January 18th, 2007
“So, Sledge, exactly what’s your problem with me?”
He kept his freezer-door face on. “Who says I gotta have a problem to call you out?”
I knew that Sledge was one of the Tigers. He’d been backing up N’Dizi when Bowlin’ Ball tried to diss me to my folks back on Parents Day. But that didn’t seem to be it. That day, I’d told that Lightwave chick that I wouldn’t know an authentic ghetto badass if I saw one. For once, I may have underestimated myself, ‘cause I think I just spotted one. Most of the gangsta wannabes that I’ve noticed just try a little too hard. It’s an act and they have to decide what a badass would do or say first. They want you to believe that they’re big, bad and too dangerous to look in the eye. They’re phonies and punks. Not Sledge. Boy doesn’t have a drop of bogus in his body, or punk neither. He wasn’t trying to impress nobody. He was just standing there, holding his ground, ‘cause that’s what he was there to do.
I wondered how a straight up guy like Sledge hooked up with a pack of yutzes like the Tigers.
Sledge looked at me, wearing his dojo gi like a muscle shirt and jeans, and said, “We gonna do this with hammers.”
“Hammers?” I said, not believing it. Sledge’s trademark was like his name - a sledgehammer. It was a little over three feet long, solid steel, and I’ve seen him rip through plate steel with it. I think that he’s some sort of Energizer, so swinging that thing around would be like swinging a balloon for someone else. “You gotta be kiddin’.”
“Ain’t you forgettin’ something, Jack? As I recall all those dueling movies, the challenged decides the weapons. You wanna face me? We do it with bare hands.”
“And if this were a Hollywood movie, you would be absolutely right,” Ito-soke cut in. “BUT, since there are no cameras, and there is no donut table, I will go out on a limb and guess that this is real life. In real life, we do not spar to resolve petty arguments or points of honor. We spar to improve our skills, our discipline, our bodies, and our spirits. And if we beat the crap out of someone who has it coming, that’s good too.”
Wonderful, Ito-soke stand-up Zen master.
“Look, I am NOT taking this challenge, and you can’t make me.”
“What’sa matta, Chaka?” Alakazam jeered from the sidelines, “SCARED?”
“What’sa matta, Kaz?” I jeered back. “Can’t graduate from SECOND GRADE?” I looked at Ito-sensei. “Look, I’m NOT fighting anyone with steel hammers! What, you’re gonna start using swords with real edges next? Gun fights with live ammo, maybe?”
“And who said anything about steel hammers?” Ito said. He gestured, and Miz Tolman brought over a pair of large wooden mallets, roughly the size of sledgehammers, with oversized heads of what I think was soft pine. “I think that these will offer an interesting lesson to both of you. The lack of metal will offset Sledge’s familiarity with the weapon form. And, while these hammers would pose a serious threat to a baseline, both of you have superior durability due to your traits.” I smiled and hefted one of the hammers.
Oh yeah, and I’m pretty sure that ol’ Sledge over there is used to having his personal Energizer field stop any metal strikes from hitting him. I looked over at Sledge and he was expertly weighing one hammer in his hands and getting an idea of the heft and balance of it. Okay, it looks like he’s not backing off; no big surprise there. I checked the sidelines, and sure enough, the Tigers were all in a bunch, and N’Dizi was watching this with that weird really intense concentration that he’d had when I fought Mace on the mat.
Okay, I have no real reason not to spar with Sledge, and backing off in front of the Tigers is SO not a good idea. And if anyone got their head bashed in, it would be on Ito’s head, not mine. I spun the mallet around to get an idea of what I was dealing with, until I got the basic idea. Ito said that it would be best out of three. I nodded, we both set, and Ito-soke said, “Hajime!”
I started from a position holding my mallet across my chest, but Sledge started holding his mallet down, sort of like a golf club. Probably a habit, to give his opponent the impression that the hammer was a lot heavier for Sledge that it really was. We opened with a few half-hearted feints and parries, just to feel each other out. Then we got down to business.
Now, normally you’d think of fighting with sledgehammers as being a matter of big wide sweeping swings. But it was more like a matter of turning big wide sweeping swings into quick jabs and quick switches of attack mode. And what it was REALLY about was dominating the potential arcs of striking by staying in really close once you figured out how you were going to strike. Sledge really drove that home by hedging me into rearing for a jab strike, and pegging me in the ribs with a short swing that he let slide into a long strike.
But, once I absorbed that, I forced my domination on the fight from the get-go, and nailed Sledge in the shoulder within a few swings. The third go round, we had each other’s measure, and we went at it for a good long while, wailing away at each other. Finally, Sledge had me set. He swung and it took everything that I had to short swing my mallet into his hammer’s path. The two heads met at full force, there was an ear-rattling crash, and they exploded in a shower of splinters.
As both Sledge and I grasped our stinging hands, Ito-soke declared the match a draw.
“Sledgehammers?” Tabby asked me as we left the caff together.
“Wooden hammers,” I corrected her. “Big wooden hammers, the kind that they sometimes use in orchestral productions.”
“And how do you know that?” Rez asked.
“Simple. I asked Miz Tolman.”
“You used sledgehammers?” Anna, the squirrely girl that Rez knew from our old Intro to Crim class, asked, barely pausing for breath. “How do you fight with sledgehammers? I've seen Sledge in class, but I don't get how to fight against one! Weren't you scared to DEATH when he came at you with a sledgehammer! How do you even fight with them?”
“And why is this whacko Sledge challenging you to a duel with wooden hammers?” Tabby asked, this apparently being more interesting than our Winter Term classes.
“Oh, the Tigers have their oh-so-righteous and indignant noses out of collective joint,” Rez said, “‘cause the current reigning Queen of the Mat won’t sign on with them, and the Dragons are making moves to get her and her buddy Chou to sign on with THEM.”
“Shhh!!” I hissed, “Not so loud! Blitz might hear you, and decide that she needs to ‘teach me another lesson’.” I looked at her. “And how’d you hear about that?”
“I’m with the Intelligence Corps Cadets now,” she said smugly. “I hear things.”
“And you and Holdout?” I asked. She just answered with a smug little smile. “OH! Way to go, REZ!”
“And what’s with the attitude about the Tigers?” Tabby asked. “I thought that there’d be a little African-American solidarity going on there.”
Rez’s smirk disappeared. “Yeah, you’d THINK so. First Stunner gives me this whole big come-on about how the deck is stacked in favor of the WASP establishment at Whateley. Okay, she’s got a point there. I mean, you can’t be Black in America and not know how the deck is stacked. And I thought that Daphne was a right chick. And THEN I actually talk to them! Little Miss ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ Alakazam starts yapping about what an oreo I am.” I winced. Kenya is NOT what you’d call ‘a Down Home Girl’. Both her parents are mid-level Washington DC Federal Government bureaucrats, and they seem to put a premium on 'decorum’. She’s a nice girl and all, and she’s fine once she gets going, but she does have to get used to you. Getting dissed like that hadda hurt. “And THEN it comes out that all they were really interested in me for, was they wanted their own private gadget-head, who’d make gimmicks for them, free of charge. And I’m not even into the Martial Arts!” She had a pretty good snit going towards the end there.
“Okay, that’s… that’s pretty shabby…” Tabby admitted. She looked at me. “And what’s your story?”
“N’Dizi doesn’t want a friend, he wants a follower,” I said. “The first words out of his mouth when we met were orders - not a suggestion, not a recommendation, not a request, but an order - to drop the rest of Team Kimba, move out of Poe, and pretty much turn all my decisions over to him.”
Tabby looked at me. “You’re joking.”
“No, my jokes are actually funny.”
“He just walked up to you and more or less said that he was taking over your life.”
“Well, there was a lot more verbiage, but yeah, that was the basic message.”
“And the Tigers put up with this?”
“Hey, maybe they’ve got some sort of ‘making your bones’ thing going on that I don’t know about. All I know is that this putz thinks that I owe him something, just for breathing.” I told them about what happened on Parents’ Day, when he tried to diss me in front of my folks.
Tabby looked at me incredulously. “And he just stood there and took that from your grandmother?”
Rez gave a deep chuckle. “Don’t let all that macho posturing you see on rap videos fool you - the Black Community has a ton of respect for Grandmothers. They’re the ones who really hold it all together. Telling a respected old lady to shove it would have showing himself up as a punk.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “and he’d a’ hadda back it up, ‘cause my Grammy Evadne does NOT take that kind’a lip laying down. And he knew that the second that he raised a hand to her, half of the campus would’a jumped down his throat.”
“Okay, lovely bit of cross-cultural exchange,” Tabby said. “And speaking of exchange, Spandex is curious as to who that rubber bombshell in the kinky latex suit was, who was giving him so much trouble up on the ledges the other night.”
“Oh, so you admit that it WAS you?”
“Just answer the question. Who was she?”
“Oh, that was Reach.”
“Sure, you know, the guy who got trapped by his devisor girlfriend and got changed into a girl?” I prompted. Hey, we keep track of that sort of thing. “So, the change was permanent?” Well, Jade is all interested…
“Wow devisors can really DO that?” Anna chittered. “I mean they can really just shove you in a machine and CHANGE you? How can they DO that? Can they give you bigger boobs?”
“It’s a LOT more complicated than that,” Rez insisted. “And from what I get from Reach, he keeps sort of switching back and forth.”
“REALLY?” Tabby purred with a sly smirk on her face. “Because, from what I hear, Carson made them share a room over at Melville… Must be very… interesting… at times…”
“Hey, I don’t ask, and they don’t tell. For all I know, they spend their nights heavily immersed in discussions of 19th Century French philosophy.”
“Or French something,” Tabby said with a leering drawl.
“What do they do when he changes back into a boy?” Anna asked with an expression of eager curiosity that was all-too squirrely.
“Reach shares two rooms with two roommates.” Rez explained. “I understand that FX is really happy with the situation. Reach keeps the room tidy, ‘cause he’s such a neatnik, but he’s not around enough to cause the usual hassles that rooming with Felix Unger causes.”
Tabby was about to say something, when we heard someone scream out, “Onnneee-Saaammmaaa!!!”
I immediately recognized the voice. “JADE!” I sprinted off in the direction of Jade’s voice. Jade was just over the crest of a hill on the far side of Poe, on the way to Hawthorne. Two guys wearing ski masks were beating on her. There was no sign of Shroud - or Jinn - or Jann - or any of the J-team. Odd, I’d have thought that Jade would put a charge into the snow and hand these guys their asses on popsicle sticks.
I was crouching to jump at these guys, when Anna scampered over the snow. Yes, don’t ask me how, but she was running on TOP of the snow. “NO! It’s a TRAP!” she yelled, and jumped at Jade. The scene with Jade and the two assholes flickered and disappeared. In their place, some posts telescoped up from the snow, a bunch of gelatinous tentacles grabbed Anna and lashed her spread-eagle to the posts.
She struggled a bit, and then put her head back and let out the loudest chittering squirrel shriek I ever heard. It was like hearing a two-ton squirrel yelling at you to stay away from her nest.
Dozens of squirrels scampered out of the woods and tried to gnaw at the tentacles. But something shocked them, knocking them off the tentacles.
As soon as Anna saw that, she chittered at the squirrels again, and they backed off, looking really fluffy and angry about it. Man, I'd seen plenty of weird shit around school, but watching Anna do the Squirrel Empress deal was pretty high up the list. I hadn't gotten this good a look at her when she'd did this and kicked Buster's ass, and I had a sudden feeling that maybe Buster had freaked out when she did it right in front of him.
“Don’t do anything!” Rez said as she ran up on Tabby’s heels. Tabby was wearing her ‘feline’ form, and the squirrels reacted, but didn’t run away. Rez pointed a universal remote at the thing, and the things that were waving up and down over Anna stopped. She pulled out her laptop and started typing on it. Then she pulled out some tools and went to work on the whatever-it-was. She had to connect some sort of electronic lead to it, but she was able to hack its controls. The tentacles retracted, releasing Anna, and the posts telescoped back under the snow.
“Wow! That was so kewl!” Anna chittered as her squirrels ran all over her, making sure that she was all right. “I could see it was a hologram, so I knew it was a trap, but how did you get that thing to let me go? I mean it was so kewl! Who set this trap? Did you set this trap?”
“I’m a technopath,” Rez sort of explained as she was busy checking out the trap.
“Technopath? What’s a technopath? Does that mean that you talk to machines or something?”
“Rez calls herself a ‘technopath’, but according to the R&D guys, she’s some sort of Package Deal Psychic,” I explained. “She just channels them through technology for some reason.”
“It’s what I understand,” Rez said absently. “Okay, given the fact that this thing is a hodge-podge of at least five different people’s work, I’d say that the person who set this trap is Belphegor.”
“Not Belfatso again!” I groaned.
“Hmmm…” Tabby looked the trap over. “With the ‘Jade’ bait, it MIGHT have been set for Tennyo, but there’s no way that this rig could possibly hold her. Looks like Belfungus has decided that you’re his property, Chaka.”
"How come he's after you? Wouldn't he be after Ayla?" Anna asked.
“Oh, last term, Belfrogger decided that he’d win the Nobel Prize by analyzing my Ki and figuring out how it works,” I explained. “He wasn’t exactly polite about it, and I told him to go stuff it. He’s been setting these lame-o traps for me ever since.”
Tabby gave us a big wide nasty smile. “What say we break him of this nasty habit?”
A very chilly half-hour later, we watched Belflabbo’s ‘egg’ chair tootle over the snow towards the trap. He was ranting about ‘the great Belphegor’ this and ‘intellectual pygmies’ that so loudly that we could hear him from where we were hiding. He was cursing that the gear that he stole from someone else was to blame for his trap glitching. He swore even louder when he got close enough to see what was wrong. Somehow (initiate look of dewy innocence), a big bunch of squirrels had gotten into the machine, and the sensors were going nuts trying to make sense of the input. He screamed at the squirrels to get out of his precious equipment and released the tentacles.
But instead of heading for the woods, as you’d expect, the squirrels, including reinforcements from the woods, charged into his chair and rummaged around. Knowing Belfo, he probably had bunches of primo noshies stashed in his chair, so it wasn’t like they weren’t making out on the deal.
Belfo screamed like a little girl, and came bursting out of his chair. Then Rez activated the trap again, and Belfuckup was grabbed by the tentacles and dragged into the trap. As Belfo screamed for help, we walked up. Rez held up a control and said, “Initiating ‘Response Induction Procedures’.” Part of Belfo’s ‘tests’ was things like prods, pokes, jabs, and shocks, to get me to react with my Ki. “I wonder if this thing has an anal probe…”
Anna covered the eyes of the squirrels in her arms. "Ewww."
As we walked away, listening to the music of Belfo’s yowls, I told Anna, “Invite the gang over to the café. Hot popcorn and roasted nuts on me.”
It was fun watching Anna’s little buddies just being squirrels, tussling for the popcorn and nuts we threw, but there’s fun and there’s homework, and the teachers have very strange notions about the two. I made my excuses and headed back to Poe. There was the usual scene in the common room, so I bought some sugar-free pop tarts from the vending machine, nuked them and headed up to the room to get the homework out of the way.
Tenses. Ick. Trust the English to screw up a language that badly. I got to the room, shed the parka, and bravely faced my nemesis - my English textbook. But I gotta clear this Winter Term class to make up for my performance on the Fall English exams or - <shudder> - I’ll have to re-take that class in the Spring term! Horror! Horror! Mere words cannot convey the sheer horror!
I had sat down, and was putting all my attention to my English homework - HONEST! - when suddenly, someone threw my parka over my head. “Very funny, Nikki,” I said, looking around. “Hey, it’s not like you’re… any… better…” I trailed off, looking around the room and not seeing anyone. Of course, rooming with Nikki, that doesn’t mean much. Still, the room was suspiciously neat…
I pointedly dropped my parka right in the middle of the floor, and went back to studying, with one eye peeled. Then there was a knock on the door, and I heard Rip say, “You in there?”
I went to the door, and I stuck my head out the door, just in time to hear footsteps running down the hall. I ran down the hall to Gurlzone, but I only spotted Shove and Pilar flirting in the hallway. Going back to my room, I found that my door was stuck! It wasn’t locked, it just wouldn’t open!
Okay, someone’s playing games with me… “Nikki?” I pounded on the door. “Nikki, this isn’t funny anymore! I have homework to do! Benchley’s not gonna let me off the hook, if I tell him that I couldn’t do my homework ‘cause my roomie was being a bitch! Nikki? Aw, screw this!”
I felt around for the feel of the magic holding the door closed, got it, and Ki-kicked the door in. “Nikki?” I poked my head in the door. I noticed something scurrying just out of the corner of my eye, but as I jumped for it, my bed suddenly burst into flames! “Oh SHIT!” I grabbed my parka and tried to put it out, but not only didn’t it go out-
-but there was no heat. I waved a hand through the flame. Nothing. Cool as the rest of the air. And I might be too tough to burn, but at the very least, I’d feel something. “BELLE!” I yelled.
No. Wait. This isn’t Belle’s style. It’s too simple. It’s not surreal enough to be one of her pranks. There aren’t any bouncing tigers, for one thing. If Belle was behind this, she’d figure out a way for me to embarrass myself. Then I spotted that scuttling again and jumped on it. I got a peg on it; it was one of Nikki’s hobgoblins, trying to scurry around invisibly. HAH! Like that trick ever works! I pop Nikki’s hobgoblins at the rate of three or four a week, six in a good week.
I cut it off a couple of times, got it really spinning. Then I latched onto it and hauled it up by the scruff of its neck. Or something like that. It went visible and turned into a spiny, scaly, clawed, snarling, spiny, scaly, clawed, snarling thing that snarled and waved its claws at me. Then it turned into a snake and tried to bite me. Then it turned into a big icky spider. “Well, fun’s fun, and I gotta say, as hobgoblins go, you’re one of the best that Nikki’s come up with, but that homework ain’t gonna do itself. So… POP!” I jabbed it with two Ki-charged fingers, which usually was enough to disrupt the hobgoblin’s internal matrix.
“OW?” I repeated. “Hobgoblins don’t go ‘ow’! They go ‘pop’!”
“HOBGOBLIN?” it sputtered, turning into a tiny, round-faced woman with chestnut hair done up in a bun, wearing a green dress with an apron, dangling from my hand. “I am NO HOBGOBLIN you-” then she started swearing in Irish, I think. She sounded like a Dublin fishwife off on a tear. “Now GET OUT of this room, you-” she started swearing in leprechaun again.
I poked her a couple more times, just to see if she’d pop, which only set her off even more.
“What’s all the fuss?” Nikki asked as she poked her head in the door.
“HIGHNESS!” the whatever-it-was wailed, “SAVE ME!”
“Hey, Nikki, check this out,” I said, holding it out. “What is this, like your magnum opus in hobgoblin-ing?”
“Kayness!” Nikki said, taking it from my fingers, “Are you all right?”
It grew to about three feet tall and said, “Forgive me, Majesty! I tried to keep this-” something Gaelic, and if I’m getting the gist right, would probably get your teeth kicked in, if you used it on someone in Galloway, “-out of your room, but she just wouldn’t GO!” She hugged Nikki’s waist and then hid behind Nikki’s skirt, glowering at me.
“No, Koehnes,” Nikki said, trying to calm down the little munchkin.
“Like I said, Kayness.”
“No it’s,” Nikki gave up with a sigh. “Toni, this is Koehnes. She’s of the Court of the West. Sort of. It’s complicated. Anyway, she’s decided that I need a personal handmaiden, and she’s appointed herself to the position.”
“Personal handmaiden, hunh?” I mused. “And, let me guess, Unga-dunga is all for it.”
“UNGA-DUNGA?” the sprout gawped. “You DARE call the Daughter of the Burning Oak, the Seventh Queen of the West, the Chatelaine of Tyr-na-Baine, the-”
“Yes,” Nikki said forcefully, “Aunghadhail’s all for it.”
“She would be,” I said, rolling eyes towards heaven. Then I cocked an eyebrow at little Kay-whatever. “Hey, what IS she anyway?”
“Well, from what I’m picking up, she’s a minor but tenacious Earth spirit attached to the Court of the West, and-”
“Hold it. EARTH spirit? From what you been laying down, the Court of the West was all about Wood as an element.”
“Wood is the West’s primary alignment, and the higher echelons are Sidhe, of course, but the Court is geared to the Fey, which cover almost all the Elements in their orientation, even fire. Other Courts aren’t as accommodating, for instance the Court of the South is primarily Fire, with some Air and a few Earth elements, and the Court of the East is primarily Water, and doesn’t have a lot of Fire elements in it. Koehnes is comparatively young - I’d say roughly 3,000 years or so, and resonates with some of the more, ah, ‘puckish’ dynamics of the Court, though I’d say she probably has a few Domestic Spirit traits as well. I’d say that the spirit that she’s most like would be what you’d know as a ‘Leprechaun’.”
“LEPRECHAUN?” I said, hardly able to keep the grin from stretching off my face. I heard a growl from behind Nikki’s skirt.
“Although, from what Aunghadhail tells me, her kind might also be the source of the myths of Brownies.”
“BROWNIES? Does she come with milk?” I couldn’t help but add.
“Look, Aunghadhail says that having her around will probably help, once word that she’s back starts making the rounds. It would be best to have an at least reliable person in place, once the position-seekers start nosing around.”
“THERE! The QUEEN says that I stay, so now you GO, you-” more stuff that you would never hear on ‘Ballykissangel’. “This is the Queen’s own bedchamber and you can stop cluttering it up with your soiled-”
“Hold it, hold it, hold IT!” I held up a hand. “What’s this about HER room?”
“It’s the Queen’s Own Chamber is what it is!” the runt snapped. “And it’s a SCANDAL at that! That a QUEEN OF THE WEST, who should only have to be kept in an apartment the size of this entire COTTAGE as a punishment, should be confined in a single ROOM! Why, it’s outrageous! But to SHARE this dingy little room with a-”
“With a WHAT?” I cut her off, giving her the ‘don’t GO there’ glare.
“With a mortal…” she answered spitefully.
“Ooohhh…!” I gasped, “She said the ‘M’ word!”
“Honestly, Toni,” Nikki assured me, “she’ll be very helpful, keeping the room tidy. I mean, neither of us is very good about that.”
“Of course you’re not!” Koehnes huffed. “That a QUEEN should be forced to picking up after a-” she glared at me.
“Don’t you have a pot of gold in Ireland that you should be guarding?”
“Don’t you have a cotton field in Alabama that you should be picking?”
“I think that I still have that Cold Iron pipe around here somewhere…” I mused. Koehnes ducked back behind Nikki’s skirt. “LOOK, Short-stuff, what’s this guff about this being HER room? Hey it’s… wait a minute… THANK YOU, Exemplar memory! As I recall, according to the Law of Dominion, as a supernatural being, you need permission of the Master of the Domain in order to stay. But this cottage isn’t Nikki’s property; it’s the property of the school, which extends to Issues of Domain, thank you very much! This room was given to BOTH of us, tenancy in common, as my mother the lawyer would put it. Which puts us on equal footing, at least in terms of mastery of this domain.”
“This small domain,” Koehnes sneered.
“Small, but OURS. Which means that you need BOTH of our okays to stay.”
Koehnes looked up at Nikki with big teary eyes. “Majesty?”
Nikki smiled back apologetically. “I’m afraid that she’s right, Koehnes. If I were to try and assume complete mastery of this room, I’d have to take Dominion over the entire cottage, and the school wouldn’t stand for that.”
“Honest, Koehnes, even Aunghadhail admits that Toni has an equal right to this room, and she knows a lot more about the Ins and Outs of being a Queen than either of us. Besides, the rules of Royalty have their own unique nuances in this time and place. Putting up with Toni is just one of them.”
“Waddya mean ‘Put Up’?” Then I turned my attention to the other pointy-eared troublemaker. “Look, I’m willing to be reasonable,” I said magnanimously. “Just keep the place neat and clean, and don’t mess with me in any way, shape or form, and we’ll be FINE!” I gave her the basilisk eye. “Oh, and I want your word, upon the Name of the Daughter of the Burning Oak, on it!”
Koehnes made the ‘I’d rather be eating Cold Iron’ face, placed her hand on her heart, and said, “I, Koehnes with the Heart of the Earth, do swear to abide by the Queen’s wishes, and will comport myself as befits an Attendant upon the Daughter of the Burning Oak.”
“Name the Name!”
“By the name Aunghadhail, I do swear.”
“FINE!” I said breezily. “So, pick up that parka, put it away, and get to work. Oh, and make me some herbal tea - no sugar please, just a jot of milk will do. Oh, and make the beds, they’re a MESS! Remember, hospital corners, and I want to be able to make a quarter bounce on those sheets, and-”
I was interrupted by a parka being dumped on my head. I think that Koehnes has a different idea of what ‘comporting herself as befits an attendant upon the Daughter of the Burning Oak’ means than I do.
The Tigers had a practice room for themselves, curiously situated on the far side of the gym from the Dragon’s studio. Shuttle was experimenting with using his ‘slide’ ability to cross Spinner’s web-trap with interesting results for both parties. Sledge was ‘fending off’ Stinger with one of the wooden mallets, which he’d borrowed from Ito-sensei. Stinger was jabbing at Sledge with his manifested insectile stinger tail while flying with his also manifested ‘dragonfly’ wings. Stinger was learning to stay more stable in the air when someone parried one of his thrusts. Stunner was doing more conventional sparring with Wakanda. Stunner’s exemplar reflexes and speed were well matched with Wakanda’s precognitive abilities, so the two girls gave each other a good workout. Mace was helping N’Dizi by throwing medicine balls at him, with two of Phalanx’s forms fielding the balls back to Mace as four other forms did different workouts, and another sparred with Alakazam. N’Dizi was blindfolded and batted the balls out of the air using only his spatial sense. “Yo, Sledge!” Mace said as he threw another medicine ball at N’Dizi. “What’s with the wooden mallet? Didn’t you get enough of that trying to put Chaka in her place?”
“Hey, it’s good training,” Sledge responded equitably as he jabbed at Stinger’s tail. “Using a steel hammer is too easy for me, and the bokto I been using don’t have the same balance. It’s harder.” Sledge missed one of Stinger’s jabs and almost got skewered. “But harder’s better. Y’don’t get better with easy.”
“So, Sledge,” N’Dizi started, never taking his attention from sensing for the incoming medicine balls. “Any insights regarding Chaka’s form?”
“Oh yeah, she got form,” Sledge joked. “Nice legs too.” He gave a dirty laugh. “But seriously, her form is damn good. She’s light on her feet, but she’s always sure about her footing. I couldn’t get her off-balance with a bulldozer. She got the balance of her hammer in like ten seconds, and she picked up the jazz of the swing in twenty. Gonna ask her for a rematch next week.”
“What for?” Alakazam asked, breaking off her match with Phalanx.
“Cause it’ll be a GOOD match!”
Kaz sighed and turned to her boyfriend. “N’Dizi, is getting this Chaka chick to hang with us THAT important?”
“Yes,” he responded tersely, expertly swatting a medicine ball out of the air. “Zhong Lau is aggressively recruiting the sword-chick who chump-slapped Nex. She’s tight with Chaka. Chaka is very down with the whole ‘My Buds and Me’ thing. If Bladedancer goes with the Dragons, there’s a good chance that Chaka will join up, right along with her. Chaka’s the sensei’s dimpled darling this year. If she signs on with the Dragons, it slaps down our whole reason for being a separate club. WE look like chumps. Worse, we stand to lose this training space, and we’ll have to go back to training with those racist fucks, the Dragons. I had enough of that crap, freshman year. NOT HAPPENING again. Besides, Chaka sends the message that the WASP bias that runs this whole fucking school is cool. It’s NOT. We are getting dissed left and right, and Chaka’s too blinded by the whole cooption-assimilation crap to see it. She has GOT to learn that the only way for Africans to get the respect that we deserve is to form a cohesive social and political unity. Solidarity is KEY!” He punched aside the medicine ball coming at him with more ferocity than was strictly called for. “Mace, shift over to softballs. Put some pepper on it, too. It’s bad enough that we got Uncle Toms like G-Force sucking up to the Capes, and oreo assholes like Rez and Holdout being the token darkies in the Secret Squirrels; we do NOT need the star frosh in the dojo telling us to piss off. Ow!”
N’Dizi missed one of the softballs, which hit him in the shoulder. “Good one, Mace. Keep it up. And, let’s face it - the girl needs a firm guiding hand. I mean, will you check out the silly-ass nigga-shit she is always pulling? She hangs with a white crew, she dates a white boy, and the only black folks she deals with are oreos and sellouts like Vox.”
“Still, we gotta chill out a little when we handle things like that,” Damballah said from where he was sparring with Mokele’. “That Diabolik girl played us like a fiddle when she sicked us on Sapper. Didn’t break up Sapper and her little brutha Techno-Devil, but we rattled ‘em good. Devil-girl almost got what she wanted, and we look like the reverse KKK. And callin’ Chaka in front of her folks? That was NOT smart, N’Dizi. You got the points, Deez, but you need to work on how you sell them.”
“Yeah,” all the Phalanx ‘clones’ agreed in eerie chorus. “We flushed a whole lotta cred down with that one. And gettin’ played by the Bad Seeds just made it worse.”
“Hey, what about recruiting Vox?” Mace asked with a note of anticipation. “She’s buds with Chaka. If she got in with us, she might talk Chaka into coming over. And she’s a Siren; she could talk the Klan into tying themselves to their own burning cross!”
“NO,” Kaz said with finality. “If anything, Vox is worse than Chaka! Dig this - the word is, she’s not only taking Accounting and Business classes, but she’s dating the Goodkind. The fucking freak-ass GOODKIND! Hello, we have enough problems without letting that kind of trash in the door!”
“What about Tempest?” Wakanda asked, as she and Stunner took a breather. “I sense very strong ties between her and Chaka.”
“Sorry, Miss Mojo, but your crystal ball is cracked,” Kaz sniped back. “There IS a very strong tie there - and it’s HATE! Those two cannot STAND each other!” Kaz paused. “First sign of anything even like common sense outta Chaka - that Sharisha chick has PROBLEMS, and she ain’t exactly shy about sharing ‘em.”
Alakazam paused and thought for a moment. “I heard that Beltane dissed Chaka big time last term, right after Chaka took up with the white boy. Maybe we can use Beltane to piss off Chaka so much that she splits with the Kimbas.”
“Nice thought, Kaz,” Stunner said, “Problem being that Beltane isn’t just a better Manifestor than you are. She’s sneakier than you are. You thought that you had her cold last year, but she turned it around on you, and you wound up starkers in the quad in front of the Graduatin’ Class.”
“Would you STOP bringing that UP?”
“Hey, you’re the one who’s always trying to show her up.”
Alakazam grinned. “Yeah, and this time I got the snotty little bitch in a corner. She ain’t the top dog no more. That whacko who’s calling himself ‘Thorn’-”
“No, new boy, hasn’t quite figured out that that code-name’s been taken. Anyway, he’s just as whacko as Beltane is, and from what I’ve seen, he’s more powerful. Beltane ain’t taking it well. I figure that if I can play those two bird-turds against each other, I can probably pay Beltane back for last year.”
“Isn’t this ‘Thorn’ the one who hangs out with that new kid, ‘Jolt’?”
“Yeah, SOP post-Christmas rush buddy-group fuck,” Mokele’ sneered. “Hasn’t fallen apart yet, mostly ‘cause that two-faced ‘angel’ bitch is making such a thing about hanging out with the big blue GSD freak.”
“‘Ooohhh… Look at ME, I’m an ANGEL!’” Alakazam sneered. “’I’m so white and pretty, and EVER-so GOOD, and don’t get all upset, just ‘cause I can level a fucking building with one blast!’” Kaz gave a snide chuckle. “God didn’t reach down and help her when Counterpoint laid a smack-down on her and her whole crew! He just blew through her and her buddies, and he didn’t even use the powers he copied that much! I guess she ain’t quite as holy as she thinks she is.”
“Hold it!” N’Dizi caught the softball and gestured for Mace to stop. He lifted the blindfold and looked at Alakazam. “What was that last part?”
“I guess that she ain’t-”
“No, just before that.”
“Counterpoint just whaled on the white angel-girl, and didn’t even have to use that many copied powers.”
N’Dizi nodded, obviously wrapped up in thought. Then he removed the blindfold and called over to Sledge, “Sledge! You still tight with that whack white boy Counterpoint?”
Sledge waggled his hand. “eeennnhhh… I wouldn’t say ‘tight’. He’s a little too… y’know… bloodthirsty? But we do some business ever now and again. And the boy’s got a THING about keepin’ his word, promises AND threats.”
“Word is that he’s good on the mat.”
“And the word is right! The boy got crazy moves and hella grit. If Chaka didn’t have her Ki thing goin’ on, Counterpoint would be the number one Frosh in the dojo.”
N’Dizi smiled broadly. “Perfect.”
I was waiting at the café for my sweetie Scotty. I was toying with a mineral water drink - I can’t drink soft drinks; how sad is THAT? - when two African-American kids walked up. “Gee, I’m sorry,” I said in a ‘strictly polite receptionist telling the annoying salesman to piss off’ voice, “but I’m all booked today. I simply don’t have any time for Politically Correct guilt trips at the moment. But if you leave your name and web addy, I’ll get right back to you at my earliest inconvenience.”
“Don’t be like that, Chaka,” Stunner said as she sat down without being asked. The other one, a skinny boy who I didn’t know by name, also sat down. “I’m just here to try and clear up the misunderstandings that have popped up.”
“Misunderstandings?” I shot back. “Your boss, N’Dizi thinks that he runs my life, and I ain’t havin’ that. I think that we understand each other perfectly.”
“No, y’don’t,” she said, her accent coming on a lot stronger.
I cut her off. “I’ve been meaning to ask you- where are you from? Your accent’s been bugging the hell outta me, trying to peg it.”
“I’m from Liverpool,” she said with a sigh. “And, YES, I know that’s where the flippin’ Beatles came from. Look, you have the wrong idea about N’Dizi.”
“Oh? I think that he made himself pretty damn understood on Parents’ Day.”
“Y’see? That’s what I’m talking about. Deez put his foot forward wrong, and you’re busting his chops about it.”
“’Put his foot forward wrong’? Is that what you call it?”
“Look, Deez is like that. He gets all het up, and goes right in and tries to MAKE things work the way he wants. Sometimes it works, and… sometimes it doesn’t…” she gave me a wry nod.
“Yeah? And what about that crap you pulled on Rez?”
“That was Alakazam,” Stunner said defensively. “And I’ll admit, I wish that she hadn’t said all that. Rez is a good kid, and she didn’t deserve to get dissed that way.”
“Look, Stunner-” I gave her a sharp, ‘what’s with the name?’ look.
“Hey, I’m an Energizer,” she said with a ‘not this again’ sigh. “My specialty is a zap that directly affects the nervous system, like a Star Trek stunner. My name is Daphne.”
“Okay, Daphne, you want me to hook up with the Tigers, I get that. But check it out - it would be a complete and total cluster fuck. N’Dizi’s the sort who HAS to be large and in charge all the time and I just don’t play that game. We’d constantly be at each other’s throats.”
Daphne gave me a sneaky grin. “Actually, that’s precisely WHY I want you in the Tigers.”
“Look, I know that Deez put his foot disastrously wrong with you, but then he would. And he’s too much of a stubborn git to back down. But, y’see, you got the wrong idea about N’Dizi. He’s a GREAT guy. You know how it is around here, with the whole White Establishment thing built right into the woodwork an’ ever’thing. But last year, it was even worse. The Alphas was lead by this fucking Nazi bitch called Freya. She could-”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about Freya.”
“Maybe, but I’ll bet what you didn’t hear was that she had a hate on for blacks. Or maybe not a hate, y’know a real Hate. She just didn’t think of us as, y’know, people. And she had this weird mind thing that made everything she did seem all cool and hip and great, so everyone went along everything she said. Last year, the Alphas were IT. Period. And the Alphas shit on us. And by ‘Us’, I mean ev’ryone of color. I tried to get into the Cape Squad. You would not believe the shit they put me through! And Mace tried to get into the Alphas, and they just played him for a stone cold fool! And it went on and on. N’Dizi was in the Dragons, and well, they were makin’ him eat shit even worse’n any. Oh, and that God-awful ‘fortune cookie’ zen crap that they was always spoutin’! I mean, WHY COULDN’T THEY JUST SPEAK REG’LAR ENGLISH, AND SAY WHAT THEY MEAN, LIKE A NORMAL PERSON?
“So, N’Dizi says, ‘fuck all this crap’ and starts up the Tigers as a separate club with a few friends. He pulled me right out of the muck and got me back on my feet. And Damballah and Spinner and Sledge and a few others. And he told Freya that she could stick it right up her lily-white arse. And he made it stick. Freya threw some of her A-material at us, and we’re still standing. Well, okay, she still managed to get Ice-Cold to drop out, but she hadda sweat blood for that’n, and we made her pay for it. But the rest of us? We hung tough, we proved ourselves to the Senseis, we got our own training place, and we got respect.”
“Thrilling,” I said. “What’s this got to do with Bowlin’ Ball tellin’ me who I can and can’t hang with, and who I can and can’t date?”
“Look, N’Dizi’s thing is that he goes right in, says what he means, doesn’t pull any punches, and just keeps going. Which is great. Only, he’s got the weakness of his strengths, as they say. Y’see, he’s a lot more used to riding in and pulling the poor sod out of the muck, than he is coming in and trying to sell the idea. He’s got a lot of things going for him. TACT ain’t one of ‘em.”
“That’s nice, Daphne,” I replied. “But I still think that it would be a total cluster fuck. He can’t back down, and my first reaction to that kind of crap is to call him on it. We’d be up in each other’s faces 24/7.”
“That’s what I’m hoping.”
“Like I said, N’Dizi’s got the weakness of his strengths. He’s gone a little over the top, now that Freya isn’t around for him to hate and The Don’s in the dumper. A few of the others are worried about him too, but we all owe him too much to really CALL him on it, y’know? The reflex isn’t there. What Deez needs is a Lancer.”
“What’s Hank got to do with this?”
“No, no, no… like in those sentai anime- y’always got the same five-man team. The leader, the geek, the big guy, the pretty gel - and the Lancer, the tough guy who’s always up in the Leader’s face, and who ev’ry one knows can kick the Leader’s arse all around the block. He keeps the Leader from getting’ all smug and complacent, calls him on it when he gets tracked or starts takin’ shit for granted and like that. He holds up his end, and keeps the Leader on his toes. N’Dizi is a great leader. He just needs a ‘Lancer’ to keep him honest I was hopin’ that Sledge would step up into the position, but it ain’t happened. But now you- YOU have ‘Lancer’ written all over you.”
“God, I hope not!” I gasped. “Lily would kill me if she ever found out! I gotta wash it off!”
“Y’see, that’s the stuff! You could keep N’Dizi on his toes, and he’d never kick you out, not after goin’ so far to get you to join in the first place!”
“Maybe… But I hear you’re a damn good saleswoman.” I fixed her in the eye. “I hear this from Rez.”
“Look, I did NOT want it to go down that way. N’Dizi’s got this whole ‘prove that you’re an asset’ thing that he does. He figures that if a newb knows that they have something to offer the team, then they don’t get that tag-along thing that sometimes happens, and they get a sense of earning their place. Not just being allowed to hang about. He was TRYING to get Rez to get up on her hind legs and demand that he respect her. But Kaz insisted on putting her two cents in, and instead it turned into a bitch-out, and the closest that Rez came to claiming her due was tellin’ us all to piss off.”
I gave Stunner the ‘Yeah, RIGHT’ look. “So, it’s all Alakazam’s fault.”
“Fault?” Daphne wagged her hand, “Sorta, maybe, kinda. I’da know about Kaz sometimes. Maybe she just doesn’t have the feel for it, the getting someone to kick out’a their shell. Deez, he has it. Well, sometimes, not always. But Kaz? She’s just too… up in yer face, ‘I’m yer enemy, now lick my feet’, an’ all that. I mean, she’s trying…”
“Or, maybe she’s just a bitch who’s using that as an excuse to be as Alpha as she can,” I pointed out the obvious.
“Alpha? There’s no call to be all insulting…”
“Okay, Daphne? You say that you thought that Rez was okay, and you really wanted to be her friend. Now, riddle me this - have you tried patching it up with her? ‘Cause when I met her last term, just before she hooked up with Holdout and the Spy Kidz, she was pretty dang lonely. I mean, ALL by herself. She could’a used some company, even if you couldn’t work out with her. Tell me - did you even TALK to her?”
Daphne had the good grace to look embarrassed. “Well, y’see…”
“N’Dizi Siberia’d her?”
“No, not N’Dizi…” I raised an arch eyebrow at her. “Look, it was awkward, and then she hooked up with that suckup Holdout-”
“Suckup? Darren?” I asked. “I know him, and I don’t really see him that way.”
“Daphne, you could’a at least TALKED to her. Hey, do you have any friends outside the Tigers?”
“Of course I do.”
“And how much shit you get for that?” I grinned at Daphne’s expression. “Look, one of the reasons that I told your boy N’Dizi to shove it, is that bullshit ‘dump Team Kimba’ crap. Tee-Kay is not just my training team, they’re not just in my cott, they are my BUDS. And dig this - I don’t just hang with the Kimbas; I also spend time with the kids in my Intro Criminology class, including both Rez and Holdout, and I hang out with my sweetie T-Bird and his buds on Barricade. AND, I visit some of the kids over in Hawthorne cottage, including that sweet li’l Latina that your ‘great guy’ dissed so major on Parents Day. You think that I’m dumping all that, just so’s I can spend all my time proving that I’m not an oreo to Mister Tact and Miss Tactless? Now, if Bowlin’ Ball had offered to let me visit, spar a little, get to know you…”
“LOOK, we blacks NEED solidarity…”
“Yeah, solidarity… When I got sent to the hospital, and almost got expelled and thrown in freaking JAIL over that thing with Little Bee, the Poesies and Thornies hauled to get my black ass out of that. You ‘Solid’ Tigers didn’t do shit, ‘cept maybe start planning exactly how you were gonna bitch and moan about me getting the boot.”
“Who says we didn’t do anything?”
“Yeah? What DID you do?”
“NOT the point,” the skinny guy said with a lush Caribbean accent, with an interesting touch of British added.
“And who are YOU and what IS the point?”
He held up a finger and opened his mount. A snake crawled out of his mouth. And I’m not talking a teeny little garter snake, neither. I’m talking about something that was as wide around as a full-grown python, had the head of a pit viper, and was as white as a piece of paper. It just kept on slithering out of his mouth until at least eight freaking FEET of it came out and wrapped itself around his shoulders. It looked at me with strange blue eyes and sort of checked me out, in friendly snake style. Yeah, I know that a lot of people get weirded out by snakes, but my family always told us kids that snakes are cool - you don’t bug them, they won’t bug you. Just say hello, mind where you step and pass on by. Even rattlesnakes, who are supposed to be as mean as a centipede with sore feet, won’t do anything if you back off when it starts rattling. So, I just looked the white snake in the blue eye and smiled back. “WE,” the guy said in a weird accent with a touch of French or Creole or something, “are Damballah. He is Cold Brutha and I am Warm Brutha.”
“Damballah?” I shot back. “You into Voodoo?”
“More like Voodoo into me,” he said with a chuckle.
“So, is he a manifestation, or your familiar, or are you some weird kinda Avatar?”
“He is Damballah, I am Damballah, We are Damballah. Damballah is Damballah.”
I shot a nasty look at Stunner. “And you complain about the DRAGONS? That was the most condescending piece of smug pseudo-mystical bullshit I’ve ever heard, that didn’t involve getting hit up for a donation!”
“Hey, Damballah is like one of those trick pictures - is it a pretty young woman or an ugly old woman? Is it a woman at her vanity table, or is it a skull? You look at it one way, and Damballah is a great god, who swallowed his own tail and made the world, who carries the honored dead to the next world on his back. You look at it another way, Damballah is a song that changes with every singer. You look at it another way, and Damballah is a family of snakes, each biting another on the tail to make a big snake, trying to keep the world from tearing itself apart. You look at it another way, Damballah is a great nation of spirits, like an America of the Beyond, which sometimes speaks with one voice, but usually with a confusion of voices. You look at it another way, and Damballah is an agreement between souls. All of them right, all of them wrong, all of them holding onto a different piece of the elephant. Damballah is Damballah.”
“Aaannndd… I think that’s the best I’m gonna get outta you,” I cut off any further mystification. “And according to the great Damballah Democracy, what IS the point?”
“The POINT, is that you NEED the Tigers, girl.”
“For WHAT? Sparring practice? I do my own comedy relief, thank you very much.”
“You need the Tigers, because you are a lightning rod. You call down the lightning on yourself.”
“Yeah, and so are the rest of Team Kimba.”
“EXACTLY. Too many lightning rods in one place. Not a good idea. The Elf Girl? Chaka, she is the Elf QUEEN, come back to rule the Elf Realm. This is NOT a good idea. The Eshu, they not just in Ireland, you know. They got little bits here, little bits there, little bits in Africa, little bits in Arabia, little bits in India, little bits in China, little bits in Japan, little bits in America, little bits EVERYWHERE. The Orisha know this, and they are not happy. And the elf-folks, they got enemies. They got OLD enemies. Old wars that left scars that were only just healing when Pharaoh make the people build his pyramids. Enemies that don’t like the Elf-folk coming back, and would be very happy to see the Elf-Queen and all her sisters broken up again and thrown to the corners of the world. You don’t want to be near that. And as bad as their enemies are, the Elf-folk just as bad. Elf-folks are crazy, Chaka, the white-faces they got that right, and chased them out of Europe with cold iron and church bells.
“And the blue-haired anime girl with the Section 33? She got trouble even the Orisha don’t got names for. The Chinese sword-girl? Chaka, all she IS is trouble! She looks for trouble, trouble looks for her, she MAKES trouble! And that Kellith girl? Chaka, she is a DEMON! You hangin’ out with a demon. That says it all, right there. The Goodkind girl-boy-whatevah? Chaka, she is Goodkind. Not quite a demon. Quite. And she thinks that she can run ever’thing, ‘cause she got money. That’s the worst kind of trouble there IS. Even the little one, she is ten different kinds of crazy, even without the loco ghost-sister that’s always hangin’ around with her.
“Chaka, you gonna have enough grief handlin’ your own troubles, you can’t afford to handle all theirs too. Hey, when elephants dance, the ants ain’t happy.”
“‘When elephants dance’?” I rested my cheek on one hand and asked, “Troubles? You say I got troubles coming my way?”
By way of explanation, ‘Cold Brutha’ uncoiled a bit and stuck his head closer. It opened its mouth, and instead of the hiss I was expecting, it spoke in a voice like a dozen different birds all singing and making a speaking voice out of the many singing voices. It sang,
It finished and sat there, looking at me with eyes of inhuman wisdom. To which my eloquent reply was, “HANH?”
“Look, Cold Brutha don’t exactly see things from the same perspective we do.”
“Chaka, what we’re trying to say is that you need us as much as we need you,” Stunner tried to pick up the existential ball that ‘Cold Brutha’ had just dropped.
“What you-all need, is a clue.” I saw Scotty standing off a bit, probably not wanting to intrude on ‘a black thing’ or something like that. I waved him over. “Look, there are two things that you’re not getting. First, if I was the kind of girl who dumped her buds because of anything that flimsy, would I be someone you really want in the Tigers? Second, you say ‘the elephants dance’ and you mean a disaster; I, on the other hand, hear ‘the elephants dance’, and I get that there’s a PAHTAY GOIN’ AWN!”
“But you’re not listening! ‘The False Friend’-”
“Yeah, yeah, real subtle… Now start hammering away at how evil the demon-girl that you’re never actually MET is. Hey, Scotty, gimme some sugar…” I gave him a kiss and we walked away together.
There is Detention, and then there is Detention, and then there is Detention for people they don’t want at Hawthorne, ‘cause they’re that big a pain in the ass. For those chosen few, there are two words that sum up punishment more than any others: Sewer Duty. Counterpoint was thigh deep in sewage water (in January in New Hampshire) wearing waders, shoveling with a snow shovel, clearing muck that was clogging a valve. Every so often, Counterpoint would pause in his shoveling and let out a zap, seemingly at random, that fried something that gave out chirruping death-squeaks. Then he’d go back to shoveling muck. He was deliberate and methodical. He knew that hurrying through was pointless; there was always something down in these tunnels that needed doing. But dawdling only meant that he stretched out his time being in the freezing cold water.
Then he noticed a light coming toward him. He didn’t change the tempo of his shoveling. “Yo, Counterpoint! You at home?”
“Yo, Sledge!” Counterpoint called back. “I almost got your parlor cleaned out! I’ll get to your bedroom next!”
The light got closer, and Counterpoint made out two more young men dressed in rain gear with Sledge. “Yo, Cee-Pee. This is-”
“N’Dizi,” Counterpoint cut him off. “Mokele’.”
“So, Counterpoint, where are Mario and Luigi?” N’Dizi started.
“Stan and Morrie? They’re on the north side of the layout, handling a power blowout. So. Who do you want me to beat the crap out of?” Counterpoint said with a snide smirk. N’Dizi started to complain, but Counterpoint cut him off. “HEY, why else would you three be down here? Where no one with a lick of sense would be hanging around to overhear, except maybe Stan and Morrie?”
N’Dizi nodded, conceding the point. “Okay. There’s this chick, Vox. She’s in Poe, but she’s cool, like Mokele’ here. We think that she’d make a good Tiger. Or, at least, she’d make for good bleacher candy, y’know?” he finished with a ‘we’re all guys here’ leering grin. “BUT, she’s all into the whole ‘we can work our way through the system if we study and climb to the top on our own’ ssshhheee-IT! AND - get this - she’s dating the fucking GOODKIND. The girl has GOT to be taught better, for her own good. She has got to learn that we black folks are on our OWN.”
Counterpoint paused, set the shovel, and turned to glare at N’Dizi. “N’Dizi? I don’t HAVE a kneejerk White Liberal Guilt reflex. Period. Now, one of the few things that I DO like about Americans, is that they don’t waste time pussyfooting around. So get to the fucking point! You’re starting to piss me off.”
“Cool. We set up Vox and the Goodkind so they’re in the right place. You jump them and scare off the Goodkind. Once it runs away wetting its pants, you wail on Vox a little. Don’t hurt her too much. Then we Tigers come riding in like the Cavalry and save the day. You split. We take it from there. Simple, right?”
Counterpoint hauled himself out of the water and gave a rueful chuckle. “No.”
“What? You scared of the Goodkind? I thought you New Olympians didn’t care about money.”
There was the briefest blur as Counterpoint flipped the shovel with his foot up into his hand, and swung it at N’Dizi’s neck. He stopped the shovel’s blade a hair’s breadth from N’Dizi’s neck. Despite the bluntness of the shovel, there was no doubt that he could have lopped N’Dizi’s head clean off. “Don’t try to bullshit me, N’Dizi. You don’t want me to scare off the Goodkind from that girl. You want me to beat up Chaka.”
“Hey, why would we-”
Counterpoint cut him off by none-too-gently rapping the side of his skull with the flat of the shovel. Only the hood on N'Dizi's slicker kept the side of his face from being smeared with shit. “You’re trying to set me up,” Counterpoint said, his eyes dancing with the glee of a bully picking a fight that he knows he’s going to win. “You were going to get the Goodkind there, but with Chaka instead of Vox, assuming that you all look alike to me.”
“Hey, the Whateley Canon of Psychic Ethics-”
“Ethics? Please! ‘Sides, I don’t need to read your mind.” Counterpoint paused as he seared another unnoticed piece of nastiness on the wall. “Subtlety is NOT your forte.” He set the blade of the shovel down and leaned on it. “But, don’t fret. I’ll do your dirty work for you.”
“Why? For the same reason that you want the stupid little bitch! She’s the BEST! Well,” he polished his nails on his sleeve and examined them “the SECOND best, anyway. I wanna see what she can do in the crunch. You just get her to the designated place at the designated time, and I will gladly designate her ass for dismemberment!”
“Hey, hey, hey!” Sledge stepped in, “Let’s not get crazy here. We don’t want her hurt too bad. Just… knock her around a little, let her get the idea that she still has a lot to learn.”
Counterpoint chuckled, “Then why’d you come to ME?”
“‘Cause you’re the best,” Sledge said. N’Dizi was strangely silent. “‘Cause you got the control to do it without crippling her for life.”
“Well YEAH, but where’s the fun in THAT?” Counterpoint waved Sledge’s protests down. “But for that kind of extra effort, I’ll need payment.”
“What else?” Counterpoint pointed at Mokele’. “Why’d you bring him down here, if he wasn’t part of the deal?” he leaned over his shovel and grinned. “Well? You gonna pony up? Or do I have to wrassle you for it? Again?” he grinned even wider, as if to say that he’d like that.
“Mokele’,” N’Dizi said with authority. “Do it.”
Mokele’ looked around at the filthy tunnel. “Down here?”
“You know a better place to do it, where no one will see it?”
Mokele’s eyes blazed with resentment for a moment. Then he concentrated, and the very fabric of reality wavered around him. He changed first into a panther, then a bear, then a rhinoceros, and a long wingless serpentine dragon of maybe the same mass as an elephant. The long river dragon glared balefully at Counterpoint, opened its mouth and hissed as acidic venom dripped from its fangs. “So, you DO want a rematch,” Counterpoint said with relish.
“CHILL,” N’Dizi said as he pulled a glass phial from his raincoat. He held the mouth of the phial up to one of Mokele’s fangs, and a clear amber fluid filled the bottle. “There y’go, one pint of gen-yew-wine dragon venom, fresh from the tap. I want you to know that Moke gets a thousand bucks an ounce from the Mystic Arts department for that! That’s 16 grand, right there!”
“And worth every penny,” Counterpoint gloated as he took the bottle and looked at it appreciatively.
“You DO know that that stuff’s acid, don’t you? Eats through metal and everything?”
“Of course! That’s how you know it’s the GOOD stuff!” he took a swig of it. “Ah YEAH!” he exulted as the stuff burned away his lips and part of his face. “That’s the stuff! Just like the old days!” N’Dizi and Sledge winced as Counterpoint’s face and neck dissolved, only to regenerate. “It’s not ambrosia, but still, it’s a taste of old times.” He tucked the phial way in his gear. “Okay, I’m bought and paid for. Just tell me when and where. No reason for you three to hang around. That is unless,” he looked at the dragon with a taunting grin. “Maybe you really would like that rematch?”
Mokele’ said nothing, shifted back through his forms to his human base, and joined N’Dizi and Sledge as they walked out. Counterpoint’s jeering chuckles followed them most of the way.
“You hang with the Capes, right?”
“Were you around when Stunner was trying to get into the Cape Squad?”
“Well, I was around, but I wasn’t really what you’d call part of the action.”
“What happened with Stunner? Why’d she leave?”
Scotty rubbed his chin. “Y’know, I’m not really sure? I mean, part of me wants to think that it was just it was just a personality conflict between her and Gloriana or Wundra, who was the Big Senior on the team that year. It was like they were trying, but they just kept tripping over each other, taking things the wrong way and getting all in each other’s business.”
“Stunner mentioned that Freya, the Queen Alpha last year, didn’t like Blacks. Any chance that little Miss Uber-Popular was fucking with Stunner, getting her kicks messing with the Cape Squad?”
Scotty paused. You could see him thinking it over carefully. “Yeah. Yeah, I could see that. And she had the chops to do it so smoothly that nobody’d notice it. And everyone knew that under her ‘Oh, I’m so gracious and cultured’ act, she had a mean sense of humor. But there was something else going on. For one thing, Stunner was trying to push her way into Pendragon’s circle, and they’re pretty tight.”
“British Class Politics?”
“Could be. And while the Brits don’t make the big thing about it that we Americans do, they got their own racial tension issues left over from the days of the Empire. But among other things, she was trying to get close with Iron Star.”
“Iron Star? *Hunh!* Well, no accounting for taste…”
“Whatever that means. But even past that, now that I look back at it… there was something strange going in the FSHA last year. And I’m not entirely sure that it’s not still there.”
“I, ah, hear from Mega-Girl that Powerhouse can be a pain in the ass. Especially to girls trying to get in.”
“Eh. Everyone knows about that. Pendragon’s working on it. No, there’s something else, something that I can’t put my finger on. Bedlam’s a part of it, but for the life of me, I don’t know how or why.”
“Bedlam’s this really weird supervillain who seems to live just to pick on the FSHA. Every so often, he’ll just pop out of nowhere to jump some Capes. He targeted Stunner once or twice before she dropped out of the FSHA. But he hasn’t hit her since.”
“Why hasn’t the Administration done anything about him?”
“They gotta FIND him first. The Syndicate says that they haven’t heard from him in twenty years, and none of the other supervillain ‘unions’ know anything about him.”
We wandered along in mutual bewilderment. Then Scotty suggested that we go and hang with his team, Barricade. Well, hanging around with your bee-eff’s buds is all part of being a gee-eff. Still, I wish that they’d mentioned that part in the manual. Still, asking him to hang out with Team Kimba would be just asking for a disaster.
Barricade was hanging out in the Workshop, in the main area, where Tiny Tim was. Widget was with them, and they were working on a power frame for Tesla. “What?” Rack asked. “She’s perfect for the power frame gig. Her energizer blasts lack a certain punch, but they synch with power systems a lot better than the zappier stuff.”
“It would be better, if you could get the lift jets to do anything other than hover,” Tesla said as she tested the ‘punch’ on the frame’s arms.
“Hey, Tez, like I keep telling you, when we can afford graphite compounds, we’ll re-set the jets from lift to thrust,” he turned to me. “By which, I mean that we’ll change them so they focus less on simply lifting to speed.”
“So, how come Tesla doesn’t just use her magnetics to lift the frame, and let the jets push her along?”
Tesla made a face. “I can’t split my focus that way. It’s all that I can do to power the frame and make it do what I want.”
“Okay, that’s a reason,” I said with what I hoped was a sweet smile. “So, how come you’re not helping?” I asked Scotty.
“Who says I’m not helping?” he said as he was holding up an armature as Widget was working on the tricky shoulder hinge.
“Well, why don’t you copy Widget’s gadgeteer trait and help that way?”
Widget and Rack both shot me dirty looks. “Too many cooks,” was all that Widget said as she went back to work.
“Okay, then why don’t you copy Tesla’s energizer trait and give the girl a break? She’s working pretty hard there.”
“Toni, I know that most mutants think that Mimics have it made, but we have our own things to cope with,” Scotty said. “For instance, Sparky, the thunderbird spirit that I’ve bonded with, really doesn’t like sharing space with Tez’ Energizer trait. And the stress is killer.”
“Yeah. From what I get, almost every mutant puts some sort of strain on themselves when they use their powers.”
“Yeah, and other stuff too. But most mutants learn to cope with the strain, ‘cause that’s part of what they do. But we Mimics copy the physical part of a mutation, so we have the strain of that, and the strain that we copy. And the strains are different. So sometimes we can cope with one kind of stress, but not others. Ferinstance, the stress of whatever it is that I do that’s kind’a Exemplar-like seems to balance out the stress of whatever it is that I do that’s Avatar-like, so keepin’ that up’s no real chore. But anything to do with Energizer-stuff is a real pain in the bee-hind.”
“Why MISTER EMERSON!” I gasped, fanning my face with my hand, “Such LANGUAGE!” Then suddenly, both Scotty and I got phone calls. It was from Hawthorne. Something had happened with Diz, and they wanted me there, as I was the only person who could get through her force field. “Crap,” I said, disgusted. “Gotta motor. They need me at Hawthorne.”
“They must be having some sort of equipment failure,” Scotty said as he tucked his phone away. “Maintenance just asked me to pick something up from the desk and bring it over to Hawthorne.”
Scotty shrugged. “I’ll ask when I get there.”
“No, you stay here,” Widget said pulling herself. “We need someone as strong as you are to keep this steady while we work on it, and to be honest, I’m just getting in Rack’s way.”
“Nice of you to admit it,” Rack said in a way that made me think that those two sniped at each other that way all the time.
Widget used her ‘supergirl’ rig to keep up with me getting to the counter, but the guy at there said that there weren’t any red lights flashing, so it was probably just an annoyance, not an emergency.
“Isn’t that the way it always is?” I griped as we walked into the tunnels. “You’re settling in for some time with the buds, and someone declares an emergency that’s not an emergency. Ah well, might as well see what Diz needs.”
“I hear that you had a run-in with Belphegor the other day,” Widget said as she lugged the case with the bit of whatever it was.
“He started it.”
“So, exactly WHAT is he after you for?”
“He’s always after me Lucky Charms!” I said in my best Irish accent. Stupid leprechaun. We had a few rather uncomfortable minutes as Widget tried to steer the conversation in ways that it just didn’t seem to want to go. After a bit, the tunnel to Hawthorne was closed and locked. “Frack,” I said disgustedly. “Going back and taking another route will take too long.”
“There’s a stairwell to the surface over here,” Widget pointed out. “We’ll have to walk through the snow, but we’ll get there.”
“Which, with our Exemplar physiques, we can easily withstand!” I said brightly, trying to put a positive spin on it. I failed. “Sometimes, it really bites, being an Exemplar,” I grumped.
As we marched up the many flights of stairs, Widget tried to get her chit-chat on, and wasn’t doing a very good job of it. Finally, when we were about at the top of the stairs, I stopped her and said, “Okay, Widget, WHAT do you want to talk about?” She dithered for a second, but I cut her off. “Look, the ‘fifth wheel’ excuse wasn’t your finest hour, Widge. You wanted to get me alone for something. SO, either you want to talk to me alone about something, or you’re setting me up for another ambush, and this detour is a part of it. So, which is it?”
Widget snarled and said, “Okay, okay! Look…” She searched for words and was coming up dry.
“Maybe you want me to just break up with Scotty, and maybe write you a letter of recommendation for being a great replacement girlfriend, hmmm?” I asked with a snide smile.
“You don’t have to be such a wiseass about it.”
I gave out a gusty sigh and sat on the stair. “LOOK, Widge, I don’t blame you for havin’ a thing on Scotty. But get real! If YOU were dating Scotty, and everything was going fine, and I came up to you and asked you to break up with him, what would YOU say?”
“It’s different,” Widget sulked, “I saw him first.”
“Next yer gonna say that I cut in line.”
“Well, you DID! I saw him first! I was, y’know, just trying to get to know him, and-”
“And you acted like you were both in Third Grade, instead of high school,” I cut her off.
“Hey, it was complicated! Rack was being pissy, and Tesla was there with her ‘best buddy’ thing, and then Sizzle came along and pushed her nose into it-”
“And then the bell for the end of recess rang,” I cut her off again. “Look, I’m not looking to be a bitch here!”
“Couldn’t tell by me,” she pouted.
“Widget, did it ever occur to you how much you four were screwing with Scotty?”
“What do you mean? We’d NEVER-”
“Look Widget, Scotty may be a great guy and a sweetheart and a boy scout, but he’s still a GUY! You yoyos were sending him sixteen different kinds of messages, and confusing the HELL out of him!”
“He never said anything!”
“Of course not! Guys like him never DO! But check this out - you had him thinking that he was one of those ‘safe’ boys that girls hang out with, ‘cause they don’t really think of them as GUYS! I mean, why didn’t you just cut his balls off while you were at it?”
Widget wilted and mewled, “Well… I didn’t know how…”
“Oh, it’s very simple. You just tie him down, get his pants off and take the knife and-”
“I mean, I don’t know how to talk to boys!”
“Hey, I see you talking to guys all the time.”
“That’s different! That’s, y’know, sports. And Cars. And electronics. It’s not, like, y’know… boys and girls stuff…” she gave me a weird look. “Hey, I didn’t always look like this. All the way through grade and middle school, I looked just like all the boys. Y’know, skinny, all knees and elbows and like that? Not like I cared. I wasn’t interested in dolls, or playin’ house or dresses or any of that girly stuff. And the guys I hung around with were just plain gross. I wasn’t interested in any of ‘em. But then I turned into an Exemplar, and things got sticky, and boys started noticing me… So, I learned to hide it. And then I came here to Whateley, and I met Scott, and he wasn’t like the other boys.And I tried, but I didn’t know how to talk to Scott about, y’know, boyfriend-girlfriend stuff… And there was Tesla and Sizzle, and Aztecka, and well…” She plopped down on the stairs, as miserable as only a girl who’s painted herself into a corner can be.
I looked at her. “Y’mean, you arranged all of this, just to say THAT?”
“What do you mean?”
“Aw, c’MON! The whole emergency bit and taking Scott’s place for this urgent-but-no-hurry repair thingie? You’re tellin’ me that you didn’t set all this up, just to spring some kind of ambush on me?”
“NO!” she said, mortally offended.
“So, when are you, y’know… well… you got any idea of how long this thing with Scotty’s gonna last?”
“Oh, we have a fight scheduled for next Wednesday, followed by a passionate make-up make-out on Sunday, then a-” Widget gave me the ‘you’re not being funny’ look. “Hey! How would I know? Scotty’s my first boyfriend!”
“Why would I goof about a thing like that? Hey, you’re not the only one that Exemplar-ed out of the clear blue sky, y’know. OR had the ‘guys thought that I was a BOY’ thing happen to her. And I was the middle child in a family with five kids. Honey, I spent a LOT of time getting lost in the shuffle. So, when this really cute boy said that he didn’t have a girlfriend, I jumped on it! Or him. Whatever. Anyway, I don’t know anything about this! I’m making it up as I go along, same as everyone else! I don’t know how long this is gonna last! Does anyone? I could have Scotty’s kids. Or, we could break up in college. Or we might not get to college together. We could be high school sweethearts, and that’s it. Heck, we could have a big fight next week and break up. I mean, who knows?”
Widget slumped over and grumped. I don’t think that this was going the way she wanted.
“Still, if Scotty does go with any of you girls after we break up, I kinda hope he gets together with you.”
“I’m not a dog - don’t throw me a bone.”
“No, I’m serious! I mean, Sizzle? She strikes me as the kind of girl who’d chase after a boy, just ‘cause other girls wanted him. And then, when she finally got him, she’d lose all interest in him. Scotty deserves better’n that. Aztecka? Man, that girl has problems… Tesla? He could do worse. BUT, I also think that he could do better.” I gave her a significant look. “Of course, it would help, if you stopped pussyfooting around and let him know that you’re interested. Or, at least, that you’re a girl.”
“I told you, I don’t know anything about all that girly shit,” Widget whined.
“Neither did I, until the Exemplar bug bit. And look how I turned out!” I preened a bit.
“Buncha fuss’n bother over silly crap,” she grumped. “I can’t bother with stopping to fix my hair every five minutes.”
“Okay, but dig it - there are a ton of ‘cute tomboy’ looks that are very low maintenance. Way I see it, first we gotta get you a pair of Daisy Dukes…” With that, we got up and started walking up the stairs again, with me gently pushing my greatest competition for Scotty’s affections in a direction that would probably result in her getting someone else as a boyfriend before Scotty wised up.
The stairwell opened to the outside, with a door on the exterior of one of the buildings. “Hey, howcum you knew about this exit?”
“Oh, when you spend a lot of time down in the tunnels, you learn about the emergency exits, and the side-tunnels and all that. They’re real handy, since if anything - or should I say, anyone - goes berserk down there, you have a quick way out.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Hey, when something goes really wrong down in the Vat - er, that’s the Chem Devisors’ lab - you really need to get out in a screaming hurry.”
I was about to suggest that she start wearing her hair in a high ponytail - a nice compromise between safety, convenience, and style, while keeping her geek cred - when this black blur came out of nowhere and snagged the case that Widget was carrying, right out of her hand. “HEY!” she yelled, “Dammit, is there some kind of LAW that says that every speedster HAS to be a screaming wiseass?”
He charged off into the woods. Widget did something and lifted off, and I kicked in the afterburners. We might not be as fast as he was, but he had to cope with the snow, and we didn’t.
Shuttle shuttled through the woods to the agreed-on meeting place. N’Dizi was waiting there, wearing a white snowsuit, and Counterpoint was, in counterpoint (heh) wearing all black, except for the bronze Greek helmet tipped up on the back of his head. As they waited, Counterpoint calmly spun the long black-hafted, bronze-tipped spear in a series of maneuvers. “You sure that you don’t want to wear some more armor?” N’Dizi asked as the freshman Tiger zipped up.
“Nah,” Counterpoint said, not letting his concentration leave his movements. “The entire point is to see how good the little bitch is. Armor would only distract from the intimacy of the fight.”
“Then why the funky helmet?”
“I feel more… ME… with it on.”
“Here!” Shuttle handed the case to N’Dizi. “They’re just a few yards behind me! The chick Chaka was with was carrying this.”
“Good Job,” N’Dizi said with approval. “Now get.” Shuttle charged out the far side of the clearing.
Counterpoint took the case and set it in the snow before him. “You too. Get,” he said, as though to an underling, while he pulled the Corinthian-style helmet down so the guard covered his face. N’Dizi concentrated, and seemed to blend in with the snow. Then there was a brief blur as he bounded up into the branches of a nearby tree. Dismissing N’Dizi entirely, Counterpoint went on his guard and waited.
Keeping up with the little booger who stole Widget’s… er… widget… kept us from talking, but I still recognized his signature blur. He was ‘Shuttle’, one of the Tigers. He’s a frosh, and I’ve faced him a couple of times. Tolman-sensei thought that he needed to learn that his gimmick wasn’t foolproof. Or proof that he was the fool. I took care of that, right off. But when Widget and I got through the trees, Shuttle wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Instead, looking like a scene in a bad anime was a guy in black, wearing a bronze Greek helmet - y’know, the kind with the face guard? - with a long black spear with a big bronze tip. He was standing guard over the carrying case for Widget’s dingus like a dog guarding a bone.
I stopped and Widget put down next to me. “Who IS this guy?” Widget asked.
“I dunno. I get the feeling that he’s gonna yell, ‘None shall pass!’ or sum’thin’.”
“HEY!” Widget yelled at Spear-guy. “What are you doing? They need that at Hawthorne!”
“Then come and get it,” Spear-guy said, adjusting his stance a smidge.
But when I heard him, I pegged him. “Yo! Counterpoint! What’s this? The New Olympians want something? Is this Impy’s way of trying to weasel a date with Phase? Does Majestic know that you’re pimping for her squeeze?”
“Counterpoint?” Widget squeaked.
“You’ve heard of him?”
“Who hasn’t?” she said, her voice dripping with dread. “He’s a psycho!”
“Why does everyone say that?” Counterpoint asked. “I’m not insane. I’m just MEAN. And no, this doesn’t have anything to do with the Olympians.”
“Then what IS it about?”
“You. Me. And who’s the best.”
“Then do it in the dojo, on the mat.”
“Nah-ah. Too many RULES, too many people afraid that someone’s gonna get hurt. It’s like a video game with rug burn. No real test for a warrior. Okay, the teachers laid the duty of getting this thing to Hawthorne on you. That’s a sacred trust. You gonna let some poor Thornie up and DIE, just ‘cause you’re too much of a wimp to get it back from me? ‘Cause I’m willing to let whoever it is die, to get you to get up on your hind legs and DO something.”
“Okay,” I shot back. “So, you wanna see who’s more powerful? FINE. You Win. You’re more powerful. I’ve heard about you, from Tee-Bird. You’ve got a rack of copied traits that you can pick and choose from, and you’re not shy about using them. I can’t beat that. You Win.”
“Nah-ah. Not that easy,” the nutcase in the helmet shook his head. “This isn’t about who’s more powerful or tougher. I’m more powerful, no question. And I’m tougher, no question.”
“Then WHY are we out here, freezing our tuckuses off?”
“It’s about who’s the better fighter. I swear by the River Styx that I will use only my skill and born ability against you in this contest. By the halidom of Olympus am I so bound. If you win, you get this trinket.”
“And what do you get?”
“I get your powers.” Even through the helmet, I could see the grin on his face.
Muttering quietly, I said to Widget, “Okay, the important thing is that we get that case to Hawthorne. I’ll play along. You wait until we’re mixing it up, then you get the case and fly OUT of here. I’ll keep him from chasing you. Get Security.”
“Right.” With a flick of my wrist, I produced the manriki-gusari that I usually keep hidden up my sleeve and set it to spinning. I circled Counterpoint a couple of time, carefully feeling for lines of Ki through the area. Counterpoint wasn’t conveniently standing right on top of one, but he was close enough that I might be able to use my ‘whatever steps on the volcano’s toe’ bit to get him away from the case long enough for Widget to get it away from him. I gave him a few speculative flurries with the chain, just to see what he could do with that pig-sticker, and got some very interesting responses in return.
It took some doing, but I finally got Counter-punk over enough to the ley line while I was ‘upstream’ of it, and stomped on the volcano’s toe. As soon as Mister ‘Oh, I’m a Greek GOD’ was off the ground, Widget came zipping in to snag the case. But Counterpoint was already twisting up at the top of his arc, and he sent a bolt of electricity down at Widget. Widge’s ‘supergirl’ harness thingie intercepted most of the bolt, but it blew every fuse in the harness. And from the screech that she let out, I kinda doubt that Widget was feeling very good, either.
Counter-putz landed right next to the case, using the butt of his spear - and Widget’s back - to break his fall.
“HEY!” I yelled, “I thought you said you were bound by the honor of Olympus or sum’thin, and you couldn’t use any powers!”
“I SAID that I wouldn’t use any powers fighting YOU. I didn’t say SHIT about this little bitch.” He punctuated this by slamming Widget’s jaw with the butt of his spear, and then chucking her one-handed out into the trees. “So, we gonna fight, or what?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, Beanie-boy,” I snarled. “We ain’t just gonna fight - I’m gonna take that spear and shove it so far up your ASS you’re gonna think you shit a telephone pole.”
“Now that’s more like it,” he purred. Then we went at it. He gave me a lightning flurry of jabs that kept me dancing just to keep from getting skewered. Normally, I can sense when someone was going to strike at me, but all I got from him was a vague sense of intent. It took me a bit, but I finally figured out that he was concentrating more on the sets of moves than on the individual moves; by the time that the blow actually landed, he was concentrating on the move two stages down the line. But, sucks to be me, while I was putting two and two together to get this, suddenly, he’s got me up against a tree. Just as I’m wrapping my head around THAT, he slams the butt of his spear into my stomach. As I reeled, trying to keep my lunch down, he gloated, “Bang. You’re dead.”
Counter-psycho danced away, laughing. “Well, just like every other American I’ve ever met- all PR, no follow-through.”
“Waddya MEAN, ‘just like every other American’? You sound pretty local, JACK!”
I could see him grin through the helmet. “Hey, just ‘cause I was born in this over-grown Disneyland doesn’t make me one of YOU losers.”
Okay, now I gotta kick his ass, or I may lose my citizenship.
I got a lot more aggressive with the chain and tried to rattle him with thrown cards and needles in the face. Nothing. The cards and needles hit, but he simply didn’t register anything. His concentration was complete.
Up in the tree, N’Dizi watched the fight, barely able to keep up with the action. Chaka seemed to grow tired of trying to get past Counterpoint’s guard, and started power-leaping all over the place, trying to get CP reacting, rather than controlling the fight. It seemed to work, especially after Chaka really put the Tabasco into it. She was jumping all over the place like a Mexican jumping bean on a hot griddle. But then, as she was trying to set Counterpoint up to get in close past his spear, CP suddenly stuck his spear up right into the path that Chaka was descending on. Chaka had just enough time to register this and try to change her arc of descent, when Counterpoint reversed his spear, and she slammed into the butt. Chaka landed hard. As she was trying to get up, Counterpoint put the point of his spear under the edge of her jaw and said, “Bang. You’re dead.”
Barely keeping my anger under control, I scrambled to my feet. “It’s not just Americans,” Counter-Pissant brayed. “You mutants are just as bad as the baselines. You all think that your powers will solve everything. One of my pussy-ass roommates thought that torching anything that came his way would take care of all his problems. Man, am I glad I broke his arm.”
“Excuse me, but aren’t YOU a mutant?”
There was that nutjob smile again. “Yeah, I’m a mutant. But I’m a TOUGH mutant. I’m a mutant who doesn’t trust to stupid magic powers to do everything for him. I’m a mutant who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, or really WORK for things. I’m a mutant who knows how to get things done, not like the rest of you mewling little turds. Take away your oh-so-special powers, and you’re all fucking USELESS! Me? No powers, no weapons, buck naked, stranded in the middle of hostile territory, and I’d STILL be more dangerous than a full column of tanks! And you know why? Because!” he started a flurry and beat me back, “I! LIVE! TO! FIGHT!” He got my chain away from me. “Because I am a WARRIOR!” He opened up again, and he was three steps ahead of me all the way. He used the haft of his spear to knock me off my feet, he kicked me in the teeth, sending me reeling, and pinned me to the ground with the point of the spear. “And you? You’re just a stupid giddy bitch, who thinks that she can be a warrior, just ‘cause she has a talent. I’ve spent CENTURIES honing my skills! You? You bounce around the mat, trusting to that trick of nature. I had you from the second you stepped into this field, and you never saw any of it coming. Bang. You’re dead. And now I take my prize. He reached down and took me by the throat.
Up in the tree, it occurred to N’Dizi that he’d paid that pint of dragon’s venom for nothing. There was no way that Counter-pecker was going to let him ‘ride to the rescue’. Cracker-jack down there was going to put Chaka down, as hard as he could. N’Dizi vaguely wished that he felt sorry for the stupid bitch. The White Boy threw his spear aside and really started whaling on Chaka. Strangely, the girl seemed to be doing better at hand to hand. Or, at least she wasn’t as completely outclassed. She managed to peg Counter-Puke once or twice. But the White Boy just kept pegging Chaka hard, over and over. Counterpoint was whooping it up, saying how great this power was, how it made even a loser like her a contender, and how he was gonna use it all the time. Chaka was bleeding from the mouth and limping. She was nursing one side in a way that suggested that she had a couple of broken ribs.
Still, Chaka was toughing it out, and swatting aside most of Counter-Punk’s strikes.
Then it happened. Counterpoint stopped dead in his tracks, a look of shock on his face. Then he fell flat on his face and started twitching. N’Dizi heard Chaka say, “Shit.” She scrambled over to him, flipped him over and started pressing her fingers into his chest through his turtleneck sweater. “Come on, come on, come ON!” Chaka almost chanted, “Don’t you DO this to me! Not before I can get a fucking REMATCH, anyway!” She pressed her palms onto his chest and started making like CPR. She did the bit where she breathed into his mouth. Then N’Dizi heard the wind rise, and looking up, he spotted two figures flying down towards them. N’Dizi did his best to blend into the tree, and listened carefully.
“Chaka!” Wonderbread-boy said, “Are you all right?” Idiot.
“No!” Chaka said thickly through a mouth full of blood. “This fuckhead overloaded his Yang, and he’s in a full Yin crash, and he may just drag me down with him!”
“No time! Scotty, I need your hand!”
“I need Yang, and I figure your Thunderbird spirit should be able to counter-balance what I take.”
“Are you sure about this?” Wonderbread asked, dubious.
“No, but if I don’t DO something, he’s gonna DIE!” As N’Dizi watched from the tree, Chaka struggled through the pain to orchestrate a delicate transfusion from Thunderbird, Vortex, and when they showed up, Rack, Tarmac, Tesla and Widget. It took a while, and Security showed up well before they were finished.
All seven of them exhausted themselves, but at the end, as the EMTs were loading him onto a gurney, Counterpoint struggled weakly up to a sitting position and asked, “What did you DO to me?”
“I saved your LIFE, you asshole!” Chaka shouted back through the cotton in her mouth. “You almost Yin-crashed to death!”
“What?” Counterpoint snapped.
“Look, you Mimics aren’t the only ones who have to cope with stress, you putz! Ki isn’t like an electrical line that you can plug in and use as much as you want! It has to be balanced! Whenever I use too much Yin - that’s the female side of Ki, my Yang - that’s the male side - goes wonky. It’s like Hot and Cold - you get too hot, and you burn out. You get too cold, and you freeze to death. You were so hot to copy my powers that it never occurred to you to keep track of it, so you kept using the most Yang moves you had! You unbalanced your Ki, your Yin overwhelmed your spent Yang, and you pretty much SHUT DOWN! You owe everyone here your fucking LIFE, SHITHEAD!” Then Chaka stopped and grinned through the red-stained cotton. “Hey, if you really wanna, you can try it again. A big, tough YANG guy like you should be able to handle something like that, right?” She left unspoken, but clearly understood, that if Counterpoint ever used Chaka’s Ki powers again, he’d inevitably overload it again. Yang was all he was. Balance really wasn’t in his nature.
The EMTs got Counterpoint squared away, and secured Chaka and Widget. It was dark before Security finished photographing the grounds, and left, so N’Dizi could get out of the tree and leave.
Back at the Dojo, most of the Tigers were hanging around; some were half-heartedly training, but most were just goldbricking, idling around chatting or reading. But when N’Dizi came in, they were all attention. “So, Deez - how’d it go down?” Alakazam asked.
As he stripped out of his snow gear, N’Dizi spelled out what happened, in detail. “So, you think that Counterpoint will keep still?” Mace asked.
“Probably,” N’Dizi said stolidly.
Alakazam laid a comforting hand on her boyfriend’s shoulder. “Hey, Deez, tough break. But we’ll get more shots at Chaka. So this plan tanked. So what?”
N’Dizi grinned. “What makes you think this plan tanked?” He gave one of the punching bags a combination punch that almost tore the bag off its chain. “It went better than I could have dreamed of!”
It’s so good to have friends. “You mean, you can’t talk?” Ayla asked with relish. Yes, Ayla asked with relish, not mustard. Rich people have weird tastes.
“NO,” I said carefully through the mouth appliance. “Mah teef ah crack’t, an’ they gah thi’ thig heah, whi’ they seh will make the enamm’l on mah teef bine bak t’getha. I kin TAHK, bu’ i’s lahk tawkin’ wi’ a mouf gahd in yo’ mouf.”
My chest was taped due to the two broken, one cracked, ribs, I had a walking cast on one of my legs, and they had a Whateley special dingus to repair my teeth. Even with all my Ki skills, I was still tanked to the gills with pain killers. ‘Pain is all in the mind’, my stinking ASS! But for some reason, several members of Team Kimba, my FRIENDS, found this all too-too amusing. Jade was properly sympathetic, and Hank was too much of a gentleman to heckle a young lady while she was in pain. Chou offered to help with a Tao-guided Chi-booster technique, like a GOOD friend would. But Nikki, Billie and a certain smartass too-rich-for-her-own-good, straight-A, ‘A for Asshole’, ‘A for Asinine’, ‘A for Arrogant’, ‘A for Aggravating’, personage who will go unnamed, at least until that birthday party she’s been planning is over, were all tickled to death at the thought of me not being able to talk. Never mind that I almost got fucking disemboweled! It was all ‘ah, blessed silence’, and ‘finally, getting a word in edgewise’, and liquid diet jokes.
It’s SO GOOD to have friends. (Lord, give me strength!)
Then, as the Good Lord seems to think that I haven’t suffered enough (why lord? Why?), the asshole who gave me the bruises walked up to the table looking like an overgrown little boy whose mother told him to say he was sorry.
“What do YOU want, asshole?” Ayla snarled, doing a complete 180, him and the others grouping around me. Well, as much as they could at a cafeteria table. “Come to gloat? Isn’t that a little crass? But then, finesse was never your purview, was it, Ares?”
Counterpoint ignored Ayla and the rest with regal disregard. “Chaka. You saved my life. I’d beaten you, and you had the ability to win, simply by not doing anything. By the code I live by, I am beholden to you. So, I grant you this boon - you are safe from me, forever. I will never raise arms against you or yours, for all eternity. By the Nine Coils of the River Styx, so I do swear. By the Halidom of Olympus, I am so bound.”
“NAH-AH!” I cut him off. “No way!”
“What?” he asked, confused. “You WANT to face me again? But I am foresworn!”
“Yah,” I agreed, “Yo’r bownd tew ‘not raish ahrmsh againsht me. But Ah’m tokkin’ on th’ MAT! That aynt ‘raishin’ ahrsshs’, that’s PRAKTISH! An’ Ah wanna praktish wit’ yew a LOT!”
He raised one eyebrow and looked at me. “I’m not exactly gentle in the way I practice.”
“An’ Ah’m not eckshaktly delicate! Ah wanna shee yew on the mat, Dood!”
“’Caush yer GOOD, Dood! Yer the BESHT! What you did with that spear was OFF THE HINGE! That ‘Guard-Turn-Parry-Dodge-Spin-Thrust’ move? That was AWESOME! And it was all one fluid move!”
“Toni!” Nikki said aghast, “He almost KILLED you! WHY would you want to spar with him?”
“Because you don’t get better by fighting people who aren’t as good as you, you get better by fighting people who are better than you!” I answered with complete honesty. “And he’s the BEST! One of the problems with being so talented is that you slide, getting by on your talent! Him? He didn’t use any powers to do this to me, it was all pure SKILL! Do you honestly think that I’m NOT gonna jump at the chance to spar with him?”
Counterpoint threw back his head and laughed. “So be it! I’ll see you on the mat, Chaka, and try to drub some discipline in your skull!”
“Just as long as it doesn’t involves latex or French Maid’s outfits - I’ve still gotta DO the French Maid’s outfits. Oh, and don’t get the wrong idea. I still think that you’re a screaming asshole who should be locked up for the safety of all concerned.”
“I appreciate your honesty. And, in the spirit of that honesty, I think that you’re a flea-witted flake who gets by on her talent.”
“And beauty!” I returned with a grin. “Don’t forget that I get by on my beauty! And wit. And charm. And intelligence. And-”
“And humility,” Ayla cut in with a snide, flat tone. “Don’t forget humility.”
“And now that we’ve got all that out of the way,” Billie said in her buzzsaw drill instructor voice, “get the hell away from our table! You’re ruining my appetite!” And given the three heaping trays of vittles she had in front of her, that would have been a tragic waste.
Counterpoint started to say something, and he and Billie locked their eyes. We all tensed for another big fight to get started, but instead, Counterpoint paled like he’d seen his own ghost walk in, flinched badly, and walked away from the table without saying a word.
Watching as he left, I said, “Okay, that was mildly surreal.”
“Sempai!” Jade gasped, “You’re talking normally!”
“I knew that it was too good to last,” Ayla grumped.
“HAH!” I exulted, “I’ve adjusted to the grillwork! Is there ANYTHING that Ki can’t do? Rubberbabybuggybumpers, Rubberbaby buggy bumpers, Rubberbabybuggybumpers, rubbub-bubublempherebub-” suddenly the appliances on my teeth locked together, making it impossible for me to open my mouth.
“Thank you, Koehnes,” Nikki said sweetly, “That was definitely comporting yourself as befits an Attendant upon the Daughter of the Burning Oak.”