December 14, 2006
Caitlin ran hard, bounding over the bench in the quad as she ran full-out for the Crystal Hall. To her eyes the world was a blur, everything not seen with perfect clarity an obstacle as her vision focused entirely on things she could use. The two Exemplars chasing in her wake were running harder than they ever had before, trying to keep up with a lesser exemplar who actually moved like she knew the campus, as though she was born bouncing off of it.
The Crystal Hall was the finish line, but Caitlin had other plans for the geodesic dome once Breaker and Zenith began to catch up on the flat-out sprint. Both were faster than Caitlin until obstacles came into play. The metal-haired girl hit the side of the dome at almost forty miles an hour, abusing reflexes and stamina never meant for a human frame as she bounced straight up the support struts, hardly losing speed as she jumped, climbed, and finally ran along the supports to stop at the top. Mere seconds later, Breaker and Zenith caught her, breathing hard as Caitlin faced the dawn light.
The sun was just over the horizon, and the morning heat felt good to her mind, even if her skin didn’t register the change. She waited for the two Parkour hooligans to catch their breath then grinned wide. She’d been wrong when she told Carson that fighting and teaching were the only two things that made her feel alive. This felt just as good, even if the burning fatigue of a run was absent. The upshot was that she’d been able to run all night long, spooking the Security patrols.
“Where the hell did you learn to run like that?” Zenith gave her an amused eye as Caitlin grinned.
“A little Worm taught me.”
Breaker barked out a laugh. “You met Worm? Holy shit. I watched him and six of his buddies kick Lamplighter’s ass.”
Caitlin smirked, “Heard about that. But I was told you two were the big dog Parkour Hooligans so I decided to come out and say ‘Hi, how ya doing? Catch me if you can.’”
Zenith chuckled. “Nice. God that felt good. Haven’t done that in a while. Not since Halloween anyway.”
“Yeah.” Breaker got a dark look.
Caitlin was in too good a mood to let the conversation go that way. “Hey hey hey, no reminiscing on that shit you two. I admit, I wasn’t here, so I don’t know. Howevah. This is just too good to get lost in crap moodville.”
“You have a point.” Breaker looked over at Zenith. “You think Slappy and Thrash are up by now?”
“You forgot Aquerna, Kuang.” Zenith’s voice was chiding.
“Oh crap, you’re right.” Breaker got a look. “Tell you what, I’ll give my boy a kick in the pants and roust up Thrash. You wake up the Dickinsonian and we met back here in ten, deal?”
“Deal.” Zenith looked at Caitlin. “Pick an empty table. We’re going to introduce you to the Hooligans.”
Caitlin picked her way down the Crystal dome, ignoring the weird looks she got from the other students. She wandered in and got her tray, checking the time. It would be a bit before the other Outcasts rose from the dead to join the world. The Intercom system for the school and Genevieve Beaumont’s voice rang out through the Hall.
“Lifeline, please report to Arena ‘99 staging grounds. Lifeline, your presence is requested at the Arena ‘99 staging ground.”
Caitlin looked over and saw the blonde girl jump up, looking annoyed and begin trudging towards the Holbrook Arena, which housed the track field that the Arena cityscape was built in, as well as the underground annexes of Arena ’77 and ’99. Caitlin chuckled to herself as the girl glowered to herself.
“Vox, Please report to Arena ’99 staging grounds. Vox, your presence is requested at the Arena ’99 staging ground.”
Caitlin chuckled as the kid in question did not materialize. She wandered over, grabbed a tray of food and sat down. She didn’t have to wait long before she heard Thrasher’s voice.
“Breakerman, I know you’re all diggin’ the early morning wakeup, but I swear to you unless she’s a hottie, no chickadee is worth waking up for before the crack of noon if you ain’t dating her,” Thrasher grumped mightily. “I’m still debating removing the hottie qualifier from that one too.”
Caitlin looked over and saw Breaker dragging in the two other Melvillains that were part of the Hooligans. Breaker pointed at Caitlin, and the two other boys blinked.
“You’re forgiven.” Trust Slapdash to forget that Bunker had laid a claim to him.
“Ditto.” Thrasher didn’t bother her, looking. She knew the Bad Seed kid well enough to know that for all his talk, he was a perfect gentleman to the girls he showed any interest in, and more importantly, he understood and respected the power of the word no.
Zenith walked in empty-handed a few moments later, without Aquerna and her usual wide-eyed expression. She sat down and said, “Aquerna had to get up and start in on a task she’s saddled herself with. It’ll probably take her all day, but she needs to do it personally. She’s just worried we’d drop her for not showing one time. As if.”
As everyone got breakfast and settled in, Slapdash looked at Caitlin more carefully. “Why are you wearing three layers of clothing?”
Caitlin snorted. “So I don’t explode when I run.” She surreptitiously pulled off the fingerless glove on her right hand and snapped her fingers, causing an amber spark to flash as she moved. “I have no control over that and it’s triggered by motion.”
“Ew. You in Hawthorne?” Thrasher looked somewhat sympathetic as Caitlin nodded.
“She blames Worm for her training in Parkour,” Zenith smirked.
“Worm and his buddies are scary motherfuckers,” Thrasher nodded sagely. “Very cool to run with, but very scary.”
Caitlin didn’t press that line of commentary. There were too many things that could trip up in that knot of shit to be safe, so she let the topic involving the Dragonslayers die. She only dropped Worm’s name to establish her credentials as a Traceur, one of the Parkour experts.
“So yeah, word got to me that you all did the Parkour runs for a bit, so I scouted Breaker and Zenith, I got the names right?” Caitlin despised lying to the kids, but they needed to snap back into the game as much as she did. When Slapdash nodded she continued, “So like I was saying I scouted Breaker and Zenith here and hit ‘em for an impromptu run. Thankfully the people espousing great relief that you were no longer fast-moving road hazards failed to catch on that I wanted to start in.”
Zenith leaned forward. “How are you at teaching Parkour? Anna thinks she needs a lot of training, and I can’t do it unless I can tap into someone else’s skillset. And let’s face facts. We’re not good role models for her. Breaker is hard to follow. I use my Database knack too much to be a training aid for anyone else. Thrash and Slappy are too goofy to be good instructors.”
Caitlin almost snorted soda through her nose at Zenith as the others mock-glared at her. “I might be able to manage something, yeah. Just don’t try to get me to promise too much just yet. The Magic Department is clawing at my time and sanity.”
Slapdash snorted, “Mages, all willy-nilly weirdness and very little solid reality. At least I can build something that works.”
“Amen, brother.” Breaker and Slapdash pounded fists.
“Don’t let your sweetie-girl hear you talking like that, Slappy. Bunker will feed you your toes hearing stuff like that,” Thrasher grinned at the Grunt.
“Mages and Psychics are not the same thing.”
“So says the guy who is dating a psychic freshman,” Zenith smiled wickedly.
Caitlin grinned, “So introductions? I’m Caitlin, AKA Eldritch.”
Thrasher looked at her. “Oh yeah you’re the chickadee who duct-taped Jay-Arm’s head in a toilet! Nice work!”
Breaker gave Slapdash a look. “Jay-Arm’s head in a toilet? You stuck Nephandus’ head… in a toilet.” His face screwed up with frustration. “And you didn’t take pictures?”
“I kinda had my adoptive father breathing down my neck at the time.”
“Get this, Caitlin here’s foster Dad is ol’ man Bardue,” Thrasher chuckled.
Zenith smirked, “So long as you don’t wig out like you did yesterday no worries.”
Caitlin looked over. “Fuck I forgot my UV band.” She got a sour look.
“You’re an Ultraviolent?” Slapdash gave her a wary look.
“I’m a class-two rager. I don’t remember a damn thing about my combat final yesterday.”
Zenith gave her an odd grin and said to the others, “I wouldn’t worry too much. She hangs out with the Outcast crowd.”
“Just what that pack of yahoos needs, another berserker.” Breaker shrugged and held his hand out. “Welcome to Whateley.”
Caitlin tapped his hand and bowed out of the shake. “Sorry, I don’t shake hands until I am sure random mystic oogie-boogie isn’t going to jump off my arm and electrocute you.”
“Fun.” Zenith looked over at the others. “All right folks, I think our new friend here is a sign from the heavens. It looks like Teach isn’t going to come back, so we have to make a decision. Continue on, welcome a new victim, and get on with the runs; or we can say good night, it’s been fun, but it ain’t the same without Teach screaming imprecations of damnation.”
“Slappy would have been the one screaming.”
“Back off Thrasher, I’ve been taking my meds!”
“You wanna go?”
“Bring it you Bad Seed sissy.”
The two boys bolted from the Crystal Hall, leaving their trays and several stunned students behind as the pair hared off for their own impromptu footrace.
“I’d say that’s two votes to keep the movement going.” Breaker watched, bemused.
“Teach did always say that which does not kill us only makes us wish for painkillers. I’m in,” Zenith nodded at Breaker. “And I know Aquerna’s going to want in.”
Breaker smirked, “Welcome to the Hooligans. Your straitjacket will be issued shortly. Our code is simple: move fast, move hard, and never ever look back. We’re the ones who show people what we’re capable of, and we have a solemn duty laid down upon us by our mighty teacher to fulfill.”
“I’ll bite, what’s the duty?” Caitlin had to stop herself from grinning maniacally.
“To drive everyone loitering around the campus completely insane trying to stop us from buzzing them at every opportunity.” Zenith said it with a completely straight face.
“We’re not doing it right if the rest of the kids aren’t staring or cussing at us,” intoned Breaker solemnly.
“This is gonna be fun,” Caitlin grinned.
Caitlin got done with the hooligans, got changed, then headed right back to the Crystal hall to catch the Outcasts. Jericho was walking toward the traditional table with his light tray full of nothing but a dejected look. Caitlin walked over, confiscated the tray, and dumped the leafy, sparse contents.
“Hey! That was my food!”
“No, that was a self-imposed torture regimen. Get back in line.” She handed him the tray.
“I’m trying to lose weight.”
“And I’m going to show you how to do so without doing the starve-gorge-guilt routine that goes nowhere.” Caitlin walked the blind boy over to the line of food again, carefully selecting two chicken drumsticks, skinless of course. She then proceeded to direct her devisor buddy to the eggs whereupon he was instructed to get one scoop of scrambled, two bananas, and then led him over to the dessert line.
Jericho was rather confused by the end. “Okay I understand the chicken and stuff, but why are we over by the sweet stuff section?”
“Because, me compadre, I am going to tell you the most evil secret of all.” Caitlin grinned as she stopped at the tray full of green Jell-o cubes. “Ta-da! Jell-o, the secret to not feeling starved at the end of a meal.”
Jericho blinked. “How does that work?”
“Easy, bud. Jello has crap for calories, so it isn’t much more than protein-jellied water with some sugar spooned in nutritionally.” Caitlin took the opportunity to dump a fair pile of the jiggling goo on his tray. “Howevah… Jello fills you up, so even if you’re not getting the calories, your body isn’t in starvation mode. So the calories get burned rather than getting stored for a rainy day.”
“This is how the military fills out the chow hall food so the recruits on the diet plans don’t realize they’re being fed three-digit calorie counts.”
“Yeah, but they’re exercising constantly.”
“And thus does the light shine down upon the blind one and illuminate him.”
Jericho scowled, “I think I liked you better when you were cranky.”
Caitlin grinned, “That’s the spirit. You’ll thank me later, after the urge to kill me passes.”
Diamondback and Razorback were both in line, awaiting their respective allotments of dead thing as patiently as two carnivores are capable, which translated to “not very.”
The heaping trays of meat were somewhat less than normal, but Caitlin did note what had replaced them with interest. Eggs were cheaper than sides of beef, after all. “So I see they decided to put you two on the meat-lite diet.”
Diamondback studied Caitlin’s cheerful expression intently. She turned to Jericho. “Who is this interloper, and why doth she defile my morning by being perky?”
Jericho grumbled and then Razorback dropped his thermos he’d forgotten in the room on the table. Jericho immediately picked it up and moved rapidly to the beverage dispensers, chanting the word “java” over and over again, rapidly.
Caitlin signed back. She made it up as she went, which only made Razorback’s quizzical, then confused expression all the more priceless. He made a whining-chirping noise at Diamondback and pointed at the sparky one with a wounded chirp.
“Caitlin, what did we tell you about signing in languages that don’t exist?”
“Makes sense to me.”
“Yes, but you’re also nuttier than an almond bar. Speaka-de-eengleesh please,” Diamondback smirked as she coiled around her seat, settling in to eat.
“Whine whine whine whine whine,” Caitlin chuckled. “Next thing you’re gonna tell me that me being cheerful hurts.”
“It kinda does dear. Even when you’re happy you’re freaking intense about it.”
Diamondback looked at her. “Don’t be, I like this a helluva lot better than your usual ‘restraint of rage’ situation.”
“Oh my God, the Rage bus is parked, and someone’s a bit too damn giddy for words.” Deimos sounded amused and snarky at the same time as she and her sister sat at the table. “How the hell do you wake up and be cheerful?”
“I don’t sleep anymore.” Caitlin gave a weak smile.
“No sleep?” Jericho looked aghast as he sat down and took a slug from his coffee thermos. “That’s blasphemy!”
Razorback signed again.
“Razorback says that perkiness is outlawed by the Geneva Convention.” Diamondback nodded sagely in Caitlin’s direction.
“All right all right no more bouncing at breakfast,” Caitlin smirked. She was honestly feeling somewhat good this morning, which was a nice switch.
“Jimmy Trauger, please report to Holbrook Arena for Combat Final. Jimmy Trauger, please report to Holbrook Arena.”
-I feel sorry for the poor schmuck who has to play with him. Jimmy’s a nightmare in the combat sims.- Razorback looked up at the speakers, shaking his head, glad it wasn’t him having to face his buddy.
“Razorback, please report to Holbrook Arena for Combat Final. Razorback, please report to Holbrook arena.”
Everyone at the table went silent, staring at Razorback, who let out a long sigh in resignation and stood.
“Welcome to the Crash.” Caitlin, Jericho and Diamondback got up as well, followed by the Fury Twins who took a moment to decimate their trays.
Jericho shook his head. “I hope the construction crew’s hot stuff because this one’s gonna be bad unless Razor can beat Jimmy to the spindle, fast.”
Caitlin followed quietly as Jericho led the way up towards the Outcasts’ particular spot they’d chosen, for the first time realizing that Hank Declan, one of the Kimbas, and Chou Lee were both at the Kimba spot not more than a few seats away. She really needed to start paying attention to what was going on around her again. Eight months before she’d have been aware of her surroundings in a way that often left accusations of being an Esper at the very least in her wake, when it had all been training.
Chou saw them and she motioned to Hank and the two of them quietly walked over to the Outcasts as Razorback and Jimmy Trauger’s MID cards popped up on the screens.
|Ratings::||Exemplar - 3, Regen - 4+, Esper - 1, GSD Severe, Martial Arts - Aikido
WARNING! Class 3 Rager.
WARNING! Class 2 Speedster
Deadly Force Pre-Authorized
Heavy Weapons pre-authorized
Criminal file DC-97-KXD-AU
Note: Not authorized on any commercial passenger flight without Law Enforcement escort
|Techniques:||Claws, Teeth, Fastball, Suicide Slide, Spinal Tap, Whirlwind, Flurry|
|Backup/Team:||Outcast Corner, Overwatch Defense Force|
|Ratings::||Shifter 6, Esper 2, Psi Null
Deadly Force Pre-Authorized
Heavy Weapons pre-authorized
|Techniques:||Claws, Teeth, size alteration, miscellaneous shifter effects.|
|Backup/Team affiliation:||None listed.|
“Shifter six? What’s that mean?” Chou looked at the ratings curiously.
Caitlin shrugged. “Shifter Six means Jimmy can pretty much ignore the laws of reality when he goes form-picking. A seven would mean he could shift into inorganic stuff, as well as being able to mimic organics.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.” Phobos looked on, interested. “Although I’ve heard Jimmy can do some rude things with that.”
“Jimmy Trauger has, in the past, demonstrated the ability to mimic other physically based powers and some blaster effects. There’s no telling what he could do.”
“Blaster effects?” Jericho looked curious.
Caitlin looked over. “He turned into some kind of draconic thing that secreted binary napalm in his mouth to pull a flamethrower effect. We shall say that the Warhammer 40K crowd on campus has been expressly forbidden from handing him a Tyranid manual.”
“Hence the deadly force authorization?” Chou looked thoughtful. “I wouldn’t think that was legal.”
“It’s not,” Caitlin glowered at the screen.
“So why doesn’t anyone fight the marker in court?” Diamondback looked more curious than worried.
“They have been, for years,” Caitlin shrugged. “The cases have all been bogged down in legal proceedings and red tape by the Department of Justice, an effort supported by the UN MCO administration and their butt-buddies over at Goodkind Industries.”
“I’m kinda glad Ayla isn’t around for this conversation. She’d be arguing that some mutants are dangerous enough to need it.”
“Some are dangerous, and psychotic enough to warrant it,” Caitlin nodded towards Razorback below. “I talked to him a bit about it, and he’s not fussed because he knows what happens when he goes off the hook. Plus Razor’s not a US citizen, so the laws are a bit fuzzy.”
“Razorback has never shown any sign of all the horror stories we’ve heard.” Chou spoke too soon as an inhuman shriek erupted from the arena. They’d missed the opening moves, and when they looked down, Razorback was tearing at Jimmy’s face like he wanted it for a lapwarmer.
Jimmy’s response was to melt into a giant blob of translucent bluish goo as the blood and bits of his insides seemed to flow and slither back towards him to be re-absorbed.
Chou went a little pale. “EW!”
Jericho nodded to Chou and spoke quietly. “Everyone thinks I’m insane to room with him, but Razorback’s a good person. Even if you have to make sure you have a means on hand to put him down.”
Jimmy engulfed Razorback. They could clearly see the massive, black-mottled form struggling inside his opponent’s most notorious shape, or shapeless as it were. The blob form was what he’d used to try to eat G-Force the year before.
“There he goes.” Deimos winced along with her sister and Diamondback as their friend lost it. AAAll three of them began to twitch slightly as their empathic talents immediately and clearly pickkked up on the ball of primal fury below in all-out slaughter mode.
The blob of Jimmy seemed to vibrate and shake as the form inside began thrashing wildly, then churning its insides until the black, spined raptor literally exploded out from inside the boy’s gooey form, ripping and tearing ineffectually at the flowing thing, healing acidic burns all over at a pace that reminded Chou of Sara when she got hurt.
“That has to hurt. A lot,” Hank mused as they watched Razorback resort to ripping handfuls of Jimmy and flinging them about, scattering pieces of the amoeboid monster around the arena until it retreated down a sewer. The beast that was Jack shrieked at the grate and began chasing pedestrians. It was a lot like watching a Jurassic Park scene with the dinosaurs rampaging, except this was rather realistic by comparison.
“Is he doing that deliberately?”
Caitlin shook her head. “No, he’s fighting purely on instinct. Ragers vary but when the threat’s gone they move on to whatever victim is handy. It’s kinda like I don’t remember anything I did to you or Hippolyta yesterday.” She shifted a bit. The pistol she’d confiscated from trout was jamming into her back uncomfortably. She needed a holster, or to put it somewhere until it could be returned to Cat’s family.
Hank’s jaw dropped. “I noticed. At first I thought you were just psycho. It was like fighting someone with a plan.”
Caitlin shook her head. “No, rather like our rager buddy down there, if I go off I fight purely by rote and reflex.”
“Remind me not to fight you sane them, you dislocated my arm.”
“If I was sane at the time I would have just waited for the timer to run out. I don’t like hurting people without a damn good reason.”
Chou looked over at Caitlin curiously. “But you were going to gut Nephandus.”
“He was literally trying to turn me into a mind-slave. Hell yes I was going to gut him!”
Jericho and the Outcasts snapped their eyes over. “Nephandus did WHAT?”
Caitlin waved away his concern. “I took care of it Jericho. He’s not likely to try again for a while.”
Jericho nodded. “I’m still going to have a talk with him about it.”
Chou stopped, and jerked, the Tao thrumming in her mind about something. “Jericho, you know me and what I am about, so trust me when I say you must not interfere with Nephandus. He has a role to play and you squashing him would merely remove the actions he needs to take from play, even if they are distasteful.” That last part was almost a muttered growl.
Jericho looked like he was about to retort, then stopped. “This time, yes. Let me know when it’s clear because then all bets are off.”
“Holy shit, Jimmy turned into Godzilla!”
All the eyes snapped over to the combat final in progress as Jimmy had become a miniature version of the new Godzilla monster and was tromping after Razorback. There was an inhuman shriek as a small, mottled black raptor-critter climbed straight up jimmy’s leg and was making a god-honest effort to kill the massive beast.
“Rack-of-shifter anyone?” Impossibly, Jericho was eating popcorn as his buddy tore massive chunks from Jimmy’s hide.
“Ew.” Chou did not find the spectacle so amusing. “So what was that you were doing with all the bouncing around during your final?”
Caitlin shrugged. “Well, I’m assuming you’re not talking about my exceptional powers of bouncing off car hoods so I’ll venture you’re talking about the Parkour running.”
Chou nodded. “It was rather impress…”
Pretty much everyone stopped cold and went white as they saw a twisting and thrashing Jimmy T finally get hold of the comparatively miniature raptor in his mouth, and toss it up. Razorback disappeared down Jimmy’s gullet. The shifter paused, then began tromping towards the spindle, occasionally pausing for some unknown reason. It became apparent that all was not well when the mini-godzilla abruptly shuddered, then fell on top of a couple buildings, crushing them in the process.
The Outcasts were all up, leaning over the edge of the arena as the giant lizard began shrieking in agony, shuddering and thrashing wildly as something was going catastrophically wrong. Chou went pale as the dinosaurian Jimmy teetered, fell over again, and began bellowing in agony as the massive form began shrinking. There was a ripping and tearing noise as Razorback tore his way out of Jimmy’s hide and scrambled up to the still-massive head, tearing the eyes out of the giant monster’s skull with his claws.
Chou was pale and on the verge of barfing as Jimmy lurched away from the seemingly tiny berserker, smashing his head blindly against the nearby buildings to dislodge the little nightmare. Jimmy’s own massive claws raked at his head, seeking the smaller foe, and found him. The raptor-like Outcast got thrown in a blind arc, bouncing off the newly re-installed protective overhead field, and crashing through a rooftop and the intervening four floors with enough force to reduce a normal person to Jell-O.
Jimmy rapidly reduced in size and the watching, quiet throng of students was treated to his rarely-seen natural form, a boy unremarkable save for the rivulets of blood and gore re-attaching itself to him and being re-absorbed as Jimmy consciously forced his wounds to close, and his eyes to grow back through the pain. “Ow.”
An ululating shriek answered his simple statement as Razorback was already up and running, streaking in on all fours. The black-mottled monster was still bleeding from wounds where bits of detritus had impaled him, slowly being forced out of his body as his regenerative powers rejected the foreign matter. As each piece fell away the wound seemed to close like water flowing into a gap.
“Shit.” Jimmy’s body pulsed and seemed to inflate as he grew to nearly twelve feet tall, almost as broad and covered in shiny black armor plates. Massive claws replaced fingers as he swatted his crazed buddy to the ground hard. Blood flew and guts trailed as Razorback flopped on the ground shrieking madly, seemingly mortally wounded. The massive, armored thing that was Jimmy turned and began running towards the spindle, trying to put some distance between himself and his opponent. This fight was going nowhere and getting there fast.
“Oh wow. That’s… Isn’t anyone going to DO anything?” Chou was rather shocked that this was allowed to continue. Caitlin was letting out a low whistle as Razorback screamed again and rolled to his feet, moving forward with a slow, jerky gait that became more fluid as his injuries healed.
The raptor-like Outcast charged and leapt, covering a thirty foot leap in a little over a second, driving Jimmy forward, face crashing to the concrete. Razor began futilely tearing at the armored plates for a moment before Jimmy swatted him through a building, lurching back to his feet and pounding away at the distance, closer to the spindle.
Jericho looked back at the still-pale Bladedancer and shook his head. “Right now it’s too dangerous for anyone risking getting between those two. Razorback won’t stop, and Jimmy’s probably sufficiently freaked out that he’d kill anything that comes in reach. The only two people likely to live through being down there are Jimmy and Razor.”
Chou blinked, somewhat disbelieving as she watched Razorback come shrieking out of the building he’d been whipped through, claws out and shrieking. This time, blood flowed from both combatants as Jimmy’s massive arms tore into Razor’s hide, and the speedster’s reflexes allowed him the time to dig under the plates and along the joints to tear pieces from the vulnerable parts. There was a lot of animal shrieking, roaring and crunching sounds as Jimmy finally lost his cool.
The eruption of violence in the arena was horrific to watch, and the few ANTs in the area died almost immediately as Jimmy’s form erupted with fanged mouths, lashing spines and razor-tipped tentacles dripping venom. Razorback shrieked as the tentacles impaled him, the spines slashed him with little effect, and the mouths started chewing on him. The Speedster in turn began tearing and biting with everything he had at a pace that was almost impossible to follow. The two tore at each other, regrowing skin, muscles, teeth, limbs and eyes as they relentlessly assaulted one another.
Chou felt numb as she watched the nightmare below. There was literally nothing that wasn’t a mutant, or the Tao, that could stand up to either of them when they got going. The few ANTs that came near Razorback were torn open without warning or mercy, and as the two alternately ran, were thrown, or rolled tearing at each other through the rapidly deteriorating cityscape, it was rapidly apparent that both of them were simply deadly to be within a hundred yards of. They didn’t even notice the destruction around them. They were each too focused on their opponent, the one thing neither could seem to destroy.
As the seconds turned to minutes Chou’s horrified fascination turned introspective as she reached for the Tao, and watched the two combatants below. She knew that each was too closely matched to the other for either to overpower his opponent. Jimmy Trauger was a powerhouse, a walking weapon that could potentially be used as a siegebreaker in even a modern war. Razorback was primed to kill things that defied the natural laws of the world. Things like Jimmy. But he had limits. Neither one could, by himself, do enough damage to the other. But Chou got the impression that were anyone else in the arena with either, there would have already been a clear victor. And not all of the possibilities would have worked in the favor of the two rampaging boys.
It was the battle between thought and instinct, order and chaos, strength and speed. The two boys were in balance. Razorback was a hard combatant, all aggression and force, where JT took a softer, but equally devastating angle adapting and reacting to the situations to demolish a hard opponent. In many ways it was like watching two martial artists fight, using Aikido and Jujitsu in a very twisted way.
As she sensed things coming to a head, Jimmy Trauger’s massive form ceased moving. The armored plates merged and flowed into one another, creating a seamless, solid shell, leaving nothing exposed. It also rendered him immobile, and Razorback toppled him easily on his back, and spent a few minutes futilely tearing at the seemingly invulnerable form. Jimmy’s gambit worked.
As Razorback slowly regained his senses, he slumped, drained, tired, starving from exertion, and wondering what happened as he considered the shattered cityscape around him. When he felt the incessant scraping and pounding abate, Jimmy looked out of his shell and melted back to a more human form.
“This is going nowhere.” Jimmy felt weak and was slumping as much as his opponent. “And we have only a minute and a half left before we default. How do you want to play this?”
Razorback chirped slightly and shrugged, then looked back at his friend, contemplating continuing the fight, and realized he was exhausted. He held out a hand, palm up then slapped a fist to the palm three times.
Jimmy nodded. As Chou, Caitlin, Diamondback, and all of the other students in the arena watched incredulously…
Jimmy Trauger and Razorback played Rock/Paper/Scissors to determine the victor. When they finished three runs, Razorback simply turned, and lurched towards the exit, weakly following his stomach towards the Crystal Hall. Jimmy turned, got to the spindle, and claimed his victory, immediately following Razorback to the same place, for the same reason.
Hank Declan shook his head, disbelieving. “Tell me I did not just see them roshambo for victory.”
Chou let out a slight smile, still somewhat pale from watching the gorefest below. “It worked, didn’t it?”
“What’s up with those three?” Hank pointed at the trio of Phobos, Deimos and Diamondback.
Jericho piped finally, “Don’t bug them for a few minutes. Those three are empaths, and they’ve been keying off Razorback since the fight started, and they’re heterodyning because they’re getting progressively more worked up. Do not speak to them, do not touch them, and by god do not startle them.”
Chou looked sharply at Jericho. “Are we in any danger?”
Jericho shook his head slowly. “I don’t think so, but I’ve been watching the Fury Twins rather closely. They’re mimetic ragers, so if they get too big a burst of emotion that they’re not prepped for, we could have a Fury event.” He was palming a pair of flat devises in his hands, twirling the disks over his fingers. “Diamondback being in this close proximity just heterodynes things more, so I need everyone to just stay calm as you please, and the three of them will come down off the rage rush Razorback was putting out. Just be glad he wasn’t raging closer or we’d be in for the fight of our lives.”
Hank looked over. “They aren’t that bad are they?”
Jericho nodded. “When the twins go berserk, they conjoin into a reality shredding nightmare everyone calls Fury. Anything can happen, the chair can turn to cheese, your bones might turn to Jell-O, gravity might invert. Cap that off with the fact that independently either of them can generate an energy field around their claws that can pretty much rip through PK bricks and Density changers, and you have a problem. Regeneration fails in the face of that energy field.”
Hank blinked. “Through PK?” He suddenly remembered the story about Phobos and Ayla’s arm.
“Hate to say it Lancer, but PK bricks are actually one of the easiest power sets to punk.” Jericho looked over thoughtfully. “Well, if you’re dealing with a PK that has the mental acuity of a bag of Whoppers. You don’t have to worry so much.”
Caitlin snorted, “If he wasn’t smarter than most of them I doubt he would have won yesterday.”
“No hard feelings?” Hank extended a hand.
“None whatsoever.” Caitlin politely declined the handshake. “I’m glad you did stop me. Things would have gotten really ugly if someone had paired off Hippolyta with Powerhouse or someone with more glory hog impulse than thought.”
Hank nodded, “You broke Hippy’s neck.”
Caitlin winced, “She okay?”
Chou nodded, “None the worse for wear, save for wounded pride. Hippolyta regenerates at about a six, on top of being an Exemplar.”
Jericho nodded. “Honestly I think the only people who heal faster than Hippy are Tennyo, Sara and Razor when he’s rampaging.”
“How does that work?” Chou asked. “I mean, he’s listed as a regen 4, but he was healing nearly instantly from things that would have slowed Sara down some.”
Hank nodded. “A little deception on the MID.”
Caitlin shook her head, “Class Three rager.”
Hank looked at her funny. “What?”
“Powers Theory class, second year, or mandatory learning for anyone rooming with a berserker.” Jericho flipped the disks over in his hands more as the three girls were visibly starting to breathe normally. “Rager Threes get more powerful the madder they get. So Razor gets a bit faster and stronger when he goes apeshit, but not as much as most. What really spikes is his regeneration, to the point where when he’s so mad all he sees is a red haze and his brain shuts down almost nothing can stop him.”
“You said almost,” Chou looked on curiously.
Caitlin spoke up, “Sonics. They’re his bane. Only reason we share that is because Razorback would rather get taken down than kill someone without intending to.”
“It’s also how you shut down a Fury Event.” Jericho was still paying close attention to the trio of empaths. “Or at least one way. Most other methods would require lengthy hospitalizations.”
“We’re a bit berserker-heavy aren’t we?” Caitlin smirked wryly.
“And a bit brick heavy.” Jericho slowly put the disks back into the pouch he’d extracted them from. “I think me’n Razorback are the only two who can’t deadlift half a ton or more.”
“So what’s a class-two speedster anyway?” Hank was thoughtful and curious.
Caitlin shrugged. “Speedster classes are more for law enforcement and military use. It’s there to tell them how tight a cordon they need to deal with a particular speedster. The faster they are, the higher the class. If you got someone like Mach-5 who can crank out two hundred miles an hour or more, chasing him is more dangerous than trying to get him mid-crime.”
“How fast can you run?” Chou asked.
“About thirty-eight,” Caitlin shrugged. “Exemplars are still limited by the mechanics and physics of a human body, so the actual running speed between exemplars past three doesn’t really scale the way strength and stamina do. Mostly it’s a factor of you can only run so fast and be so strong before it becomes a liability in a footrace. Exemplar sixes and sevens have to train themselves to keep a lower pace because they’re strong enough to moonwalk-bounce every time their feet kiss ground. Not a fun way to travel from what I understand.”
“That’s not something one would expect.” Chou was thoughtful. “Doesn’t his MID list him as a Speedster with Exemplar?”
“It’s all in how they achieve the effect.” Jericho finally stopped watching the girls for signs of dangerous behavior. “Most speedsters are Energizers and they do it one way, Warpers compress space to achieve the speed effect, Razorback does it on pure muscle power. When he hits all four like that he can kiss over a hundred miles an hour for a couple minutes.”
“I’ve done a spider crawl, and it doesn’t add speed.” Caitlin looked curious. “In fact if you’re built to walk on two legs using your arms is more of a pain in the ass.”
“His whole body’s rigged like an animal, only he has dislocating joints in his hips and shoulders. His arms and legs pop out of one socket and into another when he’s on all fours. He’s strong, but he’s built for speed over power. Most of his strength comes from his sheer size and how he’s built.”
“How come his arms and legs don’t keep popping out of joint at random then?”
“The ball sockets are partitioned, so that when he relaxes the right muscles they come apart. When the joint resockets, the muscles that hold them in place are the strongest ones in his body, hands down.” Jericho shook his head. “Mechanically it should not work, but the Exemplar effect does some weird shit on occasion.”
“Sounds painful.” Hank was semi-watching the newest battle royale below.
“Apparently it doesn’t hurt him at all.” Jericho leaned back. “Although it makes him an utter nightmare to put in a joint lock. He just twists around and comes back to eat your face.”
“Fun.” Caitlin looked over. “You three okay?”
Phobos, Deimos and Diamondback all nodded a bit, but the Fury twins still looked agitated. “Razorback on a tear is a bit… intense.” Deimos was the first one to speak.
“Speaking of which, where is he?” Hank looked around for the mottle rager, not seeing him.
“He’s in the Crystal Hall with Jimmy by now, and they’re both in the process of gorging themselves stupid.” Diamondback slithered over and settled into a seat as she spoke, her voice somewhat strained.
“How do you know that?”
“When Jimmy or Razorback cut loose they blow through calories faster than most Energizers or Warpers. They’re both killing cows right now.” Jericho stood up. “Now, since the ladies are a mite over-stimulated, may I suggest we move along and check up on those two to make sure they didn’t seriously hurt themselves ripping on each other?”
Cait nodded, an action mirrored by the others as the lot of them left the Holbrook Arena and all of the emotional mayhem behind for a while.
Delarose’s expression was somewhat murderous as he continued to peruse the contents of the file he’d signed for. The courier delivered the file as requested, he’d signed for it, and he’d begun to read. The information was more than he’d bargained for, and certainly more than he’d ever wanted to know about the ex-range hand Erik Mahren. He could have gone forever quite comfortably for the rest of his life without reading the contents of Dx-211-23-DS-Foxtrot.
Franklin Delarose put on his headset, muttering to himself as he keyed the channel. “Everhart you awake yet?”
“I am now. What is it, Chief?” She sounded groggy as anyone should be in the mornings.
“I need to talk to you ASAP about this file I’m looking at. While educational I fail to see what the bloody purpose of granting me access to this was.”
“I’m on my way.”
Six more minutes of perusing the thick file and giving the evil-eye to Buxton and Trout every time they so much as cracked his door still didn’t tell him how this was relevant to the original stated purpose of helping with information meant to curtail aggressive behavior on the part of Erik Mahren towards the children. Instead it was more akin to reading an official, government horror novel.
Everhart stepped into the office, closing the door rather firmly on Lieutenant Trout without preamble. “Beat it, Trout. Me and the boss need to talk.”
“I see you’re learning how to deal with Third Platoon.”
Sam shrugged. “I don’t like it, Chief, it feels wrong to simply shut down one of the platoon leaders.”
“Has to be done. Third Platoon needs to be kept firmly in check so they don’t step too far outside the line.”
“You want me to be your hatchetman like Mahren?”
Delarose shook his head. “That would hardly be an appropriate use for your skills, or your reputation and record. We’re going to let Caitlin become the bane of Third’s existence. She knows what needs to be done, how to do it, and if something a bit more official needs to happen, I’ll turn Smythe loose on them.”
“Why don’t you ever take a direct hand?”
“Because Sam, I only get involved directly in third’s fuckups when they actually step across that line. Generally speaking, so long as they don’t see me twitch at them, they know they haven’t gone too far. The staff can take care of their departments, and Third knows they get no protection when they cross the teachers and admin. Hence why Mahren was always hell on wheels when he came in here.”
“Why do I get the feeling you’re not going to tell me why they’re afraid to cross you?”
“Because I’m not. That threat is reserved for the idiots who think they can exploit my school.” He looked down at the file. “This thing is probably one of the most foul after-action reports I have ever seen in my life. Regardless of the fact that I was not appraised of the nature of Erik Mahren’s unit before now, and the fact that it explains a good deal that he never talked about…”
Delarose looked Sam in the eye very carefully. “This does not have anything to do with Erik being a danger to the kids, except to give me a good idea what nightmares the man lived with every night.”
Sam shrugged. “It doesn’t have anything to do with that, quite frankly.”
“Then why would Colonel Pearson think that I would find this relevant?”
“Ask yourself Chief, if you needed to give someone a piece of official intel that you couldn’t, how would you go about it?”
Delarose considered. “I’d make sure there was a relevant issue or threat pertaining to it that made the file Need to Know.”
Sam nodded. “Erik was just an excuse, boss. The real danger is in those sheets, not in the men carrying out the mission. But the fact that Erik is sort of a wind-up destruction ball with a bad reputation for being murderous towards mutants in a mutant school?”
Delarose nodded slowly. “I despise this roundabout bullshit. It’s one of the reasons I retired when I did. How likely is this information to be valid currently?”
Sam looked Delarose in the eyes. “How many mutant kids disappear every month without a trace?”
Sam nodded. “I don’t think the threat is so flagrant as what’s in there anymore. Let’s just say there were a few incidents with the fifth marines and two SEAL teams that rather pointedly got the message into circulation that this kind of thing would not be tolerated.”
Delarose got the message. “So they’re probably being more subtle about it. Dammit, this just confirms the nightmare everyone’s been speculating on.” He handed the file to Sam. “Officer Everhart, destroy that file immediately, no one is to see the contents, to include other security personnel. I will brief Carson on what she needs to know later. I agree with Hijacker’s after-action assessment. This would cause issues on a scale we’re really not set up to deal with in the States.”
Sam nodded and took the file. The paper seemed to dissolve and disintegrate as the nanite swarm surrounding the young-seeming woman began to disassemble the file at the molecular level. After a few seconds, she was done, and nothing remained for someone to find.
Delarose nodded once. “You are dismissed for now, Everhart. I’ll holler at you when I get some more information on whoever has been pilfering my files.”
Jericho was confused as Caitlin left the Crystal Hall after a few minutes of watching Jimmy and Razorback eat. “What’s with Caitlin? I thought she’d stick around.”
Phobos shook her head quietly. “Something got to her, bad.”
Diamondback wasn’t looking at the group as she watched a very smug Imperious stand from his meal. Counterpoint and Stygian went with him. “You fucking cocksucker.”
Deimos was eyeballing Stygian. “Ghosts. Stygian did his ghost schtick on her.”
“I’m gonna kill that sonofabitch,” Jericho was growling as he started after.
Diamondback caught him. “Wait. Let’s follow him, see where he goes.”
-He’s going after Caitlin is where he’s going.- Razorback signed.
“Then he has utterly-” Phobos began.
“-bitten off more than he can chew,” Deimos finished.
“They’re right, Joe.” Diamondback looked at him. “You know and I know Cait isn’t saying everything, she’s holding back, and he’s too stupid to realize this.”
“That’s fine. We go anyway,” Jericho nodded. “If he goes after Cait, and we think he’s going to win, we dogpile his ass.”
The Outcasts nodded, and a strong voice rang out next to them. “If you’re going, we’re going.” Hank and Chou stood with Jimmy Trauger.
Jericho grinned evilly. “Titans, move out.”
Caitlin sat in her room breathing slowly, regaining her calm. She couldn’t show it but watching Razor and Jimmy rip each other apart and then eat desperately afterwards had set off an atrocious case of the shakes. It had reminded her of Killbot the one time she had seen that particular horror. Killbot was one of the Dragonslayer misses. Their coordination and firepower exploitation never could penetrate the monstrosity’s skin, and seeing it eat the three newbies they’d had at the time... Watching Jimmy and Razor frantically ripping food apart had brought it all home.
It had been almost like she could hear the ghosts of the dead screaming in her ear as she watched the two eating. She could almost hear Skid and Pyre begging for mercy, begging for help. She could hear the new kibble, Tanner, who hadn’t even gotten a codename yet screaming imprecations.
She took another deep breath, fighting back the flashbacks she didn’t want to relive. She’d managed to get away from the group without too much distress, but she knew Phobos, Deimos and Diamondback had all felt everything washing off of her.
Caitlin moved from her position, standing with her forehead against the wall, and looked around her. The bed was calling and she almost let out a pained whimper as she contemplated the bliss of sleep that seemed denied her. She wanted nothing more than to slip under the covers and succumb to mental oblivion for a while. She had to settle for having regained most of her composure as she trudged out of the Hawthorne basement.
Sara Waite was coming down the hall, took one look at her expression and drew back slightly before her features softened in a nod of sympathy. The two young women who didn’t know each other – or the fact that each could have been a ready ear for the other – passed in the Hawthorne halls with nary a word and only a nod of understanding.
Caitlin wasn’t even really picking a direction when she stopped cold, her shoes ankle-deep in snow. She looked around, and realized she was too close to the Grunts’ club bunker. She took a breath, and noticed that her breath didn’t fog in front of her as it should in the cold.
“I hate this.” She turned and saw three bodies walking cockily towards her. Her eyes narrowed, and she recognized three of her least favorite children on campus.
It was a stark revelation that hit her mind. This little farce Carson had her playing would fail miserably if they let it go on. She couldn’t let go of the fact that there were three children coming to annoy her. She knew there was more to Imperious than a seventeen-year old body could hide. She also knew that for all his power and the experience he and his brothers tried to hide, when it came to the real world, they were children. She marched forward to meet the ones who would imagine themselves her masters. Caitlin Bardue wasn’t playing. Erik Mahren was sick of the bullshit.
No more playing games.
“Get on your knees Galatea.” Imperious simply spoke as she got close enough, and the raw force of his personality hit her like a jackhammer. Her knees went out from under her as she dropped, head bowed slightly as part of her simply caved, while part of her screamed in the back of her mind.
“You have no idea how hard it was to figure out how to get you alone.” Imperious slowly circled like a hunting hawk, his blonde hair and electric blue eyes seeming to transfix her. The boy reached down and a finger tilted her chin up.
“You thought you were going to fight didn’t you?” His voice penetrated her defenses like a hypnotic wave. “You can’t. The Artificer was created for one purpose, to serve those like me, and anyone who can influence the minds of others will find yours infinitely pliable.”
She wanted to talk, scream, cry as her very body and mind betrayed her, sitting compliant as the New Olympian leader stalked his prize. This wasn’t supposed to happen, she was able to fight back Fey’s glamour and force of presence. Upon realizing that thought it hit her. Nicole Reilly hadn’t been trying to force her to obey.
“Now little Galatea, it’s time to make ready for your new place in life.” Imperious, Stygian and Counterpoint were so intent on their prize that they failed to notice the quiet arrival of three Outcasts, two Fury Twins, Jimmy Trauger, a Kimba and Bladedancer all arraying themselves in a semicircle. When he did, he smiled cruelly. “Tell your friends to go away Galatea. This is our little show.”
“Go on guys, I’ll handle this.” Her voice was hollow, devoid of emotion as she spoke, not particularly loud.
Razorback shrieked violently in response. Jericho tapped something under his clothes, and the same shock rifle she’d evaluated for Flashbang and Tinkertrain appeared in his hands. Diamondback had settled defiantly on her coiled body, shuffling her tarot deck she’d used to decimate Hekate. The Fury twins’ hands blazed an unholy red color, and they were the most visible focal point of rage, unable to fully contain the cold fury of their emotions. Bladedancer, JT and Lancer stood less sure of violence, but wary.
Counterpoint grinned when the Outcasts and their attendant buddies rocked back as Imperious flashed the world with the force of his presence again. Caitlin wanted them to leave, honestly wanted them to go as he spoke again
“This is none of your business.” The New Olympian leader smirked as the three non-Outcasts or Fury Twins took an involuntary step back. “This is between us and Galatea.” He knew he had an angle. Bladedancer was tapping something and finding nothing to aid her in return. JT had fought the Olympians and lost horridly in the past. Lancer was desperately trying to figure things out.
But the Monsters of the Outcasts had spent too long exposed to the overloading presence of Phobos and Deimos to give Imperious’ command much thought. “Counterpoint, give them a reason to back off. Titans my ass.”
Caitlin felt Counterpoint’s hand fall on her shoulder, his sword crossing her throat, lightly touching her neck and making the point. The raging voice went silent as she contemplated the eyes of the kids who’d come to her aid. Jericho was yelling something, she couldn’t tell what. The only thing reverberating in her skull was that Counterpoint was touching her and she would not tolerate that. A thousand things flashed through her mind, and she discarded them as fast as they came to her. Years of skill honed by shocking violence told her what she could and couldn’t do to make him let go. If she made one mistake, she was dead. The only person she’d ever even heard of taking down Counterpoint in a straight fight was Liz Carson when the maniac had gone too far once. He was one of the students she despised, and she made her displeasure known with neither warning, nor mercy.
Imperious stopped mid-threat as he heard a triple pop and a shriek of pain from Counterpoint. He turned and saw the Artificer had impossibly dislocated his arm at the wrist, elbow and shoulder without warning. Ares was unaccustomed to pain, so he wasn’t able to react in time to keep her from spinning him, grabbing his other arm, and kicking his ribs in perfect mimicry of her maneuver on Lancer. Counterpoint’s other shoulder came out of joint before the Artificer slammed the boy into – and through – a nearby tree.
“Stygian, deal with her.” Imperious directed his erstwhile “brother” as he turned to face the Outcasts and friends. What he saw was no longer them ready to fight. They were watching, with a determined, expectant air. Something was hanging over them, something fragile, but he saw it. One wrong move and whatever was keeping them from attacking would shatter.
“I would turn around asshole. You’re about to be in for the fight of your life.” Diamondback spoke as the three empaths of the group went cold. He could feel them mirror the brutal calm that he was unaccustomed to from human children. Even Jericho and Razorback were nearly vibrating with anticipation.
Chou was desperately trying to find the Tao, a frustrating experience for once. Normally grasping the balance point of creation brought a stark clarity. This time it brought uncertainty, as though it didn’t know where to go, the tapestry revolving around the gaping wound represented by the Artificer. Until that wound was healed, there would be no certainty where she was concerned, if there ever could be. Trying to follow the threads opened a maddening, painful plethora of possibility.
Imperious saw Chou’s hesitation and dismissed her as irrelevant, concentrating on the real mutants arrayed against him, glancing back and stopping. Everyone was watching Caitlin facing Stygian. His hand was up and he radiated power, they knew what he was doing, and morbid curiosity won out over all else as impossibly, the Artificer snapped to attention, stepping forward once, then twice. She snapped a perfect salute, then stepped forward again, walking through a parade of specters from her past that only she could see.
Caitlin simply moved past the ghosts, some she recognized, some she didn’t. She knew who they were, people who’d died by her hand or those of her unit. She knew enough about Stygian to know that he could not control what she saw. The maddened chattering voices of men and women from foreign lands were ignored, the languages were not part of her memory. Stygian’s power had very little hold on one who was fully understanding and accepting of her own nature and failings.
She stepped forward once, twice, and saluted the officers of the men she couldn’t have saved. They saluted back and stepped away. She shouldered aside Ravager and Bingo, two of the first mutants to fall at the hands of the unit she’d been part of. Stygian could not know that she’d reconciled each of these deaths a long time ago. She saw them in her dreams, but she would not allow them to rule her life. Coppertop and Blackjack stood aside. Pittman and Psyker nodded and moved away with all of the fresh-faced dead of the Dragonslayers. She’d done everything she could to prepare them to battle the impossible, and they’d still died. The parade continued with each step. Dead friends, dead squadmates, dead enemies. These were no mere shades of what might have been, they were the ones she’d felt the vibration of a gun both trying to kill and trying to save, some poor ones who’d simply been caught in the chaos and crossfire. They were mercifully silent.
The last face nearly broke her. The open wound causing tears to fall as she just stood before the spectral image of the woman she couldn’t protect, burning bright even in death. The apparition placed a hand on her cheek, and leaned in, the ghostly touch not registering. “I’ll be patient and wait for you. Keep going.”
Caitlin couldn’t stop the wracking sob as she took the last step and put herself in front of Stygian, mustering her will. “Go away Stygian. I’m not going to end you, no matter how hard you try.” Her voice was shaky, but she spit it out as she turned from the boy and faced Imperious and let the rage build. “You, on the other hand...”
“You get back on your knees, Galatea.” He slammed her with the force of his presence, and impossibly he watched her stop, make an expression of pure fury, and continue her actions.
“Fuck you, you over-privileged little punkass.” She started stalking forward. “...Time for hand to hand combat, basic course, asskicking edition.” The pure, bloody-minded fury was building again in the back of Caitlin’s mind. Every part of her mind screamed at her to kill. She chose to force her thoughts into a different path. She was not going to kill Imperious, she was going to break him.
Imperious had quite enough of this game, his hand crackling as he fired lightning into the chest of the angry woman coming at him, the witnesses forming a circle around the two. She kept coming, the lightning bolt seemingly ignored by her near-ivory white skin even as it charred her clothing, causing the crackling corona surrounding her to erupt more wildly.
“Lesson one, know your opponent’s weaknesses.” Caitlin stepped the last yard and slammed her fist at Imperious’ chest. He managed to deflect the impact to his shoulder and rocked back. It hurt worse than a shot from Kodiak. Caitlin’s attack wasn’t stronger, but her attack had overtones of actual, serious hand to hand training and intent to cause massive bodily harm.
“Lesson two, don’t skimp out on Ito’s martial arts classes because you think you’re such a badass that you don’t need it. Most real opponents aren’t impressed. Training trumps power, you overconfident jackass.”
“Shut up.” Imperious launched a haymaker at Eldritch’s face as her skin crackled with energy. In his mind, even Kodiak or Hippolyta would have had a hard time stopping the speed and power of such a strike. The woman in front of him slapped his hand aside and snapped an elbow forward, cracking his jaw with the force of a bus impact. Her style wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t particularly inspired, but it was brutally simple in its intent to cause harm.
“Lesson three, blocking. Your form sucks, you have no experience, and you fight like an amateur school bully. You have no capacity to fight without your cronies.” She grabbed his incoming leg and twisted hard, forcing him to spin, lest his leg break in two as she slapped her palm to his back, driving him facefirst into the snow.
Imperious was getting angry. He was up and darting at her only to eat a blast of chaotic energy that ripped across his body, causing short-lived but painful alterations of his form seemingly at random. Animal shapes of limbs intermixed with human deformity for a brief six seconds before his natural shape imposed itself and the pain stopped.
Caitlin looked at him contemptuously. “Big bad New Olympian, stopped by a mere Exemplar four. Here’s a newsflash as to why.” Caitlin darted forward and kicked the Exemplar 5 Imperious’ legs out from under him, driving him to his knees as she grabbed his long white hair and ripped his head back.
“Your body as powerful as it is, is still recovering from puberty. You’re off-balance, your reflexes are off, and you don’t know just how strong you actually are.” She lifted her hand and drove it down once with each following word. “I. DO. NOT. SUFFER. FROM. THIS. PROBLEM!” She threw him to the ground, and backed up. “Do we have any further lessons we wish to learn today?”
Imperious came to his knees, wobbling, pointing at the first thing he saw: Jericho’s form coalesced in his eyes. “Touch me again, he fries.” His fingers began to crackle with electricity.
The Outcasts were ready to surge forward as Caitlin whipped out a chromed .45 automatic with ivory handgrips from its place at her back. The gun was cocked and pointed at Imperious’ head, and his eyes twitched with a look of sudden worry. “Last lesson. If you try to harm one of my friends, I will shoot you where you stand, and I will not stop until your ass goes into a casket. Do you understand me, Jason?”
Imperious debated, then finally let his arm drop. Caitlin stepped forward and kicked him rather ungently, facefirst into the snow. She dropped her knee into the base of his spine and he howled in agony as he felt something cold and round pressed to where his neck joined his skull.
“Understand one thing Imperious. I have... No, you don’t need to know that.” Her voice didn’t carry to the others, save Razorback, who took an involuntary step back as he processed the words coming out of his friend’s mouth. “If you ever come at me to enslave me I won’t be shoving your face in a toilet like I did Nephandus. I will kill you, and your spirit won’t be coming back from what I do to it.” She jerked his head back and painfully arched his spine. “Do you fucking understand me you fucking cockbite? I’ll make you my personal exception to my rule of doing no harm on this campus.” Imperious frantically tried to nod, then found his face slammed back into the ground, hard, felt his nose break. “Class dismissed.”
Caitlin spun, and saw the air itself in front of her warp and twist, peeling away from the form of Circe. The woman looked at her, “Don’t you have a riddle to solve? I would suggest taking your friends with you. They have important insight to the solution. Lancer and Bladedancer can stay to with me to help clean up the mess here.”
Caitlin looked at the woman incredulously and then nodded, stepping with a relieved sigh towards the people who’d come to her defense. As she was walking away she could clearly hear the old witch chewing Imperious out in ancient Greek, and the meaning was as clear as the new-fallen snow to her.
“I told you that you were biting off more than you could chew, you ignorant child. If I hadn’t bespelled the Outcasts, you wouldn’t have achieved a lesson. You, all of you would be dead, ripped apart by the monsters you think they are... you blisteringly stupid boy...”
Caitlin smiled as she walked away, catching herself up with her friends. “Let’s go to the tunnels, I need to talk to you all.”
The Outcasts, Phobos and Deimos left the three New Olympians to the tender mercies of Circe, and to Hank Declan and Chou Lee, who were popping knuckles in anticipation of the cleanup.
An hour later Caitlin sat in the tunnels below Hawthorne, facing the kids she was rapidly beginning to consider friends and peers. Jimmy Trauger was peripheral of course, he was more Razorback’s buddy than anyone else’s, but the Outcasts... the Fury twins...
They were digesting the story she’d just spun, when she’d finally been able to lay out in her own terms just what she was dealing with as the Artificer. Her old life as Erik Mahren was irrelevant to them, and she had avoided the topic carefully, not because she didn’t feel she couldn’t trust the kids arrayed in front of her, but because it was something she didn’t want to have wedged between them, ruining their ability to feel they could talk to her in confidence.
Jericho was sitting against a wall, eyes closed as he considered the implications of what he’d been told. To her eyes, Jericho, as goofy as he could be and ridiculous as he was, was probably the most mature of the bunch. He reminded her of a few of her buddies in the past, but he had a capacity to keep things in perspective that could make him a great leader were he to exploit it. He finally began thumbing the strings of his bass guitar and looked up.
“That’s some heavy shit.” The blind boy took a breath as he collected his thoughts. “I guess that lets you out as a mutant, that’s... far too exacting circumstances and rules to be a genetic quirk.”
“She’s been tampered with... You’ve been tampered with.” Diamondback amended herself as she looked to Caitlin. “I don’t even know where to begin looking here, Caitlin. I don’t even think Circe has anything in her mind that could tell you this secret.” She looked right at Caitlin, almost staring through her.
-She’s keeping things to herself, but...- Razorback was signing away as he carefully chewed on the information, -...if she didn’t trust us she wouldn’t be telling us something like this.-
“Okay,” Sandra leaned forward. “Razorback’s right, you’re not telling us everything about you, but I also think he’s right that you wouldn’t be telling any of us this if you didn’t trust us. Even if Circe said you should.”
“I hate precogs.” Caitlin put her palm to her forehead. “Yeah I do trust you. The stuff I’m not saying is... things I’m not comfortable sharing with anyone. Some of it I don’t even want to think about in my own head. Maybe someday, but...”
Phobos and Deimos nodded in creepy unison. The redheaded one of the pair spoke first. “If it’s what causes you to feel the way you do all the time...”
“...we’re pretty sure we all don’t want to know just yet,” Deimos finished for her sister.
“You two are creepy when you do that, you know,” Caitlin almost chuckled. The two scariest girls in Whateley Academy had the whole eerie twin thing down pat.
“We know,” Deimos intoned.
“We’ve been practicing it for years,” Phobos intoned in return.
Caitlin laughed. “So yeah, what it boils down to is I have to solve this puzzle before someone a bit smarter or luckier than Imperious or Nephandus comes for me. What I am is old, and somewhat of an open secret among the mystic asshole community. As far as a lot of them are concerned, the race is on to see who can corral me.”
“You’re a mystic devisor or gadgeteer who can be locked down and controlled reliably.” Jericho looked irate. “Jimmy, can you do me a favor and put eyes on the area and make sure we ain’t got no damn eavesdroppers?” His Texas twang became more obvious as he got irritated. “And shure ‘nuff we got Circe sticking her cryptic paws into it, confusing the issue.”
“And now you know why I hate precogs.”
Diamondback chuckled, “Try spending time in a class with Gypsy sometime.”
“So what are you gonna do about this?” Jimmy T turned on his way to the door. “I honestly dunno why Circe had me come along with you, I don’t have much to...” The shapeshifter stopped and looked at a point on the wall. He saw the little bug mike skitter along the door and settle on the wall. “Sonofabitch, now I’m really starting to hate precogs.” He reached out and grabbed the bug, then bolted out the door. “C’mere prettyboy! I told you what’d happen if I caught you near my cottage again!” He was already shifting into something dark and scaly as he bolted out of the room and caught a glimpse of his quarry.
“I hate precogs.”
“Caitlin, you sound like a damn broken record.” Diamondback coiled herself up and settled in for a long night, while Razorback pulled his beloved guitar from its case. “In any case, let’s shelve this for a bit and come back to it, let things percolate. We have a bit of time, and I don’t think Imperious is gonna have the guts to come at you again, but you have another problem.”
“Counterpoint.” Jericho looked at Caitlin with concern while Razorback nodded frantically next to him, signing away. “Congratulations Cait, you’re the first person to get the solid drop on him and kick his ass into a corner without using some underhanded shit like an incapacitating gadget. Razorback says that’s happened once in the last two years. He kept going till he kicked the shit out of Gloriana for her trouble. And he beat her bad.”
Caitlin remembered that particular incident, and glowered for a few quiet moments. “Fuck it, I’ll deal with Counterpoint as he comes.” She took a breath. “Unlike Gloriana, I’m not too goddamned proud to ask for help,” she muttered to herself. When she looked up, Razorback had his head cocked quizzically at her. He’d heard every muttered comment, she knew, and he’d probably heard her snarled speech to Imperious as well.
“So what do we do now?” Deimos asked.
“Well for one, we make sure you have someone with you who can keep an eye out at all times,” Jericho pointed at Caitlin as he spoke. “Don’t gimme that look, Sparky. You got lucky that Imperious didn’t nab you tonight, and you know it.”
Caitlin forced the absolute irritation down and growled. He was right, but she couldn’t live under watch and guard. “I’d rather solve this problem and obviate the need for it.”
“Caitlin,” Diamondback slithered over and put a hand on Caitlin’s still shoulder, “I know you don’t like it but you need help. If someone gets you, you’re going to be stuck playing supernatural zombie while some asshole fingerpaints the world with the ashes of your old life, if even half of what you can do is...” She stopped as she saw Caitlin’s abruptly wide-eyed expression turn and look at her. “What?”
Caitlin was staring at Diamondback as five words rattled around in her skull, reverberating off her memories. Ashes of an old life. She simply stared for a moment in the stunned silence, mouth moving like a beached fish until she found her voice.
“Diamondback, I hate precogs, but right now I could fucking kiss you.”
...To be concluded in ‘Ashes and Steel’.
And I’m staring down the barrel of a forty-five
Swimming through the ashes of another life.
No real reason to accept the way things have changed,
Staring down the barrel of a forty-five.