Kayda 10: There's No Place Like Poe (Part 5)
A Whateley Academy Adventure
Kayda 10 - There's No Place Like Poe
by ElrodW and E.E. Nalley
Wednesday September 12th 2007 - After Classes
A copse of trees near Poe cottage, Whateley Academy
There really aren't words for just how amazed and awestruck I was listening to this woman that I knew, intimately, and yet in a very real sense I had no idea who or what she was. I was talking with a girl who wore the face of my soul sister, who was 1300 years past her death, and was in a world as fantastic to her as anything that I can imagine. That this girl from the Iron Age could be both so familiar and so alien at the same time caused me no end of confusion.
But what troubled me most of all was why Coyote was using her.
I couldn't help but be flattered that Mrs. Horton cared so much about me, that Lanie cared so much about me, that they would risk something as dangerous as what they had done. By breaking off this piece of Elaine's soul had required magic of a level that I didn't think either Bella Horton or Elizabeth Carson possessed. But I also knew if the two pieces of this soul weren't reintegrated before Coyote's time limit expired and Laneth ceased to exist, it was very likely that it would cost my soul sister her life.
Not knowing how much time we had left beyond this was the third day I realized the direct approach was what was needed. So I picked up my books and I urged her to her feet. "I'm going to take you to Lanie ..."
"No!" the banshee protested. "If she rejects me ..."
I got as much into her face as I could, considering that Lanie was significantly taller than I was, and that Laneth was an exact duplicate of her. "We don't have time for if, or maybe. For all we know, sundown could be your time limit and that's in a couple of hours, maybe less! Now, you and I are going to walk in that cottage and we're going to go to Lanie's room ..."
"What if she isn't there?"
"I was on my way to meet her there when you waylaid me." I linked my arm in hers and started us walking towards the cottage. "If anybody calls to us, I'll do the talking. You just smile and wave. You may look just like her, but you don't sound anything like her!"
Laneth nodded absently. "She does have a peculiar accent," she said in a voice that sounded like Mr. Scott from Star Trek.
"Glass houses," I muttered.
We walked in silence for a few moments. "Why?" she asked directly as we walked, before we got too near Poe.
"I love Lanie," I replied without batting an eye. "We're ... we have a special bond - more than sisters. I won't ... I can't take a chance on her being hurt."
"She is lucky to have a friend like you."
I chuckled. "No, I'm the lucky one."
It was, of course, the busiest part of the day - after classes but before dinner. Everyone, it seemed, was out and about, and it felt like there were a thousand people between us and Lanie's room. After what seemed like a nerve-wracking eternity, we rounded the corner onto our wing, and we darted in her open-door and I slammed it shut. I turned to see Lanie staring at Laneth, a look of amazement on her face.
Finally, she drawled, "Well, Ah guess you really are Wicked."
The banshee rolled her eyes. "You have no idea," she intimated.
"How ...?" Lanie started but I waved her into silence quickly.
"There's no time!" I told her. "I'll explain ...." And a smile crept onto my face as I couldn't help but say, "no, there is no time - let me sum up ..."
"Quotes?" Lanie demanded. "You're really going to go with quotes at a time like this?"
My grin got a little wider and I shrugged, and while the levity helped, I felt the press of the minutes as I never had before. Quickly I told her the tale the banshee had told me, that if Lanie accepted her, the two women would merge and each would have the memories of the other. Lanie would remember being Laneth and have the boldness and confidence that Mrs. Carson had used to create the Wicked persona, and Laneth would remember being Elaine and growing up loved and safe in the most palatial environment she could imagine.
After a long moment of silence, Elaine asked, "Not that Ah enjoy thinking this way, but has anybody considered what if Coyote is lying?"
"The trickster will mislead and confuse, but he cannot directly lie," I told her. "Laneth has your photographic memory and she recounted the conversation verbatim to me. He promised her directly that if you accepted her that would be the outcome."
"And to do that, Ah kiss her?" she asked.
"The kiss of True Acceptance," Laneth corrected her. "There cannot be even the slightest reservation in your heart."
"And ... you're okay with this?" Lanie asked her.
The banshee smiled at her descendent, stepping forward to lovingly run her hand along Elaine's cheek. "I am proud of you, my daughter, and yes, I understand because I am you and you are me. Since the sorceress Carson awoke me, I have watched you, watched you struggle to remember being me. Come, beloved, it's time for us to join, so that my part of you may awaken."
Elaine stood slowly from her desk face-to-face with her doppelgänger. She licked her lips uncertainly. "Now Ah know how Kodiak felt," she whispered. "You swear to me, that if Coyote lied and ... and after this is over there's just you, you swear to me you will take care of mah parents."
The banshee placed her hand over her heart. "I swear on my honor, on my name, on my blood that I will love, honor, cherish, and obey Eugene and Joanne Nalley as my own mother and father until the day I die."
"And," she said, turning to me, "will you promise to be her soul- sister, to help her when she needs it?" She was trying very hard to sound confident, but the nervousness in her voice was plain to see.
I nodded. "I promise to love her like I love you - as a sister, and more." I felt a chill up my spine. "But ... nothing like that is going to happen."
"Inside knowledge?" Lanie tried to chuckle.
"No. Just very strong confidence in you."
Elaine sighed, swallowed and screwed her courage to the sticking place. The two women embraced and Elaine whispered, "Would you think Ah'm a coward if Ah said how scared Ah am?"
"You are a Pict chieftain's daughter," the archer replied. "It is not possible for you to be a coward."
The two girls lips met and they kissed with a tender passion that made it the most erotic thing I'd ever seen, making me wonder if Lanie and I in the sweat lodge had burned with that passion. It burned within them so brightly that they began to glow as the kiss dragged out and they clung to one another. The glow filled the room, becoming too bright to look at; I had to shield my eyes and look away. When at last the glow faded away, I looked back to find only one redhead standing in the room. She had her back to me, the way Elaine had, having stood from the desk, but the jeans and T-shirt she was wearing were now in a pile on the floor and she was wearing the armored Wicked costume.
"Lanie? I asked hesitantly, suddenly terribly afraid that I had just killed my best friend.
She turned to look at me, a most confused look on her face. Her eyes were that same unnatural emerald that practically glowed from her face, but there was no trace of uncertainty anywhere in them. She blinked several times, and then reached up and took her glasses off and wiped her eyes. She looked at her hand in amazement, then up in me again, and then she walked past me to the window in the little wall between her bathroom and the outside wall and gazed out at the path towards Hawthorne cottage.
"Lanie?" I asked her again, almost trembling with fear. "Are you okay?"
"Ah've worn glasses since Ah was five," she said softly. "But Ah don't need them now!" She folded them carefully and put them on top of the little refrigerator in the corner.
The thick accent gave me hope. I walked over to her and cautiously laid a hand on her shoulder.
She turned and looked down at me, still a confused look on her face, but her eyes were like steel. "We ... Ah ...Ah'm fine, Kayda. It's me, it's Lanie, but in some weird way Ah'm Laneth too." Her eyes misted just a bit. "She doesn't want me to cry over it, but she had such a hard life." She took a deep breath and sighed wistfully. "Ah don't know if that was incest or masturbation, but she's one hell of a kisser!"
My lips burned remembering the time in the dream realm when the banshee had seized the back of my head and kissed me with that same fierce passion for life. Life that I realize now that could be snuffed out at any moment. "Yeah, tell me about it," I replied, feeling a flash of warmth.
"Now," she started, but before she could finish, her door was thrown open and a slightly out-of-breath Mrs. Horton stood in it, wand in hand.
"Laneth! Daughter of Joan, answer my call and be held!" Mrs. Horton announced, but the redhead shook her head and smiled.
"You are too late, priestess of ash and oak," Lanie told her in a strange voice. "The sleeper has awakened! Ah am your slave no more!"
Wednesday September 12th 2007 - After Classes
Headmistress's Office, Schuster Hall - Whateley Academy
Mrs. Carson had elected not to return to her office in professional attire. It was obvious that she had been relaxing when she received a phone call summoning her back in. For some strange reason, the fact that she was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt and had her hair back in a simple ponytail made her far more intimidating than had she been wearing one of her Armani power suits. She had sat in absolute silence as she listened to Mrs. Horton describe the disruption in the local magical field that had drawn her to Lanie's room. Her gaze was focused like a laser on us as we stood before her desk.
I believe staring down a firing squad would've been easier.
Finally, she licked her lips and said, "You girls STILL aren't learning, despite my class! You're dealing with the unknowns of the spirit planes and extra-dimensional beings and power! Do you have any idea what you've done?"
"But, Mrs. Carson," I started, drawing her intense stare. Doing my best not to wilt under the gaze, I swallowed and continued, "If Laneth hadn't been reunited with Lanie when she ceased to exist after Coyote's time limit expired, Lanie could have died!"
If anything Mrs. Carson seem to become more angry. "And you didn't take this soul fragment to Mrs. Horton, why?" She demanded. "Bella Horton has been a magic user longer than you've been alive! What's worse is that you're dealing with one of the most dangerous spirits in the Native American Pantheon! A spirit so known for his tricks, his deceits, and his lethal practical jokes that any shaman with half a brain will be terrified of interacting with it!"
I blushed, completely embarrassed that I had not sought Mrs. Horton when I had gone to get Laneth's meal, when I could have gotten her advice. Despite that I looked up and I declared, "I didn't know how much time we had. And Coyote cannot directly lie ..."
Mrs. Carson's eyebrows ascended her fore head. "Oh? So Coyote was there?"
I blinked in confusion. "No ma'am, but Laneth had Lanie's photographic memory and she recounted the contract verbatim ..." I couldn't continue because Mrs. Carson's hand had come down on her desk like a cannon. I was shocked into silence and honestly surprised the desk had survived the blow.
"Coyote may not be able to lie, but did it ever occur to you, Miss Franks, that a 7th century Iron Age banshee can?" A chill the size of an iceberg ran down my spine as I realized just how foolish I had been. "There are not words adequate to describe the lack of wisdom you have shown, nor the incredible dangers you put yourselves in based on the word up a pair of spirits. What will it take for me to get through to the both of you how dangerous the spirit realm is?"
Lanie raised her chin defiantly. "We didn't break off a piece of mah soul!"
"That may be, but it's generally considered ill-advised for children to conduct surgeries just because they saw a doctor on TV!" Mrs. Carson countered hotly. She sighed and rubbed her temples. "Okay girls, I can see we need to take a few more field trips to try to convince you how dangerous this can be, and to try to get you to think before you act!"
Before either Elaine or I could answer, I felt as though someone had stuck their finger into my navel and pulled, hard. I had a brief sensation of Tatanka charging at me as the room disintegrated into a nauseating swirl of color and motion, and when it stopped, we found ourselves standing on the endless prairie of the Lakota spirit realm, under a chandelier of stars impossible in the modern age because of cities and light pollution. Before us, on his haunches, sat Coyote grinning his endless grin. "Did someone request a field trip?" he said. "I'm only too happy to oblige!"
I had never seen Mrs. Horton in the dream realm before. She wore a simple white linen robe that was belted with a rope over which was a long black coat - the same length as her robe - that reached her ankles, and around her head was a silk band with a silver crescent moon over her forehead. And while Mrs. Carson had visited my dream-world, in that visit she was simply Mrs. Carson in casual clothes. This version of Mrs. Carson surprised me, because there was no such costume giving some clue as the origin of her soul, but instead she was attired in Grecian robes in the white and gold of her Lady Astarte costume.
Lanie was Laneth once more and I was in a buckskin dress as per my usual astral self.
Mrs. Carson stepped between us and Coyote. "Spirit!" she thundered very nearly as awe inspiring and terrible as Coyote himself. "You have no right to abduct us! Return us to the real world at once!"
The animals somehow managed to look wounded as though his pride had been hurt. "Is that any way to address a fellow educator?" he asked. "After all, aren't all our goals the same? We only seek the truth, don't we?"
"I have no desire to mix words with you, Coyote!" Mrs. Carson snapped.
The doglike creature's expression became grim. "Have a care, Lady Astarte; while you are a powerful sorceress indeed, you are not the goddess you take your name from, and I am Coyote and I have walked the spirit realms since the world was new and The Foreigner laid down Creation. Do battle with me at your peril!" Then his grin returned and he stood up on his feet. "But we are here for the truth, and we are all friends here."
Mrs. Horton stepped forward, wand in hand, but I laid a hand on her shoulder and stepped in front. "Coyote ...."
The spirit made a mocking bow. "Ptesanwi, be welcome in my dream space."
"Again," I retorted sharply with a frown. "I remember what you did the last time I visited you!" Pushing aside my anger at his previous trickery, I licked my lips carefully. "We are grateful for your hospitality. What is it that you desire to show us?"
Coyote licked his muzzle. "As a speaker of truth, Ptesanwi, lies offend me. And there have been a great many lies spoken lately." He stood and began to walk among us circling each as he spoke. "Lies told to the Pict Daughter, about who she really was and where she really came from, lies spoken by the priestess of ash and oak to conceal those lies, lies spoken by our revered Mrs. Carson, bastion of truth, justice, and the American way!"
He came over and sat down in front of me, staring up at me. "But most of all, Ptesanwi, lies spoken to you, and of who you are."
I licked my lips and wished my throat was not so horribly dry. "I ... I am the Ptesanwi, the unifier of our tribes ..."
"That is a lie!" Coyote replied sharply. "But of all the lies told, yours is the most innocent, for you only repeat lies told to you. So first, let us begin with the truth." Coyote stood and struck his tail against my leg, and suddenly the most peculiar feeling swept over me. There was a certain nauseating twist in my point of view as it rose, and it felt like my very bones and muscles were twisting and contorting.
Then suddenly I realized that I was Brandon again, Brandon dressed as a Lakota warrior in buckskin trousers, breech cloth, and bare chested, a tomahawk tucked in my belt and a bow in my hand. My skin was not as dark as it had become since I manifested - I was more tanned than native, but I looked stronger than I ever had been and my muscles were well-defined. "Why have you done this?" I demanded.
Coyote's grin was sly. "Yours are the oldest of the lies and should be undone first." He turned back to the group. "Allow me to introduce Brandon Franks, or as your charming school loves to impart, codenamed Akicita, which of course is the Lakota word for warrior. Akicita is a gadgeteer and an exemplar as you say in the real world, and this is how you should've manifested and this is how you should have gone to Whateley Academy."
I looked down at myself and felt tears begin to well up in my eyes as I remembered all that I had gone through from manifestation to now. "What are you saying?" I demanded.
On his feet once more, Coyote began to circle me, his gaze intense and piercing. "Here is the first lie! Greatest of them all! You are not the Ptesanwi! That was not your honor, nor your place! The Ptesanwi was to be your daughter! And you were to be privileged to bring her forth and raise her! But your hallow was wide, and there was enough two spirit in your nature so that you could empathize with your daughter. Wakan Tanka saw a chance to return early, and by upsetting all that had been prophesied and laid down, she altered your manifestation, she stole your manhood, and she returned to the world of men a full generation before her time!"
Coyote growled and suddenly Wakan Tanka appeared wearing an expression of such intense shame that I knew that Coyotes words were true. He turned and growled at the spirit he had just summoned. "Deny it if you dare!" He snarled.
A tear rolled down her cheek as she lowered herself to her knees and bowed down to me, as if she was afraid to look me in the eye. "I do not deny it," she said quietly. "I ask your forgiveness."
"Forgiveness?" sneered Coyote. "If there is to be forgiveness, you should know what you are forgiving! Haven't you wondered? If you were not the Ptesanwi, but rather her father, who was to be her mother? Have you wondered about the instant connection you felt? The confusion that haunts your dreams and gives you no solace in the arms of your soul bound lover?" Coyote leapt up and trotted behind Lanie. He reared up on his rear paws and bumped her in the small of the back causing her to stumble forward towards me. I caught her before she could fall and we were staring into each other's eyes and for the first time I was taller than she was.
The tone of Coyotes voice became smug. "Husband! Meet your wife!"
Stunned, mouth agape in shock, I stared into Laneth's face, as those incredible green eyes stared out from the mask of woad, wide and disbelieving even as I was. Finally I shook my head attempting to clear it from this massive dose of what the trickster spirit claimed to be the truth I was completely unprepared for. Looking down at Coyote I said, "No ... It can't be! Lanie is going to marry Wyatt! She's in love with ..."
"Don't you remember?" Laneth asked softly in Lanie's velvet southern accent. "Ah was single when we met. Wyatt and Ah had broken up, because Ah found out how the Kodiak had used me ..."
Looking back at her, I stammered, "but ... But I never would've gone to the lesbian hot tub social ..."
Laneth smiled a small smile. "It ain't that big of a campus, sugah. We would've bumped into each other sooner or later, most likely in the labs."
"But, Debra ..."
"You think you need magic to save a life?" Coyote demanded. Off to the side, a little hazy scene appeared of a street where I was giving first aid to Debra as the paramedics were just arriving. "And while she would've remained eternally grateful and a great friend, without a magic ritual to mistakenly make, your souls were not bound."
Laneth turned to confront Coyote. "What about the Bastard?" she demanded.
For once the trickster was serious and Coyote's tone was grim. Looking down on the still prostrate Wakan Tanka he growled, "There are great many evils rousing themselves because of your impatience!"
Wakan Tanka sat up, a defiant look on her face as she stared down the other spirit. "And there is much good I can do!" she replied. "I can ..."
"Good?" Coyote demanded, his tone incredulous. "You have made it easier for the enemy of life itself to escape its prison! You have opened the spiritual door to countless evils, and your impatience caused the gang rape of your own host! Do not dare speak to me of good you can do!"
"What good," demanded Mrs. Carson, "does revealing this do anyone?"
The gaze the coyote turned on her was steely and feral. "Would you rather we discuss your sins?" he demanded.
Mrs. Carson strode forward with her head high. "If you believe that I think myself guiltless and without fault, then you demonstrate your ignorance and prove you know nothing about me! But I am not ignorant of your past either, trickster! And you have caused my students enough harm. I am not perfect, nor do I claim to be, and I'll willingly own up to every one of my failings! We're not here to be the audience or players in your little game of amusement. What is it you want out of all of this? Moral superiority you haven't earned? Or is it simply ego that makes you crave attention so?"
The grin on Coyotes muzzle sent chills down my spine. "One day, Elizabeth Carson, you and I will truly match wits, and it will be a day long remembered in both our realms. I will give you privacy to make your own apologies to the Pict daughter, as I see in your heart you so desire, but know that if you fail to do so, I will be more than happy to enlighten her."
I watched Laneth turn back to Mrs. Carson, the questions on her face, but a subtle gesture from the headmistress discouraged her from asking. Instead I squared my shoulders and turned to look at Coyote. "Why have you told me this?"
"I place two roads at your feet, Brandon Franks," Coyote replied. "One is an easy path, pleasant, beautiful and full of company and joys. The other is a hard path, fraught with peril, of your mind, of your body, of your very soul, and while there is joy on this path, it is hard-won and there is much blood to be paid for it. The Pict daughter was to be the mother of the Ptesanwi to make it easier for her to at last unite our people's. Red and white becoming brothers because in her blood flowed that of both people. That future is almost gone, but I give you the choice now. You have but to ask and I will undo all the evil that has been done to you. I will restore your manhood, your future, and your wife. Or, forgive she who wronged you, embrace her deceit and try to unite the People's yourself."
The magnitude of what I was being offered struck me with such force and weight that I nearly fainted. I looked at Laneth and her unspeakable, earthy beauty; imagined being with her not as another woman as a lesbian, but as a man. The man I had hoped to be, who in my heart of hearts I was trying to become when all of this fell on me unasked and uninvited. And as I imagined her toned belly swollen with my child, I understood at last the fear people placed on the devil and his deals.
Licking dry lips with a dry tongue I looked in to Lanie's eyes and made my choice. "I ... I choose ...." I couldn't continue; both choices would have bad consequences. "How am I supposed to choose?" I wailed in anguish. "I ... I love Lanie, but I love Debra, too!"
"You can be the man you were meant to be, with a wife who shares a soul-bond with you, to father a daughter who is destined to greatness." Coyote grinned wickedly. "Or you can be the girl you've become, with the profound hurt you've suffered and a fate that is full of danger and uncertainty, knowing that the Pict daughter you love will belong to someone else, and that you'll never father her children. With the blonde, you may or may not have your own offspring, but they will be the daughter of Ptesanwi with all the difficulties that entails."
"How does that help me decide?" I bit my lip anxiously, then glanced at Mrs. Horton, then Mrs. Carson, and finally at Lanie. "Lanie - please - help me! I ... I love you. But ... I don't know what to do!" I thought of something and spun to Coyote. "What about Debra's injury? Without me to heal, you said she'd live. But ... would she ... would she be maimed? Scarred for life? Lose her leg?" My eyes pleaded with the ancient spirit. "I remember - the doctors said that the wound was so bad that ... that her regen wasn't working, and ... and that if I hadn't healed, her, she ... might have lost her leg! What would have happened to her? Tell me the truth."
"It would have been a very serious injury," Coyote admitted with a thoroughly neutral expression. "She might have ended up losing her limb." He peered intently at me. "Does it make that much difference? If you choose Brandon, you won't have soul-bonded with her!"
"But I'd remember! I'd know that I hadn't saved her, not completely! How am I supposed to live with that guilt?" I looked back at Laneth, my eyes watering. "But ... if I choose to be Kayda, then ... I'll know that I could have had Lanie as my soul-mate, as the mother of my children!" I wiped at my eyes. "How do you expect me to make that decision?"
The choice was brutal. On the one hand, if I chose to be Brandon, I'd have Lanie, but Debra would be possibly maimed. If I chose Debra, I'd always know that I'd turned my back on Lanie, and she would as well, and we both knew the uncertainty of what would that do to our relationship. As my mind spun, I felt as though I was literally drowning, desperately trying to make a decision.
As I started to collapse from the weight of the decision, Laneth grasped my shoulders to steady me. Steadied, I took her hands and stared into her eyes. "How would you feel if I stayed Brandon, remembering that I ... that we ... that ... what we had? Knowing that I took the place of Wyatt? How would you feel if I stay Kayda, knowing that, in effect, I'd be ... I'd be turning my back on you? That ... that we could have been married, with children, but I turned that down?"
Laneth looked at me with her green eyes misting. "Ah can't decide for you," she said softly in her bewitching Georgia accent. "And Ah can't tell you what it would do to mah feelings for you. Ah can't tell if it will affect our special friendship."
I tore my eyes away from her enchanting gaze. "Coyote, will Kayda and Lanie stay best friends? Will we still be special soul-sisters? Will that connection survive us both knowing what choice I make?"
"I will not tell you that," Coyote said evenly. "I will not prejudice your decision. Others make decisions not knowing the future. You must do the same."
I felt tears running down my cheeks as I looked back at the Pict daughter. "If ... if I become Brandon, then I know I'll love you, and you'll love me, and that we'll have at least one child," I said, fighting to keep my composure. "If ... if I stay as Kayda, then I have a best friend, something that I've never had before, and a ... a mate, a love to spend my life with. If I choose to be Brandon," I shook my head, "I ... I don't know if I'd have a best friend. I've ... I've never had one before, and ... and losing my best friend scares me."
"You must choose your path," Coyote intoned again, this time a little bit of impatience in his voice. "
I looked at Mrs. Carson's intense gaze and I finally understood what she was trying to say about how dangerous spirits were. When I thought I couldn't be more hopeless, Laneth reached up and took my face in her hands, her voice once more thick with her Pict accent. "Gaolach," she whispered. "Stop and listen to your heart. I've lived hard, and I've gone through what you've gone through, and I know more than anything how much you could want to avoid it. But there's no honor in causing others pain to avoid it yourself. More to the point, my sweet, we settled this three days ago. Any banshee would be honored to share her bed with you and to have your children, and I'm no exception. But ye didn't choose me, you chose her and that's where your heart lies. Lanie and I will always be with you and a part of you."
Laneth looked up at me, her eyes misting as well. For some reason that I'd never understand, I tilted forward, to where her lips were lifting toward mine, and we met in a kiss, the likes of which I'd never experienced as a boy before. My decision wavered back and forth as I melted in her arms, savoring the feel of her lips against mine, her body pressed against me. Breaking the kiss I looked into her green eyes and whispered, "I love you."
She grinned and winked at me, and in the thick accent whispered back, "I know."
Through tears, a tiny laugh at the joke escaped my lips. "You'll be happy with Wyatt," I said softly. "I hope you'll understand, and that you'll always be my best friend, but ... I can't ... I have to be Kayda. I finally feel like I belong - in the Nations, in our training team, on campus. Even with Tansy. I can't turn my back on that for a big what-if. And ... I could never make my ... our ... daughter suffer through some of what I've had to endure."
Laneth nodded, sparkles like diamonds glinting on her cheeks. "I think I understand," she said softly. "And ... and I hope I'll always be worthy of being your best friend. Because I'll always love you as a soul-mate."
I clutched her tightly into a hug, feeling the moisture on her cheek soaking through my shirt and wetting my skin, while my own tears ran down into her beautiful red hair. For a long time, I just hugged her, knowing that I'd never love her as Brandon to Lanie, as husband to wife, as the mother of our daughter. But Coyote had spoken of danger to the Ptesanwi, and I knew what spirits had been awakened by my spirit's presence. I couldn't bear the thought of someone else having to face those threats that I had faced, that I would face, especially a daughter. I'd seen the anguish in Mom's and Dad's expressions when I'd faced danger; I couldn't do that to Lanie. I didn't know if I could bear it myself.
After a long embrace, she backed away from me and took my face between her hands. "You know what you have to do." She smiled at me, perhaps trying to give me some self-confidence in my decision. "Go on now. Do what you must."
I stepped away from the woman of my dreams and turned to Wakan Tanka. With a sigh, I knelt down and kissed her fore head. "I forgive you," I whispered. There was no pain this time no twisting joints or changing muscles, I blinked and once again I was Kayda 'Pejuta' Franks, shaman of the Lakota tribe, Ptesanwi of the First Nations.
"So be it," Coyote declared. He walked over and sat down next to Elaine. "I will keep my word, Laneth, daughter of Joan, chieftain's daughter. Show the Ptesanwi how to lead, bend your bow in her defense, and help place her at the head of the Council I call, and all that you have lost will be restored to you."
"If you've had your fill of abusing us, we wish to go home," the banshee declared.
Coyote replied softly, "I am merely a teacher, and the truth doesn't care about your feelings." Once again the world turned into a kaleidoscope and by our navels we were dragged through time and space until we stood once again in the headmistress's office.
As if nonplussed by being dragged to alternate dimensions and encountering powerful spirit beings, Mrs. Carson eased herself into the chair behind her desk and sighed. "Perhaps now you two begin to understand what I have been trying to tell you?" She cast her eyes down at her desk where she clasped her hands on it. "Kayda, you may go. Miss Nalley, you and I need to have a discussion. Mrs. Horton will remain to vouch that what I'm telling you is the truth."
"I don't need Mrs. Horton for that," Laneth replied through Lanie's face. "If you say you are going to tell me the truth, your word - warrior to warrior - is good enough."
Mrs. Horton put her arms around my shoulders." Come on dear," she told me with a smile. "Chocolate ice cream might not be the cure for everything, but it certainly helps." She led the way out of the office, closing the door behind me.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - Evening
Room 210, Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Some time ago, Lanie had calmed down from yet another bout of the angry, Pict warrior Laneth side of my soul-sister's personality still forced its way to the forefront from time to time, cursing and yelling in what I assumed was a Pict language as she displayed rage and eagerness to skin Mrs. Carson and Tansy alive, and who I had to calm down lest she do something rash. That side of her personality alternated with the Lanie-side in a near-dizzying display of her two personalities. At the moment, I was holding her close, my back against her headboard, as she cried and cried, shaking with her sobs. This current bout of anguish had faded from wailing aloud to a steady stream of tears with periodically spasms of sobbing. From the moment she'd gotten back to Poe from Schuster Hall, I never left her side, dealing with the Pict's anger and the Southern Belle's sorrow. So far, I the only thing I'd deduced was some awful betrayal, somehow involving Tansy, Lifeline, and Mrs. Carson. And a few choice epithets at Ms. Hartford were mixed in for additional confusion. And a few moments of anger and sorrow that Wyatt had once betrayed her, too.
"I trusted them!" she wailed and clutched me more tightly as I shifted, perhaps out of fear that I was going to leave her. As if!
"I'm here for you, sister," I said soothingly.
"Ah trusted Mrs. Carson!" she bawled. "And ... and ... and she lied to me!" I let her wipe her tears on my shirt. "Ah looked up to her!" she sniffled. "Ah respected her, because she was a model of being tough but fair, of caring, of being honorable!" I just nodded; this was her fifth or sixth cycle through her anguish. "Ah thought she would never betray a student's trust!"
"I know," I tried to soothe her. "But we all have our failings!"
"Everyone looks up to her! Ah looked up to her!" She shook her head with some force. "Never again. Ah'll never trust her again!" She turned and looked me in the face, her glistening cheeks moist from a deluge of tears, her eyes weary and puffy from her crying. "She used me to settle her old score with Freya, like a hired thug! And that was a lie! She let Tansy do ... what she did! She let Tansy screw up any chance Ah ever had of reconciling with Mags!"
"Why?" she asked me again. "Why would Tansy do that to me?" She shook her head. "Ah know," she answered her own question. "Hartford! It's all Hartford's fault. She recruited Tansy, and then wanted to recruit me, so she helped Tansy ruin mah friendship! But Mrs. Carson could have stopped them, if she really cared!"
I held her close, knowing it was going to come to a moment of wishing to leave Whateley, because it was a hell-hole full of people who didn't care, who lied, and who used others like cheap paper towels. For a moment, I considered how ironic it was that I was comforting Lanie through the same crisis as I'd gone through only days earlier.
"Ah hate 'em! Ah hate 'em all!" The fury in my soul-sister's voice was nothing new to me, but it was unsettling nonetheless. "Ah ... Ah'll go home! Ah don't need all their lies! Ah wish Ah'd never have come here!"
I tilted her head to look her in the eyes again. "Does that include me? Does that mean you wish you'd never met me?" I asked bluntly.
Lanie dropped her gaze, looking down to avoid eye-contact. "No," she admitted softly, pausing to wipe in vain at one cheek. "Ah don't regret meeting you," she said. "You're the only one who hasn't lied to me!"
"If I had known all this was going to get dumped on you ...," I started to say.
Lanie looked up and goggled at me. This was new territory for her repeated grief and angst, and as she considered my half-spoken thought, her jaw dropped. "You ... you would have stayed as Brandon, right? Is that what you're going to say? You'd have chosen Brandon so Ah wouldn't have been betrayed?"
I nodded slowly. "I ... I'd know how to make it stop hurting. Maybe if I'd have been Brandon, this never ...."
Lanie shook her head. "No. Ah would never let you do that for me," she said very softly. "But that's part of why you're mah only real friend! Because Ah know you would do something like that for me, that you'd sacrifice yourself for mah happiness!"
A knock at the door interrupted the discussion before I could reply. "I'll see who it is," I assured my soul sister.
"If it's Tansy," Lanie hissed, "Ah don't want to speak to that bitch!" Even as she spat the words, more tears rolled down her cheeks.
I eased myself from her arms, carefully laying her on her side atop the bed, then with a concerned and loving glance at the redhead, I walked to the door, opening it a tiny crack to see who was interrupting us.
"Oh, good, Kayda," Mrs. Horton said, relief in her voice. "I'm glad you're with her." She winced, knowing that she'd had a small role in the falsehoods which had been perpetrated upon Lanie. "I need to speak with you a moment, please."
I glanced over my shoulder, then made sure the door was unlocked and slipped into the hall. Before it could shut, Mrs. Horton stopped it and put a key in the lock. "Press your thumb on the pad, please," she directed me.
My mouth hanging open, I gawked at her for several seconds before her request sank in. Finally, with a nervous nod, I pressed my thumb several times on the little reader until the LED blinked green. "Just in case," she said to me. Clearly, she was a lot more worried about Lanie than she was letting on if she was entrusting me with the combination to my friend's room. She pressed a key into my hand, too. "Just in case," she added, worry wrinkles lining her brow.
We stepped around the corner from the door, and Mrs. Horton glanced around conspiratorially, or due to guilt. "Tansy is downstairs," she said softly. "I'm very certain that she knows what Mrs. Carson revealed to Lanie." She read the cringe on my face. "I kept her downstairs on purpose, to avoid causing our girl any more anguish or heartache. But I'd like you to talk with Tansy, please."
My options were pretty limited. I could go confront Tansy, and maybe prevent the blonde from causing Lanie any more grief, or I could ignore her, snubbing her for the evil she'd wrought on my best friend. Or I could listen to Tansy and try to understand what was going on. Considering what Tansy had done for me, she deserved at least to be heard. Nodding, I turned back. "I'm just going to tell Lanie that you need me for an errand. Then I'll be right down."
Mrs. Horton thought better of leaving Lanie alone, but at the same time, she felt guilty about some of what she'd concealed from the redheaded RA. I would imagine that she just sat in one of the wing chairs in the room watching over Lanie without trying to comfort her.
Downstairs, Tansy was waiting, and from the worry lines on her face, it was plain that she knew what had gone down. Any feelings I had of being charitable vanished when I saw the blonde exemplar. "You've got a lot of nerve coming here," I said sharply.
Tansy didn't deign to look at me, but just lowered her eyes, shaking her head slowly. "I suppose it's too much to ask to let me talk to her," she said, barely above a whisper. "To give me a chance to apologize in person - before she kicks me permanently out of her life."
"You've got her so distraught that she's ready to go all Grizzly on you," I snapped back. "Or all Pict warrior!"
The blonde nodded. "I probably deserve it, too."
"No probably about it, if you ask me." Dammit, after what Tansy had done for me, I was having a really tough time keeping a gruff, angry façade. "What the hell were you thinking? Did you do it just for the jollies?" Seeing a crowd starting to gather, I took Tansy by the arm and led her to one of the vacant study rooms. It wasn't as comfortable as the chairs in the foyer, but at that point, privacy was paramount.
When we sat and I looked more closely, I could see that she, too, had been crying. "What the hell is going on here?"
"I ... I was recruited into an ... organization. By Ms. Hartford," Tansy said haltingly. "She wondered if I could possibly recruit Lanie."
"So ... what? You deliberately sabotaged things between Lanie and Mags - just to try to drag Lanie into ... what, the Syndicate?" I goggled at her. "And then - you pretended to be her friend, doing all that stuff with her, just to recruit her?"
"God help me, Kayda," Tansy sobbed, "but I didn't think things through, and by the time it was done, it was too late! And I wasn't pretending to be her friend! She's the only friend I've ever had! I ... I really don't want to ever hurt her, but what I did ...." She lowered her gaze to the small table at which we sat. "To get in her good graces, I had to do something truly unforgiveable, and once she started being my friend, I ... I didn't know how to every make that up to her."
"What else? Was seducing her part of your plan?" I snapped without thinking.
Tansy looked up at me, and for the briefest of moments, I couldn't tell if I was going to get another slap from the exemplar beauty or if she was going to burst into tears. "I didn't set out for anything to happen between us!" she bawled. "God as my witness, Kayda, I only wanted to be her friend."
"And recruit her into this organization of yours?" I asked snidely. "What else? Are you being my friend to recruit me, too?"
The last thing I expected was for Tansy to 'fess up, but that's exactly what her nod did. "My ... sponsors took note of your performances in the combat finals," she admitted. "They wanted to see if I could recruit you, as well."
"Well, you've done a good job of making Lanie feel like she has one fewer friend." The snarky pitch in my voice couldn't be disguised.
Tansy looked at me, her eyes misting and full of sadness, and she looked positively forlorn and miserable. "I ... I understand. Even if that was before ... before she taught me the meaning of true friendship, while I was still learning to not use people. I ... I made a huge mistake. I don't know if she'll ever forgive me, so I'll make sure that I avoid her." She rose, and with shoulders slumped, walked toward the door. She was feeling so upset that she displayed no grace, no style as she started toward the door. She walked as if she'd been utterly defeated and had given up.
"Just like I felt the other day," I muttered to myself. I didn't think Tansy would hear, but she did, and she halted mid-stride, looking over her shoulder at me puzzled. "The other day," I said to the blonde, "you helped me when you didn't have to. You could have let me sink into depression, and probably leave Whateley, leaving Lanie all to you. But you didn't."
Tansy nodded incrementally, not quite sure how to take what she was hearing. With a sigh, I decided that someone should do something to heal some wounds, and since I'd been wounded least by Tansy, maybe that someone should be me. Rising from my chair, I walked to her, and as she looked hesitantly and even a bit fearfully toward me, I embraced her.
To the outside world, Tansy Penelope Walcutt may have put on an icy, stone-cold-bitch air, but that just suggested that she was covering up a lot of internal pain. The fact that I'd reached out to her, not spurning her when I had a right to, broke a dam, and she started crying as she clung to me.
"I don't think it'd be a good idea for you to see her before I can talk to her." Tansy nodded. "I'll probably be up half the night with her, and I promise I'll try to help her understand. You've changed. We all have. I think she'll understand - eventually. When I think she's ready to talk to you without going all Grizzly or Pict warrior on you ..."
"Long story. One of her ancestresses. Anyway, I'll call you the moment I think she's ready to listen to you, okay?" She nodded mutely; she might have been afraid of saying anything. "I promise." I slowly pushed her back to arm's length, still holding her shoulders. "Now, I would suggest you go use the guest bathroom to touch up your makeup. Heaven help what rumors will fly if you're seen outside the cottage looking like you do! Some might think it's a sign of an impending apocalypse!" I added the last bit with a smile and giggle, and despite her anguish, it elicited a tiny giggle from Tansy, enough to let me know that perhaps she still dared to hope.
After saying goodnight to Tansy, I walked back upstairs and relieved Mrs. Horton at Lanie's bedside. She was breathing softly, rhythmically, and lying peacefully still. As our housemother left, I sat down on the edge of the bed, gently stroking her beautiful red hair as I whispered to her that things would be alright - eventually.
When she hadn't stirred after fifteen minutes, I figured she was asleep, so I started to rise from the bed, but I stopped when she whimpered and clutched the hand that had been caressing her head. "Please don't go," she cried.
"I'll be right back," I told her gently, then I made a quick visit to her bathroom. After that, I helped her get ready for bed, turned out the light, and helped her crawl under the covers, sitting beside her and resting my hand on her arm so she knew I was still there. She desperately needed company, and after a bit, still feeling an occasional sob wrack her body, I lay down on the bed, spooning up behind her, my arm wrapped around her waist so she knew that she had a friend who wasn't about to leave or betray her. "I'll stay with you for a while," I said as I slid her blanket up over me so I could cuddle closer to keep her feeling safe and secure.
Room 210, Poe Cottage, after midnight,
In the middle of a fitful, brief nap, I woke up when I heard a frightened whimper from Lanie as she tossed rather violently in bed. Instantly shaking off my fatigue, I reached out to her in the darkness to hug her reassuringly. It took a few seconds, foggy as my brain was from lack of sleep, for me to realize that she was on her back and I was clutching her breast.
I moved my hand moved slowly, so as not to alarm her, sliding it down to her waist. She turned beneath my arm again, more slowly this time, and I felt her warm breath on my face. "Kayda?" she whispered softly, her voice almost desperate in need of comforting.
"I'm here, sister," I replied softly, pulling her gently against me like I was a giant teddy bear for her to cuddle with. "I'm not leaving you."
"I ...," she started to say softly, but she stopped. "Thank you. For being with me."
"Anything for my soul sister," I said. I started to tilt my head so I could kiss her forehead, the way Mom always did to me when I was young and needed comforting, but she moved, too, and our lips met, surprising me as she began to frantically and passionately kiss me, one hand behind my head so her lips could press more tightly against mine. And she was strong - I couldn't easily escape her desperately needy hug. And to be honest, her kisses were so good that I really didn't want to stop.
Thursday September 13, 2007 - morning
Room 210, Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Elaine woke in a dry, empty place emotionally that the Greeks referred to as catharsis. She had experienced such an emotional roller coaster ride the previous day that she woke numb. The shower with its multiple, invigorating sprays of water brought her consciousness up and cleared her mind of sleep fog, but she could still muster no feelings, and she went about her morning rituals in an almost robotic state. Her hair dry and dressed, she smiled and noticed that Kayda was still asleep in the bed and so the first emotion she felt was gratitude that her friend it stuck by her through such a difficult night.
Before she could wake up her friend, a knock at the door did so. Curious Elaine walked over and opened it, finding Mrs. Horton standing there. The houseparent said nothing, merely collecting the redhead into her arms and squeezing her tightly through a tremendous full-body hug. After a few moments, she stepped back, took Elaine's head in her hands and kissed her forehead. Looking her in the eye, Mrs. Horton declared, "Elaine, there aren't words for how sorry I am for my part in all this. I should've listened to my inner voice that screamed at me to defy Mrs. Carson and tell you everything, but I didn't and I'm sorry."
After a long moment, Elaine licked her lips and said, "When Ah was lost and under the Kodiak's spell two people never stopped looking for me - Mr. Donner and you. Ah won't ever forget that. You didn't tell the lies, Mrs. Horton, but if you need me to say 'Ah forgive you,' then I'm happy to say Ah forgive you."
Kayda set up in the bed and stretched, drawing the house mother's attention which caused Elaine to blush. "Ah might have to ask your forgiveness about break'n that no overnight guest rule ..."
Mrs. Horton's smile said that she remembered being young. "I don't know what you're talking about, Miss Nalley," she said with a smile, deliberately looking away from Lanie's bed with Kayda sitting on it, instead shooting a wink at Lanie that told the redhead that the housemother was going to pretend that she saw nothing.. "But I need you to find and waken Miss Franks, because you've both have been requested in administration."
Elaine's face became hard, and a 7th century warrior growled out of her lips, "I have nothing to say to Elizabeth Carson."
Mrs. Horton looked a bit concerned and laid a hand on her shoulder. "It isn't Mrs. Carson that summoned you," she said softly. "One of the trustees is here and wants to speak with you. Miss Franks as well." The redhead turned and shared a glance with Kayda and back to the house parent who refused to answer further questions. After Mrs. Horton left, the two perplexed girls finished getting ready quickly and walked hand- in-hand to Schuster Hall. While this caused some raised eyebrows among those they passed, word had to have traveled like wildfire over the campus about the explosion of temper Elaine had given the headmistress and no-one was brave enough to challenge her mercurial temper.
No sooner had the pair entered the administrative suite than Ms. Claire led them directly to Conference Room A. She knocked twice to announce herself, and then opened the door without any response from inside the room; whatever was going on, the occupants clearly were waiting expectantly for the two girls. Ms. Claire stood aside, gesturing the girls in, and then closing it behind them, not entering the room herself.
The two soul-sisters were surprised to see three other people in the room - a handsome well-dressed man she felt she should recognize, but couldn't sat at the head of the table, to his right was Ms. Hartford who was wearing the most contrite expression either girl could ever remember seeing on her face. At his left, unable to make eye contact, was a very morose Tansy Walcutt. Her eyes were puffy, obviously from crying, and her makeup was subdued, indicative of her unhappy mood. She stared at her hands on the table, her head giving little twitches as though she wanted to look up but didn't dare. The man had a cell phone to his ear. Looking up, he gestured for the two girls to come closer and sit, while he spoke into the phone, "I'm very sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, my meeting has arrived and I have to let you go. Please, again accept my congratulations, Gordon, and I look forward to seeing you in London before the holidays. Goodbye."
The man brought his steely gaze up to the two girls as he hung up his phone and declared, "You may see." Elaine blinked and was startled to realize that she was staring at Lord Paramount, incredibly confused as to why she had not recognized him sooner.
Ms. Hartford's lips curled in one of her unusual smiles. "It's the portrait," she declared. "You never wondered why every student has to look at Fredericks portrait in the Homer Gallery?"
Kayda blushed and declared, "I, well to be honest, I thought it was an ego thing."
Lord Paramount smiled. "No one has ever gone broke betting on the human ego," he chuckled. "Of all the trustees, I find myself on the campus the most, and to prevent being mobbed by sycophants, would-be lackeys, and the like, a spell was placed on the portrait so that if anyone sees me on campus, they will think me important, but not otherwise connect who I am. It's renewed each year by gazing at the portrait. So, to get down to business. Miss Nalley, do you think yourself sufficiently apologized to, or do you need to add to your collection?"
Elaine blinked. "Forgive me sir," she said slowly, "but Ah don't recall ever speaking with you, so I don't imagine you have too much to do with what I've been dealing with over the last twenty-four hours."
Frederick Paramount actually chuckled. "Oh, I'm hip deep in the conspiracy as they say," he replied. "Ms. Hartford is our representative on the school grounds; she and I are both members of the same ... Committee. You might say that we're a gathering of like-minded individuals with a common goal."
"Doesn't that violate the neutrality of the school?" the rules lawyer demanded.
Lord Paramount gave a slight gesture and Ms. Hartford nodded. "According to Mr. Webster, your interpretation would be correct," Ms. Hartford replied. "However we are talking about superheroes, super villains and the like. So to Whateley, neutrality meant equal access. None of the villains bat an eye about the Future Superheroes of America club, or any of our similar course offerings. Likewise, the white hats turn a blind eye to those less concerned with law and order. So long as it is every student's choice, nothing untoward happens on the grounds, and all the students obey the school rules, each side is allowed to recruit, mentor, and otherwise prepare the next generation."
Elaine considered that for several minutes, before tossing her head and Tansy's direction. "Okay, fair enough. What's she doing here?"
Lord Paramount clasped his hands together on the table in front of him. "Miss Walcutt is here," he declared it an even tone, "so that all the cards are on the table, so to speak. Miss Walcutt came to you for protection May Fifth of last year, does that match your memory?"
Loophole considered for a moment. "Yes, in mah workshop."
Paramount nodded. "What you may not be aware of is that she had something of an epiphany while you were unconscious from having been bound to your spirit This occurred on May First, when she shielded your friend Miss Franks from Mindbird who was chasing her."
Elaine angrily crossed her arms over her breasts. "Yes, yes, we've heard this song and dance. She knew who Hekate's Mentor was. Doubtless she was already using that as an angle to get to me, for you," she accused, glaring at Ms. Hartford.
The Assistant headmistress only smiled her disturbing smile. "Only if I suddenly have access to a time machine. I began recruiting Tansy on 12 May. If you like, I can supply you with the date- and time-stamped emails that were sent and exchanged, if my word isn't sufficient."
A tear roll down Tansy's cheek. "The only agenda I had was that I realized I was completely alone and I had uncovered evidence of a very, very evil man and I needed friends. And in that mindset, I went to go make friends with Band-Aids ..." Elaine frowned.
Tansy nodded, sniffing mightily to try to keep her emotions in check. "Yes! I figured he was the least judgmental student on this campus, that if I had a chance with anybody, it would be with him. But it just so happened he was sitting with Montana ..."
"Who almost killed you if the tales Ah heard are right," Elaine admitted softly.
"Pretty close," Tansy said. "When Band-Aids finished healing me, he said I would be just like I was before. But he was wrong. When he touched me to heal me, I could see into his mind, and I saw what a selfless, compassionate man he was. And it was like the sky opened up and I realized what a complete, selfish bitch I had been, how I had turned into the people I hated. Everything I told you that day in the lab is true. I wanted to be your friend, not to get close not to do anything but be your friend."
Ms. Hartford propped her chin on her hand with her index finger against the side of her face, her eyes steely. "If you need to blame someone for Miss Walcutt getting closer to you, blame me," she said. "I had just become aware of Wyatt Cody organizing his Atlantean League and I needed information on why and what. Which reminds me ..." She leaned forward and opened a folder on the table and removed a sheet of paper she slid towards Elaine.
Frowning, Elaine leaned forward, picked up the sheet, and scrutinized it. "What is this?"
"A complete hardware list and the spatial coordinates you'll need to tie in to the school's standing wave teleport network," Hartford told her. The frown evaporated from Elaine's face into a look of shock which caused the Assistant headmistress to chuckle. "Yes, I'm aware of your plans, and what's more, I fully approve."
Elaine scowled at Tansy for a moment, and the blonde blushed and sank a little deeper into her chair. "Ah won't ask how you found out," she declared, turning her attention back to the Assistant headmistress. "But, Ah must admit Ah'm surprised you approve."
"You're battling the enemy of life itself," Hartford replied. "Why wouldn't I approve? What you're doing is exactly why Lord Paramount, myself, and a few others created The Committee."
Kayda crossed her arms angrily and glared at the blonde. "You want us to believe that The Syndicate are the good guys now?"
Lord Paramount tsked between his teeth and shook his head. "The Syndicate?" he asked in his cultured, accented voice. "No, no of course not! No, The Syndicate is a criminal organization through and through; something between an insurance company and a mutual aid society. Really just a collection of upper-class common thugs, thieves for hire, hit men, and the like. They have few uses beyond casual thuggery, temporary bases of organization, legal defense for the minions that are captured, and escape insurance for key players. While most of the members of The Committee are also members of The Syndicate, because why waste a resource? We have a number of members who are not. We are united in purpose for a single goal."
"Which is?" Lanie demanded.
Lord Paramount smiled and it sent chills down both girls spines. "Tell me Miss Nalley, Miss Franks are you familiar with the concept of SMI²LE?"
Kayda frowned and looked at Lanie. "Does that mean anything to you? Because I'm sure he doesn't mean just a simple expression of happiness or amusement."
Lanie turned to look at her friend. "It's an acronym," she explained. "It stands for Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension; it's usually spelled Sierra Mike India squared Lima Echo. It was a concept that Timothy Leary came up with when he wasn't strung out on LSD. The basic concepts are using science to extend humanity off Earth so that a single asteroid impact won't mean our extinction, chemical ways to increase the base population intelligence which will then speed up all the other items, the final of which is ways to prolong life. The back two feed into the first, the longer we live and the smarter we are the further we will go in space."
Paramount chuckled and leaned over to Ms. Hartford. "You have an apt pupil, my dear."
Ms. Hartford's gaze was steely as she locked eyes with Elaine. "This is the organization that I recruited Tansy to, that I would like the two of you to join as well. Because unless I'm very much mistaken in my appraisal of you, Miss Nalley, you're already a believer."
"Ah believe our future is in space, but we can't forget who we are to get there. More to the point, why should Ah believe anything you have to say after what you did to me?"
Ms. Hartford's eyes narrowed. "What exactly have I done to you, Miss Nalley? Did I encourage Tansy to be your friend? Absolutely, and when Tansy repeatedly came to me, worried that you would misunderstand what we were accomplishing, that you would interpret her friendship as some kind of manipulation, I repeatedly consoled her that what she was doing was for the greater good, and that she was saving the world, and that the fact that she was so worried you would interpret her friendship as manipulation proved that her friendship was sincere."
"You cost me mah best friend!" Lanie shouted.
"Margaret Finson is emotionally unstable!" Hartford shot back. "You may not have seen or recognized it before because you were a little too close to see the signs, but certainly her words at your combat final should have convinced you that the choice you had was between the spirit Grizzly Miss Franks bound with you or the friendship of Miss Finson. She stopped being your friend the moment you became Grizzly's host, and it was only a matter of time before what happened would have happened. Did it assist Miss Walcutt in proving to you her intentions were sincere? Yes, it did. And that hasn't changed!"
"Time may heal that wound," Lord Paramount said, breaking into the conversation. "But not without a great deal of therapy on Miss Finson's part, treatment that she is receiving because of what you endured in that final. So even at this worst point you are still helping your friend."
After a long moment of consideration, Elaine asked quietly, "whose idea was it?"
"Mine," Tansy replied without a moment's hesitation, tears streaming down her face. "But I swear to God Lanie, I didn't know she'd react like that ...!"
Ms. Hartford tapped the table, bringing the room's attention back to her. "No-one, not Dr. Bellows, not Liz Carson, not Miss Walcutt, not me - no-one knew the extent of Miss Finson's derangement. And you know why she was roomed with you, Miss Nalley."
Kayda reached out and rubbed Elaine's arm in encouragement as the redhead nodded. "She's terrified of GSD sufferers because of a Rager incident. Is she getting better?"
Ms. Hartford sighed. "I can't get into specifics because of patient confidentiality, but Dr. Bellows is encouraged. More difficult will be finding some way around the blood oath that she swore, but first she has to be sane enough to be able to sit in the same room with you. It may interest you to know that Tansy has worried nonstop about you since I recruited her, and I've had to reassure her each time that she should judge her friendship with you the way I conduct my friendship with Elizabeth Carson when I see to it that what she needs gets done, legal, or otherwise."
Lord Paramount sat back in the seat and steepled his fingers. "I make no bones about our desire to recruit the both of you. You have skill we could use, and the three of you worked very well together; you're a natural team. I would like to see that friendship restored between the three of you, even if Miss Nalley and Miss Franks you choose not to assist us. Most of what you are angry with Miss Walcutt about, Miss Nalley, was not her fault or doing. I've instructed Miss Walcutt that she may discuss anything that you wish to know with you. I will, of course, ask for your discretion in not disseminating that information further. Talk with Miss Walcutt. Ask her questions. I think you'll find the answers illuminating. Give us a chance. We have more in common than you might think."
He and Ms. Hartford stood and gathered their belongings. Ms. Hartford turned to Kayda and Elaine and declared, "You three have this room for as long as you need it. You are, of course, excused from classes. Elaine," she said uncharacteristically using the girl's first name. "Tansy deserves your forgiveness. She came to you innocently, and it was I who took advantage, not her. If you need someone to hate, hate me."
If we were going to be in this conference room until we got things resolved, then I was resigned to going to bed quite hungry - in two days' time. Tansy couldn't bring herself to look eye-to-eye with Lanie, not that I blamed her, because my soul-sister's eyes reflected doubt alternating with skepticism and anger. I knew better than to try to intervene, because one of them would no doubt think I was taking the other's side.
"Should I send out for pizza?" I asked, trying to interject a little levity in hope of breaking the impasse. "I like Hawaiian style with mushrooms. How about you?"
"No, thank you," Tansy said without looking up. "It's not the healthiest food."
"Hmmpphh," Lanie snorted, looking away. "Exemplars, remember?" I hoped that might break the ice, but Lanie just looked at me. "The works."
Getting disgusted with this whole thing, I lifted the phone. "Miss Claire, can you have the caf deliver two pizzas - one Hawaiian style with mushrooms, and the other with everything? And a chicken salad?" I ventured, looking toward Tansy.
"What the heck?" she said with a sigh. "I'll have pizza I guess."
"Forget the salad. Make them large pizzas. Drinks?"
"Soda water," Tansy replied.
I shot a look at Lanie and cocked an eyebrow. "What? No mint juleps?" I giggled, my hand covering the phone's mouthpiece. "Two lemonades." I hung up the phone and leaned back, alternating my gaze between the two girls, one hurt and one guilty. "Now, I don't know about you, but I move that we get this out of the way so we can enjoy lunch. Second?"
I'd intended to get their attention, and I succeeded. Both were gawking at me like I was mad.
"Can you ...?" Tansy started, but stopped, glancing nervously at the redhead. "I mean ...." She looked away, her expression still guilt- ridden, and closed her mouth.
"Well, can't you do something magic ... shaman-like ... to show Lanie that I'm telling the truth?" Tansy said, her voice barely above a whisper.
Lanie's eyebrows shot up quizzically, perhaps hoping that I could do something to get to the veracity of Tansy's statements. She was still curious, I could tell, or her only reaction would have been to get more stubborn. Only she'd call it being more determined or resolute. Sometimes, that trait was cute. But not now.
"Sorry," I said with a heavy sigh and headshake. "There are things that shamans can do, but I haven't learned them, and they're considered very, very evil. To bind a person to speak not of their own volition, but to compel them to speak?" I shook my head "I can't and won't do that."
"Well, Ah tried."
The thought had given me an idea, though. "But ... if you'd agree, Tansy, I can summon your spirit and compel him to speak truthfully."
"What good would that do?" Lanie asked. "Tansy was the one ...." She didn't need to finish that thought.
I smiled at Lanie. "How many secrets do you have from Grizzly?" I asked her knowingly.
"About as many as you have from that ornery white buffalo of yours," she replied. Then a light dawned. "And ... Mustang ...?"
"Would know all of Tansy's secrets," I finished her sentence."
Tansy looked sharply up at me. "Wait, what?" she asked, suddenly concerned. "What are you talking about? If you think I'm going to give up ...."
I put my hand on hers to reassure the now-startled girl. "I'm not talking about taking your spirit. Only summoning him under a geas so that by Solomon's Oath, he can't lie to me."
Give Tansy credit - she was quick. "Okay, if you swear it won't harm Mustang, do it." She looked at Lanie and a small smile crept across the blonde's face. "If it'll convince you that I'm telling the truth ...." She paused and took a deep breath. "I ... I'd give up Mustang if it would convince you," she added solemnly.
"We won't go that far," I assured her with a smile before turning a questioning look to my soul-sister. "Lanie?"
"You're sure that he can't lie?" she asked, still skeptical.
"I'll prove that part, too," I said with a smile.
"What do I have to do?" Tansy asked, eager to prove her feelings for Lanie, and her true regrets for what she'd done.
"Nothing except to agree to let me summon and bind him to the truth."
Something in my choice of wording gave Tansy momentary pause, but with a nervous glance at Lanie, she nodded. "Okay."
Digging in my medicine pouch, I laid out all the ingredients and then I began an incantation, crumbing the various herbs between my fingers as I spoke. "Spirit of the wild Mustang, bound to this girl," I intoned in Lakota. I turned and scattered the herbs to small piles in the four compass points, "by the North Wind, by the South Wind, by the East Wind, by the West Wind," I crushed more sacred herbs, adding to the small piles, "by the Oath of Solomon, I call you to appear, bound such that only words of truth may you utter while you speak to me." More herbs joined the pile - no doubt, someone was going to be unhappy at both the mess and the smell in the conference room carpet. I finished chanting a Lakota song-like incantation to complete the magic, and the four compass points of herbs flared into puffs of smoke as they released their essence.
The man-beast that appeared was clearly a form of the Mustang; tall and powerfully muscled, his feet were hooves, and his hands, though strong, weren't nearly as refined as those of a human. His face was long, extended in a hybrid of the heads of a horse and a man, and from the rear of his lime-green Bermuda shorts - something that perhaps only a class-less tourist or Jericho would find fashionable - a horse's tail protruded up, colored in a tawny brown that matched his long mane-like hair. His shirt would have done any color-blind lover of tropical prints proud, but on him, it looked like a bold dare for someone to foolishly tease him.
The frown of anger that had initially been displayed on Mustang spread into a huge grin. "You rang?" he boomed in a very deep voice.
"Yes, Lurch," I couldn't help but giggle, for which Lanie slapped my arm, though whether she was amused or was reminding me to get on with business, I couldn't tell. "Okay, okay," I relented. "Mustang, we desire to know of your host's feelings and thoughts."
"Oh, so many to choose from," the horse-man chuckled in his bass voice. "Would you like to start with the naughty ones? Perhaps one of her recurrent dreams about her and ...."
"We just want to know the truth about my feelings," Tansy interrupted before the spirit could betray her inner thoughts.
"No," Lanie interrupted, thoughtfully stroking her chin. "Actually, that gives me an idea." She shot a glance at Tansy, then looked at the horse spirit. "Mustang, since you joined her, has Tansy had fantasies or dreams of any other girl?"
Mustang practically grinned. "Oh, the things I could tell you about her inner thoughts," he chuckled, to Tansy's mounting horror at what she'd agreed to. He shot a glance at his host, waggling his eyebrows. "But alas, you didn't summon and bind me," he replied with a shrug, "so I can only answer such questions from the Ptesanwi."
Lanie glared at the horse, but I put my hand on her arm to calm her. "Mustang, since you joined Tansy, has she had any salacious dreams or fantasies of any other girl?"
"Oh, yes, Ptesanwi," he said politely. "My host has quite a vivid imagination, and she is wont to fantasize about many girls, including, I am forced to admit, you."
"What?" Lanie and I exclaimed almost concurrently, while Tansy blushed a deep red when I glanced at her.
"Oh, yes," Mustang added, "she has had some quite ... interesting fantasies about bedding the two of you. She has a very creative imagination, too. Did you know she has wondered about some of the silks and oils that Persian girls are reputed to indulge themselves in, and how interesting it might be to be bound with those silks?"
"Mustang!" Tansy snapped, her jaw agape at what he was revealing.
"You agreed to the binding," Mustang shot back at her before turning back to me. "Would you like to know of her fantasy of some dark-haired, tall senior in Poe, wherein they smear each other's bodies with strawberry jello and whipped cream?" he laughed, clearly enjoying Tansy's discomfiture.
Lanie looked wonderingly at the blonde, who sank low into her chair. "Okay, so I had one fantasy about Marla," she said quite defensively, her face almost as red as Lanie's hair.
"Only one? Is that all you're going to own up to?" Mustang taunted her.
"Marla? With jello?" Lanie gaped at Tansy.
"And whipped cream," I interjected.
"And you didn't invite me?"
"Mostly because she didn't think there was such a thing as peach pudding!" Mustang smirked. He looked at me, and I felt a bit nervous. "How do you feel about circular waterbeds and satin sheets, Ptesanwi, in a four-way that includes the redhead and your beloved?"
"Oh, my god!" Tansy groaned. "I'm never going to hear the end of this!"
"Mustang," I interrupted the teasing, partly because while he was bound to speak the truth, there was nothing in Mustang's summoning to keep him from embarrassing me! "How does your host feel about Lanie?"
The horse-spirit shrugged. "My host loves the redhead with the love of one dear sister for another. She loves Lanie as only best friends can, and with a love she has never given nor received before, not to friends, nor family, nor to anyone who she has been with sexually."
"You said you could only speak the truth about things since you were joined to her!" Lanie noted suddenly, having parsed my words and found a reason to doubt.
"This is true," Mustang chuckled. "But when my host spends so much time thinking and dreaming of what love she feels now in comparison to what love she never felt before, I can't help but notice."
The answer seemed to mollify Lanie a bit. "But ... what about what she did last spring?"
"Ah," Mustang looked thoughtful. "How do I put this? My host ... is tormented by what she did. Even when she's been in the throes of passion with you," he replied to Lanie, which made her blush when she realized I was gawking at her because of the spirit's words, "even when she's consumed by lust, she fears greatly losing your friendship. She has cried herself to sleep many nights with worry that because of what she did, she is unworthy of your love."
"But ... why?" Lanie asked, staring at the blonde.
"Because," Tansy broke down in tears, "if you knew, it would have hurt you terribly! You'd be right to hate me, to think of me as nothing but a manipulative bitch! You wouldn't want anything to do with me! And ... and there's no way I can ever, ever make up to you for what I did!" She put her face in her hands, bawling aloud as she confessed her true feelings, only confirming what Mustang had said. "No matter what, I'm terrible! If I told you, it'd hurt you, but if I didn't tell you, I really wasn't worthy of your friendship because I was keeping such a dark, hurtful secret! I'm ... I'm as evil as you thought I was, as my reputation suggested!"
The redhead gawked at her for several seconds, stunned beyond speech. She looked up at Mustang, who nodded in confirmation of Tansy's words. "Such are the thoughts she's been living with for months."
"Mustang, are your words all true, even those that I didn't command you to speak?"
"I speak truly, Ptesanwi, as you summoned me to do."
I looked back at my soul-sister. "Lanie?"
The redhead looked at me, then up at Mustang, and then she rose and walked around the table and squatted beside Tansy's chair. Her arms encircled the blonde, and she pulled Tansy's head onto her shoulder. "Ah ... ah forgive you, Tansy," she said softly. "Ah know why you did it, and Ah know how good you've been since the summer began."
Tansy pulled back and stared into Lanie's eyes, not quite sure if she should believe what she thought she was hearing. Lanie saw this, and just pulled Tansy to her lips to make sure the blonde exemplar knew that Lanie had forgiven her. Mustang chuckled, and I felt jealous at how the two were kissing, but given what had happened, I couldn't blame them. I was glad that I'd been able to help them resolve things. Now we were the Three Musketeers once more, like we had felt at the start of the summer.
"Okay, now that that's out of the way," I interrupted when my two friends' kiss had gone on long enough, at least in my opinion, "what is this all about?" As I spoke, I released Mustang, and he disappeared from the conference room, returned to the dream-world that was Tansy's hallow.
Tansy was about to speak when a knock sounded on the door. Instead of speaking, she walked to the door and took the pizza order, thanking the delivery-person and then closing the door behind them. After dishing up a couple of pieces on one of the thoughtfully-provided paper plates, Tansy sat back down. "It's really very simple," she began to explain. "It's about some powerful people smacking down an elitist, globalist hegemony that wants to control the world's population while increasing their wealth and power."
"Like the Goodkinds," I snapped, eyes narrowed in a deep frown. "Except Ayla," I added hopefully.
Tansy nodded. "And the likes of my asshole of a father."
Lanie paused, her mouth only inches from biting into a slice of pizza. "Ah see," she sounded like she'd had an epiphany. "Like the Goodkinds buying the company to suppress an advance in space transportation. It's not entirely about hating mutants, then. It's about control."
Whatever insight had hit Lanie missed me. "I don't get it."
"Simple," Lanie turned toward me. "If humanity moves to the stars, it'd be a fair sight harder for the elite to control. Likewise if intelligence was increased."
"And life extension would be reserved for the privileged few," Tansy added. "Namely, themselves. But if it's known that there is a life extension treatment, and the powerful reserve it to themselves ...."
She didn't need to finish. I could envision the riots and chaos. I started when suddenly a a lot more things made sense. "That's what Dad was trying to teach me!" I muttered to myself. Seeing the question writ large on my friends' faces, I smiled. "All those years, Dad wasn't talking about the threat of foreign dictators! He was talking about this, an unelected hegemony of rich and powerful that were trying to control everything and everybody!"
Both Tansy and Lanie nodded grimly. "That's why the Committee was formed - to assemble power to fight the powerful, to bring SMI2LE into being, despite the fierce opposition of the hegemons."
"So the Syndicate ....?"
"Are useful idiots, to borrow a phrase," Tansy chuckled.
I sat in silence for a few moments, digesting all I'd been told. It was a frightening concept - hidden, shadowy powers fighting conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, all to determine the fate of the Earth's population. "But ...," a thought struck me, "I have my duties!" I protested. "To the People! I'm supposed to bring them prosperity and happiness."
Lanie put her hand lightly on my arm. "Kayda, honey," she said softly, "if a big chunk of space rock hits the earth, there won't BE any People for you to help, white, red, black, or yellow."
Tansy nodded her agreement. "And if the hegemons win, nobody will be able to help the People. Or anyone else."
>Thursday, September 13, 2007 - Evening
Arena 99, Whateley Academy
Stella lay beside me and Mule on a ridge, peering through tall grass down into the draw below, to a small creek. Half a dozen warriors were dismounted and resting, allowing their horses to drink while they drank and ate some jerky.
"Any others?" I whispered softly to her.
"I don't smell any."
"I don't like it," I said with a frown. It wasn't like Gunny to give us an easy scenario. He hadn't yet.
"It's too small a scouting party, and they're in too vulnerable a spot to stop," Mule noted.
"I'll keep watching them," Lupine suggested, "while you two report to the others."
Mule and I withdrew quietly, and then moved over a couple of rises to where our war party was waiting. "What do you think?" I asked Mule as we walked down to where the rest of the Nations were waiting.
"Too few of them," Mule said instantly. He gave the others a quick summary.
"It's a setup," Stormwolf agreed. "We get engaged with the force at the creek, and a second force comes in to flank us."
"So let's turn the tables." In a few moments, we came up with our own plan - which would hopefully be enough to defeat whatever diabolical, sadistic scheme the simulation team could have dreamt up for us.
I waited as Stella, in her lupine form, crept down the draw. She was noticed by the warriors of course, which we had anticipated, but the warriors had no reason to suspect a wolf out on the prairie. Her equipment belt wasn't very obvious, which would add to our element of surprise. When she was about fifty yards from the little encampment, I closed my eyes for a moment and concentrated.
The warriors reacted with shouts and pointing as a white buffalo shambled to a hill opposite my position, stopping to stand in profile, looking down on the little group. After he had their attention, I had him demanifest and then remanifest closer to their little band. We repeated this little maneuver three more times, moving him every closer but somewhat randomly around - so they hopefully fixate on the 'ghost' white buffalo.
When their attention was fixed on Tatanka, I mounted my horse and cast my ghost-walking spell. Slowly, I moved down the draw, downstream of the warriors and Lupine. When I was in position, I turned toward the warriors, who I'd been watching, then tilted my head skyward and gave a hawk's scream.
The warriors turned and looked, but of course, they couldn't see me because I was hidden by my spell. But they heard a noise from the little hill I'd been on - two of my companions charging on horseback down toward the creek, and they almost immediately dashed for their horses.
That didn't help them at all; Lupine was among the ponies, frightening and scattering them despite one of the Native American warriors trying his best to hold them. They weren't very confused by the loss of their ponies, though - weapons were in hand almost instantly and they scattered to make it difficult for the two riders to attack them, while the two whose horses hadn't escaped leapt to the mounts and wheeled toward the incoming threat. One of the our foes paused and gave a crow's cry; I suspected that was the signal for a flanking counter- attack.
Shedding my invisibility, I charged into their midst, creating even more confusion because they hadn't seen me coming; two of them got smacked with my coup stick - perhaps a little harder than I'd intended, but certainly making the point; Stormwolf had suggested that we humiliate them by counting coup instead of fighting to the death, which we all figured that would drive Gunny and the sim team bat-crap crazy. On the opposite side of the group, upstream, Lupine shifted back to human form and touched another of the warriors.
The small band of warriors fell into confusion - they were being attacked from three sides. And then Tatanka galloped through the milling confusion, knocking one warrior off his horse and spooking the animal. One of the warriors drew his bow to shoot Tatanka, and I winced in expectation of feeling the pain when he was shot, but the man wavered, not quite certain if he should or even could shoot a sacred white buffalo.
The battle cries and noise masked the approaching hoofbeats of the warrior band's reinforcements as they galloped down the hill toward us, a dozen riders with lances and bows at the ready, but the earth spirit had warned me - I was getting better at sensing it - and after blocking a blow from one of the warriors who wasn't doing respecting our counting coup, I screamed like an eagle once more, this time giving two cries.
The man I'd blocked glared at me. "Fight me fairly, Lakota whore!"
I blocked another crude attack from his war club. "You dare to ask me to fight fairly," I snapped at him, "when you fight with no honor, .like the white devils, who continue to fight to kill after coup has been counted?"
The man halted for a moment as my words penetrated his brain, and then he renewed his attack with even greater fury, to the extent that I feared he was going to deliberately hurt my horse.
"Very well, fool!" I spat at him. "If you won't fight with honor, then I will end this!" Fortunately, Mr. Two Knives had been making me cast spells while fighting - which though it sounds merely hard, was in actuality nearly impossible - and dodging two more blows, I let loose a spell into my hand, so that when I tapped him with the butt end of my tomahawk, the sleep spell raced into his body and he collapsed like a wet sack of concrete.
Slapshot and Hardsell were trying to disengage to turn toward the new threat coming from their left rear, but the warriors were not respecting the traditions of the People, and fought no matter how many times they'd had coup counted on them. I spurred my horse on, recharging my magic as I went, and touched another of the warriors, putting him into a deep slumber. One of the others of the war party, though, unhorsed Hardsell, and before Slapshot or I could do anything, a war club smashed his head - if he wasn't killed by the blow, he was certainly unconscious.
"Fuck this coup-counting shit!" Slapshot snarled when he saw Hardsell go down. "If they aren't going to play by the rules ...." I had to do a double-take as he unleashed his fury on one of the foot warriors - Slapshot had a nasty gash on one arm and an arrow sticking out of one calf.
Our little part of the fight was down to three-on-three, though Lupine, too, had been hit and was limping, and when I got a moment, I glanced in the direction of the approaching riders. It was with great glee that I had Tatanka turn and charge at the approaching riders - a ton and a half of hooves, horns, and bad attitude bore down on the horsemen, startling them. A couple of them let arrows fly, and I felt the intense pain as the arrows struck home, but I stayed on my horse, and then Tatanka was in their midst, swinging his head back and forth in controlled fury, while the startled horsemen were suddenly trying to dodge the angry animal.
At that moment, our own flanking force slammed into the riders, and even though Stormwolf and Mule and their force was outnumbered about two-to-one, they had the element of surprise, and the band of surprised warriors was reduced by half within seconds. A Lakota war-cry sounded in the little valley as we finished off the enemy warrior band.
The glare on Gunny's face was a sight to behold as we sat grinning in the debrief room. Our group was happily joking about the sim - for once, we'd gotten the better of a scenario from Gunny and the sim team.
"What the hell was that all about - whacking them with a stick instead of killing them?" Gunny roared. "Were you trying to get yourselves killed?"
I opened my mouth to speak, but Stormwolf beat me to the punch. "You have a lot to learn about Native American culture," he shot back, his voice clearly conveying his annoyance. Seeing the startled and puzzled look appear on the gruff sim-leader's face, he explained. "In Native American fighting, you count coup to demonstrate bravery and skill. When someone counts coup on a warrior, he quits fighting out of shame."
"Yeah," I piped up. "These guys weren't behaving according to tradition and customs."
Gunny's glare increased in ferocity. "What do you mean? And what the hell did you say to that one you argued with before you smacked him down?"
I shot a nasty look back at Gunny. "I was just reacting when he called me ... something unpleasant!"
"And what was that?" Stonebear asked, an eyebrow cocked in curiosity.
"Ask Gunny and the instructors - they had to program our opponents," I snarled back.
"What was it?" Lupine asked.
I glared at the instructors again. "He called me a Lakota whore!" I snapped.
"And in reply, you challenged his honor and called him a white devil, correct?" Gunny replied. "We do have translation software in the computers, and you shouldn't be surprised that we programmed it with Lakota."
"Sunkce!" I grumbled softly. He'd taken away one of my advantages in combat - and the ability to make snide and insulting comments about the simulator team behind their backs.
"So besides counting coup, explain your tactics," Gunny demanded.
"We figured you'd hit us with a flanking maneuver," Mule answered quickly. "Even if we'd have split our force and attacked from two sides, the other force would have caught us. So once we determined that the force was small, we decided to split our own force to keep a mobile reserve against a second enemy force." He sounded like he was making a precise military report of unit tactics to a formal chain of command.
"Whose idea was it to do the magic disappearing buffalo bullshit?" Gunny asked, looking intently at me.
"It was a party from a plains tribe," I jumped in. "All plains tribes think of the white buffalo as sacred. So they would have been confused by Tatanka manifesting and demanifesting would convince them it was a mystic event, giving us a distraction. That'd give Lupine and me a chance to sneak in closer, so we could confuse them when Hardsell and Slapshot came in for an attack."
"So you bet the sim on your foes properly following Native American and tribal customs and lore, correct?" the gruff ex-sergeant demanded.
"Not totally ...." I started to reply defensively.
"We had plans if they didn't," Stormwolf spoke up.
"Yeah," I said. "If you notice, when they weren't following custom, I started using my magic."
"I have to admit - grudgingly - that your use of your buffalo and your magic weren't as awful as your last simulation," Gunny commented without breaking his judgmental DI expression. "Don't get cocky - you still have a lot to learn, but there is some improvement."
We were subjected to a long, detailed analysis of our plan and tactics, and I suspected that Gunny knew we were anxious to go to our meeting of the Nations, because he kept us longer than he was supposed to. As usual, we had papers to write on the sim, which added to my total of due papers on combat analysis, but this one I actually felt reasonably good about, as my tactics had won a modicum of approval from Gunny. But to add to our misery, we had a group assignment to write a paper documenting Native American battle tactics and customs 'so the simulator team can program the scenarios correctly.' By the time we left, we had to run to our meeting, and we were still late.
The Nations Lodge, Whateley Academy
"I'm Danny Franks," Danny said shyly, standing in place at one side of our lodge. The lodge had been built over the summer with a grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, using Whateley's very rapid and efficient construction methods, materials, and contractors. That got the BIA bent out of shape a little - they were used to their 'pet' contractors and extremely drawn-out schedules. Our lodge was about a hundred feet long, thirty-feet wide, and about 15 feet high. On both the inside and outside, it looked almost exactly like an Iroquois birch-bark covered longhouse.
Our Native American encampment was now a motley assortment of styles - we had the two large tipis we'd built the previous spring, the sweat lodge was a classic wigwam, and there were plans to build a Navajo adobe building and a Northwestern plank-house. With a big fire circle in the middle of our buildings, the Nations had a very nice gathering place that had some older groups envious.
Most of our members were present, and the faculty - to no-one's surprise - had pushed Mr. Two Knives into being our faculty co-advisor with Mr. Lodgeman, both of who were present. Also, Mrs. Donner, the tribal council representative from the Medawihla tribe, was present. In the spring, she had displayed great enthusiasm for our activities, and I, for one, welcomed her advice when I needed it.
"Kayda's brother?" Stormwolf asked with a cocked eyebrow?
"Yeah," I said glumly under my breath. "Lucky me!"
"Lucky you," Slapshot retorted with a grin. "Your sister did all the paperwork to get you registered, so you don't have to!"
I tilted my head to the side, turning toward Slapshot, and rolling my eyes at him, which only caused him to chuckle.
Danny sat, and a lithe, dark-haired brunette with skin as dark as Kayda stood. "I'm Lynn," she said softly. "Lynn West."
"Welcome. Are you from a tribe?" Pristine asked before I could. "Please, when you introduce yourself, tell us what tribe you're from, if you're registered or not, or if you're just here for cultural interest, that's okay, too."
"I'm full-blooded Iroquois," she said with a slightly embarrassed smile. Clearly, she was a bit shy. I doubted that would last. "And yes, I'm registered with my tribe." She quickly sat down.
I was certain the next girl to stand was an interested non-Native- American student since she looked Asian-American, but she surprised me. "I'm Christina Lewis, but I also go by Khrysalis, because I make kind of a ... a butterfly-like chrysalis around myself," she said with a modest smile. "My father is half-Navajo, and my maternal grandfather took a Chinese bride after World War 2." She started to sit, and then looked back, a little embarrassed. "I'm not registered, yet, but Dad is working on it."
The next guy was very obviously Native American, probably full- blooded. "I'm called Wendigo," he said simply. "I'm Algonquin, and I'm learning to be a shaman."
"You'll fit right in, then," Flux said with a grin, "since our Chief Kayda is also a shaman."
"That name - that's not ...."
The boy smiled and shrugged. "Nah. I... someone called me that as an insult, so I decided I'd just keep it." A grin broke across his features. "Besides, anyone who knows the legends - they tend to leave me alone!"
The next boy looked even younger than Danny - probably a junior high kid, or he got some GSD like Ribbon which made him look younger. "My name is Evan," he said.
"You're the kid living with Ms. Grimes, aren't you?" one of the girls asked with an almost accusatory tone.
"Yeah," he admitted sheepishly. "I'm a mangler," he continued, "so I have to stay with Ms. Grimes so I don't interact too much with other manglers." He sat down, a little embarrassed.
"Are you from a tribe?"
He nodded. "Cherokee. And to answer the obvious question, yes, my family still uses the name Jackson as a curse," he added. "Like Irish invoke Cromwell."
The door opened and a large boy came in, slightly out of breath. "Sorry," he apologized, interrupting everyone. "I was tied up with ...." A huge frown spread on his face when he saw Danny. "I was interested," he snarled, glaring at my brother angrily enough that I fingered my charm, "but I see you let sissy-boys in, and I don't want to be associated with a queer organization!" With that, he turned and stormed out, leaving most of the members gawking at his very bigoted, angry display. He definitely bore watching.
"Good riddance of bad trash," Stone Bear snapped. "We don't need bigoted assholes like that polluting our club!" The outburst of agreement and a few other comments seemed to reassure Danny.
"You've met him?" Mule asked Danny bluntly.
"Yeah," Danny admitted unhappily. "He's named Bill Henderson, but he calls himself Thud, and he hangs out with Dump Truck," he spat, as if the names were distasteful. "He's kind of pushed me around some, and ... and he calls me gay and stuff." He frowned, looking around the room. "But I'm not! I like girls!"
Mule smiled, crossing the room and sitting beside Danny, putting his hand on Danny's shoulder. "If you were, it's nobody's business but yours, and it's really not a reason for anyone to bully you."
"I could have torn him apart," Danny said defensively, looking down like he was ashamed he hadn't defended himself. "Wihinape could have, like she tore up Dump Truck!"
"What?!?" I asked, mouth agape. "You didn't tell me that!" I suspected others were gaping as well.
Lupine grinned when he mentioned his spirit. "Wihinape, eh? She's ...."
"Yeah," Danny said angrily, glaring at Lupine for possibly revealing that his spirit was female. "I'm a shifter, so when my spirit manifests, I ... turn into a cougar."
Paige Donner's eyebrows lifted, and our representative from the Medawihla tribe, Paige's mother Mrs. Donner, smiled. "Were?"
Danny's mouth dropped open in total shock. "What?"
I shook my head. "No. He's just a shifter with a cat spirit. He's got four stable forms, all of which are cat related."
"Too bad," Paige chuckled, earning a reproving look from Mrs. Donner.
"You're a shifter, too?" the last new girl asked excitedly. Obviously, she was a shifter.
"Why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself?" Wind Runner prompted.
"I'm called Vulpine," the girl with auburn hair replied as she stood, turning to the side so we could all see her three fox tails. "Mom is one quarter Chinook, so I guess that's enough for me to enroll in a tribe if I want, but I haven't done that. Yet."
"Doing so comes with some benefits," Hardsell advised her with a smile.
"Does it make a difference?" Vulpine asked, eyebrows raised curiously. "In the club, I mean?"
I nodded. "Only enrolled tribal members can vote, but anyone can do everything else. Especially since anyone participating in the club, registered or not, can get history or art credit for our activities if they put in a little extra work."
"That sounds nice. Anyway, I'm a shifter and mage, and my family is mostly mages."
"Okay, since that's everyone and we all introduced ourselves, we have two major orders of business. First, we need to elect our new officers," I glanced at the newcomers. "We're a relatively new club - we started last spring - so we're not on a good schedule later. But I figured we should have elections."
"I object to that," Wind Runner jumped to her feet. "Our bylaws say spring elections."
"But ... I'm not ... I figured ...." I sputtered. "I thought you'd want to run for Chief."
Mule and Wind Runner exchanged a glance. "I saw how much work it took for the BIA grant and setting up class credits," Wind Runner chuckled. "I'll pass."
I looked at Mule, but he shook his head. "As busy as Gunny has ROTC in the simulators, I'm not going to run for office here!"
"It is in the bylaws," Bluejay reminded me. "So you can't duck out of it."
"It's special circumstances," I protested. "I think I can call an election."
"I move we retain our current Chief until regular spring elections," Pristine smiled.
"Second," Stormwolf said immediately.
"I call the question," Slapshot said without a pause. "All in favor?"
"Wait a second!" I protested again. "I'm the one who's supposed to do that!"
"Well, you're not doing your job," Pristine said with a huge grin. "So as vice-Chief, I'm doing your job. All those in favor?"
I'd been somewhat hopeful that I could take a lesser role in the group, but the unanimous show of hands and call of "Aye" sank that hope.
"This is a train," I grumbled, "cuz I just got railroaded!"
Danny grinned as big as Pristine had. "You want the job and you know it," he chuckled.
With a heavy sigh, I nodded. "Okay. For other offices?"
"I move we retain the officers until regular spring elections." "Seconded."
Glancing around and seeing no-one wanting further discussion, I said, "All in favor?" It was again unanimous. After that, we got down to our planning for the term. Wind Runner reported a number of ideas for projects that would satisfy the art requirements, and after discussion, we agreed that she would head the crafts committee. Scott had a report of what anyone in our group would need to do to get history credit. Hardsell led a committee to work on outdoor projects - he was planning a campout for the end of September, he'd proposed a couple of formal sweat lodge ceremonies, and then he sprang another surprise.
"Over the summer, I've been talking with Mrs. Donner, and the tribe has agreed that we can have a few hunts to practice our skills."
Surprised murmuring circulated the room, with all eyes flicking back and forth between Hardsell and Mrs. Donner.
"We can start with a few deer," Hardsell continued, "and we can make jerky and other traditional dishes from the meat, while we can also learn tanning with the hides. That should count toward history credit."
"Just let me know the dates you want to hunt," Mrs. Donner said with a confirming nod, "and I'll make sure our tribe doesn't interfere. And if you show skill with that, perhaps we can arrange for you to hunt a moose later in the year."
After more discussion, we broke up for some social time; since it was the first meeting, I'd arranged for some traditional Lakota snack foods.
Several girls, notably Wind Runner and Jo Donner, drifted toward Danny, who'd already attracted enough attention from Christina that he'd gone fuzzy. Of course, that brought out all the cute-loving and cat- loving cooing from most of the girls present. I just shook my head in disgust.
"You gotta admit," Adam Iron Knife said from beside me. I hadn't even seen or heard him come up. "The girls think he's cute."
"It wouldn't be so bad if they'd keep him out of my hair!" I snorted.
"Lupine said 'she' when talking about his spirit?" Adam asked. Most of the members had probably caught that.
I nodded. "No secret here. Wihinape is a female spirit, considered by Lakota to be the example of grace and femininity."
"And that affects his other two forms how?" Adam was pretty observant. When I just shrugged, not answering, Adam smiled. "His other forms - are they more like his spirit? Female, I mean?"
"Not my place to talk about his mutation," I said as nonchalantly as I could. Adam had guessed the truth, but I wasn't going to let on if I could help it. "His hallow is a bit small for his spirit," I tried to deflect his criticism, "and that kind of ... complicates things for him. It's," I feigned a grimace, "it's difficult for him."
"No offense, but with all that shifting and spirit stuff messing with his head, it's no wonder he's in Poe," Adam said.
We walked over toward Danny, who was with a few girls, happily chatting. Wind Runner said something to Danny, which I couldn't hear, and then turned toward the refreshment table, which was behind Adam and me. As she refilled two drink cups, obviously one for Danny, Crimson walked over to her, smirking. "You're a senior, Doli," she said sotto voce, but Adam and I were positioned where we could hear. At least I could. "No robbing the cradle!"
Doli's jaw dropped. "I'm not ... I'm ... I'm just being a good host," she protested. With that, she turned up her nose defiantly, walking back toward Danny, to whom she gave the second drink.
Adam laughed as he watched the little production. "Looks like Danny's going to have a real tough year!"
"You have no idea!" I couldn't help smirking. Indeed, when the girls found out his alternate forms were female, things were going to get interesting for my hapless little brother. I couldn't wait to watch. But I also knew that I'd step in to help him if I had to.
Saturday, September 15, 2007 - Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"You'll get the hang of it," Lanie said as we walked into Crystal Hall for lunch. We'd spent the morning sailing; Tansy would have joined us, but she had a previous engagement, so it was just the redhead and me.
"I don't know," I replied with a grin, "If God had meant man to be on the water, he'd have given us gills and flippers!"
"You did okay."
I shook my head. "I got us in ... what's the term? In irons? Twice. And my turns ...."
"It's called tacking," Lanie smiled. She was clinging possessively to my arm, almost like she wasn't going to let me forget how much she cared about me, and to be honest, I didn't mind. Last spring term, everyone had seen us together, and they knew what I'd been coerced into revealing at the hearing.
I forgot about Freshmen.
Four freshmen guys - two of the rather larger than an average freshman male - turned around at our conversation, and then looks of utter disgust spread on their faces. I recognized one of them as a bully who'd been harassing Danny.
"Aw, geez," one of them snarled, "If you two aren't dykes, quit acting like you're queer! And if you are ...." He made a show of making a threatening fist as he stepped in front of Lanie and me.
"Damn! No-one told me this school was gonna be full of lez-bitches!" another one snapped.
"Y' know, Matt," the one I recognized as Dump Truck said to one of the group, "if these gals spent some time with my Mr. Happy, they'd realize that getting fucked is better than rug-munching."
Lanie held me close, because I started shaking again - badly. I didn't hear the three laughing as one got in Lanie's face. All I could see and hear were flashbacks of that awful evening, and the four were leering at me, circling around Lanie and me, just like my assailants.
Lanie filled me in on what happened after that. A hush dropped over Crystal Hall as everyone gawked at the four idiots. They were yukking it up, but then Caitlin walked up behind the bigots.
"You have five seconds to apologize," Caitlin said in a tone that would send shivers down the spine of anyone sane.
"Y'hear that, Bulldozer? This girl wants us to apologize for calling a dyke a dyke!"
The two faced Caitlin and puffed up their chests. "I'm not apologizing to these rug-munchers!" one of them snorted.
"Excuse me," a voice said from behind Lanie and me, though I was still badly shaken and didn't notice. "You are going to apologize." Seeing nineteen feet of snake tail beneath Sandra's torso should have let them know that they'd stepped over a line. Certainly Razorback coming up beside Sandra, baring his teeth and snarling, should have given them a hint.
"Oh yeah?" the one I knew as Dump Truck sneered. "I ain't gonna apologize for calling out a fucking lesbian! They just need a good fuck to convince them of the error of their ways," he chuckled over his shoulder at his friends.
"Ow!" one of the quartet of bullies cried out suddenly.
"Oh, sorry!" Jericho muttered an apology as he stumbled into the gang, his cane hitting the leg of one of them and discharging in a bright corona flash of energy that crumpled the asshole like a wet sack of cement.
The one was winding up to hit Jericho, but he held back, confused by the fact that Jericho was blind, and also somewhat put off by Jericho's clothing.
"Five seconds," Sandra repeated. On either side of her, Anomaly and Deimos stepped up, frowning unhappily at the freshmen.
"You see," Lanie got in Dump Truck's face, "My friend ..."
"Four," Sandra called out. Saladin and Mule had joined the little anti-bully group.
"... was rather brutally raped." The two security officers in the caf noticed the gathering and loud discussion, and deliberately turned their backs on what they knew was an incipient thumping. They knew the bullies probably deserved what the Outcasts were about to do.
"Your comment was not only stupid ..."
"But it was very, very hurtful." The would-be bullies didn't seem to be paying attention to her words, nor to the seriousness of the gathering crowd. They were mutants, and thus they were tough. Or so they thought.
"Kayda has a lot of defenders,"
"You stepped in a mess of shit, boy!" Caitlin snarled. In a blurred motion, she had one of the bullies - the largest one - down on the floor in a very painful arm-bar. The one that Jericho had tased tried to react and hit Cait from behind, but Cait somehow knew to expect the attack, and after deflecting the blow, she punched him hard in the armpit, while Jericho zapped him repeatedly, crumpling him to the floor again. Mule deftly stepped in front of one who was winding up to punch Lanie, and the kid's blow hit Mule's PK field, leaving the Grunt standing with a wicked grin on his face as the stunned freshman tried to figure out what had happened.
The fourth decided that discretion was the better part of valor, but he was suddenly surrounded by a swirl of discharging essence as Sandra cast a web spell around the boy; hopelessly tangled in silk-like threads, he tripped and fell over.
The third one, who'd tried to hit Mule, turned with the obvious intent of hitting me, but as he wound up, his fist was suddenly immobilized in a massive bear paw.
"Let me give you a piece of advice," the Kodiak snarled down at the boy, whose pants had a sudden wet spot as the massive bear got right in his face, wicked-looking teeth inches from the boy's flesh. "You want to be a bigoted asshole? Fine - we can't stop what you think in that teeny little bigoted shit-hole you call a brain. But if I catch any of you messing with my friends, I will take you apart piece by piece, and I won't give a damn about how much detention I might get." He growled angrily at the boy as he draped a paw over my shoulder. "Kayda is my friend, and as you can see, a lot of us really, really don't like you spouting off hurtful shit. Now get your asses out of my cafeteria, and don't come back until you know how to behave."
"It's not your cafeteria," Dump Truck and another of the freshmen snarled. "You can't order us around?"
Wyatt grinned wickedly, cracking his knuckles in an ominous display of eager anticipation. They were so focused on him with a little trepidation that they didn't notice Sandra lean toward them. "Guys?" she whispered loudly. "Just so you know what you're about to get into - Kodiak went ten rounds with Champion. When he was a freshman. And neither of them were holding back."
The two boys blanched. "Ten rounds?" Dump Truck stammered, goggling at the angry senior who seemed to be relishing the opportunity to thump them.
The bully wannabes gulped almost audibly and then began to slink out of the caf, knowing they'd just been humiliated by upperclassmen who weren't in the slightest bit impressed with the freshie's powers.
Jericho turned his nose up and sniffed loudly. "I think," he pronounced rather loudly as he 'accidentally' jabbed his cane into one of the bullies as he took a step toward the serving line, "that there's some garbage around here that needs to be taken out." The would-be bully had cringed when the cane hit him, but Jericho hadn't activated the taser, so it was just a tap. A number of the students snickered at how the guy had recoiled in fear.
Tansy came up, putting her arm around me from the other side, holding me in comfort while Lanie clung tightly to me. "Are you okay?"
I nodded slowly. "I ... I think so." My eyes moistened. "I thought ... I was over that," I said after a couple of moments. "I ... I hate ... having anxiety attacks."
"You're with friends," Lanie said soothingly. "Remember that." She pointed at the Outcasts, who security had corralled and were marching out. Razor and Sandra glanced at me, with the dino-boy giving me a thumbs up. No doubt they were going to get in trouble, but from the way they were joking and smiling, I don't think they minded.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - After Classes
Beck Library, Whateley Academy
To be perfectly honest, with the fantastic internet access available on campus, I hadn't had need to use the Beck Library much, and it was a little intimidating to be a junior treating the place like I was a wet- behind-the-ears freshie, but material for magic classes, especially anything more detailed than "Magic for Dummies" was not available on- line. The nice thing was that Tennyo was doing work-study there, so as soon as I spotted her, I strode confidently to her, as if I knew precisely where I was going and what I was doing. It really was an overreaction on my part, but like most teens, I had a little bit of nervousness about looking clueless.
"Hi, Billie" I said softly to my blue-haired cottage-mate as I approached the checkout desk where she sat. "How's it going?"
She smiled thinly; I knew a lot of people still considered her scary-powerful, to the point that apart from the Kimbas, she was relatively lonely. "Same as always - math is going to be the death of me. And so far this term, English kind of sucks."
She nodded grimly. "Yeah. It's already confusing." Meekly, she raised her eyebrows in a look that was both pleading and curious. "Can you help me out ... again?"
"Cookies from home?" I chuckled.
Billie feigned a frown, but then smiled. "I'll have to ask mom to bake more, then! You're a cookie-eating machine!"
"If you tell her it's payment for tutoring and she bakes extra, you wouldn't perhaps skim a little off the top? Maybe snack on or share a few that your mom thinks are for tutoring?" I chuckled.
The look on Billie's face was priceless - like she'd been caught with her hand in the proverbial cookie jar. "Um ...."
I grinned. "And you would never do such a thing, right?"
The blue-haired girl slowly smiled. "Maybe," she said innocently. "If someone promised that they'd never, ever tell Mom!"
"You know where I live. Stop by, and we'll see if I can make algebra more understandable than ancient Sanskrit. Now, the reason I stopped by ...."
"Is you're summoning us all to your room tonight at 9:30, so you can reveal who killed Hector Schmedley?" Billie asked with a knowing grin, waggling her eyebrows playfully.
"What?" I asked in mock horror, giving a melodramatic expression of shock. "Sir Hector is dead? But ... that's impossible! I had lunch with him just yesterday, and he looked the picture of health!"
Billie managed to stifle a guffaw, but we'd voiced enough not-quite- stifled giggles that several people were looking at us as if we were quite peculiar. "We should stop," she said, trying hard to keep a straight face, "before I get in trouble ... again."
"Okay," I nodded. "We will resume ze interrogation later!" I hissed, doing my best evil German voice. "Und if you do not answer ze questions, I vill make you do ... Algebra!" What can I say? I enjoyed such antics from time to time, and I was in the mood for it. I saw the look she was giving me. "Okay, seriously - where are the magic books?" I asked.
"I assume you're interested in more than the standard 'What Is Magic?' intro books?"
"Yeah. Gunny is harassing me about using more magic in our sims, so I need to broaden my ability with shaman magic. I'm looking for stuff I can use either offensively or defensively."
Billie turned to her computer and began to search. "Um, there's some introductory material on shamanic magic and spells."
"Nope. I know the basics."
"Nope," I shook my head.
"That one might be a good start," I replied.
"A history of shamanic magic in North American tribes?"
"Now it sounds like we're getting somewhere."
"Ah, here's one that you might be interested in," she said a she peered at the computer screen. "Apache Battlecraft and the Shaman."
"That sounds like it'd be a good start," I agreed.
"Ah - I don't think you want these," she said, frowning. Seeing my puzzled expression, she explained, "Pre-Columbian Tribes and Shaman Rituals." She winced. "Ah, that one is in the restricted section, so I don't think you should start with that."
"Some magic books are restricted access only to advanced magic-track students, and they're kept in a locked room. They can't be removed from that room, and if you sign in to read them, the magic faculty gets a record of what you've read." She pressed a few keys, and a printer behind her began to spit out sheets of paper.
"Here," Billie said, handing me the list. "Some material in the general section that might give you some help, or at least help you focus your searching."
"I hope so," I said with a grimace. "Everything I've learned about shaman magic so far is related to physical and spiritual health and healing. I need to find something with a little more zing for sims." I took the list from her. "Thanks. If I find something good, I'll let you know when I come back to check it out."
Billie grinned. "Now - maybe you owe me a few cookies for helping?" She waggled her eyebrows again.
I couldn't help but chuckle aloud. "Seems only fair." With that, I strode up the stairs, looking for section M400 in the unique Whateley- numbering-system of books.
A pair of eyes looked over the top of the book held in the boy's hands, toward the pair of Poe girls a few feet away. One of them was the shaman girl, and he'd overheard heard a few mentions of magic in the conversation she was having with the blue-haired work-study girl. His fingers danced as he invoked a tiny spell, and instantly, the girls' conversation was magically amplified to him, as if he were right between the girls.
The phrases battlecraft, offensive magic, and shaman magic were repeated, and then he heard words that got his mind racing. Restricted- section books on, among other things, ancient pre-Columbian shamanic traditions. Such rituals and incantations were reputed to be very dark magic, giving the spell-caster great powers.
A plan began to form. He could steer her toward books of increasing darkness - all it would take would be a few key book swaps in the magic arts section. He grinned to himself; her brother was on campus too, and naturally, she would be protective of the brat. Egging on some threats to him would help motivate her toward the darker spellbooks.
By Christmas break, he'd have a new apprentice, even if she didn't realize it. And by the time she did realize what was happening, it'd be too late. She'd be way too implicated in studying forbidden materials, and far too enamored with the power she'd learned, to turn back.
To Be Continued