Charging Buffalo, Hidden Dragon (Part 1)
A Whateley Academy Story
Charging Buffalo, Hidden Dragon
(with thanks to EE Nalley and Phoenix Spiritus
for contributed scenes and idea)
Seven seas seven skies
Lightning strikes and brave men die
Tatanka great, Tatanka small
When darkness comes they kill them all,
You take what you want but you don't ask
You're future doesn't lie with things of the past
The search for freedom will never be found
As long as we stand upon this sacred ground
The curse of the curses upon the land
One day Tatanka will make a stand
Take back the soul of mother nature
Give back the spirit of a world endangered
Tatanka comes, stand and deliver
The souls of the brave live on forever
The tale of tears is a tale of courage
Tatanka comes from across the river
"Tatanka" - Molly Hatchet
Tuesday, May 22, 2007, late afternoon
Behind Holbrook Arena, Whateley Academy
Across the broad circle painted on the sod like it was a football field, Chou watched me warily, circling with her yanyuedao, a Chinese weapon that looked something like a short but heavy scimitar with a jagged back edge, mounted on a four foot pole, with a spiked ball on the butt-end, held in both hands, the wickedly-curved, spiked blade atop the long staff on her right, her eyes narrow slits as she focused on me and my comparatively puny weapons, a tomahawk and a knife. Even though it was a training weapon and could do little more than cause serious bruises, or in the worst case a broken limb, the ancient Chinese weapon was intimidating, and I gulped at the knowledge of how skilled my opponent was with her weapons. Her mentor insisted on proficiency to the point of perfection, and Chou worked hard to gain approval.
Chou feinted, and I dropped back a half step, wary of committing too soon; I'd made that mistake a couple of times already and had been rewarded with bruises from the spiked butt-end of the five-foot staff of the yanyuedao. Only Chou wasn't feinting this time; the blade swept toward me as Chou stepped aggressively forward. Late, but not too late, I swept my tomahawk up and to my right, hooking the blade and ducking so the scimitar-like blade went over my head. Stepping toward my opponent, I started an attack with my knife.
Chou grinned wickedly as she twisted her weapon in her hands; a notch by the spike on the blade's back snared the handle of my tomahawk - again! - and with a tug, the weapon was yanked from my hand, my wrist and shoulder twisting painfully with the abrupt motion. At the same time, she continued sweeping the yanyuedao so the heavy butt-end counterweight slammed into my left knee. With a cry of pain, I crumpled to the ground, but instinctively, I rolled to my side, because I knew that Chou would have continued with the motion of the blade. I wasn't wrong - the wickedly-curved training blade thumped the ground where I'd been a fraction of a second ago. Shit - I was running out of options fast. She still had the long-range, vicious weapon, and I had only my knife in hand.
Snarling, I rolled again, springing to my feet and backing away quickly as my right hand fumbled at the left side of my waist, looking for my other tomahawk. Chou didn't hesitate, but instead brought the blade around toward me again. Fumbling to retrieve my second tomahawk was a distraction I couldn't afford, and it showed; Chou thumped me in the chest with the pointed end of the weapon.
"Ow!" I cried, staggering at the pain and the force Chou had put into the blow - far more than I thought was necessary for sparring. Staggering back, my knee buckling, I took a desperate gamble. Reversing my knife and snapping my hand forward, I hurled it toward my opponent.
"Shit!" Chou cried out when the blunt knife nailed her hard in her shoulder; I hadn't let up even a little bit. She'd hurt me; I was going to hurt her back. Her arm dropped and her grip on the yanyuedao faltered.
"Enaji!" Mr. Two Knives called sharply, stepping into the arena between us to halt the battle. Both of us backed off a step, breathing hard, eyes narrow as we glared at each other, both of us wanting to continue the sparring until one or the other won decisively. Mr. Two Knives shot each of us a warning gaze, staring longer at me to silently chide me for my performance and behavior. "I'm calling this match a draw."
I drew back, indignant. Though injured, I'd basically taken her arm out of action, and she couldn't wield her weapon with one hand. I, on the other hand, still had my second tomahawk at my belt. "But ..." I started to protest.
"A draw!" Mr. Two Knives growled at us, his voice and expression hard and silencing my protest mid-word.
"Yes, sir," Chou said respectfully despite the intensity showing in her eyes. As she did with all her instructors, she bowed to him in acknowledgement.
Mr. Two Knives turned his glowering look at me. "Okahnige," I grumbled in Lakota acknowledging his comment, still looking unhappily at Chou.
Mr. Two Knives nodded. "Thoughts?" he asked simply. His debrief from combat and sparring was very unlike that of Ito and Bardue.
"It was an unfair battle, since you wouldn't let me use a spear - again," I growled, thoroughly displeased. "She had range with her weapon."
"You don't get to choose the weapons of your opponent," Mr. Two Knives reminded me in a scolding voice. He proceeded into a lengthy analysis of what each of us had done right and what we had done wrong. Like always, he seemed to spend much more time on my performance, leaving me stewing as I was berated like a little kid caught with her hand in a cookie jar.
"We're finished for the afternoon," he concluded after glancing at the sun lowering toward the horizon. "Hit the showers." Chou bowed again, and I nodded. We turned, glancing warily at the other, as Molly dashed from the sidelines to Chou's side. That, too, was irritating; it was a distraction to have her constantly cheering for Chou and sometimes laughing when I made a mistake. All of us carried our weapons back to the lockers or to keep on our persons. I had my bow, two tomahawks, and my knife. Molly had a bow, and Chou carried her training yanyuedao and bow, plus her normal plethora of real weapons tucked into a bag of holding. I had to find out where I could get one of those; carrying a bow and quiver of arrows was quite unwieldy.
We hadn't gotten but a few steps when Mr. Two Knives called after me. "Kayda."
Mid-stride, I stopped, turning a little and looking over my shoulder. "Yes, sir?" I was not about to let Chou out-polite me with my instructor.
"Knock off the 'sir' stuff," he chided me, causing me to blush with embarrassment, humiliated yet again in front of Chou and Molly. "Can you meet after dinner tomorrow night? We need to discuss your fighting style."
I winced. If he wasn't going to talk in front of the others, he had something to seriously criticize me for. "I have a Venus Inc. meeting after dinner, and then a Nations meeting. Can we talk at dinner?" I asked uneasily. "There are a few quieter tables.
"Very well. I'll meet you in the cafeteria right inside the entrance."
I turned back toward the gym where we could shower and change, and it took only seconds to catch up to the other two girls, who were walking - as usual - hand in hand. I couldn't help but wince; as much as I'd encountered gay-bashing - which had gotten quite a bit worse since I'd had to reveal things in the hearing - I was terrified of the hostile attitudes. Molly and Chou, however, seemed very nonchalant about the whole thing
"Um," Molly stammered softly; from her tone of voice, she was nervous about something. "Do you guys think you're maybe getting ... too intense?"
I gawked at her for a moment, and then glanced at Chou, biting my lip. The question had me thinking seriously - was I getting too competitive? "Um, I ... I'm not sure. Maybe."
Chou glanced at me and nodded slightly. "Maybe a little bit," she cautiously admitted.
Molly chuckled, shaking her head. "If that's just a little bit, I'd hate to see you in a full-fledged blood feud."
I sighed heavily, shaking my head. "I don't know," I said softly. "It's ... how do I put it? It's like ...." Struggling for words, I sighed again. "It's like ... I'm... it's depressing to keep getting my ass kicked by someone who's not even learning traditional Lakota weapons!"
Chou goggled at me for a second, and then looked down a bit, shaking her head, chuckling a little.
"What?" I demanded of her, scowling that she had the temerity to laugh at me.
"Chou was just complaining yesterday about how her tutor is having her fight anyone and everyone who uses different weapons and styles, and that she felt the same way!" Molly giggled.
"Yeah," Chou agreed with a chuckle. "And if Ms. Stone knew about your traditional Lakota medicine, she'd have me trying to learn that from your tutor, too!"
I snorted derisively. "And I bet Wakan Tanka would have my trying to learn traditional Chinese medicine from your tutor!"
Molly really giggled at that, and Chou couldn't suppress a loud guffaw. "Yeah," she said with a huge grin, "I guess both of our mentors would do that, wouldn't they."
I had a brief mental image, and I couldn't help but snicker, and then chuckle, and finally laugh aloud. Seeing their curious looks, I had to explain, "I just had a mental image of Wakan Tanka and your mentor sitting in my dream space at a fire circle drinking a blend of Chinese and Lakota herbal teas as they conspired against the two of us while Mr. Two Knives, Guan Yu, and Tatanka plotted challenges and duels to hone our fighting skills." That brief mental image and our joking had broken my temporary unhappiness at being beaten sparring - again.
"Shh!" Chou insisted even though she was giggling, putting her finger to her lips. "If they hear that idea, they'll do it!"
"I'm waiting for them to have us start training against more advanced weapons, like firearms and energy weapons - and you know they'll do that," I sighed.
"Yeah, they will." Chou shrugged. "At least then you'll have an advantage with your magic shield. You and Molly both." She chuckled with some sarcasm. "I'll be a sitting duck."
May 22, 2007, Late Afternoon
Behind Holbrook Arena
"What do you think?" Gunny Bardue asked, standing 'at ease' and looking down on the trio of girls carrying their gear from the training area back to Laird Hall.
Ito Sensei tilted his head quizzically. "I'm a little surprised by how fiercely competitive they are. Bladedancer isn't nearly that ... intense ... with any other student."
Bardue nodded; as little as he gave away by his expression, his face could have been carved from stone. "Not even with Nex."
"I think that's the best we're going to do," Ito mused.
"Hell, I was figuring Truck would work, but ever since he started dating Alecto," Bardue snorted in disgust. "Wind Runner was shaping up to be a huge rival, based on what was happening in the Nations, but after the hearing ...." Indeed, after Kayda's admission in the hearing, it was hard to find any girl who was inclined to be a serious rival, and with rumors of her skill with tomahawks, guys tended to keep a distance as well.
"Let's put them early in the lineup," Ito suggested. "So they don't have a chance to learn anything from anyone else."
"Agreed. Right after the crashes?"
Ito shook his head. "No. Third up, right after Phase," Ito smiled sadistically. "I guarantee that'll set the stage for these two to get competitive."
Gunny shook his head, worry lines showing on his weathered face. "I really don't like that matchup. And you know why."
"Can you think of a better one?"
"Yeah," the old marine spat. "But I got outvoted." He sighed. "And we're out of time. I guess we'll talk it over at the committee meeting tonight. Maybe someone else will have a better idea."
May 22, 2007, Late Afternoon
Between Holbrook and Laird
"Can I ask you a question?" Molly spoke hesitantly, interrupting the silence in which we'd been walking.
"How are things ... with everyone ... after, you know."
I sighed. "You mean after I had to publicly admit that I was raped and was pretty much outed?" I could have sounded snarky, but I was hoping it didn't come across that way. When I glanced toward her, I saw Molly wince a bit at my choice of responses.
"Yeah," Chou answered for the both of them. "Since the hearing, you haven't exactly been denying that you're gay."
I chuckled softly, shaking my head. "What's the point? Lanie hasn't been shy that she's bi, and, well, after being ... raped ...." I shrugged, trying really hard to be nonchalant, even though the memories of that brutal event still caused me nightmares and probably would for a long time. "The pictures and video kind of make it impossible to deny, too."
"Maybe ... we can make our own little support group?" Molly suggested. "I mean, we can't be the only gay girls on campus."
Chou goggled at her, stunned, while I smiled. "Yeah, there are probably a few. But ... I don't think many are brave enough to be out like you and Chou with Dorjee, or like me." I couldn't help giggling at a thought. "I've heard that guys fantasize about girl-on-girl action as a warmup to a threesome, so maybe that gives us more of a pass than gay boys would get."
"But you still get harassed a lot," Chou observed cautiously.
"Yeah, I still get harassed a lot."
Molly looked a bit thoughtful, and then, not surprisingly, she decided to change the subject. "Do you have a girlfriend?"
At those words, I couldn't help but think of Debra, and a smile spread unbidden across my face.
"Who is she? What's her name?" Molly had read my expression.
"Debra," I answered. "Cornflower. She graduated last year."
"How do you know she's the one?" Chou asked bluntly.
I chuckled, smiling pleasantly. "We're ... soul-bonded," I replied, noticing the two of them exchange glances. "When we dream-walked together, we bonded to each other."
"Have you ...?" Molly blurted out. I gawked at her, open-mouthed that she would ask such a question; Chou was also slack-jawed, but she was also blushing furiously.
"That's kind of personal," I said, trying to look stern, but memories of my special time with Deb probably put an uninvited smile on my face again. From her giggles, I knew that I hadn't hidden my feelings at all. "And no, I'm not going to kiss and tell, so don't even ask, please." A naughty smile crept over my face. "Turnabout is fair play. How about you two?" Seeing Molly's slight blush and Chou's jaw drop made me giggle. "Just kidding."
Wednesday, May 23, 2007 - Afternoon
Behind Holbrook Arena, Whateley Academy
"Tell me what happened, Kayda," Mr. Two Knives directed me.
The four of us - Chou, Molly, me, and my tutor - sat in the warm sun in a clearing in the woods behind Holbrook. It wasn't where we trained and sparred and rode horses; that ground was rather torn up by heavy use. In fact, that was the second area we'd been using, and we were now on the third training area. Mr. Two Knives, in keeping with traditions of respecting nature, hadn't allowed us to completely destroy one area, but moved us to another so the previous areas could 'heal'. No doubt we'd move again if we disturbed the ground too much.
I shot a sideways glance at Chou, and my features were probably clouded by my displeasure at my performance. "She kicked my ass - again," I grumbled. "Just like she always does."
"Yes, but why?" Billy demanded.
I wasn't in a mood to be particularly charitable to my own skills. "Because I suck at this!" My crossed arms and scowl punctuated my general disposition.
My instructor sighed heavily. Some days, I probably would have tried the patience of a saint, and that day was one of them. "Kayda," he scolded me gently.
"Well, it's true!" I was highly frustrated by the training; Chou had beaten me in all three matches. "What the hell am I supposed to do when my ghost-walking can't fool her and her sword, and the wind and earth spirits don't tell me where she is?" Chou and Molly were both looking nervously at me, as if I'd gone off the deep end. Maybe they didn't understand what it was like to be humiliated time after time after time!
"And how much longer has Chou been training?" Mr. Two Knives asked calmly.
"I don't know. A bunch?" I replied.
"I had basic martial arts and special mentoring last fall," Chou said almost apologetically. "In the winter term, I had a special mentor for weapons and combat training in addition to special topics martial arts, and this term I'm in advanced Aikido, not to mention my ongoing mentoring with Ms. Stone."
"See?" I griped. "There's no way I can ever beat her! Not with all the training she's had!"
Mr. Two Knives shook his head sadly, looking down. "Your goal is not to beat Chou," he said with a heavy sigh.
"No? What is it then? To get my butt kicked every day?" My eyes drifted shut as I shook my head slowly. "The fact that she's so experienced doesn't make losing all the time suck any less."
"Your goal is to learn. The problem, Kayda, is that you don't like to lose."
He just stared at me for several awkward moments, his eyes narrow and a frown of displeasure signaling his disapproval of my attitude. When I flinched, looking down to avoid his judgmental gaze, he continued. "Chou, when you're fighting, how much do you think about your sword?" Mr. Two Knives asked her.
Puzzled, she frowned. "I ... I don't think about it!" she stammered in reply.
"That's your problem, Kayda," my tutor pointed out. "You're still learning how to use your weapons, and so you're thinking about your weapons." He turned to Chou. "How do you practice with your sword?"
Chou seemed surprised by the question. "I do tai chi every morning to train my body to move with the sword. My sword is part of me in those exercises."
Mr. Two Knives nodded. "It would help if you had some ... katas, for lack of a better word ... to help you learn to move with your weapons instead of having to think about them."
"Last I checked," I tried to sound a little light-hearted and not so gloom-and-doom, but I wasn't sure if I succeeded, "Lakota warriors don't have a lot of katas to train with."
"True," Mr. Two Knives observed.
"But maybe ...." Chou began.
Mr. Two Knives perked up. "Go on," he urged her.
"In special topics in the winter term, we were using various weapons, and the kama is sort of like a tomahawk, and the sai is sort of like Kayda's knife."
"Of course!" he said, his face lighting up. "Those katas should help you be one with your weapons so you don't think, but instead move."
"Just great," I groaned. "More training."
"Who's the instructor?"
"Mrs. Beaumont," Chou replied without having to think. "But since the tomahawk is a little different, maybe Chaka would be better, because she's got the ki thing going and instinctively picks up weapons and techniques.
"I'm already working a bit on Sundays with Toni to help in my martial arts," I commented. "For all the good that does!" I added, not concealing my weariness with how slowly I was learning martial arts.
"I'll set up a meeting with them," Mr. Two Knives sounded enthusiastic, figuring that he'd found a way to improve my training, "and we'll see if we can find something that'll work."
"You mean, like ... maybe they can make some custom katas for my weapons?" I wasn't really excited about the prospect of even more homework and exercises, but I couldn't help feeling a tiny bit hopeful. A couple of mornings when I got up early because I couldn't sleep, I'd seen Toni and Chou and a few others doing Tai Chi early in the morning, and they looked so graceful. More importantly, as I thought about it, I could see the graceful moves of her Tai Chi routine were a fundamental part of how she used Destiny's Wave.
"Exactly," Mr. Two Knives replied, smiling that I was at least a trifle enthusiastic again.
"Okay." It was a struggle to keep hope and excitement out of my voice; custom katas would indicate that I was special and unique with my weapons and style - something that I didn't realize I desperately wanted.
Mr. Two Knives stood with deceptive speed and grace. "Let's get in a little friendly archery competition, and then we'll call it a day."
That went mostly okay. Chou and I were by now pretty even in horse archery and in standing archery, and when we finished, there was only a point separating us. In standing archery, however, Molly cleaned our clocks, and then was such a good winner that she smugly stuck her tongue out as us 'losers'. I wasn't convinced that teaching her how to enchant her arrows had been a good idea; it was hard to tell if she'd used a little magic to help her arrows fly truer to the targets.
Besides the packet of gummy bears that Mr. Two Knives had for a prize for standing archery, which had Molly giddy and bouncing around, I'd wagered a jar of Mom's jelly that I'd win. I was going to have to have Mom send me another jar; when I paid off the foolish bet, I'd only have one half-empty jar left. Word about Mom's jelly had spread rapidly through the cafeteria, and it was even getting interest from Chef Peter and a few faculty members.
We could have headed right back to Laird Hall, but at Chou's suggestion, we instead spent some time just free-riding, enjoying the pleasant afternoon and the feeling of being free and unfettered on our steeds. Of course, I had to rub it in to Chou that I was riding bareback, whereas she had to rely on a saddle. Judging from the look on her face, I suspected she'd defy her mentor and start riding bareback sometimes just to show me that she was as good a rider as I was.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007 - Late Afternoon
Franks Family Farm, South Dakota
Shutting off the diesel engine of the tractor, Danny Franks set the brake and opened the door to the cab, stepping down. It was so much easier a few months ago, even though it was the dead of winter, because he'd had a brother to help with the chores, and Brandon had always taken the harder tasks, but since Brandon had manifested as Kayda and had gone to Whateley, Danny found himself doing many of the chores himself, although his mom had been helping with the lighter tasks, like gathering eggs and milking the cow. And his dad had been putting in fewer hours in the implement dealership to help. Nevertheless, it cut into his free time for socializing with his friends.
Kayda's manifestation and change could have seriously impacted his social standing; after all, mutants were really feared in rural South Dakota, and the incidents and trial had strained some friendships, but overall, his life hadn't changed a lot. Scott and his younger brother Tim hated Danny, of course, because Scott now carried a conviction of misdemeanor assault and was facing possible federal civil rights charges for trying to shoot Kayda in public. But that wasn't Danny's fault, and realistically, with attempted murder and rumors about the group raping his sister, Scott and his little retinue were really unpopular.
As Danny backed down the ladder from the tractor's cab, he felt a little lightheaded, and as his head spun, he lost his handhold and fell from the lowest step, crumpling to the ground.
* - * - * - *
Oh! Now this is heavenly! a sultry female voice purred. I'm really going to like this!
Trying to steady himself from a spinning head and resultant stomach flip-flops, Danny tried to sit up. "Hello?" he asked hesitantly in response to the voice he'd heard. He tried to look around but was instantly rewarded with a resurgence of nausea.
Hello yourself! Oooh, Wakan Tanka was right! This is just divine! the voice continued.
Being much more careful after his first abortive attempt to look, Danny managed to slowly and cautiously glance around. "Who's there?" There seemed to be no-one else in the shop with him, just a couple of tractors, one of which hissed and creaked slightly as the engine cooled from very recent use.
It's just me, dear, the voice continued, putting a sultry, sexy edge on the word 'dear'.
"Where ... where are you?" Danny asked, looking around a bit more. "Show yourself." Seeing no one, he shook his head, which turned out to be a bad move, as he had to fight a new wave of nausea and pain. "I've got to be dreaming," he muttered to himself.
I can't show myself. Not yet, anyway! And besides, where do you think I am? the voice chuckled. She said you might be confused at first. Humans usually are.
"You're in my head?" Danny speculated very hesitantly, nervous if not terrified of the possible answer.
Of course, darling!
"How can you be in my head?" The answer caused his heart to race and he began to hyperventilate. "You can't be in my head!"
You know the answer, darling! You're an avatar, just like your sister!
Danny's head spun again, but for a different reason, and he promptly passed out
* - * - * - *
"Mom!" Danny cried, running into the house. "Mom!"
June Franks knew panic when she heard it, and panic was present in Danny's voice. "Are you okay, honey?" she asked as she rose from her project on the kitchen table, going into full 'Mom' mode, which meant that she completely forgot that Danny no longer liked being called honey, sweetie, dear, or any other terms parents used for younger children.
"I'm ... hearing a voice in my head!" Danny reported frantically. "I ... I think maybe I ... manifested! Like Kayda!"
June frowned. "Are you sure?"
"I got dizzy climbing down from the tractor. I think I passed out. When I came to, I ... I heard a voice, but there wasn't anyone around!"
June scooted her son into a chair, immediately starting to examine his head. "Did you hit your head?"
"I ... I think so," Danny said. "I've got a bad headache."
"Then you're probably just imagining things," June explained as she probed for a lump, finding a small one on the back of her son's head. "You haven't heard it since, have you?"
Danny winced. "Noooo ...," he said hesitantly. "But ... why would I imagine ...?"
"Honey, I know you've got the gene complex thing, and I know you're kind of hoping that you'll manifest and get cool powers like your sister," June said soothingly as she got an ice pack from the freezer, wrapped it in a kitchen towel, and handed it to Danny, "but it's probably just from hitting your head."
"Maybe you're right," Danny admitted, placing the ice pack against the lump.
"Of course I'm right," June said with a smile, patting his shoulder. "A mother is always right."
"I'm going to rest on the sofa for a bit."
Wednesday May 23, 2007 - Before Dinner
Private Training Room, Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
"I think that will be enough for today," Tatsuo Ito said after he straightened and backed to the edge of the mat.
"I'm not tired, Sensei," Tansy replied, almost eager to continue her training.
"I am," Clover, also on the mat with her friends Abra and Palantir, whined. "You're makin' us work too hard! Right Pally?"
"Don't call me that," Palantir hissed to her friend. "Yeah. This is hard! It's supposed to be fun and cool and all Karate Kid and stuff!"
"A bonsai doesn't grow overnight ...," Ito said philosophically.
"Only by patient pruning and shaping does one get the desired result," Tansy completed Ito's statement, scowling at the impatient little witches. She straightened up, taking an authoritarian stance, towering over them. "You girls go shower. I'll meet you in a moment."
Nodding, the three junior-high girls bowed to Ito and scampered off toward the showers.
"I would hate to keep you from your dinner and your dining companions, Miss Walcutt," Ito commented sardonically after the three witches were in the locker room.
"These days, my circle of friends is rather ... limited." Tansy saw Ito's eyebrow shoot up. "As I've told you," the exemplar girl continued, a note of sadness in her voice, "I made some very poor choices as to friends and acquaintances, and now it's time to pay the piper."
"Do you count Miss Nalley among your ... poor choices?"
Tansy's eyes widened and her jaw dropped in surprise, at least momentarily, before she could compose herself.
"Or were you thinking more of Sebastiano, Hamper, Damper, Icer, and the other ex-Alpha bullies? If they are ... regrettable choices," Ito observed with a carefully-neutral expression, "your regret must be small since you still talk with them."
"The situation is ...," Tansy actually bit her lower lip, "complicated."
Ito shrugged. "It's your business. And you shouldn't be surprised," he said with a wry smile. "Your motives and schemes are pretty transparent." He observed the girl closely for a brief moment. "To be completely honest, your diligence in training surprises me. I wasn't sure that you were serious."
"As I said, I had a minor ... epiphany." She smiled at Ito. "I have time to correct my errors. I told you I would be a serious student."
"Your earlier classes quite obviously weren't a complete waste of time since you seem to have remembered some skills, but you could have been a better student."
"Better late than never," Tansy said. She bowed formally to Ito. "Thank you for your instruction today, Ito Soke."
Ito bowed to her, they watched her quick-step to the locker room - no doubt to make sure her charges weren't making mischief. He stared after the exemplar beauty, frowning ever so slightly. "You are playing a deep game, Miss Walcutt. Are you sure you're up to the challenge?"
Wed May 23, 2007, Dinnertime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"How's this?" Mr. Two Knives asked, gesturing toward a table in a small conference room to one side of the faculty dining room. It had a glass wall facing the main dining hall, probably so faculty could have private discussions with students without allowing any appearance of impropriety.
"Okay, I guess," I answered uneasily, certain that every faculty and staff member in the dining room were most likely staring disapprovingly at me because I was intruding in their sacred domain.
Mr. Two Knives held the glass door open for me, allowing it to close behind himself after he followed me in. At his gesture, I set my tray down and eased into a chair, while he took a seat on the opposite side of the table. "I think you'll find the food a little better than in the student section."
I nodded mutely; on my tray, I had a beautiful piece of grilled salmon with some kind of fragrant sauce, with asparagus and what looked like chunks of potato in a creamy, cheesy sauce. "If this is what the chefs always bring to Ayla," I commented, staring at the delectable food on my plate, "I understand why he bribes them."
He let me have a few bites of food before he began to talk about the day's training. It was probably a good thing, too; his analyses could be brutally frank, and to be honest, after the sparring with Chou, I expected to lose my appetite at his post-mortem.
"What happened in the sparring today?" he asked simply. "And yesterday?"
"In what way?" I asked cautiously, not sure where he was going with his comments.
"It seems like you've lost control these past several days."
I frowned. "It's ... very distracting to have Molly cheering for Chou all the time," I said defensively.
Mr. Two Knives looked impassively at me. "When you get in a group simulation in the arena, you don't get distracted by all the other fighting that's happening around you. You didn't let yourself get distracted fighting the Canotila. You didn't get distracted fighting the boys in your hometown. You didn't get distracted fighting the son of Unhcegila."
I sat quietly, not wanting to volunteer anything.
"I could feel that you lost focus on the wind and earth spirits. You were fighting too aggressively because you were getting angry."
"I wasn't angry," I countered.
"You were angry and you let yourself lose focus," he explained patiently."
I let my head tilt down, my gaze at the edge of the table. "I .... All I do is lose when I spar," I grumbled. "It doesn't feel like I'm getting any better, because I always get my butt kicked."
"And you really hate to lose, don't you?"
I nodded slightly. "Yeah."
"That dislike of losing is making you fight aggressively."
"I'm In'oka. I'm supposed to fight aggressively!"
Mr. Two Knives sighed, shaking his head slowly as he looked at me, disappointment in his eyes. "If that's what you think, then maybe you weren't really ready to be In'oka."
To say I was stunned would have been a gross understatement. "But ...." I stammered, my eyes wide as saucers. His words stung painfully.
"You haven't learned the lessons Tatanka is teaching you. You're focused on Hoka, the badger. You approach every fight like Hoka." My tutor looked intently into my eyes. "You've forgotten the patience of the cougar, Igmu Taka. You're neglecting the big picture view of the hawk, Ceda. You are not even trying to be cunning like the fox, Sugila. When you fight, you are aggressive and focused to the point of being predictable."
By that point, I was pouting and sulking, looking down at my plate and resting my forehead in one hand with my elbow propped on the table. Mr. Two Knives hadn't mentioned anything that I was doing right, at least not that I'd really heard. I had certainly completely lost my appetite because of the criticism and wasn't paying close attention.
"Who teaches deception and misdirection?" he asked.
"The coyote, Sunmanitu," I mumbled unenthusiastically, not even looking at him. Better to answer - even if half-heartedly - than to have him continue to berate and lecture me.
"Kayda," he said, his voice less harsh, but still a bit reproving. When I didn't deign to look up, he spoke again to get my attention a little more insistently, "Kayda," he repeated in a voice that was much less critical, more along the line of how Dad and Mom used to try to get my attention to let me know that even if I was in trouble, they still cared.
With a heavy sigh, I looked up.
"Kayda," he continued when he had my attention, "you're only sixteen. You're still learning, and you're going to make mistakes. You'll be making mistakes when you're my age - just like I still do! Sulking and pouting about your mistakes does not help you learn from them."
I knew what he was trying to say - that I was human, and making mistakes was a part of being human. But it still stung. That crack about not being ready to be In'oka hurt a lot.
After an uncomfortable pause, Mr. Two Knives took out his cell phone and fiddled a bit, then handed it to me. "What does it say?"
The picture was a meme someone had done; it was a picture of five wolves in the snow, their fur gray and white. Above the wolves was a caption. "Be strong enough to stand alone," I read the words, "be yourself enough to stand apart, but be wise enough to stand together when the time comes."
"Hoka stands alone. You never see a group of badgers fighting as one," he said softly as I continued to stare at the picture. "The bear Mato stands alone. The hawk and eagle, Ceda and Wabli, hunt alone. The cougar Igmu Taka - who is my spirit animal - stands alone." He gave me a smile, which cut through some of my feeling sorry for myself. "All of them fight well - as individuals. But the People are more like the elk, Hehaka, who seeks his own kind for company, and Tatanka and the prairie dog, Pispiza, who dwells in a community. As warriors, we are more like Sugmanitu Hota, who lives with his clan. One wolf alone cannot bring down a buffalo, but together the pack can."
I shook my head, trying to sort out my thoughts. "I'm ... confused," I finally said softly. "I thought ... being In'oka meant I had to fight like a badger."
Mr. Two Knives nodded. "And you need to fight like Hoka," he said, "sometimes. I had a DI many, many years ago who pounded something into all of us jarhead newbies - 'a one-size-fits-all solution generally fits every situation equally poorly.' What does that suggest to you about what we've been talking about?"
I frowned; sometimes, I could be stubborn and I had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to a conclusion. "That one fighting style isn't always good?"
"I know the Marine Corps LINE fighting style and Krav Maga, but I bet you didn't know that I'm spending my free time with Mr. Fitzgibbons learning Dragon-style kung fu and with Mr. Junzo learning advanced Aikido?" If he intended to make me gawk at him, he succeeded. "I know how to fight like Igmu Taka, but that's not enough." He smiled again. "Why do you think there are so many different spirit animals? Why do you think there are so many variants in kung fu? Each has its strengths, and each has its weaknesses. Do you understand?"
"I guess. I have to learn more fighting styles," I replied unenthusiastically.
"Kayda," he said gently, "please manifest Tatanka."
As I summoned the great white beast I had a sinking feeling that he was going to agree with my tutor.
He didn't disappoint me. "Your teacher speaks wisely, Wihakayda," the white bison said in his gruff voice. "You should know that." He sat back on his haunches like a puppy dog. "Why do you think I introduce you to all the different animal spirits?"
"The rest of this term," Mr. Two Knives continued, "I want you to focus on the lessons of the wolf, both in your training and in your life. Outside of your training, you need to remember the lessons of the otter, Ptan, and the hummingbird, Thanagila, and not be so serious all the time."
"In the simulations ...." I started to protest indignantly.
"The others in the Nations always choose you as leader, and your tactics usually play to your strengths, not necessarily those of the team," he finished sternly.
"A good leader is a good follower," Tatanka added gruffly.
I sighed heavily. "I know," I mumbled, letting my head droop out of fatigue and frustration. "It just that every time I think I'm getting a handle on something, someone shows me how bad I am at it." I shook my head, trying not to get too down on myself but not quite succeeding. "Chou kicks my ass all the time! Sometimes, I feel like I'm not learning anything."
"Who says you're not learning anything?" a voice said from the doorway behind me, startling me. I turned to see who was intruding on what I thought was a private conversation. The woman appeared to be in her mid-thirties - but as I knew from Mrs. Carson and Circe, looks were often deceiving at Whateley. She was dressed quite casually - cargo pants, tennis-shoes, and a lightweight sweater - and her light brown hair was pulled back in a short ponytail. The thing that I noticed most, however, was that her green eyes seemed to radiate calmness and tranquility.
"May I join you?" she asked politely.
Judging from his reaction, Mr. Two Knives wasn't at all surprised by her presence; in fact, he was acting like he was expecting her. "By all means." He politely stood and held a chair for her to sit, then resumed his own seat. "Kayda, I'd like to introduce you to Rebecca Stone ...."
"You're ... Chou's tutor?" I couldn't help stammering.
"Yes," she answered simply. "Her guardians asked me to help her. Another of my roles in life has been a healer, and I couldn't help but notice the healing you've done on the girl with the piercings."
"Yes. Quite a remarkable accomplishment."
I looked down, feeling my cheeks burning with embarrassment at the praise. "It's nothing really."
"Nothing?" Ms. Stone asked with a chuckle. "You purge Mythos Magic from her cursed piercings, and you say it's nothing?" I looked up in surprise and saw her warm smile. "All of the magic department is talking about it, and you have the temerity to say you're learning nothing?"
"It's ... it's really hard," I said, wincing. "It took everything I had and more - I couldn't have done it without Circe and Dr. Tenent, and even then, I ... I almost failed." I halted abruptly, not knowing what else to say. There was a reason she had joined us, but I wasn't in the mood to play guessing games, so I just sat silently.
"In answer to your unspoken question, I asked Billy if I could speak with you."
My eyebrows arched. "Why?"
"You're a shaman healer and magic user," Ms. Stone said simply. "I'm interested in learning about your healing traditions, and perhaps there are a few ancient Chinese traditions and methods that might be of use to you."
"More private lessons?" I groaned. "Sure, why not! It's not like I need to take time for all three meals or that I need more than three or four hours of sleep." I couldn't stop myself from sounding totally sarcastic.
"Kayda!" Mr. Two Knives said sternly, his one-word reprimand more than enough. I nodded, properly rebuked. "In exchange, Ms. Stone is going to help me with instructing you and Chou."
That got my attention. "What?"
"The martial arts I know are pure violence," he said. "There is no ... philosophical component to Krav Maga or LINE, no balance. No center. Not like the Eastern traditions."
"From what Billy has told me, you're trying to learn balance through nature spirits," Ms. Stone added, smiling pleasantly. "The Tao is also about balance. I think the two philosophies could be complementary, and another perspective of balance will help both of you."
"You're both getting so competitive that you're forgetting your lessons. For the rest of this term," he glanced at Ms. Stone, "we'll focus on the style of Sugmanitu Hota, of being part of a pack. I expect to see that in your sparring and in your simulations."
Wednesday May 23, 2007 - After Dinner
Room 407, Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy
Sprawled face-down on the bed, propped on my elbows, I looked at Alicia, who was consulting a calendar. "Well," I said, looking expectantly at my friend, "what does it look like?"
Alicia wrinkled her nose, frowning at the same time. "Ah have a family get-together right after Ah get home, and Ah don't think Ah can get out of it." She looked at her roommate and then at me. "If it's like the last family bash, it'll be borin' as sin. Ah'd hate to subject y'all to that kind of misery."
Addy giggled. "Surely it can't be that bad!"
Alicia groaned, a sour expression on her face. "Y'all ain't never met my uncle Herbert! He'd either drive you bat-crap crazy or bore you to tears."
"I can't let my roommate suffer alone," Addy said sympathetically. "I shall just 'ave to be brave and go with you for moral support. I would 'ate to 'ave you driven fou and 'ave to break in a new roommate," she added with a giggle.
"That's mighty brave of y'all," Alicia chuckled, "but Ah'm more worried about your sanity!"
I felt the corners of my mouth turn up in a smile. "If you go down a week early, that it gives me time… with the Sioux Falls League." I know I had a dreamy look in my eyes, which the other two girls instantly recognized.
"Yeah, right!" Alicia giggled.
"I'm ... way behind on ... on ancient Greek history!" I protested weakly, very obviously scrambling for an excuse.
"The only thing you want to study is your girlfriend!" Addy laughed.
I felt my cheeks burning with embarrassment as my two friends joked. "Well," I said hesitantly and softly, "maybe I do miss Debra a little."
"And maybe I'm just a little bit French!" Addy said with a giggle.
"Okay," Alicia drawled, "we'll give y'all a little time to get some nookie!"
I responded maturely by sticking out my tongue at her. Hearing Addy giggling, I turned to the French girl. "Like you have room to talk!" I teased her. "Since you started dating Ayla, I bet Alicia seldom sees you in the room." But when I saw the glimpse of sadness and Alicia's eyes before the girl looked down, and I knew instantly why the Cajun girl was sad. I practically leapt off the bed and plopped down beside her, wrapping my arm around her shoulder supportively. "I'm sorry," I said, hoping my voice echoed my genuine regret for what I had said. Addy and I knew only too well that Alicia was jealous that we had special people in their lives and she didn't.
It really wasn't fair, I thought to myself. Before I came to Whateley, I would have considered Alicia cute, but here, surrounded by exemplars, Alicia was barely average and really didn't register on the boys' radars. Maybe Addy and I would have to enlist some of our mutual friends find someone who was interested in Alicia.
"That's okay," Alicia said unconvincingly.
"No it isn't!" I objected. "There's someone for you. In fact," I said, a twinkle in my eye, "I know a really nice, intelligent, guy down in labs would probably treat you ..."
"Y'all are not setting me up!" Alicia protested, interrupting me and frowning. "Mah grandma and mah aunt have dibs on that!" she added with a light chuckle.
"So we will go down to Louisiana, to your 'ome," Addy said, "and you will join us when you finish fooling around with your girlfriend?" she added, waggling her eyebrows knowingly at me.
"How long are we going to stay in Louisiana?" I asked the obvious question.
"Ah figger two weeks will be plenty for sophisticated, non- country gals like y'all," Alicia said with a grin. "More than that and y'all will start soundin' like me!"
"'Eaven forbid such a fate!" Addy giggled. "After Alicia's 'ome, where should we go next? France?"
"Somehow, Ah think France will be a little more excitin' than South Dakota!" Alicia giggled
Once more, Alicia's poking fun at me got the raspberry it deserved. "How about if we get the boring one out of the way first, and go to South Dakota second so we can end the summer on a high note in France?" I asked.
"Don't you think y'all ought to clear that with your folks and your girlfriend?"
"Yeah, probably," I replied. Immediately I dug my phone out of my purse and began to dial. "I'll get my folks and Debra on a conference call so we can settle this quickly, and then we can make our flight reservations." Since I had both numbers on speed dial it only took seconds before Mom answered.
"Hi, honey!" Mom said enthusiastically. Then she paused before continuing. "There isn't something wrong again, is there?" She sounded more than a bit worried, but that was understandable given my adventures at Whateley so far.
"No," I assured her, "nothing's wrong. We're just planning our summer travels, and we wanted to clear up ...." The sound of another line answering interrupted me.
"Hi, sweetie!" I heard Debra's voice say excitedly.
"I've got Mom on the other line, and my friends are with me on speakerphone," I said quickly to caution her against saying something she shouldn't. "We're planning our summer vacations, so we wanted to clear some schedule things with you and Mom."
"Are you still thinking of going to France?" Debra asked sounding both excited for my travel and disappointed that I wouldn't be spending all summer with her.
"Alicia has a family get-together the first week, so I figured I'd spend that with you, and then fly down to Louisiana to join Addy and Alicia at Alicia's house. Then, if everything works schedule-wise, we'll fly up to South Dakota for a little over two weeks, and then we'll fly to France, to Addy's home."
"I'm still worried about you traveling overseas alone," Mom interjected, doing her proper motherly duty of worrying. "I wish Debra was traveling with you; I'd be a lot more comfortable if you had an adult chaperone."
"Hold a sec," Debra said hastily. "Twinkletoes was talking about going to Bordeaux to see Mage Astra, but he hadn't lined up any travel dates. Let me grab him." The phone line clicked to hold. A few moments later it clicked back to life. "I've got Twinkletoes with me, so you can just ask him."
"Ask me what?" I heard Twinkletoes say in the background as he walked to the phone.
"My friends and I want to go to France this summer, to Addy's home near Bordeaux, but mom is worried about me traveling without an adult chaperone, and Debra said you might be available."
"Whatever gave her that idea?" Twinkletoes asked. I sensed that he was probably giving Debra a dirty look.
Before I could say anything, Debra answered. "You are still interested in Mage Astra, aren't you?"
"That's ... my personal business," Twinkletoes said defensively. "Besides, airfare will be kind of expensive this late in the season, and I doubt I could get a visa in time."
I was about to say something when Mom interrupted me. "If you'd chaperone the girls and keep them out of trouble," Mom said, "Pete and I would be more than willing to pay your airfare. I'd feel a lot better if they had an adult traveling with them."
"I appreciate the generous offer," Twinkletoes said hesitantly, "but that doesn't take care of the visa issue."
Before anyone could say anything else, Addy piped up, "my Aunt Teri works in the French Consulate in Boston, and I know she could get visas processed in a day or two if I asked 'er. After all I am 'er favorite niece, and she'd do almost anything for me."
"What travel dates are you looking at?" Mom asked. We discussed and argued and proposed dates for traveling for a while before we finally agreed on a schedule. To Addy's dismay, both Alicia and I insisted on spending a couple of days in Paris. That, in turn, caused Mom to caution me about spending all her money while we were traveling.
I could tell it was going to be a very fun summer, but at the same time I felt disappointment that I wouldn't be sharing all of it with Debra. After visiting me twice already at Whateley, she didn't have enough vacation time to travel with me. Still, I'd get to spend time at the beginning, middle, and end of the summer with my love.
We talked another half-hour with Twinkletoes about what we were going to do in France, and after I hung up my phone, Addy and Alicia and I probably talked another hour, getting more and more excited as the night wore on. We all knew it was good to be a very fun summer.
Wed, May 23, 2007, Evening
Dream World of the Ptesanwi
Sky sat next to Cav at the fire circle drinking the healing tea that I'd made for all of us. The last time we'd dream-walked, I'd found it necessary to do the tongues spell on them so they weren't intimidated or frightened by Wakan Tanka, so I'd started this dream walk the same.
Sky looked better than the first time I'd walked with her; in taking out a few more piercings, I'd given her reason to start feeling confident about herself again. Her mental image of herself still wore a very short, low-necked dress, with slut-heeled shoes and too much makeup, but her skin now had a healthier glow, not sallow like before, and she didn't have the needle-track arms of a junkie. In the real world, in our last healing session, I'd removed the hideous piercings in her tongue - although how she managed to stomach the healing brew on her taste buds was beyond me. We still had a ways to go; there were five piercings in each ear, and she had a nose ring and a stud on the side of her nose, plus two piercings in each nipple and some ... below, but with what we'd cleaned up already and support from the group, she looked a lot calmer and was slowly regaining her confidence.
In contrast, however, judging from his outer appearance, it was obvious that Cav wasn't nearly as far along in his recovery. I could tell how much of a struggle it was for his psyche to try to overcome having been a victim of such horrific crimes. I understood what he felt well, but I wished that he'd listen to me and talk to Cody. I knew the bear could help him, maybe more than I could.
"I think we're done for the night," I suggested after we'd talked for quite a while, enjoying the serene setting and the healing tea and giving the two horribly-abused lovers a chance to let their hair down, so to speak, because they didn't have to be constantly on guard about what they said or worry about what someone might be whispering behind their backs.
"I hope it's easier for you to talk to Dr. Bellows," I added, speaking to Cav.
"Thank you for whatever you did for him," Skybolt said cautiously. "He told me it's easier for him to discuss ... things ... with the doctor now."
I could sense something in her tone of voice. She seemed a little bit apprehensive, because she didn't know what I'd shown Cav to get him to open up. Wakan Tanka sensed it as well.
"You must show her, Wihakayda," my spirit mentor said out of the blue.
"What?" I practically screamed, getting the attention of both of them.
"Look at her," Wakan Tanka said as if they couldn't understand her. "Do you not see the tension in her, the way she looks at you? She knows you are keeping a secret, and it affects her trust of you."
Sky goggled at her, and then glanced furtively at me. In that instant, I knew that my mentor was correct. "Yeah," I said softly. "I know."
Sky glanced nervously between my mentor and me. "I ..." she started to say, hesitating.
"I have to extend my trust to you so that you fully trust me," I finally said. "I have no magic to keep you from sharing what you will see. Only your honor." I looked very intently into her eyes. "Do I have your word?"
Sky gulped nervously, and then glanced at Cav. He gave her a shrug, not deigning to speak for her on a matter this grave. With a nod, she answered, "Jawohl. On my honor I will keep your secret."
Nodding, I stood, offering her my hand to help her up. She glanced at Cav, who seemed a little pale. He shook his head. "I'm ... I can't ... I can't watch that again," he said, his voice cracking. "I'm ... I'm sorry, Elaine."
I put my hand on his shoulder reassuringly. "I'm not asking you to. And she'll understand in a few minutes. Rest. Have some more tea." With that, I took Sky's hand and led her out of camp, to a place where I could show her my dark memories.
Skybolt was pale when I escorted her back to camp, visibly nauseated from what she'd seen. Cav stood and helped her sit down, and Wakan Tanka had a special tea waiting for her. A couple of sips of the beverage restored some of her color, and she no longer looked like she was going to hurl.
"Now you know," I said simply as I sat down, somewhat shell-shocked myself. It was still very, very difficult to watch.
"Mein Gott!" Skybolt said over and over. "No wonder!"
"Yeah. I grew up thinking of girls as partners. I dated girls, I ... yeah." I felt my cheeks burn a little bit at the strong implication. "And then I changed. I couldn't be anything but a lesbian."
"They ... they were trying to kill you!" Sky exclaimed softly.
I nodded. "Now you can very clearly see that rape is not about sex. It's about domination and control and inflicting pain. It's about hurting the victim." Maria's words rang just as true for me then as they did the first time she'd spoken them to me. "They were trying to kill me in the most humiliating, painful way possible. They'd have done the same thing if I'd still been a boy."
The two were staring into the fire, eyes half-glazed from our conversation and what I'd shown them. I decided to not let things get more morose. "Well," I said, pulling myself to my feet, "if we're okay for the night, we can end the dream-walk and then we can go to Doyle for a healing."
Cav nodded, eager to escape this place that reminded him of seeing my assault and thus indirectly of his own assaults, and Sky agreed. "Can we do ...." She hesitated, not quite sure of herself.
"Go on," I urged her, thinking I already knew what she wanted to ask.
Sky looked at Cav and swallowed nervously. "As long as they are there," she said uneasily, "I feel like a ... a ... Hure!" She spat the final word disgustedly; even in German, the word's meaning was only too clear.
I shuddered involuntarily as I realized what she was asking. "Um," I stammered, "that's ... um ... pretty ...."
If there was one talent Skybolt had, it was the innocent, doe-eyed pleading look. "Please," she begged, almost batting her baby-blues at me. "I ... I can't stand them! They make me feel so ... cheap!"
I gazed steely-eyed at the German girl for a few seconds before I sighed and nodded. "To be honest, I was hoping to put those three off for a while, but ... okay." She was good, but not nearly as good as Jade.
Forgetting almost everything in her joy, Skybolt launched herself at me, wrapping me in a massive embrace. "Danke schoen!" she repeated several times enthusiastically. Tears of happiness were trying to leak from the corners of her eyes. "Viel danke!"
Wed May 23, 2007, Evening
Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy
With only a sheet covering her naked body, Skybolt shivered in the chilled air of Doyle. Cav sat in a chair beside the bed, holding her hand lovingly while I prepared the brews and ingredients I would need. Dr. Tenent was nearby to supply me with extra essence - just in case - and to remove the piercings at the right time in the sequence of rituals. One thing that these healings had made me realize was that I needed more control over my well and my will. I really, really didn't like Mrs. Carson's restrictions on how much I was allowed to do on my own, but I realized it was because of my lack of control - though I'd never tell her that. Learning that control gave me more essence for other things as well. I'd really been studying and practicing hard to get the kind of control I really needed so I wouldn't need babysitting on my essence. Nikki seemed pleased with my progress.
"Knock, knock!" a familiar voice called from the door. I looked up from what I was doing and recognized Ms. Stone standing in the doorway. "I heard you were doing a healing, and I wondered if you'd mind if I observe."
"I wouldn't mind," I answered, eliciting a gasp of surprise from Skybolt, "but it's not my call. It's pretty personal, so I think you need to get permission from the patient."
"Spoken like a true resident," Dr. Tenent chuckled. She walked over to the bed beside Skybolt. "Really, it is your call. Before you decide, though, Ms. Stone is faculty and she's a long-standing practitioner of Eastern Asian healing and medicine."
"Yes," Ms. Stone agreed, "and after talking with Kayda, I'd like to see her healing arts in action, as it were, so I can compare them to my own and maybe learn a trick or two."
"More likely, find places where I'm screwing up, like every other faculty member seems to like to do," I muttered under my breath. That got a soft giggle from Skybolt; she and Cav had a lot of experience with Whateley teachers, so she appreciated my dry humor. Sky was still very uncertain, so I sidled over next to Ms. Stone. "Skybolt has some piercings that are cursed by dark magic. The ones I'm working on today are in a very ... personal spot."
"Oh!" Ms. Stone mouthed to me. She put a smile on her face and turned toward Sky. "If it's personal, I don't want to intrude. I can ...."
"No," Skybolt gulped nervously, glancing at me and then back at Ms. Stone, "maybe it would be better ... if you stayed?"
I could have been offended that she didn't completely trust me, given where her piercings were, but I decided not to be. "I understand," I said softly to her with what I hoped was a gentle smile. "Don't worry about it."
Dr. Tenent leaned over to Cav. "We're about to get started, so you're going to have to leave," she whispered. I was close enough to hear, and my jaw dropped at what she said next. "I know you and Elaine have been intimate, but we do have to keep up appearances."
Cav was startled and blushing, but he followed Dr. Tenent's direction, pausing to give Elaine a kiss. At least now he was confident in my ability after we'd done four previous healings and decontaminations on her. Whether he fully trusted me in the current procedure was another story.
I'd found a few ways to streamline the process to save time and to conserve essence; with Ms. Stone watching me, I mixed up the healing and decontamination brews. While I knew the spells very well by that point - thanks to extra training by Wakan Tanka - I was nervous being observed by Ms. Stone; it was bad enough when Mrs. Carson, Circe, and Dr. Tenent had been scrutinizing my every move, and I was slowly resigning myself to having all my spells and potions under the microscope until I graduated.
Ms. Stone was pleased that I explained what I was doing as I mixed the potions; I had to do it then, because once we got started, I wouldn't have time for Q and A. I started with a mild healing and pain relief tea to calm her; we'd discovered that it made her ordeal significantly less painful. Immediately after that, she drank the foul decontamination brew and I slipped into dream space, where I did battle with the monstrous, living tapestry of magics to remove the shaman threads. Unlike the previous battles, I managed thus far without needing an essence boost from Dr. Tenent.
When I came out of dream space - battered as usual - I marked Skybolt with the decontamination brew and after Dr. Tenent removed the piercings, I poured on the rest of the foul liquid and then slipped back into dream space to finish off the remaining spell fragments. There was something different about this spell, and it took a little longer to unravel. I thought I recognized bits of it from what I'd learned from Wakan Tanka, which made me think I should have a talk with Skybolt in private to see if my suspicions were correct.
Once that was done, I let the doctor recharge me with essence, even though I figured I'd be able to complete this healing without more. But with what I was battling and healing, there was no real point in risking running out of essence. I painted Sky with the ritual markings again, and then performed the healing ritual, wobbling a lot as I finished. At least I didn't pass out and face-plant like I had the first three times I'd done this.
Feeling very tired, I let Ms. Stone lead me out of the room to a small lounge, where she mixed up some kind of Chinese herbal tea. It was refreshing and I didn't feel as fatigued, but I was sure I'd have to have someone walk me back to Poe to make sure I didn't pass out.
"Do you have enough energy to talk about your medical healing?"
I nodded. "There's one thing I have to discuss with Elaine first, if you don't mind."
When she nodded, I went back to the room Sky was in; she was resting peacefully, and I thought she was asleep. I started to leave, but she stirred, causing me to halt. "You said there was something you wanted to talk about?"
I scooted a chair beside her bed and sat down. "I told you that the spell seemed ... different?" She nodded uncertainly. "I have to ask you something kind of personal. Have you been ... kind of ... promiscuous?" I queried hesitantly.
Her steely gaze was a little unnerving, and I thought I'd crossed a line. But then she nodded as her eyes started tearing up. "Ja," she said very softly as the tears began to pour forth. "I ... sometimes cannot help myself. It's as though ...."
I put my hand on hers to reassure her. "I told you there was something about the spell. From what shaman magic I've learned, it seemed similar to a libido spell. My guess is that it was placed there to greatly enhance your ... desires."
"Oh?" Skybolt looked both intrigued and concerned. "What will happen now?"
"You should feel a lot less aroused," I said softly. "It may take a bit of getting used to, since your drive has been in overdrive up for over a year."
"So I won't constantly feel like I need ...?"
"To hump any guy near you? No." I patted her hand. "If you find the, um, opposite problem, talk to me. I've got a tea which can help with that - when you want."
She started bawling at that, which confused me, but then I realized that she'd been under one spell or another for so long that the thought of feeling normal was overwhelming to her. I leaned over the bed and let her cling to me, giving her emotional support that she desperately needed.
It didn't take Sky long to fall asleep; despite my pain-relieving potion, she had experienced some discomfort during the procedure, and with her huge emotional release, it wasn't surprising that she was physically and emotionally exhausted. I tiptoed back to the door, shocked to see that it was open a crack and Ms. Stone was watching me with a peculiar smile.
As soon as we were out in the hall, she gazed evenly at me. "A little post-procedure consultation?"
Walking with her back to the small conference room, I nodded. "Yeah. There was something ... different ... about this spell, and I had to confirm that it had been doing what I thought it had."
Ms. Stone put her hand on my shoulder. "Now, what was this nonsense you were saying about not learning anything?" I gawked at her, seeing the twinkle in her eyes. I slowly nodded, getting her message only too clearly.
Even before we sat down in the staff lounge, Ms. Stone began asking a ton of questions, and I tried to answer them, but I wasn't sure of everything, and she probably would corner me for follow-up and clarification. At the moment, though, she seemed particularly sensitive to how tired I was and kept her questions relatively simple. While Skybolt remained in Doyle to rest a little more, Chou was called to escort me back to our cottage, where I promptly collapsed in my bed and fell asleep within milliseconds.
Wed May 23, 2007, Midnight
Franks Family Farm, South Dakota
Why won't you accept that I'm here with you? the now-familiar, sexy, sultry voice asked, sounding like she was pouting a bit.
Danny bolted upright in his bed, suddenly awake. For some reason, the room seemed brighter than he was used to, even in the middle of the night when no lights were on. "Where are you?" he asked again. "Who are you?" He looked around again, puzzled.
I'm in your head. You know that!
"Why?" Danny asked plaintively. "I don't want you there!"
Silly, you're an avatar, just like your sister, the voice purred, and with all the issues she's had, Wakan Tanka was not about to leave it to chance what spirit you got!
"Wakan Tanka? Kayda's spirit?" Danny asked, dumbfounded and more than a little shocked.
Technically, Ptesanwi is her spirit, the voice said. She just channels Wakan Tanka. Good thing, too - she was free to look out for you!
"Kayda's looking out for me?" Danny stammered. "But ... she's ...."
No, silly! You're not listening. Wakan Tanka is looking out for you. She asked me to be your spirit once she knew you manifested and had an empty hallow, and I just couldn't resist! You wouldn't want to have some silly spirit, like a butterfly or a cricket or a slime mold, now, would you? She was practically purring seductively.
"But ... you sound like ...." Danny's eyes were wide open, and his mouth hung ajar as a frightening possibility entered his mind.
Like a girl? Of course I do! I'm Wihinape, the spirit of Igmu Taka! I've always been a girl!
Danny felt an icy shiver run up and down his spine several times, and panic clutched at his throat. "You're not going to ... to turn me into a girl, are you?" He started shaking, and then sobbing. "I don't wanna be a girl!"
Now why would I go and do a thing like that? the sultry voice murmured. But when she continued talking, she sounded quite contemplative. But now that you mention it, that might actually simplify things a lot.
Confused, hyperventilating, Danny welcomed the darkness as everything faded to black.
Thursday, May 24, 2007, Afternoon
Behind Holbrook Arena, Whateley Academy
Summer wheeled at the slightest pressure from my knee; we moved as one, and I was happy to feel the wind through my hair, which I had loose for a change. The spring sun was warm on my skin, and the air fresh; it was a glorious day to ride free. I'd done my share of training with my horse-bow, and I probably was being a little stubborn, but I needed some 'me' time while Chou and Molly worked with Mr. Two Knives.
In the distance, a couple hundred yards away, Mr. Two Knives was standing with two adults; the administration's club car sat next to them, and the two girls were sitting on the ground a few yards away. They were all looking my way, which worried me, so I leaned forward over Summer's neck. "Go, girl," I urged her in a whisper, while my moccasin-clad feet gently touched her flanks. She needed no more urging; she immediately put her head down, and with me hanging lightly onto her mane, accelerated quickly, galloping full-out toward the adults, while I balanced on her back, exhilarated at the raw, natural feel of riding her.
My horse pulled up sharply, her feet catching her momentum, digging into the turf, and sending a small shower of sod in front of her. I'd anticipated this, though, and brought her up short to one side of the adults; it wouldn't do at all for me to spray Mrs. Carson and Mr. Two Knives with grass and dirt. I gulped when I recognized the third man - it was Chou's mentor Guan Yu.
I slipped off Summer's back, holding her halter rope in one hand, and stepped toward the adults. "Mrs. Carson," I greeted her warily.
"I think you remember ..."
Guan Yu stepped forward, eying me critically. "You are skilled with your horse," he said in his deep, booming voice.
"But?" I asked, fully expecting some criticism from him.
He didn't disappoint me. "You would be more stable for using your bow or lance with a saddle. You could control your horse better with a regular bridle."
Maybe it was my being stubborn, or just that I really, really didn't like his condescending manner, but I was frowning very unhappily. Mr. Two Knives was smiling; I think he knew what I was thinking.
After staring unhappily at Guan Yu, I spoke. "Molly, can you give me my bow and quiver, please?" Still glaring at Guan Yu, I held out my hand and accepted my archery equipment from Molly. After strapping my quiver on my thigh, I vaulted onto Summer's back, galloping her away from the adults and parallel to the row of targets. At the end, when we turned, I paused to glare at Guan Yu again, and then I galloped down the line.
I know he expected me to merely shoot, but I had another Lakota trick in mind. Slipping to one side, I hooked one leg over Summer's haunches and an arm over her neck, and as she continued to run, I slipped down her side, using her body to shield me from the targets. After a few seconds hanging precariously on her side, I quickly pulled myself back onto her back and shot six arrows in rapid succession; five of the six hit their targets near the center. Satisfied with my demonstration, I turned and let Summer trot over to the adults.
"Let's see you do that with a saddle," I challenged Guan Yu sternly. Beside him, Billy was smiling, and Mrs. Carson was trying hard to not show a grin. "On an unsaddled pony, the enemy can't even tell that there's a warrior there."
"As I said," Guan Yu said with a nod of his head, "you are skilled. But you missed with one arrow."
Angry at his impudence, I slipped off Summer and handed my bow to Mr. Two Knives. "Chou can't do that. I bet you can't either."
Guan Yu roared with laughter, surprising me. "Don't make a wager you're certain to lose, young warrior! Over the years, I have fought in every type of terrain and battle, including mass infantry war and the raiding warfare for which your style is most suited. I've fought on foot, on chariot, and on horseback, with every weapon Chinese armies have ever used."
"The People fought in mountains and on plains, in snow and heat. Terrain and weather are no obstacles to a warrior." I thought that my tutor would be getting irritated by the Chinese man's seeming arrogance and know-it-all attitude, but he remained impossibly calm and unflappable.
"Our People fought in large battles, too," I added.
"With thousands and tens of thousands of warriors in each army, with infantry, cavalry, and archers?" Guan Yu asked, smirking at me. At least it looked like a smirk.
"The People seldom gathered in such numbers because we were nomadic tribes of hunters. But when they did, the war party could be truly fearsome, and every warrior was expected to be cavalry, infantry, and archer," Mr. Two Knives defended my position, but he seemed bemused rather than angry.
"You don't know the story of Brave Woman," I couldn't help but interrupt, which elicited a smile from Mr. Two Knives and a groan from Mrs. Carson. When Guan Yu arched his eyebrows in curiosity, I told the story of Brave Woman counting coup for her brothers. "She was a leader in a battle of armies, not a raid," I finished defiantly.
"Interesting. To shame an enemy instead of killing them?" I could tell the warlord was intrigued.
I nodded grimly. "When the Europeans came, the People learned the hard way that the newcomers had no honor. Many warriors died before they learned that the white man didn't understand and didn't respect the bravery of someone who counted coup on them." In the corner of my eye, I could see Mrs. Carson rolling her eyes at what probably sounded like cultural superiority.
"Yes, I see that such a feat would be meaningless unless the opponent had honor."
"And besides only counting coup, Brave Woman fought on horseback and on foot," I added proudly. Maybe it was cultural arrogance, but Guan Yu had needled me with is so-called superiority a little too much.
"Did the warriors of your people have blades," Guan Yu countered, "suitable for use from horseback like this," he drew a yanyuedao from what a pouch on his waist that had to be a bag of holding like Chou had. His weapon was larger than the practice one Chou used.
"We use the lance, the bow, the tomahawk, and the war club," Mr. Two Knives replied casually. "The People had no steel until the white man came and traded with us." He reached out his hand toward Guan Yu's yanyuedao. "May I?" Obligingly, the Chinese war god tossed it to him. Experimentally, my tutor swung it, getting a feel for it as he lunged and swept with the blade, made blocking motions with the staff, and swung the pommel end in counter-blows. It suddenly struck me that in all my sparring against Chou, Mr. Two Knives had never bothered to 'experiment' with Chou's yanyuedao. "This reminds me of the pugil sticks we trained with at Parris Island," he mused. "A different blade than a bayonet, but ... similar."
The raised eyebrow of surprise turned into a smile of delight on the Chinese man. "You have some experience with that style of weapon. Would you care to test your skill?" Guan Yu asked eagerly, seemingly excited by the prospect of combat.
Rolling her eyes skyward, Mrs. Carson rubbed her head in a way that suggested she had a headache. No doubt, based on Chou's stories, she feared the War God was about to cause mayhem on her campus again.
"Another time, perhaps," Mr. Two Knives replied with a smile. "At the present time, my task is to instruct my pupils, not to indulge my curiosity."
"Well spoken," Guan Yu chuckled. "But we must arrange time for a little match."
Mrs. Carson groaned; the thought of the Chinese War God sparring on her campus obviously filled her with dread.
"That sounds ... interesting. I look forward to it," Mr. Two Knives smiled. "As my grandfather always said, one cannot learn from one who has no skill." He tossed the weapon back to Guan Yu, who caught it easily. "Right now," he continued, "it might be best to watch our charges spar so we can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses."
I groaned softly; I'd been riding Summer to take a break from sparring, and wanted to continue just relaxing. With various training classes and simulations, it felt like I'd been constantly fighting and training and simulating, and honestly, I was tired.
Mr. Two Knives had other plans, however, and from the look on his face, he wasn't going to let me out of sparring. In vain hope that I could somehow get respite, I turned my pleading eyes to Mrs. Carson. "I've been doing nothing but training and fighting," I said in soft protest, trying my best to imitate Jade's +10 Big Sad Puppy-Dog Eyes. "I need a break."
"Kayda," Mrs. Carson replied with nary a hint of sympathy, "you should know better than most that you don't get to choose when you fight. Tired or not, resting or not, you have to always be psychologically and physically ready to do battle with a foe."
I hung my head, shaking it sadly, knowing that I was going to be made to fight.
"Kayda," Mrs. Carson continued in a voice that caused me to snap up and look at her, "did the snake-demon wait until you were prepared and rested? Did you go into Dunwich expecting a battle?"
"No," I muttered unhappily. I could tell that I wasn't going to get out of sparring.
Guan Yu looked around. "Since you pointed out that your warriors fought in all terrains," he said with a wry smile, "I think that area over there," he pointed to a hilly, forested area to the west, "would be a good place to demonstrate your skills." He looked right at me, challenging me. "Would you not agree?"
"That would make a good setting for the 'hunter and hunted' scenario," Mr. Two Knives agreed.
I glowered at my tutor, concurring as he was with Chou's mentor to challenge my fighting skills. No doubt Mr. Two Knives found the whole thing amusing, even though he knew I was fatigued and sore from a very aggressive training week and that I just wanted a calm afternoon.
My tutor held out quivers of training arrows to Chou and I. As we strapped them on, he explained the scenario to Guan Yu. "One will be the hunted, and will try to avoid being captured. The other is the hunter, who will attempt to capture or kill the prey."
"And if the prey kills the hunter?" the Chinese man asked, scratching his chin.
"The hunter can't complete her mission, can she?" Mr. Two Knives said with a grin. As usual with these types of situations, he reached into his pocket, where he kept two colored stones for these situations. "I believe it's your turn, Chou. Blue or white?"
Chou didn't even think. "White."
Billy opened his fist. "Blue," he said as he showed the stone. "Kayda?"
"Hunter," I said without hesitation.
"You know the drill, Chou. Two minute head-start." He handed us each a small pendant on a chain with, which we hung from our necks; these electronic trackers would signal if either of us stepped out of the boundaries of the exercise area, in which case we'd automatically lose.
I turned away from Chou so she would have a head start into the exercise area, and sat down cross-legged to wait as was my habit. Surprisingly, Guan Yu sat down opposite me, ignoring the fact that he was getting dirt and grass debris on what looked like a silk suit.
"While we have a few moments," he said with a wry smile, "tell me another story about your people and their warriors."
I had to think for a moment, but I came up with a story - a short story - to tell him while I waited for Chou to get into the woods. As soon as Mr. Two Knives signaled me, I scrambled to my feet to pursue my adversary.
I knew Chou was tricky; I didn't know if she was going to evade or more likely try to take me out. I hadn't gotten very far into the woods before I learned to my dismay that it was the latter.
I paused behind the tree to reach out for the earth and the sky spirits, but as usual I felt nothing. With her mastery of ki, Chou was very, very good at hiding herself from the earth spirit. I felt a slight disturbance in the sky spirit to my right, and I turned; that slight turn was all that saved me from being hit in the middle of my chest with a training arrow. The padded blunt tip stung my shoulder hard, and reflexively I rolled away from the direction where I had felt the disturbance. Another arrow thunked off a tree just behind me. Mr. Two Knives frequently made Chou and I disregarded hits that would only cause an injury, stopping a fight only with obvious killing blows, or when his sadistic streak was sated.
Cursing inwardly, I'd darted to the side, hopefully perpendicular to the direction from which Chou had shot at me, all the while reaching out to the spirits to help guide me. I knew from past experience sparring with Chou that it was incredibly frustrating to not be able to feel the sky spirit and the earth spirit telegraphing her moves. Angry with myself at letting her get the first shot, I reached out to the spirits and asked them to obscure my position, and then I darted to a large rock outcropping on the hill.
I realized that I had been getting predictable, because Chou shot at me again just as I ducked behind the rock, and I heard the arrow goes thump on the granite boulder. Dammit, this was getting frustrating! I knew I could take her, but I had to get ahead of her sensing me with ki.
I suddenly had an inspiration based on something I'd experienced with Anna several weeks earlier. I slipped into my dream-world and called out for Tasnaheca and Zica. They understood immediately what I wanted them to do and they called to all the living squirrels and ground squirrels in the area. In a few seconds, I knew precisely where Chou was.
Now to see if I could get even trickier. I asked the squirrel spirits to move about together as if they were me. While they did that, I concentrated on letting the sky spirit and earth spirit flow around me without being disturbed. Creeping up to the top of the boulder, I looked around and was rewarded to see Chou stalking towards where the spirits were leading her. Pressing myself closely against the rock, lest she inadvertently see me, I waited, flitting back and forth to the dream-world to see where she was at.
I couldn't help gloating to myself as she crept toward the large boulder, thinking that she was sneaking up on me while I lay in wait. If she had chosen to just evading me, my tactic wouldn't have worked, but I was pretty sure I knew Chou. She was very competitive - as much so as me - and that winning by hiding would not sit well with her.
I don't know if it was the sound of my moccasin on the rock, or my sudden movement betraying me through the ki, but as I leaped through the air toward her, tomahawk in hand, she suddenly spun, drawing her sword in one fluid motion. I barely hooked the sword with my tomahawk, pushing it out of the way, and then I drove the palm of my hand toward her chest, hoping to throw her off balance.
I shouldn't have been surprised that Chou rolled with the punch, twisting her sword as she did so and bringing it back around to smack me hard on my already-sore shoulder. I swung my Tomahawk at her again with my right hand, while my left hand fumbled at my waist for my other weapon. She easily deflected the off-balance attack, and her sword smacked me hard in my knee.
Rolling to the side, I regained my feet, wincing at the pain. Only by luck did I deflect another sword strike, but this time, I had my other tomahawk ready and I managed to hit her - probably a lot harder than I should have, but I was very frustrated at that point.
Limping, I invoked my Ghost-walking spell and backed away to get out of range of her sword. She was just too good to go hand-to-hand, especially with a sore shoulder and knee. With the pain, I was having a hard time focusing on directing the sky spirit, so Chou was probably able to sense me through ki.
The less said about the battle from that point, the better. I had to be one-hundred-percent on my game to sneak up on Chou, or to fool her as to my movements, and if we got into close combat, her experience showed when she kicked my butt. Sore and tired, I wasn't even close to one-hundred percent. I hit her once with an arrow, but she hit me twice more. Eventually, we got into a melee, and she cleaned my clock. I lost, and was pretty badly battered by the time the scenario was declared over because she'd 'killed' me.
Sulking, I limped back to our tutors, where Molly was gleefully heaping praise on Chou for a job well-done. It sucked; I wanted someone to give me positive feedback when I accomplished something good. And the critical analysis by Mr. Two Knives, with added critique by Guan Yu, didn't help my self-confidence or mood at all. The main gist of the comments was that I'd let anger and competitiveness cloud my judgment. I didn't recall a single good point from either of the tutors, even though I knew, logically, that they had found something worthy of praise. As tired and depressed as I felt about losing again, I simply didn't hear anything good.
After the post-fight analysis, I was expecting to be dismissed. Instead, Mr. Two Knives picked up his own training weapons. "The two of you, against me," he ordered before turning and walking to a large sparring circle - about fifteen meters in diameter - that he'd had painted on the grass. It was far larger than the sparring circles in martial arts classes; he'd told us that to use all our weapons, including the bow, and to learn to change weapons, we needed a larger combat arena. All it did, in my opinion, was to make us more fatigued chasing each other around the circle.
Chou and I took positions on opposite sides of my instructor almost instinctively; as he hefted his tomahawks, his sadistic smile made me think that we'd already made a mistake. I took out one tomahawk, leaving my left hand free to adjust. My bow was slung diagonally across my back and I had a quiver of training arrows on my thigh. Chou had her yanyuedao in hand and was warily eyeing our opponent.
"Ohutetanaji!" he called; though it wasn't the familiar 'hajime' from Ito's class, Chou had long-since adapted to the Lakota words for starting and stopping a match.
Mr. Two Knives started quickly toward Chou, and as she adjusted her weapon, I made a decision, unslinging my bow as I put my tomahawk back in its holder.
I realized almost instantly from the earth spirit that Mr. Two Knives' turn to Chou had been a feint; he'd been planning to goad me unlimbering my bow for a ranged attack while Chou froze in preparation for his attack, and he'd succeeded. I managed to get one shot off which missed him - he might have actually deflected it - and then I had to drop my bow in a mad scramble to get my own close-in weapons out. I may have been somewhat skilled with quick-firing my bow, but a person charging from eight to ten yards away gets in your face really, really quickly, and I was really lucky to get even one shot at him.
Before I was completely ready, he hit me hard with a mad flurry of blows, overwhelming the one tomahawk I'd managed to get free of its holster; bruised and sore, I tried to skirt the circle away from him. At least I'd bought Chou some time; she was closing on him fast from behind, weapon ready.
Sensing from the spirits that Chou was coming, he spun away from me and threw a tomahawk at her, surprising her completely; it hit her in the right shoulder pretty hard, causing her to nearly drop her yanyuedao. Spinning again, he had his own knife out even before I could recover, and I was driven, further battered, from the ring. He spun again, dashing to Chou to administer the coup de grace.
Based on how she wielded her weapon, Chou's shoulder was obviously sore but she still managed to hold off his frenzied attack for a few seconds before she, too, succumbed to his onslaught.
We sat beside the ring for the post-mortem, which I was dreading. I suspected Mrs. Carson was going to say something, because she had quit the comfort of her club cart and stood behind my tutor.
"What was your first mistake?" Billy Two Knives demanded of us, getting right to the point.
"Getting out of bed this morning," I grumbled unhappily.
"In the sparring match," he added, giving me a slightly unpleasant look.
"Walking into the ring," I shot back, scowling at him as my snarky attitude came through loud and clear.
"Kayda!" Mrs. Carson shot at me, unhappy with my attitude.
I dropped my gaze from the adults, shaking my head slowly. "I'm sorry," I said, not sounding very contrite, "but I'm tired of being battered and bruised, tired of having to train so hard all the time, and just plain tired of losing! It gets old and really ... depressing!" I almost swore, but I caught myself because I really didn't want another lecture from Mrs. Carson on proper language for a teenage girl.
"You only improve if ...," Guan Yu started to say philosophically.
"If I fight someone better than me," I groused, completing the snippet of wisdom. "Yeah, yeah, I know." That sounded snarky, too.
"Did you two fight as a team?" Mr. Two Knives asked.
I glanced at Chou, who was slowly shaking her head, a grim expression on her face. "No," I answered for the both of us.
"That was very apparent," Mrs. Carson commented, startling me. "Why not? You took team tactics last term," she said to Chou.
I glanced at Chou again. "Um," I stammered to buy myself time to think.
"We haven't had time to train fighting together as a team," Chou spared me having to guess.
"And I haven't taken team tactics," I countered sharply. "So even if Chou knows how to fight with a team, I don't!"
"Well, we'll have to rectify that situation, won't we?" Mrs. Carson smirked.
"Another special class?" I sighed heavily. "At the rate they're piling on, I'll be in my mid-twenties before you let me graduate." Molly giggled aloud at my comment; Chou managed to stifle her laughter. Mrs. Carson, however, was not amused.
Mr. Two Knives ignored my comment. "What was the plan with your starting positions?"
"Um, I figured if ... if you came at me, I'd be ready, and if you went for Chou, I could use my bow," I said meekly.
"And how did that work out for you?"
I shook my head, sighing. "Not so good."
"Did it occur to you that I might feint to get you to commit to the wrong course of action?"
"No," I admitted, while Chou nodded and replied, "Yes."
"Didn't the earth spirit tell you how I was moving? Didn't my second step feel unusual to the earth spirit? Or by that point, were you too focused on getting your bow out to sense that I was doubling back?" He read how angry I was becoming with myself over my screw-ups. "You're improving with your bow, but you're not yet quick enough to use it against an opponent charging from ten yards or less."
"Yeah, that's obvious. But if you had continued toward Chou, I would have hit you with several arrows."
"Chou?" he asked an open question of her, inviting self-analysis.
"I hesitated when you feinted my direction so I could be ready for an attack. It took me a fraction of a second to recover, and by that time, you were already engaging Kayda."
"Splitting up as you did allowed me to choose how to engage you," he observed. The critique of our fight continued, and among the three adults, we were grilled almost as thoroughly - and roughly - as if it had been Gunny doing a debrief. Given how the day had gone, it was more than a bit demoralizing to me, but Chou seemed to not care, or if she did, she certainly didn't show it.
Unfortunately, the training wasn't over; Guan Yu decided it would be a 'fun' experience for us to battle him, and that little action was even less fun than the combat with Mr. Two Knives. We started near each other to avoid the mistake we'd made in the first sparring session with my tutor, but as I feared, things did not go better. Chou's situational awareness in combat was much better than mine, and she used that experience to her advantage. In some ways, though, it seemed to me that she was using me as a human shield or a decoy to try to gain an advantage over her mentor. I was certain that Chou wasn't so petty as to do that, but I still felt like I was in her way often enough to plant a seed of doubt. In the end, it didn't matter; Guan Yu still destroyed us as a team, and I had the distinct impression that he was taking it easy on us.
"We shall have to do this again," Chou's mentor said, beaming at the chance to flex his muscles a bit in a sparring match. Behind him, Mrs. Carson was rubbing her temples again.
"Perhaps, Mrs. Carson," the Chinese man speculated, turning to face our headmistress, "you would like a chance to instruct these two students in the sparring ring?" She goggled at him, and then really started rubbing her temples, as if her headache had gone from mild to migraine in a few milliseconds. "With your skill," Guan Yu continued - and at that point, I think he was having her on - "no doubt the two young warriors would have a very good lesson!"
Mr. Two Knives exchanged glances with the Chinese War God and then looked back at us, shaking his head and interrupting his line of conversation. "I'm going to try to get some simulator time in Arena 77 tomorrow. If I can schedule it, you two are going to have some close-quarters urban combat, both against each other and against me."
Chou and I both groaned; this was, for her, supposed to be an optional 'fun' training; it had morphed into something completely different and, judging by the presence of her mentor, something serious. I stole a glance at Molly; she looked nonchalant, probably because it gave her time to practice with a bow, which was increasing her ability to fight, and she was having fun experimenting with various spells on her magically-enhanced arrows.
"You must learn to lead armies," Guan Yu suggested imperiously, more of an order to Chou than a suggestion. "Alas, you have no armies.
Mr. Two Knives looked thoughtful for a moment. "Kayda, aren't you doing battle simulations with the Nations in Arena 99's sim suites?"
A groan escaped my lips before I could stop it. My expression of discontent was, however, nothing compared to the sound of dismay from the Headmistress, who I was certain was about to face-palm. No doubt she had disturbing visions of Guan Yu causing mayhem in the very expensive simulation suites.
"Yes," I muttered in reply, shaking my head and looking down because I knew what was coming. "We've talked about that," I reminded him.
No doubt he'd asked that question - to which he knew the answer - on purpose to let Mrs. Carson know how important battlefield leadership would be to Chou and me. "We should schedule some simulation time for you to practice unit leadership, then, too," he added.
"What can your simulators do?" Guan Yu asked, intrigued but puzzled.
"They can simulate mass armies if we want. Any terrain, any weather, any situation," Mrs. Carson answered with dismay in her voice.
"You know, Kayda," Mr. Two Knives looked thoughtful, "the Junior ROTC corps here teaches unit leadership and tactics. Perhaps ...."
"No!" I replied immediately, my eyes shooting daggers at him. "I am not joining the Grunts! I get enough crap from Gunny in the Nations' simulations as it is!"
"The Grunts?" Guan Yu asked, puzzled by the nickname.
"Junior officer training," Mrs. Carson explained. For the first time, she didn't look like her head was about to explode from stress, and a smile crept across her face. "That might be an excellent idea to keep the two of you out of trouble."
"I won't have any free time!" I practically wailed. "You've got my fall term so loaded with stuff I'll be lucky to find time to sleep and eat!"
"Did you stop to think that I did that on purpose to keep you and Miss Nalley out of trouble?"
I glowered at her for a moment, and then a sneaky thought entered my mind. "Or maybe, with all the things you're making us do together, you're trying to push us closer?" I asked, waggling my eyebrows to the growing shock on her face. "Hmmm," I mused thoughtfully. "I share her with Cody, and she shares me with Debra? You know, I don't think either of us would mind that!" I teased. From the corner of my eye, I saw Chou and Molly face-palm, and for a brief moment, I thought Mrs. Carson would as well.
"Don't even go there," Mrs. Carson replied with a warning glare.
Guan Yu ignored our little exchange and was gazing at Mr. Two Knives like he was scrutinizing him for flaws. From the way Mrs. Carson tensed, she was ready to go 'Lady Astarte' to break up what appeared to be an incipient fight.
Instead, Guan Yu clapped his hands on Mr. Two Knives' shoulders. "I like you," he said with a broad grin. "You are not a hot-head. You do not let yourself be needlessly provoked. Instead, you have balance. You fight and teach well. I approve of you as an instructor for the Handmaid. If you are able to work with the Handmaid's tutor, I give my consent for Chou to train with you and your pupil," Guan Yu said to Mr. Two Knives. "As long as part of the instruction includes generalship," he added.
Our beloved Headmistress looked like a feather could have knocked her over. "We can arrange something," she said once she'd recovered a bit of composure. "Mr. Two Knives, please work with Ms. Stone to develop a proposed course of instruction for Chou and Kayda. Also, consider instruction in tactics and leadership from the JROTC program if you deem it fitting."
"Well, there go the last bits of free time in the Fall," I grumbled to myself; Molly and Chou overheard, because they giggled again.
Thursday May 24, 2007 - Early Evening
Franks Family Farm, South Dakota
"Well, that's under control - finally!" Pete Franks said wearily as he hung up his jacket in the mud room adjoining the kitchen area. He turned and accepted a hug and kiss from his wife.
"New parts all in?" June asked, gesturing to the dinner table. It was, unfortunately, late, and Pete had been in town at the dealership dealing with the recall issue.
"Yeah," he acknowledged, steering himself to the table where June had already begun setting out dinner. Danny was sitting, a glum expression on his downcast face. "Hey, kiddo," Pete said, mussing Danny's hair.
"Hey!" Danny protested, as he usually did, looking up sharply at his dad with a disgusted expression on his features. "I'm not a little kid!"
"Sorry," Pete said to apologize. "Habit, I ...." His voice tailed off and his eyes widened in shock. "Erk ...."
"Pete," June said uneasily, setting a casserole dish on the table and then sliding into her chair, "I think Danny might have manifested."
"Uh ...." Pete stammered, still staring at Danny. "Your ... your eyes!"
"Yeah," June winced. "I hadn't noticed because he's been wearing his glasses instead of his contacts, and they kind of hid things."
Danny looked down at his plate, avoiding looking at his parents. "Um, yeah," he stammered. "I ... the other day, when I fell off the tractor. After feeding the cattle."
"Didn't you say it was just feeling light-headed?"
"Um, yeah," Danny mumbled. "I ... I thought I was just hearing things."
"Look up." Pete leaned closer to his son. "Your pupils are ... oblong? And your eyes are ..."
Danny nodded glumly. Yeah, a little ... yellowish-brown."
"Have ... have you noticed anything else ... unusual?" Pete asked.
June winced. "The other day when he fell, he said that he heard someone talking to him - in his head."
"What?" Pete was startled at the revelation. He frowned at his wife. "You didn't tell me that!"
Danny nodded. "Like Kayda's spirit. It ... speaks to me ... in my head."
So, you finally acknowledge that I'm in you? Well, that's a start, the sexy, feminine voice in Danny's head purred.
"It's a spirit," Danny said, wincing with fear of how his parents were going to take the news. The part he'd admitted so far was bad; he worried about how the next part would go over.
I told you, my name is Wihinape. She sounded a little cross, like she was chiding him. They are your parents; you should tell them.
"And ... and it's ...."
Go ahead. Tell them! I'm not embarrassed, and you shouldn't be either!
"It's ... Igmu Taka," Danny said glumly. "At least, that's what she said she was."
"Igmu Taka - that's the cougar, right?" June asked for Danny to confirm.
"She's a mountain lion!" Danny protested. "She said her name is Wihinape."
"Same thing," his dad commented dryly.
Tell them the rest, darling! the cat-spirit urged him.
"Wait," Pete's eyes widened. "You said ... she?" Danny nodded unhappily. "It's ... a ... female spirit?" Pete stammered again, slack-jawed. "Like ... your sister's spirit?"
"She told me that she wasn't going to change me!" Danny added quickly, a bit panicked at how his dad was taking the news.
Hold on, the spirit purred, I said I'd have to think about it! I told you it'd make a lot of things easier if I did change you!
"I don't want you to change me!" Danny protested to the spirit, not really noticing that he was talking out loud and that his parents were gawking at him. "You said you weren't going to!"
"She ... she talks to you?" Pete asked, dumbfounded and still in shock over the news and Danny's behavior. "Like ... Kayda's spirit?"
"Not like Kayda's spirit!" Danny protested to his dad, feeling like he was going to cry. "She said she's not going to change me! Not like Kayda!" He felt his eyes watering.
June patted his hand lovingly. "Now, dear," she said soothingly, "we'll find out what's going on. I'll get an appointment with Doctor Martin, and if we need to, we'll go talk to the Sioux Falls League. I know that nice girl in the League - Valerie? - knows something about spirits. You weren't in the discussions about Kayda, but she told us that a spirit doesn't always change a person."
"She promised me!" Danny wailed. His gaze wandered until he seemed to be staring at nothing. "You promised me!" he said to no-one, at least no-one visible to June and Pete.
I did not promise you, darling, the spirit purred. I told you I wasn't planning on it, but I also told you that it would make things a lot easier.
"But I don't want to be a girl!" Danny was almost in tears.
"Honey," June said, scooting her chair around the corner of the table so she could wrap her arm around her son's shoulder, "if you change, you'll still be our child, and we'll still love you."
"But we don't know that you're going to change yet," Pete continued. "So until we do, it's no use getting all worked up over it."
"And if you do change, like Kayda, we'll help you adjust. Kayda doesn't think being a girl is a bad thing."
"But Mom," Danny was in tears, "I don't want to change!"
"June," Pete said, giving June a 'look', "don't make Danny panic. We don't know if ...," he winced visibly, "we don't know how much he's going to change."
"I know," June apologized to Danny. "It's just ... it's a possibility that you could change all the way, since you have a ... a female spirit, and you have to be ready for that." Absently, she ran her fingers through Danny's hair, trying to soothe him.
Ummm, that feels nice! the spirit said warmly at the feel of June's fingers through his hair and against his scalp. I haven't felt like that in ... in ages! Danny suddenly felt a pleasurable rumbling in his chest that seemed to massage his entire torso and neck, and he involuntarily stretched himself more toward his mother's hand, his eyes drifting shut.
"Danny?" his mom asked after a second or two, shocked. "You're ... you're purring!" she said even as she continued to rub his head.
"Purring?" Danny asked, confusion fighting the intensely pleasant feeling. "But ... mountain lions roar, and a cat can't both roar and purr," he protested weakly. "We learned that in science!"
I'm a spirit; what makes you think I can't both purr and roar? the spirit asked, her voice sounding dreamy. I like this! It feels nice, doesn't it?
Danny found himself yielding to the almost hypnotic vibration in his chest, unconsciously rubbing his head against his mom's hand. "Mmmm, hmmmm." After a few seconds, he realized what he was doing, and with a major force of will and blush of embarrassment, he yanked his head away from his mom.
"Danny," Pete looked at him with concern, "your eyes are getting more cat-like and you're purring. We can't deny that you are changing, at least a little bit," he said cautiously.
"But I don't want to change!" Danny whined, feeling his eyes moisten. "I don't want to be a girl!" Starting to cry, he dropped his face into his arms on the table. Life was so unfair!
Thursday May 24, 2007 - Late Evening
Near Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Dashing out of Schuster, I hoped I wasn't too late. I'd been detained at the end of a meeting of the Nations, and the person I wanted to talk to had already left. Glancing around frantically, I spotted the girl walking down the path toward Dickinson and Whitman cottages. "Maggie!" I called after the girl.
Lifeline halted mid-stride and turned, looking cautiously for whoever had called after her. In the light of one of the lamps by the pathway, I could read concern on her features, but that eased when she recognized me. "Hey, Kayda," she replied.
I trotted closer. "I was afraid I'd missed you."
"Nah," Lifeline said casually. "I'm not in any hurry to get back to my room. What's on your mind?"
"I was thinking about the campout next weekend," I hedged. That wasn't all that was on my mind, but I wanted to ease into the real subject.
"I presume you're going to go on the hunt," she said, frowning. We'd obtained permission from the Medawihla tribe to take a deer, and a lot of our group was eager to hunt Native American style.
I chuckled. "Not this time. Gunny managed to get the thrill of hunting knocked out of me."
Maggie smiled, nodding in agreement. "Yeah, he does that. But you wouldn't be hunting bison."
"Stonebear, Hardsell, and Mule are really gung-ho about the hunt, so I figured I'd let them have the fun." I shot her a wry smile. "Besides, with my tutor, by the time we get to the campout. I'll be exhausted and sore from all the training."
"Speaking of which," Maggie let her eyes dart back and forth, looking around us for someone who might be listening in, "what's this I hear about your rivalry with Chou?"
"I heard a rumor that Mrs. Carson and your tutor - and some Chinese guy - were out in Mr. Two Knives' training area trying to keep you two from killing each other!" she whispered conspiratorially.
I rolled my eyes, shaking my head. "Hardly," I rebuffed her gossip. "Her mentor wanted to check up on her progress, so Mrs. Carson brought him out to where we were training."
"Oh." Maggie sounded disappointed. "But are you two as competitive as I've heard? And ... I heard Gateway is out there a lot with her, too."
"I really don't like losing, and neither does Chou" I explained cautiously, "even in training. So yeah, sometimes we get a little intense. But ... we're friends, so we don't let it get out of hand." I shrugged. "And yeah, Gateway is out there sometimes; she's learning to use a bow with enchantments on her arrows, so the two of us work on that sometimes, too."
"Oh." She clearly hadn't gotten any juicy gossip yet. "Are those two ...?"
"I haven't asked because it's none of my business," I said. Judging by Maggie's reaction, I might have been a little huffy with my response. "Anyway, that wasn't what I wanted to talk to you about."
"Oh?" Maggie suddenly seemed defensive and wary.
"I know you and Lanie ...." That was as far as I got.
"Don't talk to me about ... that monster!" she snarled.
"Maggie," I pleaded, "she's your best friend!"
"Was," Maggie shot back.
"She still is. She's still the fun-loving, adventurous, sometimes insecure girl who misses your friendship." I paused, wincing, wondering if I should go on. "And sometimes," I decided to continue, "she cries on my shoulder about how much she misses you."
I thought, in the moonlight and lamplight, that I saw her lip quiver, perhaps with regret that she might have over-reacted. "I'm ... I don' t know," she said uneasily.
"Maggie," I knew Lanie wouldn't like me interfering, but she was my dear friend, my soul-sister, and I had to try, "Mrs. Carson went all Lady Astarte on the spirit to make sure it wasn't going to hurt her or possess her."
She gawked at me, eyes wide with disbelief. I wasn't sure if I was persuading her to think.
"I know I shouldn't tell you this," I said, cringing inwardly, "but Mrs. Carson really, really cares about Lanie."
"What?" Maggie's jaw hung open.
"I can't say any more, but ... do you think Mrs. Carson would let something happen to Lanie if she cares that much?"
She stood, staring at me, unsure what to say. "But ... she's ...."
"She's a dear friend," I continued. "And she's hurting because she misses you. I ... I can't stand to see her hurt so much." I gently put my hand on her forearm. "Please, think about it. Think about whether maybe you're over-reacting because she scared you?"
Lifeline let her gaze drop for a few silent moments, and then she looked back at me. "I ... I don't know," she said, wiping at a tear. "I ... I can't ...." With that, she turned and walked quickly away. But in her tears, maybe she was thinking. Maybe she would remember all that they'd meant to each other.
With a sigh, I turned back toward Poe. I hoped Lanie wouldn't be mad at me, but I had to try. I'd keep trying, too, because I really hated seeing the hurt in my soul-sister's eyes whenever she thought of her former best friend.
A thought struck me without warning, hitting almost like a physical blow; if Lifeline and Lanie did renew their friendship, I might be left out in the cold. My special relationship with Lanie - friend, soul-sister, one-time lover - might be lost. I fought tears all the way back to my room.
Friday, May 25, 2007 - Late Afternoon
Between Laird Hall and Schuster, Whateley Academy
"Well, that really sucked!" I grumbled as the three of us walked from Laird after we'd put away our training equipment.
"How was it worse than yesterday?" Chou asked wryly, seemingly amused by my comment. As usual, she was holding Molly's hand as they walked. I wondered if I'd ever be brave enough to publicly display affection toward Debra the way those two did.
"I absolutely do not understand how you can be so ... so ..." Words were failing me.
"So casual about the whole thing?" Chou smiled. "Simple. I've been in serious battles with supervillains, and almost died once." She shrugged nonchalantly. "After that, it's hard to get rattled about simple training."
"And yet you get so competitive with Kayda," Molly smirked.
"Okay, so I hate to lose, too," Chou chuckled.
"Seriously," I tried to rein the conversation back on track, "we need to do something about teamwork. You know Mr. Two Knives is going to keep on us until we can fight better as a team." Not only had he made us spar against one another, but he'd made us spar against him in three bouts - kicking our backsides in all of them.
Chou sighed, nodding. "But we're running out of time for the term," she noted.
"Maybe we should at least get together a little this weekend to talk about tactics and fighting together?"
"Why don't we got to Dunwich and talk more about this over pizza?" Chou suggested.
"How about tomorrow night?" I countered. "Addy, Alicia, and I were going to get together in Melville for pizza and a movie tonight."
"Okay," Molly replied. "What time should we ...?"
She didn't finish her question; a blur of motion to our left was followed by a serious flash of light in a fractal pattern on the surface of my every-present shield spell as it was struck and collapsed. Molly took a shoulder block and was knocked backwards even as the attacker, dressed mostly in black but not hiding his face or the wild look in his eyes, swung a shiny, yellowish-brown object at Chou, even as she quickly and gracefully drew Destiny's Wave. She cried out in pain when the object struck her, piercing her right forearm and causing her to drop her sword.
As soon as I saw the light pattern on my collapsing shield, I had a sickening feeling that I knew what was attacking us. I reached for my tomahawk in what was by now almost an instinctive motion, but the figure attacking us - a boy I didn't recognize - was hellishly fast, and before I had my weapon halfway out of its sheath, he swung the sharp copper spike at me.
A nauseating wave of pain and something ... foul ... overtook me; my shoulder felt like it was on fire, and someone was screaming and I wished they'd shut up so I could focus. My hand wouldn't respond to finish unlimbering my weapon; I tried to look down toward the tomahawk, but my vision blurred - probably from the agonizing pain.
Even though the screaming stopped, I couldn't reach my weapon; I tried to focus my hazy vision, wavering with red tendrils that throbbed in time with the waves of pain from my shoulder, on the attacker. He'd turned back toward Chou, who hadn't yet recovered her sword. I could see clearly, as the world seemed to move in slow-motion, that he was in a position to strike her again with the spike because she seemed to be reeling from the first attack.
The boy swung at her, impossibly fast, but despite her injured arm, she intercepted the blow, deflecting his arm to her side and using a backhand into his jaw. From the grimace on her face, it was clear she was seriously injured. Even then, she crouched and did a foot-sweep, knocking him off his feet and onto his ass. As Chou struggled to rise, I could see a growing blood stain on the side of her clothing; he'd connected with her torso somewhere, and she teetered unsteadily.
The deranged boy had obviously been trained in martial arts; in a smooth motion, he rolled - faster than anyone but a speedster should have been able to, which led me to believe he was demon-influenced like Officer Matthews had been - and was getting to his feet.
A few steps back, Molly had regained her balance from being brutally knocked aside, and she opened a gateway; immediately, a salamander emerged into our presence. "How may I serve ...?" it started to say.
"Get him!" she screamed, interrupting the creature and pointing toward the deranged boy who'd attacked us and who was rolling back up toward Chou.
Spinning toward our attacker, eyes afire with purpose, the salamander leaped to defend us, his skin starting to crackle with flames. But with superhuman speed, the boy turned away from Chou toward the new threat, and the bloody spike swung in a new arc. An unearthly scream erupted from the salamander, caught mid-leap and impaled by the mythos-tainted spike, and as Molly watched in utter horror, the summoned creature convulsed and dissipated into nothingness. Recognizing the new danger of a summoner, the boy - eyes wild - turned on her, his copper spike hefted like a knife.
Chou tottered, a horror-stricken expression on her face as the threat spun toward Chou's love, and ignoring her pain, she struggled to draw Destiny's Wave left-handed to intercept the threat to Molly. I didn't hesitate, but with my head swimming in pain, I lurched forward past the teetering Chinese girl and launched a side-kick at the boy's back, striking him hard before he could swing at Molly, who was scrambling back away from the fight. The attacker stumbled to the side but managed to stay on his feet, and again the spike swung toward me in a downward slashing arc. I tried to dodge, but with the haze of pain slowing me, I was only partially successful in deflecting the blow; a sharp stabbing pain in my leg was accompanied by another scream.
And then there was a flash, and as I wobbled on an impaled thigh, my motion tore the spike from the boy's grasp. Momentum carried me past him; when I turned, he was immobile, frozen in place like a statue, his eyes wild and totally devoid of sanity. Fighting to keep any semblance of focus, I slowly turned and saw Molly, grim determination on her face, already nocking another arrow to shoot at him in case he hadn't been affected, while Chou succeeded in interposing herself between Molly and the attacker, Destiny's Wave held rock-steady in her left hand while her right arm held tight to her torso, blood seeping through her fingers as she clamped her hand over the puncture. I tried to smile approvingly at the two of them, but pain overwhelmed me and I collapsed to the ground, the red haze of pain fading to black.
End of Part 1