot."
"I know, honey," Mom admitted. "She hurt all of us."
"Yeah." I answered sadly. "Do you want to meet in dream space some more?"
I felt Mom's nod on my shoulder. "I'd like that. I think I need that. But ...."
"Sometimes we can meet one-on-one," I suggested. "And other times, we can get Dad or Danny or both of them."
"But that'll take time away from you and Deb," she objected.
I chuckled softly. "I bet if you ask her, she'd agree that we need each other now more than she does." I couldn't help but smile. "That's one of the reasons I love her - she's so selfless."
"You're lucky to find her," Mom said, and I could tell she was smiling. "She's a real sweetheart. Your Dad and I love her, too. She's good for you. You two are good for each other."
"I think so," I admitted, blushing slightly.
"Be careful, honey," she said, giving me a kiss on the cheek.
"I will. It's France. It's wine and cheese and funny hats! What can possibly go wrong?" I smiled, backing away from the hug. "And we've got Twinkletoes with us."
Mom chuckled again. "To be honest, if he wasn't going with you, after this last week, I wouldn't want you to go."
I held her hands for a moment. "I'll call and text you, okay?"
"Okay, honey." Mom stepped back to Dad's side, where he wrapped an arm around her waist.
"And you take care of my little brother or sister," I added with a wry smile.
Deb stepped to my side. "I'm going to miss you," she said sadly. "I wish we'd have had more time together."
I walked with her guiding me to an out-of-the-way hallway, out of sight of most people, and the moment she stopped, I launched myself at her, kissing her as eagerly as she did to me.
After an extended lip-lock, we leaned our foreheads together. "I want you to promise me to be careful, okay?"
"C'mon," I said, chuckling. "With Ayla and Twinkletoes, it'll be a nice, peaceful vacation."
One of Debra's eyebrows arched. "You know trouble has a way of finding you."
"I promise. I'll be careful and stay out of trouble," I said, raising my hand in a Boy Scout salute, looking thoroughly serious. That held for about two seconds before I started giggling, and that set Debra off chuckling as well. "I'll be back in nine days," I said. "And then we can spend more time together. And there's always dream-walking," I added with a grin.
Deb smiled sadly. "I think you need to spend some time dream-walking with your Mom," she countered. "Right now, she needs you more. And I was really hoping to spend the Fourth with you and your family."
"I know. But we'll have a lot of time after I get back."
"Hey, Kayda," Alicia called discretely from back with Mom and Dad. "We've got to get checked in so we don't miss our flight."
"You better get going," Deb said reluctantly. "You never know how long the MCO is going to take with screening, and I'd hate for you to miss your flight."
"No you wouldn't," I chuckled.
She kissed me again, and then we walked, hand in hand, back to Mom and the group. "I'll call when I get to Chicago," I promised them. "And I'll let you know how we're doing."
"Okay." Mom swept me up in another hug. "Be careful and have fun."
Dad took his turn hugging me. "Have a good time, honey."
I was so swept up in things that I gave Danny a hug, which annoyed him, and then Addy and Alicia, having obviously arranged things beforehand, leaned to him from each side and simultaneously kissed his cheeks, which embarrassed him - and he went fuzzy, which embarrassed him even more.
Reluctantly, I went with my enthusiastic friends, following Twinkletoes, to the security checkpoint. The MCO agent looked skeptically at me, but when I presented paperwork for my knife and tomahawk, he shrugged and let us through with no hassles. As we walked to the gate, Addy grinned. "I can't wait to get 'ome!"
"Ah'm looking forward to it," Alicia said enthusiastically. "Will we have time to go to Paris? Ah want to find a nice dress or something for Ma."
Twinkletoes turned back toward us. "We'll be in Paris for a couple of days," he assured us. "You'll have plenty of time to shop."
I grinned. "Good. I need to get something nice for Deb." Looking around, I spotted a small eatery. "Let's get a burger and fries. Might be our last chance before we have to eat snails and other strange French food."
"Barbarian!" Addy said, sticking out her tongue at me. "You're going to love eating the treats Daphne makes!
"Ah don't care what we eat," Alicia said with a smile. "Ah just want to see France."
We went into the little eatery. We had at least forty minutes before boarding, so we had plenty of time to sit down and eat. As we sat, I lifted my soda in a toast. "To a new adventure with my best friends."
Sunday, July 1, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Joe Foss Field, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
June wrapped her arm around Debra's waist as they watched Kayda and her friends enter the security screening for Sioux Falls Airport. Once they all disappeared from view, Debra sighed and then turned to give June a smile of thanks.
"Come on," June said with a smile and another squeeze. "Let's go get a coffee. I'm sure you're not going to leave the airport till Kayda is definitely on the plane. Just like us."
Smiling in delight as he watched his wife and oldest child's girlfriend walk off arm in arm, Pete Franks followed them, guiding them to a window seat in the airport's Starbucks so they could see the runway and planes, and then he went to the barista to order beverages. He took coffees and some cookies to the table just as June was asking Debra about her plans for the rest of the day.
"That depends on you actually," Debra said with a smile. "I was hoping to invite you back to the office. Farm Boy and I have a proposal for you, and I have a couple of my friends from school I'd like you to meet."
Pete's eyebrows arched. "Is it the type of proposal we can talk about in public?" he asked softly.
Debra shrugged her shoulders. "My friends got chased off their college campus by H1!, and they need a place to stay while they finish their degrees by correspondence. They want normal lives - they have no interest in hero work. They just want to get married and have a family."
"And the problem is ...?" June asked softly.
Debra winced. "Both of them have very mild GSD, almost unnoticeable, really. They can hide it; Sue nearly got through her whole first year before even her roommate found out. It turned out, unfortunately, that her roommate was the daughter of the local H1! Organizer. Farm Boy and I had to rush down there and get them out. "
"They couldn't go to their families?" June asked softly.
Debra sadly shook her head. "Both of them were rescued from their families by superheroes after they manifested. They have very minor powers, almost unnoticeable GSD, and, the reason we thought of you, both of them want to be farmers."
"Farmers?" Pete blinked.
"Farmers," Debra agreed. "We were thinking that in return for room and board while they finish their degrees, they could help out around your farm and get some first-hand experience before they start a farm of their own. And with Kayda and Danny being in school, and June's pregnancy, we thought you might be looking for some extra help and wouldn't mind having mutants stay with you."
Pete and June exchanged a long look, before Pete smiled and looked back to Debra. "Actually, we had discussed getting help, but to be perfectly honest, most of the local kids of appropriate age to help us out are related to ex-friends of Kayda and Julie. We don't want them around our farm, especially with June being pregnant." Pete scowled at the unpleasant thought of some of those people being on his farm.
"What Pete is trying to say in his usual, verbose, round-about way," June took over with a bright smile for Debra, "is that we'd be delighted to meet your friends and see if they are the type of young adults we would feel comfortable to have living with us on our farm."
Smiling with relief at how they'd been open to the offer, Debra grabbed her phone from her purse as it chirped. Getting a tone from her phone, too, June glanced down before smiling. "They're all checked in and waiting for the plane to board."
"Once they're in the air," Pete said, reaching for a cookie, "we can go meet your friends."
Sunday, July 1, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Sioux Falls League Headquarters, South Dakota
"June, Pete, delighted to see you again, especially not in a professional capacity," Farm Boy greeted them as they followed Debra into the main chamber of the Sioux Falls League's Headquarters. "Has Debra had a chance to introduce our proposal?"
"As it happens, we're looking for some help on the farm," Pete admitted with a nod. "And after what's happened, the idea of hiring one of the local boys isn't very appealing," he grimaced as Farm Boy winced his understanding. "Debra said her friends are staying here. Could we meet them, to see if they're the type of young people we'd get along with?"
With a laugh, Farm Boy gestured to the conference room. "They're waiting for you." He guided them inside. "June, Pete Franks, meet Sue Philips and Steve Drake." The young man was in his late teens, tall and tanned, and the young woman had long, blonde hair under a hat, and piercing blue eyes. Both were dressed casually - with jeans, long-sleeved cotton shirts, and boots, they looked every bit the country teens that Pete somehow expected.
June gave Sue a hug while Pete shook the boy's hand, before they swapped and greeted the other. "She could be your sister," June chuckled to Deb.
Debra laughed. "She's not, although I did use the 'sister' rouse when I went to Ohio State to get her," she explained wryly. "That's the thing with exemplars - a lot of us end up looking like blonde-haired, blue-eyed relatives of each other."
It was very clear to June that Deb and Sue were very good friends, and Pete noticed his wife's pleasant smile. She'd already made up her mind based on Deb's judgment and seeing the two girls' friendship on display. It was only a matter of working out unimportant details before they'd make an offer to the two young adults.
Making the best of it, Pete turned to Steve. "So, why do you want to be farmers?" he asked. "Most young people these days can't wait to get away to the big cities."
Steve winced. "Well sir, to be honest ..."
"Pete," the Franks patriarch replied sternly. "Pete and June. None of this 'sir' and ma'am' stuff, okay?"
Steve grinned, sensing that they'd already made a favorable impression. "We'd like a quiet life, and we have just enough GSD that it'd be hard in a town or city. On a farm, slip-ups by us won't be seen, and we're close enough to normal for occasional trips to town and church and stuff."
"Slip-ups?" Pete asked curiously.
At an encouraging nod from Farm Boy, Steve rolled up his shirt to the elbow. Turning his arm around, Steve pointed to copper-colored traceries down the back of his arm. "I have these running under my skin," he explained. "They let me store and channel electrical charges. And I can produce a shock about as severe as a military-grade taser." He indicated copper tracers down the back of his fingers ending in little copper pads at the tip of his fingers. "Since I'd have to wear work gloves almost everywhere," Steve explained, "it won't show."
With a nod of respect for that stratagem, Pete turned to Sue. Taking off her hat and flattening down her hair, Sue showed a small pair of horns, and then she pointed to her boots, explaining, "I have cloven feet, too, but with prosthetic boots, no one can tell."
"Any other powers?" Pete asked.
Shaking her head, Sue shrugged. "Just low-level exemplar."
Steve piped up. "Low-level electrical energizer. Nothing dangerous."
"How do you feel about babies?" June asked suddenly.
"Babies?" Sue asked confused, glancing to Debra and Farm Boy to understand.
"Yes, babies. One of the reasons we're looking for help is that our two kids will both be going to Whateley this year, and since I'm pregnant ..."
"Pregnant? Really?!" Sue squealed in delight, jumping up to give June a congratulatory hug.
Sighing at the happy trio of women enthusing over his wife's pregnancy, Pete extended a hand to Steve. "I don't see any reason to wait. How would you like to work as farm hands for us? I'll give you room and board and a paycheck. And I'll teach you what I know about running a farm."
Steve glanced at Sue and saw her slight nod of acceptance. "That's a very generous offer," he said. Then he winced. "Um, there is something I don't know how you'd feel about, though."
"The fact that you two are a couple even though you're not married?" Pete smiled at them. "I was young once, too, you know," he said. A light blush tinged June's cheeks for a moment, even though she was smiling. "If you're up for some light construction, we can fix up some of the unfinished space in the basement as an apartment for you - if you'd like." He shrugged. "As to anything else, your private lives are your private lives."
With a happy smile, Steve reached out and clasped Pete's hand, giving him a solid shake. "I think we'd really like that," he said with an easy grin. "We'll take it."
"Good." Pete turned to Farm Boy. "You got a couple of beers?" he asked. "Maybe there's a game on we can at least watch while we get to know each other better." He saw the look on June's face. "If experience is any guide, I suspect Sue, Debra, and June would rather talk about babies than watch the game. That does seem to be the female thing." He ducked as two napkins and a half-glass of water were thrown his way.
(to be concluded)