Metro 1: Chewing Through The Straps (Part 4)
Metro 1: Chewing Through The Straps (Part 4)
Part 4 (of 4)— Have you ever wondered if the monsters have their own map that reads "Here be Humans"? Does the map you have and the road you're on take you Here, or does it leave you There?
Somewhere along the way, a couple of wayward boys find their way home.
Chapter 23: Many Roads to Walk, Rivers to Cross
Morning, Friday, October 5, 2007,
Dunwich, New Hampshire
New England. In its own way this area was much like Old England, yet was worse in that there were so many places here that retained the power to set his hackles on edge. Too many things that should have died long ago barely lay buried in the shallow crust of the planet, marking time until the day Mama Gaea forgets and cracks open a continent the wrong way. Or some idiot Sidhe does the same for her. Again. Were it up to him, the cubs would never be coming back here, but it wasn't. That didn't mean a clever lone wolf couldn't tend to a few things here and there as he nosed around.
It was in this wonderful pre-coffee mood that yet another stranger to town loped over to a local diner after spending a rotten, restless night on a hotel mattress that must have held more rocks and other lumpy things than the Miskatonic's own bed. Scratching himself idly, he hoped the mattress had been home to fewer living, crawling creatures than the Miskatonic's bed.
Were the diner's service any slower, the man might wonder if there was a vacant position in the town's zombie hunting crew - even though it was well-known that the people in these parts insisted on cremation and salting before burial. The reason for the stalling was finally revealed when he heard the waitress covering the counter seats call out in the direction of the door, "Deputy Wednesday, how good of you to drop by this morning! Will you be having the usual?"
'Why don't you just ask him to haul me in for questioning,' growled the man to himself. He prompted the waitress, "My coffee, and a menu?"
"Be right with you."
'Right. That's what you said, ten minutes ago, before calling in a hot tip.'
"Morning, young man. I see you'n'Iris have met. Let's you and me get a booth over there. I'm sure we have much to talk about," the deputy's gallows-heavy hand on the man's shoulder didn't leave much room for objection.
"Might as well. One seat's as good as another." The stranger got up to follow the deputy. His eyes though, they tracked the rest of the morning crowd.
Once everyone in the county that could safely tolerate sunlight knew that the Suspicious Outsider was safely seated with The Law, the deputy spoke quietly. "What the hell are you doing here, boy? I've half a mind to lock you back up and throw away the key!"
"Hel's just fine, thanks for asking." Asshole
"You know what I mean. There's things in these hills that could slurp you up, and not a trace left over to be found. Not that I care, but some folks I know might get a bit cranky."
"Thought the jerk was too busy doing the bi-coastal thing."
"I see his stock's up from 'that lying, cheating sonuvabitch.' What's happened now?"
"The Bobbsey Twins checked in with Sis."
The deputy nearly choked on his coffee. "You had better be joking about that."
The deputy glared at the man with his good eye. The other levelly stared back without a trace of humor. "I'd rather leave the joking to that other flea-bitten excuse for a dog whose scent is still on the wind around here."
Wednesday scowled. "One of these days, you two may have to get along. As it is, I had to run the one up to Doyle Trauma Center myself, not three months ago. I figure the only reason the runt didn't make me was that dagger in his gut - nothing I've seen in ages. No. Those two are supposed to be safely stowed away behind the wards at Whateley up the way. For now, anyway." A bit louder, and for the benefit of the waitress that was cleaning a nearby table (Not eavesdropping at all!), the deputy raised his cup and said, "Thanks, Mabel!"
"You're welcome. Good thing you showed up. You should've seen how Iris was making that poor boy here wait like some dog for his breakfast!" Mabel tsked before walking off to the next table on her rounds - with a (delayed) check.
The 'poor boy' mused, "That matches what I was given to understand. Maybe the curse wasn't active yet? That could make it a two-party attack."
"Curse? Explain that, pup. If there were an active curse on either boy I should have been able to pick up on that."
"Maybe, maybe not. The caster might have been expecting you or the deadbeat to take notice of them. Anyway, short story: both left school, a few days ago local - this past winter back in The Wood."
"Yeah, well. They woke up something nasty in Illinois, and the runt just had to take it on himself to lure it someplace nastier, with himself as bait. Says 'targeted' to me."
"Don't know. Gotta change that."
"How did you find out?"
"Sis yelled for, and at, me soon as Mom and little bro fished the madman out of the river, reeking of arsenic and old magics. I've seen vultures turn their beaks at healthier-looking roadkill."
Time to chow down on breakfast while the World's Worst Uncle digested the news.
"So you're nosing around here to find the culprits? I'll tell you again, this area is better than it was, but it isn't safe. The school, now that's warded against most intruders."
"Good thing I'm blood kin isn't it?"
"No. It isn't. Pup, I see this going south in a hurry."
"Don't worry, I'm here to pick up homework, sniff around a bit, that's all."
"Be sure that is all you do. Try not to spook the weres too much while you're at it. They've had it bad lately."
"'White man' bad, or . . . ?"
"Three little birds have been telling me someone's being a right Bastard to them."
Not just the old gravekeeper's spies, then. Someone's worried.
"... Thanks for the heads-up. Don't know if the cubs are ready for that, but then, who is?"
The older man studied his coffee for a long minute. "Not as many as think they are."
The stranger finished his own meal soon after the Deputy left, then swore a few choice words a few minutes later when he realized he'd been stuck with the tab by the old dodger.
Morning, Friday, October 5, 2007,
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Harley Sawyer wasn't entirely incorrect in thinking that perhaps the Beret Mafia's mascot-slash-token Danish magician had been overstaying his intended welcome somewhere unintended. If not, there would have to be some record at Security to account for the absence, or perhaps some note left with Admin. Also, if he was being detained along with Thomas Jensen - or so the official story went - that would make for two foreign nationals that someone should be raising a stink over by now.
The problem was that the Intelligence Cadet Corps had recently exhausted nearly every last bit of goodwill they'd built up with both Security and Admin. Asking one of the students assigned to work-study in Admin would be the next logical line of inquiry (and dead last with regard to Security - thanks Ace!), except people avoided that James Bourne kid even more than Nate avoided Mads. Maybe Rez or Ginny knew someone with an "in" that wasn't named Jadis Diabolik. That thought, though viable, didn't do wonders for Harley's breakfast appetite.
Later that morning, Friday, October 5, 2007
Most of the Mystical and Psychic Arts departments' staff noticed the visitor the moment he crossed the campus wards. The supernal hunger, blood-lust, and rage he embodied cast a slavering four-legged shadow on the ground though he walked on two. Those two legs carried him past the upright pillars supporting the front gates, directly to Kane Hall.
The day shift security officer barely remembered to note the lithe, sable-haired, arctic blue-eyed man's description as they signed out a Visitor's Pass to him. No matter: the visitor simply wasn't one to be forgotten. He, however, took personal notice of which personnel alerted and which failed to. He memorized the faces and scents of those who carried a faint familiar scent to them, and which ones ones did not.
The visitor's next stop was Schuster Hall, to arrange for lessons to be completed by two students who'd be unavoidably detained into the following week. His relationship to the two? It's complicated. Cousins, one could say. Of course he'd be happy to wait, or better yet, perhaps he could spend that time touring the campus and learning about the students' friends and teachers? He'd heard so much about Whateley after all.
The staff assigned one of the students' friends for escort. The guide dutifully pointed out various historical or entertaining sights, even a litter of Ratatoskr's would-be children scurrying about snapping at an Imp's ankles. Though it clearly pained the student guide to do so, he also pointed out a handful of ne'er-do-wells that had made the 'to look up' list. These would be enough for the games the visitor had in mind.
Morning, Saturday, October 6, 2007,
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
Franklin Delarose was beginning to realize that he should have found a good reason or ten to not come in to the office this morning.
"Who, in their right mind, would allow a challenge match in Arena 77 between - and I quote - Bloodwolf's Pack - unquote - and someone calling himself Bigby Woolfe? For that matter, why wasn't I warned about it last night?"
The security chief's lone daily cup of coffee called out to its unpoured brethren to join it in the crusade against the man's stomach ulcer. "I suppose I should swing by Doyle Medical and see how the poor guy is doing?"
One of the on-duty officers caught the Chief's attention. "I called over there about 15 minutes ago. Killstench and Maggot have been released to go back to their cottage. Bloodwolf should be fully recovered today, tomorrow at the latest."
"What about their opponent?"
"No one knows why, but the Secret Squirrels decided to follow him after the evening fight."
"And Mrs. Carson has already sent Mr. 'Woolfe' packing, so we're hoping that Bloodwolf can track them. They're kind of lost."
"They went into the woods and and down the dell. Except for Reach: he called in from the M. T. A. We're not sure how he ended up in Boston."
"Are we even sure he's in our Boston? No. On second thought, don't answer that, just send someone out to get him so the Kidz can go back to either harassing the Imp or buying a clue."
Late enough to skip morning chores, early enough to still sit for the mid-day meal,
Deep in the Iron Wood of Jötunheimr
The giant black dire wolf shifted to a more human form as he entered the manor. "Okey-dokey. Gather 'round, boys. Thomas, the maths and 'Powers Theory' homework is yours. Mads, the chemistry, history, and costuming is yours. I have to ask: what exactly is the point of having a class in costuming? Taking up with the Theater?"
Mads thought about it, but gave an honest answer anyway. "Practical stuff: how to use and camouflage armoring materials. Mostly modern, but I think Mrs. Ryan appreciates traditional gear just as much the shiny. Let's see. How color symbology works for unit and rank designators, how to use drape, cut, and pattern to draw or lose attention. She doesn't go into it too much, but it's been good practice for reconstructing clothing and uniforms from descriptions and limited photography as well. Hej, if you want to fit in with a pack, you have to know their markings, right?"
"So, you use it for some of your illusions?"
The boy grinned unrepentantly, "That, and although you can't dispel reality, it's fun to watch the gomers try."
"Some apples don't fall far from the tree, do they?" asked the Wolf of no one in particular.
Thomas snorted, "I could have told you that, Fen."
"Right. JROTC: just a little reading there for both of you. Basic Martial Arts: I talked to your instructors already. When you two aren't earning your keep here and learning useful magic from Mom, your asses belong to me. Magical Theory and Lab projects: Mom should go over that with you so you don't get into bad habits. Also, you need to learn how to securely stash your gear away, for when you're four-legged. Ballroom dance: Odh knows you both could stand to learn more human pack behaviors. Thomas, do you interact with anybody at that school that you aren't halfway forced to?"
"I do have some friends!" Thomas protested defensively. "Poe's just a lot more clique-ish with the girls this year, and there's only a couple of guys in my year-group."
The lady of the house walked in from another room. "Son, that doesn't sound like much homework."
"The myrkalfr here has gotten his timeline badly dilated with respect to ours, about a day to the month. They'll have been gone less than a fortnight," was Fenrir's nonchalant reply.
"And they've got dance classes? Good. The school can't be too uncivilized then."
"No, Ma." Fenrir said, "The facilities are pretty well set up, and the place is surrounded by woodlands. As long as the rugrats here-"
"Okay, just rats then. As long as they watch out for some of the nastier lairs, don't set things free that shouldn't be, and don't piss on the Weres' territory marks out there, they should be fine."
"Weres? I never heard no tail that Old One-Eye had inspired any Ulfhednar among the Skrælingjar."
"Nah, and he didn't. But Wolf, Bear, Puma, and some others still look after Garrand's descendants, according to what I've heard here and there."
Angrboða nodded. "I was thinking it wouldn't hurt to introduce the boys to the rest of the Wolf Clan in these parts. Social dancing requires proper clothing, so we're going to need more trade goods than just a couple of furs if the cubs aren't going to be an embarrassment. We've got wood a-plenty for carving; not for wasting. Maybe they can be taught a respectable trade yet?"
"That would be a first in this family, on all sides," huffed the black-blooded wolf.
"Do I need to get a newspaper, pup?"
"Nope! I shall eagerly await this onslaught of respectability from a suitable distance."
Before dawn, Wednesday, October 10th, 2007,
A deer sprung off into the brush, startled, as two hikers walked nearly into it. This part of the woodlands between the Whateley Academy campus and the communal entity known as The Grove was notable for a certain thinning between and amidst worlds, so while it was monitored by both Whateley Security and the The Grove, it was still the area best-suited for discretely leaving and returning to campus. The front gates and a couple of other landmarks might be more reliable way-posts, but Thomas 'Valravn' Jensen preferred this approach. Since he was leading the way– his partner's own skills at this type of travel being highly suspect– this was the inbound route they took.
"Aaaaand we've got wifi and the secured login. I should ping the uvie tracker as a... nope, Paige is awake and playing," said partner rambled. "We're as here as here for us may be."
"Got the time?" Thomas looked down to set his watch.
"Oh-fuck-this thirty-seven on... 3... 2... 1... mark! Wednesday, October 10th, so we missed the observance of First Nations' Genocide Day," Mads' sarcasm slipped into fully-throated snarl in referring to a particular U.S. Federal holiday.
Shortly after that he saw that "Sam's asleep but Hive's contacted Security for an intercept."
Thomas asked "Why? There's no one else with us, and both of our student badges should be pinging on the board."
"They don't know that we're actually just us. This time of morning, especially around Sector Tango, sensors get a little wonky."
"That's reassuring. Which Platoon is up?"
"Third, but any scheduled traffic should have cleared the known lanes, and I know this path isn't one of those."
"Let's go meet them then."
'Louis!, should we stay, or should we go? Or did we already?'
'No. I'm awake, Thomas. Mads' unusual relative... yours too? Oh, dear. He told Mrs. Carson when to expect you two - before she showed him the door.'
'He did seem overly pleased with himself. That should be Security ahead - gotta go!'
Fubar in his tank spent a few idle moments speculating on how one would manage a family tree while accounting for the various lives a soul may inhabit before deciding that Circe's department could deal with those headaches, and went back to pondering his next several chess moves.
Correction. Sam Everheart had been asleep. Two missing students, both of whom worked for campus security in one capacity or another, showing up nine days behind schedule from a known crime scene out of state? Oh, hells to the yes, the retired Rear Admiral was waking up for the event. That her apartment was in Kane Hall made for a short commute. Not that she had needed to rush. Someone had missed some check-in step, and the Shortstop had dug his heels in like a mule.
"Exactly how can you be sure that we are who you think we are? Hm? I can think of half a dozen ways to impersonate someone like me, off the top of my head,"
Meet Metro, the office paranoid.
"Jensen. Stand. Down. Leave the rules-mongering to the people who are actually ON the duty roster for today, and not Missing In Action since the 30th of September. Come to think of it? Don't even start. Unless you think you have a way to spoof Hive, Cyberkitty, and Fubar?"
Sam Everheart did not at all like the smirk that now graced on the student's face.
Fubar's mental voice sounded in Sam's head, 'I'm somewhat worried about that myself. Not easy, or sane to attempt, but he might be right.'
"I see that we are going to have to have a long discussion about spoofing security procedures. Sergeant, have someone take as much of their statements as possible before Admin and Medical hear they're back. Don't touch their gear; we do know they've both been off-plane. And Jensen?"
"Would you care to explain how it is that you are wearing a uniform that hasn't seen service since World War One?"
The boy looked down in mild surprise. "Um. Welllll... That, is an excellent question. I had meant to burn these clothes, but then I was kind of hoping they might change back to what I'd been wearing in Illinois once the bound essence started interacting with local space?"
Judging by the expressions shared amongst the on-duty officers, no one was going to touch anything belonging to that kid, not after that explanation, except with a lead-shielded forklift operated by remote control. Some of the new officers hadn't yet seen the range of insane weirdness the mystical arts students could cook up, but were fairly certain that they didn't want to find out quite yet. The rest had seen enough to know they didn't want to know more - especially as that last statement sounded way too much like an "oops".
Doyle Medical Center
Those betting on Medical pulling rank on Admin raked in a small amount of profit. Copious sample vials were set out to be filled with blood or other fluids, as no medical stone was scheduled to be left unturned. That bit of vampirism was just the prelude to a multitude of scans. Neither boy was left certain he'd want to know how and why the extensive examinations had come to be justified as standard procedure, let alone meet whatever could be left of the survivors. Eventually, though, they got down to the bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. The doctor pretended not to notice the white-knuckled grip the patient had on his friend's hand.
The blood tests came back normal, or as normal as they could be with Metro's altered circulatory system. Only after that was confirmed, and the pair hustled off to lunch, was his doctor informed just how long the two had been away from campus and out of reach of medical treatment.
Lunch, Crystal Hall
Metro was planning on taking advantage of a day off the 'special meals' line, when he felt rather than heard the cafeteria getting quiet around him. He turned around to find himself face to face with Bloodwolf.
"About time you two turned back up. What the hell happened?"
"Short story? Someone sent a fetch after me on top of a nasty curse. Met some friends of the family. Had to take the long way back." Now it was the short magician's turn to the feral side. Raising an eyebrow, he remarked, "Meanwhile, I heard you lost a bet."
From behind his alpha, Maggot complained, "Lost a bet? He was in the clinic most of a day!"
Metro looked Bloodwolf in the eye, "A bet. You're good for your side?"
The werewolf snarled, "I don't welch out on bets. Special Topics - Martial Arts, already registered. What do you know about it?"
The magician growled back, his tenor speaking voice intentionally not carrying, "Fen said you were pretty good, for a cub. He also decided that my two-legged scrawny ass better be signed up for the same damned class." His sideways grin was less a challenge and more of an 'I know something you don't know' message. Said grin was all teeth.
Up close, the cheeky bastard actually smelled a bit like someone or something familiar, and very much the Alpha.
Big B. Woolfe. 'Fen', as in - short for That big, bad, wolf? Either someone has one hell of an ego, and the chops to back it up, or one of us has really stepped in it.
That explained a couple of things. There was also a thing he didn't smell. What the hell was that kid thinking?
"You're off the chemo."
"I survived. The curse didn't. Someday, I will find out who I need to end over that. Want in? Might get dirty."
Security got two surprises that lunch period. The first, happiest, surprise was that Bloodwolf and Metro did not throw down in the middle of the cafeteria. No one was even maimed or killed getting in or out of their way.
The second, less happy, surprise was that a certain other Danish student hadn't checked his email yet, and so was caught completely off-guard at seeing his friends back at school after more than a week out of contact.
The third surprise was that Rorsmand had a flash of insight along the lines of 'just keep walking, they'll explain later'. Therefor, he didn't punch out the self-centered grinning idiot who had dropped out of sight for over a thrice-damned week without warning anyone. Esper skills can be quite handy for avoiding Detention that way. Instead, he called one of the doctor's offices to provide information on a certain patient of interest's location. It may have been petty, but it did feel satisfying. Now if only he could make his roommate disappear so easily, life would be good.
Afternoon, still Wednesday, October 10th, 2007,
Office of the Headmistress, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Elizabeth Carson took her time looking over the files stacked on her desk. Thomas 'Valravn' Jensen had arrived first and was patiently waiting outside. Her other appointed 'guest' was not there yet. She was beginning to wonder if Metro wouldn't be needing protective custody, until Dr. Ophelia Tenent arrived not quite dragging said student by the scruff of his neck. Valravn followed them in and quietly closed the door while trying to hide a smirk at Mads' latest predicament.
"My apologies, Liz, but does anyone else present need a reminder that neither 'lack of symptoms', nor even 'apparent remission' are synonyms for 'recovered'? Clearly someone hasn't figured that out although he should know better."
A horde of metaphorical crickets chirped as the two boys did their best imitations of "embarrassed" and "contrite".
The key word was 'imitation' as Mads Jensen wasn't known to have a contrite bone in his body, no matter how many times they'd been re-set or replaced (He'd've thought he'd rate a discount by now for one or two of them.)
Mrs. Carson spoke into the lengthening stillness. "Mister Jensen, from the brief reports I have received, I assume that not everything went according to plan. Did we get answers to any of the questions we'd had going in?"
"Ma'am. I honestly think we still end up with more questions than answers. None of the new ones are comforting, either."
"For one thing, I've had nine months to think things over and I still cannot say I know for sure whether I am or am supposed to be Mathias Møller, deceased these past four years, in Mads Gunnison's body, Mads Gunnison the original, both or neither. If Fubar's available maybe he could shed some light on it?"
"Yes, I am around, for the moment," Fubar appeared in one of his tweedier suits, "Hm. A split spirit attempting to be born into two concurrent incarnations might explain some of Metro's early childhood mental trauma. I suspect it also would allow one part to be used by an enemy as a sympathetic link against the other, for example, if it failed to work as a decoy against said enemy. However, in my opinion, that should not have resulted in both Mathias Møller and Mads Gunnison being genetically identical, unless - maybe - the spirit was unaware of the split."
Metro suddenly found his right wrist more interesting.
'Genetically identical? What if that works for banked cell lines? Hel wasn't joking about the risk to Lars, was she?'
Louis' thoughtful expression matched both students' suddenly paling expressions, Thomas picking up on Mads' musings. Given the narrow differences between him and Thom...
"I find myself worried that something like that may also have provided an end-run around the Academy's wards and safeguards. I'll need to consult with Circe and others about certain possibilities before someone gets the idea to try some of the things that come to mind - assuming it hasn't already. Speaking of assumptions... Please excuse me, but I'm also teaching a class while trying to stay available for this meeting."
"Of course. Thank you, Louis," Mrs. Carson said. Turning her attention back to the others, "Based on what the reopened investigation found, along with other documents we had already obtained, there are records supporting the two boys as independent persons until roughly four years ago, when Møller was murdered and Gunnison was abducted and nearly killed. What we know of the events between then and August of this year is more certain. Certainly more colorful."
Dr. Tenent asked, "Which one of them is my patient here?"
"Unless Mads has memories of living in Illinois and Missouri between 1991 and 2003, " The boy shook his head, slightly ill at the implication that part of his soul may be forever dead. Then again, they could be looking at parts slpit, destroyed, used?
Metro barely caught Mrs. Carson's side of the conversation back in motion, "... been saying he is. However, that holds little or no legal weight on its own. Møller's extended family consider both to represent a cadet branch of Oldenburg. Luckily for us, it isn't one in the line of succession, limiting the public spotlight. That view will likely prevail as the legal decision, so we will all have to get used to that. London and Copenhagen are working on a cover story that will also account for Dr. Beaulieu and Lars Gunnison if we can retrieve them. Given the circumstances, all parties will need to be adaptable."
Mads gulped, and nodded.
Mrs. Carson continued, directly addressing the young men before her. "Gentlemen, that still doesn't quite explain the very unwelcome visitor who picked up your homework assignments Friday. Nor does it explain the stack of birch bark that I had to confiscate from certain academic researchers earlier today. What convinced either of you two to think that your instructors would be fluent in whichever dialect of Old Norse this is, let alone be able to read it, inscribed as it is using the Younger Futhark?"
"Mrs. Carson, Aunt Aang decided that we didn't have enough to work on, given the opportunity, so we were tasked with rewriting everything in the local dialect. As to the birch bark, the price was right?" Thomas barely avoided face-palming at the insanity of Mads pleading poverty.
"I suspected as much." The headmistress pulled out a thin folder from her stack, "You can give this to Mr. Williams when next you see him in American History class. He received the translations by mistake."
'No mistake, Roland deserved it.', Carson amended privately.
Louis responded from his class, 'Liz, that's not nice. Accurate, maybe appropriate, but not nice.'
She handed over the true copy to Metro, "Maybe you'd care to enlighten us what did happen with the - I believe you called it a tupilaq in earlier statements - that managed to leave you stranded for nine days, our time?"
Nine days, or maybe nine months, relatively speaking, before now
Have you ever had that feeling of not getting enough air? It's as if you know your heart's beating, pounding even, you're not bleeding much, and it surely looks like your lungs are pulling something in and pushing something out as you gasp for air, but there's still that growing static noise in your ears and darkness surrounding everything you look at, and your muscles feel sapped of strength? Honestly, nothing would feel better than a nice nap. Maybe make a quiet shelter in one of the snow drifts alongside the road, muddy with sporadic traffic, and a bit treacherous as one rock or another rolls out from under a foot.
Just like in the stories, it's so easy to stop and give in once the cold turns to warmth.
Mads was so cold. So very cold, and so very tired.
Nearly the only thing that keeping the early winter traveler going now is the alternative prospect of something worse than a slowly freezing death behind him, sniffing out the young man's footsteps from among any and all others. It, unfortunately, doesn't get tired. Two of the traveler's allies follow close behind it, badgering it into stopping and defending itself before it can gain too much ground, or force it to take a longer or more dangerous route. Little do the hunter's opponents realize that it could just pull more life force down the blood connections between it and its quarry. As long as it has that connection, it can take its time weakening the two-legged movable feast ahead of it. Had it been granted more intellect, perhaps it would also savor the irony that under the terms of the curse used: once chase has been given, the prey is not allowed to die completely except to the hunter's bite.
Traditionally, a tupilaq would be made of natural bones, hide, and teeth. But this one, no, it was made from the flesh and blood of its prey's, nay, its twin's parents.
Tradition would further have the construct being given a measure of its maker's life energy by sexual congress performed either with the whole of the beast or by means of its constituent parts. Both parts of the ritual, construction and animation, are performed in secrecy by the dark of the night, when a shaman desires the death of another living person. In such respects, tradition has been upheld.
The coroner's report regarding body parts remaining half-buried in the tainted Illinois muck would eventually conclude that all three victims were assaulted before death - one of them pre-mortem. Their where with other indications of ritual desecration of the bodies to catalog, but those stick out most in the official's mind. Her own body would eventually be discovered, weeks after the nightmares became too much. Based on recommendations from HPARC and DPA experts, all remains and unneeded samples would incinerated and the ashes remaining stored in a secure but undisclosed location. This information would not be useful to Mads until after he returned. Perhaps not even then, assuming he does survive to return.
As with any magic, the tupilaq can be undone. Its master may decide to openly confess their act to the tribe, cleansing the corruption from the land and sea by bringing its origin to light. Or, if its master has been even more foolish, a stronger shaman may turn the tupilaq back on its creator. In this case, the target was not wrong to surmise that the creator may have been summarily dealt with, the better to prevent the exercise of either option. Modern Inuit tradition does not speak in great detail of whatever else may be done in darkness when the shaman or would-be shaman has been lost to ancient insanities and evils, thus one could only guess about the nature of the monster that had dared chase human prey into the Iron Wood.
Mads Jensen was not completely without tricks of his own, but his being a conventional madness, there were still Rules that had to be followed. So it was that three celebrants had eaten together, mourned together, and recited prayers for three of the dead, repeated for nine days, threes and nines being important in the North and to the Dead. If the Rite of Reclamation were to be permitted in the chosen place, then there would be a hope for the imprisoned souls' relief. A small hope it was, but aren't the living judged by how they honor (or fail to honor) their dead and dying? And so, a nine days' walk down an ancient road was planned: into a realm where winter reigned eternal, and that winter did its best to seep into the young man's dying bones and thinning blood.
At the last bridge to be crossed on this ancient road, the traveller told the gatekeeper that he would be going down to the river below. She laughed and called him all the more a fool for that, but she pointed out the narrow footpath that switched and switched back again until one reached the river bank, and there, a ford that predated even the road and the bridge.
Arriving at that place, the young man stepped out into the ice-bladed waters. Though they had the power and right of their way, the ancient river waters instead deigned to ask what business a fool mortal might have in this place, what excuse he could give that he not be dashed upon the rocks and left to wander with the forsaken and the damned on the shores of Náströnd? The young magician gave the river a Name from out of Dreams and Time, one that was known to the waters. Knowing that Name, the waters also knew that they'd yet taste a measure of death. The child-drowner's or the abomination's; it made no difference.
The eight-limbed (not eight-legged, for half of the limbs were mis-jointed arms, two displaying matching wedding bands on blackened fingers) monstrosity did not take long to arrive at the bridge, guarded against trespass by a giantess, by old agreements, and by older concessions. It disregarded the northern Amazon's threats for it could sense its prey far below. Blood promised called to blood used. Nothing else could matter. Down it went, tumbling against rock and stone, its own pain having no meaning to it save as something to inflict on the soul it was doomed to capture.
The traveller imagined he could still see the likenesses of a man and woman who could have stood in for his own parents in another time, had some things turned out to be different. Here though, what he could do is chant prayers alien to the Realm and face the killer unarmed.
"Dlo kwala manyan, nan peyi sa maman pa konn petit li,
Nan peyi sa, fre pa konn se li, dlo kwala manyan."
He backed up slowly, luring the tupilaq into venturing out into the river carrying its eternal cargo of ice, knives, and primeval venom. The fetch shuddered back from the stream, sensing an unknown danger.
"Si koko te gen dan li tap manje mayi griye,
Se paske li pa gen dan ki fe l manje zozo kale!"
He then used a dirty bit of conjury allowed those revenent spirits that haunt wilderness ponds and rivers. Such as he had been, long forgotten lifetimes ago. A white horse took his place in the waters, beautiful, yet gaunt from exhaustion and illness. No threat at all to the hunter, and it still smelled like prey.
"Zozo, tone! A la yon bagay ingra,
Zozo, tone! A la yon bagay ingra,
Koko malad kouche, zozo pa bouyi te ba l bwe,
Koko malad kouche, zozo pa vini we l."
This time the construct leaped to prevent the prey's escape, landing on the water horse's back, a willing rider, for that was the Rule, even here.
The horse dove into a dark pool just upstream of the ford, the would-be hunter stuck tight to its hide.
The river Gjöll's waters rose up over the both.
Consciousness came slowly, as if it needed permission to intrude. The need for urination was much less tentative about its arrival. In fact, said arrival almost ended up an immediate one as the boy opened his eyes to a blue-eyed, black-furred dire wolf on the bed with him. It growled lowly as it moved to put a large paw (one that went well with its large bared teeth) on his chest.
Stay there. Obviously.
No problem, Mads could be good with that, except, "I really need to pee."
Wolves really aren't supposed to roll their eyes like a teen-aged human, but it must have gotten some of the message because several pounds' weight were removed from the boy's chest as it hopped off the bed. Mads should have expected it to easily take human form.
"Privy's down the hall, if you can make it there."
"Won't know until I try."
Mads was able to almost sit up and untangle himself from the sheets before he had to lay back down, sweating from the effort.
"Ummm, nope. Best make that until we try."
Half-carried between Fenrir and Thomas, he did make it to the privy.
After an unnecessarily thorough and rough scrubbing, punctuated with variations of "What the blue blazes were you thinking?", his helpers/watchers eventually dumped Mads back into bed wearing a clean change of bedclothes. There was some discussion of whether he really was in that much need of a bath, which he lost. Shoving the nightshirt he'd been wearing into his face was just cruel and unusual. Mads was later informed that what he'd been wearing had needed to be burned. Outside. Downwind. Of Hel.
Yes, that Hel. What, did anyone think Gjöll ran past Disney World?
The Lady of the realm judged that the two souls that had been removed from the construct would need to stay. The jar that had been used to catch them was then set in a secure location until such time as they'd healed enough to consider their next lives. They'd suffered more than enough through no fault of their own.
"'Mads', this time out, or is it 'Mathias'? Even here I'm not sure what I remember."
"Your name is what you make of it in your current life. If you hadn't gotten your death and arrival out of order, you wouldn't be so confused. No, you don't get to fix that in MY Halls! Still, I'm allowed to warn you that, whether you remember it or not, this is the second time someone has tried to use you for a set of fetters in less than a century. Also remember that you have a brother back in your Detroit, which means Thomas can be bypassed if they get to him."
Thomas joined in, "That shouldn't be easy. Just getting us to physically to Whateley involved using a gate that should not ever have opened."
"But someone had a key to that gate, and they rigged a dragon's Game so you'd end up in that someone's reach. Think on that as you rest up and make ready for whatever troubles come next. Now, give your Big Sis a hug before you lot head back north. I can't make it for Yúl, so this visit will have to do."
A Mother's Day,
The Iron Wood
"It is said that a witch dwells to the east of Midgard, in the forest called Ironwood: in that wood dwell the troll-women, who are known as Ironwood-Women [Iárnvidjur]. The old witch bears many giants for sons, and all in the shape of wolves; and from this source are these wolves sprung."
All in all, it had been a good feasting, if a bit heavy on the meat. And fish - never forget the fish! But it had been years on years since she'd had children around, to surprise, pain, delight, and annoy her by turns. A pity that her daughter could not celebrate the blót - always too busy, she was - no thanks or praise to old Shifty-Eyed in this hall! After the meal and a couple of hours of raucously inappropriate tall tales and other stories, the boys had ended up in a puppy pile in front of the fire. Her sister-wife's children's children wore their two-legged forms, while her own boys wore their birthright fur or scales. She smiled at the recollection of poor Jorm trying to figure out where to nudge in to soak up the most warmth without roasting. Little Mads was still spiking fevers, the medicines that had saved him before now being paid for in full as they worked their way back out of his body, but tonight the runes told her this would be one of the good nights for the child.
So the woman sat in her rocking chair, weaving with needle and yarn, and savoring the last of the night's mead. In the morning, the young would take their leave, whether for chores or work or some distant destiny. But for now, they were where they belonged - safe, sound, and under a mother's watchful eye. Woe betide any spirit, wight, or demon - aye, or petty god as well - who'd dare interfere.
Some time later,
The Iron Wood
'Aunt Aang' knew that Thomas remembered maybe too much for the two of them, and Mads, well, perhaps thought was the wrong word for the strange ways his broken mind worked. However, it was Mads' turn to crow 'I told you so!' at Thomas when it turned out that the young man had a talent for whittling and carving. And in his turn, he was curiously reticent when asked how. All he'd admit to was that it was 'another time, in another country, and besides the wench is dead.'
Mads in turn, rearranged the herb garden by unexplained memory, and did his best to tend the crops and animals. No one gainsaid him his breaks to 'cool off' or 'wash away the sweat' (especially the latter) in a local stream. Instead, as much as she was one for encouraging folks to persevere at their own work, even she got in the habit of checking how far over the line the boy was pushing himself, silently agreeing with his distant doctor that he'd need to stick close to clean water until his lungs could meet his body's needs. Nonetheless, the work was good for him. What child of Gaea didn't need to touch the earth from time to time?
So they passed the spring, chores by day, lessons by night. Language, lore, craft, the necessary things. The head of a neighboring holding sent a daughter over to 'keep her out of trouble', it being obvious that the two lads weren't entirely interested but not entirely bad company for her either. To everyone's delight, Thomas had a fine voice for singing and Mads took to the hardingfele like he was born to it. To everyone's amusement, they did their best to learn the local dances, for which their height was somewhat ill-suited except to accompany the very youngest and shortest of maidens.
To think that all was peaceful in the house would be a mistake: Jorm and Fen decided it would be a fine jest to gift the house a set of pipes. Finding what the two rascals had done the painful way (Mads trying to play the evil things inside the house), the old woman chased their misbegotten hides across several counties and a border or two for fair measure. Science-blinded young meteorologists claimed a freak, rapid-moving cold front spawned the howling winds, laughing thunder, and hard-driven rain. Some of the old folk knew better, and smiled to think that their elder neighbors off to the east hadn't completely become set in their ways nor lost to the world.
Time for leaving
"Well, now. You boys got everything? Everything that wasn't nailed down, I'd think to wager, given the size of those packs!"
"Na, na. We didn't have room for the roof slates and kitchen table!"
"Listen, you! You may have gotten free the one time, but do not assume you'll always be so lucky. Be smart instead."
"And you! Keep an eye out for the both of you, or soon enough you'll both be in trouble, again."
"Not by oath, but I plan to."
"Good. You just might survive to come back again."
The boys who had half-crowded and well nigh eaten the woman out of house and home each gave her a hug before setting out. No promises to break, no regrets to take. Around another corner and they'd be seeing the last of the Midsummer fires. A few leagues further and they'd be outward bound for sure, through forgotten lanes lying behind the worlds' shadows. They'd be a little late getting back to school, but isn't that Whateley tradition?
Afternoon, still Wednesday, October 10th, 2007,
Office of the Headmistress, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Well, now. That was a tall tale from a short mischief-maker!
'Liz, he's telling what he believes is the truth. Not the whole truth, just the cleaned-up, pertinent parts he remembers, as he sees them.'
'Louis, it's already bad enough with the self-styled Olympians running amok... '
Fubar's voice tickled in the Headmistress' mind as he laughed, 'Remember which mischief-maker you're dealing with! It could be a lot worse than it is.'
Out loud, Mrs. Carson said, "Mads. Do you seriously others to believe that the Norse goddess of Death is your sister?"
"No. Lineal half-sister, by kinship. However, that would be an immense improvement over my biological sister."
Thomas' scowl suggested he had an even lower opinion of the b-, person, in question, as Mads continued, "Technically, Hel is the ruler of Helheimr, but she's a Jötun, or half-Jötun/half-Æsir depending on how you look at it, while Odin's the literal grave god that sends Valkyries out to arrange honorable deaths in battle. No penicillin or psychiatry back in those days, so being "chosen" was closer to a mercy killing crossed with involuntary institutionalization, but I'm told Valhalla's a nice enough place once they wash the blood off the walls."
'Ain't never been there, they tell me it's nice.'
Elizabeth Carson could do without the editorializing, or the regrets she'd long ago attached to memories of that song: "That is not what I meant."
"Mrs. Carson, what little I do know is that the Norse and Celts," the boy pointed a thumb at himself, "generally incarnate as members of the same family lineages over and over. They may change roles and relationships, but that bond of kinship is extremely important. Right?"
"Where is this going?."
Metro continued, "Right. Now, to the extent that you can believe in deities, as opposed to powerful spirits that might appear to be like gods thanks to public relations run amok, let's assume that Loki's Æsir blood-brother got busy with a good half-dozen or so European royal lines. Does that make their descendants demigods? In the first generation— maybe. To the nth generation? Hardly. One past life that I do know something about, Narfi Halfdan, was literally a bastard in that sense. But it's not my fault– or, rather, not our fault– that names from that time got penciled into the blanks written into a bad fairy story. It doesn't make me that other person!"
"How does that fit in with your 'cousin', another 'distant relative' who for some unfathomable reason claims you?" Thomas asked, leading the witness.
A suddenly, suspiciously, mute witness.
Thomas prompted again, "Mads. Who. Was. Narfi's mother? I know that Vali of that time never met her. Other than his father, did anyone know her?"
"Breguswith? Er, something like that? One day she said she had to leave, and that her son had to stay to tend to the farmstead. He never saw her again that I know of. So Vali never met her. Just like Narfi never met that priest that so influenced Vali."
That, as far as Thomas was concerned, was a disconcerting thought. If that was stage-managed too, then what else may have been? What does that make either of us?
Mads went on, "So, maybe, generations back, Brigantia or someone/something with that use-name might have had something to do with my maternal line. To a point, that also lines up with the limited lore about Sigyn. Hoo-bleedin'-ray, right? All I know is that the family kept up some of the Britons' ways for a few generations. How that all happened, I don't know except-" He broke off mid-rant, suddenly unable to speak for a moment. "Except that there are secrets only the Dead are allowed to know, and few of such they should speak of."
Mrs. Carson stepped in, because it was becoming clear that someone was sure to eventually stir up the "shrine issue" again, with Jensen providing nitroglycerine for the fire. "Fine. Considering all those factors, real or apocryphal, are you now claiming some sort of divine right or other connection? I want a concrete answer sometime today." Or at least something that allows us to move forward without re-opening the floodgates for more misguided foolishness.
"I can honestly claim that that nonsense applies as much to the two of us as it would to millions of other Europeans, depending on your definition of 'deity'."
What did that have to do with concrete, though? Mads had always played havoc with other peoples' construction budgets. Oh, HELL NO!
"No. Uh uh." Metro stood up and tried to back away through the chair he'd been seated in. "You can assign me all the fragging detention you want for saying so, but count this wizkid's hoop OUT!" In his wild-eyed panic, the boy near-stumbled on another toppled chair's legs. "I am NOT going to have my living blood and guts rendered into bloodsteel cable! I'd sooner-"
Whatever he'd sooner do was left unsaid under a blur of black as Thomas tackled him. They came to rest with Mads' off hand imprisoned in a wolf's jaws, forcing him to drop a ceramic-bladed holdout. A warning ping from a hidden pocket announced a stiff dose of something being injected. Even so, three people held their breath until Mads finally relaxed. Thomas still held on, though he shifted to a more human form, the better to pull the unconscious boy up and in to a sitting position easier for his breathing.
Thomas didn't look up at the doctor and headmistress: "He'd said he didn't remember anything like that." A few drops of water fell onto a bruised wrist, mixing with blood where the skin had broken. He remembered his friend and partner walking out of a clinic, joking about how long before his new right arm caught up with the left arm's scars. It still wasn't funny.
"What about you?"
Valravn looked up. "I pray to gods that I can't believe in that I'll forget my part in it all too."
More minutes passed. Normally Mrs. Carson's schedule was booked solid, but she'd call it a sad day when she didn't have that much time for a student so troubled. Sadly, there had been such days over the years, and she was no stranger to unheard prayers for forgetting.
"Right. Who ordered the Kamikaze Special?"
Lady Astarte stepped forward, grinding the forgotten weapon to carpet dust in the process. Bending down closer to eye level, "Mister Jensen, do I need to remind you that you were skating on thin enough ice as it was?"
"I'm afraid we all still are," muttered the air spirit.
"I can see that apologies are in order. First, is anybody hurt?" Metro absent-mindedly rubbed his wrist, the slightest flare of essence marking a healing spell's passage.
'T, what's going ON here? A knife???'
'You were seconds from using it.'
'Oh. Drek. Do I want to know?'
"We need to be wrapping this up soon. The medkit injection should keep Mads stable for a while, but he's already running on fumes."
Dr. Tenent had been following the verbal by-play, but not all of it made the same sense to her as it did to an English Literature scholar and two very tired high school students.
"Now, that story, about Loki being bound to three rocks in a cave. Couldn't it be a mangled description of binding something else? Something, I hate to say this under the circumstance, that may have needed to be bound?"
The weary Dane choked on what might have been a flippant remark, and seemed for a moment to be listening to something or someone else.
"Where would you turn, Healer, to find the giants who danced the Western Sea into being to bind them? What would come of them breaking free again? Would the painted ones of the northwest isles praise you to see their lands washed away yet again? That is the cost of such binding, should you choose to pay the price of it."
He shook his head for a moment, and looked around, "Sorry, what? No. I don't think so."
Mrs. Carson said, "That is possible. Unlike the Classical myths, most Northern myths that have come down to us weren't committed to writing until after the Christian conversion of Scandinavia. Let's say that the story of Cain and Abel becomes retold as Vali and Narfi, losing critical details, but it continues to be told."
Blank looks all around.
Oh, for the return of classical education!
"Gentlemen, I do have a degree in English, including literary analysis. I've also seen enough twentieth century history to know that whoever is responsible for murdering the Møllers may have a follow-up plan. If so, whoever it is, they are still out there, possibly unaware that Mads escaped their trap, but only for now."
That got everyone's attention. Good.
Mrs. Carson shook her head, "That has been compromised by the fact that a very well-known wolf spirit has recently been seen walking directly onto these grounds posing as a student's family member. This time may have been unavoidable, but next time it could be a Thule Gesellschaft cell pursuing him instead of the ICC members."
Mads gulped, nodded, and then cheerfully pointed out, "That's OK. It's the Horned One that's my primary mentor."
Why pal around with one lone wolf when you can hang with the whole frickin' Wild Hunt?
Before her old friend's blood pressure could spike much higher, Dr. Tenent added, "We also need to consider that the two of you have just managed to spend about nine months off-plane. That's a trip that a skilled shaman would not even consider risking for nine hours without very good reason, let alone the stunt you've pulled. Whether you think so or not, that is sure to have had effects you may not yet be aware of yet."
Oh, no. Elizabeth Carson recognized the "as long as it's just that" look from years of teaching other impulsive teenagers.
"Mads. Where else have you spent considerable time while you were gone?"
"Umm... could I get a pass on that?"
So, now the maniac notices that he might be in trouble? Thomas gritted his teeth, "You seemed proud enough of the idea at the time."
"I also had run out of my meds at the time," Mads stage-whispered back.
"Boys, we can keep you right here, until Hell freezes over if we have to." In Elizabeth's judgement, her friend Ophelia looked like she just might want to make good on that threat after the meds comment.
Mrs. Carson was paying attention to the students' body language. They *twitched* at precisely the wrong word.
"Hel? Mads, I'm not surprised. But you, Thomas? What were you thinking? Or WERE you?"
"He didn't go right in, just to the river. Or, rather, into the river, at first," that sounded lame even to Thomas' own ears.
On the other hand, no matter how subtle the eldritch beastie, being dunked into a river of knives will seriously cramp its style. Mads was clearly still damned proud of that maneuver.
The doctor was mentally calculating what submerging himself in glacial outflow could have done to her patient, along with the cost/benefit ratio - expressed in medicinal alcohol - of strapping him down to a hospital bed for the next four years until graduation.
"Does that mean that although you went as far down the World Tree as Niflheim, you didn't actually enter Hel?"
"Not until we fished him out of the pool under the bridge?"
"I don't remember that," complained the knucklehead in question.
"Maybe because you were laid up unconscious with a raging fever for the nine days afterward?"
"Oh. Yeah. That could do it. By the way, did Hel have time to connect with her mother? I only recall paying our respects before leaving."
'Dear God.' The Headmistress made a mental note to ask the Mystical Arts Department Head to keep these two loose cannons as far away from the topics of theurgy and necromancy as is possible while still allowing them to graduate alive. That was assuming that Ophelia didn't update their academic advisement notes first. Or strangle them. Maybe they could be assigned to Imp as practice for advising 'special needs' students?
"Boys. I want a concise, but complete, description of what you've been doing for the last several months of subjective time, in English, due next Friday. Double-spaced. No word-count or font games. Understood?"
Two heads nodded, one with a mischievous gleam in its eyes.
The headmistress suddenly realized, 'Oh, no. Here it comes. There's more.'
"Does that mean that Maman Brigitte is UNinvited for All Souls' Day?"
"Get out of my office."
Chapter 24: Checking In, Checking Up, Moving On
[ Author's Note: Eliza, a Syrian student in Metro's history class, was created by Kaitha39 ]
Afternoon, Wednesday, October 10th, 2007,
south side of campus, Whateley Academy
Finally! They'd been released from the interviews and interrogations for now, and most of the belongings they'd had on them at the start of the day had been returned. Most. And not without protest. With Mads off to Hawthorne Cottage, Thomas had some time to think on his own before grabbing some dinner and going to their Dance class.
After that, he'd need to be getting uniforms ready for the next couple of days, the JROTC and Whateley uniforms, respectively. But for now, what? After nine months' subjective time, he'd gotten used to living on a farmstead well-isolated from others by ancient boreal forest. By way of comparison, the school grounds now felt more crowded, the students more loud and pushy, than he remembered. Compared to other places the two had been, the school was itself isolated and roomy, but those places were long ago.
Through their link, he caught a hint of concern echoing back his own melancholy, but that was largely dwarfed by the accepting welcome Mads was receiving. It was probably much more low-key than the boy was seeing it. Another matter of contrast. Maybe their therapist was right, that they both needed to make more effort to connect with other students? Then again, they lived in very different residence halls. Both of them had been refurbished, but Hawthorne was more extended than rebuilt, keeping more of its oddly organic, reclusive character. That sort of fit the Inmates, when he thought about it - each one having been dealt hands from a deck stacked against them, each one all too aware how much worse things might have been, or will be. Poe Cottage instead had come barely short of demolition and reconstruction, making everything bright and new, almost sterile. That the better fixtures all just happened to be allocated to the girls' (born or becoming) wings, while the boys' wings took in the overflows and rejects. That made it sort of fit that Murphy and Anomaly, with their GSD taking them out of the conventional 'pretty' range, had been shoved in with the boys while Lancer stayed with his friends.
He didn't really even know the two: maybe he'd personally been an ass to Murphy and Monica in not reaching out more? They were only in Room 228. Any closer and he'd be sleeping with them. Would 'Aunt Aang' have given them a space to keep warm but left them to fend for themselves? Thomas was certain the answer to that was 'No', though she wasn't fond of people. Oh well. Here he was at the door - time to think happy thoughts for the empaths, and stow his gear. He just wished it felt more like home.
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
"May I help you?" the statuesque redhead asked him, quietly flipping the cottage status lights red to signal 'Outsider On-board'.
"Thanks, but I think I know where I'm going."
"That may be, but ah'd appreciate it if you'd sign in here first."
"I... haven't had to do that before. Is this a new policy?"
"That's been the policy since Ah've been here at Whateley. I don't know how or why you've slipped through the cracks, but you still do need to sign in. As an RA, I do have to insist. Meanwhile, I can call up to see if whoever you're here to see is around?" Lanie was trying to be polite and helpful, but this wasn't what Thomas was expecting. Then again, she probably had her own interests to keep track of, and none of them were him.
"Gary Jefferson, Room 227."
"You can't be too close a friend o' his, seein' as how he's in Room 223 with Jeff. Now if you were hopin' to rummage around, you need to know that what was left when he moved across the hall is all boxed up and down in storage until Admin tells Mrs. Horton where to send it. Ain't nothin' ta pick over," Lanie paused to listen for one of the two students assigned to Room 223 to pick up.
“Jeff? Lanie. Is Gary in, by any chance? No? When would you expect him to be back? Thanks." Lanie relayed the bad news, "Gary's not in. You should try coming back after the evening class period. Just remember to sign in next time."
"Thank you. Maybe I will."
'Mads, you free?'
'Yes... What's wrong? Something's wrong isn't it?'
'I need some place to stay. I don't know. Maybe until tomorrow. Then I should just leave this place.'
'T. Come straight here. I've got plenty of room for your pack and it'll be secure. We'll work things out from there. Got it? You haven't been attacked, or followed? You're sure you're alright?'
'Just feeling a bit down.'
'That's too much down.'
"Lanie" quietly watched the boy exit the way he'd come, still laden with an antique pack, his shoulders and head lower than when he'd arrived. She judged that she might never hear him complain about this, but he'd be a long time recovering from the rejection he'd just received.
'Whatever this was supposed to achieve had better be worth all that,' she thought, strictly to herself.
She walked down to take the tunnels to the student office/study that her Assistant's position afforded her. Locking the well-warded door and sitting down to her desk, she took a very minutes to redo her ravenswing black hair in a braided style that she fancied made her look more professional.
Belatedly, it came to her that Jensen hadn't even tried to verify her or the con, and his other half hadn't stepped in..
"Man alive, we could even lose both of them!"
Opening up a text she needed to brush up on before the next day's classes, she was surprised by an old piece of stationery falling from the loosened pages of the book. In neat script was printed simply:
"Time will tell, or yet make fools of us all. -- P."
Hawthorne Cottage, Whateley Academy
Thomas was headed off at the cottage door by a worried Dane who immediately demanded, "Who do I have to shoot, repeatedly?" The frightening part was that they both knew he was dead serious about that.
"Boy, you're not going to be shooting nobody," Mrs. Cantrel scolded, "If we let you do that, Lord knows we'd have to let Caitlin work through her list too!" The House Mother couldn't help but chuckle good-naturedly, "It's a good sight longer than yours. Thomas, you get yourself inside before that boy decides on committing some other mayhem."
Watching their body language as the two walked in, she continued, "We knew something was wrong. Out with it."
Thomas opted for short and simple, "I, um, I went back to Poe to put my gear away, but as I was signing in I found out that my belongings were now in storage. Looks like I'll have to wait for tomorrow to find a new place to stay."
"Huh. And tomorrow's uniform day, so you'll need your uniforms at least," Metro pointed out. "Mrs. Cantrel, could Thomas—"
"Child, we do have rooms not in use, and Valravn's powers are electrical. That's no good for water pumps. Any items that have to be secured, you can hold onto. Do explain the indicator lights before Thomas has to use the shower. Maybe you'll remember better, too. Thomas, please don't get too spread out. Brian? Could you get Jimmy or Caitlin to show Thomas around and check him into 214 for now?"
Metro said, "While everyone's getting that straight, I'll,"
"I hope you're not planning anything on the wrong side of ethical," the house mother warned.
*ahem* "I am still assigned to Security"
"That's right. But you're out of uniform."
"I can fix that."
"See that you do, before you go giving even more people the wrong ideas."
Soon enough, Thomas was partly unpacked in a temporary room, had been shown around, and been introduced to the Thornies and a Poesie he hadn't met. Eventually there was a knock at the door.
"Uniforms and sundry items from Room 227, as requested. You'll need to check these boxes for anything missing before signing for them," a properly-uniformed Security Auxiliary informed him. In response to the questioning look aimed at him he said, "Security does need to know if anything walked off. Signing for the invoiced belongings is procedure."
With the additional task of inventory, Valravn and Metro were nearly late to catch dinner. In fact, Thomas was set to guarding Mads' tray while he checked the paperwork in at Kane Hall.
That was one of the many things about the magician that still surprised the former spirit: the guy could improvise around rules with the worst of them, and the Creator knows the boy had little respect for laws, but on the safety and security of others he was very aware of procedures, and meticulous in observing them. It hurt a bit to remember that the boy had barely survived having his own safety and security compromised, and likely would never fully heal from that.
Ballroom Dance class
"Mads! Thomas! Good to finally have you two back. I believe there was some homework to be done?"
One worried student spoke up, "Ma'am? There was homework assigned? Somehow I missed that. Can I still make it up?"
Cecilia Rogers explained, "No. This had to do with what they were up to while they were away from campus."
Mads handed the instructor a couple of CDs, "I let Thomas pick many of the takes, and then we composed what we could with the equipment on-hand. These are pulled straight from the master using standard camera angles."
"What, no birch bark?"
The boy smiled, "Too many frames to draw, unless you'd have settled for the storyboards."
"No. I would not have. Charlie, could you start going over the files while I start the class?"
"I'd be happy to."
Miss Rogers asked, "Boys, what's in the suit bags?"
"Ehhhmm. Fen did say that we'd be idiots to think you wouldn't want proof the files aren't faked."
"He or she would be right about that. After class, I would like to see what you learned."
Miss Rogers and Mr. Lodgeman swapped back and forth between observing the 'homework' and conducting class. Otherwise it was business as usual, trying to match steps to the music without stepping on or colliding with one's partner or other couples. At the end:
"Thomas, Mads, would you go put on the outfits you brought? Your friend Fen was right, I do want to see you actually do some of what was filmed. Class, we'll see the rest of you Friday."
Most of the students left, having their own homework, studying, or 'studying' to catch up on. A handful did stick around just to see what the delinquents had learned. There were a couple of appreciative murmurs when Metro and Valravn came back out. Both were wearing what would simply be called festival clothes, with inconsistencies that would drive a historical purist to distraction, but clearly hand-tailored if not handmade for them. In other words, flattering and expensive.
Thomas felt a bit smug regarding what was sure to come, knowing that the halling or lausdans wasn't quite what the spectators would be expecting in a ballroom dance class. He hoped that Mads was up for it after the long day they'd had: recovery had taken much out of him, and he'd been a good sport regarding some of the more disastrous out-takes that had been recorded. Nonetheless, hard work paid off and the guy landed his attempted hallingkasts on his feet.
Afterwards, Charlie Lodgeman did have a couple of pointed questions to ask, as the other people in the videos were ... taller than one would expect, and their clothing old-fashioned in an unfamiliar way.
"Where, exactly, was this filmed? The setting looks more like the 19th century than most 19th century recreations."
"Have you heard of the Ironwood?"
"Yes." If that referred to a place mentioned in some old Norse stories, it wasn't a place that freshmen needed to be visiting. "Are you certain you know what that place-name refers to, and the dangers of those woods?"
"Yes. Some of them, I do. The hall shown is down the valley eastward from where we stayed."
"Do you expect me to believe that Elizabeth Carson, of all people, allowed you two to make that trip?"
"We started out on a trip that she authorized, yes."
"Then you won't have any problems if I ask her about it myself?"
"I'd rather we turn in our report to her first - it's due next Friday - but not really."
"Let's stop here and get something! If they have sorbet, I can claim that as a fruit serving, yeah?" For someone who wasn't an obligate carnivore, Mads sometimes made an awfully convincing impression.
Some yahoo piped up, "The only fruits here are those two. Look at 'em! Haw!"
Metro said, more to himself than out loud, "Plus ça change... "
Thomas privately agreed with him, although changing back to more contemporary clothing would have been a good idea. 20/20 hindsight.
A familiar voice from behind them in line added, "... plus c'est la même chose. Bonsoir, monsieurs. I hope you aren't planning to wear that for Inspection tomorrow." One might guess that the speaker had stopped by to treat his date, a rather lovely junior, to some ice cream before heading back to their cottages.
Mads recovered first, "Hoping to avoid that, Sir."
"Even if I have to remind him," Thomas added. "Repeatedly."
Gus 'Telluride' Rodriguez started introductions, "Marie, these are two of the freshman cadets in my platoon. Mads Jensen, Metro, and Thomas Jensen, Valravn. They've been unavoidably detained for the past week or so. Gentlemen, Marie Caron, Silver Shields."
"Pleased to meet you."
"Enchanté! Yes, we ended taking a scenic route back that left us tied up at the border."
"Canadian or American side?"
Mads replied, "To be fair, everyone may have been a little at fault." Diplomatic but evasive.
Marie asked, "If I may ask, why are you wearing - Norwegian? - folk costumes?"
The same yahoo as before yelled, "Because he's a faggot! That's why."
Mads made a point to visibly count to three before smiling, "We were demonstrating a folk dance, having missed so many days of our ballroom dance class." Seeing that they'd reached the order counter the turned to order, "Orange sorbet with hot fudge sauce."
"Cause he's a fudge packer!"
"One does wonder at their interest. Thomas?"
Gus and Marie placed their orders. When they were ready, Mads and Gus paid, ignoring the unwelcome comments.
"How do you two put up with such things?"
"Perhaps because it's less painful than the paperwork involved in a fight, wouldn't you agree, Jensen?" The school's security chief had somehow walked up without either couple noticing. One of the nearby tables was now suddenly much more subdued.
"Yes, Chief, I would."
"Glad to hear that, Mister Jensen. Well then, good night Miss Caron, gentlemen. By the way, Metro, I'm looking forward to reading that report you have due on Friday. Perhaps Mister Rodriguez can help you in collating some of the research."
"Thanks for the tip, Sir."
Once the four sat down, Marie spoke up, "Alright, spill. How does the Chief of Security know two incoming freshmen, and a junior who has a near perfect conduct record?"
Gus reached across the small table and tapped a plastic band on Mads' shirtsleeve.
"Oh! I did not see that. That part makes sense, " Marie said.
Mads: "Telluride was an off-campus chaperon for a recent trip. His name would have been on the paperwork as it went through Security's admin channels."
Marie would have to settle for a noncommittal shrug from Thomas, "I suppose."
Interpreting the flagging interest as a cue that Marie would like more alone time with Gus, Thomas slurped up the last of the milkshake. "Looks like it's time to go! Come on, Mads, you can help with the ironing or something."
The two couples parted company.
'Marie' turned to Gus, "Does it help to know they're back?"
"Yes, but I could have done without the bullshit. Who do those guys - no, I know who they think they are. They're the same sort that call me 'wetback' behind my back because they don't have the courage to risk saying it to my face. Damn them. I'll bet they're looking to ambush my cadets in the dark, as we sit here." Telluride risked a look out toward Melville and Hawthorne, but both groups were too far off into the dark to see."
"Do you think they can't handle that?" A Cheshire grin suggested she'd bet otherwise.
"Am I worried over nothing?"
"No. Bullies tend to stay bullies until someone's boot finally grabs their attention. As to other reasons to worry, I'm afraid we're no closer to finding out who's behind what happened in Illinois. You know, you really should ask Ms Caron out. You both might be pleasantly surprised."
"Right up the point we re-make introductions." That wouldn't be awkward, not at all.
"In Metro's line of business, it's par for the course. Ah. I 'see' the two groups have run across each other. Have a good evening, Gus." With that, Louis Geintz' projection disappeared.
Between Crystal Hall and Hawthorne Cottage
The two students had not gone far from the busier central part of the campus before noticing the bullies that had gone off ahead.
'Oh, joy. Three IR paints ahead, with nothing good in mind. Crunch and Strongarm I know from UV check-in. Faded paint's Centurion. Take the garment bags?'
'I'd rather not, but it makes sense. Wait until we're closer unless you want to spook them when I drop out. '
'Keep an eye out for an overwatch. Heh, heh. Knives-of-Winter has a suggestion for some fun. Go high and wide to give him room. On my mark ... go.'
The ambushers didn't even twitch as Thomas switched to his avian form and took off, the wind carrying the clothes aloft with him. Per the plan, he stayed wide of the expected combat zone, but kept the ambushers in view. This time they might not have had IR capability, but next time could be different. It usually paid off to practice dealing with the more probable 'worst cases'. Also, while Thomas might trust his partner to know his own business, trusting others to follow his plans never worked out. Lightning, on the other hand, often worked just fine. Staying in-range in case that was needed put him in a good position to observe whatever it was that amused both Knives-of-Winter and Metro.
Later, he'd be hard-pressed to say which bully screamed louder, Strongarm the exemplar without a TK or PK shield to protect himself, or Centurion the internal energizer who did not need his body's energy stores sapped, as a flood of near-freezing water landed on them. A PK brick, Crunch was somewhat less vulnerable to the attack, until the water began seeping past the PK field to his skin and the core body heat started leaking out.
The three didn't even notice the dire wolf silently run past, almost at home in the cold. Once the magician was clear, Knives-of-Winter let the liquid avalanche dissipate and tidied up any traces of his passing. Most of them that is - there may have been some residual freezing rain after that, to the extent the local spirits were amused. Discouraged, wet, and hypothermic, the bullies trudged back to their rooms.
Fubar was, of course, at the front door entrance. "Welcome back. I see you two managed to stay dry, unlike some others I could name." Seeing the wolf start to set a decidedly canine stance, he hurriedly threw a TK shield up in time to stop the incoming spray. "Correction. One of you bothered to stay dry."
Mads was still smirking mischievously as he returned to his two-legged form, "Staying dry is overrated," he rasped.
"You may want to clean up and head straight to bed," the house parent and fellow inmate recommended, "voluntarily or otherwise."
Thomas caught the unspoken 'or else'. "Excuse me, Louis? How many times has he had to be forcefully reminded to mind his health?" he grated.
"Not too often?" Nope, no one buying that one. Damn.
"Thomas, we do have experience with people who get too wrapped up in a game or a project, or others who are trying and failing to convince everyone else they're Just Fine."
"If you say so." Thomas capped it with a dirty look at the not-guilty-enough party.
"One more thing, gentleman. That stunt with the ice water could have been lethal in colder weather."
"Meh. With the high humidity tonight, 10 degrees isn't too bad. I've gone fishing in much worse. They also have to pass Doyle Clinic and the still-populated parts of the campus to get to their cottage. I've got a watcher on 'em to see that they do go back to the barn."
The twinned mental images of happily hunting fish in a polluted Lake Erie and sometimes staying out overnight, versus those December nights on the street or in an unheated squat when he needed to stay close enough to his school to attend it, might have been intended to reassure the psychic teacher that he knew where the line between miserable and desperate was. That the boy also remembered he and his foster mother treating too many cold injuries from the same sort of weather at her clinic to forget that line, was no comfort to the psychic, It hinted darkly that the boy also knew how to step over the line and perhaps make it look like an accident.
Thursday morning, October 11th, 2007,
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Metro's first day back in classes was not his greatest, not by a long-shot.
"Whatever. We're so glad you could make time for American History in your busy schedule."
At least the rest of the class was amused.
Elisa whispered, "I think that Mr. Williams is unhappy with your absence."
"Indeed I am. Or rather I would be upset with only that, if some joker had turned his homework in as requested. No, let me guess. You have a good explanation for this?" Williams held put some oddly-colored, rolled-up materials.
"Right." Mads dug into his pack to pull out a matching set. "There was some sort of mix-up and you were given part of my Riksmål homework instead." He handed it over and took the other documents before the teacher could recover.
"This is the same damned... oh, this is in English. What happened, Jensen, run out of Sears catalog?"
That reference totally passed over the boy's head like a ballistic launch to low orbit.
"Er, no, sir. Our host didn't have access to rag or pulp paper at the time, and min bror was asked to leave campus before buying any. Luckily, birch bark was available."
Mads winced, "That's not exactly how his mother put it."
"Let me guess, you also did your homework by firelight because there was no electricity on the rez." Mr. Williams hadn't made a bad extrapolation from the cover story. However...
The young man's response was sharp as a gun shot. "Lamplight, sir. However, irrelevant as it may be, the reservation where my mother was born does indeed have electricity except for the most remote locations."
Translation: Do NOT drag the Uvie's Mama into this.
Other translations during class were more of the English to Arabic kind, but the boy could tell the Syrian girl was becoming more confident in her use of English.
"Eliza! A moment?"
< "I do need to apologize for staying away for longer than intended. I failed to consider the possibility as I should have." >
< "I recorded the class discussion, and Semiramis was kind enough to help me out with the translations. You might know her as Sahar." >
"Thomas. Know anyone named Sahar or Semiramis? Name rings a bell for some reason."
"Zenith's girlfriend. I've heard some catty comments, but she seems okay. Why?"
"She's been helping Eliza cope with the language issues. Needed to know who to thank."
"Drek. One of us should have remembered that. I'll put a word in if you forget again. Idjit."
"Love you too."
< "Is something wrong? You stopped and were staring at nothing for a moment." >
< "Nothing is wrong, I was just asking a very good friend something." >
< "So you are indeed possessed?" >
< "No, no. We share a mental link. I fell out of the habit of using it." >
"Hey, look what we have here. The raghead girl, and Oops, I didn't even recognize the faggot here in his jammies!" Centurion stomped up, his heterosexual life partner Switchblade in tow, "But one thing you'd better learn when prancing around in front of your betters,"
"... is that this is the uniform, based on M/01 Desertspotcamo and authorized for use by Danish JROTC cadets here at Whateley, while you are wearing civilian gear. If you have a personal problem with that, I would recommend that you take it up with Gunnery Sergeant Bardue. Now, if you'll excuse us, Eliza and I are headed to lunch."
Centurion turned a lovely shade of red at the civilian comment, one that faded a bit at the dreaded Marine's name. "No I won't excuse you, you little pervert!"
"Let it go," Switchblade tried to quietly but emphatically persuade his friend, having seen three well-known Twain residents saunter up.
"What's the matter with you all of a sudden?"
"Maybe he noticed that the 'pervert' is in the company of a real girl, not that Poesie you keep chasing, and one of the pretties at that?" Bloodwolf managed to snarl and leer at the same time. Metro's lack of his usual "I'm with Security" response told the werewolf avatar that he wouldn't be interfering in whatever now happened. That fact was not lost on Killstench or Maggot either.
"Just like you freaks to stick together. C'mon." Centurion motioned his friend away to take the most open and public route to the Crystal Hall, having counted no less than four UV bands in attendance.
"Awww. He looked so ready for another shower!" Metro mock-whined.
Bloodwolf turned, "So that WAS you, last night, wasn't it?" His toothy smirk was more evil than the earlier snarl. "Word is, that a shifter sent some Emerson jerks packing last night. Then somehow, a cold rain kept following them all the way back to their front door. Lots of folks in Twain were glad to hear about that - the pretties've been getting off too lightly."
Metro schooled his expression to 'neutral, bordering on lock-and-load'. "I hadn't heard they'd branched out into going after GSD students too."
"Just remember to leave some fight in them for us!"
"I'm sure that something can be arranged."
Bloodwolf nodded to that and led his pack on to lunch. Such a small delay, and Nate was probably already ensconced under the air vents.
< "If I may ask, what did the demon mean?" >
< "He is not nice, but he is not a demon, either. He did remind me to leave them alive, so that others may help the bullies mend their ways." >
< "Would you truly have killed them?" >
A new voice chimed in, < "That's why he wears a different UV band from the bullies, ragers, and living weapons. Security knows that if presented with a sufficient threat, Metro can and will defend himself and others with lethal force." >
< "Sahar, yes? Thank you for helping Eliza out! And yes, you are correct about the UV designation." >
< "You're welcome. You may want to hurry up, Valravn is waiting for you on the second platform." >
"Until next time, then, dear ladies!" With that Metro strode off in the direction of food, plus friends and a boyfriend to annoy.
Afternoon, Thursday, October 11th, 2007,
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Among the usual complaints today, there were a few clear indications that Jensen & Jensen were once again running loose on-campus.
The complaints from three bullies that their intended victims didn't play fair would have been priceless if the Headmistress didn't have to hear variations on that same theme every other day. Having had to vet one op plan put together by Metro, she would place money on 'fair play' being an alien concept to the former operator.
Bella Horton's complaint about items being stolen from a storage room in the Poe basement was more of a vexing problem. In the first place, why were Valravn's belongings boxed up and placed into storage when he was expected to only be gone a day or two past the weekend? In the second place, yes, Security did have the authority to retrieve those items for him. Finally, where was the student expected to spend his first night back on-campus — on a park bench? Perhaps in ICU, as three young louts had planned the night before?
Louis had chuckled at the park bench comment before privately informing her that a cot had been moved to Metro's room, just in case.
It was finally resolved that Room 227 would go back to storing current students, just as soon as everything that had drifted into the room instead of storage could be claimed by the owners. After all, Bella's girls shouldn't have to worry about boys going through luggage they may have left in the Boyz Town room.
When Roland Williams' complaint about Jensen's homework rolled in, it felt satisfying to point out to the history teacher that the United States of America did not, in fact, have an official language. But if it had had one, at one point that language would have been Old Norse.
Later that afternoon, it was Whateley Trustee Charlie Lodgeman's turn to call on Mrs. Carson, this time regarding the irresponsibility of allowing two students to travel off-campus unaccompanied.
"Elizabeth, have you seen this video? It shows two students—"
"Let me guess, Metro and Valravn. What have they done now?"
"If I can believe the video produced, they've managed to attend a dance or two in Jötunheimr. Metro even claimed to have had permission from you to make the trip."
"What, exactly, did he say?"
"'We started out on a trip that she authorized'."
"That is literally true. Let's see what you have. According to Cecilia, some of it should be hilarious."
After reviewing the video clips, Totem asked, "What are you looking for that I'm not seeing?"
"Missing coordinates and timestamps. They weren't edited out, so by the time these scenes were recorded, Metro's equipment had been without GPS signals for some time. Judging by the seasonal changes in clothing, he had a long recovery before these recordings."
"I didn't know he was even ill."
"Very ill. Eventually, we obtained information linking him, and possibly the cause of his illness, to events a few years ago in lllinois. He, Valravn, and Telluride were sent to investigate. Things happened. For various reasons, they were delayed until Valravn could manage the travel." Mrs. Carson sighed, "It only gets better."
"Do I want to know what you're leaving out, or do I need to know?"
"Maybe not, and probably so. Let's just say that some borders in this world serve multiple purposes."
"Most of those shouldn't be crossed without a great deal of preparation and training, and we both know that far too well. Why them, now? Were they any other students, you'd be coming down on them like a ton of bricks."
"Were they Diamondback, Kayda, or Wendigo, you'd be volunteering to help mentor them."
"I would also know where to start with their training, and have the time to give them the guidance they need!"
"You do realize that Metro is almost certainly going to try his hand at seidhr or one of the Arctic traditions, with Valravn right behind him?"
The Shaman raised an eyebrow. "A package deal, just like in everything else? Yes. I'm afraid that's all still largely outside my expertise. I can look for good, or even surviving, teachers to recommend but I cannot promise much."
"That's all I'm asking for."
"Of course not! But I'll take what I can reasonably get today, and pray for miracles tomorrow."
"I thought it was 'No boom today. Boom tomorrow.'?"
"Around here? 'There's always a boom tomorrow.'"
"Glad to see someone still has some damn perspective around here!"
Friday afternoon, October 12th, 2007,
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Looking back on the past three weeks, Sir Wallace Westmont was more certain than ever that the Imp would make a better choice of Faculty Advisor than he and Suzannah Hagarty. For one thing, they still had a full plate teaching Nikki Reilly and some of the other students in need of their skill sets. For another, neither of them had quite the knack for engaging the imaginations of the school's would-be spies and provocateurs. The assignment he'd laid out for the Intelligence Cadet Corps had demonstrated that in spades. Instead of completing what would have been an eye-opener to any professional working group, they'd back-burnered the profiling jobs so they could add a new target - a teacher, no less - to their ongoing list of improper activities.
Imp's review of the same made for an entertaining story when shared over a few beers. However, the fact remained that they'd latched onto the first plausible excuse they came across - without checking to see what internecine feud they might have gotten themselves into. Wallace's friends in Interpol had shared too many horror stories, over much stronger drinks than beer, of deep cover operatives making that very mistake regarding rival 'families' as it were. Sometimes the bodies were even recoverable afterward.
Vamp's critique was caustic, but didn't stray far from the mark at any point. She was entirely correct to declare that anyone with two brain cells left to rub together would have double-checked against a known supervillain pulling a switch. Rez had shown some initiative in collecting public information about Chaka, but clearly was uncomfortable spying on a friend. Reach had put together some useful information about Aquerna. However, she didn't show any signs of recognizing that the Underdog would make a terrific investigator herself. Two positive results were to be obtained from this part of the overall operation. First, by not pursuing the decoys - albeit to concentrate on the Imp and the suspected double-agent - they'd unknowingly avoided a couple of traps left for them. Second, the alarm ward placed on Chaka and Fey's dorm room gave Nikki something interesting to study.
The profile dossiers the Cadets themselves turned in were clearly the result of open collusion. There were barely enough differences to rule out plagiarism. The good news was that they did work together on that. The bad news was that if they'd individually been assigned a more sparse, less obvious, selection, the similarities among reports would outed them as compromised or even doubled field agents.
By Westmont's accounting born of bitter experience, were this "Real Life" each one of the Intelligence Cadet Corps members would be dead two or three times over.
The folder left at one of the dead drop locations set up with Metro was a surprise: students these days preferred electronic communications and data disks. Also, he'd gone missing under questionable circumstances for half of the time allotted him. Having double the subjects, the freshman could be excused if the data were more limited. Just, one could hope, not as limited as what the subjects were willing to admit about themselves. Barely one page in, the English mage was beginning to understand Everheart's recommendation to stock up on liquor. Another page in, and he was glad that he hadn't yet followed that advice. How the HELL did that child obtain enough data to project A-Plus', Reach's, Rez's, and Kew's menstrual cycles for the current and following three months? And WHY? This wasn't a kill order being shopped out to a mid-level contract mage! But if it had…
Providing the document on paper in order to circumvent electronic discovery had been a good idea after all.
One encrypted call and a discrete meeting to discuss matters further gave Sir Wallace a rough idea of the price that a set of write-ups like that would run. Low six figures and the life of the rat bastard who'd compiled them.
One bottle of scotch later, and the documents were sufficiently redacted and transcribed. A wee bit of fire took care of the remainder. A dose or two of paracetamol would do for the hangover.
Friday afternoon, October 12th, 2007,
Hawthorne Cottage, Whateley Academy
Ember was a little disappointed that she'd have to wait until Mads could find something fireproof and flexible enough to fold into a crisp shape. But India was so happy with a butterfly that could fly for a short while, and Mads promised, so maybe that would be okay for now. Plus, she could tell that whatever Shifty wanted would be just as difficult when it came time to add fangs and claws.
Miranda hung back after the others went off in search of cookies, "Um, Mads?"
"You didn't have many toys when you were a little kid, did you?" Louis might be upset, but this felt important to the girl. Plus, the boy was loud when he slept sometimes.
'That may be, but we should try to block other people's dreams out. Otherwise we lose track of which ones are ours.'
'I know. He's still loud.'
"If Louis is through butting in," Mads' eyes had that sad/funny thing going, "No, I didn't. But sometimes, giving them to kids who'll enjoy them is just as good."
"Okay. If you say so."
"I do say so. Now, why don't you check on Amy's cookies? Yeah?"
'It was a nice gesture.'
'Healing, one gesture at a time? I can live with that.'
Epilogue One: Tying Off Loose Ends
Weekend, October 13th to 14th, 2007,
The original plan for the day was to clean up the vacated Poe room, tape up or cover what shouldn't receive paint, and then to render the walls in something other than institutional off-white. Once the paint dried, some tasteful sigils and similar decorations would be painted or inked around entrance/egress points and so forth. At least, that was the plan until Thomas caught Mads regarding a wet paintbrush with just a bit too much enthusiasm. He later estimated that sending the other boy off to research ... something, anything, so long as it was sufficiently far away from a wet paintbrush, had saved him a good three to eight hours in cleanup and repainting.
By Sunday afternoon, Thomas had had time to wash everything that had been boxed up with his dirty laundry, uniforms to be sent off for dry cleaning and pressing, for a very expensive Cecilia Rogers suit to be "found" and sent out for dry cleaning and alteration removal, and above all to be informed how thankful he should be that a room could be found on such short notice for him in Poe, along with all the help he was being given to move in. This time it was Mads who caught Thomas regarding voodoo dolls at the campus store with enthusiastic intent.
Reviewing his account transactions Sunday evening, Mads was please to see what the 'going rate' turned out to be for the dossiers he'd compiled. While probably not the best effort he'd turned in, it did surpass what the client's personnel had turned in, and the money was still good ... considering all the likely discounts against it. Land rents were up, but those amounts had likely been bolstered by the amount of fresh fish he'd arranged to have delivered to the Inn. Once satisfied with the accounts, he entered the necessary data to transfer half to Thomas' accounts. He made a mental note to find someone to impress upon the elemental the importance of fiscal independence (including, by definition, differential documentation, shelters, and what the terminally naïve might consider 'laundering').
Tying up the loose ends remaining from the Spy Kidz eval almost (kind of [sort of, maybe?]) made up for being put on office duty for the next two weeks.
"... until we get a release from Doyle Medical that isn't phrased in terms of 'over yours and his dead bodies'," the Chief had explained, "Take the time to become familiar with the routine parts of the job. For example, Security not only has to respond to the expected threats, but also to the various feuds between one clique or another. That means that reports aren't tagged only by participant. Once powers and weapons become involved, it's even more critical to keep the tracking and filing straight."
That hadn't sounded too bad.
"Also, you and Valravn will be filling in where needed in the sims. The folks over there have been hitting up our duty platoons for Red Team operators more heavily. Knowing Sam and Gunny Bardue, they will sneak you into filling in against team shortfalls - so the faster you become acquainted with the Who's Who and Bad Boy lists, the better it'll be for the both of you."
That didn't sound so good.
Mads reflected briefly on whether he'd need to thank Thomas for insisting that he read through the Powers Theory texts for something other than non-narcotic sleep induction. Nah. Let's see how well it had sunk in, first.
Monday afternoon, October 15th, 2007,
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Without much in the way of preamble, Sir Wallace handed over two folders for Harley 'Reach' Sawyer to read. The first folder, compiled from the efforts the other Spy Kidz had put in, held almost no surprises. To Reach's eye, it seemed reasonably complete even when compared to what Imp had pulled together a couple of weeks earlier.
As Reach read through the second folder, the club advisor found he could quite accurately estimate her progress based on her facial expressions. Most of them were of the unamused kind, as it dawned on the student that Imp's and the ICC's background files were closer to thumbnail sketches by comparison.
"Good God! About the only thing missing from the write-up is my, um, you know?"
Westmont dryly noted that "If you were in the market for a specifically-male ring, 51 mm is roughly 2 inches. In case you were wondering."
Harley's blush was luminous. A discrete online search of the unfamiliar item after this discussion was sure to have an equally scarlet outcome.
She choked out, "You said that this is the redacted version?"
Reach read further, paling at the point that the dossier went from details to evaluations. "Who came up with this?"
"Do I need to reiterate that I will not be divulging my sources?"
"I can't even begin to count how many laws and regulations had to have been broken along the way to get some of this!"
"Aside from preventing retaliation on your part– and the Cadets have a bad record in that regard– that would be another good reason to keep my sources to myself. Even the appearance of such improprieties would require that I be able to back up any official allegations I made via data collected through strictly legal means. That too is something the ICC has a poor track record for carrying out except when coerced into doing so. Confidentiality and verifiability are no small part of the game that you and the rest of your friends are playing at."
Harley looked back at Sir Wallace in pained bewilderment. Playing at?
"Reach... Harley. Like Miss Hagarty and myself, Imp is willing to help teach you and the rest of the Cadets, the technical skills you lack. The interpretive skills and background knowledge needed to make those skills useful intel, instead of an incriminating liability, are things you each will have to pursue on your own in college, a vocational school, possibly the military... unless you want to follow Imp into a career of art theft?"
"I certainly do not!"
"Very well. I cannot say I'd blame you for that. I would blame you for any lives you cost your agency or team because you were ill-prepared for an operation, or because you based plans on faulty intel. The recommendations you've been given are not going to be easy. They are, however, solid recommendations. Miss Hagarty, myself, and the Imp have reviewed those before passing them on."
"It's hard to swallow that we're this far from being any good."
"That is not what the file says. Read it. Think on it. Then burn it."
"I don't need to be told twice that I don't want anyone else knowing this much about me!"
"There are ways to work on that as well. Anything else you would care to discuss?"
"No, sir. Just ... do I really remind people of Ross Geller when I'm in a poor mood?"
"My apologies, but I don't think I'm in a position to give an appropriate answer to that question." Because, honestly speaking, yes.
Evening, October 15th, 2007,
"Harley, what happened? You look as if your best friend died."
"Close enough, Jenn. My combat final grade's going to be taking a small dive, because we– and by 'we', I mean me and the other Intelligence Corps Cadets –" Reach ignored the 'Secret Squirrels' comment from the next table over, "completely blew a project assigned us by Sir Wallace. Ten points off the top of our Combat Finals."
Metro butted in, "How bad could it have gone? It's not like you personally threatened a faculty member's job, right?"
Reach glowered at the Danish pest. "Who the hell told you about that fiasco?"
That struck a nerve!
"It's one of the ICC's feuds posted in Kane Hall. Some of us do visit Security now and then."
"That's not very funny."
"You don't see me laughing, do you?" To his limited credit, Mads wasn't. "So, what was the outcome of that secret project Westmont and Hagarty assigned your crew?"
Reach blew out a slow breath as he chose his words. "Turns out that we were being tasked with an internal review. If we'd each followed directions, each Cadet would have been collecting data on three peers while three others observed and evaluated them doing it."
"What did Ace have you all doing instead? Don't give me that look! You, yourself, said as much a few weeks ago."
Reach groaned, "Yeah. Tangling with Imp, who led us on a wild goose chase."
"Was that really Imp's fault? What did she do that gave you probable cause to 'investigate' her?"
"She's a thief!"
"Really? Do you have proof of that? Not hearsay, but proof that will stand up in court?"
"Now even you are beginning to sound like Chief Delarose, or Mrs. Carson, " Reach complained.
"Both of them have decades more experience with investigations than you or I do," remarked Mads.
Thomas choked down a french fry. "I'm surprised to hear you admit that."
Mads shrugged. "It's true enough."
Thomas shook his head. "Then maybe you could stop being such an ass and use those assets while they're around."
"Hmph. I'll have you know that Mrs. Carson's signature on that travel pass wasn't forged!"
"So the two of you say," joked Rorsmand.
Harley wasn't depressed enough to let the topic of Frick and Frack's Week-and-a-Half Adventure Time slide without comment. "That reminds me. Where did the two of you end up, and how is it y'all aren't on Detention?"
Metro started to go with "Ancient Chinese Secret!" but ended up rubbing the back of his head "Ow!" instead, and glaring at Valravn.
"Even Chinese secrets need to be kept, no?"
"Not that hard, no!"
Valravn disregarded the complaint, "Promises, promises. We both have reports to be turned in by the end of the week, TO Mrs. Carson, both grammar and spelling count. No arbitrary page limit. What gets said or done afterwards is all up to her."
Harley shook her head, "I think I'd rather live with the ten-point hit."
Metro disagreed, "That's fine. If your goal's just a grade in class, don't take chances. Mine's survival outside of class, and that's all about making chances."
"Don't you mean 'all about taking chances', champ?"
"No. In my li-, In my experience, the only chances you can count on are the ones you make."
An evening sim run
Gunny Bardue's mook briefing was intended to be brief and simple, as both students were very, very familiar with VR. "Gentlemen, you'll be standing guard at Goodkind Banking of Detroit. Rumor has it that a team of paranormals may be planning to hit this branch within the next few, so you're undercover to minimize the risks and try for the collar if you can. Questions?"
Metro asked, "Freqs and ERTs for the P.D. and security corps while I pull down local maps? And could someone cee-cee us on the uniform details? Normally, I'd pull that data in advance of an op to duplicate or code."
Valravn explained, "Uniform fetishes aside, one of the damned few things his old team usually got right are props and IDs."
Metro snapped his fingers. "That's right, and a couple of burner IDs to fit the mask requirement, but I figure the simulators can handle name badges."
The sergeant listened to incoming on his comms before confirming, "Admiral Everheart tells me that Metro here can link up with Hive, so we'll use that for your C&C circuits."
"Got it. Cross-patching visuals from building security to Tac. That should be one of the first systems compromised: like a canary in a coal mine."
Barely five minutes later, a Goodkind Security armored car pulled up to the bank to make a delivery.
Mads called out to Thomas, 'Heads up. Chokepoint on our doorstep.'
Metro signaled to the shift supervisor that he'd go out for the delivery. Valravn would hold back, in the lobby.
"Yeah. Dominguez, you and Reilly out front for the delivery. Keep an eye out."
"Sure thing, boss."
Something small, bipedal, and very much alive was weaving its way through the now slow-moving traffic going past the bank. A confirmation snapshot from one of the overhead cameras showed something like an animated Barbie (tm) doll.
[ Metro @all: Showtime! Minimum one paranormal vectoring in to GB delivery. Sending visuals. ]
[ Hive @Metro: Sizemax confirmed. Size warper. ETA 5 mikes]
Inside, Valravn announced, "The bank is now under attack. Move AWAY from the windows, and take cover!"
An energy blast from Dynamaxx took down the guard in front of the car, as he and Donner moved in from that side. Sizemax started growing to her maximum height to better distract attention from Kismet's teleport and from Cerebrex and Lemure coming in from the other direction. Pam took just enough extra time on the way up to launch a couple of strikes at Metro, which he in turn barely managed to dodge.
That was about the time that things started to turn ugly.
Cerebrex could have nailed Metro with a haymaker as he flew by, but instead got a face full of neural chaos, leaving him no clear idea of up, down, right, left, or wall. As the caster turned, the sight-line and area of the spell's effect followed his attention... right into the reflective plate glass windows. Dynamaxx avoided the disturbance, but Donner was not so lucky.
Not that Metro was much more lucky, as Lemure dived into him from behind, taking control of his body. She soon found out that the guard shot left-handed, and worse, his handgun had safed itself. Oh, well. She signaled to Sizemax to knock out the guard she was occupying.
Porting into the bank lobby, Kismet noted that most of the patrons had hit the deck, leaving open lanes of fire. Taking a chance on the guard her ESP told her was the Blue Team member, she bound him up with her energy shackles first.
"Ladies and gentlemen. This is a bank robbery. Cooperate, and no one gets hurt."
The clock was still ticking on the police response, so Valravn bided his time, to better eat up Kismet's.
Outside, things were about to get more tense, as Lemure's power could animate or lock up a person's body, but not their mind.
'Can you fill the giant's lungs up with water, and my own as well?'
'That, I can do.'
Sizemax couldn't see the spirit shift to the astral before materializing in her hair. She felt what she thought was sweat pour down her face and up her nose! Icy cold water hit her throat from the inside, and suddenly she was drowning. Running on instinct and matching horror, Lemure moved herself and the magician whose body she was borrowing out of the struggling giant's way.
Seeing thirty-five feet of teammate about to fall onto occupied vehicles decided Dynamaxx's next course of action: first, see to it that no one was crushed under her; second, find a way to keep her alive once she shrunk down.
Lemure was the next Vindicator to learn that even density warpers need air. She left Metro as soon as she felt an icy stream of water down his/their throat.
'Do you intend the giant to drown?'
'I only need the size changer unconscious, but could you keep up the engulfment on me while I re-channel?'
'Yes. I had hoped that was the case. For the sake of your lungs you should put more effort into avoiding pollution.'
'Good enough. For now.'
The Paul Bunyan-sized emergency outside cost the indoor side of the operation all its momentum. For the moment, Kismet now had two guards shackled, but that wasn't all of them and she needed backup. Unfortunately she was needed to bail them out instead. Her mystic flame attack should be good for pushing the defenders back so she could tend to her teammates... until the flame wall guttered out and wouldn't return.
A moment of confusion on Kismet's part became the opening Valravn needed. Lightning cracked across the lobby. As she fell, so did her shackles.
Outside, Metro was feeling damned proud of himself for counterspelling Kismet. He was also feeling rather bruised from trading blows with Lemure. She couldn't safely re-enter him if she wanted to breathe. That didn't mean she couldn't beat the hell out of him until Donner and Cerebrex recovered. On the other hand, thanks to whatever freaky thing was happening with her dance partner, her uniform was soaked and she was standing in water.
What the? Of course, the maniac with water pouring out through his uniform would also pack electrics. That even made a sick sort of sense. If she surrendered in real life, Lemure wondered, would it be too much to ask to have herself locked up far, far away from the rest of her teammates?
"Hello Lemure," the computer voice said. "Welcome back. It is Monday, October 15th, 2007. It is now 9:18 PM."
Once the sim ended, with the captures of the remaining team members, the Vindicators found themselves in a tense briefing room, waiting on the Blue Team to show up. It was bad enough to lose, but to be ignored afterward? Insulting.
Five minutes late, a muffled thwump at the door signalled someone's arrival. That was followed by a young woman, maybe? Blue-green hair wasn't that unusual for Whateley Academy, but the blue-green, blue and green, transparent everything else was.
"Pardon my intrusion, but is this the correct briefing room for the," she turned her head as if to catch someone speaking to her, "Goodkind Banking heist?"
Gunny Bardue kept the growl in his voice to its minimum, "Yes, Miss. It is. I presume you have two of our personnel with you?"
"The Counts Shadowsfall? Yes. My apologies, but I believe I may be somewhat responsible for Count Mads'... current indisposition. I doubt that he's used to breathing true water, although it may help with the respiratory damage he still suffers from. Shall I? Oh!"
"Pardon ush, Orelei. Shtill unsteady on m'feet, bu' iz not your fault. No. Hey, T. You tell her she done brilliantly, yeah? And thank you kind lady for yer help." Mads looked, and sounded, unsteady on his feet.
The Undine said, "I think I may need to take the other arm if we're to get him safely seated."
"That would be a great help. It looks as though there's some essence backlash hitting him as well."
Whether it was part of the problem or not, both the water spirit and Valravn pointedly avoided the St. Elmo's Fire limning the antlers of the boy they were supporting.
"It is no problem. This way I can also examine that one child's health. Having her dive response triggered under circumstances like that can be traumatic. Ah! There she is!"
Great. Beaten by a water fairie and two freshmen, one of whom was practically drunk - having drunk? - the other? Ew. Simone wondered if it would help matters to bring new blood into the team.
Epilogue the Second: You Break 'em, You Take 'em Home (Just another Day at Whateley)
Basic Martial Arts, Thursday afternoon,
Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
"I'm writing out a pass for the rest of the day for you, Miss Mouser, with the expectation that you will spend the time recovering in your room," Sensei Tolman spat out.
She turned to the other half of this foul-up, "Mister Jensen, as you seem to be the most proximate cause of your classmate's... problems... you will see to it that she gets there."
Mads was personally of the opinion that he should be commended on the improved accuracy of his stun bolt, in place of the implied reprimand. How was he to know that StarDim's shielding was magical and not standard PK? Or that even after getting enough juice through to knock the slitch out, it would ricochet off that neutronium-dense skull?
Leaving Laird Hall, he noted that A) it was a "Green Flag" day, and B.) it just wasn't worth sticking to the tunnels with a punch-drunk loopy fairy swinging from his antlers.
The freshman boy wondered mournfully if he'd have enough time before Drill to check for foot prints.
"Are you wearing a tree? Tha's cool. Have you ever thought about modeling?"
Metro hurried up as if all the Drill Instructors of Parris Island were on his ass. Speaking of which—
"You must be Metro. Sensei Tolman called ahead. Could you step back a bit?" At his height, or lack thereof, Teri's new uneven parallel bars routine was dangerously close to eye level for the Whitman house mother.
"Yes, Mrs. Savage?"
"Just. Never mind. Teri's room is on the first floor, down that hallway. Try not to let her dismount through the door."
Several dizzying minutes later:
"... and this is Pucelle!"
"Pu- ... er, I'm not touching that line with a ten-foot polearm. Her." He jerked his thumb up at the new micro-gymnastics champ-in-training, "Where? Please?"
"Hmph. Bad enough to have a pretty like you pretending to have GSD with those fake horns, but you simply have no business being here. Furthermore, it's Pucelle, as in Joan of Arc or the Pucelle d'Orléans." The Whitman girl then helpfully tried to correct his cranial accessories, as visions of another hospital visit danced before Mads' eyes.
"Ack! No grabby! Attached!"
"Did someone yell for me?"
To be fair, Mads had seen worse than Grabby's tentacles, but his eyes still bugged out, mostly pleading Please get the Tinkerbell imposter off of me! "Let me guess, it's a Special Tink Delivery. Right this way."
Pucelle was still ranting about differenced abilities, cultural and somatic appropriation, and how white European male privilege somehow factored into that the whole time Metro and Grabby were working at prying Teri off the portable swing set and tucking her into her bed. On the way out, the boy edged around the murky font of common room pontification before making a mad dash for the tunnel entry.
Hannah sighed at the unfairness of it all. "Congratulations, Puce. Now even the Thornies are running away from this place."
Det er alt for nu. Tak!