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A Whateley Academy Adventure

Charging Buffalo, Hidden Dragon

Part 3

By ElrodW


(with thanks to EE Nalley and Phoenix Spiritus
for contributed scenes and idea)

Le Lakota tolowan yelo
Channi tatanka oyate ki
Icic' upi nahan taku un
Umnipi nahan unkotipi kte k'un
Lepa unk' upelo

Wasicu ki ahi nahan
Wicakasota pi tka
Tatanka tawowakan ki lena

This is a song for the Lakota

Long time ago the buffalo nation gave themselves
So we can survive and have shelter
The white man came and wiped them out
But we still have the spirit, the power of the buffalo

Tatanka comes, stand and deliver
The souls of the brave live forever
The trail of tears is a tale of courage
Tatanka comes, Tatanka comes

"Tatanka" -
Molly Hatchet


Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Late Morning
Arena 99 Student Seating, Whateley Academy

As soon as the PA system turned on with its distinctive 'click', every student perked up a bit, unsure if they were next in the arena. "Students two-ninety-six and three-forty-two report to Arena 99." The verbal announcement was also displayed on the arena's video screens and throughout campus.

"Damn!" I muttered angrily. I'd really, really hoped I could watch a lot more finals to get some idea of a strategy before I had to do my own. That and my right shoulder and knee still had a little twinge of discomfort.

While all the other students milled about, some going to the bookies but more going to the concession stand and restrooms, I trudged down the stairs toward the locker rooms where I'd change before getting instructions in a small briefing room. I'd finished my costume on Saturday, so I couldn't help being a little bit eager to try it out, but at the same time, I was very nervous about the combat final. I'd only watched two combat scenarios, and I was intimidated by what I'd seen. It was a contest to see who was going to get the good grade, and it looked pretty cut-throat. Plus I'd heard stories from the fall combat finals.

This was the first time I got to wear my costume, and I was pretty proud of it, even though it did resemble my shorter buckskin dresses more than a little bit. Like with figure skaters' costumes, the arms and neck of my shirt and my tights were Kevra dyed to match my skin tone. Over that, my dress looked like light-blue-dyed buckskin, with a little intricate beadwork in traditional Lakota patterns and frills at the neck, waist, and skirt hem; besides being attractive, the beading had a little additional armor value in critical spots. I wore over-the-calf moccasins, like usual, but like everything else on my costume, these were made of a little sturdier material than leather. I put on a simple diamond mask to hide my eyes and I trudged to the briefing room. Gunny and Ito were there, stern-faced as always, and a girl sat with her back to me. With a sinking feeling, I recognized her immediately; it was Chou. She wasn't wearing a costume that I could tell - just dark pants and a sleeveless blouse that looked like it was red silk with wide dark collars in a sort-of wraparound style. She had a bag that was slung over her shoulder like a hippy purse. I knew the bag was really not very innocuous; Chou's bag of holding contained a wealth of surprises. No doubt Destiny's Wave was slung over her shoulder - as usual. In all our conversations walking to or from sparring, I knew that thanks to the Monkey King, it was invisible when she had the sword in its sheath. I couldn't help but wonder what other holdouts she had hidden away.

Mr. Two Knives had been working with me on holdouts; I had a couple of throwing knives in one of my high moccasins, and some throwing spikes in the other one, even though I wasn't very good with them yet. And since the rules said that we could only carry what we normally carried, I didn't have my bow. I was going to have to get a bag of holding like Chou so I could carry my bow and other weapons.

Damn! I was supposed to fight Chou? Or compete with her to be the first to rescue the hostage? I was quite overmatched and I knew it. I sighed heavily, sensing my grade plummeting, because she was so much better than I was. And she'd been in some genuine supervillain fights, and had taken team tactics with lots of experience in the simulators.

"Your setup is pretty basic. A villain has taken the daughter of a senator hostage. He has threatened to kill the hostage if his demands aren't met within the next ten minutes. He will kill the hostage if an attempt is made to rescue her. The number of henchmen helping guard the villain's hideout is unknown. The powers of the hired muscle are unknown. There may be one or more emergency exits from the hideout. The villain is a low-level wiz and a regenerator, and he has in the past been known to hang out with a brick. Your job is to rescue the hostage." Gunny looked evenly at us, but I caught a twinkle in his eye - perhaps of mirth. It would be like Gunny to enjoy torturing students with these kinds of convoluted scenarios.

"Our grade is based on what?" I asked cautiously. No sense in pissing off the referee.

The PA system crackled to life. "In the next final, Pejuta and Bladedancer." No doubt our MIDs were on display on the screens. Immediately, there was a dull rumble from the seats over our heads as students raced to the bookies to place their bets before the match started.

"Your grade is based on how you apply your powers and training to rescue the hostage," Ito answered.

"Is this a winner-take-all scenario like the fall combat finals?" Chou asked.

"Your grade is based on how you apply your powers and training to rescue the hostage," Ito repeated.

"Is it permissible to ... interfere with her rescue to help me perform the rescue?" It was my turn to try to pry information out of the inscrutable duo.

"Your grade is based on ...." Bardue began.

"... how we apply our powers and training to rescue the hostage," Chou and I groaned together.

"Any questions?" Ito asked with a nasty smirk.

"Like we'd get any useful answers if we did have any questions," I shot right back under my breath. From the look Ito was giving me, he'd probably heard my comment.

"If you have no questions, Pejuta, to the south entrance, Bladedancer, to the north. You will be led to your starting positions."

"Aren't you going to wish us good luck?" I asked sarcastically. The scowls I got from both instructors more than answered my question.

We walked out of the room like Roman gladiators to the cheering of the crowd, which made me tremble with uncertainty. I shot a glance to my side to see if Chou was also affected by the crowd, but she seemed calm. We turned, each toward our respective entrances, but I paused and turned. "Chou!" I called to her. She halted and looked over her shoulder at me, her face unreadable beneath her mask. "Good luck."

Chou simply nodded. "You too."

Trembling with nervous anticipation, I stood in my designated spot, amid the buildings and streets of a simulated town so realistic that I forgot what lay beyond the force-field; in fact, holographic displays lit up our side of the field as well as the distant walls of the arena, extending the landscape into the far distance. The people - ANTs in various disguises - were going about their business so convincingly that I started at the 'woman' arguing with a shopkeeper over the freshness of his produce. The entire experience was so immersive that it was momentarily disorientating.

Casting a ghost-walking spell to avoid attracting attention, I began to trot through the streets, looking for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. The sadists in the control booth hadn't told us anything about where the hostage was held. The only thing I knew as I jogged past it was that there was a small police station, most likely the destination if either of us managed to rescue the hostage.

I was surprised that there were cars - probably 'dressed' ANTs - that I had to dodge, but then again, I'd heard how realistic the combat finals could be. All the while, I was watching for ... something. Something unusual or out of place - and that was difficult, since I was from a small town and this was clearly a large city, with multi-story buildings, each of which had apartments over storefronts, like a deli or hardware store or drug store. Scowling to myself, I rued the fact that I'd grown up in a small town, where a two-story building was as tall as they came. How the heck was I supposed to know what was out of place in ....

I halted suddenly, so abruptly that a pedestrian ran into me and bounced off, jostling me and probably startling the heck out of the woman who .... I caught myself with that thought. Damn! This was so much more realistic than the virtual sims - and those were pretty realistic - that I was getting lost in this artificial world!

On the steps of a stereotypical apartment building, a man sat reading his newspaper, but as I looked more closely, something seemed wrong. An older, retired man? Okay. Someone who looked like he was down on his luck? Sure. But this rough-looking, solidly-built man was looking over his newspaper, and he was not casually attired. He was scanning up and down the street, his eyes alert and his expression hard. I stopped to look around a little more, suddenly wary of this situation.

There! - another one out of place. The stereotypical customer at a deli was definitely not a burly-looking construction worker leaning against the wall and pretending to eat a sandwich, while looking around alertly. A closer examination revealed a slight bulge inside his shirt at his waistband. A gun? Probably.

My surveillance was interrupted by a girl walking down the street - out-of-place in her costume. Despite my ghost-walking spell, Destiny's Wave would see me and Chou could easily take me out of the game, so I scurried away from her, still watching over my shoulder. She walked cautiously down the street, trying to appear normal as she hunted for me and for the kidnappers, but none of us were trained or experienced as undercover agent, and a couple of men - one of whom I'd already figured as a henchman - shifted alertly. Damn, it was so cliché to have the man getting his shoes shined be one of the thugs; I should have seen that.

With Chou scoping out the street, I scooted around a corner. The kidnapper was in one of the three-story buildings, but which one? A glance around the corner gave me a hint - the shop by the deli was the most obvious choice. Time to have a closer look, but then I remembered what Gunny had said - the villain might flee with the hostage. An escape route? That made sense. So there was a second entrance. But where? Out one of the other buildings? Down the sewers? It could be anywhere.

I started down the street at a trot; the clock was ticking and I had to find the back entrance. Halfway down the street, nestled between two shops, was the entrance to a narrow alley. A drunk with a bottle in his lap lay in the alley, leaning up against a wall, head lolling to one side. Something about him wasn't quite right, though.

Still ghost-walking, I crept down the alley, estimating the distance until I figured I was behind the deli. Like all the other buildings, the one I suspected had an exit to the alley. Cautiously, I eased the door open a crack, peeking in.

Jackpot. The villain had to be in the building; otherwise, there was no reason to have a bear of a man sitting on a stool by a stairway, looking up and down the hallway with a serious frown. I paused to listen to the earth spirits; they didn't work well in a city, evidently, but well enough to confirm the large goon, plus somewhere above - second floor? - I sensed three more people. Probably the villain, one more goon, and the hostage. I carefully let the door shut and then crept back out of the alley, past the drunk.

Time for another look on the street. I trotted back to the main street, and as I rounded the corner, I could see that two of the men I'd pegged as thugs were talking to Chou. Hmmm - could that be enough of a distraction? Another look told me not. Two other men were still in watch positions, and if I went in the back, they'd charge in the front of the building, trapping me. Somehow, I had to take out the front goons and the heavy in the hall at the same time.

Closing my eyes for a moment to think, I decided on a course of action. The ghost-walking spell dissipated, and I walked briskly down the street toward Chou. "There you are!" I called out loudly. "Did you get lost again?" That startled the men, just as I'd figured it would. "Come on! The other girls are waiting!" I took Chou's arm and tugged her down the street, babbling about a huge sale in a dress shop like I figured girls would.

"What are you doing?" Chou demanded when we got around a corner, out of view of the thugs.

I bit my lip for a moment. "Look," I said, wincing, "I don't think either of us can win this alone."

"Oh?" Chou was wary, but at least she was listening instead of attacking me.

"Gunny didn't say that we had to win this alone, did he? He didn't say it was winner-take-all, did he?"

Chou frowned. "Are you suggesting we cooperate? Because the last time that was tried, by your friend Lanie, it didn't work out so well."

"You have a better idea?"

She thought for only a second. "No." She stuck out her hand toward me. "Deal?"

I nodded, shaking her hand. "Deal."

I laid out what I'd already found. To her credit, she'd reconnoitered the setup in the opposite direction as I had; she found a man pretending to be drunk at the other end of the alley which didn't surprise me at all. Unlike me, she hadn't investigated the alley to find the rear entrance to the villain's lair because she smelled a trap. She explained that she knew there was more to the setup, so she wanted to verify that there wasn't more muscle - which there was. And it looked like all were armed.

"You've got your shield spell," Chou noted. "Will that protect you to take out the men in front?"

I winced. "I wish I had my bow. I bet I could speed-shoot and take all of them out. That's my only ranged weapon." I had another thought. "You've got your bow in your bag, right?" She nodded. "You're just as good with it as I am with mine."

"You could use my bow ..." she started.

"I can use my shield and ghost-walking to go in the back," I continued quickly, interrupting her. I had a plan; I had to explain it quickly and sell her on it. "And my weapons and fighting style are better for close-in. I can ghost-walk right past the big thug and find the hostage taker. It'll be a surprise strike."

"Can't you cast the ghost-walking spell on me? Or I could use my Robe of Midnight to walk or hide in the shadows?" Chou obviously wasn't happy with my plan. Did she want the glory of making the rescue? Surely she wasn't that petty, was she?

I pushed that thought away. "In the middle of the day? Are you sure your robe would work when there aren't any shadows?"

"I think you'd be better on the street," Chou argued. "You could take out the muscle in front and then come in that way. We'd have the goons inside in a pincer."

"What if your stealth cloak can't hide you?" I shook my head. Something gave me a mental nudge, more than I should have allowed. "Look, Chou," I argued, "time's wasting. I know my ghost-walking spell will hide me. You're not absolutely sure if your stealth cloak will in this situation."

Chou shook her head, frowning. "Fine," she said, clearly unhappy but not wanting to keep arguing. "I did take team tactics, you know."

"You walk down the street and take out the goon on this end," I continued, ignoring her sage comment. "I'll ghost-walk and run down to the other end, and I'll take the other guy out when I see you attack. Then you go back to the main street. I'll wait outside the back door for the sound of a disturbance out front, okay?"

"You're burning your essence pretty fast," Chou observed. "Do you have enough for all of this?"

I nodded. As soon as Chou pulled on her costume - a dark tunic over her silk blouse - and put on her belt with her weapons and holdouts, I incanted the ghost-walking spell again and then touched Chou to give her an extra edge. She nodded, and I ran back down the street, past the unsuspecting thugs, heading toward the opposite end of the alley, while Chou walked to her destination.

Attacking the two thugs or sentries was anti-climactic. I saw Chou's weapon smack hard into the guy who'd been pretending to be a drunk. As soon as she struck, the guy on my end bolted to his feet, his bottle forgotten and his hand reaching inside his coat, probably for a gun. A thrust from Wakan Mila ended his ability to interfere.

While Chou was presumably heading back toward the street, I slipped down the alley to the doorway. It seemed like forever before I felt the earth spirit telling me that one of the 'men' had fallen over.

I yanked the door open and darted in, but there was a huge tingle through me - almost a severe static shock, and all evidence of a ghost-walking spell vanished. Shit! Some kind of magic wards, like at Doyle!

The big goon was already pulling out a gun, looking toward the front where Chou was attacking, but he spun as soon as he heard the door opening. Startled by my spell collapsing, I hesitated, and gorilla-goon's gun swung toward me.

My tomahawk hit his hand before he could shoot, and the gun clattered to the floor. A moment later as he stared in shock at his badly wounded hand, I hit him again with a backhand blow right in the side of his neck. The big guy's eyes popped open, and then he slowly toppled.

Chou Lee

Something about Kayda's plan nagged at Chou; it seemed the girl was being too quick to rush in. On one hand, her weapons were suited for close combat, and if it worked, her shield spell might be the difference between success or failure. On the other hand, Destiny's Wave would be better if they were against a mutant or someone empowered or if there were magic wards. There were too many unknowns, and the time deadline didn't give them the luxury of more time to do reconnaissance.

With a deep breath to center herself, Chou drew her bow from beneath her cloak, four arrows already in her right hand just as Mr. Two Knives had taught her. The first arrow had barely left the bow when she nocked the second, drew it as she spun to the second target, and let it fly. The third was on its way just as quickly, even before the first man had fallen.

Unfortunately, the fourth man had been - by chance - looking at Chou, and by the time she was shooting the third arrow, he was starting to react. Seeing her swinging her bow his way, he ducked as he reached inside his jacket. It wasn't much motion, but it was enough to cause the arrow to hit his arm instead of his chest. Following its programming, the man-shaped ANT recoiled from what would have been, to a human, a sudden, sharp pain of an arrow piercing the upper arm. The pistol coming from a waist holster bobbled just as the ANT pulled the trigger; the shot went wide of Chou.

She wasn't exactly standing still; her bow had been unceremoniously abandoned, and a throwing spike flipped forward, impaling itself in the ANT's shoulder. The gun clattered to the ground, but the opponent growled, stepping away from the building toward Chou, reaching up and angrily pulling the spike from his body.

Chou gulped; the guy was possibly a regenerator, which made her task a little more difficult. Her hand went to the hilt of Destiny's Wave, pulling it out in a smooth, practiced motion.

"Put down the pig-sticker, little girl," the man snarled at her, "and walk away, and I'll let you live."

"I don't think so," Chou replied, her body sliding gracefully into a fighting position, her sword at the ready.

Taking the steps two-at-a-time, I raced up to the second floor; there was nobody in sight, so I paused to feel the earth spirit. The trio were a floor above me. Another floor up, and I realized that the element of surprise had been lost. A shot rang out, and the plaster behind me shattered. Damn! I jumped up the last four steps, dodging another two shots, close enough that the plaster splintering off the wall stung me lightly. My shield spell would have been really nice at that point. The guy shot once more, missing me wildly, just before my two-tomahawk attack decapitated him. No PTSD; the bastard shot at me, so I had a right to fight back. At that point, though, I'd lost sight of the fact that it was only a sim. It felt too realistic; the adrenaline rush I was experiencing didn't help.

Holstering a weapon to free a hand, I twisted at the doorknob. Locked! That figured. I kicked it, and the door casing splintered under the impact.

The room was empty. Damn! But then - the curtains were blowing lightly - and the window was open! I ran to look, finding a ledge of a fire escape right outside. Worse, the villain, an older hawk-faced, balding, thin man, was trying to climb down the fire escape holding his hostage - a small girl of probably five or six!

I practically leapt out the window and did a fireman's slide down the metal ladder; below me, the villain, slowed by his burden, crashed through a window into a second-floor room. No doubt he thought the only attack was from the rear and that he could go down the stairs and escape out the front. Chuckling to myself at the surprise he was going to receive, I swung over the railing on the second-floor landing, swinging myself down, and then dropped a few feet to the ground, already pulling out my knife and tomahawk.

Darting in the back door, past the big gorilla-goon, who was, remarkably to me, slowly clawing his way back to his feet with no apparent damage, I met the villain just as he got to the bottom of the stairs. A shoulder-block hit him hard, staggering him, while I scooped the child out of his arms, careful to not hit her with my knife.

Since the villain was struggling to his feet, his face a mask of rage, I turned to dash out the alley. Then I pulled up short - Brutus was on his feet blocking most of the hall and extraordinarily angry. Turning to see if I could get past the villain and out the front, I was startled by a flash of something in the air, and then my arm screamed in pain. I stole a quick glance down and saw a shuriken sticking out of my arm.

Please, Chou, if there was ever a time for the cavalry to ride to the rescue, this was it! Get in the front door and take out this bad guy from behind! Alas, from the shadows on the front door, Chou was engaged with someone of high skill, and I realized the cavalry wasn't coming, at least not at that moment.

Clutching the girl in one hand, I turned back to hawk-face just in time to have to block a serious punch; with one arm full, I was quite limited, he wasn't, and from the vicious grin on his face, he knew it. And I dared not set the girl down. It looked like Hoka-time. Using a flurry combination that my tutor had taught me, I attacked Mister Ugly, surprising him with my aggressiveness and driving him back.

And then there was noise coming up the hall behind me. Ignoring hawk-face for a moment, I spun toward the approaching hulk of a henchman, getting a sinking feeling that I was trapped in a very bad spot.

My knee exploded with pain as I was turning, giving out beneath me and dumping me unceremoniously on the floor. It turned out to be fortunate; the massive, charging thug crashed into hawk-face, who'd kicked my knee as I turned to gorilla-goon. The two went down in a heap, so I clambered to my feet, wincing in pain, and started hobbling toward the rear door.

"Get her!" the villain screamed angrily, struggling to disentangle himself from his chief henchman. Grimacing, I limped quickly toward the back door.

I happened to glance over my shoulder at the sound of a massive, surprised grunt of pain behind me, concerned about how things had gone to shit and how much worse they were going to get, but I was surprised, even shocked, to see Chou pulling her sword out of the upper arm of gorilla-goon.

"He's a regenerator!" I screamed at Chou. She didn't look at me, but focused on her opponents, ducking a return blow from gorilla-goon and parrying a punch from hawk-face.

"Run!" Chou yelled at me.

That got hawk-face's attention; as gorilla-goon tried to batter Chou, he ducked behind his henchman and dashed toward me. "Forget her! Get the one with the kid!"

Genuinely scared of having two relatively healthy villains chasing me on a bum knee, I turned to run - only to find hawk-face in front of me, leering evilly at me, a gun in his hand. What the hell? Was he a warper? "Give me the kid!"

As I gulped, trying to come up with some kind of action I could take, the huge man hit me from behind, smashing me into hawk-face, startling him just as much as me, and the four of us smashed into a wall, with hawk-face taking the brunt of the impact and the hostage, held at my side, hopefully escaping injury. I let the girl fall to the floor because I simply couldn't hold her as much as I hurt from the impact, and my tomahawk fell from my other hand.

Gorilla-goon backed up and recovered his balance, winding up to smash me with his fist. I ducked, falling to my knees and grabbing at the terrified hostage. With her clothing clutched in my hand, I scrambled under gorilla-goon toward Chou, who was running toward the battle, Destiny's Wave in hand.

"Take her!" I cried to Chou, hoping she'd get the girl out of harm's way. She looked torn because the battle was still raging and she knew she should defend her team-mate.

"Not so fast, little one!" hawk-face's gravelly voice hissed. His hands clutched at my leg and he yanked me back toward himself, to where the big brick could hit both of us.

"Take her!" I yelled again, using all my strength to thrust the girl toward Chou. "I'll try to slow them." I saw the hesitancy on her expression. "Go!" I screamed again.

Chou sheathed her sword in a fluid motion and then scooped up the girl, hesitating again before she turned toward the door.

Gorilla-goon turned, following her with his eyes, so I took the one weapon I had at hand, my ceremonial magical knife, and thrust upward into his leg. He tottered, and I rolled away - back toward hawk-face, lest the goliath of a henchman fall on me and crush me.

"Game over, little girl," hawk-face sneered at me, raising his pistol to my face at point-blank range.

There was a Krav Maga technique Mr. Two Knives had drilled into me over and over; hopefully I'd learned it well enough. Otherwise, my sim was over. I snapped my hand up, pushing his hand - and the gun barrel - to one side. Normally, that would be followed up with a takeaway and I'd have the gun in my hand. But that wasn't on my mind. As I blocked his entire arm to one side; he pulled the trigger in response to my movement, but I had the jump on him, and the gun was pointed harmlessly to the side by that time. The second move was already underway; my knife slashed upward into his abdomen and up behind his ribs. I willed Wakan Mila to dump all its stored essence, just like I had with old snakey. Hawk-face's eyes bulged and his jaw dropped in shock, and then he crumpled to the ground, and it sounded like his body was sizzling from the magic discharged into him.

I didn't have time to even sigh with relief; gorilla-guy had regenerated enough and started limping down the hall after Chou; he was definitely a mutant and very well might be able to catch Chou before she could get the hostage to safety. I grabbed at the one tomahawk still in its holster and scrambled to my feet. A quick windup and the weapon buried itself in the goon's thigh just above his knee, crumpling him.

It wasn't over yet, so I grabbed the tomahawk I'd dropped and limped past the fallen brick out the front door, following in Chou's footsteps, toward where we knew the safety-point was, the police station we'd passed much earlier.

Chou was less than fifty yards from the goal when I heard the running behind me. Glancing fearfully over my shoulder, I was dismayed to find gorilla-goon bearing down on me fast. Redoubling my efforts, I tried to ignore the excruciating pain in my knee, but with a sinking heart, I realized that I was unlikely to get to the goal before the goon caught me.

My team-mate was almost there. I was almost there! Just a few more yards. A few feet. And ....

The air horn sounded, signaling the end of the scenario, and I let up; we'd won. Then I was hit hard in the back; the hulking goon must have launched himself to tackle me just as or after the horn sounded. There was a sickening crunch when I landed on my shoulder - the side without the shuriken hole - and that shoulder and my ribs exploded with pain. As I rolled on the ground, the hulk rolled over the top of me, carried by his momentum and grinding me into the arena floor. Mercifully, I passed out so I didn't have to listen to whoever was screaming.

"Kayda, are you with us?" The voice sounded upset, urgent, like something was wrong. I wanted to ignore it, but it kept nagging, like the pain all over in my body, and I simply couldn't wish it away.

I groaned in discomfort, then probably screamed when I was rolled onto my back and my knee twisted and my shoulder complained mightily. The stab of pain from my lower-right ribcage didn't help.

"Sorry about that," the voice said, sounding remorseful.

"Doyle?" I managed to stammer, realizing only after I'd spoken that it didn't sound like Doyle; there was some loud background noise, which sounded like booing and catcalls.

"You're in the arena," the voice explained.

I took a chance and opened my eyes, wincing at the bright light which stabbed into them. "How ... how bad?" I risked asking. I felt like I'd been run over by a tractor.

"It looks like you twisted your knee pretty good."

"Shoulder? Ribs?"

"Your shoulder isn't dislocated," the medic reported. "Can you move your arm?"

Slowly, cautiously, I moved my arm a little, gasping at the pain it caused, but I kept going, determined to show that I was okay.

"I'm going to put a sling on you to immobilize your arm and shoulder," he said, explaining what he was doing so I wouldn't panic. "Then we'll get you into the locker room so Doctor Guitterez can check you out a little more thoroughly." He slipped the sling on my arm, adjusting the neck strap, and then carefully helped me sit up; I couldn't see, but no doubt he was flinching at my tiny gasps and cries of pain.

"Do you think you can stand up?"

"Yeah," I said, trying to move my body so I could get leverage to stand, but my knee and ribs hurt pretty badly. "With help, maybe." The medic and an assistant carefully helped me upright.

It warmed my heart that the crowd started cheering when I was on my feet, momentarily making me forget about my injuries. As soon as I was standing, the medic asked, hovering about me, "Are you doing okay?" I nodded, so he continued, "Let's see if you can walk." Slowly, very carefully, I took a step with my left foot, supporting my weight on my damaged right leg. That went okay even though it hurt quite a bit.

Limping heavily, my right arm in a sling, and flanked by two medics, I made my way out of the arena and toward the tunnel into the locker area. "I've got her," Punch said firmly, and then she picked me up gently, taking weight off my damaged knee without putting pressure on my shoulder.

"Thanks," I said, sighing with relief of not having to walk and for my roommate's reassuring presence.

"Girl, you're going to be the death of me," she chided me softly in the same way my mom always had.

"At least we won," I said with a forced smile.

Room 3, Arena 99, Whateley Academy

"Well?" I asked when Dr. Guitterez was done poking and prodding, "am I going to live?" She hadn't taken the sling off my arm.

"Yes, and you're going to Doyle," Dr. Guitterez frowned at me. "I think you only sprained your shoulder, but I want an MRI to be sure you didn't tear something since you injured it just a few days ago. The same goes for your knee."

"Can you get me a non-metal cup about half full of water?" I asked simply, "so I can do a healing?"

While the medic scurried to find what I'd requested, Chou came in and sat beside me. "We did it," she said, sounding happy but also a little tired. "We won."

"Pretty ugly win," I said dryly.

Chou chuckled, shaking her head. "A win is a win." She looked at me, smiling. "But yeah, we could have done better."

"Let's talk about that, then," Gunny Bardue's voice boomed from across the locker room. I hadn't seen him enter, and from the way Chou reacted, she hadn't either. Ito, standing beside Bardue, took a paper from his clipboard, folded it, and strode to me, the paper outstretched for me to take. He repeated the process and handed one to Chou.

"B?" I asked, a little disappointed. No, that wasn't accurate; I was a lot disappointed. We'd won, after all.

"B minus?" Chou asked in disbelief.

"The plan was at best half-baked," Bardue started his usual harsh critique. "Whose plan was it, anyway?"

I let my head hang, raising my left hand. "Mine."

"Did you have a contingency plan for your magic not working in the building?" Ito asked critically. "Did you consider - ahead of time - the possibility that the villain might use the fire escape as a secondary escape route?"

"No," I answered.

"Who was better equipped and trained to fight close-quarters indoors?" Bardue asked. I let my head hang a little lower; I knew the answer to that, and it wasn't me.

"Once your magic failed inside the building, you forgot to use magic after you left the building, correct? Once you were outside, a shield or invisibility spell would have let you and Bladedancer and the hostage escape. Or you could have used other spells to neutralize your pursuer," Ito commented, still with that damned inscrutable stare.

I shook my head, feeling even lower. I had forgotten the obvious things. I could have done what Ito said, and probably things he hadn't thought of, because I was the one on the magic track not him. "Yes, sir," I muttered, angry at myself for forgetting to go back to magic once I was outside the warded building.

Ito turned to Chou. "You had team tactics in the winter term, right?" He didn't wait for Chou to answer. "Were you satisfied with the plan?"

"No, not really," Chou admitted softly.

"And yet, despite more experience and better training, you let yourself be buffaloed into what appeared to you to be a flawed plan? A plan that had weaknesses that you recognized from team tactics?"

Chou nodded glumly. "We were running out of time ..."

"Bullshit!" Bardue barked, making both of us flinch. "You should have made time to debate the merits of the two plans if you felt her plan was flawed. You have more experience. You have training. You should have taken the lead."

"The equipment ...." I started to say, defending Chou against what I considered to be very unfair attacks.

"And you should have listened to your team-mate, and thought about your relative levels of experience!" Bardue snapped at me. "Isn't that the lesson I've been hitting you with sim after sim with the Nations?"

"Yes," I admitted sheepishly.

"Once you decided to cooperate," Bardue said, scowling at the two of us, "you could have easily let Pejuta use your bow for the ranged attacks while you handled breaching the interior. You could have had Pejuta give you a shield spell, like she did the invisibility spell, to help protect you in the entry."

I lowered my gaze, feeling like a total screw-up as I stared at the blank floor. Thanks to my poor planning and unwillingness to listen to Chou, we'd done worse than we could have and should have.

Ito must have sensed my mood. "Why did you decide to team up?"

"I realized we probably couldn't win solo, so I knew we'd have to team up to win the scenario," I said with a shrug, which hurt. Chou simply nodded her agreement.

"That's a point in your favor. Other things you did right - you both did reconnaissance, and you combined your knowledge. You located the escape route. You accounted for all the outside henchmen in the front and the back, and you formed a plan to neutralize them. You cooperated in the rescue to the point that you ensured safety of the hostage over individual safety, and you," he was looking directly at me, "made the right call in having Bladedancer get the hostage to safety."

Bardue cocked his head a tiny bit. "Did it cross your mind that, by letting Bladedancer take the hostage to the 'finish line', you might be sacrificing your grade?"

"Honestly, once we got in the sim, I wasn't really thinking about my grade or anything," I confessed, shaking my head. "Then I got ... busy with the medical team, so ... no." I looked at the two instructors, perhaps hoping for something other than the inscrutable expression they usually had, maybe a little hint of approval. Both, however, remained stony-face, betraying not a hint of emotion.

I opened my medicine pouch and began to get out the ingredients for the healing potion, while the two instructors filed back out. It was a difficult task to do one-handed. The medic brought me a plastic cup of water and then sat down beside me, trying to continue tending to my shoulder.

Room 3, Arena 99, Whateley Academy

The medic was still fussing with my shoulder - and making me gasp occasionally in pain - when the speaker in the briefing room crackled to life. "Next Match, Students Two Forty and Three eighteen."

"Someone else's turn to get tortured," I commented dryly.

"Great," the medic commented sarcastically, "more overtime for the medical staff." She shook her head. "I wish we got double-time at combat final time." She grasped my arm, giving me a frustrated scowl. "Hold still!"

"Sorry," I gasped because she had hurt me a bit. "Um, can you let me take a restroom break? I haven't ... since before Hippy's combat."

"Sure, go ahead." She helped me to my feet, and with a slight limp from residual pain my spell hadn't taken care of, I hobbled down the hall to the restroom.

A couple minutes later, I limped back into the briefing room ...

... and halted, jaw dropping. Lanie was standing, goggling with her mouth hanging agape. Across the room was Maggie, glaring at Lanie with her arms crossed, her posture declaring her anger even if one missed it in her expression.

"No!" Maggie snapped defiantly. Without taking her eyes off her former best friend, she continued. "I will not do a combat final with that ... that ... thing!"

"Miss Finson," Gunny said sternly, "combat finals are not optional, and you will enter the final against the opponent you drew."

"Maggie, please!" Lanie pleaded, her voice cracking and her eyes moist.

Maggie's eyes hardened into a glare that was positively malicious, lips pressed tightly together and breathing deeply through flared nostrils.

"Miss Finson," Sensei Ito's demeanor was strangely calm, "you will go into the final with Miss Nalley."

"I will not be in the same place as that ... thing that possessed her!" Maggie shot right back. She hadn't taken her gaze away from Lanie.

Just as Mrs. Carson quick-stepped into the room, I slid to Lanie's side, wrapping an arm around her waist

"Maggie," I butted in, "Lanie is not possessed! She's an avatar now, and she has a spirit!" I was dismayed; a few days earlier, I'd been hopeful that Maggie was reconsidering. "I know her spirit!"

"What's going on?" Mrs. Carson asked, looking back and forth between the two girls questioningly.

"Miss Finson ..." Bardue began

"They want me to go into a simulation with that ... that ... spirit that possessed Elaine!" Maggie practically screamed in reply.

"Miss Finson," Mrs. Carson said in her voice of supreme authority, having drawn herself up to full height, "Elaine is not ...."

"That monster is controlling her!" Maggie was getting irrational. "I know it, and how dangerous it is!"

"Miss Finson," Gunny said, "you will participate in the combat final. You will participate with your randomly-selected opponent. Those are requirements for every student in this school. Is that clear?"

I pulled Lanie down to the bench as tears rolled from her eyes, wrapping my arm around cuwe ki,my sister. "It'll be alright, sister," I tried to assure her before I turned my attention to Lifeline. "Maggie, I'm a shaman! I know spirits."

"You were duped!" Maggie growled. "You'd defend your lover anyway!" she added. I gasped at her positively vicious words, and under my arm, Lanie flinched like she'd been stabbed, Maggie's words cutting her to the heart.

"That will be enough of that, Miss Finson!" Mrs. Carson snapped at her. "Combat finals are not optional. Sit down so your instructors can brief you on the scenario."

"No!" Maggie snarled defiantly. "I don't want to be near that thing!"

"What's going on here?" Wyatt's voice boomed as he burst into the room. His eyes went immediately to Elaine, and he slid onto the bench, wrapping an arm supportively around his fiancée.

"This is not your concern," Mrs. Carson said evenly at Wyatt, her narrowed eyes, stern expression, and deadly-calm voice promising serious retribution if he tried to interfere.

Tansy entered a few steps behind Wyatt, carrying a bag, and she fidgeted nervously as she listened to what was going on, retreating to an unobtrusive corner to stay out of the way. There was something about her expression that puzzled me, but I was more concerned about Lanie so I forgot about it.

She took the elbows of the two men and led them to a corner, where they huddled to discuss how to handle this. While they conferred, Maggie glared at Lanie, if anything, becoming angrier and angrier the longer she had to be in the same room with my soul-sister.

The teachers separated and turned to Maggie, looking sternly at the defiant, angry girl, Mrs. Carson at the front with Ito and Bardue behind her. "Miss Finson, this is your last chance," she said, attempting to stare down the girl.

Mrs. Carson didn't' budge Maggie's determination. "Mrs. Carson, I refuse. I don't care if you fail me. I don't care if you even expel me! She may have all of you fooled, but I will not socialize, work with, cooperate with, or be around that ... that monster!"

My arm was pushed aside as Grizzly manifested around Lanie, tears on her muzzle, and the bear leaped to its feet, towering above everyone in the room. "You bitch!" the bear roared at Maggie. "You want a piece of me? Bring it on! But leave my host alone!"

Maggie spun away from Mrs. Carson toward Lanie and Grizzly. "That's right! Show everyone what you really are, monster!" I recoiled involuntarily from the pure, unadulterated hate in her eyes, and it was only then that I noticed that she'd drawn her athame.

Mrs. Carson's eyes widened in shock at Maggie's actions, and she took a step toward the girl. "Miss Finson!" she thundered, probably convinced she was going to have to break up a fight.

Maggie clenched her athame with her left hand, knuckles white, bale-fire burning around the blade as blood soaked it, oozing through the girl's fingers. "By the blood of my life, by the love of my friend ..."

"Miss Finson!" Mrs. Carson's voice echoed the stunned look on her face. But like me, she knew it was already too late. Even if Maggie didn't speak the words, the moment her blood touched her blade, her Will and Essence sealed a blood oath. Mrs. Carson couldn't stop it; the magic was already done by her Will.

"... there will be no peace between us! I will burn you from her body and free her soul from your filthy grasp!"

Wyatt's eyes were big as saucers, and Tansy gawked, just like Ito and Bardue and the medic who'd interrupted tending to my shoulder, our attention riveted by the spectacle playing out before us. The others, however, didn't understand. Only Mrs. Carson and I knew what Maggie had just done.

"By Solomon's Pact, I seal my oath!" Releasing her grip on the bloody blade, she snapped her hand, shaking off her blood toward Grizzly's face.

The Headmistress seized Maggie's wrists painfully, causing her to drop her athame, and smoothly, effortlessly, pinning the girl's arms behind her - painfully, from the expression on Maggie's face. "Do you have any idea what you have just done?!?"

"By my hatred!" Maggie snarled, ignoring the pain. "By my hatred, so mote it be!" She spat at Grizzly.

"Get ahold of yourself, Miss Finson!" Mrs. Carson yelled in outrage as she forced Maggie from the room. "You should know the consequence of a blood oath! That was stupid!"

I pushed away the medic and stood, ignoring the stabbing pain in my shoulder and wrapping my arm around Grizzly's waist. No doubt Grizzly knew what Maggie's action and blood oath meant, and she'd communicate that to Elaine - that her former best friend had just sworn to Grizzly's destruction, no matter how badly that would injure Lanie if she succeeded. Knowing Grizzly's rage at what Maggie had done, Wyatt was firmly restraining the manifested bear, until the bear faded and Lanie collapsed slowly back to the bench, her face in her hands as she wailed, her heart shattered by her former best friend's action and hatred.

Lanie, naturally, was an emotional wreck. Despite the throbbing shoulder, I sat down beside her and hugged cuwe ki closer, shrugging off the medic who was still trying - futilely, it seemed - to tend to my shoulder. My soul-sister was far more important than a little discomfort. Wyatt sat beside her, encircling Lanie's shoulders; his expression was a strange mix of rage at Maggie and concern for his fiancée; his lip trembled and his jaw was clenched in anger that she could have so brutally hurt Lanie.

And Tansy stood a few feet away, looking sympathetically at the redhead. When I glanced at her, I saw something else in her expression that puzzled me. I turned back to my friend to try to comfort her. I didn't have time to worry about Tansy.

It hit me like a hammer; Tansy was jealous! She was envious of my friendship with Lanie! I gasped softly, then winced to make everyone think that my shoulder was hurting, but ... was Tansy trying to come between me and my soul-sister? I knew Tansy had no real friends, which was not surprising based on the stories I'd heard, but was she now going to try to take away my best friend? My soul-sister? Cuwe ki?"

I was not going to let that happen. At that moment, I had no idea how I could stop it, but I was absolutely determined that Tansy was not going to take Lanie away from me. And then I considered something, and I gasped again - what if Lanie didn't want to be my best friend anymore? What if she wanted Tansy as a best friend? My heart skipped a few beats in fear that such would come to pass.

Sensei Ito cleared his throat. "Nalley-San, Miss Finson forfeits and has failed. Do you wish to attempt your trial alone?"

With great effort, Lanie tried to push aside her grief as she pulled herself to her feet, her cheeks glistening with tears and her lip trembling. "Ah'll ..."

At that moment, I knew what I had to do. I might have been hurt a little, but I was not going to let my soul-sister, cuwe ki, go through this alone. "I'll help her," I said firmly.

I looked in shock at the other girl in the room; Tansy had said the exact same thing at the exact same time. I swallowed hard and pulled myself away from the medic still trying to tend to my shoulder; forcing myself to ignore the pain and not limp, I stepped to Lanie's side, putting my arm around her waist. "We'll help," I declared, nodding slightly toward the junior beauty. Silently, I invoked a spell that should significantly reduce my pain level; based on what Wakan Tanka had told me, I guessed it to be about the same as a Vicodin.

Gunny glared at me. "You're injured, Miss Franks," he growled.

I was trying to shuck off the sling, but the medic put her hand on my shoulder to stop me. "It's probably just a bad sprain," the other medic in the room said, giving me a cautioning look, "but it might also be worse. Without an MRI, it's impossible to tell, but she didn't dislocate it, and she probably didn't tear her rotator cuff." He shot me yet another warning look. "NFL players play with worse."

"I've played with worse!" I declared defensively to justify my decision. "I played a whole game with a broken ring finger!" The words had come out of my mouth before I could stop them, and I flinched, staring at Tansy wide-eyed, realizing that she might figure out my secret. If she did, she was good at schooling her expression, because she did no more than glance at me.

"Brave and stupid aren't selling points," Bardue growled at me. Then he berated Tansy for volunteering as well, since the only PE classes she'd taken had been survival and escape. And he reminded Tansy that she was a junior and her final was the following week.

Unexpectedly, contrary to what I would have thought, Tansy stood her ground, drawing herself upright, showing poise and determination. "Venus Inc. is signed up for a team final, because Poise wants to go out with a big splash. So I'm already prepared to fight instead of run away." She glanced toward the bag at her feet. "I've got a costume and holdouts ready for that fight." She smiled wryly. "I might as well test them before the Venus Inc. battle, and now is as good a time as any."

Bardue wound up to say something else, but Ito put his hand on the burly marine's arm. "We do try to teach them to deal with injuries and mixed skills. Let's let them try." Bardue's eyes widened in surprise, and Ito continued. "Scenario A-4."

Lanie squared her shoulders. "Ah assume from your evil smiles that Scenario A-4 is a crash?" That elicited a raised eyebrow from Ito as the two exchanged a knowing glance.

I knew what to expect from my simulation. "I'm carrying my bow," I announced firmly. "And I think we better cooperate as a team." I directed that comment at Lanie and Tansy.

"Miss Franks," Bardue was frowning at me, "there are several strategies ...."

"Oscar," Ito interrupted him, "Pejuta has run her test. She knows the setup. And it is a crash." He took a breath and exhaled slowly. "And need I remind you that I predicted the students would figure it out and that we should tell them that cooperation is one of the permissible strategy."

Gunny glared at me and my new team-mates, and then he slowly nodded.

May 29th, 2007, Late Morning
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

I grimaced as we stepped into the simulation - Tehran under an almost blindingly-brilliant sun beating down on us. In the distance, we heard gunfire from other elements of Operation Eagle Claw, an attempted rescue of the commander of the embassy Marines. I didn't have a good feeling; the real operation hadn't gone well. And Gunny was in charge of the simulation.

Lanie put her hand on my shoulder, wincing with an apologetic look when I cringed from discomfort at how she'd placed her hand. "You're injured, mitaka ki," she said softly. "Hang back and take care of anything Solange and I miss, okay?" I don't think she'd realized just how sore my shoulder was.

I tried for a little light-hearted banter about what I remembered about the scenario from history classes, but Tansy wasn’t in any mood for it. "Save the history lessons for later," she hissed at us.

We were in a narrow alleyway by what appeared to be a warehouse, and after briefly examining the door, Lanie displayed the titanium claws on her hands. "You want me to open it?" She actually seemed eager to attack something. I shuddered inwardly; she was dealing with serious emotion from Maggie's rejection, and it was coming out as anger. That wasn't healthy for her.

Tansy smiled and shook her head. "Let's try something quieter," she answered. From her pouches, she took a ring of keys. "Master keys," she explained as she went to work. "I tricked dad into signing corporate papers, so I'm head of a locksmith company." Though she was focused on the lock, she had to have known that we were gawking at her. "It's handy to break into the liquor cabinet."

The door opened to release a dank, awful stench of something rotting. Something really stinky with the added smell of rot. I nearly gagged; at least, Tansy was having the same reaction, so the two couldn't call me a wimp. The smell just seemed to enrage Lanie more.

The first door revealed a hallway with about a dozen uniformed men, who were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. I overcame a momentary hesitation - probably exacerbated by being fatigued from the first final and healing from my earlier injuries - but by the time I had my tomahawks out, it was all over. I was kicking myself; Lanie was counting on me to help, and all I'd done was gawk stupidly at the fight. If she or Tansy had been hurt, it would have been my fault for letting myself be frozen into inaction.

We crept further into what had to be an office area on one side of the warehouse, pausing to look in various hallway doors for other surprises or for the hostage. One seemed to have been an improvised sleeping quarters. It was now an improvised morgue for all the once-breathing occupants.

"We're going to run out of luck if we keep this up," Tansy observed after we'd cleaned out a kitchen area of its two occupants. "They're using this as a barracks, and we don't know how many are here, or where."

"So we have to kill a few more of them," Lanie growled. "So what?" Yup, she was relishing the battle. We were going to have to talk - maybe in dream-space with her and Wyatt. I could understand channeling her hurt into anger, but this was approaching an unhealthy level.

Tansy calmly put her hand on Lanie's arm. "We're wasting time and energy. There's a better way to see what's going on here," she said soothingly. For several agonizingly long seconds, the bear-woman looked at her, and I could almost see Lanie's blood-lust abating. Tansy looked at me, smiling. "You have an invisibility spell, right?"

Lanie's expression slowly turned to a grin, and she clasped her hand on my shoulder - hard - making me gasp in pain and flinch. "Ah'm sorry, sister," she immediately apologized, horrified that she'd hurt me. She and Tansy were probably also rather shocked that my shoulder was hurting as much as it apparently did, because the sim was already a challenge, and we hadn't gotten to what we knew would be the worst part. Gunny would not give us an easy sim.

"I'll scout out as much as I can," I agreed, and when Lanie nodded - I wasn't going to take direction from Tansy, because I was in this to help Lanie - I cast my ghost-walking spell, determined to help the group. So far, Tansy and Lanie had done almost all the fighting, and I felt like a drag on cuwe ki's combat final. I couldn't do that; I was here to help Lanie, not get in the way.

Moving as quietly as I could, I crept up the wooden stairs to the second floor of offices, wincing as they creaked slightly. Moving about invisibly wasn't worth a crap, it dawned on me, if I made noise or left tracks. I was thinking of a lot of improvements I could make to the ghost-walking spell - like adding a silencing component at the very least.

At the head of the stairs, one of the guards or rebels was walking toward me, pistol in hand, a curious but cautious look on his face. He peeked down the stairs, confused; no doubt he'd heard the stairs creaking and was investigating. The only thing he learned, though, was that a pair of tomahawks could kill very, very quickly and almost noiselessly when the attacker - me - had the element of surprise.

The first three rooms were empty, almost disappointingly so. The fourth, however, was not; about a half-dozen soldiers were sleeping on mats scattered about the room. The first thought was that fighting a bunch of men wasn't really fair, and that I couldn't silence them all without someone raising an alarm, but then I recalled a line from an old show - 'four thousand throats may be cut in one night by a running man.' I shook my head, suppressing a chuckle as I did so - and I'd accused Lanie of being a nerd!

Slipping into the room and closing the door behind me, all the while cautiously watching the men, I took a deep breath to steel my nerves. 'This is a sim. This is just a sim,' I repeated to myself over and over, trying to quell an uneasy feeling about killing a half-dozen sleeping, unarmed men. Of course, my rational brain knew that they were only ANTs that appeared to be men, but the sim was so realistic that my emotional brain wasn't quite convinced that it was fake.

The less said about the room, the better. Suffice to say that when I left the room, all of the men were dead, I was shaking and covered with simulated blood, and by some miracle, the alarm hadn't been raised.

To be certain, I checked the other rooms, finding one man sitting at a radio with earphones on his head, probably listening to reports of the action elsewhere in Tehran. He didn't survive, either. Then I found a door out onto a series of catwalks running high over the floor of the cavernous warehouse. I glanced at my watch and cringed; the drop-ship was going to arrive in a little bit, which meant that we were running out of time. But from the catwalk, I had an excellent view around the piled crates around the room's periphery in the large warehouse; in the open center of the vast space, two men were watching over a third blindfolded man who was sitting on a short stool.

"Do you want the good news or the bad news?" I asked Tansy and Lanie; my appearance had startled both of them to the point I was afraid they were going to jump me.

"What's the good news?"

"Five men sleeping, and a radio-man on the second floor. All are ... permanently napping." I smiled. "And I found the colonel. He's in the center of an open area out in the warehouse."

"And the bad news?"

"American witches!" a man's voice boomed, echoing through the warehouse, "show yourselves or your infidel baby-killer dies!"

"That," I said, flinching.

Lanie looked at Tansy, who nodded, their silent conversation a little creepy. "Invisible, mitaka ki," she said. "Focus on the colonel." I felt an eyebrow arch up in curiosity. "We'll distract that loudmouth." She and Tansy stood. "We're coming out!" she shouted.

I followed them out to the large, open area, and then circled to one side, skirting the area illuminated by a bare bulb hanging down from the ceiling so far overhead. The colonel was sitting tied and blindfolded, and an Iranian man stood by him, holding a pistol and waving it toward the hostage. Near him, a large man in a stupid throwback Arabian Nights costume stood with a huge scimitar hanging off his belt. Cautious so I didn't make a sound, I crept toward the man with the gun.

Tansy and Lanie continued to distract the man with various insults and taunts, and the man finally had enough. "Baig - kill them!" he ordered. The man with the absurd sword drew it, grinning, and practically leapt toward Tansy, but Lanie intercepted him, snarling viciously, her titanium claws slashing at the killer.

At the sound of some crashing out of the light circle, Tansy continued to taunt the man. "That sounded like it hurt," she sneered.

"Silence!" the man roared, "I will spray you with this infidel's blood! Then, American infidel bitch, I will rape you! Over and over until you call me husband! And you will bear many warriors of Allah for me!"

I was creeping up on the loudmouth when he started to threaten to rape Tansy. That tripped something in me; I don’t remember precisely what happened, except that I went all Hoka on him. Tansy told me later that after I'd severed his hand with a vicious cut, I'd delivered an uppercut to his groin while screaming about his raping days being over, calling him a mother-fucker and so on. Then I decapitated him. No doubt Ito and Gunny were entertained - or shocked. From the look on her face, I knew Tansy was a little shocked.

Wiping some blood from my face, I bent over, holstering my tomahawks and used my knife to free the hostage. "Are you alright, Colonel?"

The marine nodded. "Give me a weapon and I'll be great!" he replied as Lanie flew through the circle of light and into the shadows; I gasped; she was covered with blood, but how much was hers and how much was the Arabian Night goon's was questionable.

"Get him to the roof," Tansy ordered, handing a pistol to the colonel. "And don't forget the Triple-A battery! You have to take that out before the drop-ship arrives!"

"But ..."

"Go! Lanie and I will take care of this idiot!"

I hesitated, but then took the colonel's elbow and, moving slowly at first because he was stiff and probably sore, we ran to a metal stairway that would take us up to the roof.

"Who are you people?" the colonel demanded, somewhat shocked, as I led him up the stairs, wincing in pain but determined to not let it show. Lanie wouldn't forgive herself if I was hurt more, and I was not going to give Gunny and Ito the satisfaction of saying 'I told you so.'

"Princess Leia," I shot back, grinning. "We're here to rescue you."

I had visions of a gun platform, like a German 88 or a quad 20mm like in the war movies and pictures, but when we peeked through the door onto the roof, my heart sank. There were half a dozen or more clusters of Iranian rebels and soldiers on this and other nearby roofs and they had a mix of AK-47s and RPGs. "Shit!" I swore; these things could take out a tank, and they'd easily destroy the fragile drop-ship if we didn't take them out.

"Helicopter extraction?" the colonel guessed while shooting calmly at the nearest surprised opponents.

"Close enough. I hope you're good with that thing." I unslung my bow from over my shoulder and grabbed five or six arrows in my right hand.

"I know you super types like your themes, but a bow and arrow?" the colonel asked, a little dismayed by my choice of weapons.

"Your man Custer thought the same thing," I shot back, grinning. In reality, I was a little uneasy; my right shoulder still hurt like hell, and I didn't know how effective I could be with my bow - and I had no other ranged weapons.

"He was Army," the colonel corrected me. "Marine," he said, smiling and thumping his chest. "Besides, the Indians had Henry repeating rifles, not 1874 Springfield trapdoors like the cavalry."

"Enough with the history already. Time to go all 'shores of Tripoli,' then. Hokaheh! I screamed as I burst through the door, already nocking an arrow as I turned to one of the groups furthest away. No matter how good he was, the colonel was not going to get the distant groups with Tansy's force pistol.

My first shot hit the chest of one of the furthest group, the one with the RPG. It didn’t matter; this was one of the 'special' arrows Molly and I had made. An essence-driven burst of energy rippled out in an explosion, blowing them away from the impact point. I heard an explosion but didn't see it; I was already swinging my bow to a second group. "Holy shit!" the colonel swore behind me, having glanced at the sound of the explosion.

"Told you," I said as I let the second arrow go. I didn't know if this was an explosive arrow, or a paralyzing arrow; in either event, anyone within about 4-5 meters of the impact point would be out of action.

The force pistol barked a couple more times, and then, after a short pause, the unmistakable sound of an AK-type rifle behind me sounded, and another group - the one I was about to shoot - fell, cut down by the colonel.

I was switching targets when the colonel pulled me down behind a piece of machinery; the sound of bullets tearing into the metal was unmistakable. "Thanks," I said. From where we were hunkered down, I could see a group that were running along the neighboring roof. I turned, thanking Mr. Two Knives for the short-bow that I could wield even while crouched down.

"Okay," the colonel said, grinning and shooting at another cluster of soldiers on a nearby building, "the bow thing is definitely working pretty well for you."

"This may not be the best thing, though," I replied, standing and quickly loosing an arrow at another group. Our opponents were starting to coordinate their actions; it was only a matter of time before they shot at us with one of the RPGs.

RPG! That was the answer! My team-mate by that name had shot snakey - damn, how long ago was that? - and I'd shielded myself from the blast with my shield spell. "Give me a second; I'll get us a shield."


"Magic." I let an arrow to the ground and began to incant. The shield started to form, but then the spell fizzled. "Damn!"


"No shield! I'm out of essence!"

"That's inconvenient," the colonel said dryly.

I shot another group, and another RPG was caught in a magic-induced explosion, but there were three more groups shooting steadily. And as I'd ducked, I'd noticed one of the teams was about to shoot us. I rose and drew back - and felt like my shoulder had been torn apart. Screaming, I let the arrow fly, probably way clear of the target, and I collapsed to the ground.

"Well," I said, gritting my teeth against the serious agony in my shoulder, "it's been nice fighting with you, colonel." Had I been shot, or had my shoulder just given out? It didn't really matter. We were outnumbered, outgunned, I had no magic left, and I couldn't use my bow.

A shadow - a large shadow - suddenly blotted out the sun. I couldn't make out the shape, but a roar like a thousand buzz-saws deafened me temporarily, and a blast of pressure would have knocked me down if I'd been standing. To my right, the neighboring rooftop erupted in a shower of dust and debris.

"Twenty millimeter Gatling gun!" the colonel said, grinning at me. "The cavalry is here!"

"I thought you Marines didn't like the cavalry."

"I'll make an exception," he chuckled as the Vindicator craft turned, skidding through the sky a few meters above the rooflines, and the Gatling-gun canon roared again, shredding another cluster of soldiers - and the building they were on.

Behind us, the door burst open, and I pushed aside the colonel's AK as he swing it toward what could be a new threat. "It's my friends," I explained, grateful to see Tansy and Lanie, though my heart sank at the sight of mass amounts of blood on Lanie and the fact that Tansy was half-carrying her.

The air-horn sounded, ending the simulation, and I sank back to the roof, sitting on my butt and smiling at Lanie. "We did it!" I said, wincing through my pain.

May 29th, 2007, Late Morning
Room 3, Arena 99, Whateley Academy

The spell had worn off, and I limped - seriously limped - into the locker room. Tansy was half-carrying Lanie, whose side was ripped open and bloody, though the bleeding had mostly stopped. She'd taken a hit in her side from the heavyweight inside the warehouse, having the misfortune to have his knife hit her on her suit's zipper, which wasn't as durable as the rest of her suit.

Tansy set Elaine on a training bench, and immediately a medic went to her wound, while another was looking at me - again. He scowled at the way I hobbled across the floor, limping badly and holding my right forearm against my body, using my left arm to try to keep it immobile.

"But it hurts!" Lanie cried from across the room, drawing my attention to where the medic was treating the wound. I sighed as well; my own injuries were throbbing painfully again, and at times, as the medic attending to me moved my arm, I felt like crying out, too.

"Is everyone decent?" Gunny's voice boomed from an outside door which led to the arena's control booth.

"Yeah," all three of us called out at the same time. Tansy opened the door, and Gunny came in, followed by Sensei Ito; both teachers were carrying clipboards.

"Well," Gunny said, "that was entertaining!" It was hard to tell if he was being complimentary or sarcastic; with the big marine, it could have been either or both. He handed me a folded paper. "Since you participated in an extra final, your efforts earned you ten extra-credit points," he said, his voice as close to complimentary as I'd ever heard. "You can use them all for one grade, or you can spread them around."

When I frowned in confusion, Tansy smiled at me. "If you've got a class where your grade is on the bubble, you can use them to bump up the grade. If I remember right, they apply to the semester average, not like a test or quiz. Want an 'A' in a class, but you're getting a 'B'? There you go."

A thought occurred to me. "Can I bank them ...?"

Gunny shook his head, grinning. "Nice try, but they're good for this semester only." He frowned a bit. "Explain to me why you tried to use a bow instead of magic, or summoning your buffalo - especially since you started with an injured shoulder."

I winced - this was starting to remind me of the hyper-critical analysis Gunny and Sam always did after sims. I told him what had happened, and that I wasn't sure if I could use Tatanka, but he and Ito just shook their heads. Chuckling, Ito told me that I could have used any and all of my capabilities unless they explicitly told me otherwise. That got me thinking; I'd been a little too hesitant in using Tatanka for combat purposes, thinking of him instead as an advisor in my head. I hoped he didn't think I was slighting him, because he did say that he was responsible for defending the Ptesanwi.

Ito and Bardue were very unhappy with Tansy, as if she'd been holding out her capabilities for years - which she had been doing. Nevertheless, she got an A for her grade. And that brought them to Lanie.

"C plus?" she practically screamed, almost perceptible waves of fury rippling from her as she gave voice to her outrage. "Ah can't win, can Ah?" she growled. "When I use mah brain, you dock mah grade and Ah get chewed out. When Ah play it by your rules, you dock mah grade and Ah get chewed out!" From her tone of voice and expression, she was extremely angry at what she obviously considered to be unfair treatment at the hands of the two sadistic instructors.

That got both Ito and Gunny upset. "All you did was to use brute force, wading in to score a body count to take your anger out on the sim!" Gunny lectured her. "Didn't you hear what I said about Miss Walcutt about the things she did and which you did not do?"

"You took your anger about what happened between you and Miss Finson into the simulation. You let your personal life ...."

"Mah personal life is none of your ..." Lanie roared angrily, her face burning. Only the gentle restraint of the paramedics kept her from leaping to her feet.

"You made it our business! You made it your team-mates' business when you wanted to use the simulation to take out your personal anger. You're damned lucky one of your team-mates didn't get hurt because of your fit!" Gunny's tone was lower, a controlled fury in a lecture that actually made Lanie shrink away from him.

Satisfied that Gunny and Ito, who were conferring on the other side of the room, were finished, the medic returned his attention to Lanie, while the one looking at me gave me instructions. "That's the side you were injured last week, right?"

I nodded. "Yup."

"Something isn't right. It seems like it didn't heal right, and between the two finals, you've pretty seriously re-injured both your shoulder and your knee. You need to get to Doyle right away. I'll call in a request for X-rays and an MRI. Can you walk?"

I eased myself forward and stood hesitantly; I couldn't help grimacing aloud in pain and wincing visibly when I tried to put weight on my leg. "I can probably manage," I lied.

He didn't believe me. "We'll carry you out to a club car in a minute." He walked over to join the huddle of instructors.

Lanie sighed heavily and then looked at us, a very contrite expression on her face. "Ito was right. Ah'm sorry ...."

"You have nothing to be sorry about," Tansy chided her gently but firmly. "If they thought you were a danger, they should have given you time to cool off. It's their fault, not yours."

Smiling, Lanie clambered to her feet and gave Tansy a hug. "Thanks."

I felt a little disappointed and angry at the same time. It was my place as Lanie's soul-sister to comfort her. But ... that would mean I was jealous of Tansy! I couldn't be! And yet, I couldn't quell the burning fear that Tansy was displacing me. Ignoring my pain, I lurched off the bench, wincing as I hobbled two steps and joined the group hug. "I ... we ... understand, cuwe ki!" I said to Lanie in support. I wasn't going to let Tansy be the only one offering support to my sister!

I thought I saw an odd expression on Tansy's face as she glanced at me from the corner of her eye. Was she vying to be Lanie's best friend? Was she trying to displace me? Or was she simply unsure about how she would fit into Lanie's and my special bond? I decided that I should give her the benefit of the doubt. Besides, unlike Tansy, I could dream-walk with Lanie - and use that time to reinforce our friendship. Plus Lanie and I had shared something very, very special that Tansy and Lanie probably never would. I chided myself; that very thought sounded both possessive and paranoid.

"I'll let Poise know you're injured and can't be on the Venus Inc. team right now," Tansy said to me graciously. She looked at me with what looked to be a critical eye. "You know, Kayda," she said with a smile, "you'd look even more stunning if you added a little makeup to your skin-care routine! Don't get me wrong - the natural look works well for you, but ...."

I winced - adding makeup seemed ... a stretch.

"If I were you," Lanie looked puzzled for a moment, "mitaka ki, I'd take her up on that offer. There's no-one in Venus Inc. that's as good with makeup as Tansy. And she is one of the top five beauties on campus, so she does know what she's doing."

The Tansy I'd heard about would probably have acknowledged Lanie's compliment with haughty airs that announced, "Yes, I am, aren't I?" Instead, she looked a little ... humble? "Maybe I better not help you too much," she said with a shy smile and a half giggle, "because you'll look much better than me!"

"There's a club car outside in the tunnel," the medic interrupted our little girl-chat. "Can you walk that far?"

"Ah'll carry her," Lanie announced determinedly, "so she doesn't hurt herself more."

Tansy shook her head. "No," she said firmly, "you're hurt, too. I'll take care of Kayda." She lifted me, which surprised me greatly; she was rated an exemplar 1 but carried me like she was far stronger, and set me gently in the club car. "Get yourself healed, Kayda," she said softly. "I can tell Lanie is really worried about you."

Stunned, I looked up at her, and saw a reassuring, gentle smile. "Okay."

She walked back into the locker room, and the driver directed the car through the tunnels until we arrived at Doyle, where a nurse waited with a wheelchair at the sub-basement elevators.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Late Morning
Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy

"Your knee and shoulder did not heal properly from last week's injuries," Dr. Tenent clucked, a frown on her face. "And then you do two combat finals and further aggravated the damage?"

"They should have healed," I protested. "I healed a lot faster from a lot worse injuries!"

"That's what worries me," Dr. Tenent said. "It's like ...." Her eyes narrowed. "Like Hippolyta. And like your previous injuries - with the tainted spike and the tainted bullets."

My jaw dropped. "Like ... I've still got ... taint in me?" I shook my head. "That's impossible. I did the decontamination to remove the taint! I felt it!"

Dr. Tenent had turned back to the X-rays and was scrutinizing them. She recoiled suddenly, startled by something. "Kayda," she said warily, turning toward me, "how much ... substance ... does it take to transfer the taint?"

"I don't know," I answered simply. "Why?"

She frowned. "Copper is a soft metal, right?"

"Yeah." I had no idea where she was going.

"Was the spike damaged?" She didn't wait for an answer, but strode quickly to the door. "Please bring Kayda's copper spike here," she called out to whoever was outside the examining room.

"You can't ..."

"It's in a sealed box with a ward around it," Dr. Tenent reassured me. She put an X-ray up in the light box beside the examining table. "What do you make of this?" She pointed to a tiny, slightly-brighter, curled spot in the middle of my shoulder joint. "Does that look like a metal shaving?"

Before I could answer, a nurse came in, carrying a translucent plastic box. She offered it to Dr. Tenent, but the doctor gestured to me. I took the box, feeling an odd tingling, and then took the lid off and picked up the copper spike. It looked perfectly fine as I turned it in my hand - except ....

"There's a gouge in it near the tip," I said, frowning. "Maybe a millimeter wide and five or six millimeters long."

"The attack did chip a bone," Dr. Tenent said, "and copper is a soft metal. Scraping copper against sharp bone - that'd probably be enough to shave off some metal." She sighed. "We'll have to go in with a scope and get it out," she said firmly. "And since you're an exemplar and have regeneration, I can't guarantee that the anesthesia will take care of the pain."

"Just do it. I'll try not to scream." I put the spike back in the box and put the lid back on.

"By the way," Dr. Tenent said, smiling, "that was pretty clever thinking to use the spike on Hippolyta. When a regenerator has a foreign body in him or her, the regen will either try to expel it or will try to encapsulate it, like a cyst. In Hippy's case, if it had encapsulated the re-bar through her heart, it could have killed her."

"We were lucky that I hadn't purified it yet. Is she okay?"

"She's still in surgery, but they've got the re-bar out and the worst of the heart damage is repaired." She winced. "But you're going to have to use your spell to get the taint from her as soon as she's out of surgery so her own regeneration can take over, especially with her neck injury."

"Then I better not use my essence for my discomfort. I'll save it for when Hippy comes out of surgery."

Dr. Tenent chuckled. "No need to be a hero. Ms. Grimes is coming over to help you with essence. It's pretty normal during combat finals. Any and every faculty member with a wiz rating is on standby to donate essence to the medical staff."

"That's a relief. 'Cause I don't know if I'll make it through you digging that junk out of my shoulder without something for pain, let alone have enough essence for Hippy."

Tuesday, May 29-2007 - Afternoon
Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy.

I'd hadn't even finished eating when I was summoned to Mrs. Carson's office. It had been a very hectic morning - major healing spells on Hippy, two combat finals, a major healing spell on myself, and decontamination spells on myself and Hippy. I was out of essence, quite exhausted, and my injuries from the morning still hurt a lot; I figured that with the contamination having been in my shoulder for so long, my healing was going to take some time to get revved back up.

Oddly, Ms. Claire waved me right into the conference room. Timidly, I opened the door, nervous about being summoned to yet another meeting. Was I in trouble for the second combat final? Had I done something wrong helping Hippy? Was there something weird going on with Magic Mikey?

Surprisingly, Chief Delarose wasn't in the room, which eased my fear a bit. Mrs. Carson waved me in, gesturing to a chair. As I sat down, I looked around. Mr. Lodgeman, Dr. Bellows, Fubar, and a doctor I'd never met were all seated and looking at me.

"Mrs. Carson," I greeted her hesitantly, wondering what this was about.

"Miss Franks," the headmistress began the meeting, "we have Dr. Hazel Two Bears from NACAC and Dr. Schmidt from HPARC on telecon with us."

"Cante waste nape ciyuzapo, Ptesanwi," Dr. Two Bears' voice sounded from the speaker.

"Wakan Takan kici un," I replied almost automatically, blushing at Dr. Two Bears' greeting.

"You honor me, Ptesanwi." From the way Mrs. Carson was smiling, I had a feeling that she understood the gist of what Hazel was saying to me, even if she didn't understand the words.

"Can we please drop the Ptesanwi thing?" I asked. "Please?" I added in English, because Hazel and I were the only ones who spoke Lakota - at least as far as I knew. I almost chuckled aloud at the thought that Mrs. Carson might very well have started learning Lakota, since I was such a frequent visitor to her office. She was extremely intelligent, and even though I had no proof, I was dead certain that she had Exemplar mental enhancements.

"Kayda," Mrs. Carson got the meeting back on track, "what do you know about what's happened to Mike?"

"He was contaminated by the taint of Unhcegila via the Mishibijiw spike," I said simply, shrugging. "If he's lucky, it only drove him insane."

Fubar frowned at my words. "What do you mean by that?"

"The last guy who touched the tainted Mishibijiw is locked in a padded room in HPARC," I said softly. "Dr. Schmidt can verify that." I gulped nervously. "The taint is bad enough that ... just gazing at Unhcegila's eyes, or those of his son, will ...." I choked up, thinking of the two boys who, though alive, might have been better off dead.

"The demon magic is strong enough to wipe a mind," Dr. Schmidt finished my thought, saving me from the difficult words.

"Is it your opinion," the unknown doctor asked, "that Mike is possibly insane?"

"No 'possible' about it," I replied immediately. "He's not a Lakota shaman. The taint of Unhcegila would have instantly driven him insane if it wasn't for the magic of the Mishibijiw's copper spike." I looked at the stony expressions on Fubar and Dr. Bellows. "Is he? Insane, I mean?"

"We ... don't know," Dr. Bellows answered cautiously. "I'm not going to speculate until we can confirm his mental state."

"If he is ... contaminated and insane," Mrs. Carson began slowly, "could you heal him?"

I goggled at her. She was asking me to cure the kid who'd try to kill me several times.

"Like the boys in HPARC," Hazel continued, just for the edification of those at the table. "You are a shaman, Wihakayda," she added in Lakota.

"No!" I replied angrily. "He tried to kill me!"

"But you could," Hazel prompted in a soothing, understanding voice.

"Maybe," I answered hesitantly, looking down at my hands for fear of the looks I figured I was getting from Mrs. Carson and Dr. Bellows. And Mr. Lodgeman.

"Kayda," Mrs. Carson said in a quiet yet firm voice, pausing until I looked up at her. "I want you to think about it." She rose and walked beside my chair, offering her hand so I would rise, and then she escorted me to the door. "Ask yourself, Kayda - if you can help him and you refuse, can you live with the fact that he's going to be permanently insane?"

"He tried to kill me!" I hissed.

"Kayda," she said, her words hard as iron, "we both know that was the demon-taint that drove him to do that, not Mike. Would you condemn him because of something he couldn’t control?"

I stared into her eyes for a second before I looked down, feeling the weight of a seemingly impossible decision. To heal Mike, I would have to forgive him for all the misery he'd caused me. He'd started it, not me. But ... Wakan Tanka had repeatedly chided me about a shaman's duty to heal, no matter what. A Lakota version of the Hippocratic Oath. "I'll think about it, ma'am," I replied formally.

"That's all I'm asking," she replied before opening the door for me to leave. No doubt they were going to talk about me and my ability to heal Mike, and what that would mean. "Oh, and Kayda?" I turned back toward her. "Dr. Schmidt, could you please repeat for Kayda what you'd told me a few minutes ago?" she called out to the speakerphone.

"Kayda, I was asked to thank you on behalf of the families of the boys you saved?"

Dammit, now my eyes were starting to water at the memory of the boys whose minds had been wiped by Unhcegila's son. I hadn't been able to help them, only to leave them mindless vegetables.

"They are ... slowly improving." My jaw almost hit the floor. "Our therapists say they're like newborns, relearning everything, but they are learning. Their brains apparently were only wiped clean, not destroyed."

"So ... they're ...?" I didn't want to get my hopes up that I had helped them after all and not condemned them to a life as brainless shells.

"It'll take time, but they are learning. At the rate they're progressing, in a few months, they'll be toddlers again, and can go back to their families. They - and their families - have a long road ahead of them, but they will recover - eventually."

That broke the dam, and my eyes started leaking. I'd thought myself a failure for not being able to help them, and in the long term, they might not completely recover, but now their families were going to get their sons back. "Thank you," I said, my voice cracking as I wiped away tears.

"Now why don't you go back to Crystal Hall and treat yourself to a nice, big piece of cake?" Mrs. Carson said, smiling, as she gently nudged me out of the door. As it shut behind me, I paused to wipe at my tears again.

When I turned, I was startled to see a girl sitting, staring at me, her eyes sad and pleading.

As soon as she saw me, Amber rose to her feet, looking at me uneasily. "Can ... can we talk?" she said nervously.

"Sure. I'm going to the caf to get some dessert," I answered.

As soon as we were in the hall, Amber stopped me. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I didn't know that Mike was doing all this stuff to you."

"It wasn't your fault." I looked down as a though whose seed had implanted earlier sprouted. "It ... it wasn't his fault, either." I couldn't believe the words coming out of my mouth.

"I heard ... that you can help him," she half-said, half-asked.

"Maybe. I don't know."

"If you can, would you please help him?" She was practically begging, her cheeks dripping tears down onto her school jacket.

"I don't know if I can," I repeated. "If I remove the demon-taint," I explained, wincing, "he might be left ... empty." Her eyes popped open, goggling at me. I simply nodded. "His mind might be wiped, a blank slate."

"But there is a chance he'd be ... sane?" Amber pleaded, grasping at straws.

"Maybe." I sighed, shaking my head. "Amber, he tried to kill me - several times. It's ..." I looked down, collecting my thoughts. "It's not easy to forgive something like that."

"But ... you could help him?" she asked again, her eyes more than slightly misty. "Would you please try?"

"I have a lot of essence to recover," I begged off, "so I couldn't even try for a few days. But ... I promised Mrs. Carson that I'd think about it."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Early Evening
Sally's Restaurant, Dunwich

"You did better than okay," Molly said, sitting on one side of Chou. "You did great! Not that many people beat the simulation today!"

"I screwed up," I said again, still feeling bad about how my poor plan had probably cost Chou part of her grade.

"And for the umpteenth time," Chou retorted sternly, "you did not screw up!"

Dorjee nodded in agreement with his girlfriend. This was the first time I'd done anything with all three of them, and it was a little bit strange. I could easily understand Chou, as a changeling, being interested in Molly, just like Zenith was going with Sahar, Toni with Rip, and Fey with Bugs. I could not understand, however, any of them being interested in guys - like Toni with Scott, Megs with Steve, or Chou with Dorjee. It was just ... weird. Then again, they hadn't had my experiences, so maybe it was more natural for them. I felt a shiver - I didn't want to ever feel normal about something like that.

"It wasn't as funny as Generator's, though," Dorjee chuckled aloud.

"She's the only one who won the scenario single-handed," Chou noted.

"And ... were those remote-controlled girl-scout cookies flying around everywhere attacking the bad guys?" Molly observed, which made Dorjee almost choke while sipping his soda.

"Could be. With Generator, anything is possible - and the crazier the idea, the more likely she'll do it!" Chou said with a knowing smile.

My eyes closed of their own accord, accompanied by a heavy sigh, shaking my head slowly. When I finally looked back up, all three were staring at me. I took another deep breath. "Okay, what should we have done?" I asked the question I'd had in my head since the debriefing so many hours ago. "What would you have done?" I know my voice quavered, because it was hard to contemplate hearing just how badly my partner thought I'd screwed up.

Chou sighed, glanced at Molly, and then looked at me. "I think Ito and Bardue are right. In close-in fighting, Destiny's Wave is much better than your tomahawks, plus my bag of holding gives me access to a lot of holdouts that can be crucial in close combat."

"Meaning - if you had entered through the rear door ... you would have been able to take out the brick instead of just ... pissing him off? But I can take a little more damage than you," I protested weakly. There had to be reasons to justify my plan.

"You took out the guards in phases," Dorjee observed uncritically. "The two at the end of the alley. Then the brick and the four outer guards. The third phase was the villain and henchman with the hostage."

"Which means that we could have swapped roles and attacks between the phases," Chou completed the thought.

"You're a lot better than Chou at rapid-fire with the bow," Molly added. "You were better suited for taking out the goons in front of the building."

I looked at her, stunned at that comment; more surprisingly, Chou and Dorjee nodded their agreement. I'd thought we were pretty evenly matched, and that as competitive as we were, Chou would never say I was better.

"And you forgot to check for wards and other magic barriers," Molly continued to dissect our performance. She suddenly giggled, which elicited a frown from me. "Do we sound like Ayla's post-mortems?"

Chou laughed aloud at that comment. "Maybe a little bit," she admitted, grinning.

I nodded at Molly's observation. "If I had checked," I said, chiding myself, "when I was scouting the situation, I would have noticed the wards." I shook my head slowly, looking down at my rapidly-cooling pizza. "And maybe I wouldn't have insisted on charging in myself."

"We both forgot to watch the fire-escape as a possible exit route."

"Which, if you'd have gone in, I could have covered with the bow."

"And since it was outside the building and the wards, you could have enchanted arrows for the frontal attack," Molly added. "Plus, if Chou breached from the rear, you could have cast a shield or invisibility spell on her if there weren't wards."

I was quiet for several long seconds. "Sorry I screwed up your grade," I finally apologized to Chou. "You had a better plan, and Bardue was right - you have more experience, so I shouldn't have been so stubborn at doing it my way."

"For your first combat final," Dorjee said, smiling at me, "you did pretty good. For the setup you had, you were smart enough to realize you'd be better off cooperating."

There was at least that. And the instructors had noticed it, and not chewed us out about cooperating - which meant that Ito and Bardue approved, even though they had a funny way of showing approval.

The conversation drifted to other finals we'd seen, and Chou was quite concerned about our fellow Poesie Hippy. As we talked, the pizza slowly disappeared

"I'm wondering," Molly said through half a mouthful of pizza, "what's up with Elaine Nalley and Tansy?"

"Yeah. We saw Elaine and Maggie go into the prep area, and then Wyatt and Tansy went in, and then the three of you came out for that scenario," Dorjee said.

I winced, not quite sure how much I could say. "Lanie and Maggie have been ... at odds ... since I helped Lanie get her spirit," I said cautiously. "Maggie got scared when Lanie manifested the bear one morning, and she's convinced that Lanie has been possessed."

The trio's eyes widened; no doubt there had been rumors. "You guys did well in that scenario," Chou observed, changing the subject from what he sensed was an awkward subject for me to discuss.

"Yeah," Molly agreed. "How can you be so down on yourself when you won two combat finals back-to-back?"

"It's a talent," I deadpanned.

"So how did you and Tansy end up in Elaine's final?"

"Things got really ... tense ... in the briefing room," I said cautiously. "Maggie refused to participate with Lanie so adamantly that she failed the final, so Tansy and I volunteered." I chuckled at the irony. "And Bardue pulled a nasty scenario on us."

"Like normal."


"But ... Tansy and Elaine hate each other! Earlier this term, everyone thought Elaine was going to kill Tansy." Chou giggled. "No-one would have tried to stop her, either! They would have cheered instead."

I shrugged. "I don't know."

Molly narrowed her eyes, looking critically at me. "You look like you're jealous of Tansy."


"You two did share something very intimate," Dorjee said, his voice devoid of criticism. "And it's pretty obvious to anyone with eyes that the two of you are perhaps a little more than casual friends."

"There are even rumors that you two are still lovers," Molly informed me, talking as if it was a state secret, even though I'd heard such talk many, many times every single day since the incident.

I felt my cheeks burn; and I looked down, afraid that they were going to somehow guess that I was still highly attracted to Lanie. "She's like ... a sister."

Bless her heart, Chou decided to come to my rescue from further speculation or discussion. "You can't be an expert in tactics and teamwork without training," she commented, abruptly shifting the conversation away from what was potentially very embarrassing to me. "You'll get there. For not having training in teamwork, you did pretty well today."

"But I could have done better?" I half-asked, half-stated.

Chou smiled. "All of us can always improve."

I glanced at Chou and smiled. "But we were good enough to win. Today, at least." I knew I could have done better, but I was going to hang on to the positive, like Mrs. Carson had told me.

All three nodded affirmatively at me. "Twice," Molly added.

Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Early Evening
Dream Space of the Ptesanwi

Despite the clear, moonlit sky and the flickering fire warming us around the fire ring, despite the solitude and peace of my dream-world, the mood around the circle that evening was rather glum. Mom sat on a log, morosely sipping her tea, while Dad stared into the fire. Wakan Tanka was serving tea, but Danny refused, sitting with an angry frown on his face. Beside him, Wihinape snuggled against him in her human-kitty form, unashamedly naked as usual.

"Is he going to change?" Dad finally bluntly asked the question that was the elephant in the room. He was occasionally glaring at the nude cat-woman rubbing herself against Danny.

I glanced nervously at Wakan Tanka. "Probably," I said slowly, watching Mom and Dad's reactions. "In my avatars class," I continued, "we learned that many times if the spirit doesn't fit in the hallow, the spirit tends to push parts of the host's body - which makes it get some GSD."

"So you're saying I'm going to turn into a ... a ... a girl?" Danny wailed his distress at the idea.

"I don't know," I answered honestly.

"Wait," Mom interjected, "can't you fix his ... hallow? Or whatever it's called? Like you did for that ...?"

I shook my head even before she was done asking, my countenance conveying my firm resolve. "I'm not even going to try."

"But ...." Danny and Dad were desperate, probably more for Danny. Strangely, Mom seemed a little more resigned about the whole thing.

"Please don't ask," I almost begged them.

Debra, sitting beside me with her arm around my waist and leaning her head on my shoulder, shook her head. "Kayda really hurt her friend," she explained, "and it cost the girl her power, at least temporarily. I think she's still afraid that Lanie will miss her power and resent Kayda for it, and it'll cost her a best friend."

"And Mrs. Carson said I can only do that ritual when it's highly supervised, and even then, only in desperate cases. She thinks it's that dangerous."

Debra nodded. "After what happened to Lanie, I agree with her."

"But ... you're willing to let your brother get changed ... into ... that?" Dad pointed at Wihinape. "A cat-girl?"

"Dad," I practically begged, "don't ask me! I don't want to see Danny change, but it's too dangerous!" In the ensuing silence, I bit my lip. "Mrs. Carson had me try to help one kid named Peccary. He has the spirit of the boar, and like Danny, his hallow was too small." I cringed at the memory. "Dr. Hewley and Dr. Aranis in the power-research labs are calling it 'Hallow-Spirit-Mismatch-Deformity'."

"It's like having a Body Image Template," Debra explained so Mom and Dad would understand. "The body changes to a pre-determined template or shape."

"It's a syndrome where the spirit is bigger than the hallow and causes the body to get some type of deformity." I paused, thinking of Peccary and others. "The old theory was that a spirit was like ... like air. It'd just fill any empty space. Now, though, the new theory is that a spirit has a form, and it has only a limited ability to shape itself to a hallow, so there's always wasted space in the hallow. So when the hallow is too small, the spirit reshapes the hallow by deforming the body, giving it room to fit more comfortably."

"So ... you're saying that I am going to change? Into ... her?" Danny asked fearfully. "You can't let me! You have to do the hallow thing!" He sounded a little desperate.

"Danny, when I tried to expand his hallow using the shaman ritual," I caught myself, thinking of that almost disastrous day, "it knocked his spirit out of his hallow. He ... became catatonic."

Debra decided to add some explanation, to reinforce what I was saying - perhaps so Mom and Dad didn't accidentally think I was coming up with some bullshit explanation. They did know that I'd been having fun teasing my brother. "A spirit and host form a very tight bond," she said. "If that bond is broken - as Kayda experienced when her magic was sealed," she held my hand, knowing that she was stirring up very painful memories for me, "it can be very, very traumatic for the host." She looked grim. "When a host loses a spirit, it can cause severe depression, suicidal tendencies, or even insanity."

"If Mrs. Carson hadn't been there to catch the spirit so I could rebind it to Peccary ...." My voice cracked; I'd almost hurt him like I'd hurt Lanie.

"If it hadn't been rebound to him," Debra took over, patting my hand reassuringly, "the boy would probably be in the psych ward - ARC Red." She saw the confusion on their faces. "ARC Red is for very bad psychological cases for mutants. People in ARC Red sometimes never get released."

"Sometimes," I said firmly, "Danny may be a pest, but I am not going to take a chance at hurting him like that. It's too risky."

"But ... that means I'm going to change!" Danny was almost in tears. "Into ... a girl?" he asked, his voice cracking.

"Danny," I said firmly, knowing that Mom and Dad were listening as well, "would you rather be insane in a psych ward that you might never get out of, or sane and maybe change some?"

Mom slid over and wrapped her arm around my brother. "Danny, honey," she said, trying to sound reassuring, "I'd rather you were healthy and not insane - even if it means some changes."

Dad nodded. "And Kayda did say that she doesn't know if you're even going to change, or how much." I could tell he was clutching at straws; he had no more idea of what was going to happen to Danny than I did, but was just trying to offer some kind of hope.

Friday, June 1, 2007 - Pre-Dawn Morning
Birdtail Sioux First Nation, Manitoba, Canada

"See you Monday?" the older man asked, standing in the door of the community center and looking back at a table of friends. He had a weather-lined face, and his white hair was in stark contrast to his reddish-brown skin. Still, he was an affable older man, and his smile matched those of the group still seated at the table.

"Do you have to go so soon?" the woman at the table asked, her voice sad at his departure.

"I have much to do to get ready for the ceremony," the man at the door said, looking squarely at a boy at the table whose eyes were wide with anticipation and excitement.

"It shall be a good ceremony," a man at the table said with a grin and a nod. "Ed has talked of nothing but his coming-of-age ceremony for months! He's getting insufferable!"

The eager boy, seated with two brothers and two sisters and his parents, nodded. "It's important," he objected.

The father tussled the hair of his son, much to the boy's chagrin. "And it's a rite of passage that we tease you about it, too," he said with a broad smile. "Is Billy coming home soon? I know Ed and his brothers want to spend more time learning from him."

Jimmy Red Lake smiled and shrugged. "I think so. The last time I talked to him, I got the impression that he really likes the job he got in the States."

The boy's eyes narrowed as he frowned. "But ... it's important that we learn! I want to learn to be a warrior, just like him!"

"And you will," Jimmy Red Lake said, smiling assurance toward the youth. "His pupil is not in class during the summer, so he'll probably stay with me."

"His pupil? One pupil?" The mother shook her head. "It seems like such a waste, when there are so many boys here who he could teach."

Jimmy nodded, a wry smile on his face. "Yes, but this one pupil is very, very important to the People."


"I can't tell you her name," Jimmy said, "but if you knew, you'd be grateful that Billy was chosen to teach her."

"Hmmmph," the dad snorted. "You make it sound like she's as important as the White Buffalo Calf Woman!"

With a knowing smile, Jimmy nodded at the family. "I'll see you on Monday at the ceremonial house. I've already made arrangements with the chief and the elders, and they've summoned the warriors to attend."

"Thank you," the mother said, beaming at how the ceremony was coming. It was important to parents and child - the 'coming of age' ceremony marked the transition from boy to man, and she was anxious that everything be perfect.

"It's a shaman's job to tend to these things," Jimmy said with a smile. "Well, good night." With that, he walked outside into the cool spring evening air and climbed into his truck for the short drive to his house.

As he drove, his mind mulling over all the things he had to make sure were perfect for the ceremony, the hairs on the nape of his neck suddenly bristled; he felt that something was wrong. Eyes narrowed as he looked around, he eased off the gas and eased his truck to the side of the narrow gravel road. No sooner had he stopped the truck than he let himself slip into the Astral plane. As shaman went, he was good, but not that good that he could drive from the Astral plane.

Jimmy Red Lake cringed; something very sick and foul and demonic was around, but he couldn't seem to locate it, which was very unusual. It didn't make sense, so he slipped back into the real world and cast a ghost-walking spell and stepped from his truck, looking around cautiously. It seemed to be coming from the northwest; slowly, his mind now focused laser-like on his surroundings, the earth spirit, and the sky spirit, he stepped toward whatever was disturbing the world around him.

As he looked around, his mind raced through the tribe's legends and lore. Sure, there were demons and spirits of foul nature, but he knew all of them, and knew at least from lore what they should appear and feel like. This was not like any of those; it seemed to be almost flickering like it was present, and then it wasn't.

Perhaps another tribe's legends or demons? Try as he might, though, Jimmy Red Lake couldn't think of something which was described as feeling like this thing.

An unholy noise sounded from the trees in front of him, startling the shaman so much that he backed toward his truck, incanting quickly his magic. A tree snapped with a loud crack, and then it appeared, a large thing with mottled brown and white fur, a mouthful of scimitar-like fangs and dagger-like teeth and a positively evil fire burning in its eyes. The creature - or more likely demon because it was also on the astral plane - was easily twenty-feet or more tall and so broad that its chest was at least ten feet wide. It looked at Jimmy and roared again, a terrifying, unearthly sound.

Jimmy was a good shaman; he immediately invoked his magic shield and his invisibility and scooted around his truck to where he kept his weapons. He was startled when the beast's frightening gaze followed his every step as it stomped forward; it wasn't fooled by his ghost-walking spell. His nervousness changed instantly to genuine fear as the creature roared again - in both the Astral and physical planes. He took a lance from the back of the truck, and using it like a spear, hurled it at the abomination.

It didn't even try to block the lance, and its point bounced off the demon. With nothing else to do, Jimmy scrambled into the passenger side of his truck, slamming it into gear as his foot reached across for the gas pedal. It was a futile gesture; as he scrambled, the creature leaped to the truck, it's claws raking at the vehicle and gouging the roof and ripping it to shreds. Jimmy scrambled back out the door, dodging the creature's vicious claws as he added more shaman magic to his shield spell.

The creature stomped over toward the fleeing shaman, and he slashed viciously at the man. The last thing Jimmy Red Lake saw was brilliant fractal patterns of unnatural light on his shield spell as it tried to absorb Kigatilik's assault, but the shaman hunter's magical nature rendered almost all of the shaman's defensive spells useless.

Friday, June 1, 2007 - Near Midnight
Dream Space of the Ptesanwi

I started, which startled Debra, who'd been leaning on my shoulder, her arm around my waist. "Are you okay?" she asked.

I couldn't stop the shudder that raced up and down my spine. "I ... felt something," I said softly.

"Was it a disturbance - like millions of voices suddenly cried out and were silenced," Debra teased.

"I think we shouldn't tease Wihakayda," Wakan Tanka gently chided her, taking my side - for once. "Wihakayda is right - there is something disturbing in the spirit world. I felt it, too." She looked into her tea cup. "But I don't know what it was. Only that it felt wrong."

"What am I supposed to do?" I changed the subject, looking plaintively at my spirit guide. "He tried to kill me!"

"You are a shaman," Wakan Tanka said firmly.

"But ... he admitted trying to humiliate me, and trying ..."

"May we enter your camp?" The voice was familiar, startling me. Debra and I spun, and the look of concern faded instantly. "Of course," I replied to Lanie, smiling and leaping to my feet to hug her. A step behind her was Grizzly in her bear form, standing tall and looking menacing. Deb, too, jumped up, tapping me on the shoulder after a momentary hug. I'm sure it was part jealousy and part eagerness to hug her old photographer and friend.

"Why ... did you come?" I asked as they sat. Suddenly, it made sense that Wakan Tanka had a very, very large pot of tea and many more cups. My eyes narrowed as I counted the cups, seeing the three extra after accounting for Lanie and Grizzly. "Who else is coming?

"You're too suspicious," Debra chided me, rubbing my shoulders and guiding me back to my spot on the log. I wasn't even halfway to sitting when there was another noise outside the camp. I was back on my feet, looking between tepees for the source of the noise, my sacred knife Wakan Mila in hand.

"You do not need that," Wakan Tanka said as she tended to the tea.

I glanced over my shoulder at her, frowning, and then I paused, reaching out to the earth and sky spirits as I turned back to the intruders. There were ... three? ... others approaching. My eyes widened when I recognized the unique 'spirit signatures' of two of them.

"Why have you come to my dream space, Wyatt? Kodiak?" I demanded, holding my knife at the ready. "And who have you brought with you?"

Wyatt and the bear stepped closer, their forms slowly gaining substance as they stepped out of the darkness. "May we enter your camp?"

"No bad double-entendres tonight?" I asked, my voice dripping sarcasm.

"They both know that under the circumstances, I don't exactly approve of such jokes." The third figure emerged from the darkness, halting at the boundary of my camp between Kodiak and Wyatt. "Cante waste nape ciyuzapo, Kayda," Mrs. Carson said formally.

"Um," I was quite startled by her presence. "How ...?"

"How did I get into dream-space?" she asked with a knowing smile. "Over the years, I've found it necessary to learn a few things about extra-dimensional planes and spirits." She glanced at the big senior. "And some people are a little protective of you and thought you might need a little ... guidance."

"I have my spirit mentors," I said defensively, not quite sure I wanted more people crowding into my cozy little camp, especially since I was certain of their reason for visiting.

"Yes, of course, dear," Mrs. Carson said politely. "But you're very troubled and in need of advice. I've found that the more points-of-view that I consider, the better my decision."

"You're just going to tell me to heal him," I groused, frowning.

"Wihakayda, invite them to your camp," Wakan Tanka called to me as if it was an order.

Kodiak stood quietly, looking around with a smug expression, while Wyatt looked over my shoulder into the camp, probably staring at Lanie by the fire.

"Wakan Tanka told me I should invite you in."

"That doesn't exactly sound like an enthusiastic invitation," Mrs. Carson observed.

My scowl deepened at being called out on poor manners. "Please, join us at the fire circle," I said to them. Then I stuck a finger in Wyatt's nose. "If you do anything with my buffalo, I will kick your ass!" Mrs. Carson arched an eyebrow at the way I'd challenged the Kodiak; no doubt, she'd learn about that story from either the bear or the senior, and then I'd probably never hear the end of it.

I led them to the fire circle, and as they sat, I passed out cups of tea. "Okay, get it over with."

"What?" Mrs. Carson asked calmly. In the firelight, I could see that she was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, and tennis shoes. "What do you expect us to do?"

I frowned. "To tell me that I have to heal Mike," I answered, a little confused by her attitude.

"You know that's what we think you should do," Wyatt replied with a smile.

"It's not fair!" I protested, being more than a bit petulant. "He tried to kill me!"

"Was it his fault?" the Kodiak asked. "After the first pranking, was he really responsible for what he did?" I glared at him, and then stared down at the fire, angry that I was being pushed so hard by so many people.

"This tea is delicious," Mrs. Carson said graciously to Wakan Tanka, then turned to me. "Kayda, Without Mike, we might never finish the investigation to find out who's behind what he did. He didn't do all of that on his own. He was reporting to someone. For your safety, we have to find that person so we can stop them." Her expression was sympathetic but firm. "If that person can't get you through Mike, he'll find another way."

"It's the right thing to do, sister," Lanie said softly. "He wasn't responsible, and you know it."

I looked around the fire circle. Deb's expression told me everything - she didn't want to tell me what to do, but she thought I should heal Mike if I could. Lanie simply nodded, as did Wyatt. I knew where Wakan Tanka stood without having to ask or look. The Kodiak had a peculiar expression on his usually inscrutable face. "What?" I demanded impatiently.

"A shaman is first a healer," he said. "Grizzly and I were both healers. We both helped those against whom we'd fought."

A heavy sigh escaped me as I looked down. "I ... don't think ..." I shook my head; part of me was wondering how long they'd keep badgering me, and part knew that they were right. "I ... I'll try," I finally said.

Debra wrapped me in a comforting hug, and a moment later Lanie joined the hug from the other side.

"Now," Mrs. Carson interjected when the huggy-feely moment was past, "since I'm here, let's talk a little about the classes you and Miss Nalley will be taking this fall. I have some ideas that might help you make the best use of your time."

I glanced at my friends knowingly, unconsciously pulling Debra tighter against me. "Um, we've already thought some about that," I said hesitantly. That began a conversation about tutoring in magic in the dream world, which led into Mrs. Carson talking with me and Wakan Tanka about the Lakota shaman traditions and all that I'd learn from her and from her special class the next fall. Then, to my horror, Tatanka got into a discussion with our headmistress about my training with Mr. Two Knives, and both Wyatt and the Kodiak ganged up on me by joining in - much to Mrs. Carson's amusement. I think she'd have stayed longer, but Debra made a show of yawning and going into 'our' tepee to rest, and Lanie and Wyatt exchanged knowing looks before they, too, feigned yawns. Mrs. Carson took the hint, and after bidding me good night, she left with Lanie, Wyatt, Kodiak, and Grizzly, leaving me alone with Debra. And having agreed to try to heal Mike, I felt a little calmer inside, like a burden had been taken from me.

Saturday, June 2, 2007 - Morning
Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota

"What do you want?!?" The sharp anger in the voice on the other end made Dan Bear Claws cringe.

"It's me - Dan Bear ...."

"I know who you are. What do you want?"

"Um, my ... operative at Whateley was ... unmasked," Dan said hesitantly.

"So I've heard."

Dan grimaced - did he have any secrets from the shaman. "But it's good news."

"How do you figure?"

"He'd gone rogue," Dan explained, his tongue nearly stumbling over itself to get the explanation out quickly before Gray Skies interrupted him again. "He's not a threat anymore."

"Only because your operative tried to kill her again!"

Dan fell back into his chair, shocked. "Uh, he ... he did?"

"Yes. And I bet the only reason you know he's been apprehended is that some investigator or security official traced your number on his phone and has called or paid you a visit." Gray Skies sounded beyond angry; Dan had never heard someone speaking with such controlled, icy fury that made him want to run in terror.

"Um, yeah."

"They better not be able to trace this to me!"

"They can't," Dan tried to reassure the shaman. "I'm using disposable phones, so there's no evidence."

"You're doing at least one thing smart!" The shaman breathed deeply, angrily, a couple of times, either seething with rage or trying to think. "How the hell am I supposed to get her to the reservation now?"

"Um," Dan started to suggest, hoping to salvage something from this debacle. "She's coming home for the summer, right? Can we maybe ... pressure her parents or friends? Remind them that the school is dangerous ...?"

"Most of the danger has come from your idiot!" Gray Skies thundered back. "And now she knows it, her parents know it, the school knows it! How do I convince them ...?"

"We could ...."

"You could do nothing!" Gray Skies roared. "I'm done with you. I'll find someone who's reliable and competent to do the job." The phone clicked off.

Dan stared at the dead phone for a moment, eyes wide and hand shaking, before he shut it off and let it fall from his hands. His plans had backfired, and worse, his operative had put the girl in serious danger. Now, the shaman was angry at him. His dream of returning to lead the tribe to new glory was shattered, and to the shaman, he was now an obstacle.

His trembling grew worse as he considered that little fact. It would be trivial for the shaman to arrange an accident - dream-walkers could easily arrange something fatal if they so desired. And he wasn't sure that Gray Skies was ethical enough to not do such a thing.

Slowly, he came to the conclusion that he had only one choice if he wanted to live. Painfully aware of his arthritis, he bent over the arm of his chair and picked up the dropped cell phone, then dialed the information number. When it answered, he spoke softly, almost conspiratorially. "I'd like the number for the Franks residence. Sanborn County, I think. Or Jerauld County." He paused a moment, his mind racing in the silence while the operator looked up the information. "Um, I think it's Pete or Peter and June Franks," he said.

Saturday, June 2, 2007 - Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"It's not fair!" Lanie scowled into her coffee cup, sitting across from me in the Melville coffee shop. Wyatt was coming to join us.

I shrugged. "Nothing I can do about it now."

"One credit? One lousy English credit?" Lanie protested. "You've got more than enough credits to be legitimately a junior, like me!"

A knowing, smug smile crept across my face. "What?" Lanie asked, curious about what I was up to.

"First, sister," I said over a sip of coffee, "if I was a junior, I wouldn't be on the same wing with you."

"There is that," Lanie grudgingly agreed with a nod.

"Second, I think Mrs. Carson was deadly serious about keeping the two of us together, whether it's for damage control or so we can keep each other out of trouble."

"Ah'd considered that." She screwed up her face thoughtfully. "But she knows ... what happened, so surely she's concerned about ..."

I nodded. "That crossed my mind. But I think she trusts us because of our SOs, cuwe ki."

Lanie studied me for several seconds while I took another sip. "Ah get the feelin' that you've got something planned," she said with certainty.

"Of course," I grinned. "After all, Ah did learn from mah sister!" I ducked as she slapped my arm playfully in response to my feigned Georgia accent.

"Okay, you've got mah curiosity stirred up. What is it?" She didn't even look up when a giant hand lightly touched her shoulder, but just rubbed her cheek against Wyatt's hand. Beaming at his fiancée, he sat down beside Lanie.

"I'll study a little during the summer, and as soon as we get back, I'll test out of English IIb and then register for English IIIa. That'll make it impossible to say I'm not a junior."

"But if you test out too early," Lanie cautioned me, "they'll put you on the junior floor."

I nodded. "Timing is everything. Once all the upperclassmen are moved in and registered, I'll ask to test out, which by rules they have to allow, and when I pass that, I'll re-register for English III - as a junior - before the registration cutoff at the end of Friday. All our room arrangements will be locked in the databases, so I'll be a junior on the sophomore floor with cuwe ki." My triumphant grin was infectious; I could tell the rules lawyer of Whateley was impressed by my plan.

"What are you doing this summer?" I asked, changing the subject.

"Ah don't know," Lanie answered, a hint of sadness in her voice. "After what's happened," her voice cracked a little, "Ah need some time to think.

"I'm sorry I made things worse with ...." I didn't need to complete the sentence; we both knew how much Maggie had hurt Lanie.

Lanie put her hand on mine to reassure me that she wasn't blaming me. "Ah know you were trying. Thanks." She read my curious expression. "For being a friend. For being my soul-sister."

At that moment, Conjure and Stiletto walked from the serving counter right past us, carrying their cups of coffee. "Why don't you dykes take your PDAs out of here - maybe to the quad?" Stiletto snarked. "Or the nuthouse!"

I couldn't help but laugh at her attempted nasty comment, surprising Lanie and Wyatt. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much."

Stiletto stopped so abruptly that Conjure had to stutter-step to not spill her coffee. "What's that supposed to mean?"

I shrugged, giving my best charming smile. "Nothing, except that maybe you're both jealous that I have someone so beautiful paying attention to me, and perhaps you're more than a little curious."

Both girls turned red with anger, and they stormed off, to the amusement of Wyatt. "Um," I hesitantly asked Lanie after they were out of the coffee shop, "did I do that right?"

My soul-sister was chuckling and grinning. "Ah think you did just fine!"

"Are you going to drive your car all the way home?" I asked, a little concerned about Lanie taking a long road-trip by herself. "I'm worried about you."

Lanie smiled, a small ray of sunshine on her otherwise thoughtful and morose expression. "With friends like you and Tansy and Wyatt," she replied, "Ah know Ah'll be okay."

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - After Breakfast
Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy

Grimacing, forcing myself, I walked into the room where Mike lay on a bed, covered by a sheet and mildly sedated. To be doubly sure, I knew his arms and legs were strapped down. "I'm ... I'm ready. I think," I added nervously. I glanced at a rolling cart on which my supplies were laid, prepared and organized for me. Gulping, I avoided looking at the prone figure because the bulge in his crotch was noticeable. Because the taint was spread throughout his body, I had to do a full ritual, which included significant body markings - and that was the part I was most nervous about. Beneath the sheet, Mike wore only the briefest of underwear so as not to interfere with the markings. Normally, such a ritual would have the patient entirely nude, but no-one - least of all me - was willing to risk me reacting to such a sight.

Lanie was right behind me, her hand resting on my arm to reassure me, and to let me know that she was there in case I started having a panic attack. "Okay," I said to Dr. Tenent and Ms. Stone; I suspected both of them were also ready in case I had problems with the ritual.

Taking a deep breath, I focused as narrowly as I could on my potion and spell to the exclusion of all else. I had tunnel vision, seeing only the part of Mike that I was marking as I went through the ritual. When that part was done, I incanted further while someone - I really couldn't say who - lifted his torso up, holding his head so I could pour the bitter potion into his mouth.

He sputtered and spat out the foul concoction, but the staff was ready for that. Once more they held his head while one also held his nose, forcing him to open his mouth. When some of the mixture was in his mouth, they clamped it shut, forcing him to swallow.

No sooner had he swallowed the awful drink than his body convulsed in a mighty spasm. Again and again, we forced more of the potion down him, but there were no further major convulsions, and when the potion was gone, the nurses immediately eased him back onto the bed and covered him back up.

Lanie's hands were suddenly on my arms, supporting me, and it was only then that I realized how bad I was shaking. I let her lead me out of the room, and as soon as we got near a bench in hall, I practically collapsed.

"Thanks," I said, letting her cradle and comfort me. I just hugged her tightly, trying to forget about applying the ritual markings to Mike. Eventually, I felt like someone was standing behind me, waiting patiently. I sat up, turning, and that's when it dawned on me that I'd been crying, at least a little bit.

"Is he okay?" Ms. Stone nervously asked the question that was on her and Dr. Tenent's minds

I shuddered, trying to control how thoroughly rattled I was. "I ... couldn't feel any taint," I answered, my voice quavering. "But ... I don't know ... what's left. Upstairs, I mean."

"I guess you're done," Dr. Tenent said, glancing at Ms. Stone to see if she knew of anything else I needed to do. "Go find somewhere quiet where you can relax, preferably not alone in case you have a delayed reaction."

"Ah'll make sure she gets to her cottage," Lanie volunteered, her arm around my shoulder.

"You're being so helpful that people are going to start talking," I commented dryly as we walked down the hall.

"Ah think they've been talkin' for a while," Lanie giggled. "And Ah think a lot of them are jealous!"

A figure stood up from a bench, intercepting us as we neared the exit door. "Um, Kayda?" Amber Prentice said nervously as she approached us.

"Yeah?" I had no idea what to expect from her.

"Um," she winced; I think she was nervous about how I was going to react. "Is Mike ... is he okay?"

"I did the ritual to take away the demon taint," I said, shuddering again. "So that's gone from him. But ...." I shook my head uncertainly. "I don't know. There's a chance his mind is gone. No-one will know until he wakes up."

Amber nodded, fighting tears. She wrapped me in a hug, her head on my shoulder as she lost the battle and started to cry. "Thank you," she said softly. "Even if it ... didn't work all the way, thank you for trying."

I just stood, numb, not knowing how to respond. As Mike's girlfriend, she had to have known about some of his plots and plans, and she'd done nothing. It felt weird.

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Afternoon
HPARC, Black Hills, South Dakota

Hazel Two Bears leaned back, frowning and studying the computer display projected on the wall. "What the hell is it?"

"I don't know," he said. "All shamans. And look at this ..." he touched a control and the map cleared, but then red dots marched across it as the computer updated the display in a time sequence. "And we got another one - a shaman in the Birdtail Sioux tribe in Manitoba. The Canadian Bureau of Indigenous and Northern Affairs just sent us word an hour ago."

"Is it ... hunting shamans?"

Ernst grimaced. "It looks like it. The only people attacked are shamans. And none of them have been able to stop it."

Hazel stared at the display, trying to will it to reveal its pattern. "Put up the other ones - in the Dakotas." Ernst's fingers danced across the keyboard and a new series of dots appeared. "Now run the time sequence." A few more controls and the time sequence repeated, with the new dots added.

"You think those are related?" Ernst asked.

"No," Hazel said with certainty. "The Canadian attacks look like following a pattern toward some ... destination. The Dakota attacks are irregular and scattered."

"So you think they're only coincidental?"

Hazel looked grim. "I don't believe in coincidences. Especially with periodic psychic emanations from our friend downstairs." She couldn't completely hide her nervousness about Unhcegila in cold storage in the lower levels. Her fingers danced across the keys of her laptop.

"What are you looking for?" Ernst couldn't contain his curiosity. "We already did searches in the database for shaman killer and similar terms."

"Where did the line start?" Hazel asked knowingly, a twinkle in her eye.

"Northwestern Canada," Ernst replied instantly.

"Inuit country," Hazel said. "And here it is..." She leaned closer and stared at her screen, then she stiffened. "Oh, shit!"


"Look up Kigatilik. K I G A T I L I K."

Dr. Schmidt typed the name into his search engine, accessing all the databases of North America's paranormal research centers. The blood drained from his face as hit after hit showed up on his computer with a brief summary. He clicked on one, and as he read, he paled further. "If that's what we have here, it's really not good."

Hazel looked up from her computer. "You don't catalog news from Native American papers and such, do you?"

"No, why?"

"I've got something on the NACAC database that you might want to look at. An Inuit shaman disappeared. His son claimed it was a monster that attacked him - several days after the father said that Kigatilik had awakened."

"And you think it might be tied in to Unhcegila's son?" Ernst frowned, shaking his head. "It doesn't make sense. Why isn't it moving to the south, toward the Dakotas?"

"More than that, how does it tie in to Unhcegila's son?" She frowned as she stared at the computer. "He's after something!" she declared. "But what? And how does Kigatilik factor into this?"

Monday, June 4, 2007 - Early Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy 

The ringing phone seemed so intrusive and so far away; I was sprawled on my bed reviewing the material from Power Theory - which was pretty dull, but with my class load, I had to get ahead in review for my finals.

"Are you going to get that?" Evvie grumbled, sitting at her desk across the room from my desk and the ringing phone.

"I suppose." The book was put face-down, open to where I'd left off reading, and I rolled over, scooting toward my desk. "Hello?"

"Hello, Kayda?" It was Skybolt, and she sounded very uneasy. "Can ... you come over, please?" Her voice was quavering; something had rattled her.

"I'll be right over." Hanging up, I slid to the edge of my bed and pulled on my moccasins - the short ones because I didn't feel like lacing up my calf-length boots. I could have slipped on my snakey boots, but being understated rather than sexy was probably better for Sky.

"Going out again?" Evvie asked, barely turning from her studies.

"Yup. House call."

"I thought you were done with Sky and all her piercings," my roommate observed, eyeing me warily. "Is there something going on?"

"Nope. Going to work a bit on her tattoos," I lied. Evenings were still a little cool so I slipped on my jacket - a beaded buckskin jacket in a Lakota style that Dad had given me for my birthday.

On the walk to Melville and the elevator ride to the fifth floor, I had time to contemplate what might be bothering her. We'd gotten all her piercings out, but after the last cleansing and healing, she broke down in tears to the point she was wailing aloud and several people were afraid that she was having an emotional breakdown. Perhaps now that she was free of the physical reminders of her mental enslavement, the full emotional impact of the year was hitting her. Or maybe without the piercings, she realized - finally - that she was free of Hekate's influence. Damn, but that bitch had really messed her and Cav up, and it was going to take people far more experienced and knowledgeable to get them over it.

I had an uneasy feeling when Sky's door opened before I could knock; something must have been really bothering her if she was that anxious for me to get there. "I came as fast as I could," I said, stepping in.

The door shut behind me, startling me a little bit, and I found myself goggling at Sky; she'd apparently been getting ready for bed or had just taken a shower because she was in her robe. "Are you okay?" I asked.

Slowly, Sky approached me, but her steps were hesitant, even a bit fearful, and the look in her eye reflected her uncertainty. When she was a step away, she slipped her robe off her shoulders, revealing a very see-through baby-doll teddy in black and lace, and she was wearing a very sexy perfume that was making me somewhat aroused. "I ... need to thank you," she said, taking advantage of my being stunned nearly senseless, stepping closer to me and putting her arms on my shoulders, "for ... giving me my body back."

"Um ...," I stammered, really taken totally by surprise by this unexpected turn of events. "That's ..." I gulped, trying to talk, but I was highly distracted by how beautiful she was and how sexy she looked in the teddy.

"I know you are a lesbian ...," Sky continued.

"You don't have to ..."

"Shhh," she said, swallowing nervously as she put a finger across my lips. "While I was ..." she hesitated only momentarily, "I was made to ... serve women."

"Elaine," I tried to insist, "you don't ..." I was backing away from her, and she stayed right with me, until I backed into one of the desks and could retreat no further.

"I know how to give you pleasure," she said bluntly, "to thank you for ..."

"Sky, stop!" I finally managed to get my addled brain functioning so I could talk again. I gently reached up and too her arms off my neck.

"But ...," she was actually confused that I wasn't taking advantage of her.

"Elaine," I said firmly, holding her hands so our arms were between the two of us, "you owe me nothing! Do you understand?"

"But ...." She looked like she was about to cry.

"I didn't help heal you because I wanted to seduce you." My brain was clearing after being more than a bit overwhelmed a few moments by her blatant and sexy advances. "Do you understand?"

She stared at me for several silent moments, and then her lip quivered and tears began to flow. "Is it because ... I'm ... so horribly mutilated?"

I suddenly understood; she thought my rejection was because I thought she was ugly. Now I felt like I was in a no-win situation. She actually felt like she needed to seduce me to thank me, but if I rejected her, it hit at her self-image because she'd figure she wasn't attractive

"Sky," I said, reaching up to wipe at one of her cheeks, "I'm very, very flattered, and if I wasn't attached - and if you weren't - I'd be a fool to turn down your offer."

She looked up at me with big, soft blue eyes that were brimming with tears. "I ... don't understand," she sobbed. "Is it because ... you ... think I am not attractive?"

There it was - just what I'd worried about. I held her cheeks between my hands, looking gently into her eyes. "Elaine, you are very, very beautiful," I tried to counter her self-doubt. "I didn't help you because I wanted to seduce you, or because I wanted you to feel like you owed me something," I said, gulping as the enormity of her self-doubt hit me. "I helped you because I'm a shaman and that means I'm supposed to heal people."

She continued to stare at me, not quite believing that I could give her such a gift without asking anything in return, especially after she'd had everything taken from her the preceding year. Slowly, I lowered my hands and then wrapped her in a hug, pulling her close to me to reassure and comfort her. I felt her body convulsing softly as she cried, and gradually, her tears soaked through to my shoulders, but I just kept holding her, letting her cry because I knew she needed an emotional release.

"Cav is a very, very lucky man to have someone as beautiful as you to love."

A fresh burst of sobs wracked her body. "I'm ... I'm not ... not worthy of him," she cried. "I ... wasn't faithful ... to him." I held her tight my shoulder in what I hoped she'd see as a comforting embrace. "I ... they made me say ... very hurtful things about him, about how ... poor he was ... as a lover. I ... I hurt him." She slipped from my arms and turned away, crying softly. "I ... don't know how ... how ... he can stand to be with me ... after ... after what I ... did! What I said! After I was ... a whore for the Alphas!"

Stepping forward, I put my hands on her shoulders in a supportive and not sexual gesture. "Sky, I'm sure he understands," I tried to reassure her. "If anyone does, it's Cav, because he went through the same thing." She said nothing but continued to sob. "Do you forgive him for his infidelity?"

Shaking her head, her body trembling, she answered, "But what I did ... was far worse!" Her gaze slowly lowered. "When we are ... together," she admitted through her tears, "it's ... so different. I'm sure ... when he looks at me, all he sees is...." She didn't have to finish; it was obvious that she feared that whenever he looked at her, or held her, or loved her, he saw not Skybolt, his love, but the Alpha whore.

"Then don't," I said, suddenly figuring out what the two of them needed. At least I hoped I had figured it out. Sky turned, looking over her shoulder in shock. "Don't."

"But ...." She was thoroughly confused.

I turned her so she was face-to-face with me. "Don't force things. Don't try to use sex to hold his attention. Instead, you two need to take some time to get to know each other again. Go on a few dates."

"What?" Sky shook her head. "But ... we are ...."

"Elaine, I want you to answer a question if you can, okay?" She nodded nervously. "Are you perhaps trying to prove to Cav that you're a better lover to him than you were forced to be to others?"

She bit her lip as she thought about what I'd said. "I don't know," she finally answered.

"And do you think that maybe he is trying to prove to you that he can love you better than all those who raped you and made you say how good they were? That maybe he needs to prove something to you or to himself? That maybe he's very insecure about being your lover?"

A visible wince betrayed her stark realization that maybe those fears were haunting Cav, that she'd never considered his insecurity and anxiety. "Maybe."

"You're both trying to compensate for all the evil that they made you do sexually. So take that out of the equation," I continued. "Go on a few dates - without the promise of or need for sex. Rebuild your trust and friendship. Rebuild your love. Show him that you care for him as a person, not just as a lover. Let him show you the same thing."

She looked up at me, her moist eyes and cheeks glistening in the light, her eyes wide with uncertainty and even fear.

I knew what I could do; Ayla had said that he owed me a favor for the math class. He'd probably help even without calling in a favor, just because he could. "I'll set up a dinner date for you two. A nice intimate setting where you can rekindle the romance, but not so it looks like sex is the expected outcome. Okay? With maybe a movie after dinner?"

"But ... if it's intimate ...."

I had an answer to that fear. "Maybe we can arrange things so it's like a restaurant. Cozy, intimate, but still public. A place for a few couples - like maybe Anna and Jerry, and Tissy and Nitro - to have a nice date." I smiled at the surprised look on her face. "A setting where you can enjoy each other's company and fall in love again without feeling like it has to end in intimacy. Does that sound good?"

Sky nodded, and in the reflected light, I could see tears coming anew. I hoped they were tears of gratitude, but she might be afraid of things not working out, of losing Cav. Or tears because she was so emotionally overwhelmed. Instinctively, I pulled her into a comforting hug again, letting her once more wet my shoulder as she cried. "Shhh," I said, holding her head gently like she was a little child, "it's okay." Just like Mom had done when I was little and she was comforting me, I kissed her head. "Everything is going to be okay."

I had a growing, visceral hatred toward the girl who could have done this evil to Skybolt. She had shattered Sky's self-image and left her feeling like a broken slut, and then after she was healed, left her feeling so worthless that she was convinced she had to give her body to pay even small debts of gratitude.


Tuesday, June 5, 2007 - Early Noon
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

I was surprised to find two armed guards in full kit outside Mrs. Carson's conference room when I got to the administration wing; Ms. Claire and Ms. Hartford looked grim-face; Ms. Hartford more than usual, I mean. Being summoned to the Headmistress' office out of the cafeteria was unusual enough; with the events of the past week, it was nerve-wracking.

Before I even shut the door behind me, Ms. Claire looked up. "Go on into the conference room. Mrs. Carson is expecting you."

Gulping, glancing nervously at the guards, I padded softly to the door, and with a glance to Ms. Claire to confirm things, I twisted the knob and pulled the door open a crack.

"Come in and have a seat, Kayda," Mrs. Carson said as soon as she could see my face in the doorway peeking in.

I pulled the door further open and immediately halted, surprised at the number of people looking at me. There were three gentlemen and a woman seated at the conference table that I didn't recognize, Eloise Donner of the Medawihla tribe, Chief Delarose, Circe, Dr. Bellows, two more armed security guards standing behind Magic Mikey, Mike's girlfriend Amber, and another professionally-dressed person who I thought was part of Doyle's psychiatric staff. All of them were looking expectantly at me. Gulping nervously, I crept into the room and sat down.

Mrs. Carson looked at the three gentlemen. "Gentlemen, this is Kayda Franks, a student who is very involved in this entire ... series of events." I reflexively lowered myself in my chair, feeling uncomfortably in the spotlight, but she continued. "Miss Franks is a Lakota Sioux and a shaman-in-training for her tribe. A rather important shaman-in-training."

I really did want to sink beneath the table and slide out under the door; the scrutiny paid me by the four was extremely uncomfortable. To make things worse, I recognized one of the men - the Attorney General of the state - from the little fiasco of a hearing I'd endured weeks earlier. His head nod and friendly smile told me that he remembered me as well.

"This is Attorney General Ethan Moore of the state of New Hampshire," Mrs. Carson introduced the one man I knew of the three.

"Yeah," I replied, wincing a little at the still-fresh and still-painful memories of the last time I'd seen the Attorney General. That had been a holo-conference. It was still quite intimidating. "I, um, remember you."

"And I remember you," Attorney General Moore said with a pleasant smile. "I'm glad I could meet you in less ... stressful circumstances."

Mrs. Carson waited until he was finished. "Beside him are Dr. Terrence Holmes and Dr. Kurt Swanson, both licensed psychiatrists with the New Hampshire Department of Corrections who work with the Attorney General's office. Finally, we have Dr. Marcia Hines of the Department of Paranormal Affairs. You know everyone else."

That introduction sounded ominous. I nodded politely at them.

"Dr. Holmes, Dr. Swanson, and Dr. Hines were here to evaluate Mike last weekend with my staff," Dr. Bellows explained. "We've also been in contact with Dr. Two Bears and Dr. Schmidt of HPARC, and have reviewed notes from your work at HPARC this past April."

Beneath the table, my hands were trembling; I had no idea what they were talking about, but it really didn't sound good. I nodded, because I didn't trust my voice to not crack if I'd have spoken. Involving HPARC and the DPA was some serious shit.

"They've also reviewed the case files from Security Officer Lyle Matthews, both ours and ARCs."

At that point, I was visibly trembling all over, unable to control the panic trying to clutch me in its icy grasp. Not only was this bringing up bad memories, but it sounded very, very important and threatening. Still, Mike continued to stare at the table, unable or unwilling to look up at anyone, and Amber stared doe-eyed at me, silently pleading with her gaze for something, though I knew not what.

"Kayda," Dr. Bellows continued in a reassuring tone, "you're here because you best understand the demonic cleansing you performed, and can thus best explain what happened, both with the contamination and with the ritual cleansing."

Everyone, except Mike, focused on me while I stammered my way through a brief explanation of Unhcegila and his spawn, and their demon-taint. I had to remember and relate my futile and heartbreaking efforts with the boy scouts whose minds had been wiped by the snake-demon, and I shook horribly as I told of Officer Matthews and what snakey had done to him. Finally, I told them of 'decontaminating' wounds in myself and in Chou, and then with Mike.

"I see," Dr. Swanson, an older, balding, grandfatherly man with white hair said, thoughtfully scratching his neatly-trimmed snow-white beard. After a few seconds of pondering, he spoke again. "Do you believe he's safe now? That all the taint is gone?"

I glanced nervously at Mrs. Carson, who simply nodded to me, indicating that I should give my honest opinion. "Yes, sir," I answered, my voice quavering a little.

"Safe enough that you'd attend class with him? That you'd dine in the same cafeteria as him?" Dr. Hines probed further.

I gulped at that one, glancing at Dr. Bellows, then at Mrs. Carson and the Chief, and finally, I caught Amber's moisture-laden eyes that were begging me to be merciful to her boyfriend. I closed my eyes for a moment, taking in a deep breath and exhaling slowly.

"What are you thinking, Wihakayda?" Wakan Tanka asked me bluntly.

"I ... I think," I stammered to her, "that I should be merciful to him. That's what a shaman is supposed to do, right?"

"If you cure a man of a dangerous illness," my mentor asked cautiously, "do you continue to treat him as a danger to yourself and others? Or do you accept him back into the tribe?"

"He hurt me!" I protested, trying to justify my own selfish interests.

"Do the Akicita continue to punish a member of the tribe after his punishment is over? Is he shunned? Always an outcast?"

"Miss Franks?" Dr. Hines was staring at me, a concerned look on her face.

Mrs. Carson chuckled. "I think Miss Franks was just consulting her spirit mentor." She smiled at me. "Is that correct, Kayda?"

I nodded sheepishly. "Yes, ma'am," I answered my headmistress. "Um," I winced, not sure I wanted to answer, but I knew I had to. "Yes, ma'am," I replied meekly to Dr. Hines.

"Do you mean you would feel safe with him around?" she asked, a bit surprised I think.

I nodded. "Yes, ma'am." Mike looked up sharply, a look of genuine astonishment on his face and his jaw hanging open in utter shock. "As long as he was honest enough to tell me why he did what he did," I added. It was easy to read the disbelief on their faces. "In my tribe, when a person has completed his or her punishment, it is as if the crime never happened," I explained. "Having been ... corrupted ... by demon taint is punishment enough, I think."

Amber's eyes released the moisture that had been accumulating; silently, she mouthed 'thank you' to me as tears spilled down on her cheeks, fears that I would be spiteful and vengeful removed.

"As spokesperson of the tribe," Mrs. Donner said, "I am satisfied that the boy was demon-tainted and thus not competent, and I'm satisfied with the removal of the demon taint."

"Mike?" Mrs. Carson prompted the boy who had been my nemesis.

He glanced at her, startled, and then nodded slightly, looking down. "I'm sorry, Kayda," he said softly, his voice trembling.

"Why?" I asked simply.

"Because ... my family owes favors to my tribe's shaman ...."

"Mike is one quarter Cherokee," Mrs. Carson interjected to explain.

"And ... my shaman owed a favor to a former chief in one of the Lakota tribes," he continued.

Ice ran through my veins. "Is it ... Chief ... Dan Bear Claws?" I asked, already convinced beyond doubt that I knew the answer. When I'd met him at the reservation, he'd given me the creeps, like he was not trustworthy.

Mike shrugged. "I don't know. He never mentioned his name. He ... gave me a cell phone and paid expenses, with direction that I was to make you leave."

"So ... you recruited Apathy ... Brad Collingsworth ... to help you? By blackmailing him?" Chief Delarose connected the dots for me. "Because he lives in the same cottage as Miss Franks and has access to her?"

Mike nodded, looking down in his shame. "Yes, sir."

"You had Apathy copy my poster? And steal my copper spike?" I asked knowingly. Mike simply nodded.

"And then what? When he didn't want to help any more, you killed him?" I continued to press. Brad had been a cottage-mate, and his death had upset all of us Poesies.

Mike started to cry, burying his face in his hands. "I ... I don't remember!" he bawled. "I ... I couldn't kill anyone! I ... I ... wouldn't hurt him!" He completely broke down, and Amber leaned close, clutching the weeping boy to her to comfort him.

"DPA is satisfied with the mental health evaluation," Dr. Hines said simply, interrupting the awkward silence.

"How shall we proceed?" Attorney General Moore asked. "Do you want to handle this at the DPA? Does jurisdiction belong to the Bureau of Indian Affairs?"

"The Medawihla tribe will prosecute him under Tribal Law. Since a shaman has testified that he was not mentally competent but was demon-tainted, and licensed psychiatrists concur with that judgment, I'm authorized by the tribal council to accept a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity," Eloise Donner said solemnly.

"And then?" Dr. Swanson asked the obvious question still to be decided.

"He will be transferred to the custody of the Arkham Research Center for psychiatric treatment until such time as he's judged fit to be released," Mrs. Carson responded.

"Very well," Attorney General Moore said, sitting back in his chair, his posture declaring that he was satisfied. "The State of New Hampshire will not contest the tribal decision, judgement, and punishment."

Ms. Hines nodded. "The DPA concurs."

I turned back toward Mike. "I ... I ... forgive you," I said hesitantly; the words came hard, especially as I remembered what difficulties and injuries he'd caused me. No, I caught myself. Mike hadn't done it. The demon taint had done it. He hadn't been responsible for my injuries. "Get better."

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Midnight
East River, South Dakota

A large coil of black foulness huddled under a bridge in a dry gulch. He was frustrated; he'd followed clues until he had an identity, but it seemed that every time he neared the shaman called Gray Skies, the shaman would move in one of the steel horses, going all over. It had been a stretch of his powers to track the shaman, and every time he neared, the shaman moved.

"Son!" a voice called to him psychically, startling the second son of Unhcegila.

"Yes, father?"

"Why have you not killed Gray Skies and taken the sphere?"

"The shaman moves around frequently, using a large mechanical horse that is too fast to follow. It travels from the big river to the sacred hills in only a tiny part of a sun. It is difficult to follow when he moves so much."

"Have you found a pattern to where the shaman goes?"

"No, father. It is random."

"Have you found the shaman's lodge?" Unhcegila demanded.

"I have not found it."

"Then go to one of the places the shaman travels. Wait, and when the shaman returns, kill him and take the sphere."

"It shall be done, my father."

Saturday, June 9, 2007 – Afternoon
Lobby, Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Mr. Ramirez, a word?"

The Don flinched at Mr. Forrest's tone of voice that cut through the general din of the post-graduation excitement of Melville cottage. He took that stupid miter board cap off his head and turned to face the house parent, becoming more concerned, both with the expression on his face and the envelope in his hand. "What can I do for you, jefe?"

"We try not to be draconian in our rules and guidelines, Mr. Ramirez; whatever you find attractive or exciting is your business," Mr. Forrest declared, practically growling in his displeasure. "That said, your current door decorations are well beyond the pale. I want them down and no repeats next year. Do. I. Make. Myself. Clear?"

The Don felt his blood begin to boil, but kept his expression neutral and his tone calm. "Perfectly, sir. My apologies, but I can assure you I had no part..."

"I'm not interested in excuses, Mr. Ramirez." He proffered the envelope. "This came for you."

"Yes sir, thank you sir." After a moment of seething at the house parent's back, The Don trudged upstairs to find his door covered with magazine covers for deviant life styles. Some were gay, but the vast majority were BDSM and bondage types with titles like Sub Times, Under Her Thumb, and Dominated. But in pride of place, in the exact center of the door was a medium close-up shot in perfect focus and clarity. On it was not the goddess the Don remembered, but a still beautiful and regal-looking Tansy Walcutt, hands on her hips, one foot cocked forward imperiously. And before her, on all fours, just kissing the shoe was Sebastiano Lorenz Valensuera y Ramirez.

With a snarl of rage, The Don ripped down the pictures and magazines, glaring at some of the bolder boys who dared to stand in their doorways and smirk at him. "You'll pay!" he shouted at no one in particular. "You'll all pay!"

"Sell it to someone who's buying!" one of those enjoying the Don's humiliation shouted.

Sebastiano stomped into his room and slammed the door, the mocking laughter of the other boys like daggers through his ears. "You think you're funny?" he growled, flinging the paper into his trash can and settling his eyes on the image of Tansy at the top. "Just wait until Kallysta is back next year, you bitch! You'll all pay then!"

He tore open the envelop to find twelve tickets fall out onto his desk. They were all stamped in bold red, NONREFUNDABLE/NONEXCHANGABLE. Frowning, he took a closer look and became dismayed. The first flight would leave at 3am, and he would have to change planes six times each way, all of them Tourist class, and then the final insult.

"Standby?!" he shrieked. "They're all standby?!?

Saturday, June 9, 2007 - Afternoon
Holbrook Arena, Whateley Academy

"It's not fair," Addy and Alicia agreed. We'd just finished the spring graduation which, unlike any I'd ever seen, had 'promotion' roles for us all, and were at a rather elaborate reception, enjoying a little bit of celebration with all our friends before we all headed home for the summer.

I simply shrugged. "It's not fair to Fey or Tennyo, either; they're in the same boat as me, with enough credits to technically be juniors, but short one or two core classes. It's no big deal." I grinned. "Besides, if I was a junior, we'd only have two more years together!"

Addy's eyes widened. "I 'adn't thought of that!"

Alicia leaned a bit closer. "You just want to be closer to Lanie next year," she teased, then she giggled when she saw me blushing.

"Well, my brother is coming next fall and he's got ... some severe challenges. So I got permission to move in early, and Mrs. Carson thinks I can help do the freshmen orientation and tours and stuff."

Addy sighed. "If she manifests, which I think she will, then Amelie will be here, too." She got a conspiratorial look. "Do you suppose we could get them together?"

I gave her a look that suggested it might not be a good idea, but as I thought more, I started giggling. "I think we can have some fun with that!"

"I wish they had triples in Melville," Alicia mused sadly. "I want to room with both of you!"

"That hasn't stopped us so far," I giggled, recalling some of our fun adventures, "so why should we let it interfere next fall?"

"It's going to be a great summer!" I predicted, grinning.

"Ah can't wait!" Alicia agreed. "The three musketeers - les trois Mousquetaires - off on our grand world tour! It's going to be so much fun!"

I hoped so. Fun and calm, although after my first term at Whateley, asking for both fun and calm was wishing for just a bit much. We'd just have to see.




0 # Domoviye 2016-01-05 04:24
Overall a good story. Wrapping up some of the bigger plot threads, leaving enough to keep things interesting for the summer.
Can't wait to see them in France. And Generators combat final.
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0 # mittfh 2016-01-05 23:04
I have a funny feeling Jade's Combat Final will be the obligatory Noodle Incident (as with Toni's back in December) - after all, having half a dozen recollections of excerpts of the insanity will allow our minds to fill in the rest better than the authors could :)
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0 # elrodw 2016-01-06 00:06
Quoting mittfh:
I have a funny feeling Jade's Combat Final will be the obligatory Noodle Incident (as with Toni's back in December) - after all, having half a dozen recollections of excerpts of the insanity will allow our minds to fill in the rest better than the authors could :)

Nope. It's written in Part 1 of Odds and Ends.
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0 # ada 2016-01-05 06:53
Didn't one who writes jade stop?
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0 # Ib12us 2016-01-05 14:57
A very enjoyable read. A good POV from Kayda's view of both combats. More plot enhancements later on and what happened to the don. Priceless.
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0 # DLL 2016-01-05 21:55
I'd found myself wondering, as I read these, why Kayda wasn't calling up Tatanka to get herself out of about half a dozen problems a large, angry sentient buffalo would've been a very handy solution for. Was quite gratified to see the subject come up in Kayda's own brain; I'd have figured Tatanka would broach the subject himself before too much longer here. Sure, summoning him is risky given his attunement to Kayda, but so is fighting a regenerating ogre man with multiple bum joints. I'm kinna stunned Tatanka didn't manifest himself when she was in such a bind.

I've found myself quite enjoying these Kayda stories. Was not sure what to make of them when they first started up, especially with Heyoka having already done the Native-out-of-water thing, but Kayda's really taken off. Looking forward to seeing what sort of nonsense and shenanery she and her little pack get up to over the summer.
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0 # DieselDriver 2016-02-16 12:13
What happens if Tatanka is called up and gets hit with a 50 cal rifle round? He's been injured in previous stories. Can they kill him?
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0 # Podracer 2016-01-05 23:04
Kayda is still living as the poster girl for "interesting times" but it's a relief to see that she has developed some self confidence, and accepted at least some of the positive opinion that she has been blind to. The Ptesanwi will need to be tempered in the fire and boy, has she been in it.
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0 # Dpragan 2016-01-07 00:57
Here's an oddball idea, Wihinape and Danny might end up time-sharing who has what form?

Kinda like a Skitzmorph from (was it Elrod's) earlier works?

Little brother most of the time but when forced into action it's miss-kitty time!
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0 # Stickmaker 2016-01-26 23:24
If Danny does change, according to my previous vet cougars *will* chase a laser pointer dot. :-)
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0 # Kristin Darken 2016-01-27 05:11
Sorry, all the deletes are mine. :)
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0 # DieselDriver 2016-02-16 12:10
I really like and agree with this part. It's one of the things I think is completely wrong about our "justice" system.

"In my tribe, when a person has completed his or her punishment, it is as if the crime never happened,"

The point of punishment is to teach the person to do right instead of wrong. If they haven't learned that from their punishment (jailtime) then the punishment is wrong and needs to be changed to something that will teach them to do right instead of wrong. Hurting the criminal just to be getting back at them is revenge and revenge is wrong. The episode with the Crow boy and his hate shows just how bad revenge can be. This chapter shows how wonderful true forgiveness is.
Thank you for writing and posting it.
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