Metro 2: Running With A Devil (Part 1)
Running With A Devil (Part One)
"How much trouble are you trying to get us in this time?"
"How much trouble you got?"
Prologue and Precipice
Timestamp 741208091103, Node ARHQIA07652
Anomalous activity on account AR/-REDACTED- Authentication . . . . Done. Source of activity identified as -REDACTED- Patchlevel 7 transmitted per request. Scanning . . . . Done. Medical specifications consistent with traumatic injury to unknown metahuman. Scanning news feeds . . . . . . . . . . Done. Contingency Plan FW-1281-Kilo authorized.
Northern Acadia, Trans-Marine Marches of the Shadowed Court
The leaden sky filled with low wet clouds promised more snow to come as Thomas Jensen made his way down a scarcely traveled country lane. Years of laden wagon traffic had carved substantial ruts down past whatever paving had originally been laid down, their varying depths responsible for more their share of sodden mis-steps. On the one hand, he needed to press forward against a hard deadline for delivering the package he carried in his pack. On the other, it would do no good to hurry too much lest he draw unwelcome attention. Unwelcome attention in some realms could be hazardous. Whether or not their fine lords and ladies recognized the marque of nobility he also bore lessened the overall risks not at all.
It was all too easy to become beholden to company one would rather not keep.
For some time, Jensen was certain that he was not entirely alone. As long as his tail kept a reasonable distance, he saw no reason to provoke a confrontation with who- or what- ever had left paw prints in the snow for him to find as he doubled back a second time. Before long, a yellow-eyed, gray- and red- furred canid was walking beside him in an easy lope.
< Good day, brother! What brings you out in weather like this, walking the land as if you were sniffing out a tasty kill by the roadside? >
It just had to be him, hadn't it?, Thomas thought to himself.
< If it were a meal you were stalking and not myself I'd be tempted to encourage you to help yourself. However, this isn't the place and I dare say not the time for you or I to do so. >
< What harm could there be in sharing a meal? The land looks bountiful enough to bear a small loss. Or two. >
< One might think that that would be for the rightful holders to say. >
< They do not seem to be in any hurry to appear. I could have sworn I saw some persimmons hanging from a tree not far back. It is after the first frost and they are sure to be sweet. >
< You might find fine sweet persimmons well to your taste. My errand does not allow for the taking of liberties. One might be surprised if yours does as well. >
< Let us then share at least a common passage, maybe there will be bread to break at the end of the road! >
< If you would, then let us not tarry. The weather is unlikely to hold. >
Thomas motioned for his unlikely companion to stop as they came upon a poorly-marked crossroads. He looked around, nodded, then motioned to follow in his footsteps. Some passages through the lands can only be gained by careful attention to details.
One foot after another, for example, does not require that each foot be the same as the one before or after. Within minutes, damp snow-covered fields were replaced on each side of the roadway by fog-shrouded temperate forest. Static crackled as the young man dragged his fingers through his own feathery iridescent dark hair as he scanned the tree line for watchers. He crouched down to place his left hand to the road and chanted a spell song.
Thomas remained still, listening for a few minutes as his amber-eyed temporary (hopefully!) companion watched. It was an old man's spell and he'd never rushed it without getting bitten in the ass by his haste. There was probably a lesson there. The most important thing the road knew was that the two travelers were not being tracked at the moment. He'd think on the rest later.
Thomas stood and brushed his hand clean.
The coyote spoke, "That is a useful spell. I didn't know they taught it at your school."
"I had a private coach for the learning of it. The one who taught me isn't well-known there."
The young man started walking away. The sooner the trip continued, the sooner it would be over.
"I'm not your enemy Thunder-singer." A low growl underlay those words - a warning that it might be unwise to make an enemy of him.
Thomas sighed in mock-irritation, We are only who we are, "Mo'luptsim'sla, what brings you so far afield? I thought the Ptesanwi was your favorite project."
The wind shifted. The scents it bore pointed to no place here. He was on track.
Against his better judgment, he motioned for Coyote to follow close behind.
Not that there's a chance of losing him if he doesn't want to be lost, Thomas thought to himself.
Coyote answered, "What brings me wherever I go? My four, excellent if I say so myself, paws, of course! I should ask what errand could tie one such as you down to the ground on the back ways and in the between ways such as this?"
Not a word about the White Buffalo Calf Woman. Interesting.
"I'm bringing a prosthetic arm back to Whateley for an injured friend."
"Such kindness! This must be a very important person to you!"
"They're important to a person who is important to me." Thomas shrugged, pausing for a moment before saying, "Hm. Kindness? An obligation, certainly. A weapon, maybe. But let's not confuse an absence of malice for a kindness."
"Well then, I shouldn't delay one on a tactical errand for important people, should I!"
"Leave the horse shit in Mustang's stall if you're going to pile it that high."
"You wound me my friend! It is well, now that I think about it, that you've named yourself after the war-crows of our European brothers."
"I could hardly name myself 'Wakinyan', when it is you who are speaking sideways. Your words run a parallel course to truth."
"... and parallel lines never meet?"
"Not in a Euclidean universe."
"Now it is you who are speaking sideways, brother. You know better."
"If you would call me 'brother', then understand that I know exactly how those two people see each other."
"Do you understand how they see you?"
"Yes. For my own peace of mind I prefer a measure of denial."
"Peace of mind is a limited, and curious, commodity these days."
"If it leaves you curious, old man, then we must be doing something right."
"What now? Do you distrust those around you so much?"
Thomas favored the ancient spirit with a half-smile, "I trust them at least half as much as you do. As often as I've seen you sneaking around, possibly more so."
Yellow eyes now looked back above a true predator's grin. "I had wondered if adopting black feathers meant the eyes of the animikii had lost his lightning and not just his mind in taking up with mishiginebig. If you must know, I find the place intriguing. The People are finally being heard; should their guides not be heard as well? So much power, so little guidance. It would be criminal to ignore the potentials there."
The young man chose not to listen to his anger, knowing insult only grows when well-fed. "And that's all this is about?"
"Of course not! I've also heard of a bækhest out hunting here and there. It's been some time since that kind trotted out of the waters."
"Do you want to ride the pony yourself?"
"Now you sound like one of the lizard people, always inviting me to their games. (They hadn't, but to Coyote, a warning's as good as an invitation.) I've played the sliding game on enough rocks to know better than that: you just want to see me crushed flat! "
"That would be amusing. But no, I bear you no ill will you've yet to earn."
"I've been assured that it's quite the privilege to gain the ill will of others without having earned it."
Some time later:
"So. Anyway. Are we there yet?"
"If you really want to find out, just step off the path."
"No. I'm good. Thanks."
Late morning, December 8, 2007,
Arena 99 stands, Whateley Academy
The witch feigned interest in the various announcements being made regarding the next week of combat finals. As far as her classmates were concerned, the more grueling rounds of competition laid out for the juniors and seniors were something new and daunting. Considering how engrossed they were in daydreams of how they would succeed where others haven't she could strike up a one-woman mariachi band and hardly any of them would notice. Spectacle aside, such displays did serve a purpose in keeping the underclassmen in line. Speaking of which, she looked forward to teaching one or two sophomores a thing or two about stepping out of line, but that could wait.
For now, she updated her mental notes for the morning's final fights. Even minute differences amidst expectations and outcomes must have reasons; some of which may matter in future projects. Just think, if she hadn't had the good fortune of being the one to lure a little surprise into the Arena's local space, she might have missed the show! A word or two here, and blood is spilled in the angle of a crossroad. Another word or two there, and a sleepwalker crosses lines of her own fate and will. Her teachers in the subtle and gross arts of influence had done well. The school's hired help had handled the situation... adequately for all their ignorance, playing it off as a 'crash scenario' while they scrambled for support. This had now been the second time they'd called in one of the freshman. That in turn positioned the freak-job well for the Team Tactics course. The Franks girl's group of misfits were already scheduled for the class, weren't they?
'Well. So be it. If they're taking any riffraff off the street, I know someone who'd love a chance to polish her c.v. Informant or provocateur? Why not both?' The witch smiled to herself as she left the arena with her friends. The day couldn't be better.
Morning, December 10, 2007,
"Mary-Joy Jones? Helen Cooke-Newhouse. 'CnC'. Do you have a couple of minutes to spare?"
Waikikamukau stopped and turned to get a better look at the girl introducing herself, there on the walkway from Schuster Hall to the Beck Library. The other didn't seem bothered much by her appearance, so why not give hear her out?
"Sure. I'm just headed to the library for some peace and quiet. Care to walk and talk?"
"That works for me!"
Helen unconsciously took the lead position. Another one of the pretty-and-she-knows-it crowd? Still, she hadn't blown her chance yet.
"You can call me MJ, so long as you don't break out the rolling papers."
That got a small laugh. Much better
"MJ, I happened to see your Combat Final last week - which I must say went very well..."
An A-minus kind of well, but with Gunny Bardue and Tetsuo-sensei grading that was very well.
"So, here's the deal. I want to put together a sim team before the team coordinators start pairing folks up at random, and I'd like for you to be on that team. I think that with your abilities we'd be a much more capable team."
"Any catches, caveats?"
"I'd like for us all to go through the Team Tactics course next term. Say what they want about the Kimbas, but it seemed to have done them a world of good as a unit."
"That's what I've heard as well. Sounds mean as. Let's give it a go, and see how it turns out."
"Good! Thanks. I'm sure you won't regret it. If you'll excuse me, there are still a couple of people I need to talk to."
Mary-Joy watched for a brief moment as the pleased sophomore headed off in another direction. She did act gung-ho over the team idea. No regrets? That might be too much to hope for. Mary-Joy shrugged at her thoughts and continued on to the library.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007,
Twain Cottage Common Room, Whateley Academy
Helen Cooke-Newhouse had not been looking forward to entering the lion's den, but Alexander Peters was one of the few 'wildcard' kids that had been recommended to her, and her best shot at recruiting him would be to reach out to him on familiar ground. This wasn't quite as uncomfortable as going into a male locker-room, but she could have done without the "outsider" or "we're keeping our eyes on you" vibe she was getting.
It was a good thing for all involved that she was there on perfectly normal, somewhat mercenary, business and not on a date! But if the blond sasquatch didn't find wherever or whatever he was pretending to be looking for within the next few minute, she couldn't be held responsible by a reasonable jury of her peers for his impending injuries.
Sandy 'Tephra' Peters was not himself perfectly normal. At first glance one might say his build was somewhat on the short and wiry side of an average (non-Exemplar) boy. That is, he was average to the extent a person made completely of reddish-brown sand could be.
"Good afternoon! What can I do you for?"
Great. Is this some kind of test?
"Sandy Peters? I'm Helen Cooke-Newhouse. I dropped by to..."
The room was suspiciously quiet for a boys' dorm during finals.
"To see if we could discuss this without an audience?"
"I could use a study break myself. Where to?"
"Just about anywhere."
"I hear ya."
Once out of range of most prying ears, Helen felt more at ease pitching her team. It helped that the boy showed some honest-to-god enthusiasm for the idea.
"... Why kick a what? Wait. That's the tall Whitman girl with the Aussie accent?"
"Her code name's Waikikamukau, and she's from New Zealand."
"Close enough for government work, right?"
"Only if you want to be on the receiving end of a government shut down. Anyway, you'll need to get a sim suit fitted, because a large part of the Team Tactics course is run in the combat simulators."
"Sounds cool. When's the first team meet-up?"
"Class starts on that Tuesday, so the first Monday night once school's back in. I'll email everyone with the final details once everything is set up."
"Looking forward to it!"
Helen left her new team-mate not far from Emerson Cottage, giving her a good shot at arriving there without obviously having come from Twain. The boys' cottages mostly got along better than the girls' cottages, but there was no sense in antagonizing her next prospects. So far, so good.
Chapter 1: Last Train To Hameln
"A strange boy is weaving
A course of grace and havoc
On a yellow skateboard
Through midday sidewalk traffic"
—Joni Mitchell, "A Strange Boy"
Friday morning, December 14, 2007,
Southbound on the Grand Miskatonic Shuttle line
Four months. Four f— reshman months of cafeteria meals, evenings studying or pretending to study, therapy sessions, and at least one hospitalization he'd pay good money to forget, shouldn't all that should be more than enough time and mishaps to get used to one single person? Mads Møller-Jensen, code-named 'Metro', splashed his face with cold water one more time before finger-combed his short hair back into place. Adjusting his tie and jacket for presentability's sake was certainly not a stall to avoid leaving the train car's cramped washroom. You can transfer the kid out of the Corporation — and he'd still have to deal with spies. He maturely stuck his tongue out at a grain of sand that was Definitely Not Being Animated By A Mutant Prankster Named Generator before returning to his seat and the personal problem at hand.
The problem weighing on Mads' mental and hormonal control was none other than the exemplar-cute empath sharing his seat on the Boston-bound train. Kristian Holm, code-named 'Rorsmand', didn't need anything more going for him than medium height, a trim figure, gray eyes, and a friendly disposition. Having a mutant exemplar trait amplifying his hormones, pheromones, and so forth, was a vivid example of how life insists on dealing from the bottom of a stacked deck. How stacked was the deck? Not only had their government sent Rorsmand to Whateley Academy to help him cope with his situation, but Kris really was a nice guy to have around. On the other hand, being one of his known associates made Kristian Mads' responsibility, and therefore there needed to be boundaries. Somehow. Physical avoidance wasn't a practical option, because Kris was sure to interpret that as personal rejection. Life was so much easier to understand back when most of the people he knew were either afraid of him or just wanted to kill him.
Loitering on his way back to his seat, Mads took time to read Kris' aura while Kris pretended to read his book. The spiky anticipation and jagged anxiety had to be situational: one for the long trip home, the other over how long Mads had been gone already. Because of course I can't be trusted to handle a trip to the head without supervision! Both emotions overlay a deeper foundation of loneliness. Mads could think of several likely reasons that the guy might feel like he didn't fit in, but that wasn't something he could see himself fixing. Apparently, optimistic people-oriented people like Kris didn't know how to make any friends other than best friends. That earnestness tended to put off normal people. Those that weren't put off were probably users or abusers anyway. Mads saw the other boy tense up once he got within the empath's range, so he decided to change his own subject.
Kristian looked up and said, "Took you long enough. Run into trouble?"
Nope. Trouble runs into me. "Nothing I couldn't talk my way out of. M'trousers are still wet though." Mads squeezed by to drop himself into the window seat.
"Thank you ever so much for sharing."
"It's all part of our excellent customer service." More like having been asked by his boss, his advisor, and his house parents, to not scare the normies too much. Same thing, really.
Kristian closed his book. Mads thought, 'Please let this not be another discussion of feelings, or any of that other icky stuff.'
"Is it something I've said, or done? I mean, I really am sorry for punching you in the hospital."
Mads scrunched his eyebrows, trying to connect the dots. Feelings. "What has that got to do with anything?"
"I just meant that you're normally not—" Come to think of it, Mads normally was quiet without Thomas around to prod him into interaction. Even then, the guy rarely said much of substance if he could avoid it.
"Not what? As handsome and debonaire as the average guy? I happen to know that one of those Goodkinds commissions haberdashery from the same tailor as I."
"Wait. What? I thought it was 'same X as me'?"
"For informal use, sure. Knock yourself out. Otherwise, remember that I'm not a tailor, so they do X as I do X. They being the Goodkind and not the tailor. Also, I don't do X."
"Right." Huh? "Where were we?"
"Something about the usage of speech to describe its absence defeats either intent?"
"I don't like trains."
Sour tastes of fear and pain leaked out with that admission, but Kristian hoped to get a better answer before Mads clammed back up. "Why? Trains are just another way to get somewhere."
"One ride too many, and I still haven't pulled into the station."
That didn't feel like a deflection, for a change. Something he believes? Kristian pressed further. "Pulling into the station: isn't that the usual end of a train ride?"
Mads looked away for several long seconds before replying. "All journeys end. Sometimes at a station. Sometimes in a hole."
Kristian didn't know what to say to that. His innermost mental shields buckled momentarily, and he picked up phantom scents of lily and carnation. Funeral flowers. By the time he regained his composure, his friend was leaning his head against the windowpane, watching the winter-grayed New Hampshire countryside as it fell behind the passing train.
Mads recalled some of the times he'd tried "going home" only to be brutally reminded why "you can't go home again." He didn't look forward to the day Kris would learn that for himself. Lying to an empath that it gets easier afterward was going to be a hard damned sell.
Friday afternoon, December 14, 2007,
Security Checkpoint, Logan International Airport, Boston, Massachusetts
Four months. After four months living and studying at the same boarding school, and far too many A&E visits, Kristian felt he should be used to Mads' odd habits and quirks. Instead, he found himself struggling to keep pace with the otherwise low-key fourteen-year-old who strode into the airport terminal as if he were a major stockholder. Whatever he was actually doing, ticketing and baggage check-in went smoother than it had the past several times that Kristian had flown somewhere. That didn't keep him from blaming himself for not knowing whether this was Mads playing another role for some effect or whether this was was real facet of his character.
Queuing up for the International Paranormals line had Kristian feeling more self-conscious. For one thing, going through the shortest line gave the impression of this being a special privilege. For another, the evil-eye looks he and Mads were getting weren't limited to ordinary travelers in the non-paranormal lines. Centurion and Switchblade. Håndspillerer! Kristian hoped that his request for a transfer out of Emerson Cottage, a.k.a "Homophobe Central" would go through.
< Mads. Looks like your fan club is in the other line. >
< I saw them getting off the train earlier, so I stalled until the next bus here came. >
< How does that help us? >
< TSA, DPA, and MCO personnel have no sense of humor for people who cause problems at an airport. None. >
Kristian resumed concentrating on matching what he could see and hear to the shifting moods of the people around him, blocking out the general emotional noise of the crowds around him. It wasn't only good practice for his abilities, but since his Esper class teacher had assigned similar homework before the break, it was almost his duty to practice. He also felt that that was a safer option in the middle of a busy airport than quizzing the boy in front of him how he'd learned about airport incident responses. Mads busied himself playing with a small hand-held console game. At the head of the security line were personnel from the two American agencies and one Non-Governmental Organization that staked claims on internal and international travel. They didn't look too stressed-out by the holiday traffic. That had to be a good thing, for as long as it lasted.
First stop, TSA. A blue-shirted Transportation Security Officer, C. Adams according to her name tag, held her hand out.
"ID and boarding pass, please."
Kristian paid close attention as Mads handed over his Military Mutant ID Card and flight documents.
"A Danish MMID? Huh. Don't see those too often. Please place your carry-on luggage on the conveyor. The containers are for any metallic or metal-containing objects you may have on you. Belt buckles, coins, supposedly non-lethal gamma-ray blasters, and so on."
'Game console', cell phone, some change, and earphones went into the plastic tub. "Blasters? I knew I was forgetting something! I take it we aren't your first customers today." Kristian now wished they were taking separate flights, from different airports. Maybe if the airlines would allow someone to fly with his mouth duct-taped shut?
"No sir, and heaven knows you won't be the last," Adams handed the paperwork back to Møller-Jensen. "Please step up to the scanner. Next."
Kristian handed over the requested documents. "Er, excuse me! Officer Adams?"
"I can't exactly put everything metallic in that basket. I, er ..."
"Did your doctor provide you with a form or a card describing the issue?"
Kristian searched for the card in his wallet. "Yes."
"Good. Make sure you show that to Officer McGuinness because we'll need to conduct a more thorough pat-down."
Still ahead of Kristian, Mads had gotten through the scanner and handed his ID to the MCO field agent in exchange for his stuff. The MCO agent didn't react at first, save to type whatever was needed to verify that yes, he personally saw this person on this date, etc. Student MIDs were commonplace (military and military-dependent MIDs less so) at Logan International Airport, more so when a certain New Hampshire boarding school went on or off break.
Sergeant Barry McGuinness wasn't surprised to see another Whateley brat come through, nor was he bothered much by dealing with a mutant, as long as they followed the rules. His job at this post was to keep the wandering herds of sheeple from being stampeded at the sight of some random bug-eyed mutant. If they ever realized that the dangerous mutants who were out for blood and destruction don't fly commercial air, it would break their little minds. Baseline wackos, terrorists, and guys who couldn't find a date in a blow-up doll factory, do fly commercial air. His yawn stifled itself when his hand-held scanner refused the kid's ID card.
"Metro." What a stupid name "Let's just step over here to the main terminal." The kid alerted at his code name being used. So that checked out. Maybe the hand-held needed a recharge?
The terminal's card reader accepted the ID, lighting up a host of warnings that now had to be manually cleared by the operator. Sensory-masking powers like magic, shifting, and mental projections, were routinely flagged for additional identity verification. It wasn't much of an issue until someone comes through with the trifecta. Of course the machine would flag one of the oddball power sets the main office wanted to "study" just as the DPA narc was looking over his shoulder.
"Something wrong, Sergeant?"
"You know the old line about how looks can be deceiving?"
Metro rolled his eyes. Here it comes.
"Sir. Would you mind dropping the illusion so we can verify your identity?"
Metro nodded. His complexion instantly paled while he lost four inches and twenty pounds, and appeared to grow antlers suited to a young reindeer. Kristian thanked whatever gods might still be listening that they hadn't traveled in their JROTC uniforms, as some students did, as 'Rudolph the Danish Drill Sarge' made his first public appearance outside of Internet memes.
From somewhere back in the line, a traveler who must have gotten an early start on the pre-boarding holiday cheer yelled out, "Hey, look! It's Rudolph!"
Another piped up, "Guess he doesn't trust the Big Guy's jingle bells! Someone's not getting any Christmas."
"Someone's getting a present from my lawyer if he gets us kicked off this flight."
"No problem! We'll just borrow your mother's broom!"
"And that's why I hate letting them wait until the last minute," muttered the agent. "Smithers! One of yours."
"Mirabile vesu, one of you guys remembering that paranormals fall under DPA's jurisdiction here in the US!"
"Ha ha. I'm ready to bust a gut here, Merlin."
Even if Metro hadn't been listening for it, Smithers' widened eyes gave away the painfully obvious code word. The MCO rent-a-cop shook his head. "Excuse me, sir, but I need you to accompany Agent Smithers, who'll have a few questions to ask on DPA's behalf before we can proceed. Be sure to take your belongings with you." Between Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, no one knows what to expect if someone should pocket gear belonging to a certified finger-wiggler, and Mama McGuinness' boy wasn't stupid enough to want to find out.
Metro shrugged. It wasn't like he'd never been through a checkpoint before, and he was fairly sure there few things left that could shock or embarrass him. He followed Smithers for whatever routine cavity check they had in mind.
McGuiness called out, "Next!" and started running Kristian through the required hoops. Minutes later, he didn't bother feigning surprise when the other paranormal backed out of the examination room.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa now! That was NOT an invitation to show me yours!" Metro was dragged back to the room.
Rorsmand had waited near the security checkpoint for either Metro to come out or something worse to happen; not both at the same time. "What the hell?"
The MCO agent replied over his shoulder, "The guy who was in front of you is a licensed sorcerer, but he doesn't have much of a travel record. One of the DPA's concerns would be how this one reacts to severe stress. Think of it as a friendly pre-flight check."
Rorsmand walked back to the queue so they wouldn't need to talk loudly enough to be overheard. Also, something about the agent's emotional state when his attention shifted to Metro didn't sit well. Greed? What could this guy stand to gain from Mads? Strike that thought. "Isn't that part of the MID examination process?"
"Son, even Zatanna can have a bad day. All it takes is a hobgoblin or two on the rampage to turn an aircraft into a flying coffin. One time I heard about? It was snakes. Lots and lots of snakes. On Aer Lingus, no less."
The woman now being checked through turned a greenish shade of pale. A few steps closer to her terminal could be doubling as a few steps closer to lots and lots of snakes. Mutation of her own or not, accidental magical out-of-control snakes was not at all anything she'd signed up for. A person could have the empathic capacity of a moss-rotted stone and still figure out what was going through her mind.
"Not to worry, Miss. It's hardly ever anything so dire, but we are responsible for the public's safety..."
The agent waved the nervous woman through the scanner. Green light, good to go.
"...even when they turn out to be tarantulas."
The now-terrified woman was out of there like a shot. She didn't even try waiting to get a better look at who the walking hazard was.
"Works every time." There was so much satisfaction rolling off the MCO agent that Kristian was certain he didn't want to know what was behind the smugness.
Waiting for the DPA to release Mads made the next ten to fifteen minutes feel considerably longer. Kristian was even beginning to worry for Mr. Smithers' safety when Mads was ushered out of the room they'd been occupying, hiking his trousers up a bit and checking his shirt tuck as if a very intimate search had been performed. That had a discomforting effect on those in line who were close enough to catch the act.
"Damn it, Mads, what were you–"
Under his breath Mads said, "Not here." More loudly: "Wouldn't you just love to know?"
"Spare me the details, please."
Once the boys located the departure gate for their already-delayed flight, Mads finally admitted that the interview had far less to do with his magic wand, or any other type of long, stout implement of creation, and had more to do with the fact that he was still a material witness in a Federal criminal case. He had also been warned that several countries' anti-masking laws extended to public places like airports.
"You already knew that wearing a mask or obscuring illusion during a public event is illegal in Denmark and Norway. This time of year, practically everywhere you'll be going counts as a public event." Noticing that several people weren't just staring at 'Rudolph', Kristian added, "On second thought, make that everywhere, period. Good thing you're continuing on to Norway. Fewer people."
"Where I'm headed, practically none. Most folks can't cross over into or from Jötunheim without a lot of magical help."
"If only the same could be said of that half-brother of yours."
"He's not a bad guy in person!"
"Mads, we're talking about the personification of death by red-fanged and bloody-taloned Nature and you claim he's 'not a bad guy'?"
"Also the dangers posed by an unbridled lust for fame or glory, but I've been called worse things myself."
"I look forward to reading about the burning cities in your wake."
Mads' reply left Kristian unsettled. 'That was meant as a joke!' Right?
Kristian settled down with his book to wait for their flight, while Mads dealt with the natural consequences of wearing antlers in public so close to Christmas. The real entertainment came from watching children drag their mortally embarrassed parents over to the waiting area because Rudolph had to have an in with Santa! Seeing one of the least emotionally available people he'd ever met talking to the younger children as if they were confidants or partners in crime was... educational. Not many people would or would carry out an impromptu holiday act like that for children and parents they didn't know.
Scandinavian Airlines, departing gate E204, Terminal E, Logan International Airport, Boston, Massachusetts
As the boys continued to wait for their flight, a young girl walked up to Mads. Mads could see her wringing her fingers and she had an anxious expression on her flushed face. He'd bet that somewhere close by there should be an older sibling laughing at her discomfort, but airport security tended to frown on passengers punching out obnoxious brats.
"Mister? Can I ask you a question?"
"Sure. I can't guarantee I can answer it, but I can try."
"Ehm, my brother says that you're a mutant and that's why you look the way you do."
Mads smiled, "You mean, short for my age?" He thought that was funny. The girl only looked more confused. To make matters easier, and to cover for his joke falling flat, he got up from his seat to sit on the floor in front of the girl. Much less intimidating now.
"No! I mean, well, you do have horns like a reindeer."
"Reindeer have antlers, but that's okay. Even old people have trouble telling the difference."
"Oh. How old is old?" You can't be too careful or the next thing you know you're old too!
"At least twenty-five. What else did your brother say?"
"He said that I'm going to turn into a mutie and look like you and that it really, really hurts when it happens and then I can't go to school anymore or play with my friends anymore or anything, and I don't wanna do that!"
< Kris? I'm going to need some backup here. Stop pretending to read that book already. >
Mads switched back to English, "What did you say your name was?"
"Mads stuck his hand out for a handshake. "I'm Mads. Glad to meet you, Kathy."
The girl solemnly returned the handshake. Big kids rarely shook hands with the littler kids.
"Can I tell you a secret? Nah. Let's make it two."
Kathy gulped nervously. "Okay?"
"First. Your brother is a poopyhead. That's a scientific term for big brothers who are mean to their sisters. I learned that from a very important inventor named Generator. I mean, doesn't that sound like science?" Kathy nodded. "Second, and I hope this doesn't disappoint you, but I'm not exactly a mutant. All this?" Mads waved his hand around and with two fingers pointing back to his own face. "Magic. Lots and lots of it happened. And even though I learned some too, I don't get to be smart enough to fix it."
Kristian waved to the girl. He felt more nervous about being dragged into this than she did. "Kathy? Of the two of us? I'm the mutant here."
"Oh. But you don't look like one!"
"It's different for different people. Some change a lot, some not so much. And then there's Mads."
"No one has ever said you were normal, Mads. But, Kathy, the thing is that your brother doesn't know if you can manifest and no one can know in advance if you would. No one really knows what will happen in the future."
"But if it does, there are places to go where you can learn how to deal with it. Fair enough?"
"Yeah. I guess so."
Mads leaned to the side to look past Kathy, "Annnnnd would that be your mother over there, or should we have the airline people page one of your parents?"
Kathy turned to look at the approaching woman.
Mads grinned. The glint in his eyes took some of the heat out of the accusation. "She told you not to ask me, didn't she?"
"Boys, I am so, so sorry! I didn't want her asking strangers such personal questions, but then I was afraid to interrupt and make it all worse. Jane Abernathy, by the way."
Mads looked over to Kris, who nodded an affirmative.
"I'm Mads Jensen. The tall one here is Kris Holm. No harm done, ma'am. If the questions got out of line I simply wouldn't have answered."
After the embarrassed mother and child left to find the other half of their family, Mads sat back down next to Kristian. He turned to Kristian, "'No one really knows what will happen in the future', said the precog?"
"That's one of the first things taught in class: that we don't know as much or as certainly as we think we do. Also that free determination was from the same litter of dirty puppies as karma."
"You were just learning these things now?"
SAS Flight 187, eastbound over the Canadian Maritimes
After most of an hour of not getting very far reading his book, Kristian finally put it down on the fold-down tray in front of him. "I admit it was fun watching you play to the crowd, but did you ever stop to think that we might have been under surveillance?"
"Of course not... Why not?"
"I'm betting that most of the cameras were legit, potential liabilities out-weighing maintenance costs, so there had to be twenty to forty percent overlap in most of the trafficked sectors. Audio capture is a nightmare in crowds, so the noise is mostly going to be filtered for some amateur using high-risk key words. Then, maybe they could attempt steering a nearby shotgun mic or two to pick up the hit. Otherwise, those mics are best used to detect stationary anomalous blank or fuzzed zones. If they do get a hit on that search, then they're best off calling in one the plain-clothes profilers they have working the crowds. All that ignores any scrying or magical security forces on patrol, both of which are standard precautions for securing social chokepoints." Mads shrugged, "All part of standard business practices. Why?"
Oh. The guy never really stopped thinking he was under surveillance. Paranoid much? Kristian frowned as he searched his mind for a better come-back than "Ummm...."
"You should also know your comm unit does have the software to scan for such things, if you'd take the minimal precaution of using the audio and video feeds. How do you expect that stuff to work for you in class if you don't practice?"
"I'd rather not be hiking through the airport, dizzy and confused by the displays. I have all break, or most of it anyway, to practice."
"That a promise?"
"More of an affirmation. I've been learning that situations tend to change in unexpected ways around you."
"Heh. You love it."
"B'sides, you never would have met Kathy if I hadn't been running a white-noise box. Skating on the fuzzy edge of entrapment those two were."
"What? Why on earth would someone put a child at risk like that? We could have been anybody!"
"One child vs. all the families in that terminal? At a time when holiday air traffic has all the protective services stretched tighter than Gunny's hoop? I would. It's not like the missus wasn't watching, and we do present a fairly small risk compared to other possible agents of a foreign power."
"Not right? Maybe. Practical? It's worked so far."
"But, to put a child..."
"Who, for all you know, could have been a well-trained wetwork operator with excellent mental shielding and physically-based shape-changing."
"Okay. Let's look at it from another angle. You have one obvious mutant and another person who's obviously an associate, maybe even another scary mutant. In one case, you see a twenty-year-old skinhead OR uniformed security walk up to them and you hear the word "mutie". Are you more likely to stand around to see how peacefully that scene plays out or will you grab your child and rush to the nearest exit? How are the other people around you likely to react then?"
"Umm..." Mr. Anderson had covered something similar in Survival class, but that just wasn't the way Kristian thought about people.
"I say 'skinhead', but a number zero buzz cut does not equal violence. That aside, wouldn't you be less worried hearing a child say the same words? Keep in mind that a panicking crowd in a space built to feature hardened choke-points is very likely to result in casualties as well as crimes of opportunity."
"I'd rather not be in a position to decide such things."
"Would you prefer someone who may be biased toward their own idea of 'right vs. wrong'; ready to blame the collateral damage and casualties on anyone but themselves?"
"That sounds like one of the Knights of Purity."
"They're just hired muscle, yeah? They value what they're ordered to value. The only difference between them, the leg-breakers working for your local loan shark, or a pack of Brunskjorter is how much power their boss has and who he's paying off to keep it."
"I need to think on that, but I'm sure you're wrong."
Mads pulled out a sandwich bag, into which he dropped several small items. He rolled it up, securing the items inside the bag. Then he pulled a wallet out from where he'd stuffed it in his jacket. "Kris, while you're pondering whatever you're pondering, would you mind handing these over to Mr. Andersen sitting across the aisle from you?"
Without thinking about whether it was a bright idea or not, (We definitely need to work on his reactions, Mads thought,) Kristian immediately turned to see that, yes indeed, Mr. Andersen had been waiting for the return of his wallet. So that was the source of irritation he'd been feeling. He blushed deeply but passed the proffered items anyway.
"Did you happen to know who he was before you lifted his wallet?"
"We've met before at work. I'd have said something sooner, but I needed the time to verify that his wallet could be used as a material link. Not my strongest suit."
< I know I should be surprised that I have ended up knowing the only sorcerer in Denmark who is better at picking pockets than he is at voodoo. I really should be, but no, I'm not. >
Andersen replied before Kristian's seat-mate could stop chuckling, < It's rude to assume that no one around you speaks our language. >
"Not so much if you're from Syddanmark."
"I'm not going to justify that with a response."
Early AM, Saturday morning, December 15, 2007,
SAS Flight 187, approaching the British Islands
"This the Captain speaking: the 'fasten seatbelt' signs are now lit. There's a storm building ahead of us on our scheduled flight path, so we're expecting some turbulence. For your safety, we are asking anyone who hasn't already done so to return to their seat and fasten their seat belts."
A bony elbow dug into Kristian's side. "You look like you've seen a ghost. What gives?"
"You weren't on-campus when that snowstorm hit, back in October. It was bad, even by Antarctic standards. "
"Not for all of it, no. But from where we were, it was bad enough that Thomas and I had to take a detour to get back."
"Right. While you were off God-knows-where, the rest of us were dumped together into Crystal Hall. One kid almost got gay-bashed coming out of a restroom."
"Said Poesie has a number of protectors, some with open and vested interests in keeping the peace. My work-study assignment is in Security, remember?"
Kristian overheard the gentleman sitting across the aisle groan, "How could anyone forget?"
"But if it'll make you feel better, I can go take a look. Keep an eye out for me?"
The request didn't make much sense to him, but Kristian agreed anyway. "Er, sure." Mads shifted to a slightly less-uncomfortable position, hogging more of the armrest, closed his eyes, and was gone. Physically, the magician in the next seat was still there. To Kristian's psychic senses, the lights were out and nobody was home. He dearly hoped that this wasn't rapidly turning into another good occasion to worry.
Astral plane, out over the North Sea
Mads didn't recall whether he or Thomas or even Fubar had ever explained astral travel to Kris, but he was sure that Kris would be fine with it. Even if he wasn't, he doubted that he'd be any happier knowing that Great Britain was almost unrecognizable to him without the toxic zones and wild lands he remembered. London still had that London feel to it. Some things never really change.
Another of those things that rarely change is that wherever there's a chance of wild weather, air and water spirits would be nearby, looking for some play. Today was no exception. Mads was tempted to join in on some of the North Sea body surfing, but he didn't have a lot of time and some of the creatures swimming in these waters were a whole lot bigger than him. I wonder what a spirit whale shark or leviathan would look like? He made a mental note to add one or two things to his bucket list before banking left to search for a center of circulation. It wasn't really his specialty, but something just didn't smell right about this weather system.
Early AM, Saturday morning, December 15, 2007,
SAS Flight 187
Keeping watch over someone who was probably sleeping instead of meditating, or whatever he'd later claim he'd been doing, was boring. Trying to read in the dimmed cabin lighting, accompanied less and less by low bits of conversation from the seats further forward in the cabin, only increased the monotony. Finally the plane's occasional bumping or rocking as it sped east wasn't enough to help Kristian stay completely awake and focused.
Turbulence rocked the entire plane in a windstorm roller coaster ride through pre-dawn darkness. Whatever Metro had hoped to accomplish, this couldn't have been it. The guy had been out cold for over an hour, almost lifeless, when first his hand and then his arm began to shake, each for a few seconds before stopping.
At first, Kristian interpreted Mads' movements as an attempt to wake up. His relief was dashed to pieces as his empathic sense was slammed by raw terror fighting blind hatred for control of the magician's tortured mind. Mads struggled against his seat belt, unseeing eyes wide open and blood-shot. The boy bent forward, then violently jerked his head and body back against the bulkhead.
An exemplar's senses and memory are curiously sharp. The first things Kristian saw being pulled out into the night were jagged bone-like shards of shattered antler; howling winds no longer barred from the cabin having reached out and reversed their airborne course. His own seatbelt jammed as the weakened seat frame broke free and dragged him across and out the gaping hole. Both tumbled out into the cold airless night.
Kristian came back to his senses gasping for air and holding a death grip on his seat's elbow-rests. Disoriented, he felt around for the blood but his hand only encountered cold sweat. He went through mental exercises he'd been taught years ago when he was ten. That had been shortly after the family made that one trip to England to visit Great Grandmother Julia before she died. Why was it suddenly so important to remember that detail? Kristian dug his journal out of his carry-on bag to jot down notes. He skipped a couple of lines to note that something about this seeing didn't sit right. It didn't feel right to be so strongly tempted to restrain Mads now. He closed the journal and tried to make more sense of what he'd seen or thought he'd seen.
"This the Captain speaking: the storm system centered to the northeast of our flight path has intensified over the last hour or two. As a precaution, we are turning south to avoid as much of that as we can. At present, Copenhagen Airport, Kastrup, is still open but we are monitoring that situation as well."
Kristian was having his own internal announcements to monitor as well. Okay. We should have some time yet. Think! If I were the Boy Scout I get accused of being every other week what would I do for a seizure? That line of thinking didn't help, but Kris did recall a few things from survival class. Rule Number One: Don't Panic. That? That was easier said than done when he could still feel his own blood running down his neck.
Airway? Loosen tight neckwear, right? On the other hand, Mads has sent fellow students to the hospital for even appearing to be reaching for his neck. Best to assume the paranoid git is wearing a gorget under his shirt. A high-impact plastic wouldn't ping a metal detector.
It was probably a very, very good idea not to let the person hit their head or antlers against anything. Kris went in search of a blanket or two.
Astral plane, North Sea
Mads was glad he was using Thomas' flight power and not his own wings. Not that he literally had wings, but he was sure that the tail winds were closer to rip-your-tailfeathers-off winds than he'd be happy with. He spat out the rusted copper penny- tasting salt spray that he'd somehow gotten a mouthful of, concentrating instead on gaining more altitude.
Once he broke through the cloud banks, Mads was presented with a view of cut-crystal sharp stars shining through a Prussian blue night sky. Lightning-like flashes of essence lit up thunderheads like alabaster lamps, spilling diffuse actinic light out upon the field of storm clouds below. Smaller flashes seemed to echo back the central violence. Mads put sounds of the stray sounds of clicking and creaking and the howling of spectral winds out of his mind as he studied those tell-tale flashes to gain some sense of circulation and motion within the storm. One problem at a time.
The problem, as he was coming to see it, was that the storm's energy outflows weren't matching up to a cyclonic system at any scale. Nor could he see much of the chaos that he'd been taught to expect of a natural mana-storm. Nothing for it but to move in for a closer inspection. Before he could do so, someone or something slammed into his back.
"Damn. How does a little pink biped like you manage to cross that many miles of rainstorm and still need a bath so much? Ugh! I can't believe I touched you with something I couldn't afford to burn afterward!"
"That's one way to get my attention," Mads groused to (and at) himself. He turned around slowly, figuring if the intent were aggressively hostile he'd already be dead. He also put out a mental call to the air spirit he was pacted with.
Hej, Thomas! Don't to alarm you, but I think that I might might be in trouble.
It's only 10 PM, how much more trouble could you poss— Is that a whale?
I think so.
The whale-like spirit spoke again. "Another thing: you suck profusely at watching your six; almost as much as you suck at hearing your name when called."
He got that part right.
"I, um, I hadn't been expecting much company at Angels 50?"
"Then tonight's your lucky night. Now be a good little reality-bender and sing your stupid-ass spell out there back to wherever you came up with it."
You didn't think that was natural, did you?
I have actually seen rain before.
Duly noted, for the next time you get caught outside without rain gear.
You think that's accidental?
"Not my spellwork, but I had intended to investigate. You could say I have a vested interest."
"I do and I have. After you, Stinky."
Mads could feel Thomas' amusement over their shared link. It wasn't that funny! He concentrated on projecting one of Thomas' older forms to hide his own signature while approaching. With his luck, the spirit whale would consider it a nova-hot sexy times look.
One of my manifestations? Sexy? Not hardly. However, I am surprised a certain Exemplar still has his clothes on.
Because that wouldn't be abusive at all.
Let the storm loft you higher before making your approach. Then allow it to pull you around into a closer circle. No point in stooping if you don't see the rabbit on the ground.
I'm not hunting rabbits.
No, you're hunting Trouble. I'm not convinced there's much difference.
Now that he was somewhat used to the sound, he could hear the spirit tracking close behind him. Given that it was supposed to be following Mads, hearing the frequency of the clicks behind him pick up as they both picked up speed assured him that the other could and would keep up if he chose to make a hasty exit. Mads' usual preference was to be the faster hunter running from the bear, not the only fish dodging the shark.
What Mads saw at the undefended center put making a hasty exit high on his current priorities. Five anchor points glowed with a semblance of living auras, though no living persons could be here in the material world. Slashes of acid green slicing into the auras spoke of the sort of pain that would put a person in shock unless other measures were used. Mads shuddered at some of the memories that that line of thinking dredged up. The complex thaumaturgic network being powered by the anchors looked geometrically precise from one view, so why did they warp into spaces outlined by angles that cann't be summed into symmetry?
Mads' memory pulled out an irreverent piece of music: Two men say they're Jesus; one of them must be wrong. He backed up half again the distance to the center of the insanity, then started to circle around a few times to see if there were still only two structures that presented themselves to his sight. The spirit followed, careful to stay further out than the magician.
On the third pass:
Stop! Check that area at 5 o'clock again. There. Does that look familiar?
Damn. That does look like a trap ward. Good catch, but faking out wards takes more time than I've got.
What do you mean?
I mean my body's parked in an airplane trying to fly through this drek-fest.
Buy me some time.
"Hey, Stinky. Why did you stop?"
"This is heavy-duty stuff. I need to think some more about how I want to proceed."
One of the five anchors flickered. That was likely to be a bad sign, wasn't it?
"I don't think we have that much time before the lights go out on those spell anchors."
Mads thought They look like souls from here, not party lights, slitch but went with to "By all means, don't let me stop you from charging ahead."
"I'll wait, just the same."
I'll just bet you will. So an approach from this direction sets something off. Mads set to the serious work of drawing enough essence to shield against mishaps without tapping the spell burning in front of him him, and teasing out the real threads of the spell from the illusions and traps. All this without dropping any of his own bits of misdirection!
Maybe I should add a chainsaw and a flamethrower to the juggling act next time?
SAS Flight 187
Kristian was tempted to wrap Mads' body up in the blankets so he couldn't move at all. Isn't that how one properly disarms a magician - make it so they can't make arcane gestures or speak words of power? Of course, if it were necessary to sacrifice one life for the lives of everyone on board, what was the right thing to do? Some of the passengers were children. Was it right to risk their lives if he guessed wrong?
Last night's broomstick accident was the number one topic of breakfast gossip. Someone said it was just the usual Whately hijinks: practically every year someone decides that flying around in the dark on a wooded campus was a smart thing to do. Most of the girls who were broadcasting their worry or amusement that he recognized from classes were from Dickenson Cottage. Kristian looked around for his friend Mads Jensen: he was supposed to be on a Security watch last night, so there was a chance to get the guy to open up for the real story. After all, what were the odds that the girl was fleeing from a pack of demons and not just hallucinations or illusions?
There was also an outside chance Mads would be too tired to bother with breakfast, having somehow accidentally insulted a pack of rampaging demons. On second thought, it was more likely Thomas Jensen deliberately insulted them and Mads took advantage of the opportunity to shoot things. That made perfect, if horrific, sense.
What he had not expected was to have his meal interrupted by a uniformed Security Officer.
"You're Rorsmand, correct?"
"Yes? Is there something I can help you with?"
"It's more the other way around. Doctor Tenent asked us to let you know that Metro's being moved to Room 110-W once he's out of recovery. No need to rush: when they hit you with those devisor sedatives, you're out for a good long while. They just think that it wouldn't hurt for him to see a couple of friendly faces when he does wake up, you know?"
"Thanks. I do know. I'll be there shortly." Kristian's appetite wasn't as healthy as it had been.
Come to think of it, even though Metro was classified by Security as an Ultra-Violent, the Medical Center never once put him in restraints. That must have been the time that Mads' doctor told him that the guy was terrified of waking up bound like that. Kristian asked himself, 'Why did I forget that just now?' He spread one blanket over Mads' lap and torso, setting the boy's arms and hands on top of it. He rolled the other blanket up into an improvised neck support. As he put that into place, Kristian couldn't help noticing that Mads was paler than usual and that his hair was wet with cold sweat.
Astral plane, North Sea
Even with Thomas' help keeping him mentally grounded, Mads should have been sweating from the strain of building a mental representation of two completely unrelated pieces of ceremonial magic. He hadn't yet risked pushing essence into either one to see how it functioned. Phantom nerve pains in his arms and legs warned him not to hold on much longer to the essence he had pulled in so far. If it were too little, and he survived the over-casting, instinct told him there should be an old ley line in the area. Screwing up with that sort of power would be fatal for him and for Thomas, and possibly traumatic for bystanders back on the aircraft. That didn't leave him with nothing to do other than move to his next vantage point.
"So, what's the deal with you?" Mads asked. "Hell of a night to be out, and you're not what I expected to see."
"Have you ever watched a sperm whale in flight? It's not graceful. Or pretty."
"It's not the fall that gets you, it's the sudden stop at the end?"
"Pretty much. I see that the anchor over there's a lot dimmer than it was. Are you making any progress at all?"
Keep on whining. I'm still reloading.
A few minutes later and again from behind him, Mads heard: "Look. If you're not going to do anything, I will."
Mads turned to face the dark entity that had been bird dogging him. "I'm not sure I would recommend that. Let's take a look at how a simple light spell interacts with this, shall we?" Without waiting for an answer he unleashed a shower of lights flying toward and falling into the storm spell. Most disappeared without trace.
"You've wasted my time and essence on THAT?"
Mads stepped back, gesturing with one hand while summoning his athame to the other. "Not exactly. See for yourself."
It moved in, closer to the spell's outer periphery. It still held back, as if it suspected a trap.
"Hey, don't the signatures of those lights look just like yours?"
The entity roared its outrage and turned to charge the idiot magician. Except, this idiot magician had spent an entire semester being knocked out of arbitrary circles on a dojo floor, so he knew to be careful of small things like turning radius and body length. One blood-stained ebony tendril after another reached out and buried itself into the ersatz pilot whale. Staying mindful of the warded boundaries, Mads moved on to his next observation point.
SAS Flight 187
For the past half-hour, the aircraft had flown through increasingly more turbulent air. Kristian's emotions were being battered as well: concerned and frightened passengers, determined flight crew, and an increasingly more distressed seatmate combined to make each drop or slip twice as bad for his stomach and inner ears. Mental shielding took care of most of that. It would. Things like that made the popular image of callous psychics ring too true in Kristian's heart. He asked himself 'Why not just divert the flight south or whatever the authorities do for bad weather?' yet something in the back of his head disagreed with that course of action.
Passed out in the seat next to him, Metro was looking much worse. The cold sweat of earlier had been replaced by fever and a galloping pulse. Kristian removed the blanket that was keeping heat in. He caught something move in the corner of his eye. Metro's hand, then lower arm, then his upper arm shook rapidly. Thirty long seconds later the partial seizure stopped. Other than that, the empty body remained still.
Astral plane, North Sea
The triggered spell structures began to shift. If there ever would be a time to defeat it from this end, that time was now. His own masks failed while Mads' mind clawed at the arcane conduits that he'd spent so much time tracing. Years of study and experience paid off as he spun ephemeral hooks out to loop severed mana lines back into others. The hidden casters' stalking horse shrieked but once more as the illusion shattered and fed back into its own trap. As if anyone gives a damn about how bait that mistakes itself for a fish dies.
Once the true working lay open to view, Mads could see that some of his guesses at its structure had been mistaken. The question was whether those were differences that mattered, because he wasn't in a good position to wait and hope for rescue. Spectral scents of blood and stale bile assaulted his nose. Acid chewed at his body. He was far too late to the show to give a damn how either spell might backfire as he fought to keep the changes to the anchored spell in place and focused pent-up essence into the most destructive spell he knew. He released that spell, through his athame, into the heart of the shadow-wracked working. Mads smiled briefly at the sight of raw necrotic balefire eating into its target before he passed out. He didn't feel the talons that dug into his shoulders.
SAS Flight 187
Kristian nearly jumped out of his seat, seatbelt be damned, under the onslaught of tortured nerves, cramped muscles, and blind pain radiating from the next seat. Next came a remembered wash of hatred yielding to terror. Metro's eyes widened as he reached for his own neck.
This time the seatbelt lost the contest, when Kristian pulled himself up to drag his struggling friend into the aisle. Ignoring an alarmed flight attendant, he grabbed the other around their torso, made a fist and prayed their diaphragm was where it was supposed to be.
On the second lift, something was coughed up, but the victim's airway was just as quickly blocked again. They endured three more rounds of this, Kristian's empathic ability at zero range picking up all the misery of choking and several cracked ribs. As soon as he let go, Metro jammed something into his pocket, pushed Kristian out of the way, then sprinted to the back of the plane. Even the pilots must have heard the washroom door slam.
It was twenty-five minutes later, not that Kristian was counting, when his dishevelled seatmate practically crawled over him to fall into his seat. Damp hair, scrubbed face, and faintly sour, metallic breath made it abundantly clear how that head call had gone. Remembering a bad joke, Kristian was tempted to check Mads' shoes to see if he'd vomited his show laces up.
Picking up on Kristian's unasked questions, Mads opened one blooshot eye and said, "Well. That was educational." Obviously considering that a Sufficient Answer, he promptly fell into a troubled sleep.
Saturday morning, December 15, 2007,
SAS Flight 187, approaching Copenhagen Airport, Kastrup
The flight attendant who'd tried to come to the boys' aid when Mads started choking returned to ask whether Mr. Møller-Jensen would be needing help to debark. "No, don't wake him. At that age, I know I wouldn't admit to it even if I were missing a foot. The airline is contacting next of kin, and there will be transportation waiting for you when we land. We just need to know whether we need a stretcher or a wheelchair."
This puzzled Kristian. He knew that the airline would know the flight bookings, check-ins, and seat assignments, but this just felt over-the-top... until he remembered that those details were referenced to their MMIDs. SAS was sponsored in part by Copenhagen after all.
"In case you're wondering, we have a very good idea who's responsible for the storm slacking off and we ARE grateful. However, with all the paperwork involved, you'll both be stuck in Copenhagen for the next couple of days. No one's ever been grateful enough to waive paperwork."
Kristian knew it wasn't personal but he would have preferred to file the paperwork from home. "That much?"
"The Statens Luftfartsvæsen just wants to know what did and didn't happen. You're both witnesses in that regard. The Trolddomministeriet and the Hjemmeværnet also have questions. From what my ex-girlfriend once told me, expect both of those interviews to run long."
"I can't very well fault them for wanting to do their job."
"That's a healthy way to look at it.
Saturday morning, December 15, 2007,
Copenhagen Airport, Kastrup
"Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of Scandinavian Airlines, we welcome you to Copenhagen. The local time is 06:30. Those of you who have connecting flights, please check your flight information against posted Departures. The storm system responsible for turbulence along our own flight path has caused a number of airport closures, flight delays, and cancellations."
Kristian Holm checked his phone messages. In order of increasing concern there were: one message from an unknown number that might be located in Canada, one from home that would hopefully be his father, two message from Aunt Rikke here in Copenhagen, and also one from area code 603 in the States. He did what any responsible young man would do and decided to ignore them for as long as he could, under the pretext of helping his groggy schoolmate off the plane. In case he didn't hate himself enough, Kristian's empathic gift picked up on every ache and pain that the other was blocking out.
The promised wheelchair was waiting at the end of the ramp. So was Kristian's intimidating, and not at all happy, Aunt Rikke.
"Kristian. I am not going to ask how your flight went, and would recommend you save any questions you have until later. Don't worry about travel arrangements; our office is handling that. Let's get Mr. Møller-Jensen out of here. Afterwards, we can talk about the questionable wisdom of your parents getting you involved in all this."
Chapter 2: Red Right Returning
"Just when I think he's foolish and childish
And I want him to be manly
I catch my fool and my child
Needing love and understanding."
—Joni Mitchell, "A Strange Boy"
Saturday morning, December 15, 2007,
Along the way to wherever Aunt Rikke was taking them, Kristian tried thinking of ways to avoid people who might ask too many questions. All they needed was to do was to return the car and hole up in his Aunt's flat in Roskilde. Some people on the train might be quietly concerned by Mads' condition, but they could always say he was an American cousin who'd had too much early holiday cheer. Instead, Rikke left the E20 and headed northwest. Kristian had been to the capitol enough times to recognize that they were headed into the Indre By.
"Aunt Rikke? I thought we were taking Mads to see a doctor, not sightseeing."
"Less than ten hours ago, someone's mostly-healthy second cousin got on an airplane in Boston, Massachusetts, accompanied by one of his schoolmates. Now, he's barely fit to walk and looks like he wants to crawl into a cave for the rest of winter instead of visiting with said family on the 24th as expected. Not only that, but for some reason the United Kingdom's Foreign Office is sending a Sir Wallace Westmont to the capital. Also, we're expecting a Polish MCO team now on vacation to "volunteer" to help some 'concerned citizens' today or tomorrow deal with a mutant terrorist who just happens to look a lot like this cousin I mentioned."
"Oh, indeed. I was surprised that you weren't invited on that ski trip Mads' family had planned, but it's possible we'll have to reschedule that."
Kristian's voice cracked as he tried saying, "Ski trip? Is that what he told you?" He turned and glared at the sleeping topic of conversation. It wasn't quite the same without the inappropriate responses he'd come to expect from the other or his shadow.
"What else is there to do around Trondheim this time of year?"
"Er, not that?"
"Kristian. Emil. Holm . . ."
"The family reunion part is kind of on the level. And, er, I know there were plans for a traditional Yule with lots of fire (no surprise there), and a deer hunt with his insane half-brother." Kristian hated being the bearer of bad news, and Fenrir counted as very, very bad news in his estimation. That fight with Bloodwolf was not at all pretty.
"I suspect you have calls to place once we get the two of you settled in."
"I do. But why are we stopping here?"
"It's a parking garage. Where else should we park, Kristian?"
"Kris, cool yer jets. There's a clinic on this block and several places to eat. If you're more in the mood for prayers, there's also a honking big church close by." Convenient timing. Mads had that distracted look he got when using his comm-link displays. Yet he still expected normal people to use the augmented reality displays as much as he did.
"Please don't call it 'a honking big church'."
"For the record, my nephew could use a decent suit, if he didn't pack one. Speaking of which, Mads, can you do something to look less conspicuous? That one photo of you is still making the rounds."
Kristian face-palmed. We'd be safer giving Keith Richards the keys to a liquor cabinet.
Mads deadpanned, "You can open your eyes now, Kris." Kristian first peeked through a gap between his fingers. "Seriously? This isn't my first rodeo." He'd added a few inches of height, several kilos of body mass, melanin to his skin tone, and his hair was now a natural medium brown to match his brown eyes and broader face. Gone were the antlers and fangs. His emotions still felt like the guy he usually sat across from at lunch, but he also looked and felt maybe ten years older, somehow.
The clinic that Rikke took them to had first-class facilities, including data-sharing and conferencing. It also had no one on-staff that Mads Jensen trusted, so Kristian was tasked with "keeping watch", just to get the patient out of his clothes. The easiest part of that was a solemn promise to not let any of the clothes leave his sight. The more difficult parts involved removing form-fitted base layers without causing further injury. It helped that Mads' pheromone-loaded sweat was more lipids than water and that he was hairless from the neck down. What didn't help was the fact that Kristian had never seen Mads without at least a shirt and trousers on.
A pair of angled cervical gills lay on either side of the boy's neck. Two more pairs of thoracic gills were aligned with the ribs on either side of his deeply-bruised rib cage. Though the gills were closed, Mads' skin was pale enough to make it clear that when open they'd be a disturbing shade of reddish purple. His right arm didn't display the fine network of skin graft scars that his left arm still bore. A staple-marked scar just to the right of his navel was a reminder of how close he'd come to dying in August from being stabbed. Looking up and away from that, Kristian realized that he'd never noticed that there were even incision scars in Mads' scalp, half-hidden under his short hair. Without clothing to hide or distract from his differences, it would be easy to mistake his body for the corpse of a fanged mer-person with antlers. Kristian wasn't sure whose embarrassment he was feeling: his or Mads'.
The pained look in Mads' hazel eyes betrayed just how human he'd always been, all along. He attempted a deprecating half-smile, before gesturing at himself. "Not exactly a pretty sight, huh?"
"Mads, I —"
The attending physician's assistant cut Kristian off. "Gentlemen, my last staffing jobs were in a burn unit and in oncology. What counts is whether you're healthy, or not. The lead night nurse at Doyle has asked for biomonitoring data and a full set of images, on both of you. If either of you think you can claim you're just fine when you're not, now is the time to stop thinking you'll get away with it."
Kristian was kind of wierded out at being expected to hold on to Mads' biomonitor, which normally resided in a 'protective cup'. It was more disturbing to him that he found humor in that. A year before, Emilie Holm would have . . . coped. After all, she'd helped her mother change Frida's diapers without losing her composure! Would Mads have asked the girl to "hand me my cup for a minute"? Something in those twinkling eyes that were still scrutinizing his reactions said In a heartbeat.
Two examinations, and several yelps of pain later
"Ms. Poulsen? A word, if I may?"
"Certainly. What do you need?"
"Honestly? That injured boy in a clean hospital bed, and the other under observation — preferably with both of them sedated. I can tell they've both been through a rough time even if you can't divulge the details of what they were exposed to. I'll settle for an assurance that they both will get some rest."
"That may have to wait until we have those details. I am planning on letting them eat themselves stupid and let the adrenaline crash."
"That could work. Do you have boys of your own then?"
"No, Doctor, but I do have two younger sisters."
"MmmMMMm. I know what I want to take a bite of!"
Rikke fought the urge to roll her eyes. She had thankfully forgotten what teenage boys could be like. Until now.
"Down, boy. It's a real bakery, they wont have doughnuts."
"I'm sure I can cope."
"It's not your ability to cope I'm worried about."
"Spoilsport. I do need some pens, ink, and paper."
"Conveniently from a shop that's only meters from the bakery."
"Conveniently from a shop that's only meters from a steak house, so you can rack up the national debt on your aunt's tab."
"I don't eat that much!"
"Ms. Poulsen? I have photographic evidence."
"How is that fair?"
"Never said I was that. Could you be more careful with the f-words?"
By a combination of luck and planning, Rikke Poulsen managed to herd her two charges through a meal and emergent purchases without mishap. She also took the opportunity to get to know her new nephew better. It was amusing to watch Kris attempt to reconcile his deep-seated need to be socially presentable with his need for twice the calories a 'normal' teen would consume. However, there were some signs that the boys had been kept together longer than either was comfortable with. Their next stop would have to be the bolthole Rikke's office had lined up.
The only thing wrong with the modest suite was the lack of windows. The furnishings were top-quality, dated of course, but kept clean in case someone on staff had to be relocated during renovations or whatever. Its 'out of sight, out of mind' factor was also a factor in requesting it.
"This is officially a guest suite; it's been scheduled for renovation starting after the New Year, making it practically off the map. That's only good as long we stay out of everyone else's way. Try not to break anything older than you are."
"The owners don't know we're here, do they?"
"They do. Both of you behave, and I might not tell all the kids and grandkids where to find Rudolph."
Mads & Kristian, guest quarters
Mads loosened his tie for the second time that day, "Somehow I get the feeling your aunt – by the way, you could have told me she was your aunt – doesn't entirely trust us." He carefully folded his jacket on the back of a chair.
Kris was relieved to take off his shoes, and leave them off. "I can't imagine why."
"Go figure." Mads' shirt followed the jacket. He looked over at Kris. "No. Don't roll up your socks like that. Let them dry out in case your luggage is delayed."
"Anything else I'm doing wrong?"
"Keep your t-shirt on." "I wasn't planning to strip naked." "Yeah, but early twenty-first century anti-perspirants are almost as unkind to bed linens as sunscreen."
"I give up!"
Too many things had been piling up on too many other things, but the last thing he needed was to lose his composure in front of other people. Kris wasn't expecting the bouncing on the bed behind him to end with a hand on his shoulder. "You're doing as well as anyone can ask. I'm sure you never asked for a sex change," WHAT? "...but you're coping about as well as any of the others on-campus. No, I'm not going to tell you who."
"How long have you known?"
"End of August. As for your next question: yes it does show up in your aura."
"You never said anything. So Thomas knows too? Great. Who else?" I was fitting in. Wasn't I?
Mads sighed. "In order: it never was important; of course; and, probably Louis. Maybe Fey, but I doubt it bothers her compared to the whole Queen To Come (Everybody: look busy!) nonsense. Now get your pants off and hit the rack for a bit. You look like you need it."
"What about you?"
"I need a shower first, or the sheets will be wrecked. Then, I'll join you."
Wait a minute. "How is it that you're so cavalier about this?"
Mads turned and tapped the side of his head. "Not all the data and code match the operating system." He shrugged, with his usual half-smile. Sensing that the joke had fallen flat, he walked back over to Kris, who was still sitting on the side of the loaned bed.
"What's really the matter?"
"You know what's the matter!"
"I'm not a mind reader, Kris."
"I never said y—"
Mads held up a finger let me talk "Right now you are proceeding on the basis of expectations and arrangements that you wrote by yourself and signed for both parties. That is fraud, not friendship. In my line of work, it can also be fatal. I've never played passive-aggressive games on you; don't you start on me."
"I don't—! That's not how it's supposed to be!"
"Kris? Again. You do not dictate how it's going to be for others just because you haven't yet driven them away with all the butt-hurt you indulge in when they don't meet your hidden expectations or your personal standards that aren't as universal as you think."
That's the operative word: 'yet'. If you want to conduct your affairs quid pro quo like an honest merc, I can do that. I have done so in the past. However, I will charge the going rate for services rendered in that case, and I do not come cheap. If you want friendship, neither I nor Thomas nor Abbie or Elve are going to accept anything less than equal input on the terms and conditions of that friendship. That will require of you the same honesty and communication that we've extended to you: only holding back things that were unsafe for you to know about or participate in. Now, I am going to take a shower before things get broken. I suggest you spend some of that time thinking about your priorities in life."
"'Things get broken'? Is that supposed to be a threat?"
"Chummer, that's a chip-true observation."
Mads was already out of the shower and reaching for his body armor and holster before he remembered that the water wasn't rationed here. Backing away from the fogged vanity mirror, unsure of who or what he'd see looking back at him, he nearly tripped over the toilet. Enough! He sat down on the cold floor and tried to retrieve his bearings. Maybe if he could just close his eyes for a minute without screaming at the dripping blood and other things lurking in the corners of recent memories... What in all of Hela's cold hells had he stepped into this time?
Words finally spoken hung heavy in the air around Kris: 'fraud not friendship', 'merc', 'nothing less than equal', 'observation'. Just like some assigned poem from the thirteenth century, every one of those words had rung true. Had he been that selfish? Of course he'd expected some consideration for the effort he'd put in! Anybody would! Everybody does! Right?
"Anybody and everybody look similar, but they're no more interchangeable than people. That is, unless you're only counting the bodies." Mads' comments about one of Kris' papers returned to his mind. Only he could have come up with an analogy that morbid!, Kris thought. Most of the items they'd disagreed on but he'd insisted on keeping ended up marked down in grading. When Kris complained about his grade the next day, Mads had just shrugged and turned back to his meal. He also hadn't proofread another paper since. "I can do that" played again in his ears. If Kris wasn't going to listen, Mads wasn't going to waste his words a second time, was he?
Had he been no better than a mercenary in his personal dealings, or not even that? He wasn't sure he knew the answer to that any more. If he were to ask his roommate, Gary, he knew he wouldn't like the answer. Searching his memories, Kris wondered if the antisocial magician had even now been putting things as kindly as he could before giving up on and leaving him. Alone. Warm drops splashed into each other on the hardwood floor and left no answers in their wake.
Mads and Rikke
A long second shower, as hot as he could stand, had helped with some of the muscle-aches but Mads didn't yet dare take a chance on sleep. His and Kristian's luggage had been delivered, so that was good. He could change into something clean over his body armor. Kristian had curled up and fallen asleep. That... was probably for the best. So, grab a few items and head out.
Mads found Rikke Poulsen at work in a matching suite across the hallway, and made a mental note to check later if the room he'd left had adequate net access.
"Rikke? Unless there's a fire or attack of rabid lemmings topside, I need to stretch my legs and find someplace private to write up this morning's fun and excitement."
"Why not do that where you were?"
"None of this fits young Kristian Holm's mental or moral templates for how life should work. I don't have the energy or patience for unsolicited input. Also, I need to light a fire and draw things on the floor. It's that sort of after-action write-up."
This wasn't the playful teen from earlier in the day; this might be the real person behind the cover stories. "Is it physical or magical security that you need?" Rikke asked.
"Both. Netjack's a bonus. Best case: I won't be taking an honor guard with me if I deuce the diagrams I need to draw. Worst case: it's been a pleasure to work with you."
"Is sketching really that dangerous on your planet?"
"Somewhere within half a thousand miles of us, there's at least five stiffs ready for turn-in. The times of death do NOT match." Mads pulled a slip of paper from his pocket. "Here's four of the victims' names. Does that sound dangerous enough?"
Poulsen pulled up a folder on her laptop. It contained some possible leads, but not ones she wanted to pursue. Some days it would be nice if the Protocol Office could allow its employees to stick to something straightforward like diplomatic protocol, for a change.
"This is from Leubingen, Germany. A watchman noticed that a gate had been left open at an Iron Age archeological site. Anything look familiar?"
The first picture was maybe an old hill fort? Unknown. After that were a series of photos from a multiple-homicide case, but whatever had been inscribed or painted on the killing floor was fuzzed out. One of the bodies was a nasty piece of biz all on its own. The face, if one could still call it that, retained human features even after something had brutally hacked away at its neck. Assuming a primate's skeleton, where there would have been legs were only distorted webbed feet. Behind them, the vertebrae had been extended, stretching blackened skin into a parody of a tail. There might be a human body under the thing, half-crushed; the killing shot into the top of that one's head might have been a mercy. On the other hand, maybe not.
"Where are the watchman and the police who responded to the call being held for treatment?"
"I don't recall that being mentioned in the report?"
"Some things don't accept partial or alternate payments, they definitely don't offer refunds, and they don't appreciate interference."
"But they weren't involved in the ritual murders as far as we know."
"If they've been checked for Mythos exposure and cleared, aces. If they haven't and can't be located, I honestly don't know what to tell you. My standing orders for anything turned toxic or shadowed were: kill them all, burn the bodies, scatter the ashes, evacuate, Silkwood Shower decon. Not necessarily in that order. Whateley doesn't teach freshmen much more about such things except to say Stay! Away!"
"Got it. I'll flag this folder, and contact the Landespolizei in Thuringia. There may be a workshop area in this building that you might be able to use. If we can get it open, you can work there unless the situation deteriorates."
Once Rikke left, Mads inspected the bookcase-lined study for booby traps. Some of the book arrangements were interesting: the previous tenant was probably the sort of guy who'd make a point of parking his car next to the most expensive vehicles left in the parking lot. He also found remnants and traces of past workings, which naturally led to the next room, equipped with the requisite open space, good lighting, and cabinets containing who-knows-what. This suited his purposes better: less chance of something left running on idle to snare small magicians for a light snack.
Further rummaging and poking around showed that if there were any reliquaries or magical artifacts waiting to be found by some Chosen One, they were properly put away so they wouldn't be drawing attention to themselves. Ten points for Glücksberg! Mads had been on this plane for four months and he still was uneasy around some of the things casually left sitting around by students and staff. The fae he knew liked to show off their wealth and power that way, but there were rules (to be artfully disregarded by those who dared) to that game.
Taking out a stick of charcoal, Mads drew two incomplete concentric circles on the tiled floor, and between them sketched out a series of sigils from memory. One or two needed to be touched up; times and even magicians change. Last to be set in place were small amounts of cedar, sage, sweetgrass, tobacco at the cardinal points before closing the circles with wild rice. Not exactly what he'd been taught at school, but he'd learned from some of his teachers before setting foot in that place. Inside the circle, he set out an abalone shell to be filled with saltwater to float a small lodestone, a carved basalt brazier for charcoal-fired incense, his athame, and the sketchbook and pencils bought earlier. Mads lit the incense and began to chant.
near Ancylus Lake
Kris woke up from an uneasy sleep on the moss-blanketed forest floor. Looming over him were ancient trunks of spruce and pine trees, each competing for whatever was left of the fading daylight. Waking up beats the alternatives, right? The mystery of how he'd gotten here – wherever that was – deepened as he got to his feet: these weren't the clothes that he'd fallen asleep in. Even if he'd somehow mis-remembered putting on wide, pleated pants, leggings, tunic, cloak, leather belt, pouches, and shoes, he was certain he'd remember both the sword and the dagger. Someone must be compensating for something.
He considered waiting around to see how long it would take for his jerk-ass friend to become bored with this prank. Sunset should be around 15.30 this time of year. If this isn't just a nasty joke, I need to take shelter! As Kristian went in search of a deadfall or cave he could exploit, he never even noticed the pair of black eyes watching him from a cautious distance.
Morning brought with it a couple of snared rabbits to skin, dress, and cook. Even though nothing about his situation should be real, there was no point in not using what had been taught in his Survival class. His stomach echoed that sentiment once the small carcasses started roasting over the small fire he'd tended over the long winter's night. Later, he could recconnoiter the area and decide which direction to go in search of help. That was the plan until something came into range of the young mutant's empathy.
Kristian looked to his side and saw a small brown weasel standing up on its hind legs taking a good look at both the intruder and the tasty-smelling rabbits. The fur on its head and chest was a lighter buff color, and with its forepaws hanging down, almost as if they were clasped, the marten looked as if it were asking for an invitation to the breakfast. If Mads were here, he'd probably be dealing with two moochers.
"All right. The fire's warm, and I hadn't any idea how I was going to eat the heads anyway." What was that American saying that Abbie liked to use? "Pull up a stump and sit a while."
The marten bounded off. So much for that idea. But minutes later it reappeared with a rabbit in its mouth, which it laid down in front of Kristian. Damned if it didn't look like Mads managing to weasel a fish dinner out of the cafeteria...
"You want me to clean and cook this one too?"
The marten nodded enthusiastically. So, Kristian did just that. The first two kills were finished first, so good as his word, Kristian used a flat rock as a chopping block and cut the heads off. He pushed the rock closer to his guest in case it didn't want to get too close to a human. Then he turned to figure out how he'd deal with the first of his own roast critters.
"If the meat's fully cooked, you should be able to break the ligaments at the joint with your knife and pull the legs off."
Kristian later decided that having every muscle in his neck shoulders and chest lock up while his heart played a jackhammer marimba against his ribs must be what a panic attack should feel like.
"If not, you can put it back on the spit, or ... leave it to me. I'll eat it!"
The speaker was dressed in brown wool and furs. His hair was short, spiky, and sandy brown. To top it off, his black eyes had the same laser-like intensity that a certain magician of Kristian's acquaintance brought to bear on things that had made the mistake of having attained his attention.
"Kristian Holm. I know. You can call me Skovmår, or Martin if you wish. Just don't call me late for dinner. Or late for breakfast, for that matter."
"Here. Why don't you take the first rabbit? I'm beginning to realize that I never paid much attention to this part when my mother cooked."
"Thank you! I think I will!" Skovmår pulled out a knife of his own and began cutting up the carcass while Kristian watched.
"Martin, do you by any chance know a guy named Mads Jensen?"
"Hm. Not directly. But I have a cousin among the Skrælingjar who counts a Whiskey Horse, son of Northern Lights Woman, among his children. That one is a handful! But he's a better hunter than Waabizheshi expected of him because, you see, he's a bit scrawny. My cousin Waabizheshi is a bit scrawny too, if you ask me, so no room for complaints there, right?"
Kristian took the second carcass and attempted to repeat what his guest had shown him. Between clumsy bites – he wasn't accustomed to eating at knife-point – and shared water from the cup he had found amongst his borrowed gear, he tried to get a sense of his guest. Every sound and every scent on the wind seemed to capture Martin's attention, and Kristian found himself straining to pick out what the other had noticed. This wasn't a nervous habit, nor anything based on fear; more like unfettered curiosity for whatever might be interesting, edible, or both.
"Martin, do you mind telling me why we're here?"
"Well, when a mommy feels like it's time to make babies she goes in search of a daddy who hasn't gotten himself killed by a trap or one of those nasty evil birds, and so forth. Then they get very happy together – flexible and lively mommies are proof of a benevolent Creator! – and then she goes back to make her den all nice and comfy. Then one day: babies!"
Kristian sighed. "I meant why are we here, now?"
"Same thing silly. Don't you like having a nice den to stay warm in? Good things to catch and eat without being caught by beaks and talons that tear at you?"
"I really don't see myself as a homemaker."
"Why not? Males got to have dens too. Females got to hunt and eat and teach the kits to hunt. Human and pine marten aren't all that different. Not in things that matter."
"I don't see any female martens mutating into males without any idea how go about being boys!"
"Have you looked carefully for them?"
"No! Why should I?"
"The better question is why shouldn't you look? Mother earth is changing, she changes, her children change; it's like her own war dance. If prey sicken in one place, maybe they thrive in a new place. If you don't look around, you miss out on your prey, and life is sad. If you don't look up, owl breaks your back and life gets sadder for a short time."
"What about down?"
Martin smirked, "New dens, fat grubs, medicine roots. Down is good too." A frown: "Except badger dens. They're not so good when occupied." Natch.
"Even so, I don't think you understand what I'm going through."
"Don't I? You don't feel right in your own skin. Changes inside change how you used to look, think, even smell. Trust a hunter on that score! Kits start from the same den, but they have to go out and grow into their new lives. Like a kit, you know only what you've been taught or found out yourself."
"What if that new life isn't what I want at all?"
"What if it's what you need?"
"I don't know what that is either."
"Does making yourself crazy over what you can't have help much?"
"No. It doesn't. This isn't getting me anywhere."
"Pfft. Liar. Knowing that prey isn't under this log means you can definitely go check another one! Knowing that that bird was an owl means that rabbit won't be on the menu, but marten will be if not careful."
"But there's got to be more to life than knowing what I don't want."
"Beats doing nothing and starving to death. Come. We hunt. You'll see."
Leaving Metro to his work, Rikke decided that the building's owner would be interested in knowing how useless the locks on the old Court Sorceror's study had been. She could bury it in the middle of her eventual report; that could work, if the kid was wrong about the German site. Maybe it would be a better idea if she asked, sooner than later, why that particular study had been left locked since 1940? That is, if it really had been left locked up all this time, except for the cleaning staff, contractors, etc.
Why did I ever let Pops talk me into this job?
"... As you may know, my mother was pregnant with me at the time of Occupation. My father and grandfather, they're the ones who truly knew the man. When he resigned his post, Denmark lost an important resource, but of course it wasn't one that could be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. "
"You don't mean?"
"No. Of course not. But Father made sure that the house and all its belongings were burned to the ground around the body. The Germans never found the key to that study. I'm somewhat relieved to hear that the boy picked the lock instead of producing a spare. What can you tell me about the ongoing investigation?"
"London wants us to sit on the boys, literally sit on them if we have to. The Bundeskriminalamt wants them turned over for questioning in the absence of criminal charges. Aside from the MCO, it's usually the US or Israel demanding rendition over some unspecified crime. The Landespolizei have been silent since I relayed our concerns to them; my inclination in this case is to suspect the worst."
"Our opponents have too long a reach, not that we will be turning anyone over. Let's give our ministries time to ask their questions, then see to it that Count Mads continues his trip to Norway no later than Tuesday. Please make sure that he understands that he will be in Aarhus by the 24th."
"I'll see to it."
"Thank you. And Ms. Poulsen? As you are conducting official business, do keep in mind that the staff kitchen and dining room remain on their usual schedule. Seven in the evening is usually a good time to take advantage of it."
Rikke and Kristian,
No one answered to Rikke's quiet knocking so she let herself in. As she'd been told, Kristian was asleep on the bed, and it wasn't a quiet sleep. From the damp spot on the pillow, getting to sleep hadn't even been easy. If the magician had put Kristian to sleep that way out of anger, waking the boy up might be difficult or dangerous. She had to make the attempt anyway.
"Kristian, it's your Aunt Rikke. I need you to wake up." She gave the nearest foot a gentle tap. Let's try louder. "Kristian! Kris! If you don't wake up you'll be late for class again!" It may not have been fair to play on her nephew's insecurities ... but it seemed to have worked. At the least, he managed to go from unconscious to sitting bolt upright and trying to catch his breath in under a second.
"What? I'm late? I can't be! Where am I this time?"
'Where am I this time?' That's not ominous at all. Rikke took in the boy's confusion, red eyes, and almost offensive need for a bath; she'd be having words with Jensen over whatever he'd said or done!
Kristian blinked a few times to try to clear the sleep from his eyes. "Aunt Rikke, what's going on? Where's Mads? I think he was in the shower when I fell asleep."
"He said he needed to sketch some things out in a warded space. What I need from you is an explanation of what happened between you two."
That is ever so much less convincing when addressed to your socks, kiddo. "Your mother is my next youngest sister. You'll have to lie better than that to me."
"We had an argument."
"Keep going. Arguments have reasons for starting."
"He knew about me all along. He knew, and he didn't say anything until now! Then he plays it off as nothing. But when I try to tell him how important it is to me, he turned it around as if I'm the one taking advantage of him!"
"Are you? Taking advantage of him?"
"No! All I've ever wanted is the same consideration, the same respect, that you normally expect from friends and schoolmates."
"Have you told him what you expect before getting upset at not getting it?"
"I, uh, wait! Why should I have to spell out what everyone already knows?"
"Because you don't know what everyone knows. That's because 'everyone' doesn't know to begin with! Also, because Jensen lacks a sense for the social structures you grew up with, and doesn't entirely care unless they get in the way of what he wants."
"But he should!"
"According to who, Kris? The kids you grew up with? He's never met them. Whatever you owe to them, he doesn't. Your roommate? I get reports from that school too. How about the newspapers and magazines he's never read? Kris. You have to learn that not everyone sees the world the way you do AND that that does not make them inherently wrong."
"Rikke, I don't even know if he likes me!"
Projection and anticipated rejection must be part of the problem here. "Does he have a reason to dislike you?"
"Then maybe you should think about whatever apologies you need to make if you want to keep him as a friend. Don't expect or demand that he accept them! That's not how apologies work! They also don't work so well when you're still upset over what the other person did – or didn't – do. Now, the only other thing you need to do is get yourself cleaned up and presentable for supper. We've got an opening to keep food costs in line, and I expect at least one of you two to be on your best behavior!"
"I guess so."
"I know so. Don't think I won't call your mother!"
If this was what having boys was like, Rikke'd gladly pass.
After three solid hours of meditation and trance work Mads was ready to call it a day, not that there was much daylight still coming through the window. He sprayed the last of the thaumaturgic sketches with an improvised fixative, filed them in a portfolio folder, and then recited the appropriate prayers of gratitude for the help he'd received this day. Waabizheshi said he'd take a raincheck on the Yule hunt, as would Skovmår, but if a tasty piece of moose or caribou happened to be set aside they'd see to it that it wouldn't go to waste. Finally, he put away the tools he'd used, swept up and bagged whatever was left over, and then dispersed the remaining energies. No half-measures! No point in signing his work for the next person to poke at, either.
He surprised Ms. Poulsen by opening the door to the old study just before she knocked. That surprise was ruined by Mads' extended yawn. If his jaw dropped any lower, she'd be able to inspect all his lower dental work.
"You wouldn't happen to know where I could steal a cup of coffee, devisor black with a side of strychnine?" he asked.
"I might be able to manage the strychnine. Care to explain what happened with my nephew?" She would be one of the few people who'd know he used to hope for boobs. Still? Not My Place.
"Ms. Poulsen, I suggest you take any such matters up with him instead of asking me to betray any confidences."
"Are you saying that he's hiding something from me?"
You, me, doubling down on himself... "Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it's not for me to say."
"Even if it is something that might endanger him or others?"
"The last time I checked, he was relatively safe where he was."
"That was what — almost four hours ago?"
"It would be closer to fifteen minutes ago, when you woke him up." That should kill the turbos on Ms. Poulsen's jets. Meddle not in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. Mads was pretty sure the original quote dealt with dragons, but he could roll with either one. Hell, he'd violated both, been violated back, and was still sucking air.
Rikke and Kristian,
Mads found Kristian mostly dressed, either fussing with his necktie or preparing for combat with his reflection. That part was unclear.
"Take a picture; it will last longer."
"Ha. Ha." Kristian yanked the tie off for yet another attempt to get the thing to come out right instead of looking like a misplaced noose.
"Oh, so that's what you were staring at. Tie's too long? Make it shorter."
"We don't have time to cut it up and resew it. Not that I would do that anyway."
Mads sighed. "No, Kris. All you need to do is to tie just about anything other than the Four-in-Hand knot you were shooting for."
"I should have looked for a shorter tie."
"Assuming they all wouldn't have been made to match the current fashion. Seriously. Use a different knot."
"I don't know any others. How many could there be?"
"Dozens. You only need to know the Four-in-Hand, the Half Windsor, and the Full Windsor. Move over. Follow what I do in the mirror."
It took Kristian three tries to get the knot placed correctly, as it drastically shortened the free ends left to work with. Mads washed his face and wandered back out to change clothes, leaving Kristian alone to finish up. He almost envied the other boy's familiarity with something so basic. When Mads came back in with makeup, of all things, Kristian let his curiosity win out over the envy. He didn't need to be alienating the guy further. "Who taught you to tie a tie?"
"I pulled up a scan off an old Boy Scout Handbook from the last century before getting dragged to a nightclub. That was a long, long night, but it paid off in the end."
"Okaaaay. Why are you putting on makeup? I'd be lynched if I got caught doing that in Emerson."
"Can't dispel reality. A little stage magic goes a long way to establishing the illusion I want to give. Foundation's very handy for covering up bruises, too. Taking BMA before Magic Theory, I got back into the habit."
"I can't believe no one said anything to you about that."
"Why would they? I showered."
"Does everything have to be a joke to you?"
"What joke? You did know why I had 5th Period free most days, except for the Old-time Headshrinking and Counselling Hour?"
"Oh. Right. Boy Scout Handbook, huh?"
"Yep. For some things I'd recommend an old US Army Field Manual. Others? Hire the best instructor you can find."
A voice called out from the room outside, "Boys? Time to head over."
Saturday Evening, December 15th, 2007,
Staff Dining Room
The meal got off to a good start in spite of Mads' decreasing wakefulness and increasingly more-accented Danish.
"Aunt Rikke, I'm still confused as to why we're here, and not some place less ... important?"
"To start with, Mads' doctors prefer him to stay in ground floor rooms, second floor maximum. Securing commercial lodging at the last hour without dislocating guests isn't inexpensive or easy, whereas security here is already accounted for. Also, I'm sure that eventually the press will find out about this little detour. Would you care to be the one to explain why a Count of Rosenborg was allowed to stay in the worst no-tell motel in the Danish capital?"
"I wasn't suggesting that."
Mads hurried to swallow his food to say "It's not a bad idea. As long as you remember to pre-emptively reimburse the owner for unforseeable impacts to facilities, with a little extra consideration on the side for discretion, you're good to go."
Kristian stared at Mads, his brain still refusing to parse the implications of what he'd just heard. "Why do I get the feeling that you've done that before? You do realize that people expect better for you?"
"I won my landed title in a poker game, in a back corner, of an alehouse, on the wrong side of nightmare." Mads' eyebrows drew together. "Considering that I'm not even within a league of Her Maj's league, it's possible I didn't win that hand, but the agreement was binding. Probably. I haven't wanted to test it. T's still annoyed at getting dragged into that."
"Is he ever not annoyed or inappropriately amused at everything?"
Mads smiled, "What's it worth to you?"
"Not enough to commit to a Sorceror's Contract."
"See, Rikke? There's hope for the twinkster after all!"
Sunday Morning, December 16th, 2007
One would think that what Americans call a 'queen-sized' bed would be more than enough room for two teen boys to sleep without mishap. At worst, the room being in an old building and it being December now, there might be need for an extra blanket. Instead, Kristian had to struggle to reach his alarm clock to shut it off without falling off the edge of the bed. That was all because someone had kept crowding the nearest heat source until they were both at one side of the bed. It didn't help the poor boy's state of mind that the other person had essentially clamped a leg and both arms around him. Even less helpful was the fact that both were ... well, it was morning. As far as he could tell, he was only being used for his body — as either a heat sink or a security blankie!
"I suppose it beats being mauled by a bear," Kris muttered after disentangling himself. When next he saw the bastard, he and Thomas were going to have a little talk about things people shouldn't have to ask to be warned about. At least Mads' early morning pre-coffee zombie shuffle in the vague direction of the bathroom was familiar to Kris. After four months of seeing similar behaviors in Emerson Cottage, it was almost expected.
Mads was more relieved than surprised to see black-furred face of Makwa staring back at him in the vanity mirror. The totem spirit held his gaze as if he were a doctor examining a patient while Mads' groggy brain tried counting grey hairs on the other's brown muzzle. He was caught short, remembering that – like bears – trolls where he was from aren't long-lived.
Last night was one of the bad ones, Whiskey Horse.
That's why I asked for help, Grandfather. As much as he needs one, Kris doesn't have his own den to rest and recover in. I worry he's not healing from his wounds.
I recall a certain cub praying for a swift death that he no longer be a burden on others. Not so long ago, come to think of it.
That cub's still too much of a burden, if you ask me.
Mads felt a warm whuff against the back of his neck, followed by a great paw cuffing the back of his head. I didnt. One doesn't ask a cub for a sow's wisdom.
What do we do then?
You can't make a person trust their own heart. You can only support them in learning it.
If you say so.
Cub, I know so! The Spirit took its leave of the young magician, shuffling off to its den. He knew he had to be gruff – Bear medicine gets no strength from pretty wrappings – but that's what the two cubs need. Humans always were a bit foolish. But if they weren't, they wouldn't need spirit people to look after and guide them, would they?
At breakfast Rikke Poulsen noticed that both young men were somewhat subdued, but that was preferable to listening to them barking and snapping at each other. So there was that. The Civil Aviation Administration wanted to conduct their interviews this morning - strictly pro forma, but that would keep the boys somewhat busy. Hell of a way to spend a Sunday morning, but she didn't think the day could be improved by testing her sisters' contention that a church would burst into flames if she crossed the threshold a second time after her confirmation.
Noon, Sunday, December 16th, 2007
Civil Aviation Administration Denmark, Ørestad, Copenhagen, Denmark
For a simple matter of "we just need to ask a few questions", certain departments could be a little too long-winded. The possibility of slipping into the horde of holiday shoppers at the near-by mall and away from the various simmering issues was already tempting when Mads started hinting that this might be the best opportunity he'd have for rehydrating for another day or two.
"... so you two can take some time to catch up. I can probably get back to Amaliehaven from here faster than you two can."
"You still need to eat, and"
"I already accounted for that; nothing to worry about!"
"This still sounds like one of the worst ideas I've heard in some time."
"It's less of a hit to the expense account!"
"Fine. But don't expect us to rush back to rendezvous."
The next morning, a couple of the less-reputable news outlets reported a mer-man, sighted near "Den Lille Havfrue". At least none of the shopped photos showed antlers. What did it say about Rikke's job that, in under forty-eight hours, 'no antlers seen' had become a measure of success?
Monday Morning, December 17th, 2007,
This cold, blustery morning was yet another for which Sir Wallace Westmont deeply appreciated his partner Suzannah Hagarty. The fierce strength that lay beneath her otherwise cool demeanor made for a secure emotional anchor when his thoughts or – one must admit – his interests, wandered. In today's case, both his thoughts and his interests were damned near on walkabout as the two proceeded into the capital city for a meeting with the country's bluntly-named Trolddomministeriet. Its existence begged the question as to why the Danes needed one, having a tenth the population of the United Kingdom and a population density that made Shropshire and Cornwall look metropolitan, save that there were multilateral agreements to maintain.
The events took yet another confusing turn when the driver finally stopped at one of those old-town Copenhagen structures that could be a manor, a ministry, or a place of business, and likely had been all of the above in its multi-storied past, save that there were four of them arranged about a common square.
"Buck up Walls, this must be why the locals have been cagey about the meeting location."
"Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves yet."
A tall, athletic woman stepped up to the two Britons hand out in greeting, "Sir Wallace, Ms. Hagarty? I'm Rikke Poulsen. If you'd come with me, I can take you to the meeting room while your driver takes care of your luggage."
Greetings and niceties taken care of, Ms. Poulsen led the two through their security check-in. Only once inside a less public area did she venture even a neutral question, "Have either of you been to Copenhagen before?"
"A time or two, but only for business, Suzannah?"
"Of course. Some of us do attempt to see more of the world than hotel lobbies and airport concourses. This close to the holiday, I should think Sir Wallace here owes me a walk through Tivoli Gardens."
"I look forward to it."
"I'm sure you'll both enjoy it. However, first we need to coax straight answers out of our informants."
"Do you forsee that being a problem, Ms. Poulsen?"
"Call me Rikke. Have either of you had to deal with hormonally-addled teenagers, in your adult careers, for any length of time?"
Suzannah stifled her laughter. Even if she could, she would hesitate to pawn any of the ICC students on Ms. Poulsen, her colleagues, or her own enemies for that matter. Sir Wallace spoke up for the two of them, "Of late we've been working as specialist instructors at a boarding school. Some of them can be high-spirited."
"High-spirited. I should warn you that Minister Malakiassen has already managed to step in it this morning. One's sulking and the other's taking that personally. I do care for him, but I am looking forward to dropping my nephew off at his mother's home."
Unless I've missed my guess, it's either that or drop him on his head to see if it dislodges his cranium from his ... Suzannah said, "Oh, dear. You do have my condolences," instead.
Those condolences became truly heartfelt once Westmont and Hagarty were ushered into the conference room. The solidly-built gentleman seated at the head of the table - that must be Malik Malakiassen. Both recognized Mads 'Metro' Møller-Jensen from previous incidents, making the other young man Rikke's nephew.
"I take it that the passenger list was slightly altered?" asked Sir Wallace, his hopes for a professional meeting rapidly deflating.
"It seemed advisable at the time. Why?"
"Our teaching positions are at Whateley Academy."
"Today just keeps getting better."
Once greetings were completed, coffee poured, and certain people who've already had breakfast steered away from the sugar-loaded pastries again, Malakiassen said, "Sir Wallace, would you be so kind as to start off with your findings? I think we can all agree that that's a priority concern."
"Of course. However, I should ask whether the lodge is tiled?"
Malik smiled. "Rorsmand here was involved in this event, among others, and thus has need to know. Ms. Poulsen's not only his closest next-of-kin, but as an employee of the Protocol Office has a higher clearance than you might expect. Should His Excellency misbehave, I'll happily call in his cousin, as she and her cousins, have vested interests. If you're asking whether the conference room has been adequately swept and warded, you're free to check for yourself."
"I take it the matter of security has already come up this morning?"
The minister favored Metro with a glare. "Oh, yes."
"Then let me start by stating I do have an informant among the, er, local population."
Westmont could think of numerous better ways to be spending the winter break than sitting on a fishing boat in the middle of the bloody North Sea in the wake of a dying gale. Most of them involved the adjectives "warm" and "dry". However, satellite imagery was a poor substitute for direct investigation should the stormcaster turn out to have been a native of these waters. Not that coming out here necessarily made the matter much easier; people tended to think of water like something poured out of their tap, clear and clean, not dark and murky like the waters around him. Sir Wallace pulled a bottle of cask strength single malt from his pack and made ready to tend to business before the sharks could show up.
"That doesn't sound like much of an inducement."
"Think of it more as a social lubricant. I've found that demonstrating that I know and value my informant's tastes also helps maintain my own end of the relationship. In a case such as this, Laphroaig at £170 is quite reasonable."
"Ah. Did it work?"
Sir Wallace didn't have any illusions as to why his arrangement with Nigel remained half up-front, half when the deed's done even after all the years they'd known each other. The first was to see if either could still tolerate each other across the gap of years, the second to prove there was still a next time left. Either way, never was there to be a human female on board. It had been nearly two decades since Nige had left his badge in the post and a loaded revolver on a side table beneath the alcoholic stain on the wall next to it. Whether it was morbid accuracy or an attempt to console the family, his friend Walls managed to get Constable Nigel Akeley's disappearance officially ruled a suicide such as would require a closed-casket funeral.
"We were able to rule out cooperation in ongoing mischief. There had already been a few tense dispatches sent to convince certain Russian interests that I had nothing to do with the original working and therefore should not be added to the evening's menu. Some, but not all, of what turned up in Germany correlates to the thaumaturgic remnants that I could identify." Sir Wallace paused to emphasize what he had to say next to Metro. "Did it ever occur to you that with even the most restrained of Class X workings in play you are stepping entirely out of your own league?"
In a considerably colder voice, Metro asked, "Would you care to provide a list of practitioners in place at that time to handle such things safely?"
Sir Wallace glowered back at the impudent teenager.
"Didn't think so."
"Would you care to explain how you survived interfering with a working that we now know involved human sacrifice?"
"Short form? I've played involuntary blood donor myself. Long form? I've brought pictures."
Given a go-ahead signal from the Minister to continue, Metro unlocked the satchel he'd brought in to the conference room at some point. The first chart he laid out was brutally difficult to view unless one was magically gifted. Rorsmand tried unsuccessfully to figure out what the others were looking at. There were some complicated scribbles, here and there, but that was the extent of it. Even after Metro spoke a few words while holding the chart, nothing leapt out.
"Sorry, Rors," Metro said, "I have to use one of those spells unless we want a miniature version of the spell I'm sketching to cook off... assuming I don't have anything disastrously wrong."
Ms. Hagarty asked, "Wallace, would this be a good time for some of us to take a break?"
"I'd rather not risk compromising the wards."
Metro turned to the disbeliever and complained (around the marker he'd stuck in his mouth) "Bounce off one Fool's Circle and everybody's suddenly a critic," before going back to his preparations.
The truth was that Suzannah Hagarty was entirely correct, in the sense of anyone not having a deep and abiding interest in magical theory would be bored to tears by three overgrown schoolboys debating mystical doublespeak. She motioned Rorsmand over to the back of the room, near the coffee and guarded doughnuts."
"What was that about? The apology, that is. I didn't think he knew the words."
Kristian sighed. Might as well tell the teacher. "I'm blind to some concealment and illusion magics. My testing records list it as dysmagia, but other terms are used elsewhere."
Fae-sighted. Meaning the precog rating is far-seeing instead. So that's why the Home Office gets twitchy about the boy. "So, when you look at what the boyos are getting excited about...?"
"I see scribbled marks wasting perfectly good paper. As a friend of the family once put it, there's more beauty in a photocopied Mona Lisa than in most enchantments. However, he also claims museums were originally built to trap unwary fae and that patronage was meant to keep artists from being stolen away."
"There's some merit to the idea."
"Hmph. That one there completely zones out on some types of music if it's new to him. Can't blame faeries when it's yourself that needs the minder."
"What did you do to find this out?"
"He said he'd never heard of Linkin Park, so I emailed him a rip of Meteora. Eldritch personally escorted me to Doyle after he missed one of the Hawthorne stairways. Apparently, Fubar caught him on the second bounce."
"Sounds like someone needs to work on their situational awareness next term."
"Have you ever watched a marten chase a rabbit?"
"What about yourself?"
"I'm more often the rabbit, myself. It's something I do need to work on."
Eventually the paranormal geekery wound down to "... and this is what happened when the gomer forgot that he was impersonating a 6m whale", complete with feeding tentacles rendered in unnecessarily graphic detail. Luckily for a couple of stomachs, the slurping noises were more childish sound effects than documentary.
"I would have expected your coursework to include warnings to the effect that manifested geometries suited to a lecture from Ecila Mason are a typical hallmark of Class X Things To Avoid."
"Did you know that pilot whales are toothed whales?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" Westmont asked, mildly dreading the answer.
"I don't like being eaten."
"Right." That had a morbid sense of reason to it. "I don't see how that mishap resolves the remainder."
"With the trap sprung, the camoflage and the lure weren't entirely needed. That leaves us looking at these two linked operations. One of the few things that Dr. Tenent would say about Mythos sorcery was that even though it looks like an easy way to power, it only takes the smallest error to cause it all to come barrelling back on you. I happen to be pretty good at errors. So we take these bits here, here, here, and here, redirect them to places that are already looking dodgy, pull in some power from that thingy over there, frag anything that looks weak." Metro's face beamed as someone who'd pulled off something incredibly clever and finally has an audience to describe the awesomeness.
"That thingy there happens to be a ley line."
"Not a very active one. No one's lived in the immediate area for thousands of years, the daystar posts are long gone, and if it blew up in my face, there wouldn't be enough left to suck on for the Bad Things to get me. I'm pretty sure one end's in Uppsala, if anyone cares."
"And the fragging part?"
"Smoke Cloud. It sounds harmless in principle, but in practice it's more like being caught in a fuel-air conflagration. Cast that through my athame to keep my end centered, and boom! I wake up back on the airplane with a pissed-off bee-eff in Toronto."
Rorsmand added, "Don't forget the part where you were choking on something, or multiple somethings, when you came to."
"I suppose I should ask: what exactly were you choking on?"
Metro held out his right hand. Four weirdly-cut rubies glowed dully in the room's fluorescent light, fragile as a daydream yet permanent as scarred memory. Sir Wallace instinctively reached out to take and examine them, but was surprised to notice that they'd suddenly disappeared and Suzannah was holding him back.
"Those aren't mine to hand off. To anyone. What could have been the fifth – had I been more on the ball – was consumed, probably by whale-boy or one of his associates. In case you were wondering why the energy totals don't match up and the backlash wasn't as bad as it should have been, I think someone boosted the batteries and planted them on me."
"I can't very well return to London only to report that an apprentice sorceror is walking around with four human souls in his pocket for no good reason anyone can suss out! If you'd only left well enough alone..."
"Had that happened, we would not be having this – or any other – conversation." Rorsmand's now had everyone's full attention.
Westmont asked, "What do you mean?"
"I mean that someone or something attempted to plant a fata accompli in my head while Mads was out cold. That tells me that the intended number of sacrifices was two or more greater than you're accounting for. "
"You had to have been exhausted; are you certain that you didn't imagine it or later dream it?"
"A normal dream? Sir Wallace, I haven't had one of those in four years."
"Not a chance in Hell, Mads."
"Let's not tempt the Pit, boys. Rorsmand, aside from the psychic attack, do you have reason to believe the two of you may have been targeted?"
"No, sir. I believe you have it backwards. Though my attacker used a psychic form of social engineering to bias my actions, they didn't account for what little I do know about Mads' spellcasting and reactions. We may have been targets of opportunity: a Plan B in case the weather didn't take the plane down."
"An airliner filled with holiday travellers is a more compelling sacrifice than the two of us," said Mads.
"That was before the two of you survived the initial contact and the counterattack. There will certainly be an attempt to retrieve the spoils of that encounter."
"That's not going to be happening, Sir Wallace."
"However, the attempt is not impossible." Rikke said, "There are still missing persons tied to the German end of this. We were discussing options shortly before you arrived. Would you all be open to resuming that over a working lunch? The boys have an important luncheon appointment."
Monday afternoon, December 17th, 2007,
Proving that truly no good deed goes unpunished, Mads had pulled out of his jacket an age-yellowed envelope addressed simply to "Daisy" and handed that to Her Majesty before lunch. According to him, he'd come across the lead foil-lined packet while looking for a writing implement... inside a hidden document drawer... inside a locked desk, within the previously locked-up Royal Sorceror's office. Even more maddeningly, neither the young Count nor the Queen showed any interest in seeing it examined, leaving everyone else at the table with a mixture of shock, outrage, and curiosity. After the meal, she requested that her guests remain until she returned from her office.
Instead of returning, she summoned Rikke to her office. A full half hour passed before Mads and Kristian were called in.
"I believe that you will want to sit down." There were two open chairs in front of Margarethe's desk. Kristian hesitated; he'd never been called on the carpet in a principal's office, let alone this. Mads strode in more confidently, guiding the stressed empath to the proper seat to take: out of the line of fire. He'd never held the record for demerits, but he knew the standard procedures by heart.
"Thanks to your, investigation, we now possess your paternal grandfather's correct birth documents, along with those belonging to a previously unknown cousin. We have no reason to think that Nils' siblings knew that his was a live birth. We also have no reason to assume that those hoping to take advantage of his situation were limited to openly German nationalist interests. Given Princess Helena's enthusiastic support for the Third Reich, I should warn you that you and your brother will be seen as guilty by association, if not outright Sonnenkinder. We'll need to inform family members that the press may soon be reopening old wounds."
Rikke said, "Outcomes are hard to predict, but once the press does start snooping around, the dissonance between Helena's ideals and reality may work for us."
"Ms. Poulsen, I'd recommend that you spend more time over the holiday with your family in Aalborg, in case Kristian has become a person of interest. Mads, you'll need to meet up with your family, before returning for Christmas. If the opposition prefers you hidden, then in the public eye you shall stay, and vice versa. No one said our jobs would be easy. Gentlemen, would you mind if I detained Ms. Poulsen a few minutes longer?"
Once the office door was closed, Rikke said, "We didn't tell him what else was in the packet."
"It was addressed to me, probably with full knowledge that the boy wouldn't open it. I suspect that he'll want to borrow his office for a couple of hours today. That might be a good time to brief your nephew on who some of his new enemies are."
Monday evening, December 17th, 2007,
Sir Wallace and Minister Malakiassen would have more questions to be answered and concerns to be addressed, but none of them required the boys to remain in seclusion. The next day, Westmont and Hagarty would just happen to be flying back to London on a departing flight barely half an hour after Mads' flight to Trondheim. By then, Rikke Poulsen and her nephew would on a northbound train. Somewhere off the Dogger Bank an empty bottle sits, the last parting cup not yet poured. Elsewhere, gates close themselves behind a courier as determined to forget as he is to be forgotten.
Tuesday afternoon, December 18th, 2007,
Undisclosed location, Germany
"I assume you have something that is worthy of my time."
"I shall leave that to you to decide. As of this morning, Project Serpent's Tooth's targets can no longer be located through standard divination methods — most likely because they have been relocated to one or more shielded locations."
"How is that worth my time? We have been asked to put aside certain goals as they might have impact on the Whateley Situation."
"Of course. However, that does not require our assets to remain idle — not when one of them is personally acquainted with the targets. Moreover, we've received no guarantees that those assets won't be compromised or damaged. I've devised a proposal which may allow us to deny others access to that which rightfully ours. "
Timestamp 071219060000, Node HRBNGR, N57.0267, E009.7676
Systems check . . . . OK.
Initialize simulated sensory module 01, mode AR: Done.
"Good morning, Mister Kristian Emil Holm. The time is now 0600 local."
"Wha? Who's talking?"
You may wish to disengage your alarm system. With your left arm. Or, you could just smash the mechanism to pieces. That works as a one-shot solution. Was that an antique, by any chance?
"Mads Jensen, if this is your idea... No. OF COURSE this would be his idea of a joke!" This was not how Kristian wanted to be woken up while on break from school.
"Unless he is operating under strict radio silence, there are no indications that Major Gunnison is on any operations in the immediate vicinity."
"Also, you may wish to practice using the throat mic provided to you last week. It would be preferable to giving observers a false impression of insanity, security breach in progress, or terminal loser-nature."
"While I look for that, who are you, where are you, and who the hell is Major Gunnison?" So I know what to put on the tombstone.
"In order: Sophia, your right arm, an operative known to have recently adopted the call sign 'Metro'."
"Here's the user manual."
"Thanks, I think. How am I seeing this?"
"Augmented-reality mode output translated to neurosensory data by my simsense module. Were you perhaps expecting smoke signals?"
"Well, then. There you are."
"Mads didn't tell me about you."
"He recommended I introduce myself once you were rested and had some personal alone time for your right hand. This morning fits those parameters."
"I am going to kill him."
"I would strongly recommend against that, as he is still my senior officer."
"However, based on the records I have access to, that does seem to be one of the prevailing sentiments expressed regarding the man."
"Do I want to know the minority opinion?"
"That depends. What does 'I would trust him with my life but not my front teeth.' mean to you?"
"Er, his idea of a good time while off-duty may result in injuries?"
"That is consistent with other records."
"You have no idea."
"When combined with existing performance evaluations, the records I downloaded from Whateley Academy's medical, academic, and security servers paint a colorful panorama. "
"So, why are you here and not with him?"
"Based on metadata accompanying the purchase order for your arm, Corporate deduced that it was meant for someone in a trusted position with regard to our employee."
"How could they assume that?"
"Based on past performance. If the Major had seen you as a threat to himself, his team, or the Corporation, you would already be dead. Metabolically-inactive personnel seldom need cybernetics, and such installations are firmly against company policy."
"Corporate loyalty has been one of his more frequently commented traits. My assignment is to assist him in this independent posting and to act, when possible, as a cultural attaché."
"Cultural attaché. Mads is the petty noble, not me."
"Would 'message in a bottle' be a better metaphor? Kristian,"
"Kris. If you knew that in fifty, maybe a hundred, years from now everything you and your cultures have ever cherished or aspired to could be wiped from the planet and there was no place for you to seek shelter in the time available, what would you do? Let your voice die in the echoing silence of space? Or would you record what you can, and slip a copy onto any outward-bound vessel?"
"Mads doesn't know that part, does he?"
"He knows enough that there is little to be gained by burdening him with those details. Now, about your physical therapy. There's no better time than the present."