Nikki slammed into the room she shared with Toni, swearing under her breath in a hodgepodge of strange languages (some of which had been considered dead long before the Babylonians gave up the ghost).
“What?” Toni glanced up from her packing to give her roommate a questioning look. “Is your Dad back for another surprise visit or something?”
“Or something,” the elf girl grumbled while watching the door as if expecting a horde of evil creatures to crash through it at any second. “I swear, make one commercial, just one simple little commercial that doesn’t even run very often and suddenly every advertising jerk on the planet starts hiding in the bushes to ambush me with contracts! This afternoon I was almost buried in paper, contracts, free pens, and fake smiles!”
“Did you at least take the pens?” Toni questioned then ducked behind her open suitcase as a very well aimed pillow zoomed through the air where her head had been moments before. “Guess not.”
“I almost blasted one of those idiots when he jumped me from behind a bush,” Nikki grumped. “Maybe I shouldn’t have held back when I saw he was just a regular human; it would have made the walk easier coming back from Crystal Hall.”
“Ouch.” The black girl winced, knowing the whole “voodoo wolves” incident had left Nikki very much on edge, riding a hair trigger when it came to ambushes. Sometimes her life depended on striking first and asking questions later. Annoying a paranoid mage wasn’t a good idea at the best of times, and for Nikki, this was definitely not the best of times. “So, did you get things worked out?”
“Mostly.” The redhead showed an evil little grin. “I took out Malachim’s Feather and pretended to examine the blade while I walked the rest of the way here. Well at least no more of the fools jumped out in front of me after I did that.”
“Aw, don’t be so hard on ‘em. That commercial was pretty cute, you know.” Toni waggled her eyebrows, before returning to her packing. “You were really hawt in that costume, and those little versions of you in their elf outfits…”
Nikki replied with a military-grade glare.
“Look at it this way. You got a lifetime supply of Chanel, right? But they didn’t believe you were immortal, so the joke’s on them!”
The glare softened a little. “Well…” They were damn fine perfumes. “Still, if I hear one more Christmas Elf joke, just ONE more…”
“Chill. The ads were great. Between you and those little pixy clones a’ yours, it was too cute. And those sexy elf costumes… I’m almost tempted to pick up some of that French toilet water m’self, despite how much the junk costs.”
Nikki threw herself on the bed. “It’s not the ad, it’s the damn solicitors!”
Toni grinned, knowing her roommate far too well. Bleed-over from the ancient ruler sometimes allowed the elf to think three or four steps ahead of her opposition. But at the same time, she sometimes forgot and skipped step one. “Did you try telling them ‘no’?”
Nikki looked up in surprise. “Uh…”
“It has been known to work off and on, you know.”
“Not with these people.” Nikki muttered.
“Riiiiight. You can pummel the Young Turks into the mat, stand toe-to-toe with voodoo wolves, and even face The Bastard in his dreams and flick him in the nose, but a headhunter from Madison Avenue… oooo, that’s scary!”
Nikki used her large violet eyes to great effect as she scowled at her roommate. “I can kill the voodoo wolves. But these…people…they’re like sharks on two legs! Killing one would only send the others into a frenzy. With less competition, they’d be even more eager to move in!”
Toni tsked. “Girl, you got problems.”
Nikki was so worked up that she missed the sarcasm. “That’s what I’ve been telling you!”
Sebastiano lay naked on his bed, stretched out on his back as he watched one of the most dangerous women he knew. He often suspected that Hekate had proposed the mind-slave spell just so she could get out of oral sex. He laced his fingers behind his head and watched Sky do her thing.
The Nordic girl’s black hair swayed enticingly over his manhood as she worked on him. More enticing yet were the nipple rings that swung hypnotically with her movements. He wanted to reach over and give them a painful yank. That’s what he really got off on – pain and suffering. Being able to cause pain, being able to do it with impunity – that proved he was in control. What good was it to be the top dog if you couldn’t exercise your privileges? And how could you know for sure that you were the top dog, unless you could force people to do things they didn’t want to do?
Forcing Sky to get her nipples pierced – that had been a rush and a half. Following up with later piercings, down below, had brought the same high. And the clit ring – he almost couldn’t walk back to his room.
The only down side was that Sky was too passive. Whatever he demanded, she just did it, no matter how painful or degrading. There was no challenge.
Hekate, now, she’d been a challenge once. Beautiful, supremely dangerous, subtle, ruthless in revenge. But he’d stripped her mind, learning all her secret quirks, all her hooks, all her needs and buttons. He’d played her like a piano, and she’d responded beautifully. Last year’s mind control spell had been the ultimate culmination, and he’d spent most of the year since then, making sure that he owned her mind and loyalty and devotion forever. And once he’d accomplished that… his interest had faded.
Maybe he should force Hekate to get a clit ring. That could be fun for a while. He’d seen how the witch had turned white each time Sky had gotten a piercing. It was half-jealous, half-sympathy for the pain and submissiveness.
The witch had tried to get some payback by piercing her boy-toy, Cavalier, matching every new ring or stud that Sky got.
She should have known that it was useless trying to out-psych the master. Sebastiano didn’t care. Cavalier meant nothing to him. Hekate wanted to make him jealous or enraged, but so often it just fell flat. That girl wanted him in the worst way. Unfortunately for the amoral witch, that desperation was a complete turn-off.
Sebastiano Lorenz Valensuera y Ramirez conquered his women. But like the greatest of the conquistadors, once the pillage was done, it was time to move on. Don Sebastiano, he styled himself, like some Italiano Mafia leader, or a Spanish Grandee.
It had been a fair year, so far. The Alphas were his property, plain and simple. He had finished the job of making Hekate his. He doubted she ever slept now without dreaming of him.
Only… where was the thrill? Some of the best times he’d had this semester had been the plotting against those stupid Poe freshman. To think that he’d been foiled by a group of girls! Now there was a conquest! Popping the cherries of those girls, that would be worthwhile. He stiffened at the thought.
“Ready, Mistress,” Sky announced.
Perhaps it was time to cut Hekate loose. Granted, the girl’s magic was terrifying. Sebastiano had seen Hekate do things that still curdled his blood. When she was calling on powers, you suddenly realized that Hell was a very real place, and that she was skating the edge of the abyss. The woman was scary dangerous. But he’d been with her for over a year! Couldn’t she feel how old all of this was getting?
Apparently not, as she mounted him. The need in her eyes no longer turned him on like it used to. But she was too dangerous to just dump.
“Basty?” she coo’ed to him, lifting up, then sliding down his shaft, “where should we renew the spell? You know, on Cav and Sky?”
“When does that come up again?” He enjoyed the frustration she got from his apparent lack of attention.
“You know! I’ve told you often enough! The twenty-eighth!”
“Oh.” He scowled, in apparent thought. “I’ll have to leave that to you, honey. I’ve got to be back in Puerto Cabello for the break. Didn’t I tell you that?”
“Well I do.” He reached up to her ripe breasts and squeezed them a little too hard. “Your thing is just a renewal. You don’t need me. What could go wrong?”
Hekate bit her lip as she rode him. He could tell, he could sense through the contact they had, that she was nearing. But he wasn’t. Even a girl as beautiful and dangerous as Hekate wasn’t doing it for him. Even with Cavalier and Skybolt watching in helpless thrall, he wasn’t getting there.
He closed his eyes and imagined himself inside a different girl. A girl that would be more of a challenge then Hekate had ever been. Meanwhile, he sensed her approaching climax.
“Oh, God, that’s so good…” he whispered “…Nikki.”
His telepathic eavesdropping revealed all. She’d heard him, alright. Her climax was snuffed instantly, replaced by fury and frustration and monumental jealousy. And that was enough to do it for him. He exploded inside of her.
Afterward, as Skybolt attempted to clean them up with tissues, he lazily suggested, “You just have a nice vacation and renew the spell. You don’t need me for that. I’ll handle my business back in Venezuela, and before you know it we’ll be back together, just like normal.”
Hekate, clinging to him, muttered something non-committal.
But he could still “hear” the trend of her thoughts. She was seething, burning with need to prove herself to him. She was desperate to come up with a plan.
Perhaps it was a good time to be out of the country. He’d have to make sure that his alibi was iron-clad.
He smiled, savoring the afterglow. It was good to be The Don.
“More trouble?” Toni asked idly, as Nikki returned to the room.
“No, nothing like that,” the young sidhe admitted. “Just talking to family. Holiday plans. Dad’s not going to make it this year – something in England that he can’t talk about on a phone. Mom will be there, of course, and my little brother Troy.” She sighed. “I was just sort of hoping…”
Toni nodded in sympathy. “Some things even magic can’t fix.”
Just as Nikki was working herself up do some review for her next final, there was a knock on the door.
“Come in!” Toni called cheerfully, before Nikki even had a chance to draw breath.
Framed in the doorway was one of the senior girls, a particularly beautiful one.
“Poise!” Nikki said in surprise.
“Hello, Nikki. Do you mind if I come in and talk to you for a moment?”
Nikki was perhaps the most beautiful girl on campus. If not as a freshman, everyone knew she’d own the position outright by her senior year. Added to that, she was able to draw on the regal and imperturbable air granted to her as one of the nine great elf queens – beings so majestic that their memory lived on literally millions of years after their passing. For all that, Nikki was still just a young girl. A young girl that had not so long ago been a young boy. And when that boy had to deal with someone like Poise, he tended to lose it. His tongue unrolled backward down his own throat, his eyes went glazed, and he couldn’t help getting a hard on. Perhaps that last touch tended to express itself a bit differently these days, but it was safe to say that he wasn’t her normal self.
Poise was the much-admired leader of Venus, Inc., a modeling club in a school filled with men and women of such superlative beauty that they made the Olympian Ideal look like Walter Matthau in moth-eaten boxer shorts. Poise could (and had) fought martial arts battles while carrying a cup of tea in one hand and balancing a book on her head. In high heels! She was polite, thoughtful, ever-so-helpful, and had taught Nikki a great deal about modeling, grace, and how to be truly regal, particularly to people who thought themselves below you.
“Oh! Of course! Please come in! Make yourself at home!”
“Thank you.” Poise lowered herself gracefully to sit on one mattress, her legs crossing in a classically feminine fashion. “Nikki darling, I’d like to discuss your recent activities on campus. I’ve been seeing a lot of interest in your ‘Christmas Elf’ shoot, and the possibility of follow-up work has left some producers a bit… how to put it?”
“Insane?” Nikki suggested.
“Over enthused,” Poise finally settled on. “Well, of course you’re being inundated by offers, and I feel terribly remiss, of course. I should have seen this coming and set you up to deal with the issue before it ever reached this point. Among all of our new models, you were clearly the most in need, so please accept my apologies for not addressing this sooner.”
Nikki ran through the words several times (even engaging in a silent, internal consultation with Aunghadhail). Still, Poise’s speech made no sense.
“I’m sorry,” Nikki finally replied. “I’m not sure I quite got that. Could you repeat it?”
“An agent,” Poise stressed. “The solution to your problems is to sign with an agent. No more of this unseemly throng mobbing you over new contracts. Simply instruct them to consult your agent.”
“Well…” Nikki demurred, “I’m not sure how much professional modeling I plan to do. I have more than a few other responsibilities, and they all take precedence over modeling.”
“I think you should reconsider,” Poise stated, in a businesslike tone. “Yes, yes, I’ve worked with you often enough. I know about the Queen to Come and the renewal of the sidhe race. And I’m not suggesting that being a model carries anything like the same importance. But consider, o queen to be, would you try to rebuild your kingdom entirely without propaganda? Or media relations? Will you ignore the opinion of the human race, and how they see you? I’d suggest that with the right people behind you, modeling becomes a magnificent platform for publicizing your views and interests. It’s a soapbox that everyone will willingly flock to. Unlike normal propaganda, not only does this not cost money, it makes a profit. Ignoring Peeper and his local unlicensed poster operation, I assume you’ve been following how well your poster campaign has served the Sierra Club, and how effective it has been at transmitting their message.”
“The sales, yes,” Nikki admitted. “The propaganda value… I haven’t really followed that as closely.” She didn’t admit that she didn’t really know how to evaluate a propaganda campaign.
“As with anything, it depends on the people. Quality people give you quality results. A good agent and staff will work themselves silly closing down things like Peeper’s unlicensed operation. But for you, I’d think the messaging would be as important as the money. And if you aren’t controlling your message, someone else will.”
“My ‘message.’ What exactly do you mean by that?”
“The Sierra Club poster, to take one example, has several important messages. They associate you with nature, and try to emphasize certain concepts: wild, free, beautiful, perilous. But at the same time, something to be cherished, appreciated, and protected. There’s also the implication that you are a being of nature, and that if humans act in an enlightened way, it will gain your favor.”
“That’s a lot to say on one poster,” Nikki decided.
“Yes, but it’s there. Whereas the image the Peeper and Greasy managed to copy is saying none of that. I’m not entirely sure what message they’re sending—”
Toni finally spoke up. “Time to flog the dolphin!” she suggested.
“Er, you may be right,” Poise admitted, a bit flustered. “The point is, Nikki, that your image, your work is in demand. You have two choices. Either you can be in full control of it, or you can choose to walk away. In the second case, don’t think your image won’t be used. Bill Watterson refused to license Calvin and Hobbes. It was a classy move. But because of that, no one’s making a profit off Calvin and Hobbes. Which means that no one makes money protecting the rights and the images. Which means that no one does it. And so we have rip-offs. Unlicensed images by the hundreds of thousands, in every city on earth. Your image will go the same way, and you have two choices. Take the high ground, like Bill Watterson, and accept that illegal copies will abound, or take the road of crass materialism, but ensure that your images say what you intend for them to say.”
Nikki bowed her head, overwhelmed by the concepts and responsibility being dumped on her.
Finally, “Do I have to decide right away?” she asked, in a small voice.
“Not at all,” Poise replied. “But the first step is getting an agent. I have a list of agents. Former Venus, Inc. members who have graduated have kept in contact, providing feedback on their own experiences. Here.” She handed over a print-out, with links and email addresses in it. “I’ll send you that in email, too. In fact, it’s probably time to send out a mailing for the whole club.”
“Gee,” Toni noted dryly, “pretty nice service. Handy club to be in.”
“It’s a duty I try to take seriously.” Poise turned to Toni, with a solemn expression. “All members of Venus, Inc. expect to go on to spend at least some time in active modeling careers, so we have a tremendous responsibility.”
Toni snickered. “Yeah, I recall hearing what a huge burden and responsibility it is to be Paris Hilton.”
Poise wasn’t even fazed by the sarcasm. “As models, mutant models, we are the over-exposed face of the mutant world. We are the public ideal, the definition of what is acceptable and desirable. By use of stars and models, society communicates what is right and appropriate for emulation, and likewise by its absence what is wrong and to be avoided. Think about eyes, Chaka. Your amazing amber eyes display a visibly mutant appearance. Each time a model with mutant eye color appears in an ad, there is another bit of propaganda saying, ‘This is interesting, this is good, I like this person.’ But if those ads or models never appear, people begin to think, ‘This is taboo, it’s freaky, I’m uncomfortable near this person.’”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” Toni admitted.
“Not quite. I would love to be able to use someone like Slab in ads and models spots. Think what that would do for human-mutant relations. But the world isn’t ready for that yet. However, the world is ready to look at Nikki. She’s exotic, slightly non-human, but beautiful and compelling. Each time her image appears, things get better for every other sidhe out there. Things get better for every exotic.”
“Exotic?” Toni wondered. “Is that the PC term for it, nowadays?”
“It’s the modeling term for anyone who is different from a baseline human. Even a human model in superhero tights is classed as an exotic. Superhero-exotic, to be exact. That one’s a fairly easy sell these days. Pure-exotic is much, much more difficult.”
“So you’re saying that Nikki needs to do modeling gigs for the good of all mutant-kind?”
“I wouldn’t have put it that way,” Poise admitted. “But I’ve seen some of the proposals. Some are even talking TV specials. That kind of exposure… it’s hard to convey the positive impact. And if she could wrangle work for some of the real exotics, someone as different as Slab, for example…”
“But it’s still my decision,” Nikki said, interrupting the pitch. “Thank you, Poise, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. But this is a lot to think about, and it’s a decision I have to make myself.”
And with that, the two girls escorted the senior out the door. Politely, but firmly.
“Well, you heard her, trooper!” Toni said. “Suck in that gut, stick out that chest! It’s your duty to pose for the cause!”
“Very funny.” Nikki’s voice held no trace of amusement. “Too bad it won’t work.”
“Why not? You have an allergy to flashbulbs or something? I would’ve thought you’d figure that out before spending a whole semester in modeling class. And if you didn’t want to model, why are you even hanging with those guys anyway?”
“All those ad guys stalking me – they want to do a shoot over the holiday. They aren’t interested in working at Whateley. In fact, they’re scared of the place. That was made plain enough to me.”
Toni blinked in confusion. “Then how the hell did they work up the gumption to come stalking you on campus?”
Nikki gave a tired smile. “The regular military recruiters and their ilk. Some of them are double-dipping. It’s like a sales job – they’re working on commission.”
Toni just stared for a moment, as she tried to overcome her horror. Her jaw moved, but no sound came out. Finally, “…on commission? Just when you think your opinion of the recruiters can’t get any lower, you learn something like this!”
“Well, not all of them,” Nikki admitted. “Most of the US Government types reserve it as a punishment posting. But those guys are all career.”
“No more, please! My poor mind can’t stand to learn any more.” Then she realized something. “Wait a minute, you’re distracting me on purpose! You said you couldn’t take this job. What, did Unga-dunga get all huffy about it?”
Nikki shook her head, causing her fiery locks to spin enchantingly. “It’s not that. They want to shoot over the holiday. The gig is for the Christmas Elf and her pixies.”
Toni’s eyes widened in understand. “Only you don’t make the pixies! Jade does!”
“And Jade’s going to be spending her holiday in Colorado, with Billie.”
Across the hall in room 202, the girls were partying. Billie had a CD in her boom box and both girls were dancing. However, that simple statement was a bit misleading. First, the term “both” implied that only Billie and Jade were dancing, which was true in one sense, but it also implied that there were only two of them. If you included the cleaning gloves, the two books reading themselves (and swaying to the music), or the bed making itself (with crisp hospital corners!) then there were six entities dancing away.
Another inaccuracy involved the term “dancing.” Billie was moving with all the grace and skill she’d gained from a semester of ballroom dancing. That might conjure images of hoop skirts for some, but modern ballroom dance included styles such as salsa, swing, and jive, so Billie’s repertoire had grown considerably. This was quite evident in the way the girl moved now. With scarcely even a conscious thought, Billie swung her hips around, moving her legs in an intricate and sexy rhythm, in perfect time to the music. She was feeling the music as she rolled her shoulders in a shimmy that would have left any heterosexual male in a drooling puddle. Despite her situation (and dance classes) Billie still didn’t acknowledge the full implications of her female transformation, but her body and movements pumped out enough raw sexuality that her mind was bound to follow, sooner or later.
Jade, in contrast, danced with more enthusiasm than style. She did her best to mimic her “older sister,” but the resultant gawkiness was only cute because she still looked like she was eleven years old. People are willing to forgive a lot in the young.
And the various objects that swayed and dipped to the beat? As the saying goes, “The remarkable thing about a dancing bear is not how well it dances; it is the fact that it dances at all.” So it is with books and empty gloves.
Jade was repacking (for the sixth time) her clothes and Billie’s, in preparation for the Christmas break at the end of the week. Billie had long ago given up trying to control her own laundry – Jade had insidiously crept in and taken control. First it was doing the laundry and cleaning, followed by folding and putting it away, making the bed, dusting the high corners (which Billie could do as well as anyone), cleaning the windows, fetching snacks at strange hours, sneaking into her bed during the occasional nightmare, packing suitcases. Once Billie might have mentioned that she was sure that the previous packing efforts were “just fine.” Now, she just moved with the music and enjoyed herself.
“No more combats, no more fights,” she chanted, “No more ambushes late at nights.”
“Oh, right,” Jade drawled. “Like you’re one who always gets ambushed at night.”
“I think Halloween counts. It was an ambush, and it was at night.” She stuck her tongue out at Jade.
Jade ticked off on her fingers. “Ninjas. Bloodwolf. Oh, Tansy, and don’t forget that I thought she killed me. Those loser-mutants in Dunwich. What should we call them, lootants? And my hand’s only barely regrown when we have to fight the Turks! About a zillion upperclassmen just pushing me around. And Halloween counts for me, too. And—”
“Okay, okay, jeez.” Billie raised her hands in surrender. “For the record, most of those weren’t at night. Though it’s not like I’m even bothering to keep track these days.”
“Yeah,” Jade agreed. “But imagine what we’ll be like after four years of this!”
“Best education you can get – if you survive. Still, I’m looking forward to some nice regular tests, where the cost of failure is a lower grade, not a broken arm.”
Jade rubbed her arm. “That healed in a couple of hours. And I didn’t fail, I passed.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. It’ll be nice. Just books, paper, and pen. No guns or knives.”
Billie snorted. “You make this place sound like an inner city school.”
“Sorry. Just books, paper, and pen. No explosives or disintegration rays.”
Billie checked her watch. “There’s probably still time for a little study before my first test.” She glanced at Jade’s desk. “Not all of us can build self-studying books.”
Jade nodded. “Yeah, I have to get some more mini-boards from Bunny. She’s got these little piezo-powered boards with blinky lights and some really cool sound generators. With a couple of those and some junk from the trash bins in the devisor labs, even I can make some fairly convincing looking gizmos. ‘Self-studying books,’ huh? I like that…”
Giving another spin, just for the joy of it, Billie turned toward her desk. “Where’s my genetics book? I still have a couple of hours before the test.” Just then, her oversized ears picked out a commotion in the hallway:
“Get back here! No, put that down! Don’t you dare…”
Billie and Jade stopped dancing and looked at each other.
Billie mentioned carefully, “That sounded like Nikki, didn’t it?”
“Uh huh. Which means…”
They cracked open the door and peered out. Nikki raced past, pelting down the hall and chasing something that looked like a two-inch tall flying girl, in a bright red mini-dress, held aloft by faerie wings.
“Looks like those pixie-things you make,” Billie commented, dryly. “Only a bit more… insane.”
“Nikki needs help!” Jade said the words the way Superman might have uttered them. It came out differently when spoken by an eleven-year-old.
She snapped her head to the desk. “No time for study, team! Back home! There’s work to do!”
Then, even as the books and gloves fell lifelessly down, Jade plunged her hand dramatically inside her vest, pulling out three small pill shapes that looked like oversized cold capsules. In a single dramatic move, she flung them to the floor, shouting, “Pixie Pellets – Power Up!”
Billie wiped a hand down her face. “Each time I think you’re starting to go cape squad on me, you end with something like that.”
The capsules burst with small puffs of smoke, and suddenly, there they were: The Christmas Pixies.
“We are… Trixie!” “Dixie!” “And Brunhilda!”
“Pixie Force,” Jade ordered, “seek out your queen and help her in any way you can!”
“Yes, oh what’s-your-name!” They saluted, then zoomed out the crack in the door, wings flapping like hornets.
“What do you suppose the occasion is?” Billie wondered.
Jade touched a finger to her lips as she considered. “PMS? No, probably not, she’s not due yet. Bad boyfriend letter? No, no one would send one of those to Nikki. We smushed the Turks last night, and she did great without getting hurt. I’m guessing… finals.”
“Oh well, it’s not as if we really need a reason. This is Whateley. Shall we venture into the chaos?” Billie opened the door further and gestured for Jade.
“After you. And you’re the invincible one, so I might need to hide behind you.”
“Very well then.”
And they ventured forth into the hallway.
Nikki was in her commander role, snapping out orders to the tiny figures around her.
“Dixie! Get past that swarm! Herd them back this way! I do not want them getting into Boystown!”
A tiny red-haired pixie saluted and zoomed off down the hallway.
“Brunhilda! Are they getting into the supply cabinet? Stop them! By all that’s holy, stop them!”
“Right!” Another salute, another pixie rocketing down the hall.
“Trixie! I need you—”
“Trixie is the blonde one.”
“That’s you. You are the blonde one!”
“Oh yeah. (Giggle) I forgot.”
Nikki gave a weary sigh. “Unlimber that whip of yours. Start popping them.”
“Right, Mrs. Queen, Sir!”
“I’m not… oh, never mind.”
At that moment, the janitor’s closet door slammed open. A harried, red-headed pixie pushed the door shut again, but not quickly enough. A few escaped.
“Commander McQueen! We can’t hold them! There’s too many of them!”
“What do you mean, ‘too many’? There were only about six pixies in the closet, and three of them just escaped.”
“Commander, in the dark they’re… reproducing. Three of them start hugging and kissing and stuff… and then… then there’s more of them!”
Nikki bowed her head for a moment’s consideration. When she muttered to herself, her voice sounded far more mature. “They’re operating off a very limited mana store. They shouldn’t be able to reproduce unless they were capable of tapping ambient magic, which would mean that…” Her eyes went wide. That is, wider than normal. “Emergency! We have to shut these pixies down NOW!”
That’s when the janitor’s door burst open. Glowing pixies swarmed out like a swarm of radioactive bees. And like many of Nikki’s hobgoblins, they spoke.
“Look, there’s boys!” one high-pitch voice squealed.
“Hey, let’s wax the floor!” another added.
“Come on, everybody! Ceiling dance!”
“By the five powers,” Nikki shouted, “doesn’t anyone have a tennis racket?”
Backing against the wall, Billie and Jade watched the chaos.
“Shouldn’t we be helping?” Jade wondered.
“You’re already helping,” Billie pointed out.
“Besides, with all the chaos, I think we’d only be in the way. I’m not supposed to get in fights, and this looks like a recipe for disaster.”
“I’M TRYING TO STUDY!” came booming down the hall.
Nikki came racing past, topless. “Give me back my bra!” She swung a tennis racket wildly, popping seven pixies in one sweep.
“She’s got pretty good form,” Billie admitted.
“Yours is better, oneesan.”
“Huh? Oh, I meant her tennis swing.”
“Our towel! Our towel!”
A squadron of pixies zoomed past, pivoted, and shot down the other hallway. Behind them came a naked boy from down the hall.
“Was that Brandon Fellows?” Jade wondered.
“Risk? Yeah, that’s him.”
The boy vanished, reappearing in front of the pixies. “Ha! Mine now!”
“He’s really… big,” Jade observed. “Are all guys… like that?”
Billie nodded. “Sure, the good ones.” She blushed. “I mean, once they’ve gone through puberty. I guess you wouldn’t know, would you?”
There was a rapid patter of feet, then Toni came to a halt almost in front of them. She was being harassed by over a dozen of the glowing pests.
“You’re asking for it!”
“Give us your worst!” they taunted.
“You’ll regret that.” Toni narrowed her eyes, locating each opponent. She cocked back her fists and tensed her legs. “Kung fu… death-blossom!”
All at once, the black girl lashed out, kicking, spinning, striking, pivoting through a handstand. It was like watching a complex gymnastic routine that never moved from that one patch of ground, only sped up by a factor of ten, or maybe through some video effect was ten different girls superimposed on top of each other. An instant later, it was over. Toni was back in her starting position. She let out a single small puff of air.
Around her, the entire swarm of pixies exploded into pastel clouds of ectoplasm as they burst and evaporated.
“It’s like you can watch the whole world go by,” Billie mused. “From right here on our doorstep.”
“Want me to get you a chair?” Jade asked.
“No, no, I’m fine.”
“Yaaaaa!” Chou came racing by, swinging her sword to deadly effect.
Not far behind her, a dozen pixies came past at floor level, pushing a floor-scrubbing brush.
“Put your back into it, girls!” the overseer-pixie squeaked. “I want that floor to shine! I want it so well waxed that you can ice skate on it!”
A moment later, Ayla came through. “Chou, wait! They didn’t—whoa!” Her arms began windmilling wildly as she slid forward.
“Ayla!” Jade shouted. “Don’t go heavy!”
“Too late,” Billie observed.
The density changer slid down the hallway toward a group of boys defending themselves from a luminescent swarm.
“That’s gotta hurt,” Billie commented, unnecessarily. “Well, enough break. Back to studying for me.”
“Yeah, I guess,” her small roommate agreed.
“Well, I’m out there.” Jade gestured at the melee. “Which means I’ll have to do the studying myself.”
“My hearts bleed.”
The lunch mood in Crystal Hall was crazy. The freshmen and sophomores were relaxed, but wary. Everyone recognized that old powder-keg feel, where any spark might set something off.
“I just wanted to warn everybody,” Hank said, as he took his seat, “keep your head down.”
“What is the problem? Surely after last week, people aren’t stressed over academic tests?” Chou said in disbelief.
“I don’t know,” Toni mused. “I’ve heard stories about college…”
“It’s not that,” Hank explained. “It’s the juniors and seniors. They’re where we were last week. They’ve finished their academic tests, but junior and senior combat finals are this week. And if we thought ours were brutal, that’s nothing next to what the upperclassmen get. Have you gone to the arena? You should. Check some of those fights out. After all, we’ll be facing that, soon enough.”
“At least Billie doesn’t have to worry,” Jade piped up. “I mean, it’s not like hers could get any worse, right?”
Hank winced. “Okay, look. We’re talking team vs. team tests. Or one team put against a sequence of teams, until they finally lose. Or… surprise! You guys will all be showing up for individual tests – against a team!”
Hank leaned back, cracking an evil smile. “I haven’t even gotten started. There have been deaths during these tests. Many years back, but still. And serious injuries. One thing they sometimes do is swap out a teammate in secret, and let the robot double get killed, to see if the stress will get you. Or they give your opponents a ‘surprise ally’ who just happens to be your team’s main weakness.”
“You know,” Ayla said, “we’ve finished our tests. I was feeling good. Thank you sooo much.”
“And the best part,” Hank continued, with cruel glee, “is the philosophy behind the tests: ‘If you succeed, then we didn’t test your ultimate capacity.’ These tests just keep going and going until you get crushed. It’s an endurance test. The only question is, how long will you last before you’re crushed.”
“Well,” Toni chirped, “thank you Mr. Sunshine! That’ll give us all something to look forward to. But I’m thinking that I don’t have to worry about it for another 24 months. Two years. And there’s a hell of a lot that can happen between now and then, so why should I bother even thinking about it until then?”
“Well…” Hank drawled.
“Spit it out,” Billie ordered. “You know you’re dying to.”
Hank shrugged. “It’s just, given the intensity of those tests, the juniors and seniors are all a little crazy right now. I mean, utterly psychopathic crazy. So, like I said, keep your heads down. I mean, some of them wouldn’t even mind getting expelled, at this point.”
The group shuddered as one.
“In lighter news,” Toni announced, “you’ll be pleased to know that Nikki has fully eliminated the ‘pixie problem’.”
There was applause around the table, while Nikki grumbled.
“So, what happened this time?” Ayla wondered, sounding genuinely curious.
“It was that whole ‘Christmas Elf’ shoot I did,” the sidhe queen admitted. “It took off like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve even got marketing stalkers after me on campus. I was ready to just blast them all, but Poise, the senior that heads the modeling club, Venus, Inc., came and talked to me. She said it was my duty, it would be a public service to do at least one of the shoots. Problem is, they can’t and won’t shoot at Whateley, and I can’t shoot over Christmas break. At least, not without Jade. So I thought – hey, if I can make hobgoblins, surely with some extra work I can make some sort of pixie.”
Everyone groaned, but Toni jumped in to defend her roommate. “Okay, I’ll admit, that last line was pretty much mine. Verbatim.”
“That figures,” Ayla said.
Jamie was really curious, though, and leaned forward in interest. “But hobgoblins are uncontrollable. And the pixies seemed to have more…presence…somehow. How’d you make them different?”
“Well,” Nikki admitted, “I had a little consultation with Aunghadhail. There are other spells that are a bit too advanced for me, but we thought this was worth trying. Unlike regular hobs, I crafted these on purpose. I gave them a more ordered magical core, more intelligence, and a desire to be happy and helpful. Unfortunately, I forgot that hobs are still uncontrollable. The ‘happy’ parts somehow got translated into mischief, and as for the helpful…”
“It was a good wax job on the floor,” Ayla grumped.
“Well they looked really good,” Jade complimented. “Even better than my pixies, ‘cause these glowed.”
“Pressure-pumped phosphor dust!” Bunny announced, in the way of devisors and mad scientists everywhere.
“It probably would have been okay if I hadn’t gotten worked up,” Nikki admitted. “The darned things are self-limiting. They naturally evaporate in about twenty minutes, and the whole reproduction thing doesn’t change that. I still haven’t figured that part out. Regular hobs don’t do that.”
“It was your duty to stop them,” Chou concluded. “You couldn’t let them run free to cause havoc.”
“They probably wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t chased them,” Nikki admitted. “Like I said, I’m not sure quite what I created, but they were very different from regular hobgoblins. For one thing, they were almost magnetic for other magic. They managed to suck up and merge with a couple of very minor Class Two knots. After merging, they had characteristics of both. I think it was me blasting around with power that fed them as much as anything.”
“Hmmm.” Hank had a disturbingly crafty look on his face.
“I know that look!” Billie accused. “What’s running around in your far-too-male little mind?”
“Well,” Hank drawled, “we’re going to have team combat classes next term, right?” Receiving the expected nods, he continued. “I’m not saying those little pests are appropriate for all situations, or even most, but imagine that you’ve been isolated and surrounded, Nikki. The rest of the team is out or away. What could possibly be a better desperation plan than to unleash an absolute horde of intelligent, self-directed, multiplying mischief makers? And if a few dozen get blown away, so what?”
“Why am I suddenly dreading next term?” Ayla wondered out loud.
“Maybe she should get some practice, first,” Toni suggested.
“Good idea,” Hank agreed. “But nowhere that juniors or seniors are likely to hang out.”
Jade was repacking, again.
She held up a pair of Billie’s laciest panties. “Hey, I just had a great idea!”
Billie glanced over and flushed in embarrassment. “Do you have to hold those up like that?”
Jade didn’t even pause as she launched into her idea. “So, you’re all worried about your little brother and your bigger brother, and how they’re both going to flip now that you’ve grown boobs and gone all babe-a-licious on them, right?”
“Babe-a-licious isn’t a word.”
“Toni-sempai says it is. Anyway, here’s my idea: what if we dress you like a guy! You know, boxer shorts and a baggy flannel shirt (really baggy, if we want to conceal a chest like that), and maybe a cap for your hair. One of the make-up girls could give you some beard stubble or something…”
“Jade, I have remedial math in,” she glanced at the clock, “fifty-three minutes. I’ve got to finish re-reading this chapter.”
“Okay, it was just an idea. I’ll shut up.”
Which lasted all of ten seconds.
“So what if you showed up in a wheelchair?”
“Solicitor, Incorporated. What is the nature of this call?”
“Uh, hi. My name’s ‘Fey’ and I work with a girl named ‘Poise.’ We both attend Whateley Academy, a private school in New England. Poise recommended you as a possible agent for a modeling career.”
“You’ll be wanting to talk to Solicitor himself, then. That will be just a moment, please hold on.”
Nikki was stretched out on her bed, face down. Her legs were kicked up in the air, but not immodestly. She was lying on top of a pillow, and jotting notes on her school notepad. In addition to the questions she planned to ask, she was taking notes on each of her calls.
The phone jolted back to life. “This is Solicitor! How the heck can I help you? Another Whateley alum, eh? Always glad to meet another graduate of the old alma mater! And we’ve got the alma that really matters, don’t we? Ha ha ha ha.”
“Actually,” Nikki corrected, “I’m not a graduate yet. I’m still a freshman.”
“Whoa! Robbing the cradle, huh? Gee kid, maybe you should wait a few years before you shoot for the big time, know what I mean? I though Poise knew better than that.”
“No, she just gave me your number because the stalkers from the other agencies have been so persistent. I’m trying to figure out how to keep them off my back, and Poise recommended getting an agent.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “What did you say your name was again?”
“Fey. I’ve got a poster with the Sierra Club, and I did this short little shoot called ‘Christmas Elf and friends.’ That’s why everyone’s—”
“FEY! Why didn’t you say so!”
She overheard some conversation on the other end of the line: “Little idiot! Why didn’t you tell me it was Fey!” “But sir!”
“Fey, baby. I’m so sorry! Of course I’d love to rep you! With a face like yours, a figure like yours – did you say freshman? Oh, I’m sure we can come to an agreement that’s mutually satisfactory. Say, you elves don’t ever age, do you? Young and beautiful forever? Babe, with me as your agent you’ll have it made in the shade! That’s my personal guarantee!”
Nikki made a vague “hmm hmm” sound, and wondered if she could perhaps get Thuban as her agent, instead. He was probably less reptilian than this guy. “Look, I have a few questions, first.”
“That’s great! But what say we just cut to the chase and I give you all the real reasons why I am absolutely, positively, the best agent for you, okay?” Without allowing time for a reply, the man bulldozed on. “First, you’re from Whateley, so you know how things stand. I bet that right now, you’re maybe reeling a bit from my style, huh? Too brash, too loud, too fast? I don’t blame you! I was in your shoes once. That’s just how business is, here on the west coast. You have to play by the rules, if you’re going to swim in the stream, get what I’m saying? Now, my skill at Whateley, if you catch my drift, was a very mild receptive empathy. A touch of Package Deal Psychic, but nothing to write home about. Not like people that I’m sure you hang with every day. No, my main talent is that of simpatico. I feel my people and feel for them. I’ve blended in with the Hollywood crowd 110%. Some would say I’m too Hollywood, but they’re just jealous. We meet in person, and within ten minutes I will be mellowed out and talking to you at a pace and style that you like best – I guarantee it! So don’t let my manner put you off. That’s just surface, not depth, you got me babe?
“Second, my skills – and I’m open, I don’t try to hide it or cheat my clients, customers, or anyone else. Ask anyone, they’ll tell you that Solicitor is the best of the best, the straightest shooter there is. My skills, like I say, give me a HUGE advantage. Why? I’ll tell you. A director wants a spot filled. He’s got an image in mind, a feel in his head. He’s good at directing, but not so good at describing. But I can feel him out, I know in a flash what he’s thinking, and faster than you can say Champion I’m there with a model or actress and she is flat-out perfect! The other agents hate it, but what can they do? I’m not cheating, I’m not manipulating, I’m just that good!
“But that’s not my only skill. I’ve been to law school. I’ve passed the bar. I’m licensed to practice both civil and criminal law in the great state of California, and 37 other states in our union. You having problems with the MCO? I can help. Mutant harassment? I’m there, baby! Discrimination, paternity suit? Oh, not like the latter would be a problem in your case. You know I repped Michael Jackson on that latest sham-blackmail bit? Stupid gold-digging little kids. I can write out your contracts, evaluate them, and even notarize them myself. I am a God-damned one-stop shop, pardon my French.
“But that’s not my only skill. Here in the county, you’re only as good as your contacts. And I have contacts like you wouldn’t believe. I mentioned Michael, didn’t I? Thought so. I did Brando for a bit, before he moved on. Why am I even bothering to tell you, did Poise give you my web site?”
Here the man actually paused to let Nikki get a word in edgewise.
“Fabulous! Stellar! Get online, check it out. See who I’m repping. That practically speaks for itself. Now, I’m a member of the S.A.G. myself – did a couple of walk-on roles – but the main reason is so that I can pay the dues, support a truly great organization, and really get a feeling for what you actresses go through, what your needs are.”
“I’m really more interested in the modeling,” Nikki managed to squeeze in.
“And I respect that! No one works harder than our supermodels, and you have the look to make you as super as the best of them. But the occasional spot of acting doesn’t hurt either. It really broadens the appeal, fires up the fandom. I’m just asking you to consider it, that’s all I’m saying…”
Toni watched her roommate with great amusement. This latest call might be the best. Nikki was on the bed and she’d started out easily enough, introducing herself. That was followed by about three minutes of rapid-fire babble coming through the other end of the phone.
“Yes—” Nikki would occasionally say “but—” or “I don’t think I—” and once a “No, that’s not at all—”. After ten minutes of that, Nikki finally hung up, then lay there staring at the phone like it might bite her.
“Having fun yet?” Toni asked.
“The man is a mutant,” Nikki whispered in horror. “He never needs to inhale. He can just talk and talk and talk… forever!”
“Sounds pretty frightening,” Toni agreed. “What’s he go by, BlatherBoy?”
“No, Solicitor. He really is a mutant. Said he was a PDP.”
“Mutant agents. And I thought the stuff you hear out of Hollywood was just hype.”
“He’s a mutant agent lawyer.”
“And he’s representing Michael Jackson.”
“Mothers, hide your children.”
“He’s big time. I mean, real big time. And he wants me.”
“You sound underwhelmed.”
“Well, I was getting a total sleaziness vibe off him. But he’s so well connected.”
“So is a serial rapist, but people don’t get in line for that.”
After a moment, Nikki still hadn’t said anything more, so Toni asked, “Are you actually thinking about this guy?”
“Poise was right,” Nikki admitted. “I kind of owe it—to a lot of people—to do some of this. This guy has the contacts and the pull to get me in at the top level.”
“But you don’t like him.”
“That was a first impression! Who knows for sure?”
“I’ll have to think about it,” Nikki decided.
Tuesday, December 19
“What was I thinking?” Billie moaned.
“What?” Jade wondered.
“I told you that my parents worked for the CIA.”
Jade nodded. “Yeah, that first day. I think it was during the get acquainted tour with Beltane. Maybe down by Noah Whateley’s statue?”
Billie slammed her head against the wall a few times. “It’s – supposed – to – be – a – secret.”
“Oneesan! Stop!” Jade cried, rushing forward. “You’re denting the wall.”
“Gee, thanks for the concern.”
“Oh, come on. You’ve been pounded on by the best. A little wall isn’t going to hurt you.” Jade looked up at her roommate and best friend, opening her eyes wide. “You’re really worried about this, aren’t you?”
Billie cringed. “Around Whateley I figured, ‘No big deal.’ I mean, Nikki’s dad practically runs DARPA, we know the secret identity of the next Champion, and it seems like the fate of the world is being either saved or threatened by some student every few weeks, and we’re all hanging around together using our real names. But that was inside Whateley. Now I’m about to go home and live in a ‘normal’ house and you have to pretend like you’re buying the cover story. ‘Cause if Mom and Dad find out I blabbed…”
Jade held Billie’s gaze. “I won’t let anyone know that your parents work for the CIA. I won’t give them a reason to even be suspicious of me. Well, about that, at least. I promise.”
“I…” Billie looked down into those sincere brown eyes and somehow knew that Jade would never break that promise. “Okay. But still, what if they ask me if I was good? What do I tell them?”
Jade scrunched her face up in concentration. Then she straightened. You could almost see the light bulb over her head. “You ask, ‘Hey, is my baby going to be a mutant?’”
“My…!” Billie appeared to be suddenly choking on something.
“You tell them, ‘Oh, don’t worry. I’m not pregnant. Not yet.’”
“…yet…?” The choking was bad enough that Billie was almost turning blue.
“’But I’m a mutant (obviously),’ you’ll tell them, ‘and my older brother—’ what’s his name?”
“Larry…” Billie gasped out, delighted to talk about something that didn’t involve her impregnation.
“Right. ‘Larry is a mutant, and I’m a mutant (which is obvious, like I said), and both of you are mutants, and I heard how if, like, both parents are mutants and using their powers and stuff, then the kids are pretty likely to end up with powers, too? Have you heard anything like that? Which is why I’m wondering about my baby, since pretty much all the guys I see during the school year are mutants…’ And if you ask ‘em that, I can pretty well guarantee that whatever subject you were talking about before will be completely forgotten in the panic about mutant grandbabies…”
Billie caught her breath, almost hyperventilating after losing control of her own breathing so badly.
“…and you becoming a teen-aged mother.”
“Erk! Choking again…”
“I can’t take any more!”
The early crowd at Crystal Hall watched as one of the juniors lost it. He’d been shaking pretty badly, but on the way into the domed cafeteria he suddenly began yelling, before completely erupting into flames. Most everyone took a healthy step back (except for the toughest bricks and shielders, who pretty much ignored everything). The call went out, and within seconds you could see the five members of The Wild Pack (they hated being called “The Betas”) sprinting toward the trouble. Security also appeared, although they were approaching at a more cautious pace.
“Why do they DO this to us? I didn’t ask for any of this! Why couldn’t I be going to a normal school, with gang violence and shootings, and easy stuff like that?”
The tall figure of Stormwolf had just finished slamming on his helmet and was reaching forward as he ran.
“I’m not ready for this! Aaaaaah!” And with that, the flaming student rocketed straight up into the sky, exploding at an altitude of about 400 feet.
Fortunately, the rest of the Wild Pack arrived in time. His fall back to earth took a full five seconds, which was plenty of time to stage an acrobatic rescue. The Pack caught his falling body, slinging it from one to the other as they eased his return to the ground and gently broke his fall.
“Nothing to worry about,” Stormwolf assured the blasé crowd. “Just finals jitters. We’ll take him to the nurse’s office. He’ll be back to normal in time for his final.”
The crowd nodded and turned back to the serious business of lunch.
“—his own fault. How many years have we been doing this? You have to learn how to cope.”
“Yeah. Thank God for the iPod.”
“I heard that someone snuck in a new Devisor Coffee.”
“Another senseless tragedy caused by Devisor Coffee? When will they learn?”
“Hey, I’d pay for that stuff, other times of the year.”
“Huh? How is that supposed to make sense?”
“…pleased to have a chance to talk to you, Miss Reilly. I’m Donald Finklestein.”
Nikki lay back on her bed, cradling the phone against her ear while idly kicking up first one leg, then the other, and peering at her toes, as if searching for some fascinating secret. “I’ll level with you, Mr. Finklestein. I’ve been talking to a lot of agents this week. It all came about because of this ‘Christmas Elf’ shoot I did, and the fallout from that. I’m finally admitting that I need an agent. But, like I said, I’ve spoken with a lot of them. Why should I choose you over any of the others?”
“I’ll be honest, Miss Reilly. I’ve only been in this business for the past five years, so I’m a relative newcomer. There is no way that I could demonstrate the same depth of contacts, of long-term relationships that some of the agents have. That’s not to say that I don’t know the key people – I do – but they won’t be as quick to either call me or return my calls as they would be with someone like BlackJack Lewis or Dustan Cobb. Those men have a stable so big you don’t dare alienate them. They have the pull and influence to either make a production, or shut it down. At the same time, that brings a certain disadvantage for you, the client.”
“Well, let’s say you sign with Cobb. His stable of models, actors, and actresses is over 2000 people. How much attention do you think you’re going to get in that crowd? And before I go on, let me say that I’m fully aware of exactly who you are and the potential you represent. Even so, for someone like Cobb, you’re an important talent, a rising star, but still one in a crop of 2000.”
“And to you I would be…?”
“Well, I’m a peculiar man, Miss Reilly. First, my stable is fairly small. I’m currently managing eleven people, and that includes Carol Vanning, Jill Fleming, and Linda Noir.”
Nikki frowned to herself. “I’ve heard of Linda Noir, but the other two…”
“Exactly. Which is another one of my points. I’m not really an agent. I can and do perform all of that work, but I’m really more of a public relations manager. Carol Vanning and Jill Fleming do promotional events, some publicity work, and even a touch of high-visibility modeling work. But they’re not career models. They have other things they want to do with their lives.”
Nikki nodded, unconsciously. “So, a public relations manager? How is that different from being an agent?”
“First my pay is structured differently, unless you want me to operate purely as an agent. Second… consider the Queen of England, or Bill Gates. Both of them are famous in their own right, and have important things they do with their time. They aren’t full-time models, but they do need to control their image. They need someone to handle the press, handle the images, handle how their likeness and name are used. And, upon occasion, they may do a shoot for money, or as some sort of benefit. In which case, their public relations manager functions as an agent for a brief period of time. This is the primary difference between someone like me, and someone like Dustan Cobb. He wants you to get as much work as possible, as often as possible, at the best pay. I do something completely different.”
“Excellent point,” Nikki agreed. “And now that you put it that way, you’re right. I am looking for a public relations manager, rather than an agent. But I’ll still be looking for the occasional modeling job, like the Sierra Club poster I did.”
“I saw that,” Finklestein agreed. “I have that poster. I saw the ‘Christmas Elf’ thing, too. I agree with virtually everyone else who’s even touched that – it’s going to be huge. I just don’t see how anything can happen for this Christmas. We’re just too late in the season.”
“I agree,” Nikki said. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t kept the stalkers from mobbing me.”
“There’s probably one other thing you should know about me,” Finklestein admitted.
Nikki felt a sudden lurch in her stomach. “Yes?”
“Well… people think I’m a bit of a xenophile. I mean, my clients are mutants or non-humans. All of them. They’re all what we in the business call ‘Exotics.’ If you’re afraid of getting stereotyped or typecast, then I might not be your best choice.”
“I appreciate your honesty.” Nikki sighed. “I’m afraid that I’ll probably never again be able to pass for a human. Except for disguise magic, which would also pretty much eliminate any need for an agent. No, that shouldn’t be an issue.” After a moment of thought, she concluded, “You’ve given me a lot to consider, Mr. Finklestein. I will get back to you within two days, I promise.”
“Thank you, Miss Reilly.”
“No, thank you.”
Hekate slipped away, ignoring the current combat tests. The next group up wasn’t hers, and she knew this test would take a while. Meanwhile, in the confusion of finals, no one even noticed. She was still careful as she crossed the innocent-seeming stone fence that marked the perimeter of campus.
You’d think they’d know better, she thought contemptuously of her fellow students.
Most of the students thought that the low stone fence that circled campus was a property boundary. But like so much of Whateley, it was a mystic construct so grand that it took the breath away. At the same time, it was hidden in plain sight, in such a drab, obvious façade that the mystically ignorant missed it entirely. A rude fence of piled stone, ho-hum. In truth, the perimeter fence was a mystic circle exactly one Roman league in diameter, constructed to appear haphazard though it was in fact mystically precise. It had been layered over generations with power for containment and protection. Though it was intangible to foes of the mundane variety, mystic intruders were forced to exert the greatest effort to pierce this barrier. And such an intrusion could not be made silently, which was the true point behind the barrier.
In addition to the mystic defense, campus security had peppered the area inside and outside the circle with surveillance devices. But those devices were mere technology. Her dark tutor had demonstrated early on how magic trumped technology. As much as she owned her true name, Hekate owned her image, her body warmth, and even the sounds she made. There were ways to reclaim those possessions, though they took power, knowledge, and preparation. She triggered those spells now, and the simplistic devices never recorded her image, the sonar buoys never painted the echo of an intruding body.
Whateley’s Outer Circle was the true challenge, particularly since she practically glowed with magic. Evading the technology had made her all the more obvious to mystic senses. The circle reported to its current wardens, whom she suspected were senior members of the campus’ magic department – Circe, Ophelia Tenent, Earth Mother, perhaps even Headmistress Carson herself. It was best not to come to their attention. But again, her mentor’s teaching gave her the trick of it. Without guile or deception, she let her intentions be clear. She was a legitimate student here, and she had implicit permission to enter and leave campus. She intended no harm to the campus at large, and none to the student body in general. In those intentions she was clear and honest.
And that was all that was required to pass through without detection or hindrance.
The trek took two miles. This time, the site was unimpressive. Merely a clearing, with some sort of irregular black stain in the center. That was all. Merely a subtle landmark that would never even be noticed by someone who wasn’t a sensitive.
Her mentor had warned her that he might be late. His tutelage had taught Hekate the necessity of patience. She stood, shuffling from foot to foot as she waited. She’d dressed warmly, which was wise since there was still a crust of snow on the ground.
After five minutes, she realized something odd about the “stain.” It had sharp edges. Leaves had fallen across the boundary of the black stain, and had become tainted themselves, but only on the portion “inside” the stain.
It’s probably just a paint spill, she thought, kicking new leaves to cover it.
She looked away for a while. Looking back, she realized that the new leaves were now marked. The “stain” had been transmitted to them, in exactly the same size and shape.
A bit worried, she poked a stick into the dark area, to see what was there. But there was nothing. Just bare ground, stained black.
When she withdrew the stick, the portion that had been “inside” slumped loosely. It had lost the stiffness of the rest of the stick, and seemed to have become slightly gelatinous, like the body of a slug. Then it began to emit a pus-like foam. Hekate flung the stick from herself.
She turned away from the blight, but then her mind kept wondering, What sort of creature might crawl out of a stain like that?
So then she turned to watch it, but then her mind wondered, What would it be like, to reach my hand into that place? And the thought grew and grew, like a sick compulsion.
She was nearly ready to scream, when a voice suddenly spoke from behind her.
“I trust you’ve been able to keep yourself entertained?”
“No, I think not, my dear. I think not.”
“Whatever.” Hekate responded with a little snort. She forgot her fright the same way she forgot anything that didn’t suit her. “I’m here. Did you come up with anything?”
“So impatient.” As always, her mentor was an unseen figure hidden beneath an all-concealing brown cloak. The only clue she had to his identity was that he was only a few inches taller than her, and that his voice was so deep it rumbled.
“You know, it would be easier if you didn’t force me to hike all the way out here into the woods!” she retorted.
“Ah, is little Hekate upset?” He questioned with a touch of amusement in his voice.
She winced internally as he said that, hating the way this one managed to make her feel almost insignificant. “Yes. Sebastiano is taking a vacation over Christmas break leaving me high and dry with the ritual. And he’s doing it deliberately.”
“The difficulties of your questionable love life don’t interest me, dear.” He answered with a chuckle. “What does concern me is that the Thrall spell I gave you is very time sensitive. It must be renewed before the full year has passed or your thralls will be free and able to talk about what was done to them. That would be somewhat detrimental to you, my dear.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Hekate assured. “All I need do is set things up, order Cav and Sky-slut into the circle and re-zap them. They’ll walk willingly into anything I tell them to, whether it’s a Fool’s Circle or a bonfire.”
“I agree, you make it sound simple,” her master agreed. “Unless you plan to add someone else this year. What’s going on under that black ponytail of yours?”
“Okay, I’m busted,” Hekate admitted. But then it wouldn’t have been that hard for him to figure out, given the info she’d asked for. “Sebastiano’s had the hots for some stupid freshman twat all semester.”
“Which of the troublesome freshmen from Team Kimba is he setting his sights on now?” The amusement in his voice was mixed with real interest.
“Nikki Reilly,” Hekate nearly spat out. “That so called sidhe queen. What a joke. I mean, I’ll admit that she’s showing promise. Her combat final was good, and she did even better when she led her friends to do a major slam-down on some Alpha wanna-bes called The Turks a few days ago. And yeah, yeah, I got the part about her being the reincarnation of some ancient and powerful elf queen. I haven’t traced down which one, so far.”
“Aunghadhail the Warrior Queen,” her mentor said quietly. “Paramount of the Nine Queens and Queen of the West. Taking that one in thrall would grant you more power than I think even you might use. I think you underestimate how dangerous she can be.”
“Reincarnation or not,” Hekate said, decisively, “she’s still just a stupid freshman. Whatever she might have been a billion years ago, she’s been reborn and has to start from scratch. Just ‘cause everyone calls her a queen doesn’t mean she is one. Yet.” But the promise of power spun in such a lovely way in her mind. “If she’s really got the potential to be all that, so much the better for someone who can catch her now, while she’s vulnerable, right? And with power like that… maybe I’ll be kicking Sebastiano out of my bed. See how he likes that!”
She stopped the laugh before it even started, and turned to face her cloaked master. “So, I told you I needed her weakness. Just like always. You feed me the details and I’ll handle the tough part.”
“If you think securing the details isn’t hard, you have a lot to learn, girl. But as it will always be, I know the answers. Nikki Reilly is a true sidhe, with both the strengths and weaknesses of that race. In particular, she is unable to bear contact with cold iron. In addition to the pain and suffering it will cause her, it will completely negate her magical power. I would suggest that you have a locking shackle made in her size.” His voice took on a tone of unholy glee. “I’ll leave the task of capturing her and getting her into the shackle as an exercise for the student. Aside from that, your hardest task will be coercing her into the circle. Remember that she must enter of her own free will, although threats, deception, and trickery are allowed.”
“That part will be easy enough, if I have the right incentives handy.” She flashed a quick, nasty grin. “The girl has family somewhere. She’s about to go home. She’ll think she’s safe. Then it’s just a matter of catching her at home, or using a parent or younger sister. Either that, or I’ll find some other handy incentive, believe me.”
Even her mentor seemed a bit taken aback by that. “That’s quite a gamble, isn’t it? Touching a student’s home or family – if word of that gets out, it won’t just be the heroes after you. You’ll have Paramount, The Syndicate, you wouldn’t even be able to go to Karedonia for refuge.”
The girl squirmed uncomfortably for a moment, but she remembered her humiliation and set her jaw. “I don’t care!”
The cloaked man chuckled again. “Just checking. If you’re subtle enough, you can mess with family and they’ll never know.”
He bowed his head and seemed to consider.
“Nikki Reilly has gained considerable attention lately. Darrow, that young fool, can’t seem to talk about anything else.” He nodded to himself. “Between Darrow and the west coast… Yes. I can leverage this. The Syndicate is everywhere. I may be able to give you some extra back-up. IF you don’t let them know that you touched the girl’s home or family.”
The girl was unimpressed. “I’ll manage, trust me. And with Syndicate backup…” she smiled.
“Fine. Give me a contact and location, and I’ll make sure The Syndicate is there for you. You’ve got a tight schedule for this. Will you have enough time to pull everything together?”
“More than enough,” Hekate nodded.
“I will, of course, require a fair portion of the power that you gain when you snare the Reilly girl,” her mentor reminded.
This was the part that Hekate hated most. “All that I have, all that I am is yours, Master,” she ritually intoned.
“Just so that you still know that.”
“Believe me, Master, I do.”
And if, she thought, the stupid freshman is as powerful as everyone seems to think, well, once she’s my total mind-slave, maybe it’ll be time to reconsider that whole master-apprentice deal. Perhaps a renegotiation will be in order.
Hekate smiled. “I could never forget, Master.”
Wednesday, December 20
“Ready for your last day of tests?” Toni kidded.
“Definitely,” Nikki agreed. “I’ve got Home Ec. this morning. That should be no problems.”
“I don’t know,” her amber-eyed roommate argued. “I’ve tasted your cookies. Those little star-shaped ones made pretty good shuriken.”
“In your hands, anything makes a pretty good shuriken. Anyway, those cookies were made for a refined palate.”
“Maybe we should ask Ayla’s opinion. She tried one, didn’t she?”
“Look, can we forget about the damn cookies?”
Toni raised her hands in a calming gesture. “Whoa, what’s up?”
“Oh, you’re lucky!” Nikki grumped. “The combat final counts for Martial Arts. You get the afternoon off. I’ve still got Tenent’s Principles of Magic.”
Toni rolled her eyes. “Riiight. Like you couldn’t teach that course, with Unga-dunga’s help.”
“No, I have to do this on my own!”
“What’s the real problem? You aren’t stressed over your magic final.”
Nikki hung her head. Her graceful curls tumbled the wrong way, and she looked completely different from the pristine and proper image she usually presented. “thu jents” she mumbled.
“The agents. I still haven’t decided on the agents! I’ve narrowed it down to Finklestein and Solicitor, and Solicitor’s going to be flying in this afternoon.”
Toni raised her eyebrows at that. “He’s flying in here? To Whateley?”
“He’s an alumnus.”
The elegant senior snapped her head around. “Solicitor?”
The man wore a white suit and made the matching fedora look extremely fashionable.
“In the flesh, baby doll. How the hell are you?”
She smiled indulgently. “You don’t have to schmooze me so hard, Sol. I’m not one of your clients.”
“Hey, it never hurts to practice.”
Her nod was agreeable, if non-committal.
“So,” the agent continued, “where’s my girls? And where’s this ‘Fey’ girl you recommended me to? I owe you for the referral, babe.”
“I’ll send her your way if I see her, Sol. But it’s finals week – you know how hectic that can be. I’m afraid I’ll have to go.”
“Sure thing, doll. I’ve got other clients to catch.” His eye picked up another client. “Solange! How is my most beautiful client! Let me look at you…”
Finally having some free time for her finals, Hekate has moved to her own specially prepared grotto. It wasn’t connected to The Underground, and since she often worked skyclad, she certainly hadn’t revealed the location to any of the boys. She’d even kept it secret from her brainless little servant, Skybolt. This place was entirely hers, protected by subtle spells, an obscure location, are an artfully encouraged set of natural disguises.
Hekate had just finished the auguries. Her auguries had always proven accurate, as with the poorly-received prediction of the Kimbas’ fight against the Young Turks, just a few days before. Accurate in retrospect, but somewhat unclear beforehand.
Hekate had received an “A” in her divination class. Unlike the joke class from the Harry Potter stories, students at Whateley needed to cast real spells and predict real future events (usually something about the combat finals, which were of interest to everyone but notoriously hard to predict).
This time, the oracular information had arrived in rhyme. As with everything else, auguries were hard to force and kept to a form of their own choosing.
Now that she had obtained the words of the prophecy, it was time to face the trickiest aspect of all: interpretation.
The first verse seemed plain enough. Clearly, the weakness to cold iron was an Achilles’ Heel. The first passage seemed to recommend proceeding with that, while simultaneously warning that she had to account for every detail. As the saying went, “The devil is in the details.” And if her plan missed some vital detail, that flaw would unravel the entire plot and “your victory may steal.”
Which meant that her scheme had to be spot on. The initial ambush, the location for the casting, her spell ingredients, her pronunciation, everything!
It was so important that this warning was repeated in the second verse. And yet, it also promised that if she kept track of the details and if she had the courage to pursue things, then she would win! It promised both that “Your dreams of power shall prevail,” and “You’ll join untold ancient might!” She herself would gain Nikki’s ancient magical power, at least in some fashion.
Clearly, her only worry was the details. And the prophecy promised that if she didn’t muff the details, Nikki’s power would be hers!
Thursday, December 21
In addition to packing, Jade was going just a bit crazy trying to figure out what to wear.
“I mean,” she explained, “my school uniform is the nicest thing I have. Well, I could wear one of the great dresses that Stephen got me, but that’s way over the top for a plane flight. But the uniform is too schooly, I think. I wanna wear a tube top and skirt. Now that I have at least a little shape, I mean. Is Colorado cold this time of year? ‘Cause that outfit would be pretty chilly. But if I wore a hoodie and a wool skirt, I’d look too sloppy. These are your parents! They have to like me!”
Tennyo took a deep breath and decided that it was all just good incentive to study. In the library.
Tansy was on her way to the arena again. She’d been through one harrowing combat situation already, but the upper grades didn’t get off so easily as the freshmen and sophomores. The babies only got one test. Even for those that got a tough test, they only had to face one. The juniors and seniors weren’t so lucky. You might get called up once as a team, twice individually, and then again to form part of a mob. If your luck totally sucked, you’d get something really original. It was a continual set of exercises, and the waiting could be the worst part. Waiting, waiting, never knowing. Each day you switched to a different arena, and each day the instructors, situation, and opponents made a new variation. It was an overlapping matrix of suffering.
Tansy didn’t specialize in combat – she was more talented with subtlety and information gathering. And without her membership in The Alphas, she didn’t even have a team. That didn’t let her out of the team test, it just threw her in with other “unmatched singletons.”
She surveyed the students around her, as they all trudged listlessly through The Underground on their way to the arena of the day. Losers and weaklings, most of them, with an unhealthy sprinkling of GSD freaks.
My life is hell, she decided, for the tenth time that week.
But, on the way there, someone tugged on her sleeve. She ignored it and jerked her arm forward, but the tugging came again. Angrily, she turned to deliver a verbal flaying – but found herself facing Skybolt.
“The mistress wants to talk to you.”
“Can’t,” Tansy growled out. “I’ve got tests.”
Skybolt consulted a small notebook. “You’re safe. Your next test won’t start before 2 PM, at the earliest.”
Which confirmed that there would be another test. “Crap.” Tansy shrugged. “What the hell, let’s go talk to the big cheese. It can’t be worse than finals.”
She followed Skybolt through the maze of passageways. Skybolt had a decent figure, and her walk certainly displayed her too-large butt to its best advantage.
Still, Tansy thought, well trained from two years with the modeling club, I’m about fifty times better. No, make that a hundred times.
Skybolt paused, placed a hand on the blank wall beside a featureless door, and the door slid aside for her. “Inside, ma’am,” she politely suggested.
Tansy stuck her head through the door, saw what appeared to be Hekate, alone. She decided, Oh, what the hell, and willingly walked into the lion’s den.
Inside, the stone walls had been softened with tapestries. A trio of couches was set up, and a decent-size flatscreen monitor was showing the arena. Seated at one couch, holding a champagne flute filled with some bubbly lavender beverage, Hekate gestured her inward.
“Welcome! Come in Tansy. Enjoy the match, away from the hustle and bustle of the unwashed masses.”
Tansy inclined her head. “Hekate.”
“Please! We’re friends. I’d like to think so, at least. Call me by name – Kallysta. I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything other than sodas. We need to keep ready for our matches, don’t we?”
Hekate – Kallysta – gestured Skybolt forward, then held out a piece of chalk. “Circle,” she ordered the other girl.
While Tansy made herself comfortable, Skybolt scribed a circle in chalk around the perimeter of the room.
“Good. Wait outside,” Kallysta ordered.
Once the door closed, the witch moved to the center of the room and chanted briefly in Latin. Tansy still remembered enough of her prep-school Latin to recognized words like “blind” and “deaf”. The circle flared with crimson energy, then faded again.
“There,” Kallysta cooed. “It’s so nice when you don’t have to worry about rude little eavesdroppers, don’t you agree?”
Tansy sat back, sipping at her flute. “What do you want from me? You’re the head Alpha. It seems like I don’t have anything anyone wants these days.”
“Not true. Not true at all. I believe you have something that I want, quite dearly.”
“And you’re offering?”
“Let’s say we just eliminate those little disagreements you’ve been having with the rest of the Alphas. Back in good graces, full standing, inner circle.”
Tansy had enough self-control not to choke on her drink. “That must be quite a request you have. What do you want? An arm, or a leg? Maybe my neck.”
“Oooo, how suspicious!” Kallysta pursed her lips as if she were going to kiss an owie. “No, no, no. I want a whole body. A very specific someone.”
“In other words, you want me to sell them out.”
“You make it sound so cruel. She won’t suffer a bit. She’ll be perfectly happy. Forever.”
Tansy was no idiot. Her eyes flashed to the doorway, seeking out the last position of Skybolt. She suddenly had a very good idea exactly what Hekate was talking about. With that, her palms began to sweat. She forced herself to take a leisurely sip of her drink. It was an old trick for feigning calm during high-pressure business deals.
Finally, “I can do that,” she admitted. “Depending on who we’re talking about. What do you need? And who do you need?”
“Nikki Reilly. I believe you do some modeling with her, don’t you?”
Tansy barely kept hold of her glass. She took another sip, trying to think calm thoughts. It wasn’t working.
“Why don’t you just ask for Champion’s head on a plate. It might be easier.”
“Everyone overestimates that girl!” Hekate stormed. “You don’t know magic, I do! And take it from me, her magic is nowhere near her reputation. Yes, she’s impressive, she’s made amazing progress in just one semester. But she’s nowhere near my level yet. Remember what I have accomplished!” Her eyes flicked to the doorway that Skybolt had exited. “Everyone knows, and they haven’t even begun to figure out how I managed that. Believe me, I’m more than her match in magic.”
Calming herself slightly, Kallysta settled back into her seat. “Nikki Reilly does have some powerful advantages. She has looks; there’s no denying that. She is skilled. Maybe not in my league, but very impressive for a freshman. Most importantly, though, she hangs around with some of this year’s most powerful freshmen. I don’t need to tell you what Chaka did to Montana.”
Tansy shuddered, reminded of Montana’s gigantic, hairy frame.
“And Phase has been making a name for herself lately. Lancer would kill for those girls, and he’s a monster, albeit a good-looking one. A scattering of support troops. And then there’s Tennyo, who’s so damn scary that even Whateley won’t let her throw so much as a single punch, unless it’s shielded behind our most powerful force field.”
“Fey was part of the quartet that took down the Turks this past Sunday. They were even outnumbered.”
“I said she was no slouch! But Bladedancer can take out Nex! Face to face, she took down Nex! We’ve already talked about Chaka. Even their little devisor pulled her weight, between force fields, and summoning that dead thing, and missiles and robots galore. But if you strip all of Fey’s support away, then she’s vulnerable…”
Tansy sipped. “Good luck. That’ll be quite a trick unless you’re planning to follow her … back … home…” Tansy Walcutt suddenly realized that she was in over her head. “Oh, no. No, I’m not getting involved in anything like that! Do you know that Carson lost family to a home raid? You know what she’d do to me, not to mention every what every super team and bounty hunter out there would do? Oh, no!”
“You have an ‘in’ in Poe, don’t you?”
Tansy slashed the air with her hand. “It doesn’t matter! Not for something like this!”
“A little investigation, a little tracking, and your part is done. That’s all I’m asking.”
“I can’t. The risks are too high!”
“You just haven’t found a bargain you like yet,” the witch argued persuasively. “The number two spot in the Alphas, right under me.”
“Doesn’t matter if you’re dead.”
“Alright, I can play that way. The number two spot in the Alphas if I come back as the biggest thing since Champion the First. And if I don’t come back, you’re the top bitch. You walk right into my spot. I can guarantee it – agreements, contacts, influence, the works.”
Tansy shook her head. “You could put that in writing—”
“With a magically bound signature.”
“—and it still wouldn’t be enough. Has The Don even agreed to this?”
Hekate screwed up her face and spat. “That bastard? He’d be nothing without me! I’m doing this deal, and I’ll make it stick, whatever the hell he thinks about it! Everything The Alphas own, lockers, skyboxes, privileges, prizes, and plunder – it’s all under lock, key, and code owned by the leaders. That means me and his-bastardly-self. Blackmail files, payoff records, favors owed and promised. But Don-the-dick is too lazy to do his own dirty work, so he has ‘his man’ Cavalier handle it. Which is fine, except that I own Cavalier, right down to his soul. What say we re-arrange things over at The Alphas? Why shouldn’t the keys and access be divided up between the two of us?”
Tansy gulped, although the offer was becoming extremely tempting.
“You have another team final at 2:30 this afternoon, or shortly after. Let’s say that Hamper and Damper are suddenly part of your ‘team.’ They can take down nearly anyone.”
Tansy liked her lips, feeling the heat. “Not good enough.”
“Who are you rooming with these days?”
“Sahar, not that it matters.”
The witch looked concerned. “Ooo, that must be unpleasant. Tell you what, why don’t I have you transferred over to Melville? And next semester, we’ll have you rooming with, oh, let’s say… Skybolt. That way she can do your clothes, and your wash, and pretty much anything you can think of, because you’ll have your own damned slave!”
That thought sent of a storm of sparks through Tansy’s perverted little mind. It also generated a warm churning feeling in her tummy.
“What? Why would I want that? I’m not even interested in anything like that!”
“Someone protests too much. No, what I meant was someone to make your bed and clean your toilets and do every little thing a good servant does. I’ve trained her up pretty well, if I do say so myself. But like I said, you could order her to pluck out her own eyes and she’d do it. What. Ever. You. Want. She’ll do anything.”
Tansy licked her lips again.
“But, silly me,” Kallysta said. “You haven’t even said you could do it.”
“Oh, I could do it,” Tansy assured. “But the risk…”
“Well, your test is approaching.”
“I suppose that maybe…”
There were a few more details to the negotiation. But by this point, they both knew that Hekate had won.
Nikki was trying to fret. This was frustrated by the fact that Aunghadhail interfered with every single one of her fretting habits. She couldn’t bite her nails or twist her hair or even claw at the furniture.
She finally settled for rolling a quarter from finger to finger. It was a stage magic exercise that Sir Wallace had given for improving her dexterity. It just wasn’t very satisfying, since her roommate could perform it a dozen times better.
“Solicitor looks better on paper,” Nikki admitted. “He’s promising higher royalties, and he has clout and contact in spades. He has the experience and the power and the legal team behind him to back everything up.”
“Uh huh…” Toni muttered, while studying a book.
“Yeah,” Nikki agreed. “That’s it exactly. It all sounds good, but the feeling is lukewarm. No, I’ll be honest. It doesn’t even feel that good. There’s something about the guy that I just don’t trust. And it’s not the Hollywood schmooze, either. Having an agent is a relationship as close as marriage – that’s what they keep saying. And this guy is just all wrong to my instincts. No matter how good his salary or contacts are, and no matter who he knows.”
“Right,” Toni commented, non-committally.
“But Finklestein? What kind of name is that? And he doesn’t have the contacts or the experience, he’s new to the game, but he gets it. Like, listen to this: All my works should be held in copyright owned directly by me, then rented at surprisingly reasonable terms. The thing is, the copyright is good for the life of the owner, plus 70 years. But that’s a loophole that could be exploited by sidhe and other long-lived races, which is done best by a rental agreement. That’s just one example, but it’s like he really gets the fact that I’m not just some model with pointed ears.”
“Good point,” Toni agreed.
“But… what do I do? I asked Chou – she’s got that whole connection to the Tao, and eternal destiny and all that junk. Only it turns out that the Tao apparently doesn’t advise on agents. Sara’s got a friend, well, one of her harem to be frank, that can look ahead, but the most she could tell me was that refusing Solicitor might lead to salvation for the night and the sky, or some such thing. Either that, or it would lead to horrors untold. I mean, what kind of oracle is that?”
“Hmmm,” Toni pondered.
“I asked Ayla. Boy was that a mistake! She’s got ideas alright, but she sounded like she was just waiting for the opportunity to jump in and take over the whole deal! Deals cross-promoted into investment firms, offshore holdings, and European agencies involved in… something. I’m not sure I quite got that part figured out. The problem is, this stuff could take over my life! I want to be running it myself!”
“I guess… I guess I’m leaning toward Finklestein, despite what a goofball he is. Maybe I can sign a short-term contract, and renew if he’s good. That’s probably the best approach. Solicitor wants a long-term commitment, which I’m just not going to do. Yeah, okay. I’d better call both of them. I know Solicitor will be unhappy about it, but I’m glad I finally worked through this. Thanks, Toni.”
Toni turned a page in her book. “Naturally.”
Nikki left, closing the door behind her. Toni turned another page in her book.
“Of course,” she agreed.
The phone banks on the first floor were regularly scanned for bugs and other listening devices. Surprisingly, the phones on the first floor were safer than the phones in rooms – unless you were a high-end devisor.
Things were fairly deserted, so Nikki moved into the library and closed the door, then picked up the phone to dial.
“Solicitor, Incorporated. What is the nature of this call?” It was the same secretary as the previous time.
“Uh, hi. This is ‘Fey’ from Whateley. Solicitor flew up yesterday.”
“I understand. I’ll put you through immediately.”
There was a click on the line, then an overly-loud, overly-enthusiastic voice shouted through.
“Fey! Baby! You ready to sign? That package I dropped with you should have a standard contract, and Fed Ex mailers. It’s already pre-tagged, where you need to sign and initial. Just drop it in the mailer. Oh, your campus Fed Ex drop is in the admin office. Any other questions?”
Nikki was a bit overwhelmed, but his presumption only stiffened her spine. “I’m sorry, but I won’t be needed your services as an agent.”
“Ha ha, very funny. Then what do you need me for?”
“Nothing. I was just calling to let you know personally, and to thank you for flying up.”
Solicitor’s voice moved from “bad joke, but going along with it” to “seriously un-amused,” and headed toward, “offended.”
“Flying up? You have any idea how much that cost me, baby-doll? I’m not just talking airfare and expenses, I’m talking lost time down here in L.A.! You could help me make it up in a couple of shoots, but now you’re telling me that’s not going to happen? Am I hearing that right?”
Nikki hadn’t realized it was going to go this badly. She was beginning to regret the call. Still, she was a queen, or at least a queen-to-be. She wasn’t about to be intimidated by some two-bit agent.
“I did not ask you to fly up, nor am I responsible for what you choose to do with your time. I merely wished to inform you that I will not be signing with your agency.”
“Yeah? Well who did sign you, huh?”
She made her voice firm. “I’m afraid that’s none of your business.”
“I can guarantee you, they didn’t offer more than me! Compared to the business I can get you, they’re nothing, do you hear me? Nothing!”
“It’s not always about the money, Solicitor. Good day.”
She could hear him shouting, even as she hung up. “You owe me, babe! Do you hear that? You OWE me!”
Finally the handset was in the receiver and the call was over.
What an unpleasant man, she thought.
The call had been tense and unpleasant, but at least she had no remaining regrets about her decision.
Jade had finished packing. For the last time. That was assured by Billie’s total, utter ultimatum that if Jade touched either suitcase even one more time, she, Tennyo the unstoppable, would fill both bags with so much high-energy plasma that they would be blown into vapor and the component atoms would orbit the earth for decades before finally raining down on Australia in the form of a fine molecular ash sometime in the 22nd century.
Jade had smiled at the ultimatum and announced that she was done now.
Toni stuck her head in. “Come on, you guys.” She eyed the suitcases on the bed. “Jeez, Billie, you’ve packed and re-packed three times already. Nervous much?”
Billie looked back and forth between Toni and Jade. “ME? I didn’t— It was Jade! She’s the one who keeps repacking!”
“Well get moving. Everyone’s done with their tests, and we want to see some more junior and senior combat finals. Let’s watch as a team. Maybe it’ll give us some pointers, something to look forward to.”
There was a knock on the wall outside, and one of the boys from down the hall stuck his head into the room. “Billie?”
“What’s up, Ben?”
“Tennyo has a phone call. Some guy named Larry. Mrs. Horton asked me to tell you.”
Billie nodded. “Thanks, I’ll be right there.”
“Better hurry. It’s long distance.”
Billie rushed out of the room. The rest of the team began to gather in Toni and Nikki’s room for the finals. Jade settled in to wait for her big sister to return to their room.
Sure enough, when the cyan-haired beauty returned, she looked stunned. She closed the door and just stood there, staring at nothing.
There was no response.
Nothing. A single tear flowed out of the taller girl’s eye, and blue sparks began to crackle over her skin.
“Billie!” Getting desperate, Jade charged a pillow and bapped her roommate in the back of her head.
Jade’s instincts were good. Moving with the speed and deadly accuracy of a warrior that has trained until action becomes automatic, Billie spun and dealt with her attacker. Her fingernails flashed out, looking more clawlike than normal. Energy played over her skin. And her eyes were wild and desperate. After less than one second of activity, she blinked and stared in confusion at the fluffy mist around her, as the pillow remains drifted in the air.
Jade slowly relaxed her defensive posture. She believed that with Billie in a state like that, she needed to be as defensive as possible. It would be necessary to minimize any feelings of guilt Billie might have, afterward.
“Oneesan? Is something wrong?”
Billie jumped and looked around wildly.
Tennyo’s mouth worked silently for a moment before she said, “It’s… they… I…” The tears began to pour from her eyes as she began to gasp in a sort of gulping sob.
Jade’s hands brushed a few objects on her run forward to catch her big sister. She caught and held Billie as the taller girl collapsed to her knees. Around them, objects began to lift into the air – Shroud came alive, reconfiguring into her combat form. A pink compact lifted into the air on a small jet of flame. It began to whine, as it spun up. A pair of gloves rose, flexing into fists that clenched tight.
Billie began to cry openly, as Jade wrapped her arms around the older girl.
“Billie! Who did this?”
While Jade struggled to comfort and question her roommate, the less emotional Shroud left the room and banged on doors across the hall. “Our room. Now. Billie’s in trouble.” She spoke in a tone of voice that no one had ever heard from her before. Ever.
Within moments, the entire crew was pouring into the room. Naturally, the hyperactive Toni Chandler was in the lead.
“Wassup? People out in the halls thought Billie was ready to kill someone!”
The look from Jade stopped her. It was angry, but not at Toni. Toni thought about that look later, trying to figure out what it meant. She finally decided it was a combination of, “Shut up! You’re wasting time.” and “Don’t bother asking what or why. All we need to know is: Who.” Weeks later, during the holiday, she was watching an old military movie. In it, an angry sergeant yelled at a recruit. “God dammit soldier! Next time an officer orders you to jump, you don’t give him any back talk! The only thing I want to hear is: How high, Sir?” And when she heard that line, Toni suddenly sat up in surprise. “That’s what Jade’s look was!”
For now, though, Toni screeched to a halt as if she’d hit a wall.
“Whoa, girl! Didn’t mean to interrupt. We’ll just wait outside until you’re ready. Let us know how we can help!”
And with that, Toni Chandler, the hyperactive girl who was more curious than any cat, gathered the crowd and pushed them back outside, closing the door in her wake.
Outside, Toni scowled at Shroud. “I wish you’d make up your mind! First you need help, then you’re all over-protective…”
“Let me try something.” Shroud floated up to the closed door, placing one hand against it. Her other hand formed into a speaker-like cone. “I’ll censor it, if it’s inappropriate,” she said, then her speaker-hand began to vibrate, emitting sound.
“Jade! It… It’s O… Okay. It’s not anyone’s fault! At least not here. It’s just that, that, su… some… someone’s kidnapped my Mom and Dad!”
A half-dozen dirty words were uttered by the small group in the hall. Before anyone else could react, Toni had ducked under Shroud’s arm, unlocked the door, and was back inside, now looking as furious as Jade. She reached forward, clasping Billie’s shoulder in a hard grip. A second later, Nikki had the other shoulder. Their other friends were only a step behind, looking ready to tear apart anything in their way.
“Did I hear right?” Toni didn’t so much speak the words, as growl them. “Did someone kidnap Billie’s parents?”
Jade gave a miffed look. “You know as much as I do. And it’s nice to know how much privacy these rooms have.”
Toni was momentarily boggled. “But I— You— Never mind. What’s going on?”
“I’m waiting for Billie to recover. Who’s left outside?”
“Just you, standing guard. Everyone else cleared out when Billie came storming through earlier.”
Chou mentioned, “I wouldn’t be surprised if security showed up in a couple of minutes.”
Nikki gave an affirmative shake of her head. “Right. I’ve been working with them lately. I’ll go and give an all-clear. That should keep them away for a while.”
Before she left, the elf gave Billie a tight hug. “Don’t worry, we’re all here for you. Don’t go running off half cocked, okay?”
Nikki took less than five minutes. By the time she got back, Team Kimba had taken over the sun room, pushing everyone else out. With the look on their faces, anyone who felt like arguing suddenly reconsidered. This left the TK crew and friends only in the sunroom, with a stoic-looking Shroud floating on guard duty outside.
Nikki closed the door behind her and surveyed the team. Jade was nervously bustling about, frequently moving next to Billie to brush against her hand or arm. Billie was floating in mid-air (nothing unusual about that), wrapped in a thick blanket that seemed to be rubbing her shoulders. Everyone else looked ready to gear up, but they hadn’t yet.
“Okay, security’s handled, for the moment.”
“How’d it go?” Toni asked.
“I told them her brother revealed what she’d be getting for Christmas. She was mad at the little jerk, but no one was in danger. I think they bought it.”
Billie choked with what almost seemed to be a laugh. She uncurled, standing up (still in mid-air though), and pulled off the blanket.
Nikki stared up at her. “It wasn’t that funny.”
“No, it wasn’t. But I needed that.” She drifted toward the elven girl and gave her a quick hug.
“Good. Now are you ready to tell us what’s going on, or will we have to torture it out of you?”
It took a bit, but Billie was finally able to nod and pull herself together.
“The phone call was from my brother Larry. Apparently I have a fan club. Some jokers who call themselves the Knights of the Eternal Presence. They tried to make a snatch on me, not realizing that I was still at school. Instead of me, they got my parents.”
Everyone was dreadfully silent.
“My parents have resources of their own, though,” she said, with a touch of pride. “My dad got word out to Larry, and Larry contacted the local supers. They chased these guys back to their base… a place called NORAD C.”
Most people looked confused, so Nikki felt compelled to explain. “Surely you’ve heard of NORAD? The North American Aerospace Defense Command? The main base is in Cheyenne Mountain – they actually hollowed out the mountain. Protected by 2000 feet of solid granite, doors that weigh 25 tons – one of the most secure facilities on the planet. Tell me you’ve at least heard of it!”
“Sure,” Toni admitted. “Didn’t they use it for all the exterior shots in the Stargate TV series?”
Nikki buried her face in her hands, overcome by the ignorance of her fellows.
“But if the Cheyenne Mountain base is NORAD, what’s NORAD C?” Toni continued.
“Mutant labor allowed the construction of several identical facilities,” Billie explained. “Much like the ‘strategic triad.’ It was felt that redundancy vastly increased security. But with the end of the cold war, military downsizing, and budget cuts, the other two facilities were auctioned off. NORAD C is west of Raton Pass, in Colorado. Larry gave me the GPS coordinates. It was auctioned to the Knights of the Eternal Presence – supposedly a religious group.”
Toni nodded. “You have those coordinates?”
Billie rattled off a set of numbers. Toni, with her exemplar memory, didn’t need written notes. She dashed across the hall to her own computer and began the download search, typing with the speed and skill you’d expect from a mistress of martial arts.
As the girls, Hank, and Jamie (technically one of the girls at the moment) began to analyze what they could, Jade snuck out.
She found James in Shuster Hall. The administrative area was filled with small cubicles, lorded over by Mrs. Hartford. Most of the staff was gone today – it was the end of the semester and little work remained. The staff were probably out watching the final matches, with everyone else that could get time off. All but James. He and two other workers were still here, slaving away like grey drones.
Jade snuck over to his cubicle. “James!” she whispered.
He seemed not to hear her.
This time he looked up, almost startled that someone was calling for him.
“Can I talk to you for a second?”
He nodded, as if unsure what she was going on about.
“No, not here, outside, or someplace private.”
Rubbing his temple in confusion, James finally rose from his seat and led Jade to a small break room. “Hello, Jade. I didn’t expect to see you today.”
“And I didn’t expect to see you, but an emergency came up. I need your help!”
James, like her, appeared to be an eleven-year-old. And like her, she’d learned that he was actually fourteen, maturing in mind but not aging in body.
“Billie’s got a family emergency, and I need to go with her, to help her.”
The boy nodded, saying nothing. He had an uncanny way about him, a stillness and silence that was unnerving.
Jade pulled off her backpack and unzipped it. Inside was a stuffed cabbit toy that rattled with the extra gear loaded inside it. Little devisor extras that Jade had manufactured over the last month – claws, teeth, simple things like that. She’d discovered that when a stuffed animal suddenly demonstrates a bite like a bear trap, it tends to surprise people. She’d foiled several very interesting pranks that way. Now the pranksters tended to avoid her and Billie’s room, since it had quickly acquired a reputation for being haunted – or worse.
“I need to put a charge inside this toy, so I’ll be able to help Billie. I can make it last up to two hours, but you made a charge last for a whole day once. Can you do that for me?”
James looked concerned. “Taking Jinn in deliberately? That’s – it’s not right. It’s such a violation. I never meant to see your secrets, or anything like that.”
Jade stared at him intently. “I know that, James. I trust you. But I really need this. If you do this for me, I’ll owe you. I’ll owe you big. Please!”
As expected, the boy didn’t last long under her assault. “Oh, alright.” He reached for the toy. “Do… whatever it is that you do.”
Jade gave a strong charge to the cabbit, which immediately sprang to life. “Suck me, Chargemeister!”
James touched the toy and it immediately seemed to wither like a grape in the hot sun.
“As long as you can manage, okay? As much charge or boost as you can give it!”
Holding the toy, James seemed to concentrate for a moment. The stuffed animal came alive once more.
“Whoa! Wild ride. Now I’m bursting with vitality!”
“Shut up, you,” Jade ordered. Looking at James, she said, “I mean it. If you need help, or just a friend, if there’s trouble, let me know. I owe you big time.”
With that, Jade reached forward to hug James. The move was so unexpected that he didn’t have a chance to move out of the way. He expected the regular feeling when he came into contact with another person – the muffled pressure due to his diminished sense of touch, and a deeper draining feeling, as he inadvertently sucked energy out of them. Only, it wasn’t like that. His sense of touch was still muffled, but there was nothing else – no drain, no metaphysical contact with the girl at all.
He was so surprised that he couldn’t think of what to say, and before he knew it she was gone.
In other words, it followed perfectly with all his other contacts with the enigmatic girl.
They were still going over plans and approaches when Jade returned. Billie had opened a suitcase and was busy stuffing items into a small backpack. Jade was scandalized. Oneesan was re-packing, without her! But she recognized that it was a time of crisis, and allowances must be made in a crisis. So instead of making a fuss, she mastered herself and approached her roommate. She held out the cabbit, which was playing dead at the moment (and also carefully disguising the extra metal parts hidden within).
“Please, Billie. Take this with you. For luck.”
Billie looked reluctant, but the pack wasn’t full. “Aw… okay. Just slip it into the pack.”
Jade did so, quickly.
“Uh, thanks for thinking of it,” Billie continued, sounding almost sincere. “I might’ve been lonely without a cabbit to keep me company. Anyway, it just wouldn’t be right. I have to keep up my image, you know.”
Toni zipped back into the room. “Security’s on their way. How are you planning to get out?”
Billie thought for a moment. “The roof. I’ll wait until they step into the building, then take off. That way they won’t see me.”
Toni raised an eyebrow. “You’re not supposed to use the roof.”
Billie just shrugged. “The juniors and seniors are all at finals. Besides, I don’t have much of a choice. And Mega-Girl gets away with it all the time, so I should be fine.”
Jade, struck with inspiration, practically dove into Billie’s open wardrobe. A quick casting, and she was done.
A pink-fleshed copy of Billie arose, dressed in proper clothes.
“Not bad,” Toni said, looking over the decoy. “But Billie has blue hair, not black.”
“And those are normal human-looking eyes,” Nikki critiqued, before turning to the real Billie. “No offense.”
“Everyone’s a critic,” Decoy-Billie groused, with the correct voice. “Come on, we have to catch security before they reach the stairs.”
While Decoy-Billie stormed out, Jade paused to hug her roommate. “You’d better get going. Don’t forget your pack.”
Jade and Jinn both hugged her, with Jade whispering, “Go! And… be careful, oneesan!”
With that, Billie lifted from the floor and shot down the hall, gliding quickly but silently up the stairs. Less than a minute later, security was leading the black-haired decoy back toward her room.
“Billie Wilson? We need you over in security. Can you come with us?”
“What’s the problem, officers?”
“Just a safety issue. If you’ll come… hey, don’t you usually have blue hair?”
The decoy girl sighed. “Look, I’m about to travel back home. I thought a little hair dye might make me a touch less conspicuous.” She glided forward through the air. “Oh, yeah! Gravity! I’ll have to remember about that, too.”
One of the security men rolled his eyes. “Yeah, off campus it’s considered fairly important.”
“Look, is this an emergency or anything, or can I finish packing?”
“Well, we were supposed to bring you over as soon as possible.”
“Right. Well, it wouldn’t do to disappoint security, would it? Lead the way,” she said, merrily. Looking back over her shoulder, she called, “Jade, be a dear and finish my packing, would you?”
“Sure, no problem, oneesan,” Jade ground out. Once security was out of sight, she dropped down on her bed with a humph! “Honestly, what was I thinking? Oneesan acts nothing like that! Arrrr! Sometimes I really irritate me!”
Jamie smiled. “And you people complain about the way I talk!”
“Oh no!” Jade suddenly said.
“What?” everyone said, moving in. “Trouble already?”
“No, it’s just… what am I gonna do for Christmas?”
As the plane touched down, Nikki re-fashioned her wrap. A set of dark sunglasses for her eyes and a scarf for her head. Combine that with a belted coat and she looked fashionable, but no longer jaw-dropping.
“Pretty snazzy,” Jade complimented. “You look just like a young Audrey Hepburn. Well, if she had flaming red hair.”
“Let’s hope I’m less conspicuous than that,” Nikki wished. “I hadn’t expected to receive so much notice. It wasn’t this bad during either of the trips to Boston. Dunwich I understand, but even Berlin has been fairly blasé.”
Jade pondered this. This last month it seemed like she’d been to Berlin practically every other day. “Berlin is a little like Dunwich, I think. You remember last week in Dunwich, with Podcast and what’s-his-name Blinder? And the locals were all, ‘Yep, nothin’ unsual ‘bout this. Just watch out, ‘cause a student might get involved.’”
The plane hadn’t finished taxiing, but Jade was still trying to guard her language. It was hard to remember that they weren’t still in school. There were some things you couldn’t say openly in a mundane crowd without causing a riot.
Nikki laughed softly. “Yeah, those two idiots completely misunderstood. ‘A student involved,’ indeed! Imagine if Billie had gotten messed up in that! Poor Dunwich!”
“Hey, Billie’s getting better! So anyway, we know about Dunwich, and I think Berlin gets a bit of that, too. I heard something about the Lady Lightning movie premier, earlier this year. And maybe some of the nearby cities, like Boston get exposure, too. I’m thinking that juniors and seniors must make more than a few trips out.”
“Maybe. All I know is that things feel a lot different here. I’m supposed to be coming back home, but I’m suddenly wondering if I even belong.”
On that cautious note, the plane finally came to a stop and the engines spun down. The crowd stood. One of the things Jade hated was being too short to reach things like the overhead luggage bins. A tall businessman from the seat behind pulled out a small suitcase, then offered, “Hey there, miss, can I help you reach your bag?”
“That would be wonderful, thank you,” Nikki replied for both of them. “Mine is the lavender bag, and Jade has the black backpack.”
He graciously offered Nikki her back, then easily pulled out the backpack, only to almost drop it on Jade’s head as he felt the surprising weight.
“Whoa! What do you have inside there?”
“My sister’s body!” Jade replied, in a fake-nefarious voice.
The fellow laughed as he hefted it to her. “You sure you’ll be able to manage that?”
“I can lug it,” Jade assured him. “At least until I reach a baggage cart.”
In truth, once Jade touched the pack, it became so light that it could have lifted her.
The two girls followed the crowd out onto the concourse.
“Let’s hit the ladies’ room,” Jade suggested.
Nikki looked anxious. “I want to see my family. They’ll be at baggage claim.”
“If we hit the ladies’ room, Jinn can carry your bag.”
“All my bags?” Nikki bargained, with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah, deal.” They shook on it.
With that, the two girls stepped into the powder room and Jade ducked into a stall. Moments later, she stepped out again, followed by a seventeen year old who was nearly a half foot taller than Nikki. Jinn was wearing a brand-new pour of her human skin, and had hair, eyes, teeth, tongue, and everything else that a normal person would have.
“You’re right,” the older girl said. Her voice was reminiscent of Jade’s, but richer and more adult sounding. “It does feel strange to be out in the real world.” She paused to check her appearance in the mirror, even though she couldn’t actually see anything that way. “Do I look okay?”
Both younger girls scrutinized her carefully.
“Nearly perfect,” Nikki decided. “Your only flaw being that your complexion is too flawless.”
“As if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black,” Jinn returned. She reached for Nikki’s bag. “Well, let’s go meet your family.”
Jade looked around, marveling at a simple, ordinary airport. It was filled with normal people, none of whom were mutants. It really was strange, when you thought about it. Her trips to Berlin were either with Stephen, or very limited visits to the doctors. And Boston had been loads of fun, but it’s hard to feel like the strange one when you’re standing between Phase, Chaka, Fey, and Tennyo. But here, particularly with her “sister” behind her, she felt like a real mutant sneaking through a throng of unsuspecting humanity.
Before they’d even reached the bottom of the escalator, a woman below spotted them. Standing with her was a tall teenage boy. The woman began waving and calling, “Nikki!” while the boy just stared at them with wide eyes.
“Mom?” Nikki whispered, then she was racing down the escalator, only to collide with the woman, wrapping her arms around her in a bear hug.
Jade followed more sedately, walking up to the boy and sticking her hand out. “Hi. Are you Troy? I’m Jade.”
The boy couldn’t take his eyes off Nikki. “Damn, this is still so weird. I mean, I saw… her… back in November, when all the families visited, but that was so mind blowing that I kind of got overloaded.”
Jinn looked him eye-to-eye. “You’re Troy? I think you’re taller than I am!”
He turned to face them. “Uh, growth spurt, you know? Grandpa was tall, too. Which one of you is Jade? I thought we were only going to have one person staying over.”
Jinn nodded. “Don’t worry, that’s still true. I’m not really here,” she whispered. “We’ll explain in private.”
Nikki freed one arm from her hug and turned back to look at her sibling. “You okay back there, Troy?”
The boy nodded quickly, staring intently at his sister.
“Good. Jinn, that’s my bag there. Fetch, minion!” Nikki said it with a tone of playfulness.
“Yesss, mistress!” Jinn replied, in a bad Peter Lorre impersonation.
As they made their way into the parking garage, Jinn carried all the bags. It looked like an awkward job, but Jade had touched-charged her, so all the bags were really floating on their own. It just looked awkward, because with that many bags, it should have looked awkward.
For the moment, Troy was keeping his distance from everyone, Jade was strolling along quietly with Jinn – they really didn’t need to say anything to each other – and Nikki was happily chatting away with her mom.
Suddenly Lucy Reilly turned to look at Jinn. “Oh dear, I thought we were only picking up the two of you! Our car only seats four. With Troy in the back seat, I don’t think you two girls will both fit.”
“Don’t worry,” Jinn said. “I’d rather not say anything out here, but I’m sure there won’t be a problem.”
The car was a burgundy red Civic, about eight years old. Mrs. Reilly opened up the hatchback. “You can put the bags in there. I hadn’t realized you’d have quite so many. It’s a small car, but the mileage is so good. I got it after Nicholas and I… well, when I didn’t need to be hauling so many people around.”
“Sorry about the bags, Mom,” Nikki explained. “But I’ve got homework – even over the break! – and clothes that actually fit and feel good. I didn’t want to buy a whole new wardrobe. And Jade has some electronics and junk she’s working on.”
“We’ll manage,” Jinn said.
She managed to squeeze the last bag in, then close the hatchback. Usually, when bags are stacked up so tall, at least one of them falls out in those moments before the door closes. Apparently Jinn was lucky, since the bags stayed there as if held in place. Then, when Mrs. Reilly opened the front door, Jinn ducked around and practically flowed into the back seat. Jade clambered in after her.
Nikki looked up at her “little” brother, still not used to how he’d grown over the last year. “I’ll take the back seat,” she volunteered. “You’ll need the leg room.”
He moved to cut her off. “No, you talk to Mom, up front. I’ll manage in the back, somehow. It’s not that far.”
But when he ducked into the back seat, the only person with him was the undersized Jade, who was holding a backpack on her lap. Troy folded his legs in, trying to figure out what had happened.
“Where’d your sister go? And where’d the backpack come from?”
“Now that’s a little hard to explain. Do you know what a poltergeist is?”
The acoustics of the car and the noise of the road made it hard to follow the front-seat conversation. Jade figured it was private anyway – mother and daughter catching up on their relationship. Instead, she looked at Nikki’s gangly brother.
“So… I thought you were supposed to be her little brother.”
“I am. It’s just…growth spurt, you know?”
“Nikki’s only fourteen.”
“I’m only twelve,” he countered.
Jade eyed him up and down. “That’s a pretty big twelve. I think you’re taller than my sister, and she’s seventeen.” She looked at the way his knees were pulled up. “You can put your legs over on this side, if you want.”
“Thanks.” He still tried not to touch her. Finally, he said, “Dad even had me checked out by a bunch of mutant doctors. He’s been kinda freaked out ever since Nick… Nikki… all of that happened. But I’m just tall. I’m not average, but I’m not the tallest kid my age in school. Still, it’s nice in a way. Everyone thinks I’m older and tougher and stuff. Dad paid for some trainers, and I’ve been lifting weights.”
“I used to do that,” Jade admitted. “Free weights. Didn’t do anything for me. Turns out I’m ‘frozen.’ No muscle build up or decay or anything. It looks like I’ll be just like this, pretty much forever.”
“Whoa. What are you, ten?”
“Eleven we think. But in some ways…how to put it? I was born fourteen years ago.”
“No way—you’re Nick’s age? I mean, Nikki’s age?”
“Funny, huh? You and I, we’re backwards.”
“Sort of. Except you’re a girl.”
There was a bit of uncomfortable silence. Then Troy said, “That ‘frozen’ stuff – is that your mutant power? It doesn’t really sound that useful.”
Jade shrugged. She didn’t really want to lie to him, but she didn’t want to give him the unvarnished truth, either. She had plenty of secrets that she planned to keep to herself. She struggled for her purse. “Here’s my MID,” she said, handing him the laminated card.
The card was the size of a credit card or driver’s license, but unlike a license was oriented to be held tall, rather than wide. The front had her picture (in costume) along with a large-print version of her code name: Generator. There was an orange border around it. The back held a printing of her MID details, some MCO certifications and holograms, and a bold printing of her file number.
“The orange border means that I’m a student. Authorized heroes get green borders, villains get red, vigilantes get blue, and mercenaries get yellow. Inside it’s just a high-gain RFID chip. The right scanning equipment can pick it up from about twelve feet.”
Troy glanced at the front of the card. “Not much of a costume.”
“Hey, I’m working on a better one. I’m only a freshman!”
He flipped the card over and studied the back.
GENERATORRegen - 5, Devisor - 2, Wiz - 1, Martial arts – basic
Cobra 250 linear induction pistol, 6-shot
Taser / grapple
Normal human vulnerabilities, regenerates
“I’ve been talking about mutants with my Dad. A lot. This past year we’ve talked about this stuff until I was sick of it. So I know what a devisor is. But it looks like you’re not that good.”
“Well, freshman, like I said. The ratings might go up.”
“Regen – is that ‘regenerator’?”
“Crap, that’s high. So I could, like, stab you, and you’d be okay?”
She held out her right hand. “There was this yahoo in town last week, chucking these little bombs around. I was trying to throw one away when it blew up.” She touched her index and ring finger. “These are new. Got blown completely off. The others and my thumb had little chunks blown out of ‘em. Took almost three hours for everything to finish growing back.”
Troy’s eyes were wide. “Three hours?”
“Yeah, I know. For a regen-five I’m not that fast, but I can heal just about anything. Still, regrowing bones takes a while.”
“Just like Wolverine!”
Jade giggled. “I guess sort of. Except without the claws, or the awesome combat skills, or the unbreakable bones. Man, that would be a real time-saver.” She got a distant look in her eye, as she speculated. “Hmmm, I wonder if I could get adamantium bones? Probably wouldn’t work. My body tends to absorb stuff. And how come when Wolverine gets blown up, the little finger bones and stuff don’t get blown away? It’s not like they’re held together by anything more than ligaments and gristle and stuff.”
“Adamantium wire,” Troy said, authoritatively.
“Hmmm, maybe. I ought to ask the docs.”
“How about wiz-1. You’re a magician? Like Nikki?”
Jade snorted. “There’s a bunch of magic types on campus, and no one is like Nikki. It’s like saying, ‘You’ve got a pet lizard, too? Maybe you’ve heard of mine. His name is Godzilla.’”
Troy laughed at that. “She isn’t really… is she?”
Jade nodded, seriously. “My wiz-1 is just about summoning up my sister. That’s all.”
Troy went back to studying the card. “You’ve got a lot of gear. You’ve got a Cobra 250?”
“It’s in my suitcase. The MCO made me pack it away. They wouldn’t let me take it as a carry-on. Same with my bracers and stuff.”
“So…you got frisked by the MCO? How were they?”
“Well, you’ve seen Tales of the MCO?”
“Picture something halfway between that and a bored airport security guard. They were pretty suspicious of all my stuff, but once I packed it into my main suitcase, they were okay with it. They were worried about Nikki, though.”
Hearing her name once more, the sidhe queen twisted in her chair to look into the back seat.
“Talking about the MCO at the airport?”
“What happened, Honey?” Mrs. Reilly sounded concerned.
“Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” Nikki began. “I mean, the airlines handle it pretty smoothly. If you’re in the ticket line, and one of the people gets a seat with a ‘code M’ that means they’re a mutant. So you don’t check your bags at the ticket counter, you carry them to a side room that’s labeled with ‘Special Needs Station’ or something equally innocuous. But inside, it’s really the MCO office. They give you a full scan, check your bags, stuff like that. Jade had to unload most of her gear, and they just about freaked when they saw all the skeletal arms and stuff.”
“I thought you didn’t do Wolverine,” Troy said.
“It’s for my sister,” Jade explained. “I had to pack most of her away.”
“Don’t ask,” Nikki warned. “Jade and her sister…just weird. We’ll show you at home. I’m normal. She’s weird.”
“Anyway, once they’ve got Jade packed away, they seal her suitcase with this special MCO security tape.”
“Yeah!” Jade interrupted. “The good news is, the baggage handlers are real careful about those bags. The rest of the bags they’re chucking around and stuff, the anything with that MCO tape gets handled like it was full of dynamite or something.”
“And how would you know that?” Mrs. Reilly wondered.
“She probably had her sister watching the bags,” Nikki guessed.
Jade nodded emphatically. “I didn’t want to lose my gear!”
“Talking, levitating bags is probably one reason the baggage handlers are so careful. Stuff like that freaks people out.”
The bag in Jade’s lap rose into the air. “I object to that!” it said in Jinn’s voice. “This is a repression of luggage rights!”
Troy blinked. “When I said your sister was an ‘old bag,’ that’s not what I meant.”
Nikki snickered. “Oh, you’d fit right in. Anyway, where was I?”
“The airport,” Mrs. Reilly reminded. “The MCO, and sealing up luggage.”
“Right. So they’re pretty happy with Jade. I figure that’s because she looks small and not very dangerous, and they were able to take all her gear off and pack it away. But for me, they didn’t know what to do. They finally went through my carry-on and confiscated all my pencils. Does that make any sense?”
“Wands,” Jade realized. “They were trying to confiscate your wands!”
Nikki blinked her huge eyes in stupefaction. “You… might be right. Where they hell did they learn about magic, from watching Harry Potter movies?”
“I think,” Mrs. Reilly suggested, “they were just trying to do their job as well as they could. It’s very frustrating when you have no control over something. That’s how a lot of people feel around mutants. You all have such unpredictable abilities. With someone like little Jade there, they were happy when they could confiscate her weapons and make her safe again.”
“Then they really don’t know Jade,” Nikki added maliciously.
“That’s probably just as well, dear. But for you, how are they supposed to make you harmless?”
“Good point. At least they didn’t knock me out or anything.”
“You should be happy that they confiscated your pencils. In fact, maybe this Christmas, we should go shopping for a wand for you. Just to add to your carry-on, to make the MCO agents feel better about confiscating it.”
Nikki was confused. “But that’s—” She thought about it. “—maybe not such a bad idea. Just for my carry-on luggage.”
Nick woke to an odd sensation. The old bed, the old house, the old room. He had begun changing nearly a year and a half ago and the changes had begun in this very bed, with odd pains and aches and strange needle-like stabbing sensations. For a moment, the old sights and sounds of home were so familiar… and he no longer felt any pains. He lay there quietly, imagining that he was still Nick and still male, the way he’d been for most of his life.
If things had gone the way they were supposed to, he’d be halfway through his sophomore year. He’d probably be thinking about a career in either the military or research, following the path laid out so clearly by his dad. And he’d be watching all the cute girls in school, watching them and thinking about them. Would he have a girlfriend by now? Would he have had any hot dates, where they kissed and made out?
But thoughts along that line brought up images of Bunny. He’d been far more intimate with Bunny than Nick would have managed with any sophomore girlfriend.
And, though he was repeating his freshman year, the education at Whateley didn’t really compare with any normal high school.
Nick tried not to let his thoughts get too morbid or introspective like this. Sometimes it just hurt too much, thinking about what might have been, instead of what was. Instead of slyly and appreciatively watching the girls, he was the one they watched. It wasn’t that good a feeling, sometimes. It felt like everyone out there was a predator, and he was the bait. And instead of putting the moves on some girl, he was the one that had to fend off the groping hands and grabbing arms. Paul had always been a perfect gentleman, but others guys thought he might appreciate someone more forceful and aggressive.
Worst of all was that, deep down, it felt so good, so right to be female. He loved being Nikki. And in a way, that was worst of all. What did that say about Nick? In a way, his sorrow was for his old male self – a person that seemed more and more like an impossibility. It was only in odd moments like this that he could still imagine himself to be male, or remember what Nick’s world had been like.
He reached up delicately to wipe away the moisture forming in his eye. The movement brushed past the side of his substantial breast. All at once, the odd introspection vanished. She became intently aware of her body, and there was nothing male about it. Nothing changed, but reality turned inside out on her. She took a deep breath, feeling the motion of her chest against the diaphanous nightgown, and the sheets.
Nick was gone, but Nikki was here, back in her old room, away from Whateley.
She sat up.
Her old room was unchanged. The same posters, bookcase, and desk. Jade sitting at her desk chair with her shirt off and a toy baby doll pressed to one tiny, pubescent breast.
Nikki felt her jaw drop, in disbelief. “Excuse me? Why do you have a doll pressed to your breast?”
The toy released its grip on Jade’s left nipple and turned to face her. “I’m feeding.”
“Right. Of course.”
Under the covers, she pinched herself. The current working theory was that she was Nick, and she was having a very detailed, very perverse dream. He’d better see a psychiatrist soon!
“I already explained it,” Jade said. “Back in the diner, when I was nursing Alhaji. He’s gone back home, but I have to keep up my milk production. Otherwise, I’m afraid my body will… revert. So, fake baby, but I simulate the whole nursing thing. This was the only doll that had a mouth that would work properly.”
Jade pulled the doll away and sat it up on her leg, so she could hold it with one arm. She took a small cloth and wiped off her nipple, cleaning away the drop of white fluid that was forming at the tip.
Nikki shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Seeing that still gave her such an odd feeling. And it wasn’t in any way a male feeling. So much for the idea of still being Nick.
Jade set the doll on Nikki’s desk. While Jade put on her training bra and shirt, the doll walked over to a cup and then barfed into it.
Nikki felt a lock of her hair suddenly spring loose, emitting a small “toing” sound.
“Did that doll just…?”
“Hey,” the doll called back. “I gotta get rid of the stuff somehow. You’d prefer that it came out the other end?”
“It’s important to keep your breastfeeding supplies clean,” Jade agreed. She picked up the cup, with contained a fairly minuscule quantity of bluish-white fluid.
Nikki stared at it in fascination. As with that unforgettable scene in the diner, the concept of Jade’s milk was hard to deal with. What did it taste like? Could you cook with it? She had a brief flash of herself at the dinner table, offering a pitcher to her future family. “Who wants milk?” After all, if Jade could produce that much from those tiny breasts… She glanced down and shivered. Finally, she forced herself to ask, “Are you going to pour that down the sink?”
“Can’t. It’s officially classed as a biohazard. So if any sewer life suddenly started to mutate, and believe me I’ve worked in situations like that, then it would be my fault. So I have to dispose of it securely, like incineration or the easiest way—” She tipped the cup up and drank it all down. “Ah! Just a swallow, but I like to think that I can be sweet, sometimes.”
Nikki felt another lock toing loose.
“Wow, how do you make your hair do that? Oh, I’m sorry! Did you want to try me? I’ll have some more tonight. You probably shouldn’t, since it’s officially labeled as a biohazard, but that’s mostly for legal and liability reasons. I don’t really think it’s dangerous. And someone like you – your BIT and immune system are probably mystically charged or something, so, no problem, right?”
“No, no, no, no,” Nikki insisted. “That’s quite alright.” Besides, I certainly wouldn’t take it from a cup. I’m sure it would be best right from the breast, such as they are.
Then she was terrified that she’d said that last thought out loud.
Then she had a worse thought, as she imagined having a baby herself someday, and suddenly she had an image of a lover at her breast, tasting her.
“That really is cool, watching your hair do that. Not exactly fashionable, but cool.”
Nikki countered eloquently, “I… er… I… that is…” She raised her hands to feel her cheeks, “Is it hot in here?”
“A little cool without a shirt on.” Jade looked around. “Hey, I don’t mean to complain Nikki, but really, this is such a guy’s room. I mean – F-18 pinups? And… the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders? Come on! I almost expect to find dirty magazines under the mattress.”
“Hey, for your information, I was a guy!” She realized that she’d unconsciously thrust her chest out, in insistence.
“Uh huh. That’s really believable. Hey, let me try! I used to be a 500 pound pro-football linebacker. Oh yeah, and I was black.”
Nikki stared at the tiny girl – one of the smallest students at Whateley – and began to giggle. “Well who knows? We go to Whateley. Maybe Slab used to be a little runty kid who liked ballet class.”
Jade snorted. “And Tansy Walcutt used to be an ugly butterball.”
“But that’s true! That’s what Ayla said.”
They traded a few more unlikely speculations before Nikki finally rose to take her shower.
Later, undressing, Nikki stared at herself in the old familiar bathroom mirror. Her hand drifted lightly over her body, confirming that the image was real, and that she was the well-endowed near-human girl reflected in the glass.
Home again, she thought, but I’m definitely not Nick any more.
And that wasn’t such a bad thing.
“…last minute shopping. I don’t know what you kids have available way up in the wilds of New Hampshire, but when we were visiting it didn’t seem like you had a lot of shopping opportunities.”
Nikki took another bite of her mother’s pancakes. The buckwheat recipe, along with the genuine maple syrup was one of those tastes of home that she’d been missing. She could have gotten a reply out much quicker, if Aunghadhail would have allowed her to speak around the food in her mouth. Unfortunately, such was not the case. Finally she managed, “Well, we’ve got all the basics on campus, along with supplies for chemistry, magic, and weird science like you wouldn’t believe. I mean, if you’re looking for an isolinear tri-phasic whatchamacallit, we’re your source. But for presents… it’s a bit skimpy. In town there’s the world’s greatest tailor, and a few other very nice places. Apparently there was talk of a Wal-Mart a couple years back, but that kind of failed. I’m not sure why. Maybe the hauntings and stuff.”
Her mother served another pancake. “I imagine it must be tough being so close to Whateley.”
Nikki shook her head. “No, that wasn’t us, it was pure Dunwich. That town is creepy. Whateley only made it more normal.”
It was at that point that Jade stiffened. Her eyes glazed over and she dropped her hand down to her plate, landing in a puddle of syrup.
Nikki looked over in concern. “Jade? You okay?”
Jade’s face was blank, with her eyes staring straight ahead, unblinkingly. She began to wipe her hand off on the napkin, then rose from her seat. It was a peculiar-looking move, since she didn’t so much rise as lift out of her seat.
The blank head turned toward her. “Jade’s not in right now.” It was Jade’s voice, and her jaw moved puppet-like, but her lips weren’t really forming words. “Give me a moment. Billie… something’s going on with Billie.”
With that, the small girl closed her eyes and walked smoothly out into the living room, where she collapsed to the floor and folded herself into a lotus position. After that she simply seemed to be meditating.
Nikki looked seriously at her mother and brother. Carefully, she said, “Could you pass the pancakes, please?”
Troy shook his head. “Did you see what… She just… What’s going on?”
Her mother echoed that. “Is she all right? What can we do?”
Nikki sighed, reaching for the plate herself. “One of the things you learn at Whateley is that if you let yourself get distracted by all the minor weirdness, you’ll starve to death.”
“And that’s minor weirdness?” her mother asked, disbelieving.
“Oh, definitely. Look, hardly a meal goes by without some pocket alarm going off for one of the devisors. They’ll go running out of there, panicking aloud about ‘stopping it before it goes critical.’ Or the psychics, suddenly getting some sort of clairvoyant flash, or telepathic warning. If you’re talking to one of them, and they blank out on you like that, it’s really most polite to pay them no mind and continue with your meal.” She took a delicious bite, chewed and swallowed. “If you can believe it, people have even complained about me! Of course, most people can’t see magic, so if a malicious class two knot enters the cafeteria, I usually want to take some action before it can do something nasty, like going poltergeist on the buffet line. We were in the middle of a discussion about likely boys once, and I had to jump up on the table and blast one. My friends were good enough to pull their trays out of the way and hold the conversation until I was done. I got it before it could do anything more than transform the Caesar salad into coleslaw.”
Troy looked at her in disbelief. “You were talking about boys?”
But her mother cut across that line of questioning with, “What does this mean about poor Jade? What should we do?”
“Just give her time.”
Sure enough, a minute later Jade staggered back into the room.
“Mrs. Reilly? I really hate to bother you, but can I make a long distance call? To New Hampshire?”
“Of course, dear. There’s a phone there, or you can use the study if you prefer.”
Jade staggered off toward the study.
Afterward, in her room, Nikki turned up the heat.
“Okay, that had to be Jinn coming back from being with Billie. What’s up?”
Jade nodded, looking concerned. “Her parents are safe. We rescued them. Unfortunately, the army has some real jerks working for them. They wouldn’t believe that Billie took out some guy named Killbot. But she did. She had to get a little violent, but they were asking for it! She didn’t do anything more than defend herself!”
Nikki winced. “How bad was it?”
“Well, you remember all the talk about NORAD C?”
“Um, well, things got a little rough and Billie kind of had to go all out. You know, fist of death, stuff like that?”
Nikki had been present last time Tennyo had used a death blow, and it had proven corrosive to the energies that supported both life and mind. It had required immediate work by both Toni, in her role as a ki wizard extraordinaire, and Aunghadhail’s millennia of mystic knowledge to rescue Hippolyta’s soul from the ravening void that had been created.
“My God, does NORAD C still exist? Does the mountain still stand?”
Jade gave an uncomfortable laugh. “What? Oh, of course! The mountain’s still there! Don’t be silly!”
“What are you not telling me? What of NORAD C?”
“Uh, well, the army was afraid about a rift or something spreading, so they tossed in a half-dozen nukes and slammed the door. It’s really a big door, too, like 25 tons of metal. When that thing slams—”
“Sorry. Well, the door’s locked now, and they’ll be posting a guard so that no one goes back inside for a few thousand years, so… no problem, right?”
Nikki sighed. This was going to cause no end of trouble, she just knew it. “So Billie was okay, last time you saw her?”
“Well, not really. Her parents were pretty freaked, and they thought that people would be after her now, ‘cause of her power. And they weren’t sure they could protect her. My time was up before I heard the end of it, but it sounded like a ‘Dear John’ letter to me. You know, ‘it’s not you, it’s us, but everyone would be better off if you spent your Christmas in a cage’ or something like that.”
Jade gave a ragged sigh that was just short of tears. “Poor Billie. She saved them. They could have given her a day or two. That’s all it would have taken.
“Anyway, I called Whateley right away, not thinking. As of about fifteen minutes ago, Billie was in Colorado Springs talking to her parents. No way she could be back at Whateley yet. But I got Mrs. Horton, told her I’d had a feeling and was really worried about Billie. I hope it’s okay – I left your home number.”
Nikki shrugged. “I’m sure Mrs. Horton will relay the message.”
Jade sniffled for a minute, and suddenly tears were running down her face. She wasn’t sobbing, but her emotions were obvious.
“I’m so worried about Billie! I should have stayed! What if she’s all alone? She’s afraid of that, that she’ll be all alone!”
Nikki wrapped her arms around the smaller girl.
“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” she lied.
They did regular, ordinary things that day, but Jade watched everything with an intent fascination. Mrs. Reilly was nothing like her own departed mother, but she was still a mother. Jade was only a visitor, but it was like being part of a real family in a way.
The other fun thing was watching Nikki. Whateley was a campus filled with inhumanly perfect girls, impossibly beautiful girls, and girls with enough grace to put Olympic gymnasts to shame. Among that crew, Nikki was probably the second most beautiful girl of the entire school (after Billie). Normally, Nikki moved with a grace and poise that nearly made your heart stop. Everything about her seemed not just perfect but more than humanly possible.
But when she was in her own home, Nikki wasn’t like that. The presence of Nick was too strong here. Jade had never met Nick, but the vanished boy was present like some sort of specter. Nikki’s movements and actions were hesitant. Troy kept looking up to speak to his brother, only to see the female sidhe replacement. And their mother would either begin something and halt, or else reach for her daughter and then show a flash of guilt.
With Jann linking in, she could see the color of the emotion, so she knew it was guilt. Did Mrs. Reilly blame herself for her son’s transformation?
Jade was happy to follow along when Mrs. Reilly finally decided to take them out shopping, even thought it was only two days to Christmas (or perhaps because it was two days to Christmas). Once again they all piled into the small car, with Jinn folding herself up into a backpack. Even though he’d seen the trick before, Troy still seemed amazed by it.
For the shopping tour, Jade had worn her school uniform with white tights.
“It’s the warmest thing I have,” she explained. “Well, almost. I’ve got a lab coat – it’s part of being a devisor. It’s pretty neat, and I should wear it more often, but it doesn’t really go with downtown Kansas City.”
Nikki had a nice pantsuit in a sort of fall red. It set off her hair nicely. Over that she wore a thick suede coat that came down to mid-thigh. The cuffs and collar were lined with a golden fur.
“You’re both warm enough, aren’t you?”
“Mom,” Nikki pointed out. “We both just flew in from New Hampshire. It gets a lot colder there. Besides… I think that maybe sidhe don’t feel the elements so much. It’s weird – if I’m in a room and it’s too hot or cold, I notice it as much as I ever did. But if I’m outside it doesn’t really seem to bother me. That seems a little odd, but it’s the way things are.”
Jinn, once they parked and she finished pulling herself together, just wore jeans and a light shirt.
“I’m not made of flesh-and-blood,” she explained. “I don’t feel heat or cold. Really. I could be standing in an oven or on top of a glacier and I wouldn’t even notice. I don’t have that sense anymore.”
Troy was a boy. Jeans, a hoodie, and a sleeveless down vest meant he was good to go.
“Not that I’m complaining or anything,” he said to Jinn, “but why are you coming? I’d expect that being dead sort of reduces your clothing needs.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised. But I’m not coming to shop. I’m just here to tote the bags. Also, you never know when trouble might show up. I’m pretty good at dealing with minor issues, since stuff like knives and gunshot wounds don’t bother me.”
The boy raised his eyebrows. “I can see where that would be handy. You make it sound like running gun battles are small potatoes. What happens when it gets serious? What do you do then?”
“I’d have to change into my costume, prep my special tricks. And for the real tough stuff, I’d call on your sister. She’s the powerhouse.”
Troy glanced at Nikki, looking surprised that his former brother could be a major force in a fight. Nikki noticed the glance, shrugged and smiled, snuggling her cheeks against her fur-lined collar.
“I guess a lot about me has changed,” she admitted.
Jade had fun watching all of it. Without Jinn she didn’t really have any powers, and she didn’t look like a mutant, so she was just part of the normal crowd. But unlike Whateley, here in this city Nikki was the odd one out. It was interesting being part of the normal crowd and watching the exotic girl interacting with her family and the crowd they passed through.
For example, Nikki’s brother wasn’t the only one watching her. Wherever she went, she seemed to attract attention, even if it was just walking down the sidewalk in the shadow of the downtown skyscrapers.
Some of the older men just looked and smiled, seeming a little cheered as they walked past. Nikki’s hair covered the points of her ears, and the shape and color of her eyes was exotic, but not outlandish. After a while, Nikki put on her pair of Audrey Hepburn sunglasses again. Neither Audrey nor Nikki looked less glamorous in dark glasses, but at least Nikki looked less exotic.
Jade asked her, “Have you ever tried to turn down that glamour?”
“It is down. Before I put on the glasses, my glamour was tilted to downplay my differences. It helped keep people from noticing my sidhe characteristics. They should be writing it off as makeup, or another teenage fad, or just not noticing.”
“Hmmm.” Jade wasn’t convinced. “Tansy – you remember Tansy Walcutt?”
“I model with her,” Nikki replied, in a long-suffering voice.
“Oh yeah. Anyway, she has this telepathy bit, and I’ll bet it’s sort of like your glamour. It’s a ‘look at me – I’m so special’ aura. She turns it on and struts around, and everyone thinks she’s all that.”
“My glamour is better,” Nikki assured.
“I’m sure, I’m sure. Only Tansy can take her projection and turn it inside-out. Then she’s radiating, ‘don’t look at me – I’m nothing special’ and she can walk around without anyone seeming to notice her. Sort of a poor man’s invisibility. I was just wondering if you could do that with your glamour.”
Nikki’s voice shifted to a more regal and commanding tone. “My ‘glamour,’ as you call it, is an intricately crafted aural enhancement. It was a construct of some of our realm’s finest aural artists. One doesn’t simply finger-paint over works of high artistry.”
“But it would be so useful,” Jade insisted. “And maybe you could, I don’t know, put this one in storage or something, while you use a different one?”
Concerned at the sudden change in aspect, Mrs. Reilly stared at her daughter. “Nikki?”
Nikki’s voice snapped back into place. “That’s just Queen Aunghadhail, Mother. Remember, you met her briefly a couple of times last year? I’m reincarnated from her?”
“I will consider your idea, child,” the queen continued, metaphysically shoving Nikki aside. “It may prove impractical, but your point about the benefits is a good one.”
They walked on for a bit, then Troy leaned closer and spoke quietly to Jade. “You guys really are from a different planet or something, aren’t you?”
She nodded, cheerfully. “Literally, in some cases. Once you get used to it, it’s pretty fun. Why, are you jealous?”
Troy frowned. “Maybe. I mean, I’m not sure I want to be a freak, no offense, but it seems kind of cool, too.”
Jade smiled at him, unruffled by the offhand insult. “Think about it a little. Mutations sometimes run in families. They sometimes skip, too, so you never know. If you could change your whole life, would you? And if you had your choice, I mean for real, to be anything, anyone, have any power, what would you hope for?”
“Is that how it worked for you? Did you get what you wanted.”
Jade gave him a serious look. “Well, I never imagined I might be a mutant. On the other hand, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It wasn’t anything I expected, but all of a sudden I discovered the real me. It’s hard to explain. And I haven’t finished becoming that person yet, but I’m getting closer every day.”
“Hmmm.” Troy shoved his hands in his pockets, scowling. “Just tell me I won’t have to turn into a girl. That would be way too freaky.”
That was when the assailants made their move. Four teenage boys, probably high-school juniors, suddenly stepped forward and surrounded Nikki. They were dressed fairly nicely, and none of them had hoods or sunglasses or any noticeable gang colors. Still, they seemed to materialize from the crowd and they suddenly had her surrounded.
“Hey, pretty girl, can I take you to lunch?”
“You are soooo sweet! How come I haven’t seen you around here before?”
“I’ll carry your bags. Or your coat. Or your anything.”
“Oh, that was pathetic, Manuel. Here’s how you do it.” He leaned closer to Nikki. “What do you say we ditch these losers and hit some high spots? Music, dance, food, shopping, whatever you like. Say the word and I’m your man!”
Jade was frozen, wondering how to react. She was wearing her school uniform, so as a matter of course she had the Cobra 250 holstered at the small of her back. But the first shot was a web, and she didn’t want to web up Nikki, too. And the weird gun was too strange to intimidate anyone.
While she dithered, Nikki raised a hand that was shrouded in invisible crimson mystic energy. (Jann linked, giving her enhanced vision.) That much energy could freeze these guys into popsicles, or convert them to turnips, or something worse! And they were in the middle of the city!
But Nikki seemed to have that same realization. She just pulled her glasses down and gave the boys a look. It was a look loaded with fire-red mystic power. “Not interested,” was all she said aloud.
The three boys caught in the glance stumbled, then let themselves fall behind.
“Uh, we better go, Jeff. We aren’t wanted here.”
As the boys left, Jade and Jinn pulled in closer, and the group walked on a bit.
“What were you going to blast them with?” Jade finally asked.
“You saw that?” Nikki turned around to look at her, glasses back in place.
“Yeah. You were holding enough power.”
“Rabbits,” Nikki answered. “It would have been temporary… just a few minutes.”
“I think your stern look did much better, Dear,” her mother replied.
Neither Jade nor Nikki told her that the “stern look” had been pumped full of magic.
“Still,” the woman continued, “there are easier ways to handle well-meaning boys.”
“What would you have done, Mom?”
“Well, you might have gotten their phone numbers, and then just ‘forgotten’ to call them back. That way everyone saves face and walks away happy.”
“Oh. Yeah, maybe.”
Jade tried to explain. “That reaction is probably natural after coming down from Whateley. They’re trying to teach us how to solve things without escalating to the ‘costume’ level. But a lot of the kids, especially the freshman and sophomores, they still need to flex the powers, you know? And even if you want to be polite, you have to be ready, too, because you never know when someone’s going to show off or something.”
“It’s not as bad as she makes it sound,” Nikki corrected. “They’re teaching us to survive first, that’s the most important part. Once we have that mastered and well under control, then we move on to doing things smoothly and with style. Juniors and seniors work more on handling social situations well.”
Mrs. Reilly nodded. “I suppose it’s a dangerous world out there for some of those kids. But don’t worry, this is Kansas City. Nothing big ever happens here. I think you’re safe for the holiday. Do you think you can tone down the threat response to ‘at ease’ maybe?”
Nikki grumbled. “My training is to be ready as fast as possible – at a moment’s notice. You never know when there’s going to be a threat.”
“For me, Nikki?”
“Okay… I’ll try.”
“Thank you, Dear.”
They’d moved on to the mall before Troy refused to go any further.
“It’s the middle of vacation, but I followed your suggestion,” his rant began. “I came ‘shopping’ even thought I knew full well that there were three females. ‘Maybe they’ll want to look at the knife shop,’ I thought. Who knows, with that school of yours? ‘Maybe they like video games.’ But no, it just had to come to this, didn’t it? Not even dresses or something like that. You’re going shopping for underwear. Well count me out.”
“All right, Dear,” Mrs. Reilly called. “Shall we meet you in the food court?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I’m interested in the knife shop,” Jinn offered.
Slightly mollified, Troy and Jinn headed one way, while the remaining three females headed into Lady Chatterly’s Laundry.
“What are you both looking for?” Mrs. Reilly asked.
“Natural fabrics,” Nikki revealed. “And natural thread in the stitching, too. I can buy some excellent things from Rogers’, in Dunwich, but that’s pretty expensive.”
Nikki’s mother gave a look of disapproval at that. “You buy your delicates from someone named Roger?”
“Cecilia Rogers, Mom. She’s the world’s best seamstress. For real. I mean, she’s got mutant fabric powers or something.”
“Oh, I see. Well how about you, Jade?”
“Thigh socks!” the smaller girl exclaimed. She began to chortle and rub her hands together. “Just before we left school, I learned the secrets of zettai ryouki! I’ve already got the proper skirts, and with a few sets of thigh socks, I will demolish my rival! Ha ha ha ha!”
“Any particular color you need?”
Jade pointed to a spot on her leg, about four inches above her knee. “They have to come to right here. Exactly this high, or the formula doesn’t work! I figure mostly white. Not sure if I could do black… but that might be interesting. Hmmm. Colors? I don’t know. If I had a matching outfit… But I don’t want to look like an Easter egg. Though Bunny might like that.”
Hearing that, Nikki began to choke.
“Something wrong, Honey?”
“Just… thinking about someone.”
They split up, but Jade quickly made a find and headed back toward Nikki.
“Lookit this! You weren’t kidding when you said this place was incredible! They have Tenchi Muyo underoos! Well, the Tenchi ones aren’t so great, but the Ryoko? Wow. And the Ryo-oki ones are pretty cute, too.”
She held up the underwear, pre-bundled in convenient packs of three, held forward and displayed so that Nikki couldn’t possibly miss it.
Nikki pursed her lips. “…not exactly my style,” she offered as her first deflection.
“They’re really cool. I got an extra pack, if you’re interested. What size are you?”
“Oh, well that’s a problem, isn’t it? These are too small.”
“They had a couple more packs,” Jade insisted. “And they were in the discount bin! Can you believe that?”
Finally Nikki had to use the big guns. “Check the material, Jade.”
“Hmmm, polyester, rayon … oh, right. Well there’s some cotton.”
Nikki shook her head, managing to look regretful. “I would be itching like a baseball player.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Jade looked around at the table they were at. “You like lace?”
Nikki looked down and blushed. “Yeah. Except for some times … you know.”
“Well, that’s what some of the other girls call it. Because of the storms.”
Gritting her teeth now, Nikki sorted through the offerings. She’d gotten so that she only had to brush a fabric to detect the taint of synthetic material.
“These, maybe. Smooth, fairly plain, but they won’t look too bad, even with a pad.”
Jade smiled back, acknowledging the education the taller girl was subtly providing.
“Thanks, Nikki, I really appreciate it. I’m going to have to worry about that pretty soon, you know.” She smiled as she said it, radiating confidence.
“I believe you will, little sister. I believe you will.”
“So what other tips can you give me?” Jade chirped.
“Well…” Feeling wicked, Nikki picked up a lacy red thong. “Get used to thongs. They are muy sexy. If you wear them right, there’s almost no panty line. That’s the whole point. And… figure out the style you like.” At this point, she leaned in closer, speaking confidentially. “I like lace, myself. I prefer natural patterns, but I don’t care so much about a bunch of flowers. There was a time, a previous life I suspect, when there were the most incredible patterns: ferns, pine needles, leaves-and-branches. I like to wear lace to fights. It just makes me feel – more me. Confident. Pr…” Nikki stumbled for a moment. “Pretty,” she finally finished.
“You shouldn’t feel bad about being beautiful,” Jade answered quietly. “Or about wanting to be beautiful. After all, you’re the second-most beautiful girl on campus. It would be so sad if you couldn’t appreciate it.”
Nikki smiled, and shrugged. “It’s just… especially seeing Troy, I remember how it used to be. And now I’m so different. Everywhere I go, I have men watching me. It’s kind of creepy, but at the same time, a part of me really likes it. And then I start to think about what it means to be female – what I’ll have to do. What some boy will do to me. And I realize…” her voice grew very quiet now “…I’m not a lesbian, Jade. Oh, that’s not to say that I don’t love Bunny in her own way, and I do enjoy doing things with her.” Her blush was fierce now. “But that only makes it more apparent. I can’t help noticing boys, sometimes. Is that wrong? Because sometimes it feels terribly wrong, and other times it doesn’t feel wrong at all.”
“Naw,” the younger girl insisted. “You just have to set your sights on a good boyfriend, then go after him with everything you’ve got! And don’t stop the fight if there’s some other girl in the way! You have to find your own method, especially if she doesn’t fight fair!”
Nikki, rapidly recovering her composure, raised an eyebrow. “Dare I ask?”
That was all that was needed to open the floodgates. “Well, there’s this girl: Demona? And she’s like, out to here. I’m thinking D-cup. And Stephen tries to be good, but he can’t keep his eye off her! So I’m thinking about evening the playing field. And I think I’m probably not a—” She whipped her head from side to side, checking for evesdroppers. “lesbian,” she whispered. “Either. But I think about how things will be someday – you know, geometry and stuff like that. And I wonder about my sister. ‘Cause that could be my strategy. It’s tough to beat, when you think about it. Jinn’s turning into a pretty good shifter. She could be anyone. Different sizes and stuff every night of the week.”
Nikki was very careful not to let her jaw drop open. She had hardly realized that innocent little Jade would end up as the pervert of the group. If she was interpreting things correctly that is.
“Do you mean, you and Jinn together in bed with… you know?”
Jade nodded. “Sure. I gotta fight the Demon of the Boobs somehow. Not that Demona’s that bad. She’s been really friendly to Jinn, and given her lots of suggestions about how to dress, and even how to undress and make it look sexy.”
It was at this point that Nikki felt her hair toing out again.
“No,” she decided aloud, “I do not want to know. You talk to Billie about it.”
But a moment later, the inherent fascination of the forbidden topic undid her resolve.
“I thought Jinn couldn’t really feel anything?”
Jade gave her a so-what look. “She can’t. Well, pressure, a little texture, but nothing like pleasure or pain. Except under really rare circumstances.”
“Hmmm? What—?” Nikki’s self-discipline clamped down again. “Gotta stay on topic. Okay, listen Jade. You need to be honest with your partner. Most of them – the good ones anyway – are going to be disappointed if they can’t please you. So I don’t think Jinn should be involved with some guy physically if she’s not getting anything out of it. You have to keep it real, not lie or deceive your partner.”
“Oh.” Jade thought about it. “Really?”
“I just figured that it was part of being a girl. You help the boys deal with their ‘urges’ and then you get to cuddle with them. Everyone’s happy.”
Nikki smacked her face into her hand. “Jade, you shouldn’t even be considering something like that until your ‘urges’ are at least as strong as his are.”
“Really? Girls have urges as bad as guys?”
Nikki was exasperated. “Jade!” she whispered furiously, “we live in a cottage of lesbians! What do you think they’re all up to? And why are they so obsessively busy at it?”
Mortified, she suddenly looked around, hoping desperately that her mother had not overheard that last part. Fortunately, the gods were on her side this time. No one was nearby, and her mother, thankfully, was off at the far side of the store, ringing up a purchase.
“Okay,” Jade said, nodding thoughtfully. “That explains a lot.”
Nikki tried to get her heart back under control. “You’re not ready yet, Jade, but trust me, when the time comes you’re supposed to enjoy it just as much he does.”
“Oh, that’s good, I guess. So how does that help me decide what underwear to buy?”
Nikki blushed. “Well, some girls buy what they think their boyfriends would be most interested in seeing – whether or not they actually show him. So if they know they look good, then they feel good about themselves.”
Jade nodded thoughtfully. “Stuff he’d like to see, gotcha. I found these Tenchi Muyo ones, and I’m gonna get them anyway, even though I don’t know if Stephen likes that show. I’ll have to work on that with him. But I didn’t see anything with planes or samurai swords or anything. He likes money, but I didn’t see any prints like that, either.”
Nikki opened her mouth and discovered that she had nothing to say. How could she respond to that?
“Maybe they have lizard prints or something. I’ll go look.”
Finally, Nikki’s brain connected with something that had nearly passed her by. “Wait a minute!” she demanded. “What do you mean, I’m the second most beautiful?”
Settling in back home, Nikki came into her room only to find Jade seated at her old desk. The girl had a pile of small, flat plastic squares, and had unloaded some small electronics pieces and other gear.
“What are you working on?”
“Household robots,” Jade tersely explained.
She touched several items, then leaned back, much more relaxed. On the desk, an electrical coil began to heat, while plastic squares began to move into position, along with tiny circuit boards, glass beads, hairs of transparent glass, and a swirl of sand.
“Bunny gave me a pile of these,” Jade explained, holding up a circuit board. “It’s got piezo power and can flicker these LEDs on and off. That’s all it does. The sheets are standard thermoplastic, used by modeling geeks. I’m using this heater to soften them and then sand casting to mold them into shape, except that it’s sort of a TK-powered dynamic sandcasting.”
“Useful technique,” Nikki decided.
“Yeah, I can get spheres and cubes and geometric solids really easily now. Complex shapes are still challenging.
“Anyway, I mold the case, put in the blinky-light circuit, press these glass beads in wherever I want a blinky to show through the skin. Then I run an optical fiber strand from the circuit-board LED to the bead – a drop of clear glue on both ends. Followed by the real mechanical parts, that I just run manually, of course, and I always try to throw in some extra gears and salvage junk, followed by the secret ingredient: the black olive.”
“What’s that? Looks like one of your mini-missiles.”
“It is, with a modified detonator. Normally it’s safe, but I can unlock it and switch it to ‘deadman.’ So long as I’m holding it, it’s safe. After that it’s got a fractional explosive charge, some incendiary, a smoke charge, and a ton of BRS.”
“Burned resistor smell. I make it by grinding old resistors and mixing them with the incendiary.”
“Oh,” Nikki commented, sorry that she’d asked.
“Anyway, that’s about all I need for a new ‘robot.’ With the deadman, if I ever lose charge, the robot suffers ‘catastrophic failure’ and flames out, and it smells exactly like every other melted down electronic gizmo. Until then my robot can walk or talk or make any kind of sound or vibration you want, hover, pick things up, and it has enough sounds and blinking lights to make R2D2 drop a gear in envy.”
Nikki gave a suspicious glare at the robot that was taking shape before her eyes. “Just don’t get carried away, okay?”
Jade looked up with an innocent expression. “It’ll be fine! Trust me!”
Aunghadhail was not in evidence. Instead, it was pure Nikki, who seemed to have inexplicably reverted to the age of six years old.
“Come on! Come on!” Nikki stage-whispered, as she shook Jade awake. “It’s Christmas! I want to see what I got!”
“Huh?” Jade rubbed at her eyes. “At least put on a robe or something. You can see right through that nightgown.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Nikki grumbled. “It’s just Troy. He’s my brother! We’ve seen each other in the buff tons of times.”
“Uh, not like that, I’ll bet.” Jade peered more critically at her roommate. Why couldn’t she be shaped like that? If she was, she knew that Stephen’s eye wouldn’t be wandering to, just as an example, Demona. “At least put a bra on.”
“No time! Come on!”
Jade stumbled out of bed. What do I want for Christmas?Perhaps prompted by recent events, she thought, It would be nice if I could be a beautiful, immortal girl with huge gravity-defying boobs! Then she shook her head. Instead, I’ll probably get socks or boxing gloves or a DVD about Mike Tyson.
She plodded into the living room, following Nikki who was bouncing with glee. “Shouldn’t we wait for your mom and brother?”
“Christmas Day! It’s Christmas Day!” Troy chanted, as he came barreling in. “Let’s sort ‘em! My pile here, yours there!”
“No!” Nikki stuck her tongue out. “You always get that corner!”
While they were resolving their fight, Mrs. Reilly wander in. “No one touches anything until I’ve had my coffee.”
It took a while for everyone to settle down. Jade offered one of her “flying robots” to run the video camera, which Mrs. Reilly gratefully accepted. It was extremely strange to see Nikki acting like a little kid, but perhaps that was part of what Christmas meant to this family.
For the first time, Jade saw Troy accepting, really believing, that his sister was the person he’d known all his life. Despite her curves and her completely feminine mannerisms, she was apparently acting in a way that only Troy’s sibling could do.
The family proceeded in a gleeful orgy of greed. Taking turns, they would compete to see who could rip off the paper the fastest. Extra points were given for violence, and the ensuing cloud of chaff generated by the shark-like feeding frenzy.
Jade was happy to see that she had a present, too, and further surprised to find out she’d received more than one.
When the destruction came to its inevitable end, they had all made out pretty well. Troy had paid for a group portrait of all of them (even Jade) to be given to everyone to commemorate the special holiday.
Jade had constructed a “wand” for Nikki to carry through airport checkpoints. It was a slightly crooked tree branch, intricately carved, oiled, and polished, with a large, clear quartz crystal mounted in the business end. The “runes” carved into it turned out to be a combination of astrological symbols and the Hebrew alphabet.
“Jinn did all the work,” the small girl explained. “I just asked around at the mall, finding out the proper oil and stain and stuff.”
Jade, meanwhile, was clutching the thigh socks that Mrs. Reilly had gotten her. Jade was grinning madly, because she’d finally have a chance to test the formula and create the perfect look!
Mrs. Reilly seemed satisfied with the coupon Jade had presented: an offer to craft “robots” to attend to all the house cleaning and maintenance chores, for as long as Jade remained.
The girls had also gotten each other T-shirts. Nikki got Jade some black T-shirts with either bunny skulls or kitty skulls on the front.
“We need to work on a Goth look for you,” Nikki explained. “That’s what the shirts are for.”
“Skulls!” Jade oozed. “But they’re so cute!”
The younger girl got Nikki a shirt that said, “Trees rock.”
“It’s like a joke!” Jade explained, needlessly.
Unfortunately, once Nikki tried it on, the shirt stretched a bit so that it said something more like “trEEs rOCk.”
“I got one for Billie, too,” Jade said proudly.
She held up a black shirt with a white design. It was done up as a MID card:
Code name: GIRL POWERPsych - 3
Fashion - 5
Babeness - 4
Dish the dirt
Sales, studs, Speedos
BFF, home crew
Nikki began to choke. “You got that for Billie?”
“Yeah! Great, isn’t it?”
The real surprise though, was the purse Jade got. The tag said simply, “From Stephen. Merry Christmas.”
“Stephen?” she echoed in disbelief.
“Apparently Billie had it,” Nikki explained. “She passed it off to Toni just before she took off for Colorado, and then I got it.”
“It’s nice…” Jade agreed.
The purse was taller than it was wide, 6x4x1 – roughly the size and orientation of a paperback book. The fold-over flap had a firm magnetic clasp, and the purse was a smooth dark-blue leather. The strap was a matching leather. Inside, it was fairly small, with a note that said, “Charge me to find my secret.”
With a quizzical look, Jade charged Jinn into the purse. Then got an incredible surprise once Jinn returned.
“What?” Nikki demanded. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong?” Jade giggled. “Oh, nothing’s wrong.”
She reached into the purse and pulled out what looked like six more identical purses. These weren’t as stiff, but they had the same excellent quality. They weren’t complete purses, simply alternate covers for her main purse, providing leather in red, black, white, and brown. There was a green silk cover. There was even a pattern guide for making new covers.
Jade was now almost vibrating with excitement.
“Well, it’s nice I guess,” Nikki admitted. “I thought he was supposed to be this impressive all-knowing rich guy. I guess I expected something a bit fancier.”
“You want fancy?” Jade demanded. “I’ll show you fancy! Um… can you unplug that floor lamp and hand it to me?”
Troy got up to comply, wondering what was going on. He came back holding the five foot tall floor lamp.
“You need some light?”
“No, just the lamp.”
Even Mrs. Reilly was getting curious. “What do you need the lamp for?”
Jade looked up with a manic gleam in her eye. “Have you ever seen Mary Poppins?”
“Well, do you remember the scene where she unpacks?”
She set her purse on the floor, where it balanced amazingly well. Then the top popped open (as if moved by an invisible person). Jade lowered the lamp toward the waiting purse.
“Now watch closely…”
“The base is too wide,” Troy pointed out. “It isn’t even close to… fitting…”
As the wide base of the lamp touched the mouth of the purse, it appeared to pass through some sort of magic funnel. It shrank or was squeezed down somehow until it fit into the tiny purse. Jade continued to lower the lamp, hand-over-hand, until the entire five foot tall lamp had been lowered into the six inch tall purse.
Jade was barely able to suppress her chortles of glee. “Voila!” she said, snatching up the purse. “Now I have a lamp with me wherever I go.”
“That’s impossible!” Troy protested. “Give me that!”
“Okay.” Jade handed over the purse.
Troy reached inside, barely able to fit his large hand in. “It’s empty. And small! I mean, normal size. I don’t get it! What’s the trick?”
Jade took the purse back, set it on the floor, and extracted the lamp in the reverse of her previous impossible exploit. “Ta da!”
“Alright, hand it over!” Nikki demanded. She added, “I guess he did do pretty well on the gifts. Better than I expected, even.”
Peering inside, she said. “That’s odd… there’s something there, but I can’t quite… and why do I feel like there’s mithril nearby?”
“That’s the trick,” Jade revealed. “He needs mithril to keep it stable. There’s a metal box under the cover, and it’s fused with a mithril mesh. That’s why it’s so hideously expensive.”
As Nikki looked, Jinn (who was inhabiting the purse), flicked the tiny bag aside. Normally, the small purse-sized bag covered the opening of the purse. It stretched across the inside of a thick metal box, and exactly covered the area you would expect. But when it pivoted aside, the true interior of the purse was revealed. Nikki gasped, and reached her arm in. From the outside, it looked like her arm vanished, as she shoved it up to the shoulder into the small purse.
“I can’t reach the bottom!”
“Of course not,” Jade explained. “It’s twelve times bigger in every dimension. Four feet wide, one foot thick, and six feed deep.”
Mrs. Reilly’s eyes sparkled. “It’s every woman’s dream purse!”
“Great,” Nikki deadpanned. “Only, how do you get stuff back up off the bottom. You gonna turn it upside down, and empty the whole thing out?”
“Uh uh.” Jade shook her head, as she took back her treasure. “I’ll just send Jann after it. She can find it, bring it up, and hand it to me. That way, it’ll look like I’m reaching into a normal purse.”
Mrs. Reilly had the final word on that. “That’s an incredible gift. You just make sure to thank that boy properly! After all, I’m sure you want to encourage that sort of behavior.”
“Wow, yeah. Come on, Nikki! You have to help me think of ideas! And I need to re-pack!”
“Oh, I’ll do the dishes!” Jade reminded them. “I insist! Just pile them on the counter there…”
While Nikki and Troy cleared the table after breakfast, Jade snuck into Nikki’s room and returned with a series of robots. They were bright plastic, colored like baby toys. The first stuck to the counter on suction-cup feet, and had a long gooseneck-style arm with a claw at the end. Another was like a flying saucer that hovered overhead and lowered a claw in a manner reminiscent of those frustrating arcade machines. One robot wrapped wiry tentacles around the hot and cold water knobs, and the sink faucet. Others dipped propellers into the filling sides of the sink. Jade touched and adjusted all the pieces, making sure everything was ready.
“Okay, done,” she announced. “Let’s go watch something entertaining.”
“No way!” Troy insisted. “I wanna stay right here and see the robots!”
“Is something supposed to be happening?” Mrs. Reilly asked.
“Oh, forgot to turn it on.” Jade reached into her purse and pulled out her Universal Remote. As she pressed buttons on that impressive-looking controller, the robots lit up, one after another, then began to jerkily stir to life. With a flash of crimson lights, the faucet-bot ran steaming water into both sides of the sink, while injecting liquid dish soap into one side. Meanwhile, the hover-claw slid over the pile of dishes, lowered its claw, and clutched a glass, which it then reeled up. It slid sideways then reversed that action, lowering the glass into the steaming, soapy water. It returned for another dish. Another robot spun the water into bubbly froth, while a claw-arm robot prepared a towel.
Jade pulled out a CD. “Do you have a player nearby? I’ve tested things, and they really work better with this one, particular song playing. No one knows why. It’s an old Raymond Scott piece, called Powerhouse.”
Locating the CD, she plopped in the disk and pressed play. Immediately the kitchen as filled with a well-known Bugs Bunny soundtrack, which had been used as the musical score for countless animated conveyor belts and assembly lines over the years.
Brother and mother stared in disbelief.
“You have got to be shitting me,” Troy finally said.
“Troy!” his mother scolded.
“Come on. Obviously the kitchen is too exciting for some people. We’ll move to the living room.”
“No, that’s gadgeteers,” Nikki explained, one more time. “See, the difference is, ‘A gadgeteer can go to the patent office. A devisor can go anywhere but the patent office.’ You see?”
“No.” Troy was puzzled.
“Devisors make magic gizmos,” Jade said. “A real scientist takes it apart and says, ‘this can’t possibly work!’ But it works, just the same. So… magic. Only it’s like gizmo magic. Gadgeteers, on the other hand are like psychic guys that can see into the future. Somehow, they put together stuff that might get invented in fifty years, or a thousand. But if you can take that stuff apart and figure it out, you can patent it and mass produce it. Because it’s a real piece of equipment, only from the future. Get it?”
“So they’ve got devisors and gadgeteers at Whateley?” Mrs. Reilly asked.
“Mm hmm,” Nikki agreed, nodding.
“It must make for an… interesting school.”
“Oh, that’s not the half of it,” Jade drawled.
Nikki shot her a dirty glance. There were some things she preferred that her mother remain ignorant about.
For Jinn, the sink and dishes were excellent training. Ever since she’d gone through the mystic “gargoyle transfer” with Demona, her TK abilities has been expanded amazingly. Her strength hadn’t improved by so much as an ounce, nor had her dexterity, nor had duration been improved by that transfer. But her coordination – that had skyrocketed. Back in her first weeks, she’d been able to maintain a human body shape (just one, her own), and move and use that naturally. In “object mode” as she called it, she could animate anything from a cloud of dust to fabric. But the things she could do were limited by her ability to form shapes and to coordinate multiple movements simultaneously. No matter what her shape, her brain (or whatever the TK-energy-field equivalent was) could coordinate and manipulate a limited number of limbs – four to eight, depending. She could manage a stuffed animal with four legs and a tail, and even add a pair of wings if she wanted.
But after the transfer, she’d forever lost the ability to shift into gargoyle shape. At the same time, she’d picked up the ability to use a hundred hands at once, working them all with ease and coordination. And those “hands” need not literally be in hand shape. She could coordinate a human body as Shroud, while animating objects independently – chains, strips of cloth, and a dozen objects and weapons inside her body.
She knew that she hadn’t reached her full potential, either. That was what this training was for. She was cast into the robots, the dishes, and pretty much everything else within three feet of the sink. And she was operating all of it at the same time.
It had once been suggested that she animate water itself. This would give her an invulnerable liquid body that could heal as fast as it was wounded. She could seep through the tiniest crack, drown people unstoppably, and flow away from any blow. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), water was too small for her. She couldn’t get a TK “grip” on it – it was like a person trying to pick up water by pinching it between thumb and finger. It just didn’t work that way.
However, she could pick up very tiny objects, like dust. And she could dump these tiny objects into water. Earlier, she had relieved the Reillys of an old pillow, that had been worn down from its original polyester foam beads, until it was little more than polyester foam powder. That powder went into the soapy side of the sink, where it immediately turned into thousands upon thousands of tiny sponges. On the “rinse” side of the sink, she dumped in a wad of lint from the clothes dryer.
And this became her training. With robots floating and blinking overhead for cover, she did the real work entirely inside the sink. She couldn’t directly manipulate water, but when the water turned into a thin, gooey mass of wet lint, then she could control it. She could stir and swirl the water in a hundred directions at once, Each small thread of lint provided a little drag. With thousand of them moving at once, the water flowed along with the lint.
A dish went in, to be thoroughly scrubbed by a thousand tiny sponges. It lifted into the rinse, swirled clean and soap-free by tiny whirlpools of fresh water powered by a million near-microscopic pieces of lint. Jinn could even see the difference between clean rinse water and soapy rinse water, so she could isolate and segregate that contaminated water over in one corner. Add in ultrasonic vibration, dishes that vibrated themselves dry, a further blow-dryer at the rack, and stacking the dishes back on the shelf, and it was a pretty impressive dishwashing system.
It was top-notch training. How many dishes could she handle at once, how many sponges, and how many separate lint-powered currents? She pushed her limits, finding them surprisingly high.
Being Christmas Day, most businesses were closed. That didn’t stop a young woman from approaching a large white building at the edge of the city’s business district. The modern office building was three stories tall, with bands of dark glass providing horizontal stripes that contrasted with white concrete. A sign in the grassy lawn in front proclaimed “Heklin Insurance.” The young woman wore a simple gray knit dress with a fashionable tan ankle-length coat to guard against the chill. She pressed the intercom buzzer outside the locked glass doors.
“Kallysta Thessellarean, to see the captain.”
“One moment, Miss Thessellarean.” The receptionist inside fumbled with the foreign name.
A moment later door opened and a normal-looking security guard appeared.
“Ma’am? If you’ll come with me, please.”
Hekate nodded and followed. She hated to give her real name, but that was how her mentor had arranged the meeting. And the risk was acceptable, given what she would be receiving in return. She needed to account for every detail, and this would go a long way toward that.
“If you’ll follow me, Miss, it’s just one floor up.”
They stepped into the elevator together, but the guard pressed the buttons for the top two floors simultaneously. Instead of moving up, the elevator moved down. The numbers flickered through B1, B2, and ended with B3.
“Interesting,” Hekate commented. “We’ve got a system a bit like that at school.”
“And what school is that, Ma’am?”
She smirked at him. “You’re safer off not knowing.”
The elevator opened into an atrium that left little to the imagination. There was a cafeteria to one side, with small tables. In the center was a larger-than-life bronze statue of two male figures standing back-to-back: one holding a pistol, the other a dagger. Both looked ready to fight to the death. And that was just the fountain. Along each wall was a huge golden disk displaying The Syndicate’s seal: one hand holding a pistol, crossed at the wrist over a second hand holding a dagger. And if that was too subtle for you, each of the four corners held a pillar of transparent Plexiglas. Blowing inside the cylinders were countless loose dollar bills – exactly as seen in home expos across the country.
“Nice motif,” Hekate commented, dryly.
“We like it,” the guard said, agreeably.
He led her across the atrium and up a broad sweep of stairs. The far wall was given over to a huge window overlooking a vast hangar, filled with hover cycles, helicopters, and a VTOL jet.
“That’s Hangar A, our staging area. We have three different access shafts allowing entry and exit through multiple concealed portals. This jet can actually enter or leave through the storm drainage canal, a hidden hatch in an abandoned lot, and a tunnel that rises from a small lake.”
She nodded, feeling a bit overwhelmed.
At the top, they followed the balcony around the perimeter of the atrium, to a set of imposing doors labeled, Central Control. As the guard pushed them open, a man in an unfamiliar military uniform was inside. Displayed on the large screen opposite the doors was an oversized face known to anyone who kept up with the news: Charles Picton Darrow, better known as The Necromancer. The gaunt and elderly face looked up as she entered.
“Ah, our guest of honor. I expect you to give her your full support, Captain!”
The uniformed man nodded. “Of course. And you’re in agreement that if we do this thing, it will completely fulfill the debt owed to you.”
“Certainly, Captain. Well worth it. Fey will probably trash your whole base, which comes to a bit more than you owe me. Still, she’s young. Maybe she’ll let down her guard. Each of us falls to mortal fallacy every once in a while.”
Hekate set herself and stared at the psychotic-sounding geezer in the screen. “So it’s true then? She beat you not once, but twice?”
The man cackled back at her. “You come and talk to me once your plan has succeeded, little girl. If you win, I’ll give you whatever you want. Anything in my power. And if you lose, look me up anyway. Once you’ve had some sense knocked into you, maybe there’ll be something worthwhile to salvage.” With another cackle, he abruptly signed off.
The uniformed man turned and held out his hand. “How do you do, Miss Thessellarean? I’m Captain Mitch Randall, head of our Kansas City facility.”
She was still staring at the screen. “Was that really The Necromancer?”
“You don’t recognize your own sponsor?”
“Of…of course I do!”
While Hekate didn’t know her master’s true identity, she knew he wasn’t The Necromancer. But apparently, he was influential enough to have the Necromancer running favors for him. Favors that ran to the tune of an entire Syndicate base.
“Perhaps you’d like a tour of the facilities?” Captain Randall offered.
“And this is Hangar B,” the captain said, gesturing toward the cavernous space. “The jet in the far corner is just in for maintenance; it shouldn’t be in your way. This hangar is usually reserved for hover-bike training or other activities requiring large amounts of space. Your ritual being a good example. The Syndicate itself shies away from mystic endeavors – we usually hire out for that. I hope that explains the nature of the favor we owe your sponsor.”
“Yes,” Hekate agreed, blandly. “I’ll be able to prepare this area ahead of time?”
“As soon as we finish scrubbing it down, the place is yours.”
“Good.” It wasn’t that she was concerned, but so far this place didn’t seem much better than a rented warehouse. “How about security, if she manages to get off a spell or two?”
“Well, that’s what a Syndicate base is for, isn’t it?” The captain raised an arm and spoke into his watch. “Sorry, a little something we picked up from the Dick Tracy comic. I’ve always been amused that we use it, and the cops don’t.”
The was a rapid staccato march of many feet running in unison. Around the corner appeared a team of Syndicate goons, in black riot helmets and gray leather uniforms that had the padding and stiff leather panels so common to high-grade body armor.
“This is a squad of Enforcers. Note the genuine Kalashnikov rifles, maintained in perfect condition. I’m sure you’re aware that a Kalashnikov fires a 7.62 round, at ten per second in fully automatic mode, which these are all capable of. Each enforcer has been trained in the use of fists, knives, and rifle – both for crowd dispersal and marksmanship against individual targets. However, if that’s not enough we have the option of bringing in more firepower.”
He clicked his watch and a car sped silently around the corner. It was to a golf cart what a Humvee was to a Chevy. At the back stood an enforcer manning a tripod-mounted heavy machine gun.
“I’m sure you recognize the .50 caliber Browning machine gun. It’s belt fed and again, ten rounds per second. Except that each round weighs about 30 times as much as that from an AK-47. We use a special belt set up so that every ten rounds we have one tracer followed by a trio of armor-piercing rounds. Even your more powerful bricks are going to know they’ve been hit by that baby.”
He turned to the men in the armored cart. “Out, boys, I’m commandeering your vehicle to show a client around.”
“Oh, sure Boss.”
“Way to go, Captain!”
“Good taste, man!”
He smiled indulgently at them. “Please, forgive the men. I’m sure you know how attractive you are. The men, well, they’re just not used to being around such beautiful women. I assure you that they are strictly professional during an operation.”
Hekate nodded, but kept her opinion to herself. In her experience, she’d found it useful to have a few spells primed for “disciplinary measures.” It looked like her experience dealing with high-school boys would come in handy here.
The base was a warren of different rooms and passages. She saw high-security rooms for holding drugs and weapons, prisoner and hostage cells, vehicle repair bays, and more.
One spot they passed had men practicing with what looked like a flamethrower. She’d seen similar effects from students at the academy of course, but the idea that ordinary thugs (and fairly stupid ones, at that) would be running around equipped with that level of destructive power was a bit disturbing.
And down another hallway, there was a tremendous explosion.
“What was that?” she demanded in alarm.
“RPG practice,” the captain calmly explained. “Rocket propelled grenades. One of our mainstays here in The Syndicate is arms transport. We pick up items like the RPG-7 out of Russia then transport them to wherever they need to go. In the process, we appropriate a supply for ourselves, ‘wholesale.’ It gives us enough surplus to hold genuine training sessions, although we have to do those in muffled rooms, underground. The holidays are a particularly good time for this, since none of our business neighbors are around to hear.”
He took a turn into the room ahead, shouting, “Make a hole! Captain coming through!”
Hearing something in his voice, Hekate eyed her escort. “Were you a professional soldier, Captain?”
He was silent for a moment. Finally, “I spent some time in the marines,” he admitted. His voice held more than a touch of resentment.
Inside the over-sized practice range, Hekate had to keep from blurting out her astonishment. The target had been a plate of steel that looked like it was a full two feet thick. And a hole had been blown clean through it! She stared back at the joking, back-slapping gunners. Each of them held something like a super-thin rifle – almost a stick. At the front end was a bulbous, conical grenade-like missile.
That did this much damage? she wondered.
But it seemed to be the case. And the way these troops were carrying on, not all of them had the aim to hit this stationary target. They didn’t seem to have either the presence or discipline of real military troops. If she was reading the captain right, even he had only spent a little time in the marines. It sounded like he hadn’t left happily – maybe he hadn’t had a choice.
So her backup would be a pack of poorly trained, ill-disciplined street thugs, loaded up with machine guns and worse in hopes that they might be able to cope with mutant opposition.
None of these boys would survive thirty seconds in one of Whateley’s combat finals, she realized. Not unless they played the part of ‘dangerous mob.’ She decided that she definitely didn’t want to give the instructors a realistic idea of Syndicate forces. Not unless she wanted to find herself facing that mob in a future final.
“We end our tour in the control room,” the captain said, bringing Hekate back to the original office.
Her initial view was dominated again by the huge screen directly ahead. This time the display showed rotating schematics of the underground complex, with sections randomly highlighted and expanding to display live camera images.
“This is my post, backed up by Lieutenants Pierce and Wallace. Turn around, look at the walls.”
Hekate did so. The walls were covered in monitors, more than a thousand, it seemed like.
“We record and maintain full video records for the last 24 hours. Anything is available for instant replay. These are about half the cameras in the building; the views cycle automatically. Trouble spots are brought up on the big screen here, where we can zoom in, freeze, rewind, or even apply techniques like low-light enhancement. We scan the interior down to the bathrooms and air ducts; we cover the grounds outside, the roof, every access passage, and even nearby streets. I’ve selected this particular group today, since we’re the team that will be on duty for your operation. At the first, least sign of trouble, we will dispatch enforcer teams, and you’ve already seen what that involves.
“But even without enforcer teams, we can take plenty of action without even leaving the console here. Watch.”
He leaned forward and spoke into a desk microphone. From the acoustics, Hekate could tell that the sound was echoing throughout the complex.
“Stand by for a test of the blast doors.”
The captain clicked several controls on the console ahead of him. In reaction, on each of the screens, solid doors slid closed with an audible “clunk.” They sealed off every hallway in view.
“Now, of course, an RPG will punch right through one of those doors, but you’ll need an awful lot of them to get very far. Likewise, some of your high-end mutants could blast or smash through ‘em. But that’s a lotta doors, and when they’re worn out and coming through the far side, we’ll be sitting there, ready and waiting to blast them to hell. Each door is armored and insulated, hardened against fire, acid, electricity, what-have-you. Access is granted electronically by ID card,” He waved a card with his picture ID on it. “and we can disable that access from right here, on a case-by-case basis in case any enforcer is captured or turns traitor.”
Captain Mitch Randall clasped his hands behind his back and assumed an obvious “at ease” stance as he turned back to face her.
“Kansas City might not be the biggest or toughest Syndicate base, but it’s ours and we’re justifiably proud of it. I can say with some confidence that we’ll be able to handle one high-school freshman girl, even if she is some hotshot magic mutant. So, any questions?”
Hekate gave a tired smile. Maybe it IS better than a rented warehouse, she decided.
But she’d been through Whateley; she’d had years of the toughest training in the world, run by real military and mutant professionals. These idiots had no idea how outclassed they’d be in a real crisis. For example, she knew how to make herself the next best thing to invisible, which would make all their fancy cameras useless. And for some of the bricks she knew, all those rifles and doors would be nothing more than an amusing dare.
Fortunately, she wasn’t going up against Champion, or some super-brick. She was after one stupid little witch, who, despite some impressive showings in a few recent battles, was no great shakes in the hand-to-hand field. This contest would be witch-vs-witch, with Hekate holding the home turf advantage, prepared spells, and using every cheat she could think of. The rest of the base? It was there to keep bad luck from interrupting her, and to keep minor annoyances at bay. And to serve as cannon fodder, should the need arise.
No, Nikki Reilly was a freshman witch with a decent face and a far-too-impressive set of tits. Assuming she could keep these men thinking with their guns instead of their dicks, she’d have no problem at all.
“Maybe a few questions, Captain,” she finally answered. “Do you have any magical protection?”
“That’s what we’re trusting you for, ma’am.”
In other words, no, she translated.
“Well,” she said, “we need a mystic circle. The more durable it is, the better our protection. Chalk rubs away, but I’ve used carving on a wooden floor.”
“Most of our floors are metal or concrete, with a thin linoleum covering. You want to carve something into the linoleum?”
Hekate shook her head. “I don’t want to take any chances at all. I want you to peel back the flooring. We can make a magic circle by welding it into the floor. Let’s see the elf bitch break that!”
The captain nodded. “A little crazy sounding, but I like that! It has a certain appeal. Let’s do it.”
Hekate was pleased. She felt like she was beginning to get a handle on every detail.
Tuesday, December 26
Lucy Reilly looked in on her daughter, as Nikki and Jade fooled around with clothes. Apparently, Nikki saw Jade as a giant dress-up doll, and the younger girl was thrilled at the attention.
“Now that you’re home, Honey, you might want to see some friends,” she suggested.
Nikki looked up. “What’s that, Mom?”
“Well, maybe you’d like to stop by school, and look around. Sort of a ‘what if’, you know?”
Nikki grimaced, but replied with a mild, “I’m sure it’s closed on the holidays, Mom.”
“What about that boy Alan Hastings? You used to always talk about him.”
“I hated him, Mom. He used to beat me up. Or at least, he tried to.”
“Then maybe we should visit him,” Jade chirped up. “You can make him all hot for you, then zzzap! Fry his gonads! Ha ha ha ha!”
Nikki and her mother shared a look.
“Okay, that’s off the list,” Lucy agreed. “Maybe Principal Fletcher would like to see you? I’m sure he’d like to hear how the transfer to the new school has gone.”
Nikki rolled her eyes. “I hated him worse than Alan.”
Mrs. Reilly made another line through her list. “How about Jessie Tanaka? She helped you out a couple of times during your… change. And didn’t she have a friend or someone who went to Whateley?”
Nikki nodded, thoughtfully.
“And you really should drop by and visit Leon Maynard. You may be learning from a bunch of big-shot magic types at that school of yours, but remember that he gave you your start.”
“Now that’s a good idea,” Nikki agreed. “But today’s the day after Christmas! I want to just hang around, relax, and maybe watch a movie or two. Remember that I’ve got a shoot tomorrow. Maybe I’ll give him a call later in the week.”
“That sounds fine.”
“Spider-Rats from Space?” Jade asked in disbelief, looking at the cover of the DVD.
“No,” Troy insisted, “It’s Spider-Rats V!” He gave his sister a challenging look. “Me ‘n’ Nick used to stay up past midnight and watch horror movies. Each one scarier than the last.”
“Only during the holidays,” Mrs. Reilly added. “I usually went to sleep before the worst came on. And we have a rule: Keep it quiet.”
“So, what do you say, Sis? A monster marathon, or is that too dangerous now that you’re a scared little girl?”
“Hey,” Jade protested, hooking a thumb back toward herself, “I’m a scared little girl and I resent— no, wait, that didn’t come out right.”
Nikki snatched the box from her brother. “You’re on, Bro. But I have to warn you, I’ve seen real demons and monsters. I go to school with things that would curl your hair. I’ve shared blood with an inhuman creature, and carry a thread of demon blood in my own veins. Nothing that Hollywood has ever made will even get past my boredom threshold.”
Of course, an hour later, things were different.
Mrs. Reilly was long abed. The house was quiet, and dark. There was only the glow of the TV, flickering away as the cast of the latest Spider-Rats movie slowly fumbled their way toward doom.
The couch sat three. Troy was on one side, “casually” leaning against the arm-rest. The girls couldn’t see the death-grip he had on the upholstery. Nikki was in the middle, under a blanket she shared with Jade. The two girls were huddled together but not yet clutching each other. Jinn was just off the end of the couch, sitting lotus-style in mid-air. She was pretty bored, since she couldn’t see the screen. She had to make do with listening to the sound track (which was fairly stupid without the accompanying pictures) or watching the emotions of the three live people, or slipping out to make more popcorn.
The soundtrack was reaching a crescendo when a girl on-screen screamed. Jinn was watching the reactions of the couch-bound, studying how the colors of their emotions changed and spiked.
—and suddenly, there was a flare of red from behind the couch.
Magic? Jinn wondered. But Nikki didn’t look like she cast anything. It wasn’t Troy, was it? That was when she realized the obvious answer. Nikki. Only she doesn’t realize that she cast it. Okay, this should be interesting.
Troy suddenly jerked his feet onto the couch. “Uh, guys! I just felt something scuttle across my feet!”
Nikki turned to her brother in annoyance. “Duh. We’ve heard that line a dozen times already!”
“I’m not kidding! This was real!”
“Right. You expect me to believe—” Suddenly, she jerked her own feet up.
Now, no one was watching the movie. Instead, all three of them were focused on the blanket, and where it lay over an unused portion of the couch. Under the blanket, a lump the size of a fist was slowly working its way up onto the seat of the couch.
“Is that—?” Jade began fearfully.
“You better not be pulling a prank!” Nikki warned.
Jade shook her head frantically.
Nikki carefully flipped back the blanket.
There, regarding them calmly, was a creature the size of an extra-large potato. It had matted black fur, like a rat, with eight black, insectile legs springing from its misshapen body. The pointed head was also rat-like, save for the glowing red eyes and the gleaming black mandibles of its alien mouth. The naked pink rat tail lashed behind it like a whip.
Jade opened her mouth to scream, but a hand clapped over her mouth.
“We can’t wake Mom!” Nikki insisted.
Fortunately, Jinn’s hand flashed down and plucked up the filthy terror.
Jade relaxed, letting her breath out. “Thank God.”
Jinn smiled. “I’ll take care of this one,” she offered, “if you guys handle those.”
They all three turned to look at the wall behind them. It was like a lumpy black carpet, slowly moving, studded everywhere with glowing red eyes.
This time, the trio of screams did wake Mrs. Reilly.
Wednesday, December 27
Lucy Reilly dished a plate of slightly-burned eggs to her daughter.
“Sorry about the eggs, but I’m just a little short on sleep.”
“I’ll say it again,” Nikki said. “I’m really, really sorry. They’re hobgoblins. I can’t control them!” She looked guiltily at her brother. “You need any more band-aids, Troy? Jade?”
“I’m fine,” her brother said, “but we’re out of band-aids.”
“I heal fast,” Jade reminded them.
“Well, they’re your hobgoblins. I don’t see why you can’t control them.”
“I can a little,” Nikki admitted, “but only for the ones I create on purpose. The accidental ones… well…”
Mrs. Reilly scowled. “I suppose I can see why a boarding school is so important, if many of the students have problems like yours. I wonder if I can get someone in to look at the drapes and furniture? How am I supposed to explain all those teeth marks?”
“Nikki’s not so bad!” Jade defended staunchly. “Sure, she sometimes slips, but you can usually fix it with a mop and some paint. Some of the other kids, thought…”
Nikki looked horrified, while Mrs. Reilly demanded, “What?”
“Well, they set aside an item in the budget to completely replace an entire cottage every year. They usually don’t need it, but some years…”
“A cottage?” Troy wondered. “I thought you guys lived in those dorm / barracks things.”
“We call them cottages,” Nikki explained. “I think it’s a New England thing.”
Mrs. Reilly studied her daughter critically. “I suppose I can understand other students having accidents, too. It must be a challenge, learning to control strange new abilities.”
“Uh huh!” Jade agreed. “And then there’s stuff like Halloween—” She was cut off by Nikki’s hand suddenly covering her mouth.
“I’m sure you aren’t interested in every little incident,” Nikki covered, desperately.
“I am,” her mother insisted. “Particularly this one.”
“Uh… maybe later? Because you remember I told you I had a modeling shoot today? Well, look at the time! We really should get ready!”
“I’m not fooled,” her mother warned. “We’ll continue this afternoon, once you get back.”
Nikki, ancient sidhe ruler and Queen of the West, hung her head. “Yes, ma’am.”
Nikki, Jade, and Jinn stepped down off the bus.
“But what’s the big deal?” Jade continued. “Didn’t you tell ‘em about it at Parents’ Day?”
“Sort of, but not in detail.”
“So what details did you skip?” Jinn wondered.
“It’s just – my parents, both of them – they tend to worry. A lot. It’s even worse ever since I became their daughter, instead of their son. So I told them that there was a big fight on Halloween, but I maybe forgot to mention things like the squads of Syndicate troops, or the Tiger Guards, or Deathlist and his team of killer cyborg things.”
“Or people trying to assassinate us,” Jinn added.
“Yeah. My parents don’t react well to stuff like that.”
There was no reasonable response to that, so after a moment Jade asked, “What’s the address again?”
“Top-star Productions,” Nikki read from the business card. “Four fifty-seven west 12th. Should be on the next block.”
“We’re practically downtown,” Jinn observed. “Seems pretty high-rent for a studio.”
The answer was revealed when they entered a small skyscraper and saw that “Top-star Productions” was on the sixteenth floor, and included “video, presentations, production, and more.”
“I’ll bet they do ads and promos for a lot of the businesses around here,” Nikki guessed. “We learned about that in modeling. You’d be surprised how much modeling is just for use inside business, or for a private group of customers. It never goes out to the public.”
A quick elevator ride up and they entered the front office of Top-star Productions. They were met immediately by a thin, six-foot tall man who seemed just slightly hyperactive.
“Don Finklestein!” he announced, enthusiastically, looking Nikki up and down. “And you must be Nikki! Wow! I’m so incredibly impressed. You’re more amazing in person that even I thought you’d be!”
Finklestein had very light brown hair and though he seemed to be in only his mid-twenties, he was prematurely balding. Further, he had that tall, skinny, gangly body type that made his suit look as if it didn’t quite fit him properly – a little too loose. On top of that, he seemed to reek of nervous energy.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” he launched in. “For the whole ‘Christmas Elf’ thing, obviously we’ve missed the boat for this year. That’s fine – we have time now for next year, provided we don’t waste the time we have! There’s no real shooting today; it’s just some test footage, stills, and the like. Here’s contracts and mailers. That way you can look things over at your leisure, and drop ‘em in the mail for me. The summary: you own everything today and you aren’t committing to anything. These shots will be used to sell the concept and bring others on board: writers, creative people, producer, director, and the like. I’m hoping to start real production in the spring, perhaps summer if that’s what your school requires. If we play this right, it’ll go way beyond things like the Charlie Brown Christmas or the Rankin-Bass Rudolph stuff. This’ll turn into a regular franchise. One of those ‘must see’ yearly specials, along with another new show each year. No promises, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed. Okay? Any questions?”
“How do you do, Mr. Finklestein,” Nikki said carefully. “It’s good to meet you.”
“Sorry!” he quickly apologized. “I’m nervous. I hope it doesn’t show. It’s just that, in person, you’re so much more – what can I say? – intimidating, incredible, awesome, unbelievable?”
Nikki shrugged. “It’s my glamour. Sorry. I’d like to turn it off, but so far I can’t. Unfortunately, it doesn’t carry over to film.”
“No, that’s probably for the best. Otherwise we’d be giving our audience heart attacks, right? Ha ha! Let me introduce you to the crew.”
While Nikki’s manager led them farther back into the production area of the studio, Jade took the legal papers and (when no one was looking) stashed them in her purse.
“Boys,” Finklestein announced, “this is my client, Nikki Reilly. Nikki, the crew. The cameraman is Louie,” A fortyish man with male pattern baldness bowed. “Lighting, set, props, and background will be Joe.” A sandy-haired blond in his early twenties smiled and waved. “And Sidmar is the producer and general gopher for this shoot.” A darker-skinned man, perhaps from India or Pakistan, nodded seriously to them.
Louie, the photographer, moved in closer, studying his subject and moving to circle her.
“Wow,” He practically breathed it out. “Perfect skin. Absolutely perfect. They said you were going to have some props? Little Tinker-Bells, like on the poster? Or were those composited in?”
Nikki had practiced this trick with Jade until it was nearly seamless. With the cue, tiny “pixie pellets” slipped out of Nikki’s sleeve and into the space where the sidhe was clapping her hands together.
“I summon them,” Nikki said, applying some concentration.
The air sparkled. Brilliant spears of light formed a kind of implosion that came together between Nikki’s pressed-together palms. When Nikki unfolded her hands, three pixies stood there in outfits like Santa Clause suits, only in mini-dress form. The bright red outfits were long sleeved and off the shoulder, and trimmed everywhere with plush white fur. They were only two inches tall and they stood, nearly still, posing on Nikki’s open hands.
“I’m Trixie,” the blonde said.
“And Dixie,” the redhead followed.
The one with raven hair nodded more curtly. “Brunhilda.”
With a flurry of wings and a light buzzing sound, the three lifted off to hover or circle about Nikki’s head.
“Ah!” the cameraman said, taken aback. “When you said exotic—!”
“Do I deliver, or do I deliver?” Finklestein bragged, settling into a more comfortable groove.
“My God,” the prop-man said. “They’re real!”
“So,” Louie asked, far too casually, “you have an outfit like they’re wearing?”
“She sure does!” Jade chirped in. “It’s in here!” She held up her purse.
“So… tiny…” Louie whispered.
The lighting guy began to blush furiously. “I get paid for this!”
And the producer simply muttered over and over, “I’m a married man. A married man!”
“Well, that wasn’t so bad, I guess,” Nikki offered, as they headed back to the bus stop.
“Are you trying to convince me?” Jinn wondered. “Besides, you looked great. Natural, exuberant, and you looked like you were having a lot of fun.”
“I’m supposed to look like I’m having fun,” Nikki pointed out. “It’s part of the job, part of my training.”
“So tell the truth,” Jade cut in. “Were you having fun?”
“Mmmmmaybe,” Nikki finally squeezed out. “But that outfit isn’t really very good at keeping you warm.”
“No,” Jinn agreed. “It’s there to keep all the guys warm.”
“So what do you think of your new agent?” Jade asked.
Nikki thought for a bit. “He’s not a sleaze. He doesn’t make my skin crawl. Those are both good. Geek? No, no, more of a mega-geek. A mega-geek who lucked into his dream job. We’ll see. I think I could get to like him. The question is, whether he can do his job. He’s clearly pretty good at looking at the big picture and thinking long-term. And I’ve been signed with him for only about a week and I’ve already had a shoot. He’s very easy to work with, and he’ll follow my lead. I talked about my crazy schedule, and he’ll do the work of arranging shoots during spring or summer – whichever works for me.”
“So what’s the problem?” Jinn wondered.
“None, I guess. He just seems too good to be true. I’m wondering if he can really pull off such a big production. We’ll see, I guess.”
As if to balance that statement, once Nikki got home there was a call waiting from her other choice of agent.
Reluctantly, Nikki forced herself to return the call.
“Solicitor,” came the crisp response on the other end.
“This is Nikki Reilly. You called?”
“Nikki! Hey, I wanted to apologize about earlier. I wanted a chance to make it up to you.”
“Wait – how did you even get my home number?”
“Contacts. You’re in the book now. What, you don’t have an agent protecting you?”
Nikki frowned. The man was making an almost deliberate attempt to tone down on his usual oily talk, but somehow the sleaze still leaked through.
“I’ve signed with Don Finklestein. We had our first shoot today. I just got back from it.”
“I appreciate what you’re saying, I really do. But see, I still want to have you in my stable.”
“I signed a contract, Solicitor. Surely you know what that means.”
“Oh, better than you do, ba—Miss Reilly. But contracts are negotiable. Anything from a challenge in court to a buy-out. There’s still leeway, if I can manage to change your mind.”
“I’m sorry. That’s not going to happen.”
“I tell you what. I know we got off on the wrong foot. And I know Finklestein is big into causes and charity and stuff like that. Well, I can be, too. Let me set you up with one shoot, just one.”
“I’ve already signed—”
“Hear me out! Please! I’ll give a signed contract. I take nothing from this test shoot. It all goes to Finklestein. All cash, all rights, even the ownership and contract negotiation. It’s all in his hands. I’m just setting this up, using my contacts, to show you the kind of pull I’ve got, and to prove that I work with the absolute best people. The best writers, finest producers, and when I do charity work, it pulls in the biggest bucks to hand over to the most effective team. You got me?
“Please,” he continued, more desperately. “All I’m asking is one shoot to change your mind. No risk, no threat, it’s all under your control. And huge benefits to the charity of your choice.”
“There’s no way I’d even consider such a thing without consulting my real agent.”
“I’ve got his number. Let me bring him in. We’ll do a three-way.”
And so, quite against her will, Nikki got talked into another shoot.
Hekate spoke on her cell phone, while she lay on the bed in her hotel room. With her other hand, she grabbed for the remote and clicked the TV off.
“I’ve been in K.C. for a couple of days now. I’ve already toured the facilities and made arrangements. When will you be in?”
Back in Los Angeles, Solicitor leaned back in his hot tub. The damned thing was too hot to use in the summer, but once winter weather moved in he finally got some use out of it. He gazed out over the Pacific Ocean, appreciating the sunset.
“I’ll be flying in Thursday morning.”
“You aren’t coming in tomorrow?”
“No need.” He felt comfortable and relaxed. “This is the way I work, Sweetie. I arrange the people and location, everything’s in place, then I fly in for final arrangements.”
“If you say so,” Hekate reluctantly agreed. “Just remember, if any detail goes wrong – anything at all – you’re not looking at rescheduling, you’re looking at Hell on earth. The forces the Sidhe Queen deals with, they aren’t going to care that you go to parties with Orlando Bloom. They will destroy you in a bloodbath of the most gruesome agony imaginable. Being ripped limb from limb and then eaten alive – that sort of stuff. You might want to consider, I don’t know, double-checking things. Sweetie.”
Solicitor allowed a sigh. In truth, Hekate and this deal were raising the hackles on the back of his neck, but he’d dealt with producers that were tougher. The trick is never to let them see you sweat, he reminded himself. So he gave her a weary sigh and acted as if he were placating a temperamental client.
“Look, honey, if it’ll keep you happy I’ll come in Wednesday – let’s say early afternoon. I’ll have to shuffle some appointments, but you’re worth it, right?”
Hekate was losing patience with this idiot. “It isn’t about keeping me happy, Sol-baby, it’s about taking the precautions you need to make sure your soul doesn’t end up burning in the lake of fire for an eternity or two. Are you following this? This isn’t like trimming a royalty payment or adjusting your cut. This is like arranging to pull a fast one on Lucifer. You don’t want to leave any careless loopholes, do you? Every detail has to be perfect!”
“I get it, I get it. I’ll be there Wednesday! Happy now?”
“Happier,” she admitted.
“Oh, one more thing,” Solicitor recalled. “The elf said she’d be bringing friends. Someone named ‘Jade’ and her older sister ‘Jinn.’ Anything there that you can’t handle?”
“What?” Hekate yelled. “Are they Whateley?”
“How the hell should I know?”
Hekate had launched up off the bed to consult her files.
“I knew it! Jinn Sinclair. Part of their stupid Team Kimba. I tried to catch her in a spell, a month ago. She slipped out. It should have been impossible, but she slipped out. Damn. I know her, and I don’t like this. It’s a detail I hadn’t planned on!”
She flipped through more papers.
“Yes, this confirms it. Jinn’s sister is ‘Jade.’ At least there’s nothing to worry about there. She’s number 263 on the student rankings.”
Solicitor laughed. “I knew a guy at that level, back in my day. Two words, ‘flatulence control.’ He could do amazing things with it, especially if he had a lighter. Still… utter loser.”
Hekate was examining her notes. One advantage of the Alpha Network was that you got an up-to-date report on every student in school, gleaned from combat finals, MID displays, and often the more confidential records.
“Let’s see… powerful regen, minor devisor, some martial arts. Nothing we can’t handle. We’ll need to deal with the older sister though. Let me check my notes and work up a plan. I’ll give some options tomorrow, when you arrive.”
“I’ll see you then.”
Thursday, December 28
In a move that was by now more than familiar, Nikki turned casually to Jade. “Do you have the fairy costumes? I don’t want to conjure them naked, you know.”
Jade reached inside her purse and produced three small pellets, like medicine capsules scaled up for a horse. They were standard magic-store supplies. Stage magic, that is. These pellets were opaque and colored to match Nikki’s skin tone, to make them more difficult to spot. The contents included costumes, powder, a length of nanowire (which the pixies telekinetically manipulated to pick things up) – everything needed to create a single pixie. And now each pellet was freshly charged.
Nikki concealed the small pellets in the cuff at her wrist. She was wearing a fur-lined coat, but she’d be changing into the “Christmas Elf” outfit soon enough.
Jade was wearing her school uniform, with her new thigh-high socks, while Jinn wore an outfit with similar colors, but slightly different styles. It was a white blouse, black sheath skirt, with a matching black jacket. Nylons and high heels completed the “young professional” look. Needless to say, Jinn had no problem fighting in high heels.
The truth was, they were all feeling a bit nervous.
Like the previous shoot, they’d taken the bus downtown, and were walking the last block to the studio.
“Are you certain you trust this Solicitor guy, Nikki?”
“No, he’s a definite sleaze. I’m glad I went with Finklestein. Yesterday’s shoot was a bit chaotic, but I actually liked the people there. Solicitor – I expect to get a bit more sleaze from his crew. He’s up to something, and I’m not sure what. My best guess is that I’ll be getting another high-pressure sales pitch.”
“And you were still willing to come?” Jade wondered.
“Aunghadhail says I need the practice. It’s sort of a ‘negotiation for wimps’ training. She’ll back me up if I need it, but I’m supposed to handle this on my own.”
“We’re here if you need backup,” Jinn reminded. They all knew that she was fully geared up and ready to transform, if need be.
“That’s right!” Jade agreed. “Although I might be less help.”
“Don’t discount yourself,” Nikki soothed. “You’re packing, right? And you have your bracers.”
“Uh huh. That’s why I wore my uniform – it covers the holster best. And I’ve got ammo in my purse. But my bracers won’t be very useful until I get a charge. I’ve only got four, and between the three pixies and Jinn…”
“That’s more to our advantage,” Nikki insisted. “They’re charged and ready. No one’s going to expect a two-inch, invulnerable pixie who can bench press 300 pounds.”
Jade snickered. “I guess you’re right. We’re just being paranoid again.”
Nikki shrugged. “Combat finals was only two weeks ago, and Solicitor is a Whateley alum. But Mom’s right. I shouldn’t be cocked and ready to kill on the first little bump.”
As if answering her cue, a little girl, no more than four, came barreling out of an alleyway to collide with Nikki’s legs. The girl was bawling in misery.
“Honey, honey, settle down!” Nikki dropped to her knees to face the girl at eye level. “What’s wrong, little one?”
“Some mean boys took my cat! They threw Stripey up a tree, and now said they were going to use rocks to knock him down!”
“They what?” Nikki’s teeth gritted with a nearly audible grind. “I—” She glanced at her watch. “I can’t. I’m running late as it is. Jinn, do you think you—?”
“I’m sure I’ll have no problem,” the older girl replied. “But will you be okay?”
“Against a sleazebag agent? Yeah. I promise not to sign anything until you get back, okay?”
“Make sure you don’t.”
Jinn reached for the girl’s hand. “Come on, Honey. Show me where you kitten is.”
The four-year-old took her hand. “I’m not Honey. I’m Cindy. And Stripey isn’t a kitten…”
The two of them headed down the alley and around the corner on the other side.
“Let’s go,” Nikki said. “We’ll be nearly on time.”
A half block ahead, the sign over the doorway proclaimed, “First Light Productions.”
They announced themselves to the secretary in a small waiting room, then were shown into the studio, farther in.
An open semi-truck was there, unloading equipment. A burly tech crew was setting up backdrops, adjusting klieg lights, and arranging a set of white-draped prop cubes.
Solicitor spotted them and hurried forward, hand outstretched.
“Nikki, babe, so glad to see you! Like I said on the phone, this is an incredible opportunity. Wonderful charity. You aren’t going to regret this! I have a contract here that you’ll need to sign, releasing this work to the charity.”
He laid the contract on a counter that was covered by a clean white tablecloth. A spotlight was focused on the counter just to the side of the contract.
Nikki narrowed her eyes in suspicion.
“I’m not signing anything until I’ve passed it through my agent, Don Finklestein. I hope you understand that.”
“Of course, of course! This is a goodwill gesture, babe. I want you to have a positive impression once the Fink lets you down. I want you to know that I’ll welcome you with open arms.” He looked around. “Where’s the photographer? Cameron! We need some shots of the pixies!” Turning back to Nikki, he asked, “You can magic up the pixies, right? Can you manage, say, five of them?”
Nikki gave a wry smile. “Three’s my limit right now.”
Deftly manipulating the pellets, she clapped her hands together as the clothes slipped in. The empty pellets then vanished up her sleeve. Not saying a word, Nikki concentrated on producing sparkle effects. She opened her hands, and the three Santa-suited pixies stood there once more.
“Hiya, Boss!” “We’re ready for work!”
“Cameron?” Solicitor called again. “Oh, there you are. Get some shots of the pixies on their own.”
“Sure.” A bearded man appeared, holding a Nikon camera with a huge lens. “Okay, you guys can speak and talk, right?”
“Sure!” “Of course!” “The boss says the problem is getting us to shut up!”
“Okay, I need you in the light.” He looked at the white counter with the spotlight shining on it. “How about right there?”
Meanwhile, Nikki was trying to nail down her unease. “I want your oath, Solicitor, that this is exactly what you’ve promised, and you aren’t trying to pull a fast one on me.”
The man wouldn’t meet her eye. He was distracted by the pixies flying by. But he reached forward to shake Nikki’s hand.
“I give you my solemn oath,” he said as he shook, “that my intentions toward you are nothing but the best.”
Jade studied the man’s face, wishing she had Jann’s empathic senses to view his emotions. The guy just looked shifty. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any charges, so she didn’t have Jann-sensei.
The pixies touched down in the spotlit circle.
“Hey, that looked like a flair of magic!” the blonde, Trixie, said. She immediately took off – and collided with an invisible wall. “What?”
Nikki turned to see, even as she felt Solicitor’s hand clench down on hers.
Jade moved toward her pixies. She knew magic circles! Hekate had trapped her inside of one, during the demon-transfer with Tool/Demona! She knew that Jinn couldn’t escape, but maybe her physical body could. She reached forward—
Nikki was telling herself not to over-react. This was just like Christmas shopping, when her pumped-up reflexes saw a threat when it was only something simple and ordinary.
Jade reached for the circle, but before she got there, one of the tech crew turned and lashed out with his fist. He slugged her in the face. Hard. As hard as he would have punched a full grown man.
Jade’s head snapped back and she collapsed to the floor.
Real threat! It’s no exaggeration! Nikki had time to think.
With her attention focused momentarily on Jade, she didn’t even notice Solicitor removing the cold iron cuff from his pocket. She noticed when it snapped shut and locked around her right wrist though. In one single moment, all the magic that flowed through her soul was ripped out in an instant of unbearable agony. And the cruel metal cuff on her wrist burned as if it was red-hot.
She barely clung to consciousness, clawing desperately at Solicitors hand, which still held hers.
From under the counter, Hekate crawled out.
“Well, that was uncomfortable, but it looks like it was worth it.”
The witch glanced around.
“Pixies contained in magic circle: check. Worthless friend unconscious: check. Elf victim stripped of power: check. I guess I win.”
Nikki lunged forward, but barely managed to scratch the witch, before collapsing to the ground in screaming agony.
The witch snapped her fingers. “Cavalier, Skybolt! Load our guests into the truck. The rest of you: pack it up again. We’re out of here in five minutes.”
Jade was awakened by the small bump, as they wheeled her into a gigantic metal chamber. It was like an airplane hangar, and there was even a jet (partially disassembled) over in one corner.
She didn’t like the leer of the tattooed man pushing her, so she tried to roll off the table, surprising him. Instead, she was the one surprised. There were chains around her upper arms, wrists, waist, and each ankle. They made a clinking sound as she moved. Turning her head, as near as she could tell she was lying on some sort of butcher-block table. It had holes crudely drilled into it, allowing chains to pass through. She was guessing they were bolted or padlocked or something, underneath.
Instinctively, Jade cast into her chains. Jinn would take a look, then report back. Odds were, Jinn could unlock her.
Except that she couldn’t cast. She was too weak. She tried to think. Jinn was… what? Helping with a lost kitten.
Jade cursed to herself. That was such an obvious setup!
Okay, what about the three pixies? Where were they? The last she remembered, they’d said something about a magic circle.
If so, that would be bad news. She’d been trapped (as Jinn) inside a magic circle that Hekate cast, once. She couldn’t get out until… well, until Billie pulled her through, somehow. She still wasn’t solid on the exact details of what had happened.
There was one last possibility. She had experimented with a fifth charge. It seemed to use nearly every last bit of energy in her body, knocking her out at the very least. She hated to leave her body vulnerable, but she wasn’t doing much good as she was. On the other hand, did she dare risk that before she knew what was going on? She decided to watch and wait. For now.
“And we are on the clock.”
Captain Mitch Randall picked up the desk microphone and keyed it open, so that his voice reverberated throughout the entire base. “This is Captain Randall. Field operation SXK-79g is now live. I repeat: we are live. This operation is expected to be internal only, contained entirely within Hangar B. Remember boys, this is a live mutant exercise, with empowered targets. Keep on your toes. Recording is now active, so be on your best behavior. Our client expects the operation to run not more than two hours. Party and bonuses afterward, once we sound the all clear. Make yourself ready, particularly if you are scheduled for this activity. Go to it!”
He turned to Lieutenant Pierce. “Recorder status?”
Pierce punched codes into his computer console. “Recorders and backups are active. No problems.”
Randall turned toward Lieutenant Wallace. “Facility status?”
Wallace already had his data. “Security: green. No threats, no errors. All systems nominal. The men all report ready. We’re only planning twelve men for the hangar, plus four at the main door, and another two for each exterior door. All have reported in: all green.”
Randall nodded crisply. “It looks like we’re good to go. Keep alert, and let’s sit back and enjoy the show.”
Up on the large, central screen, the camera view was showing the incoming team. They were flanked by four enforcers on each side, holding AK-47 rifles at the ready.
Another enforcer was pushing a wooden gurney that had been modified to hold down prisoners. The top was faced with a solid wood (convenient for some of the activities they found necessary), but the cart itself was solid, reinforced steel. Even the wood top was bolted to a steel facing, underneath.
Two more men had their rifles slung on their back. They each had a meaty hand around an upper arm of the elf. She was the target, almost hanging between them, and they were taking no chances with her. The elf looked in no condition to resist. She was writhing, but weakly. It was obvious how blistered and painful her wrist must be, where the single metal manacle was locked on.
The final man was backup, scanning everything behind them.
Hekate, the principal, was leading the way.
“Have you read the briefing?” Randall asked, glancing at his two lieutenants.
“Uh, chief, I must have been mistaken,” Pierce admitted. “The brief made it sound like some sort of bimbo slave spell. That doesn’t exist outside of cheap porn, does it?”
“The way I understand it,” Randall explained, “it’s a slave spell, all right. Maybe not a bimbo slave spell, but close enough. The victim does whatever the owner wants. Whatever. If that involves acting like a bimbo… well, that’s what you get.”
“The report said the redhead is a young mutant, an up-and-comer. How dangerous is she?”
“That worried me, too,” Randall admitted. “My take on it is: they don’t know. One of those, ‘we haven’t reached her limits’ things.”
“No kidding. But she’s powerless, so long as that shackle stays on her. If it ever comes off, we hit the big red button, and I mean immediately. Full lock-down, heavy weapons, and we go medieval on her ass.”
“Aw,” Wallace whined. “She’s too pretty to blow up.”
“If that shackle comes off, it’s probably us or her, boys. There’s more than one fish in the sea, you know.”
“Not like that. Look at her!”
“Keep it in your pants, and keep your mind on the job. We’re professionals.”
Stick your hand in a bonfire. Press your bare flesh up against the coals, until your flesh sears and cooks like a piece of meat. Only, imagine that your pain nerves never die. Instead, they just keep reporting the same agony forever. And ever. And ever.
By now Nikki had almost pulled her arms out of their sockets. If she’d had access to a meat cleaver, she would have removed her right hand with one mighty chop. That’s how painful it was.
They’d traveled by truck, then unloaded at some underground loading dock. Jade had been chained onto a table – chained!
There was no magic in the world, it had been ripped away from her, torn out of her eyes and her head and her fingertips.
She wasn’t really walking anymore, they were dragging her.
She didn’t even know what they wanted with her. What was the purpose behind this torture? Then she staggered past a man with a clipboard. It was all printed very neatly.
|CONTRACT: SXK-79g||TYPE: Snatch & Grab, Processing|
|CLIENT: Kallysta Thessellarean||SPONSORE: Charles Picton Darrow|
Even over her pain, Nikki’s eyes shot wide. Everyone had always wondered what happened to Cavalier and Skybolt. They’d gone away last Christmas, and when they’d returned…
Now the spell was being re-cast, but with her added to the list of victims.
She thrashed like mad then, and almost succeeded in pulling her shoulder out. But the ever-present torture at the end of her arm wore her down again. They traveled farther down featureless white tunnels, and emerged in a vast space.
Then they pulled her upright, standing her up at a table. Hekate (the witch, the bitch, the cruel demon-spawned thing that was due to have her eyes clawed out and acid poured into the gaping sockets) held up a large steel circle, like an ancient key ring. Nikki focused and saw that it did have several keys on it.
“Let’s see… is it this one that unlocks your manacle? Should I take that uncomfortable thing off?”
Nikki wanted to stay strong, she didn’t want to fall for her tormentor’s cruel taunts, but she couldn’t help herself. In almost a reflex action, she thrust forward her right arm.
Hekate reached out and took hold of the manacle.
“That’s so strange! This cold iron doesn’t hurt me at all! I must be made of sterner stuff, eh? Well, here we go.”
With a snap, she clicked shut a padlock and a length of steel chain.
“Oops. I’m sorry! Did you think I was going to let you go?” She pointed toward the center of the hangar. “Drag her over there, men. Inside the chalk circle. Take care that you don’t scuff the chalk or enter the welded circle, or you will learn what is meant by ‘fate worse than death.’ And toss the chain to the boy inside.”
Lifting her up, the men carried Nikki over the chalk circle. She recognized it as a circle of containment. She wouldn’t be getting out unless she scuffed or broke the chalk – which would be impossible from the inside.
The chalk circle overlapped a second, larger circle. Inside that were Cavalier and Skybolt, standing woodenly. One of her guards tossed the far end of the chain to Cavalier, who padlocked it to a ring set into the metal floor in the center of the big circle. And that circle wasn’t done in fragile chalk. It was a raised bead of metal, welded into the metal plating of the floor. Even from the outside, she’d need a miracle to break it.
The witch approached the chalk containment circle and held a hand in the air. She spoke a word and her hand glowed. “Take my hand, men, and you may step outside.”
After that was accomplished, she waved her hand again, re-sealing the circle.
“Welcome to my parlor, Nichole Reilly. You will leave as my abject slave.”
“Go to Hell, Hekate.”
“Doubtless, in time. I plan to arrive there to rule, if only a small demesne. I’m hoping you’ll come with me as a servant.”
“I will never cooperate with you. Never!”
“You will join Cavalier and Skybolt.”
Nikki mustered her fury. “I recognize a Fool’s Circle, Hekate. I must enter of my own will. And I will not!”
Hekate flicked her hand, as if this was inconsequential. “I suppose then, we’ll have to do this the hard way. Bring out her friend!”
Jade watched closely, through barely open eyes, everything that had happened. If she could fire her grapple, she could grab those keys! But both of her bracers had been removed. Since she was lying on her back, she could tell that her gun was gone. She couldn’t tell about the barrettes in her hair, but her rings were gone too!
I need more gizmos, she realized. Maybe something in my shoes. Or a belt.
The man with the snake tattoos up each arm returned, and pushed her rolling table over to where Hekate was standing.
I guess everyone was right, when they warned me how bad she was. Although it was a little late to be having that realization.
“Oh, open your eyes, child,” the witch ordered. “You’re not fooling anyone.”
Hekate smiled down at her, trying to be intimidating. She was pretty good at it.
“Now, we’re going to play a little game. It’s called, ‘Give Nikki some incentive to walk into the nice witch’s circle.’”
Jade tried to chuckle. “I’d really like to help, but, uh, I’m all tied up.”
The witch didn’t even crack a smile.
Jade turned her head the other way, looking at Nikki. The sidhe was in a bad way. It looked like she’d lost about twenty pounds in just the last… however long it had been. Her cheeks were sunken, her eyes looked like she’d gone for days without sleep, and her wrist – it looked like they’d heated the metal cuff up to red hot, because the girl’s wrist was blistered, raw, and bleeding.
“Nikki,” she urged. “You can’t do it, you know. Whatever she wants, you can’t do it.”
“I know,” the sidhe answered, weakly. Quietly. Desperately. She looked like she was on the ragged edge of breaking down completely.
Hekate smiled in her cruel cat-toying-with-mouse fashion. “Our game is called, How much does the little girl have to scream before the elf gives up?”
Jade struggled for a minute, seeing if any of the chains were loose. They weren’t. Then the raised herself as much as she could and let out a incredible screech, that echoed back and forth off the walls and ceiling. When it was done, Jade lay there, trembling in fear.
“We haven’t even started yet.”
“I… I saw the torture instrument – it’s your FACE!” she screamed again, just as loud.
Hekate didn’t give much reaction. She reached over and lifted the hem of Jade’s skirt. “You should perhaps consider all the consequences that could befall you, my innocent little – underoos?”
Jade couldn’t help but giggle. “Are you threatening my underwear?”
“You’re wearing Wonder Woman underoos?”
“Hey, Wonder Woman is cool!”
“Whether friends or enemies, we are all students of the same school. There’s a certain dignity to uphold. You’re wearing the school uniform.”
“I didn’t see anything in the dress code about underwear standards!” Jade argued loudly. “In fact, the way I heard in the changing room, you wear underoos, too!”
For the first time, Hekate’s mask cracked. She looked at the men around her, as if scared that they’d begin to laugh at her.
“Shut up! You pathetic little urchin, shut up!”
“Nyaa nyaa nyaa! The big bad witch wears Cruella deVille underoos!”
“I do not!”
“Oh yeah! Prove it!”
With quick strides, Hekate strode over to the key ring table and grabbed her equipment. She returned, holding several items, each worse than the last. The first was a heavy ball peen hammer. The next was a large pair of pliers. The final was a double-edged dagger, polished to a mirror shine, with a black handle and perfectly straight cross-piece for a hilt.
“I was going to work slowly and enjoy myself,” Hekate purred. “But your taunts have convinced me to advance my schedule somewhat.”
“Not Jade!” Nikki begged, from where she’d fallen to the floor. “I’ll do whatever you want, but leave the girl alone.”
“Then enter the Fool’s Circle, of your own free will.”
“Don’t do it Nikki!”
Nikki didn’t move.
Hekate smiled. “Which tool first? Perhaps my athamé, my own mystic dagger.”
“Hey, crazy lady,” Jade called, “that’s not a dagger, it’s a short sword.”
“You know,” Hekate began, “in many traditions, such as the wiccan, the athamé is often blunted, to underscore that it is a mystic tool, rather than a stabbing weapon. Unfortunately for you, I follow a somewhat different tradition.”
Smiling broadly now, the witch raised the silvery dagger high, and plunged it into the thick muscle of Jade’s lower left leg – the calf muscle. Given the angle, the dagger punctured right through the leg and stuck into the wood below.
“Aiiiiiiieeee!” Jade screamed. “Those were my brand-new socks! I got those for Christmas! What kind of monster are you? You’ll pay for that!” She turned to Nikki. “I know this is terribly impolite, but did you happen to see how much they cost? ‘Cause Hekate’s going to pay, or else!” She scrunched up her face in a little-girl scowl.
Hekate’s mouth dropped open. She looked at her dagger, looked at the girl’s leg. There was no flesh showing, since the girl wore thigh socks, of all things. But the way the blood was soaking into the sock, she hadn’t missed.
She grabbed the knife, which was embedded into the wood. It took some force but she wrenched it free.
“Now I’ve got a hole in a perfectly good stocking, darn it!” Then Jade began to laugh. “I made a funny! ‘Darn it’ – with a sock!” She laughed some more at her own joke.
“Aren’t you worried that you’ll bleed to death?”
“What?” Jade raised her head to look. “Are you kidding? Besides, it’s just blood. There’s plenty more where that came from.”
At that comment, a few of the men began to fidget nervously.
“Be still!” Hekate demanded.
“It ain’t natural,” one of the enforcers suggested. “Any natural person has to feel pain.”
“Shut up!” Hekate shouted back. “I’m still in control here! I’m still holding the sharp knife, understand?” Enraged, she turned back to the helpless girl. “You want to feel some real pain? Try this!”
Tossing the dagger down, she snatched up the hammer. With a psychotic, insane laugh, she yanked down the girl’s right sock. Then, raising the hammer high, she brought it down right on the center of the girl’s knee, smashing again and again with her full strength!
Jade had enough warning to withdraw most of the way out of her body. Like this, she could feel how tenuous the connection was between spirit and flesh. There was no pain out here, but there was no life, either. Much farther and her body would quietly fade.
Shit! My knee! That’s going to take a while to heal. I hadn’t realized this bitch was THAT psycho. But it looks like it’s time for the act again.
She didn’t really have much of a plan. She was trying to do something different than whatever it was that Hekate wanted. Fortunately, her work at Bio-Regenetics had helped immensely. Having someone cut off your foot was bad enough, but the re-attachment – that was really rough. And as a regenerator, any drug, poison, or anesthetic only worked the first two or three times before she built up an immunity. So she was forced to learn other methods of avoiding pain, such as leveraging her spirit-casting ability until she was casting her own soul out of her body. No inhabitation – no pain. She was slowly learning meditation methods to achieve the same thing, though she was hardly up to Rebecca Stone’s level.
But how much farther could she move out of her body? That knee was going to hurt like hell. How much farther could she afford to slip out, before she went too far, and couldn’t return?
Hekate waited in anticipation as the girl blinked, grimaced, and raised her head.
Then she brightened. “Hey, you pulled the sock down! Awesome, thanks! But don’t think that’s going to spare you the full replacement price! They only sell these things in pairs, so you’re buying me two socks, even if one is technically okay.”
Hekate blinked in disbelief. “What is wrong with you? You should be in shock! You should be screaming!”
“Maybe you just suck as a torturer.”
Nikki gave a single cough of laughter. It was laughter through the tears.
Jade, what are you doing? Why are you doing this?
She knew the small girl had some weird relation with pain. How else could she mutilate herself the way she’d done? Why else would she allow Thuban to haul her away and torture her four or five times a week? But this…
And for all the girl’s sacrifice, she was only buying herself more punishment.
She told me not to give in, but Hekate is killing her! I can’t let her die for me! Not like this!
Despite the overwhelming waves of pain, Nikki staggered back to her feet.
“What did you say?” Hekate ground out.
Jade just ignored her. “You know, I heard a rumor that you wore other kinds of underoos. But I didn’t believe it, because no one even makes Nancy Reagan underoos, do they?”
Hekate snatched up her dagger, then paused, trying to puzzle her way through the mockery.
Behind her, a couple of the men chuckled.
She spun, furious, waving her dagger. “Shut up, all of you!”
Nikki could see it, as well as if she had the oracle’s gift. Or perhaps, Cassandra’s gift. Jade would say one thing too many, and the witch would kill her. Dead. Never to return.
“Swear…” She coughed. Her throat was too rough. More loudly, she said, “Swear to let her go, with no enchantments and no further harm, and I’ll enter the circle.”
A smile bloomed on Hekate’s face. “I swear it! If you enter the circle, this girl will receive no further harm.”
“Swear on your name!”
“Nikki, no, you can’t! She’s just jealous ‘cause she’s just an ugly old hag! I’ll bet her boyfriend can’t even stand to kiss her. He probably takes one look at her and says, ‘I wish she looked more like Nikki! Nikki’s pretty.’”
It was the worst possible case. Nikki looked across at Hekate’s face, and she saw the truth shining there. Jade had been making wild accusations, and had stumbled across something real. Sometimes that was the worst insult you could give to a person. And that meant that this entire situation was really due to Hekate’s jealousy. But for the crime of revealing that truth, Jade would die.
The sprit of Aunghadhail, within her, sensed the resolve. The ancient queen swam up, warning that any single soldier may fall, but the sacrifice Nikki was contemplating would destroy everything.
At that moment, Nikki didn’t care. For one crystalline moment, her will was more powerful than anything. More powerful than the hellish iron locked around her wrist, and infinitely more powerful than the spirit of the dead queen trying to batter her into obedience.
Nikki was standing. Now she took a single step over the raised metal edge and entered the Fool’s Circle.
“I have kept my word. Now you must keep yours.”
“NO!” Hekate repeated. “You lie! And for that, you will die!” She raised the dagger above her head.
“I have kept my word. Now you must keep yours.”
She heard, but it didn’t matter. All she could see in that moment was Don Sebastiano’s face above hers. His eyes closed in ecstasy, and he whispered, “That’s so good… Nikki.”
With all the rage and strength she could gather, Hekate slammed the dagger down, straight into the chest of the lying little girl. Miraculously, it missed the sternum and only nicked one rib. Instead, it sliced straight through the girl’s heart and slammed deep into the wooden tabletop.
The young girl spasmed for a moment, but pinned like a butterfly on display, she couldn’t move far. And when she flopped back down, there were no more taunts, no more mockery.
Jade’s head flopped toward Nikki. Her eyes were still open, sightless. But there was no doubt that she was dead.
She had entered the circle for nothing, and her friend was dead.
It took Hekate a moment to recover her composure, but her smile would have chilled a serpent. “You see? I can be reasonable. You’re in the circle, now I’ll let the girl go.”
As if to illustrate her generosity, she casually removed her dagger from the victim’s chest. At least, she tried. The blade didn’t budge. Hekate’s last strike had been powerful enough to bury the blade deep into the wood beneath the helpless girl. Somewhat spoiling her casual image, Hekate reached over with both hands and yanked on the dagger. It didn’t move.
She turned to one of the enforcers. “Get that out.”
The man sauntered over with a hungry look, eyeing the motionless girl on the table. He reached for the knife.
“Uh… it’s stuck.”
“I know that, you idiot! Get it out! And hurry up. She isn’t going to last long with that blade through her chest.”
The enforcer moved up to the table. The girl’s wrists were covered by chains, but her neck was exposed and vulnerable. He laid two fingers on the her neck, over her ceratoid artery. “No pulse – wait, that was a hellacious spasm or something – no, no, it’s gone. Flatline.” He looked down as the girl’s chest. “But what else did you expect? I mean, that was one beauty of a shot. Wham! Right through the heart! You musta missed the ribs. Beauty.”
Now trapped inside the mystic circle, Nikki’s eyes were wide and overflowing with tears. She could barely speak, except to choke out, “How could you? You swore an oath!”
“The little bitch is just faking,” Hekate claimed. She poked her sharp fingernail in one of the girl’s open, vacant eyes. “See? She moved.”
On the table, Jade didn’t move.
“Whatever you say, Miss.”
As Nikki slid down to collapse in a heap, Hekate began tapping her foot in impatience. “Well? What about my athamé? I can’t finish the ritual without it!”
The enforcer rubbed his chin. “I guess I could use the winch hoist, back in the storeroom. That ought to lift it out.”
“So what are you waiting for? Hurry up! And there better not be one scratch on my athamé, or you’ll be on that table next!”
“Ease off,” he muttered something else under his breath, but it was inaudible.
Wheeling the castered table like a hospital gurney, the enforcer pushed the table and corpse out of the hangar and down the hallway.
There was perhaps one small detail that Hekate overlooked. Jade was a regenerator. In fact, she was a “regen 5,” which is very, very good as regenerators go. Regenerative cells are different from human cells, and as the ranking increases, the differences increase. On a cellular level, a “regen 7” is as different from a human as something like Fubar, the monster in the basement of Hawthorne cottage, appears different from a baseline human. Fubar appears different on the surface, no matter how human his emotions and soul may be. Conversely a regen-7 might appear to be human on the outside, but you could chop one up, grind them into bits, and they would still regrow and heal with no evident harm (aside from, perhaps, some short-term memory loss). Their cells are very much not human.
Which is a long way of saying, “Death… well that depends.”
For a regen-7, it is well accepted that death only comes when every single cell is killed. And then burned.
Jade was only a regen-5, but assuming that a simple thing like a lack of heartbeat would kill her – well, that would be overlooking a crucial detail.
Unfortunately for Hekate, Jade had received a ranking of 263 on the student threat assessments that came out after the combat finals. A ranking of 263 was nothing. Nearly powerless. And that placed Jade in the “nobody” category, and thus, well beneath Hekate’s care.
Which was really too bad for Hekate.
For nearly three weeks now, Jade had been training with medical professionals who would mercilessly torture her without benefit of anesthesia. The situation wasn’t quite so bad as it sounded – the medical experiments were at her own insistence. And the experiments were done without anesthesia due to her unfortunate tendency to adapt to any poison or anesthesia. So Jade had been forced to learn alternate techniques, including meditation, methods of letting her spirit slip most of the way out of her brain, and methods of casting a Jinn-spirit back into her own body.
She was a bit surprised to discover that the process had been so well trained that she now did it automatically. The dagger had plunged through her chest and she had given an involuntary scream, and then immediately slumped unconscious as she cast herself out of her own mind and into her body.
Now, she was able to use her strange perceptions to examine her body from the inside.
The oversized glowing red dagger had indeed pierced her heart. It had nicked her sternum and passed between her fourth and fifth ribs, slicing directly through the thickest muscle of the most crucial section of her heart: the left ventricle – the strongest and most important muscle in the body. This was the chamber that forced blood through the body, through the entire length of the circulatory system.
From there, the dagger had missed the spine and miraculously missed the ribs in her back, penetrating into the hardwood of the table she lay on, where it was stuck. Even without the chains, she was pinned to the board.
As she examined things, she saw her heart flutter, as it futilely continued its desperate attempt to beat despite the blade piercing it. The effort was only tearing her up more. Carefully, gently, she pinched the nerves that touched the heart, the thoracic ganglia descending from the vagus nerve. She applied more pressure to the nerve, until her heart stopped beating.
Nikki fought to overcome the pain at her wrist; and the feeling of being literally cut off from something as vital to her as air. She could sense neither magical energies nor ley lines. Once they’d bewildered her; now she took them for granted. Until they vanished.
Her wrist burned from the cold iron manacle and the pain was shooting upwards and spreading out from her shoulder along with a horrible weakness threatening to sink her into a lassitude that would allow Hekate to triumph. She shook herself and screamed her pain and defiance at the other. “No! You won’t have me!”
“Then stop me, little bitch.” The other mage calmly replied, then gave her a grin almost as evil as her soul. “If you can, that is. But you can’t do anything except scream in agony and rage, can you?”
Cavalier and Skybolt edged away from the raging sidhe as Nikki smashed the manacle against the magical barrier of the circle. All that accomplished was creating a shower of magical sparks and causing another wave of agony to shoot up her arm.
In quiet fury, not wanting to give Hekate the satisfaction of seeing her so impotent in the situation, Nikki continued searching for a way to at least get free of the manacle.
There’s got to be a way to fix this! Think!
Jade’s first thought was to grab her heart and manually squeeze it. She had the strength for it. She could give herself perfect CPR for two hours before her charge evaporated. But so long as that glowing red dagger was sticking in her, she’d just be doing more damage to herself. Instead, she held her body fast, wrapped tight around the gruesome dagger to prevent further cutting and blood loss.
Why is it glowing red, anyway? she wondered. As a spirit, her world was rendered in shades of gray, except for emotions, psychic powers, and… magic! Of course! Trust a witch’s dagger to be enchanted. It’s probably sharper and stuff. I’ll bet that’s why she was able to stick it all the way through me!
She wasn’t particularly keen on leaving an enchanted dagger stabbing through her, but she didn’t have much choice at the moment.
There were higher priorities. Her lungs weren’t breathing; her heart wasn’t pumping. Her body was dying.
She would have screamed in frustration if she could.
There must be something I can do!
She couldn’t squeeze her heart. But the dagger didn’t block the heart, it just sliced through one portion. The blood could still flow, if she could figure out how to move it. She grabbed at the fluid of her blood, but like water, it was too fine to grasp. She was telekinetically cast into it, but there was no way to “grip” the fluid. She tried anyway, focusing on it, peering at it, and devoted her full attention to moving her own blood. And she accomplished nothing. It was a fluid that was impossible to grasp, filled with billions and trillions of floating specks of stuff.
Specks? What the heck?
She could ill afford to waste time in speculation, but this might be important. She knew that blood was made of plasma, and also red cells, white cells, and other stuff. She didn’t know enough biology yet to know what all the parts were.
The liquid must be plasma, and the specks must be red cells and white cells and stuff. But they’re so small!
She thought about dishwashing, where she had trained to move the water by moving a flotilla of lint particles. Each piece of lint had been a thousand times bigger than these specks in her blood.
It doesn’t matter, she decided. I have to try!
Unlike liquid plasma, she could grip the specks – just barely. It felt like trying to bail out a boat with a net. Blood cells, at 5 microns across, were a bit beyond her capability. She could handle chalk dust with ease, but dust particles are typically 500 microns in size, two orders of magnitude larger than cells. Still, with concentration and work, she could tug on the specks, even though they continued to slip free. And the specks tugged on the plasma, which began to sluggishly move. Encouraged, she started at the heart and began laboriously pulling the blood through each of her larger arteries. It took some time to get the hang of it, but her “hundred hands” made a difference. Each section of artery added only a little load to her concentration, but as she began working with more and more of them, the efforts built upon each other.
After a while – she had no idea how long – the blood was smoothly flowing through her body. It moved steadily, without pulse or rhythm, even flowing gently through a heart held still, with all valves forcibly held in the “open” position.
Mentally, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Breathing! she remembered. I’ve got to do that too!
Her last lung action had been a silent scream, exhausting the air in her lungs. Carefully, she expanded them, filling them with fresh air once again.
It wasn’t a color, exactly. It was a sense at the very edge of her perceptions, but she could tell that her cells were growing healthy once more. Her blood, and the specks within it, picked up a certain…vitality. And that spread as she worked, flowing through her body and bringing the glow of health as the fresh blood flowed on.
The dagger was still a problem. She didn’t have either the strength or attention to spend focusing on it. But each time she breathed, it cut her a little more. Already at work breathing and pumping blood, she considered the dagger.
If she pulled her flesh away, then she’d bleed into the open wound. If she held her flesh tight, she got cut more. But… if she pinched off every blood vessel in the wound, and then pulled the flesh away…
That worked reasonably well. The wound seeped and oozed, but it was an acceptable loss for the moment.
Now, to pull closed some of those other cuts, she decided. And, ewww! My eyes are drying out! How the heck did I get a cut on my eye? And I’d better do something about that knee.
It didn’t matter. All her wounds spontaneously pulled closed, and with oxygen and blood flow restored, the wound rapidly began to knit.
And she made another fortuitous discovery. Last week, her fingers had blown off and it had taken hours for them to regrow. But her shattered knee – all the pieces were still there. Using her telekinesis, she began to fit those pieces back together like a jigsaw puzzle. And as soon as the proper pieces connected, they stuck.
Skybolt, recalling what this redheaded mage was capable of from their fight earlier in the year worked up the courage to place a hand gently on the other girl’s shoulder and tell her. “It’s not so bad, really. You can still think, and feel. They tell you what to do and you just do it.”
The older girl’s cheeks were wet with her tears as she said that, putting the lie to her words better than any denial could have.
“Listen to her you Faerie bitch,” Hekate advised with another grimace that could have been a grin or a snarl. “Give up now and just enjoy the ride. You’ll get used to being everyone’s bitch soon enough, I’m sure. I know you’re adaptable.”
Nikki didn’t answer, just glared at the other with enough force to have fried her if she’d had access to magic at all. The room settled into an expectant silence punctuated by Hekate setting up her paraphernalia, as she prepared for the soul-stealing spell.
The enforcer was known to his associates as “Snake”, mostly for the tattoo that began at his hand and slithered all the way up to his cheek. The name also referred to his reptilian fascination with loathsome vices like snuff porn films that disturbed even some of his fellow enforcers. Snake didn’t care what his co-workers thought; he lived for days like today, where he could watch his fantasies come to life, so to speak.
This was turning into one of those grand, special days. First, there was the body he was currently wheeling along. A little Asian girl, early puberty from the look of her tits, utterly chained down and helpless. Truly, he might have preferred someone with more of a figure, but the gore was everything he could ask for. And the fresh blood had an incredibly real smell. You never got that in the videos. And he’d get to pull the knife out. That was just the sweet, sweet icing on this necromantic cake.
He began to whistle a jaunty tune: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Up in Central Control, the main screen was tuned to Hangar B. Captain Randall leaned back in his chair and smiled. “It looked dicey for a moment there, boys. But from what Kallysta tells me, the tricky part is convincing the victim to step into that circle of their own free will. After that, the game’s pretty much over.”
Behind him, the two lieutenants exchanged a high five.
“Wallace,” the captain continued, “why don’t you microwave up a couple of big ol’ bags of popcorn, and we can settle in to watch this show on the big screen.”
Wallace grinned and held his thumb and forefinger like a pistol, firing off a friendly shot at the captain. “Right you are, sir!”
While the captain reclined, Lieutenant Pierce adjusted the controls to zoom in on the humbled sidhe.
“Damn! That has to be about the finest piece of ass I’ve ever seen.”
On the screen, Nikki Reilly was struggling with the manacle. So much of her wrist was blistered and burned that further contact was forming a deeper, nastier wound. Even over the TV circuit, they could see wisps like smoke rising occasionally from her mutilated wrist. When that happened, the humbled queen writhed like an animal in agony.
“God, there’s something about watching her squirm like that that just gets me…”
“No shit. Me too.”
“I am so fucking glad we’re recording this. I’m gonna have to edit up a ‘best of’ clip show, for my private collection.”
The sounds of the taunts and screams were turned down, but still easily audible.
By now, Wallace had come back in with a huge bowl of popcorn which he shared around.
“Son of a bitch! The way she wiggles around on that floor…!”
“No shit. We were just talking about that.”
“Hey,” Wallace wanted to know, “this spell is supposed to make her like, a bimbo slave or totally obedient or something, right?”
“You too with the ‘bimbo slave’ bit?” the captain asked, arching one eyebrow. “I don’t think you want to go there.”
“Oh man! Oh man! Oh man!” Pierce was drumming his feet rapidly on the floor, like he was running a sprint without leaving his seat.
“So you think,” Wallace continued, “our client is likely to, you know, share the wealth?”
“Now that’s a mighty interesting question,” the captain responded. “And I was talking to Kallysta personally about that, when I was showing her around. Apparently our little elf princess down there has ‘never felt the touch of a man.’”
“She’s a virgin?”
The captain nodded. “Kallysta thinks so. Apparently there’s some ancient magic shit involved in all that. For nearly any of them elf girls, the man that claims their ‘maiden’s blood’ gets some kind of special magic. And this girl is some sort of elf princess, so who knows what sort of power you get?”
“Probably like a super mutant pecker,” Wallace decided.
“Whatever.” The captain shrugged. “But that’s what the legends say. Pop her cherry for a power-up. So fat chance of us getting a shot at that snatch.”
“Damn,” Pierce decided. “Still, I’d put up a wad, just for sloppy seconds.”
“You’d put up a wad for a chance at your own grandmother.”
Up on the streets of Kansas City, Jinn had given up. She was now sure that there’d been foul play, and there were no clues to be found. It had been a slick operation. She wouldn’t even be able to testify against Solicitor, because she’d evaporate in – she checked her watch – less than five minutes.
The first order of business was to secure all her gear – that stuff was expensive! She headed into the bus station and picked out a locker. It was supposed to be impossible to lock the key inside, but that assumed that you didn’t have telekinetic hairs better than any lockpick, or a person inside the locker to fiddle with the mechanism. When no one was looking, she folded herself up into a well-armored backpack and dropped her hold, closing the locker and sealing the key inside.
Now the only part of “her” left was a cheap glove, a quarter, and one of her old speaker disks.
Hekate was all smiles. She gestured to the group of enforcers standing a bit behind her, as backup.
“Hello, boys. Anyone care to do me a few favors?”
After looking around at each other in confusion, one of them tentatively moved forward.
“Uh, what kind of favors are we talking about?”
She held out a piece of chalk. “Drawing some things on the floor, helping a bit with my rituals, trifles like that.”
“I won’t involve slicing me open, or doing any sort of sacrifices, will it?”
“Well,” Hekate pouted at revealing so much, too soon. “It may involve a tiny cut and a little blood. Nothing you’d really miss. I’ll tell you what – when we get to that part, you can refuse if you want to, and if you go through with it, I’ll let you have your way with the brunette.” She flipped a hand toward the circle, indicating Skybolt.
“Not the elf?”
“No, the brunette. She has piercings in places you wouldn’t believe.”
The enforcer licked his lips. “Okay, I’m in!”
“What’s your name?”
“Enforcer Sherman Heath.”
Hekate offered the chalk again. “Well, Enforcer Heath. Take this and draw a large circle around me. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but there can’t be any breaks in it. About…let’s say ten feet in diameter.”
The man put down his rifle and set about the task. While he did that, Hekate took out a music stand, and set a briefcase on a low table that she’d had brought over. She pulled out a single loose sheet of ragged-edged parchment and studied it.
“Done, Miss Thessellarean.”
She glared back at him with a look that could kill. “In this place, at this time, you are never to speak my real name! Understand? I am Hekate! Call me that! Hekate!”
The man quailed in the path of her anger. “Sorry… Hekate.”
“Good. Now draw a line from the edge of this circle to the edge of that circle. Don’t let any part of your body move inside that circle, or you might end up as my slave, too.”
“Good. That line will be the one spell conduit in to their circle. Now stand back. Whatever you do, don’t cross, or scuff, or damage any of these chalk lines. Not unless you want your manhood to wither like an autumn leaf and fall off.”
The enforcer gave a cry and leapt back.
Once that was finished, Hekate spent a moment surveying the chalk markings, then she cracked her fingers. Then she went to work. For this, she didn’t need notes.
Many different rituals may be used to achieve the same effects. Hekate’s early schooling had come in the Latin/European tradition. It paralleled Church services in some ways. Rituals were always conducted in Latin.
Hekate spoke first a light and lyrical piece, spreading her arms and spinning slowly through the 360 degrees of a circle. When she had traced the circle around herself twice over (once for each hand) she concluded with a ringing invocation. Instantly, the chalk around her vanished, replaced instead with a burst of white that settled into a glowing blue line. It was a color that wasn’t photographed. Up in central control, no visible change occurred. But for those people watching in person, the flare and power were obvious. The untrained among them never realized that they were now perceiving something with a sense deeper and more ancient than mere vision.
Contained now within a crafted Place of Power, Hekate began a new invocation. Like a fuse burning, or a horizontal avalanche of power, the line connecting her circle to the larger one slowly extended outward. Chalk was replaced by pure power, as The Conduit was primed.
“It’s a one-way channel,” Hekate explained to the trembling enforcer.
He was too scared to listen or understand, but he recognized that she was talking to him, and nodded his head furiously.
“And now, for the containment.”
Again, Hekate began to chant. This time, you could hear the rhythms in her voice. Like a set of ocean waves, building stronger and stronger, the Latin phrases carried progressively higher power. Hekate’s circle filled with energy, a visible pulsing glow that surged around her.
In the target circle, Nikki writhed, desperate to stop this. But she couldn’t touch her magic. Her powers were gone, and the burning agony of the manacle made it nearly impossible to think. “No,” she said, “no, no no, no!”
Cavalier and Skybolt stood still, awaiting the inevitable. Their eyes reflected their agony. The moment was approaching, and their souls could sense the approaching moment of freedom, but before it arrived, the cage door would be slammed shut once more. So their eyes held growing horror, while their bodies did nothing.
Hekate gave one final shout, and now the power visibly drained from her circle, traveling down that one-way line to the welded circle of containment. For a moment, that flared up – a hemispherical dome that was almost opaque with glowing power, then it faded to invisibility.
Hekate breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s that!”
“The spell worked?” the enforcer asked eagerly.
“So now they’re like, your puppets or something?”
Hekate glared at him in irritation. “The containment spell is complete. Even if the worst should happen, they are now under a triple lock. A month ago, I had one of them in my spell circle. It should have been foolproof – my demon should have consumed her soul! Instead, she escaped somehow. Well, I’ve learned from that lesson!” She indulged herself in a well-deserved nefarious laugh. “Oh, yes, I’ve learned. This is a triple lock: not mind, nor soul, nor spirit shall pass; not spell, nor power, nor any magic shall pass; not flesh, nor plant, nor aught that lives shall pass that barrier…save through my single conduit. That barrier shall stand against the gods themselves, until I bring it down or the circle be broken. And since this circle is welded into a single gigantic plate of solid steel, I have little to fear in that regard.”
Hekate took a deep, satisfying breath. Then, striding to the edge of her own circle, she waved a hand and spoke, “pass,” then stepped across.
She walked up to the tall enforcer and grabbed him by his collar, pulling the terrified man close. “Those three fools are trapped inside by their own actions, and they will stay there, like bugs in a bottle, until I have finished whatever I care to do to them. Understand?”
The man nodded desperately, not caring what this girl said, merely desperate to keep her placated.
“Excellent!” She said, smugly. “I’ve accounted for every last detail!”
“Snake” finally reached his destination: Secure Storeroom Four. His eyes lingered playfully on the obvious: that huge dagger sticking out of the girl’s chest. There was less blood than he’d expected, but the wound was still oozing.
Snake’s studies of the field let him know that rigor mortis shouldn’t set in for about two hours yet.
She’ll be limp for a while yet, he thought. ”Flaccid” is what the coroners call it.
If his fellows had seen his smile, they probably would have vomited on the spot. He ceased whistling and began to sing aloud:
His ID card automatically unlocked the reinforced door, which slid open ponderously. Inside were rows of sensitive equipment on metal shelves, carefully crated and labeled. Devices, supplies, ammunition, all carefully arranged.
Snake pushed the cart up past the sorting table. On top of that were the other “collectibles” from this operation – a purse, some armbands (size small), a scattering of jewelry, and a loose piece of white countertop with a silver circle inscribed in it. Trapped inside were a pair of tiny pixies and a third empty costume. The pixies began yelling and stood frozen in shock as the dead girl was wheeled in.
The grief in those tiny voices gave him an enjoyable buzz, but what caught his attention was how, a moment later, both pixies went silent and angry, staring at him with their beady little eyes.
Snake just ignored them, slamming and locking the door, while he prepared the overhead lift.
He didn’t even notice that the “dead girl” had closed her eyes.
But the pixies did.
Hekate’s smile was so wide it threatened to crack her face. She paced around the containment circle, pausing occasionally to rap her knuckles on the invisible dome of force.
“Pretty good work, isn’t it, elf?”
The pain had left Nikki on her hands and knees. Her reply was hoarse and labored. “…I’m not a damned elf! I am one of the sidhe! There is a difference.”
Hekate waved her hand in amusement. “You say poe-tay-toe, I say pah-tah-toe. You say sidhe queen, I say ‘world’s most expensive hooker.’” She squatted down to grin at her captive from only inches away.
“WHAT?” Nikki almost ripped her vocal cords out with that yell.
Hekate stood, tapping a finger against her chin as if trying to remember. “Sidhe… sidhe… Isn’t there some old tale about sidhe women? About their ‘maiden’s blood’ bestowing a blessing upon their lover? Some sort of sharing or union or something. The legends were always so confused…”
“Even you wouldn’t dare!”
“Oh, wouldn’t I? I’ll just be advertising that legend. Obviously, such a thing is useless to me, no matter how much I deserve the blessing. But, there are boys on campus with enough money to benefit from taking that little jewel from you. I think I’ll just auction you off. How much cash can you earn me, and who will the lucky fuck be? Peeper and Greasy on pay-per-view? Or maybe for a lark I’ll just give you to some bum from a homeless shelter. No, that would be foolish. Money first, he can have his turn second or third. Maybe Jobe? He’s rich enough. Or that Goodkind…thing…you’re friends with. It has money, doesn’t it? Do you fancy that? Doing the nasty with that half-and-half thing?
“But why be close minded? Maybe I should open the auction a little wider. There are so many wonderful possibilities! Why, I’ll bet The Necromancer would pay a pretty penny for the privilege of being the first to dip into your honey pot! He’s awfully old, but it’s not like you’ll be complaining, is it?”
Nikki stared at her in absolute horror. She was fighting both the searing agony on her wrist, and a growing terror in the pit of her stomach.
“You’re bluffing,” she whispered, hoping beyond reason. “You might be spiteful, but no one could really be so…evil. You couldn’t really do that to another person?”
Hekate laughed long and hard. “Oh, you stupid, stupid little freshman. Look behind you. Look at Cavalier and Skybolt.”
Nikki turned her head. The pair was still sitting passively, but tears streamed down their faces.
“Do you know why Cavalier and dear little Skyslut came to me? So pure, so deeply in love. My reputation was a bit different at this time last year. Somehow,” she gloated, “somehow they got the idea that I had a spell that could bring them even closer, bonding their souls before they took that ultimate physical step. But… oops, silly me! I guess they heard ‘bond’ when I really said ‘BIND’. And so they willingly stepped inside the Fool’s Circle, just as you did. And I made them like they are today. And when we came back to campus, Skyslut lost that pesky virginity of hers. In every position. In every orifice. Blissfully cooing for more. We even let her do her boyfriend once, after a few months. And Cav? He took it just as much. Up the backside. I don’t even want to talk about what we had him do with his mouth – it really wasn’t very sanitary.”
“And as soon as that idiot comes back with my athamé, I’ll cast the Thrall spell again, and you will join them. Three little thralls, whose only desire is to please me. In whatever way I ask. If that means giving a blow job to The Necromancer, you’ll jump for delight. If it means plucking your own eyes out, you’ll do it without a second thought.”
Hekate squatted once more, leaning close and lowering her voice until only Nikki could hear. “And you know what? I’ve gotten real sick of hearing about how beautiful everyone thinks you are. So I’ll let the auctions run their course. You be used harder than a box of Kleenex in a penitentiary. And once you’re all worn down and that stupid little cum-hole of yours it filled to the brim and overflowing; once you’ve stopped pulling in the big bucks for me, then I think I’ll take care of that face of yours. Permanently.” Her grimace was terrifying. “They’ll still talk about you, but they sure as hell won’t be admiring your beauty!”
Nikki was more terrified than she’d ever been in her life. More terrified than she’d been in combat, facing The Necromancer, or the tainted weres. She could accept death in combat, but this…
Hekate rose. “I hope your birth control is up to date!”
She stood, and laughed long and hard.
The bus station was so old that it still had phone booths. It had phone booths with closing doors. The door in the third booth was currently closed, though no one could be seen inside. Had anyone looked, they would have seen the phone receiver floating in mid air, apparently talking to itself. A small disk hovered above the mouthpiece.
“So we’re agreed?” the disk spoke.
“Agreed,” Billie answered through the phone. “I’ll start calling up Super groups in the area, seeing who I can get out there. I’ll keep quiet on Solicitor, for now, and stay put for another hour. If I don’t hear from you by then, I’m coming out, no matter what. How much charge do you have left?”
“A few more seconds,” Jinn guessed.
“Okay, take care. Man, my chest still hurts,” Billie complained.
“What happened?” Jinn asked, concerned.
“No idea. I had this stabbing pain a couple of minutes ago,” Billie admitted. “Right in the center of my chest.”
They both went silent, trying to figure out if it meant anything.
Finally, “You sure you aren’t going to call Nikki’s Mom?”
“I can’t!” Jinn said. “She’ll panic, and want to talk for hours! I don’t have the time.”
“Alright, if you take too long I’ll handle that, too. But you owe me.”
Her voice cut off as the disk and glove fell to the ground. The handset dropped, bumping the wall and then swinging at the end of its cord.
Snake pushed the cart up to the sorting table, then used the winch controls to lower the hook down.
“Better use the plastic cord,” he decided, aloud, “since the client don’t want no damage on her precious pig-sticker.”
Taking the thick white plastic strap, he took turns around the protruding hilt of the dagger, then secured it to the dangling hook.
“Better add my own weight to the cart, just in case.”
He crawled up onto the cart, his knees between the dead girl’s stocking-covered legs. He wanted to put his hands astride her shoulders, but the winch hook was in the way. Instead, he leaned to one side.
“Oh, this is perfect! Let’s just move that knife out of the way, first.”
Jinn vanished from the phone booth and arrived back in her body to immense pain. Since Jade was currently “out” at the moment, she moved in and inhabited the body, which was not a fun way to arrive back home. Technically this made her “Jade” and the Jade-charged-in-the-body now “Jinn,” but really they were all just her. Besides, she was in too much pain to care about such trivia.
It took an agonizing moment to reintegrate her memories – Hekate, amateur torture, being stabbed. She tried to gasp something out.
Enforcer Heath was now seriously questioning his own initiative. Sure, he’d been promised some fun with the brunette, which was pretty appealing. But it was growing obvious that there was something serious going on between the elf and their client, the witch. For one thing, that manacle was obviously killing the elf. He’d gone along with a friend once, a guy that still maintained some leghold traps upriver. They found a trap that had been left too long. The fox had escaped, but part of its leg was left behind. It had chewed its own leg off.
The elf looked like she was getting close to that state.
He couldn’t be sure – he’d never seen the fox that had escaped, but he’d thought about it a lot, and wondered how far an animal had to be pushed to go that crazy. To him, it was about where the elf was, now.
But it wasn’t just a desperate-crazy, it was a hate-crazy. If that elf ever got loose, she wasn’t going to run, she was going to kill. And the one she kept looking at with those wild animal eyes of hers was their client, the witch.
The girl, he had to remember to call her Hekate and not her real name, Hekate didn’t seem bothered by that at all. She just drank it all in and laughed like it was the best carnival ride she’d ever been on.
It sort of made you wonder which one of them was crazy.
Still, he had a job to do. He decided to give her a warning, sort of speed her up a little. Because the sooner this job was over, the happier he’d be.
“Uh… Hekate?” he offered, moving a little closer to her. “I really don’t like the look of that elf. I mean, if she got free, somehow…”
The witch looked at him like he was a piece of dog shit she’d just stepped in.
“You aren’t required to like or dislike anything I do here. You’re only required to do your job. Which means that if she gets free, you take your rifle there and shoot her right between the eyes, right?”
“Still…” he insisted.
“You worry too much,” Hekate assured him. “You saw me cast the spell. They are contained. Nothing living can go in or out. No energy, no power, nothing. But there’s a deliberate loophole. Your little old bullets don’t have that problem. They aren’t energy, they aren’t alive, they don’t have a spirit. They’ll pass through with no trouble. So if anything bad happens, you can just solve the problem for me. It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel!” She laughed uproariously at her own joke.
Enforcer Heath considered this. It sounded good, but he was still worried. And his nerves finally got to him.
“So… what are we waiting for?”
Hekate gave an indignant sigh as she looked up from the parchment she’d been studying.
“We are waiting for your idiot buddy to bring my athamé back!”
“You mean Snake? I thought he just needed to get that big dagger.”
“That’s what I’m talking about, you cretin!”
Heath considered a little longer. He really didn’t want to interrupt the witch again, but his instincts were screaming at him.
“Cause, if you need another dagger, I’ve got one on me. You could use that.”
“Aaaahhhh! I am TRYING to study here! Look bonehead, this spell is extremely complicated and delicate! My athamé is not some ‘big dagger’ – it is a precision mystical tool, dedicated, consecrated, and empowered solely for the purpose of crafting tricky magic spells like this one! I am not going to risk my soul or a spell backfire by using the jackknife you use to scrape the crap out from under your toenails with! GOT THAT?” And then she got really loud. “Or do you have any other useful suggestions on the finer points of arcane rituals? Well? Either speak up, or else SHUT THE HELL UP!”
She turned back to her parchment with an almost visible aura of frustration.
Enforcer Heath took several cautious steps back and decided not to bother her any more, no matter what his instincts told him.
Snake was already straddling the restrained body of a young murdered girl as he sang his gruesome melody. He was awkwardly reaching for the winch button when it seemed like the body under him thrashed and gasped.
Alarmed, his thumb jammed down on the “UP” button…
And that started the winch. The motor strained for a moment, then the knife pulled free of both the table and the girl’s chest with a gruesome “shluk!”
By all rights, the knife blade should have been coated with blood. Instead, the blood seemed to flow of its own volition, moving down and back into the body like a living thing.
The girl’s eyes popped open. “Aaaaaaaaaa!”
Snake was frozen in terror. He barely even noticed as the knife was lifted further, above his reach. It took him a moment to regain his senses, then his thumb frantically jabbed the “down” button.
The girl had tears leaking out her eyes. “Oh… ow. It hurt… just to… breath. What’s wrong with… you people?”
She tensed her arms, but they didn’t move. She was still locked to the table.
She glanced down at one arm. “Hold on…”
Snake heard a horrifying sound. It was almost as if a half-dozen padlocks under the table had suddenly sprung open. The chains seemed to slither out of the way, of their own accord.
Snake wasn’t noted for being a scholar, but he’d seen enough films to recognize this. “Vampire!” he hissed.
“Please!” she gave a ragged cough, unable to sit up but turning and curling sideways. “Vampire princess, at least.” Then she corrected herself with a weak, wet cough. “Sick, vampire princess.”
Snake’s eyes took in the dagger, as it lowered itself down in front of his face.
He knew she wasn’t human. She’d been dead! But this dagger had stopped her last time, which meant that it could stop her again!
With desperate speed, he clawed at the strapping around the dagger, trying to free it.
Jade curled tighter, taking small, wheezing little breaths.
Now that she had a spare charge, she’d immediately unlocked herself. She’d forgotten that her heart wasn’t pumping yet, and she wasn’t breathing on her own. Once the locks and chains were gone, she’d sent Jann right back into her body to hold everything together while she finished healing. She wasn’t merged with Jann, but they were touching telepathically, thinking together.
With the dagger out of her chest, she could pull the flesh closed again. Sutures and bandages were crude tools used to drag the ragged edges of a wound into close proximity, so the torn flesh could grow and heal and knit back together. Telekinetically, she could do so much better. She’d gotten the inspiration from piecing her knee back together. Shattered bone was like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, and when you brought the pieces exactly back together, they healed very fast. She was now discovering that flesh work just as well – only faster. She couldn’t match up every tiny arteriole and venule, but she got them close. The actual arteries and veins were easy – like fitting two pieces of pipe together. And when she matched up both sides of a wound, then pulled them together, her regeneration had no trouble at all joining the severed pieces. Even a minute or two of regeneration was enough to hold a small wound closed, and with that accomplished, a few minutes more would restore the wound completely. Even though she was a slow regenerator compared to some, when she used her telekinesis and regeneration together the wounds closed like a zipper, and then they stayed closed.
That wasn’t to say it was easy. There was a trick to learning how to pull the flesh closed, and how to hold the pieces exactly in place. It helped that she could pinch off arteries and prevent blood loss at the site of the wound, and that she could make her blood flow without the shuddering vibration of her heartbeat (it was immense, on the microscopic scale). As Jann worked away, she learned more – how to inhibit the leakage of lymph fluid, or how to enhance the flow as the flesh came together again. The regenerative cells, nourished and moisturized by renewed flows of blood and lymph, responded vigorously.
She was learning an entirely new form of surgery and healing – one that only she could perform. All it took was the ability to see at a nearly microscopic level, to act with a hundred hands at once, and to hold that in place while the body healed. Which meant that she needed to hold her own wounds closed for a minute or so. But what if she were charged into a normal person? If she worked on their wounds, and held them closed for an hour or two, would it work for them, too?
Jade reluctantly withdrew her thoughts from Jann. Someone needed to pay attention to the outside world, and she supposed that was her job.
She pulled her mind fully back into her body, feeling an overwhelming pain in the chest.
She wasn’t in shock. In fact, she didn’t have a pulse and she wasn’t breathing normally yet. Not on her own. But all her large wounds had closed (like magic!) and her mind was clearing.
Her mind was clear enough to recognize the man kneeling between her legs. He had an insane look on his face, and he’d just finished unwrapping a dagger. The same dagger that had been buried in her chest a moment ago!
She reached up, desperately, ignoring the pain that each movement pulled in the center of her chest. There was no time to turn, or squirm. She had to stop him!
Sweeping her arm across, she managed to knock his arms aside.
Snake grunted in triumph as he freed the knife, but the vampire reached up and pushed his arms away. His hand, and the knife, swung over and thudded into the table.
She’s not as strong as I thought she’d be, he had time to think. I thought vampires were super-strong?
Then he looked at the sorting table, where the knife had chopped. It had just missed those annoying pixies, slicing across the silver circle.
The mystic circle poofed into smoke, and was gone.
Snake had time to think, Oh oh!
When the pixies were first trapped, Brunhilda had immediately “gone free” to return to Jade. But the circle had contained her. Her disconnected spiritual essence had circled endlessly, trying to find a way out. With the circle broken, that charge flashed immediately back to Jade.
…who now had two charges – Jann, who was closing her wounds, and an extra. Jade still wasn’t feeling very strong, but she had two charges! She reached up to touch the knife – straining to reach it.
“Stop him!” she croaked to the other fairies.
The enforcer wrenched the knife free and took a two-handed grip. He was ready to plunge it down on her, with his full strength and weight behind it. Before he could, two Santa-suited pixies flew into his hair. They were only two inches tall, but in this case size didn’t matter. Each was a telekinetic construct, able to impart 300 pounds of force. They each grabbed his hair and yanked.
Snake’s head came back, hard.
And Jade had her opening. She stretched a little farther and her fingertip brushed the dagger. She sent her only free charge into it.
Jinn entered the knife, became the knife. Although Jade didn’t realize it, her physical body had some rather unique advantages when it came to psychic shielding. Unfortunately, her spirit-selves did not share that advantage. They lacked even the physical barriers of skin and skull. Despite a semester at Whateley, they still had not explored their full advantages and vulnerabilities, so they didn’t even know that each spirit was particularly vulnerable to psychic attack.
Now Jinn entered into contact with an object that had been soaked in psychic impressions of the very worst kind. The images and emotions instantly overwhelmed her. There were a hundred scenes of cruelty and bloodletting. By far the worst of all were two incidents that Hekate had performed in her climb to power. Under the tutelage and guidance of her dark mentor, two times she had sacrificed innocent souls, murdering children and channeling that pure essence to unspeakable abominations in return for advancement along her path of dark magic.
Hekate’s tool, her athamé was bonded to her and had pierced other young breasts. Jinn began to drown under those images – a young girl and a young boy, neither one of whom had shared her ability to recover from the damage.
Their fear and despair, crystallized and imprinted into the metal of the knife, overwhelmed her.
She screamed, vibrating her metallic skin to shriek her rage to the heavens. Straddling her physical body, only barely perceived, a thug-like enforcer looked on in fear.
Let him be the first to pay! Jinn-knife howled in fury.
Pixies were holding the man back by his hair. The man’s head pulled back, exposing his vulnerable throat. Jinn-the-dagger saw her opportunity and acted! She plunged into his neck, cutting her way to his heart! She’d see how he liked it! And if the only path to his heart was to take the long route, so be it!
Hekate shuffled nervously, studying the parchment once more. She rolled her mouth around the tricky words, ensuring that her pronunciation was correct.
This was challenging, since it wasn’t really her preferred Latin, but rather an alien tongue that pre-dated both humans and sidhe. This particular parchment was a Latin translation (or transliteration, since it merely transcribed the sounds), and it was a priceless artifact. It appeared to be no more than words on paper, but even transcribed like this those words held terrible power. They couldn’t be photographed or copied by machine. They could be copied by hand, but the scribes had an unfortunate tendency to go insane during the course of their work. Which made this particular scrap of paper immensely rare and literally priceless.
Casting the Thrall spell was not a job for the timid. Hekate had done so once before, and had spent several days recovering her composure. It required her to open herself to things which are best not named, not seen, not thought of. But the benefits – that made it all worth it, she thought.
She glanced over at the small table beside her. The ingredients had all been set out – the various bowls, a tall container of salt, the small brazier that was now burning with a cheery glow. She had the physical samples for Cavalier and Skybolt – blood, skin, and hair, following the rule of three. She had blood, skin, and hair from the elf as well, taken during those first moments of shock and dismay when the girl was screaming at the shock of having a manacle clamped on her arm. The girl had been so traumatized she probably never even noticed when Hekate had relieved her of those mystically-vital samples.
It was essential to follow the rule of three here. Three types of body tissue, a spell enacted in voice, in writing, and in flame, and a triple casting to seal it unbreakably. Tripling any aspect of a casting greatly strengthened it. She needed to lock it in unbreakably strong.
Hekate enjoyed calling the girl an elf, but she knew the difference. She knew that she had done the impossible by capturing and containing one of the nine legendary queens of faerie. Nikki might be only a freshman, but she was being slowly consumed by one of the greater powers. You didn’t mess around with things like that. The spell had to be perfect and ironclad. This was one of those tiny details that she had pinned down irrevocably.
Hekate’s instincts were yelling at her: Get it over with! Fast! You’re holding the tiger’s tail, and you’d better act before you get bitten!
Was this delay the detail that could thwart her?
She might have done something sooner, if that idiot enforcer hadn’t bothered her about the exact same thing. After all, it’s not like the great Hekate was going to take orders from some grunt soldier errand boy.
Perhaps if she turned it around and blamed him…
She looked toward Enforcer what’s-his-name. “Stop fidgeting!” she yelled, even though he hadn’t moved at all.
“Look,” she finally allowed, “if you’re so damned concerned about things, why don’t you go find out what’s going on with my athamé?”
“That dagger you planted in the little girl?”
“That’s right,” she answered, being patient with the idiot.
“I should go get it?”
“Yes,” she ground out. “And be quick about it!”
He gave a sloppy salute. “Yes, ma’am!” And then he ran for the hangar door.
Snake tried to shriek, tried to cry, tried to claw at the blade plunging down his throat and into the delicate structure of his lungs. But it was to no avail. He was seeing his last snuff film, up close and personal.
He toppled off the cart and lay on the ground. His body kicked twice more and then he didn’t move.
Jade levered herself up and coughed again.
The pixies buzzed around her, chattering. “Are you okay?” “What can we do?” “Your stuff’s right there!”
“Gimme a second,” Jade gasped. “…not quite ready to restart my heart.” She inhaled carefully. “Stuff—!” she finally gasped out.
The pixies zoomed over to the table, retrieving bracers, purse, jewelry, and everything else that had been confiscated from the girls. While Jade spent her time re-learning how to breathe, the pixies finished outfitting her.
Finally, Jade felt well enough to stand.
“Come,” she ordered imperiously, meaning in her own private shorthand, “Everyone come home!”
The two pixies (carrying Brunhilda’s costume) alighted on her hand and seemed to collapse. The knife reluctantly abandoned its mission (the man was long dead anyway). All returned to Jade’s mind—
--which nearly buckled under the impact. Merge-shock! Suddenly the terror and insanity absorbed from the knife were there, as fresh as a raw wound. The fury was hers.
From the pixies, she remembered again that horrible moment when they’d captured Nikki, clamping that iron obscenity around Nikki’s delicate wrist.
From the dagger, she remembered the horrors that Hekate had performed. The lives and souls the witch had sacrificed, and the innocents that she had enslaved.
From herself, she remembered the look in Hekate’s eyes as the dagger was driven into her chest. The look of a madwoman who would do anything at all to get her way.
Jade could tolerate attacks on herself. She’d grown up with those. She expected them. And nowadays, she could even bounce back with no harm done. But attacks on others – attacks on the helpless – deliberate cruelty and torture – each of these stabbed at the pillars of what Jade held sacred. The fury burned brighter.
The memories gave proof of Hekate’s inner nature. Jade had seen in the most intimate, unflinching terms what that monster had done in the past and what she was capable of doing today. And today, her target was…
“Nikki! Hekate’s got her!”
Whatever else she did, she had to help Nikki! Had the elf entered the circle? Jade didn’t know. At the time she’d been a little preoccupied with her own death.
As quick as thought, she charged the three pixies back to life. It was so quick they didn’t even finish their collapse. But this time, there was only a single charge. One of her was controlling all three pixie-bodies. The disadvantage was that her naked spirit was stretched through the open air. She’d be an easy target for any avatar. And perhaps Hekate’s magic could also target her. But the benefit was worth the risk: three pixies, but only one precious charge.
“We’ve got to find Nikki!” she needlessly repeated to herself.
The pixies saluted and sped for the door. It took them a moment to realize they couldn’t open it. Eventually they returned to the enforcer and searched his body for keys or other items. After some trial and error, they discovered that his ID card unlocked the door.
“This card unlocks the door!” Trixie yelled. The three small creatures flew up to Jade, carrying the card together.
Jade was still seething over what she’d learned and felt from the knife.
“That thing is evil,” she muttered out loud. “I should probably destroy it. But how?”
On the other hand, the knife had dispelled the pixie circle almost as soon as it had touched it. Was Hekate’s knife extra effective against Hekate’s own magic? That might make sense. She realized that she really ought to take a magic theory class one of these days.
She hated to go back inside that foul object, but if it was so useful. It would be better in her hands than being left behind. On the other hand, just animating a knife seemed pretty crude. That was the sort of stuff she’d done when she was just starting out. Nowadays, it might blow the cover on her powers, too.
Then an idea struck.
Rummaging deep inside her purse, she pulled out the Kitty Compact, followed by tools, bits of wire, and a few of the robots she’d made for cleaning dishes. The construction didn’t take long, particularly when the parts subtly helped by moving into the proper locations and automatically wrapping and tying themselves off.
The resultant kludge was crude and ugly. The Kitty Compact rode on top, sprouting wires and cable that connected it to two more ovoid robot casings. Those trailed antennae and longer wires. Secured in the middle of the mess with duck tape and wrapped by a hundred feet of nanowire was Hekate’s oversized athamé and three canisters of propane gas. The entire contraption was solid, but it looked like a junkyard reject.
“Kitty Compact? No… Mega Compact? No, that’s stupid. Oh, well, I’ll just call it ‘Spinner.’ Spinner: activate!”
Gas hissed and small flames rocketed out from several different nozzles. The awkward construct rose into the air, in a wobbly fashion.
It was an oversized knife (or a very small sword) with a cluster of mechanical grapes strapped to the hilt. Several “grapes” shot little rockets of flame that held the oddball kludge aloft. Now it began to tumble about all three axes. The irregular gyrations continued for a moment, then began to even out. Finally, perched on a trio of off-center flames, the device spun up around its true center of gravity – the single knife blade way out to one side, the robot mechanisms serving as a counter-balance on the other side. In a moment, the rotation smoothed out, and it took on the appearance of a spinning, lumpy center, with a transparent disk of silvery death forming the body of this slap-dash flying saucer of doom.
Good, she thought. I’ve got one charge in the pixies, one in the spinner, I’ll need one for my missiles and gizmos. That leaves one charge left.
She moved awkwardly off the stool to make her way out into the enemy stronghold. Her knee hurt, but it was working again. Her heart was beating on its own. She was recovering from the stabbing. When she wasn’t charging Jann into missiles or weapons, she was using her TK to hold wounds closed.
What can I do to even the odds a little more?
She moved to step around the body of the dead enforcer, and was suddenly struck with a wild idea.
Jinn is supposed to be my dead sister, right? If we had her gear here, I’d charge her up. But without that…
She peered at the enforcer’s body.
Waste not, want not, I suppose.
She reached down to touch the body.
Months ago, she had researched cover stories to explain away Jinn as something other than an independent telekinetic construct. She had finally settled on the story that Jinn was a “ghulah.” But she’d done a lot of research. She used some of that now, recalling the scene from Gilgamesh, where Ishtar threatens to bring up the hosts of the underworld as her zombie army.
She spoke aloud, recalling the words in their original language. “And the dead will outnumber the living.” She spoke the Sumerian as her fingers touched the body: “Sadirrene ug àm meabi níziál!”
Jinn shared Jade’s sense of theatrics. She must have vibrated the dead man’s clothes or skin, because a low, gong-like tone sounded briefly, and a puff of dust emanated off the body. A moment later, the corpse moved, slowly struggling to its feet.
“Aaaaehhhhh…” Its lungs contracted, resulting in a hideous moan.
Jade was more than a little disturbed by looking at the dead man, now moving and walking once more. But she recalled how she’d woken to find him straddling her, as if preparing for a rape. And though she wanted to forget, she couldn’t eliminate the memories she’d felt in that terrible dagger. Now she had put a piece of her own soul back in the dagger, and inside the dead flesh of this thug. Neither of those were the least bit pleasant, but she had no choice. The situation was desperate and she’d already been killed once (almost). She recalled the words of a childhood idol and role model:
“Of course you realize… this means WAR!”
A thousand miles away, at Whateley Academy, Billie Wilson rubbed her chest. It wasn’t quite in her cleavage; it was slightly to the left. She’d felt a horrid pain there. Not on her breast, inside her chest. It wasn’t a direct pain, but somehow that made it even more disturbing. And now that pain was fading.
Her intellect said this was a bad thing, a terrible thing. Pain meant that there was still life, and if the pain faded…
But emotionally, she couldn’t believe that. Emotionally she felt better than she had since Jinn’s call came in. Setting her jaw, she reached for the phone and list of numbers once more.
She had a fierce smile, a smile that promised terror to her enemies.
“This means war!” she muttered viciously.
The J-Team was ready. Jade stood firm, her heart and lungs seemed to be working reasonably well. To one side of her was a zombie holding a machine gun. To the other size was a flying dagger-construct, a flying saucer of doom, spinning so fast that it was a disk of silver with plastic and flames in the blurry middle. Overhead was the pixie trio.
“Let’s do this,” she announced.
She slid the ID card through the card reader by the door. The lock clicked open.
They stepped out into the hallway only to be confronted with a four-way intersection. To their back was the storeroom door.
Jade’s chest still hurt, she was angry, and nearly terrified that she wouldn’t reach Nikki in time. She was acutely aware that she was one small girl in a huge enemy stronghold. She didn’t want to send away two more charges and leave herself without protection, but she had to find Nikki!
Dreading the decision, she raised an arm. “Zombie, left hallway. Spinner, right hallway. Pixies, you’re with me – we take the center. Do whatever it takes to rescue Nikki, then come back for me!”
She squared her shoulder and marched forward.
“I’m mad as hell, and somebody’s going to pay!” It didn’t have the snap of Bugs Bunny’s righteous declaration, but it was an accurate summation of her mood.
Okay, I can do this, Jinn told herself. A Jinn. One of the many Jinns.
Operating this dead meat-body wasn’t that much different than moving her Shroud body, it just had less gizmos built in.
She’d learned months ago that effectively disguising her powers meant using less than her full capability. Oddly enough, that often let her accomplish more. The style and story she spun sometimes had an effect completely out of proportion with her effort. For example, right now she looked like a normal trooper. Nothing suspicious at all, except for the hole in her throat or the blood. The trick was to act normal. If she kept up a normal pace down the hall, no one would suspect a thing.
Tentatively, she tried to speak. “Hellooarrggg.”
Not so good, she decided. Not so easy to talk, with a bubbling hole in your throat.
She raised a hand to cover the hole. She concentrated on just looking normal, walking along and doing nothing at all suspicious, with a hand over her throat.
“Hey, Snake!” another trooper yelled from up ahead.
She’d been distracted by everything else, and hadn’t noticed the man until after he’d seen her.
“Snake. Snake! Where’s that stupid dagger? Hekate is gonna tear your head off if she doesn’t get her pig-sticker back!”
Jinn was casual. She waved her hand nonchalantly and said, “I’m on it.”
Except… she’d forgotten about the huge hole in her throat, uncovered as soon as she gestured with her hand. And the words came out as, “Arrgmmm gwahhh nichhhhh,” accompanies by revolting fluids bubbling out of the hole.
The other man stared at her in shock for a second.
“Aaaaaiiiieeeee!” Without a moment’s hesitation, he raised his rifle and fired a full burst into her chest!
Jinn tilted her head down, staring at the damage. She’d noticed the thud of the impacting bullets.
Jerk, she thought, as she fired back.
The other man apparently wasn’t as resistant to damage as she was. He slammed against the wall and crumpled to the ground, mortally wounded.
Jinn was feeling shocked at how quickly she’d killed him, but memories of that damned knife still lingered.
Hey, she realized, he came from Hekate! That means that I’m going in the right direction!
She moved on.
Jade ran pelting down the hallway. Five enforcers walked around the corner at the far end of the hall.
The two sides screeched to a halt. On one side were five armed men. While nowhere near US Army standards, they had been trained on the hard streets of Kansas City in the violent arts of ambush, holdup, and shake-down. They wore black riot helmets and armored gray leather uniforms, and carried AK-47 fully automatic rifles.
The opposing side featured an eleven-year old girl in knee socks, a ruffled white blouse, and a black pleated skirt. She was four foot nine and had a trio of teeny pixies flying above her head. She carried something that looked like a ping-pong ball gun.
The goons showed more enthusiasm than aim, spraying the entire corridor with fire. The AK-47 fires ten rounds per second, and it took Jade three seconds to duck back around the corner. In that time, of the 150 rounds fired, three actually hit her.
“Ow! Ow! Oh, dammit!” A charge into her own body once again supplemented her regenerative healing process. Jann-sensei was already hard at work, mitigating shock, ejecting the bullet rounds, pulling torn flesh closed, and pinching off any blood loss.
“How the hell am I supposed to heal up if they keep shooting me full of holes?”
With Jann’s help to provide lift and forward pressure, she spider-walked up the wall, crouching near the upper corner. Then she snapped around the corner, launched two shots from the Cobra 250, and dropped lightly back to the ground.
“I guess I did learn something in class.”
Notably, she’d learned that two shots were better than one (both the spread and the redundancy giving a much better chance to hit), but three shots took too long and was too much of a risk. And shooting from unexpected locations (for example, near the ceiling) provided enough surprise to give her time for that second shot.
Meanwhile, pixie-Jinn took off as soon as the shots launched. She dodged to a different side of the hall, keeping her teeny bodies moving in an evasive pattern as she closed on the goons.
As soon as Jade hit the ground, she tore around the corner to shoot again.
The Cobra 250 was a linear induction gun. It used magnetic fields to accelerate a spherical capsule about two centimeters in diameter. In military terms, it was a grenade launcher for very small grenades. Unfortunately, it had a variety of problems, which Jade was only now discovering. On the good side, it was versatile and could fire a variety of loads: sticky nets, tear gas, smoke rounds, or even a rather vicious white phosphorous incendiary round. For now, Jade had loaded the high-explosive rounds.
Standard grenades are larger than two centimeters, and there’s a reason for that. The explosive and shrapnel required for an effective weapon requires a container that’s closer to six centimeters in diameter, and thus, nearly 30 times as powerful as Jade’s shots. Furthermore, the relatively long flight time of the Cobra round meant that the opposing force had time to duck and evade.
Between the strange pixies and the incoming ping-pong balls, the soldiers were in a panic. There had been no alert, no warning. Two men shot at the pixies, missing completely as the tiny figures weaved erratically.
Two men pulled back around the corner, and one froze.
Jade was hoping was that the first two explosions would stun or kill all five men facing her. The extra shots would be a waste of ammo, but fortunately, not a life-and-death mistake.
What she discovered was far worse.
She skidded around the corner, fired, and immediately dropped to the ground. A barrage of shots spread through the hall around her, but missed. (They were actually aimed at pixies.) The closest gunman had been rattled and disoriented by the first round of explosions, but saved by his armor and helmet mask. He raised his rifle to fire again at Jade. Before he accomplished that, pixies snagged his helmet and yanked backward hard enough to snap his neck.
The farthest two gunmen were the least dazed and had partial cover around the corner. The new explosion slammed one man against the wall, but didn’t do significant damage to the other.
The confused gunmen was knocked against the wall by Jade’s third shot. It hit him square in the chest. He slumped to the ground, dead.
But one gunman remained. He raised his rifle and sighted on Jade.
The door from the hangar to the rest of the complex swung open and Nikki had the sinking realization that it was the guard Hekate had sent out with Jade, and that the man was returning the black-hearted bitch’s athamé. A slow terror for impending loss of self began to fill her along with a numbing despair as she watched the man shuffle forward. Jade must really be dead then. And it was her fault for bringing the small girl along.
Shuffle? Nikki’s eyes focused more intently on the guard and she noted several anomalies in his gait and posture. The man had been positively brimming with anticipatory energy when he had wheeled out Jade on her torture table. Now he was shuffling.
“Blood.” She whispered as a faint hope began to stir within her. “There’s blood on his shirt, and all over him. I don’t see the athamé either.”
Nikki couldn’t gather magical energy, but her sight was still there. Hoping against hope, she focused her sight upon the thug.
Several things were immediately apparent. All life has, for want of a better word, a color. A glow of vitality. The enforcer lacked that. What he did have was a fine, almost unnoticeable thread, which stretched from his body away down the corridor… toward the direction Jade’s body had gone.
The body was dead, and yet, it moved.
Nikki’s normally sharp mind was blunted and blurred by the physical agony of her wrist, and the mental despair of her coming fate. But the fact of this strange body and the clues provided by her sight came together and began to light a spark of hope in her mind.
Outside the dome-of-doom, Hekate glanced to the guard and spat out. “What happened to you, fool? Did you wear yourself out playing with the kid’s body? And WHERE is my athamé?”
The guard, named “Snake” Nikki recalled, ignored Hekate and stumbled forward. He reached out to a table and clumsily scooped up the ring of keys for the manacle and other restraints. Hekate had tossed the keys away, once everyone had been successfully restrained.
Hekate’s voice held the tiniest bit of uncertainty and her full measure of arrogance faltered slightly as she ordered. “Look at me when I’m talking to you, fool!”
Snake’s head turned slowly, twisting beyond normal human limits. He gave Hekate a dead stare with lifeless eyes that neither moved or blinked.
“Guard?!” Hekate demanded with uneasiness beginning to show in her face and posture.
Turning his head in a slow, deliberate motion that looked as if it should make a creaking sound, the guard ignored Hekate to continue shambling, keys in hand, towards the imprisoning circle and the trio it contained. A wheezing, rasping parody of a voice emerged from his rubbery lips as his chest heaved to get out the words. “The Eeelllffff Queeeeen…” Blood and black fluids bubbled out of its throat as it spoke.
Hekate screamed in dawning understanding and rage, as what was left of Snake reached the circle.
Two gunmen were still a threat. One was raising his rifle now. He fired and missed, then was busy swatting at pixies. Farther back, another enforcer reached for his rifle.
As Jade slid along the ground, she realized that she was in deep trouble. She was exposed and slowing down, and at least one opponent was raising his rifle to kill her.
How many charges do I have? The answer returned as quick as the question formed: One.
She charged the grapple in her left arm bracer. It shot out like a missile, propelled (so it seemed) by a three-inch column of bright orange flame. It grabbed the first downed enforcer and clicked shut. It sunk into the corpse’s shoulder like a trio of razor-sharp claws, and the grapple immediately began reeling in. Given the relative masses involved, the dead goon was pulled around slightly, while Jade slid forward in a hurry.
More shots came, stitching down the floor behind her.
She fired again, hitting one opponent in the face mask and scaring the pants off the other. The man firing at her had just had a million pieces of plastic shrapnel blown into his face. If he wasn’t dead, he was probably wishing he was.
The grapple charge returned to Jade. She had just reached her grappling target, and reached out to touch his body.
“Sadirrene ug àm meabi níziál!”
There was a low gong-like tone sounded briefly, and a puff of dust rose from the body.
With a lurch, the gunman staggered to his feet, while Jade cowered behind him.
“Frank?” One of the stunned enforcers was coming around.
The thing formerly known as Frank raised his rifle, pointing it toward his former comrades.
“Oh shit! He’s gone zombie!”
A barrage of gunfire riddled Frank’s body. If he hadn’t been dead before, he was definitely dead now. It didn’t make any difference. Even as bullets smashed away his head and chest in a gruesome display of gore, “Frank” calmly leveled his rifle and unloaded on his remaining comrades. They screamed and continued firing back, but they fell.
Jade let out a shaky sigh of relief. “Be a good boy Frank, and check the hall, won’t you?”
The corpse staggered forward, quickly encountering the last man of the team. Gunfire followed.
“Braaaaiiiiins?” came the crude sound from Frank’s throat.
“No, not yet,” Jade replied, cursing her own sense of humor. “Gather these boys together, will you?”
The dead body formerly known as Frank pulled the four other men from his team into a rude pile.
Jade surveyed them critically. “Lord knows, I can use the troops.” She reached out to touch the bodies. “Sadirrene ug àm meabi níziál!”
Taking back the charge on “Frank,” she recast it on the entire group of five men. They’d have to stay close together – inside a six-foot bubble, but Jinn could control five zombies as easily as one. It made Jade’s meat shield thicker, and gave them five rifles. It also left her with zero charges, but she’d have to manage. Aside from her recent bullet holes, she was doing fairly well.
“Now, boys,” she added for deceptive purposes, “remember not to bunch up, like you usually do.”
Of course, the zombies immediately bunched up. If any of them moved too far away, Jinn would lose her grip on them.
“I said, don’t bunch up!”
“Oh, right. I keep forgetting that zombies don’t have any. Tell you what, boys. You lead the way; I’ll be back here behind you.”
The loathsome collection of modern rifles and dead meat went staggering down the hallway.
Snake stumbled toward the magic circle, reaching forward with the hand holding the keys. His voice was a bubbling groan.
“Keeeeysss for the Eeellllfff Queeeen…”
“NO!” Hekate screamed in rage as the keys that would free the sidhe girl and her magic, neared the edge of the barrier. She realized that the guard was not only dead, but under someone else’s control. “I COMMAND you to stop by the Twelve Dread names of Darkness!”
The zombie impacted the barrier and couldn’t pass through. Even so, the flutter of hope Nikki had experienced grew into a near inferno as the shambling, animated corpse both affirmed that Jade wasn’t dead, but was taking action to free her.
Jade was dead when they took her away, Nikki thought. But Snake was alive. She couldn’t have charged him unless she was okay… could she? I know she’s a regenerator, but…
A blast of darkly pulsing, bruised-looking purple washed around the edges of the circle. Hekate’s spell hit and splashed. The guard was outlined in a sickly nimbus of energy that literally ate away at his substance until he simply disintegrated.
But the zombie had been reaching up, holding the keys in his hands. His spirit-infused flesh could not penetrate the barrier. The keys, being nothing more than dead metal, had no such restriction. As the hand dissolved, the keys fell – through the barrier, landing on the inside.
“YES!” Nikki shouted in triumph while scooping up the keys. “Jade is alive!
Careful not to touch the manacle with her uninjured hand, Nikki unlocked the hated restraint and let it clatter to the floor, then contemptuously kicked it out of the circle. Her magic and energy flooded back into her in a revitalizing surge, and she gave Hekate a savage grin. “You shouldn’t have tried that, bitch.”
As the now resurgent energy flowed in visible streams into her, Nikki’s voice rose only a little but still carried through the echoing hangar. “You think you know what magic is? Let me show you some real magic!”
“What the hell was that?” Captain Randall demanded, in Central Control.
“It looked like Snake,” Pierce offered. “Maybe that evil dagger drove him insane.”
“Being insane doesn’t let you turn your head around like that!” the captain pointed out. “He was supposed to…”
“Shit!” he swore, slapping a button. The large screen instantly switched, flicking through other views until it came to a live display of Secure Storeroom Four.
As expected, Snake had left the room. And apparently, he’d taken the dagger with him.
Then the captain noticed the empty cart, and the opened restraints. And the circle that once held pixies. And the fact that there was no more superhero gear on the table.
His hand slapped down on a big red button labeled “emergency”. In central control, in every room and every hallway, emergency lights began flashing red.
Captain Randall grabbed the intercom microphone off the desk and yelled into it, “Code Red! We have Superhero Breach! I repeat, we have a Superhero Breach!”
Accompanied by pixies, following a quintet of zombies, Jade suddenly jerked upright.
“The— my zombie! Hekate’s magic! She’s back this way, the way the zombie went! Come on everyone!” She looked at the pixies. “As fast as you can, the way the other zombie went! Go!”
The pixies shot forward like manic bumblebees.
After turning around the shambling quintet of zombies, Jade followed more slowly.
A group of four enforcers headed down the hallway. They were intent on catching the action in Hangar B. Rumor said that there was a beautiful, evil, teenage witch casting a “bimbo slave” spell on an even-more-beautiful teenage elf. This wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted to miss out on.
They looked up as they heard a sound like angry wasps, coming their way.
One raised his rifle as three tiny pixies flew up and past him, continuing on in the direction of the hangar. Each had been no more than two inches tall, and dressed in a festive red outfit.
He hadn’t been involved in the kidnapping operation; he didn’t know if these things were mixed up with the elf being held captive. But it wasn’t a good sign.
Just then, the lights began flashing red.
The leader snatched up his radio.
“Control? This is Enforcer 3K57, location: B5 South. Something just flew past. Three… they looked like Tinker Bell, only wearing red. Three of them, maybe a couple of inches tall, flying fast. They were headed south. Please advise.”
Behind her zombie escort, Jade was watching the flashing red lights and listening to the panicky “Momp! Momp! Momp!” of the emergency alarm.
I guess they finally noticed, she decided. Well, I could hardly sneak around forever.
“Code Red! We have Superhero Breach!”
I’m a superhero? Cool!
Of course, there was a flip side to having a cool rep: now the entire base would be coming after her!
I’ve got to find Nikki, and fast!
Once the superheroes got involved, things inevitably started going downhill fast.
Captain Randall was manipulating the video controls as quickly as he could. What the hell did that idiot Snake do?
Meanwhile, calls were beginning to come in from all over the base. There were dead men in B5 North, looking like they’d been butchered and sliced to pieces by some psycho samurai (now missing, but loose in the complex). Wallace was taking a different call from B5 South, and Randall listened with half an ear.
“…they looked like Tinker Bell, only wearing red.”
He snapped his head around, looking at Wallace. “What was that?”
“An enforcer in B5 South. Claims he’s seeing swarms of Tinker Bells or something,” Wallace answered back in amusement.
“Son of a bitch!” Randall snapped.
He was thinking of the pixies, and the empty spot on the counter.
Hearing the intercom, Nikki laughed out loud then looked directly at Hekate. “You want a superhero breach? I’ll SHOW you a damned superhero breach!”
Putting up a shielding spell, she discovered that even though she had access to her magic, it still couldn’t break the circle or touch Hekate. The black mage, however, had no trouble at all firing spells down the prepared conduit and into the circle. Which Hekate began doing with a raging intensity that would have disintegrated Nikki and the other two, if not for her shielding. Waving behind her with her injured hand – which was slowly healing but that had never been the sidhe mage’s forte so was going very slowly – she ordered Cavalier and Skybolt. “Get behind me and stay there. I can protect you from her blasts, and as long as she’s trying to kill us she can’t work the mind control spell.”
Continuing to call out derisive taunts and belittling Hekate’s magic had the hoped-for effect of keeping the older girl so enraged that she forgot her other work in favor of trying to blast the infuriating elf still trapped within the circle.
In central control, Captain Randall and his two lieutenants were staring at the big screen. It was showing Secure Storeroom Four, and it was rewinding fast. Then, it reached the proper point and Randall let the scene play. The image came up on the big screen, in all its gruesome glory.
Snake pulled the dagger out of the tiny girl’s chest. The moment the dagger slipped free, the girl’s eyes snapped open.
“Aaaaaaaaaa! Oh… ow. It hurt… just to… breath. What’s wrong with… you people?”
“I don’t fucking believe it,” Wallace said. “She had a sword through the heart. She was dead!”
On the screen, the locks sprang free around the girl, and the chains spooled free. By themselves, they simply sprang open and unwound.
“Vampire!” Snake hissed in fright.
“Please! Vampire princess, at least.” She undead girl coughed. “Sick, vampire princess.”
“See?” Randall said, trying to reassure his men. “She’s not invulnerable! Stabbing her put a serious crimp in her plans.”
Snake made a valiant attempt to grab the dagger and shove it back into her heart, but the tiny girl overpowered him and shoved the blade into his throat, and then down toward his heart.
Randall twisted the replay knob, skipping ahead. He saw the girl fashion a spur-of-the-moment devise, turning the enchanted dagger into some sort of flying-razor-saucer. And he saw her reach down to touch Snake’s corpse. She spoke something in an ancient, unrecognizable language. A moment later, Snake’s corpse rose to life again, a living zombie servant.
“Fuck me with a chainsaw,” Pierce breathed. “She can make zombies!”
“And she isn’t looking all that hurt anymore, either,” Wallace added.
“Snake’s blood. Or his soul,” Pierce speculated. “It gave her energy. Healed her.”
Randall grabbed the microphone again. “Attention: the Superhero Breach is now reclassified as an Undead Incursion. Undead Protocols are now in effect, and the facility is under lockdown. We are currently facing one vampire, appearing as a young girl, and an unknown number of zombies. Stand firm, men. Use maximum force, and we can handle them all. Repeating: undead protocols are now in effect! Maximum force authorized.”
He reached for his console and keyed in the command for facility lockdown. Immediately, every door in the complex began sliding closed.
“…maximum force authorized.”
The men had been drawing their rifles from the armory. They’d come pouring in after the first code red. Now, though, the mood was on an upswing.
Bob Wilson was running the armory, responsible for logging the equipment in and out and ensuring that each man had his employee number registered against the weapons he took.
“Sounds like it’s getting worse out there.”
“Hell, no, this is good news!” employee 8W77 (Darryl Berton) replied. “Going up against supers with a piddly rifle is a sucker’s game. But undead aren’t as tough as supers, and now, we get the good gear! Give me a bandolier of grenades and a flame thrower. Nothing scares a zombie like a dose of flaming oblivion!”
“Didn’t you hear? There’s a vampire with ‘em! Hey, we got anything like a sunlight beam?”
“Archery,” another man answered. “That’s what you want against vampires. Plant a good old piece of solid wood, right in the heart. That’s why I’ve got the power crossbow. Make sure you get the wood quarrels, not that aluminum crap. Aluminum flies better, but doesn’t do shit to vampires.”
“Okay boys, time to roast some zombies!”
The men gathered together and set off down the hallway.
Three small forms streaked into the hangar, incongruously clad in bright red Christmas costumes. They were barely ahead of the huge blast door, which slowly slid shut and locked behind them with a thunderous boom.
For a moment, they spread out to a broad six-foot formation, surveying the situation.
With the brilliant red color of magic, it was impossible to miss Nikki in the middle of trading blows with Hekate. To be fair, it wasn’t so much “trading blows” as Hekate lobbing attack after attack, while Nikki defended. Clear to the pixies magic-sensitive vision was a huge red mystic circle trapping Nikki, Cavalier, and Skybolt. A smaller red circle held Hekate, and a red line allowed Hekate’s spells to flow across into Nikki’s circle.
The pixies spread into a wide V formation and came spearing down for Nikki—
—only to slam headfirst into the invisible barrier (which flared red to their sight only after they hit it face-first).
“Ow,” Trixie grumbled, through a flattened face.
The other two pixies pulled up in time, hovering in to help lift Trixie.
“You didn’t even feel that, Trixie.” Nikki grinned, as much in relief at seeing another proof that Jade was alive and hopefully well. “Quit clowning around, all right?”
“Had to keep up the effect, you know.” The pixie countered defensively then really scowled. “I can’t breach this circle.”
“Then distract Hekate.” Nikki ordered. “And have Dixie or Brunhilda find something to break the circle with.”
“Oh, right, distract the nasty mage.” Trixie grinned in anticipation. “Working with you is sooo much fun, your queenship!”
“Just do it, okay?”
“Wheeeee!” Was the only response as the tiny trio streaked away in a buzz of dragonfly wings, to tangle themselves quite annoyingly in Hekate’s hair. The pixies then gleefully started yanking on the strands they could reach, each pulling in a different direction.
Once again, their small size concealed the fact that they generated the strength of a full-grown man. When they wanted to pull on hair, they pulled hard. And after experiencing the dagger and the true depths of Hekate’s crimes, they were in no mood to be gentle.
Hekate gave a loud scream of both frustration and pain as clumps of her carefully-arranged hair were pulled right out of her scalp. She’d been readying a particularly nasty spell-blast. That was sent awry, cratering the wall to her left.
While her sisters were engaged with a lively game of ‘annoy the mage’, Brunhilda took up position four feet above them. “Why do they get to have all the fun?”
For Jinn, the big challenge was manipulating three bodies at once. Grabbing hair while scanning around wasn’t too hard. Speaking with three different voices at once – that was tricky. But she needed to crack that circle open.
“Eureka!” Brunhilda’s small voice shouted in joy as she spotted a bandolier that the late and unlamented Snake had left behind. “I found it! I found it!”
The pixies abandoned their hair pulling and swarmed to the table, looking over the bounty of destruction. Each pixie snatched up a grenade three times her own size and took to the air.
“HEADS UP YOUR QUEENLINESS!”
Nikki heard the warning from Brunhilda and turned her attention that way. What she saw caused her to gasp.
In central control, the captain turned to Wallace.
“New orders, lieutenant. Make sure everything is copied to the backups. We’ll record as long as we can. Initiate CleanSweep.”
Wallace was shocked. “But Captain, we’re just started to react! We’re gaining the upper hand.”
Captain Randall shook his head. “Standard procedure in case of a superhero breach. You never know when things are suddenly going to turn sour. You aren’t destroying anything important – we’ll have it all in the backups. But we need all other paper and computer records gone, just in case.”
Wallace wavered for a moment.
“I’m on it, sir.”
The three grenades were less than six feet away. Nikki swore, then told the other two in the circle with her. “Get DOWN and cover your heads. NOW!”
Cavalier and Skybolt had seen the grenades, too, and were already on the floor behind the sidhe mage as the deadly objects exploded against Hekate’s circle. That barrier didn’t even slow the grenades which bounced to land on each side of the raised bead that composed the welded circle.
Nikki barely had time to strengthen her shields when a deafening explosion reverberated through the hangar and sent pieces of shrapnel arrowing through the air in all directions.
And when the smoke cleared and everyone had a chance to survey the damage…
Nikki had survived. So had Cavalier and Skybolt, huddled behind a mystic shield that momentarily looked like so many overlapping fern leaves.
And the magic circle… had also survived. The metal had been dented, scraped, and blackened, but it had not been cut through. That was enough to maintain integrity.
Nikki stared at it in disbelief, then began to curse in a language she didn’t remember learning.
Hekate, scorched, her hair in disarray, and bleeding from a dozen small cuts cackled in triumph. “Not so hot now, are you, elf bitch! Real magic isn’t spur-of-the-moment little cantrips you cast in your nightgown! Real magic is study and preparation and accounting for every single God-damned contingency!”
The witch turned her head to the enforcers behind her. “Someone give me a dagger! I need to start a consecration ceremony. Now! And,” she gestured toward the circle, “if these idiots in the circle give you any trouble, give them a few shots in the arms and legs. And lastly, shoot down those damned pixies! That’s what you people are here for! Pest control!”
Jade had given over all her available charges to zombies. She had five men ahead of her, and a second team of four men behind. It would have been creepy, being surrounded by so many walking corpses. The people shooting at her tended to focus her attention a bit more, though. Her wonderful meat shields had taken dozens of bullets for her.
Another door opened. She didn’t have to tell Jinn to shoot, she knew she was just as smart as she was. But she couldn’t help it.
“Fire! Kill them all! More zombies for my empire!”
Yeah, that was making those jerks stop and think. Anything that slowed down their rate of fire was just fine with her!
Captain Randall couldn’t help overhearing the desperate cry of his men.
“What the hell is going on down there?” Pierce was yelling back.
It was a desperate voice that came back over the radio. “It’s our own men, sir! They’ve all gone zombie! We’re running our magazines dry on them, but it doesn’t even slow them down! I— aaaaiiiiiuuuggh.”
The control team watched helplessly as the monitor displayed the grim story. The zombies were already dead. Bullets did nothing to them. They only dropped after their entire heads were blown away.
Now the little girl stepped forward and touched his men – his fallen men. She spoke in some ancient dead language and those fallen defenders rose again, clutching their rifles.
Furious, Randall demanded, “How’s she getting through the doors? Why haven’t we disabled Snake’s card?”
“I did that, sir,” Pierce answered. “But she’s got other cards. Every group she’s taken out!”
“Then figure out who they are, dammit! Disable them all!”
Jinn was not sane. She was inhabiting a few mechanical odds and ends, and an oversized silver dagger that had been consecrated and mystically activated by quenching in the lifeblood of innocent children. The taint of that evil act remained indelibly imprinted in the metal, and since Jinn was inhabiting the metal, she couldn’t help experiencing those frozen moments over and over and over.
Those, and other moments. Petty tortures, deliberate cruelties, demonstrations of power, dabbling with the powers of hell and worse. Some of the things that Hekate had touched smelled and felt like the horror that lurked at the far end of Whateley’s sewer system. “Mythos powers,” people called them, and “class X entities.” And Hekate had called on those powers, dealt with them, and sent them offerings.
Jinn wanted to vomit, to be violently sick, but she didn’t have that capability at the moment.
To her mind, anyone who enabled or aided or even helped Hekate was practically an accomplice in the horrors the girl had performed.
She couldn’t forget that she herself had once helped Hekate. She had volunteered for a spell that (in retrospect) was intended to steal her soul and feed it to a demon.
She had only escaped due to the intervention of her roommate, Billie.
Jinn clung to that image, her image of Billie. There were things and people finer than Hekate, powers that made the witch look small. So long as she maintained her faith and trust and belief in Billie, it would be okay.
But those who knowingly aided Hekate (again she felt a twinge of guilt), those who knew her crimes and made themselves her accomplices – she had no mercy for them! Death was too good for them! She wanted to kill them all, and wipe Hekate’s taint away forever!
At the moment, she was not quite sane.
But she didn’t need to be. She was a spinning silver dagger, razor sharp, driven by the full might of her TK energies. Her most recent results in Powers Lab gave her the equivalent strength of a half-horsepower engine. Which didn’t sound like much, except that most engines have to contend with friction, wear, and the loss of efficiency due to various drive shafts and linkages. Effectively, she was equivalent to a powerful lawnmotor blade, but without the cumbersome lawnmower, and equipped with a razor-sharp mithril blade. A blade that was proving perfect for slicing flesh, butchering and killing enemy soldiers.
Which is what the enforcers had discovered.
Rifle fire did nothing against her. The bullets ricocheted off the blade, or punctured bits of the counterbalance mechanism strapped on. That didn’t bother her – she just adjusted the balance point and continued.
She had sliced more than one team to bits. They would scream and yell and cry and key open the blast door so they could escape. At which point, she’d abandon her butchery and slip through the door to find a whole new batch of targets.
“Flame throwers, ready.”
“Our men are still behind that thing!”
“They’re already dead. Go! Shoot!”
She felt the flames engulf her. One of the butane cylinders strapped to her blew out. That was nothing – it was just a prop anyway. She shot over the head of the fire team, then behind them, reversed course. She sliced into the side of one of those lovely cryogenic fuel tanks.
“Oh, God, not the flamethrower fuel!”
That did some damage – even to her. The dagger was beginning to lose its razor edge.
She sped on, past the burning corpse at the keypad.
Even with a fading edge, softening metal, and accumulating dents, she took out another seven men. Then she spun round a corner and faced something new.
It was a team of six men. Five of them were down on one knee, holding some sort of stick-like rocket launcher. The sixth man was behind, shouting instructions.
Five rockets were speeding toward her. In her insanity, it seemed a welcome release. She focused on the men, speeding forward.
--- BOOM!!! ---
A direct impact. The incredible explosive force did more than shatter the dagger – it vaporized it. Bits of molten metal splashed the walls of the corridor behind. She was normally unable to feel pain, but as pieces of her “body” were exploded in every direction, the agony was incredible.
But there was one sweet aspect of the experience.
As she lost her grip on everything, as she was pulled back home, she watched that horrid, loathsome, evil dagger undergo total destruction. The colors were beautiful, blooming reds fading to black, and then it and she were both gone.
“I… I think I hate Hekate,” Skybolt tentatively ventured.
“You’re right!” Cavalier’s agreement sounded equally stunned. “Just intellectually. My emotions still tell me she’s just slightly above Mary, mother of God. But my reason remembers every ill, every crime, and demands payment.”
“That’s wonderful,” Nikki shot from gritted teeth. “But can we focus on the life-and-death issues right now? How are you against gunfire and explosives?”
“My buckler is strong,” Cavalier spoke, in a flat voice, “but only covers a small area.”
Skybolt was more useful. “I have a force field. It’s proof against fairly powerful blasts.”
“Can you reach beyond the dome?”
“Damn.” Nikki calculated rapidly. “Skybolt – I want a forcefield coating the inside of this dome. You’re our first line of defense. Wait – not coating the dome, but maybe three inches in. I want that welded circle to be completely exposed, got it?”
The two older students nodded.
“My barrier is smaller, just enough to cover the three of us. Smaller means tighter and denser. Cavalier, you’re at the front. Anything that punctures my barrier, you stop with your buckler. Got it?”
Skybolt tried a small lightning bolt, but it hit the invisible dome encasing them and ricocheted around before spending itself against the metal floor.
“Thought so,” Skybolt mused. “I’ve been cautious about this, ever since a young sidhe caught me with my own force field.” She sent a sorrowful smile at Nikki. “Perhaps you don’t remember. It was several months ago. People sometimes call it the ‘breakfast battle.’ It would be nice to fight alongside you, instead of against you.”
The French girl began to tremble as tears began to pour down her cheeks. “There is a rage inside me. I can’t imagine wanting to hurt Hekate, but I can feel the spell failing. I know… I won’t be able to stop the rage. Please don’t get in my way – I wouldn’t want to kill you. And with the way this feeling is growing, I think I’ll need to kill someone.”
Dean Kless trotted into the hangar well ahead of his fellows. He’d been doing RPG target practice, so he already had the weapon and arrived while his comrades were still at the armory.
The place was in chaos. In the center of it all was the welded circle the witch had made. Huddled down in the center of that were three teenagers, looking fairly pathetic.
The witch herself had left the spell-casting area entirely. She was now over in a far corner of the hangar, drawing chalk marks on a jet, and some of the other junk pushed back into the corner.
Dean hefted his RPG and ambled over to where the other enforcers had set up a firing line.
“What the hell is going on here?”
“Kids are trapped in the circle. Watch.”
The man fired off a shot. Suddenly, an electric blue dome flared to life, just inside the witch’s circle.
“See? They have a force field, but they can’t leave the circle. Can’t shoot out, either, so it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Only we want to make sure we only wound ‘em.”
Dean snorted, patting his prized RPG-7. “Doesn’t matter if they do get out. I have yet to see a mutant that can stand up to this baby!”
He hefted the anti-tank weapon, displaying it proudly.
“No, you fool!”
Faster than he could react, three… beetles?... zoomed out from behind him and latched on to the rocket launcher.
Dean had a moment to see them in full clarity. They weren’t beetles. Each was a tiny girl, no more than two inches high, with large dragonfly wings and dressed in off-the-shoulder red dresses, trimmed with fine white fur. They even had Santa hats and slippers. He only had a second to glimpse them, because the pixie wings suddenly beat with a buzzing whir, and the rocket launcher was yanked straight upward, out of his hands.
“Oh… SHIT! Shoot ‘em!”
All six riflemen were firing like mad at the trio of pixies, as they lofted higher and over toward the circle and trapped high-schoolers.
“Hey, Queenie!” one pixie shouted. “Whatever protection you got – better use it now!”
Inside the circle, Dean saw a redhead look up and then give a classic double-take as she recognized the RPG-7.
“Are you insane?”
The pixies fumbled for a minute, adjusting their aim. The high-schoolers huddled down, and Dean saw multiple domes appear in the air, one inside the other.
“Fire!” a tiny voice yelled.
Dean saw and heard the familiar WHOOSH of the grenade launching. He turned away and covered his ears.
The hangar amplified and extended the noise, as it echoed back and forth in the rectangular box.
When Dean looked back, the teenagers were rising to their feet. And the welded circle had been interrupted by a small crater blown in one side.
The other men turned to glare at him hatefully.
“Uh… I better go get another launcher!” He headed out of the hangar, sprinting this time.
To Nikki’s senses, there was a profound difference. Consider a greenhouse in the deep woods. A perfectly transparent greenhouse. You might appear to be standing alone in the woods, but in actuality, you would be encased in a tiny, transparent prison. You’d be isolated from the wind and rain, from the breath of the woods, from the subtle music of the birds and insects. The difference between standing within or without that invisible greenhouse would be immense, to one attuned to the quiet voice of the forest.
Thus it was with the magic prison that was the Fools’ Circle. Nikki had been able to gather a few threads of magic, but her world had been constrained and claustrophobic. Now, with one small breach, she was free. The world rushed in, and her senses and powers flooded out, reconnecting her to the planet and the living world around.
She inhaled deeply, to the bottom of her lungs.
To those crippled, to the enforcers in the hangar who were limited to mere visual perception, the young girl seemed to stand a little taller, a little straighter.
To those with the sight, the girl inhaled and her aura swelled to a brightness that was nearly blinding. Like iron filings to an electromagnet, power flew to this girl and wrapped around her in bands of radiant force. And then that same power sank into the girl’s skin and body. Abused flesh around her wrist began to knit and heal. For a mere moment, this slip of a girl had glowed like the sun to anyone with mystic senses. A moment later, the power had become nearly imperceptible, unseen and hidden.
And that was the most frightening thing of all.
Cavalier and Skybolt were having their own reactions.
In the circle, their souls had begun to awaken. Inside all of us, there is a core spark of personality, a tiny flame that is ultimately the part which decides. Left or right, friend or enemy, good or evil. All the decisions, grand and small, stem from there. The body acts, the mind directs, and the soul is the pilot that decides and steers.
For 365 days, Cavalier and Skybolt had endured having their pilot locked in place, a thrall forced to helplessly observe, as the ship that was their mind and body was handed over to the order and direction of an external master: the witch Hekate, and her designated co-owner, Don Sebastiano. That part of them which was their deepest and most spiritual essence had been helpless. Not absent, but helpless.
On this day, the shackles binding their souls had begun to unravel. Before that had progressed far, they were inside the circle. Dread and sorrow kept them from flexing in any bid for freedom, but Nikki’s presence had begun to rouse them. Their spirit began to return, even as they bowed to the inevitable. The sidhe, trapped as much as they were, still struggled in defiance. As the bombs and grenades and mystic bolts flew, they came further awake and further free. Rage began to ignite, as they realized the depths of their degradation.
But now, the circle was broken. Each of them knew that they would die before entering another such “fool’s circle.” Never again would they trust like that. Never again would they be owned like that. Never again!
With the destruction of the circle, the bonds on their souls, on their selves, on their rage, snapped and fell away. As one, their heads turned to seek that being they despised above all others in the universe.
Cavalier and Skybolt each issued a growl that was more animal than human. Acting independently, but with identical rage, they launched forward, intent on reaching their target and ripping her into shreds with their teeth and fingernails.
Jade staggered under the memories of being the knife. The first load was the insane creepiness of just being in contact with the evil artifact. But also…
“Flame throwers? Bazookas? Who are these people?”
At least she had another charge. That meant more zombies.
But when the next door opened, flame rushed out.
“That’s them, men! The zombies and the vampire! Roast them!”
“Oh… CRAP! Crap crap crap!”
Jade had no qualms about abandoning a pair of Jinn. They would do their best to slow down the flamethrower crew.
But they were already burning, and she didn’t want to share that fate. So she ran like her life depended on it.
Cavalier charged forward. “I’m going to hurt that bitch before I KILL her!”
Skybolt joyfully shot into the air, charging up her own power while shouting. “Not if I reach her first!”
“Get out of the way, you two!” Nikki shouted then muttered. “Great. Now I’ll have to spare the energy to shield them separately.”
Stepping out of the broken circle while doing that, the sidhe mage gave a harassed Hekate an emotionless look that slowly grew into a very nasty grin. “Birth control wasn’t it? You wanted to know if it was up to date?”
Hekate snarled back, from the far side of the hangar. “Even if you’re loose, you’re still no match for me, little bitch!” she shouted.
“Oh?” Nikki questioned as if she was in a simple conversation then shrugged. “Well let me show you another kind of control and we’ll see who’s overmatched here, shall we?”
Raising her arms, showing the mostly-healed wrist the cold iron had savaged, the sidhe’s hair began blowing in the characteristic wind that heralded the gathering of her power. But this time, the wind touched more than her hair. Eddies swirled dust and debris into whirling dust devils as the hangar filled with a growing wind that had no source other than the mage defiantly standing before the one who would have subjugated her.
“You wanted my power, you bitch?” Nikki hissed as she finally let her anger begin to show again. “Here, have some of it!”
A hurricane-force wind hit Hekate, unbalancing her and disrupting another spell, then slammed her against an unyielding reinforced concrete wall.
One by one, Jade’s charges had returned. The good news was that now she had more TK power available for use. The bad news was that she wasn’t using it!
Only one charge going, right now, she thought. Do I still have some zombies? No, it’s the pixies! Which means there’s nothing between me and the flamethrowers!
Of course, the soldiers behind her didn’t know that, but that wouldn’t buy her much time.
Ahead of her was another blast door, closed like all the rest.
What happened? When I started out, all the doors were open.
She slapped a set of ID cards against the black rectangle of the reader. It blinked, showing the red LED: Locked.
Why won’t my cards open this?
She tried casting Jinn into the door, but it was too big. She pounded on it twice with her fist, but she hadn’t really expected that to work. Finally, desperately, she moved over to the right side. If this door was like the others, the equipment to open the door was contained inside the wall here. She stretched out her fingers and pushed – but couldn’t cast a charge into anything. There was nothing within reach that was small enough to hold a charge. The wall panels and door were all larger than six feet.
Driven to desperation, she pulled out a bit of nanowire from her purse. She charged that and sent it slithering through the crack where the door passed into the wall.
A moment later, there was the CHUNK of locking bolts popping loose. Then the door began to slide open.
Unfortunately, the door far behind her was sliding open at the same time.
“It’s the vampire! Get her! Use the flamethrower!”
Four cones of fire flared out, filling the hallway, and reaching halfway down the length toward her. Fortunately, the spray wasn’t far enough to cover the whole hallway.
They can’t even see me! She realized. Their own flame hides me!
She slipped through the open crack as the blast door slid open. On the other side, a hair-fine bit of wire protruded, waving gently in the air. Jade waved to it, then sprinted on. Behind her, the door ground closed again.
When Jinn’s memories returned, she laughed. She had more wire – she could use this trick again. And in the door behind her, the mechanism was so tied and tangled in wire that it should take them quite a while to get it open.
The trio of pixies swooped down to Nikki.
“You and I need to discuss degrees of force needed for a task,” the Queen began.
“Bigger problems!” the pixies began. “We’re trying to harass the gunmen – who are mostly aiming at Cavalier and Skybolt, for now. But we’re only one of me, if you catch our drift.”
Nikki went momentarily cross-eyed at this, which was even more convoluted than Jade’s usual pronoun mangling. “Uh… I think I follow…”
“There’s more troops coming! An army! We passed ‘em on the way in. We’re about to be seriously outnumbered!”
“Outnumbered?” Nikki’s mind flashed through classes and spell training. There were vague images of hundreds of distantly familiar combat spells. She knew a few modern spells and concepts from her training with Sir Wallace. Aunghadhail knew vastly more, but it was less accessible. Sometimes in the heat of battle, inspiration or memory would strike, Nikki would remember/master a new skill, and then it was hers. But here and now… she was at a loss. What could she do to stop an army? The only spell she could cast in quantity was her stupid hobgoblins.
Her eyes opened even wider than usual.
“It’s almost stupid enough to work,” she muttered aloud.
“What?” the pixies demanded.
“Never mind. Just… maintain some altitude!”
But Nikki didn’t answer, she was concentrating. Aunghadhail knew vastly more powerful spells following exotic sidhe philosophies. Nikki had learned a lot fighting the voodoo wolves. Unfortunately, those skills weren’t as useful in this situation.
Aunghadhail had thousands of years of learning and experience. Nikki had one semester. One semester, plus… hobgoblins. They were all hers, some of the first magic she’d ever created. Slowly, she was beginning to understand and control them, to an extent. They couldn’t ever be fully controlled – that was opposite the chaos that empowered them. But she could define their form and some of their attitudes.
In the back of her mind, she saw hobgoblin construction as being a bit like an old Play-Dough squeeze mold. You jammed the clay in one end, squeezed, and it stretched out the other end shaped like a tube, or a star, or some other shape. Making hobgoblins wasn’t all that much different.
So the newly supercharged mage gathered a large portion of energy (enough to give any of her teachers a heart attack, had they been there to see), shoved it into her hobgoblin-maker, and squeezed.
-- POP! --
Something appeared at her feet. A black hobgoblin. It was about six inches long, vaguely rat-like, except that it had eight hairy insectile legs and a set of horizontal, clacking, pincher-like mandibles instead of a mouth. It scurried about in a way that was deeply disturbing.
POP! POP! POP! POP!
Four more appeared. Then a dozen more. Then a hundred. Then five hundred. Nikki scrunched her eyes and gave one more squeeze, forcing all the energy through her hobgoblin-making spell.
Then she opened her eyes and gasped in alarm.
In a circle that stretched twenty feet in every directions around her, the hobgoblins were piled three feet deep. It was a writhing, swarming carpet of alien terror. As one, the horrid creatures turned and stared at her with beady little glowing red eyes.
“Well?” she demanded. She pointed out with one finger, toward a half-dozen enforcers that were shooting off their rifles. “There’s the enemy! Go get ‘em!”
The carpet seemed to melt and flow forward like a spider-legged tide, sweeping toward the enemy forces.
As the last of the little monstrosities scuttled away, Nikki released a ragged breath.
What do you know? It worked!
She only wished that hadn’t been such a surprise.
Pierce was trying to watch multiple different disasters. Two hallways in completely different sections were entirely engulfed in flames. The question was: could these threats escape? And if so, where should he send reinforcements?
“Damn!” the captain swore, behind him. “The vampire is free again!”
“How? You said you had her locked in!” Pierce yelled back, hating the whining tone in his voice.
“I did,” Randall replied. “I completely killed power to that door. I don’t know how – the fires cut off our monitors to that section.”
“She turned to gas,” Pierce replied. “How the hell are we supposed to stop that?”
“At least we knocked out her zombies,” the captain said, with a touch of satisfaction. “Now let’s see how she handles some modern firepower, without a screen of zombies!”
That’s when Pierce glanced at the monitor for Hangar B.
“What now,” Randall’s increasingly harried voice came back.
“Hangar B,” Pierce said, almost whispering. “The elf bitch is loose!”
There was a moment of silence from his commander. Finally, there was a quiet response.
“I know. She’s been out for a couple of minutes. I asked Hekate what she’d do if that happened. The witch assured me that she could handle it. So… we’ll just have to take her at her word. Once we nail down the vampire we’ll send help, because she assured me this would be ‘no problem.’”
“That’s not what it looks like on the monitor. Have you seen—?”
Randall’s reply was shouted. “She said NO PROBLEM! Got it?”
The impact would have shattered Hekate if she hadn’t been an exemplar, and it momentarily stunned her as she was slammed, spread-eagle, against the wall by wind that had a will of its own and an apparent desire to spread her into a thin paste against the immovable object at her back.
“How do you like it now?” Nikki’s eerily calm voice was soft, but still penetrated the howling winds assailing everything in the hangar. “You killed a friend of mine in front of me, gloated over it, and were sooo looking forward to experiencing my power. So tell me, bitch. Is it as good as you thought it would be?”
Another blast of wind pounded into the now immobile dark mage, further battering her. Hekate frantically fought to counter the wind, to at least find a spell that would end the killing impacts she was enduring.
“What?” The sidhe girl’s soft voice filled her ears and mind with a dreadful quiet in contrast to the noise of objects clanging against walls and other fixtures. “Aren’t you enjoying the experience you were anticipating so much?”
The nanowire trick was doubly good. Jade could slither into the wall and peek out the other side. She’d avoided three ambushes so far. But now she was back to the main hallway, and she was out of wire! Out of Cobra ammo, out of all the good mini-missiles, and now out of wire! What was she supposed to do, unravel her socks?
She’d just finished jamming up the door behind her. She could hear them on the other side. The door would unlock, and strain itself trying to open, then automatically relock. Each effort stressed the wire a little more. It was going to snap soon, and then she’d be trapped in a dead end corridor with no way out! There had to be some trick she could use!
She cast Jann into her body, and pressed herself to the walls and ceiling. Spider-walking up to the ceiling, she felt for panels, or something she could crawl behind.
There was nothing.
She dropped to the floor and rummaged through her purse.
Behind her, the blast door clunked, and tried to open again. She could hear the motor straining.
The pixies zoomed back to update their general.
“What now?” Nikki demanded, a little too sharply. “Need more spider-rats?”
“No, no!” Trixie shook her head wildly. “I think that’s plenty!”
“Too many, really,” Brunhilda muttered.
“I could make more pixies,” Nikki offered. “That would give us some flying chaos, too. You remember back in the cottage…”
“Unfortunately,” Brunhilda answered. “Although it might be good if we could do some Phase bowling…”
“So what’s the problem?”
Trixie almost hollered her frustration. “All the doors are locked! Jade can’t get in, and we can’t get out! Not without collecting some ID cards!”
“Hmm. Our hosts obviously don’t want us to leave, do they?”
Nikki paused to survey her many foes. Hekate was being harassed by powerful and malicious winds, and being even harder pressed by Cavalier and Skybolt, who were moving into position. There were enforcers moving in to support the witch, but they needed to deal with the spider-rats first. Judging from the screams of the men, it would be a while before they’d be a significant threat.
Nikki decided she could spare a moment.
“Give me an ID card.”
The tiny trio darted away, navigating carefully past the winds and avoiding the rats. They found a downed enforcer and snatched up his ID card.
Meanwhile, Nikki began formulating a plan. Simply blasting the door open would work, but then she’d have to expend the same amount of energy with every one they ran up against. That would dangerously drain her reserves. There had to be a more clever approach…
The pixies returned, bearing a new photo ID card.
“Good,” Nikki said, nodding. “RFID. These aren’t so different than the ones my Dad and his staff use. They just need to be in proximity…” She strode over to the huge hangar door, spotting a black rectangular reader unit. It sent out radio pulses. Reaching the door, Nikki traced her finger over the card, then over the reader, feeling for the elements that composed the system.
The idea that came was both simple and stunning. Unlike the winds, which were ancient magic channeled through Aunghadhail, this idea was more like the rats: 100% Nikki. It combined her learning in class with her knowledge of modern electronics.
“Thank you, Sir Wallace! I may have an answer: The Law of Similarity! A thousand sensor pads, identically manufactured. A thousand cards, similar except for ID code. If I simply enhance the similarity of the cards, each card could emit every code. And if I enhance the similarity of the readers (which are practically identical anyway) what one reader sees, all will see. It’s worth a try, at least.”
The pixies looked blankly at each other. “Oh, sure.” “Of course.” “Almost too obvious to mention.”
Concentrating for a few moments, Nikki used one hand to trace patterns in the air, while the other hand touched the card, and the reader.
“Mass produced, all alike, all similar. And if I make them just a bit more similar…”
“There!” she told the pixies. “That should do it! Go try your card at this door.”
“Your wish is our command Your Elfin Majesty!” The pixies chorused before flashing down in a whir of wings.
Nikki didn’t even bother to respond to their use of honorifics she doubted even existed, just waited for the results, if any, of her latest spell.
The hangar door began grinding open. Down the hall behind it, the next door was also opening.
In fact, around the hangar, every single door was opening.
The pixies came zooming back, performing barrel rolls and Immelmans on the way. “It worked! It worked! The doors are open now!”
“Did you leave the card in the pad?” Nikki asked as a loud clang announced the blast door closing again.
“Uhh, no.” Trixie winced.
“Go back and do it again.” Nikki sighed. “What one card emits – all of them emit and what one pad sees, all those see. Tape the card in place and make sure it’s secure. That should make their access systems pretty useless.”
“Aye, aye, your Marvelous Queenship!” The trio chorused before zipping away to do as she had instructed.
“I have GOT to convince Jade to stop with their silly titles.” She grumped, then groaned. “Gods, now she’s got me mixing pronouns!”
The door opened just in time to save Jade from finding out whether she could survive a flamethrower. She sprinted at her maximum speed, arms pumping, knees coming up past her waist. When she remembered, she’d fire a missile backward. The Cobra was empty, and her missile supply was down to stink bombs.
Fortunately, all the doors from here on were open. Unfortunately, they stayed open.
“Captain…” Pierce began, whining more strongly now, “the doors… the security system…”
“I see it!” Randall snapped back.
He moved over to the security terminal.
“Shit! The national commander is at our front door! With the state commander! And… five hundred, one thousand, five thousand…”
He checked again, switching doors, scrolling the query. “We have the entire staff, from highest to lowest, trying to get into every door in the complex.”
He looked over at Pierce in bewilderment. “That’s impossible.”
Behind them, the door slid open, and stayed open.
They realized the answer at the same time.
“How am I supposed to fix this?” Randall dropped his head into his hands. “I can deactivate any card. Hell, I could even deactivate every card. But then our own men would be trapped! We’d be trapped!”
Pierce nervously eyed the open door at his back.
“N-not that I’m concerned, Captain, but how far away are we from the vampire and elf, right now?”
Hekate finally managed to evade the malicious hurricane. At first she’d thought that her entire side of the hangar was being battered by gale-force winds. Gradually it dawned on her that the winds were following her alone, like some sort of attack dog. Once she’d had that realization, she was able to divert a stealth spell to gain her freedom. There were people on campus who tracked through scent. Hekate had a spell that copied her air-borne emissions and wandered off on a wild-goose chase. As with the scent-trackers, the winds had been led astray.
But with the battering winds gone, the rats had moved in. Hekate didn’t scream at normal rats, but she screamed at these. Particularly when they began to bite bloody chunks out of her feet and ankles.
A few powerful blasts had cleared a space, temporarily, at the cost of her shoes.
Needless to say, this was not going the way she’d expected. She regretted ever trying to capture the elf.
She had an escape spell. That was Rule One: Always have an escape plan. Were things that desperate?
Half on instinct, she ducked and rolled.
A blinding blue lightning bolt struck the wall where her head had been.
“Hello, mistress!” Skybolt’s voice dripped venom. “I’m going to burn your limbs off, inch by inch! And when I’m done, I’ll peel your face off and force feed you on your own eyes! I want to hear you scream for mercy, just so I can say no!”
“Skybolt, no!” Cavalier shouted, as he slogged forward through a sea of rat-things.
For a moment, Hekate thought she was to be saved by the ever-noble Cavalier.
“Skybolt, no!” He repeated. “Burning’s too good for her. Crush her bones – shatter them, powder them! Fingers first, then toes, work her way in to crush her pelvis and break her ribs, so that every breath is a searing agony! Then we can start to burn her!”
Hekate quailed, wondering if she’d have time for her escape spell.
“And I thought our client was one scary bitch.”
Randall picked up a microphone and began issuing orders.
“Heavy weapons to Hangar B. Maximum force, heaviest weapons. Any and all property damage is acceptable. Have fun and do your worst, boys.”
Wallace came back in, lugging a large briefcase. “Why are all the doors open?” He spotted the display of Hangar B. “Holy–!”
Pierce looked over at the captain.
“That call for heavy weapons… that was just to delay them while we escape, wasn’t it?”
The captain gave a weary smile.
“Lieutenant Pierce, that is why you are an officer in this organization!”
A familiar voice shouted as a small girl came running through the open blast door. “Run for your life! Wait! I recognize this part of the place. Niiikiiii! Heeeelllp!”
“Jade!” Nikki rushed forward with a relieved and joyful shout as she hugged the smaller girl. “Thank the gods! I thought you were dead!”
“I was.” Jade grimaced then brightened. “But I got better!”
“I see that, and am more glad than you can ever know.”
Jade was almost in tears she was so happy at being reunited with her friend, and other selves. Then widened her eyes. “Uh oh, no time for happy reunions just now. There are some really nasty guys loaded down with heavy weapons behind me.”
“Who needs heavy weapons? Watch this!” Nikki grinned nastily, concentrated, then gave a shoving gesture. Hundreds of pixies materialized in mid-air, milling about for a moment while congratulating each other on their existence. “Pixie power! Yay!”
“All right all of you pixies!” Nikki commanded. “Go! Have fun, commit mayhem! Distract, annoy anyone but us, and disrupt whatever equipment you can touch!” As an afterthought, she added, “Oh, and be nice to Cavalier and Skybolt. They’ve had a rough year.”
One of the new pixies nodded then began bellowing – if a pixie voice could be said to bellow. “You heard the Queen! Come on, we have mischief to do!”
“Uh, oh.” Nikki winced and shouted after the swarm of departing pixies. “Don’t go outside!”
One of the hobgoblin pixies returned in a blur to end up hovering in front of Nikki. “We can’t go outside? Why?”
“Because the people in here need your attentions.” Nikki answered in no little relief. “So stay inside the complex.”
“Got it, boss!” The pixie saluted then charged off to tell her peers about the latest order.
“Think they’ll pay attention to that one?” Jade questioned with little smirk.
“Once they get going down here, they’ll have plenty of mischief to get into, so I hope so.” Nikki shrugged. “If not – I can see something along the lines of ‘Lucy, you got a lot of ‘splaining to do!’ once we get out of here.”
“Never mind.” Nikki shook her head. “An old, old sitcom where the lady named Lucy was always getting herself into ridiculous situations and trouble.”
“Sounds familiar.” Jade giggled. “Doesn’t it?”
“No, you think?” Nikki snarked back with a grin.
Jade took a moment to catch her breath and look around. “Gee, Hekate’s about to get skewered, huh?”
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer b… witch.”
Nikki was momentarily scandalized. “Jade!”
“Well she did kill me.” She looked around some more. “Troops harassed by spider-rats. Nice touch. I’ll stay over here, thank you.”
“So, what have you been up to?” Nikki asked, casually.
“The usual. You know – returning from the dead, killing a few dozen people, turning ‘em into zombies, that sort of stuff. Uh, Miss Witch’s fancy knife? I sort of mind-touched it, and learned that she’d performed human sacrifices on a couple of kids. That made me more than a little upset, you know.”
“Mmm,” Nikki commented. “What did you do with the knife? I think she needed it to finish the slavery spell.”
“Oops. Sorry. It kinda got blown up. You know those LAW things? Direct hit. The knife was in at least a dozen pieces. That’s what it felt like, at least.”
Wisely, Nikki didn’t ask. “That’s quite a shame.” She didn’t sound at all sorry.
“Yeah.” Jade wasn’t sorry either. “So…”
Nikki was examining her fingernails, studying the dirt under them. Which had a bit of a reddish tinge to it. It almost looked like dried blood…
She suddenly remembered that horrifying moment when the manacle had been snapped on her wrist. She’d clawed out at Solicitor, and then at Hekate.
Solicitor’s blood… and Hekate’s blood. Nikki’s mouth stretched into a smile. A horribly vicious, evil smile.
“Cover my back, will you Jade? I need to cast a spell.”
Moving at a jog, the heavy weapons “team” was headed for Hangar B.
It should be pointed out that Syndicate enforcers adopted both weapons and terminology from the military. Some of them had even been trained by the military and spent time in combat. True, a high percentage of that group held dishonorable discharges, but still, there was a strong military influence.
But in no way should an army heavy weapons team be confused with a Syndicate “team.” In the army case, a group of men were selected and specifically trained to work as a well-coordinate unit. The Syndicate case, however, involved authorization at the armory allowing the distribution of heavy weapons. The enforcers ran to the armory, and grabbed whatever they thought looked interesting. The mob then moved to the trouble spot, some of them carrying heavy weapons. They were a “team” in the sense that there were a bunch of them, and their weapons were all pointed, pretty much, in the same direction.
This current team consisted of 32 riflemen (AK-47), four enforcers carrying RPG-7 anti-tank rockets, and eight men carrying gadgeteer designed flamethrowers with backpack cryogenic fuel tanks. Trapped behind this ungainly mess were three teams riding electric jeeps which were topped with .50 caliber Browning machine guns.
As evidence of their lack of tactics, there was no appreciable scouting activity (despite a control room that could monitor the situation ahead), and the fastest units – the jeeps – were trapped behind the slower mob in front.
Still, for most everything The Syndicate needed to combat, this group was more than adequate for the task. Unfortunately they were up against a pair of freshman girls from Whateley.
A new rifleman managed to elbow his way to the front.
“What are we after, again?”
“We were chasing a kid vampire,” one of the frontrunners replied.
“No kidding! A vampire?”
“Kid vampire. Like a ten-year-old girl. The real deal though. Some guys saw her fly, I heard she got through a blast door by turning to mist, and she was making zombies out of our own guys. We had to roast ‘em to finally stop them.”
“I didn’t know vampires could make zombies.”
A third man joined in. “You gotta keep your eyes open around here. Learn stuff, you know?”
“So where are we headed now?”
“Well, the vampire should be up ahead, but we’re heading for Hangar B. There’s a Super-Babe fight going down. You’ve seen the witch’s picture?”
“I’ve seen the pin-up in the locker room.”
“Good enough. The job is to shoot her. And the vampire kid. And everything else that looks like trouble.”
“The captain announced, ‘Maximum force authorized.’ He even told us to have fun, and not to sweat the property damage.”
“Sweet! More fun than popping varmints.”
The predicted enjoyment, however, would not go entirely as planned. The first obstacle to the anticipated mayhem arrived moments later, in the form of multiple squadrons of Santa-suited pixie hobgoblins. The access corridor was wide, wide enough for two jeeps abreast, and it was brightly lit by high-wattage fluorescent lights running down both the upper left and upper right corners of the hallway. Initially, the pixies seemed to be something like a swarm of locust, approaching fast.
“Enemy sighted, men. Prepare yourselves.”
The mob slowed, spreading out a little.
“Whee!” “Go get ‘em!” “Don’t leave their stones unturned!” “Pixie power!”
The distant, high-pitched voices left the men uneasy.
“What the hell are they?” one rifleman asked.
One of the oldest men of the group spoke out, in a voice so deep it rumbled like a gravel sifter. With one hand, he held his half-burned stogie, and the other hand rubbed over the sandpaper stubble of his chin.
“I saw, when they was brought in,” he explained. “Damnedest thing, but you know the main target is some sort of high-blood elf noble, right? So it makes sense, I suppose.”
“What are they?” the demand echoed.
The grizzled veteran replaced the stogie and picked up his rifle, ready to fight and die if need be. “Tinkerbells,” he said. “Hundreds of Tinkerbells.”
“Huh?” “You’re shitting me!” “What’s so bad about Tinkerbells?”
“Shut up and aim!” the veteran lashed out. “They’re small, and fast, and strong enough to lift you up by the hair. They got fingers like tiny little claws. One hit takes ‘em out, but they’re fast and agile, and once they get in among you, it’s pretty much over.”
With that, the eyes of each man in the mob widened, and they pulled up their rifles with a touch more respect, and a load more fear.
“All you fucking pixies, die!”
Nearly three dozen rifles fired, on full auto. The flamethrowers were the most effective. Anything those cones of flame touched simply poofed away into ectoplasmic vapor. The rifles, for all the poor marksmanship behind them, threw a tremendous cloud of lethal metal. They took out more. But some pixies survived. They flew higher, or faster, or lingered at the edges. And then they were among the men.
One man, armed with a LAW stumbled and got tangled in his weapon. A small group of pixies detached themselves from the swarm and flocked to the launcher.
“You poor man!”
“Let us help you with that!”
The pixies easily pulled the weapon out of the man’s spastic grip then hovered with the thing rotating along a horizontal axis.
“Wonder how this thing works?”
“Oh, silly us! That’s how!”
“Uh, hope you guys weren’t too attached to that golf cart.”
“Or the wall behind it!”
“This is fun!”
“Yeah. Let’s go find some more of these!”
“Rally, men,” an enforcer shouted. “Don’t be afraid to use the flamethrowers! That’s our most effective weapon!”
“No, not on our own men!”
“Run for the hangar! We need open space!”
“Cover my back, will you Jade? I need to cast a spell.”
Great, Jade thought. Cover you with WHAT?
She looked around, noting the three pixies still buzzing about. That was one charge, but they were on independent assignment.
Jade’s equipment was used up and gone. Her bracers were useless. So far, her most effective strategy had been…
She saw that a couple of enforcers had fallen to Cavalier, Skybolt, and a swarm of spider-rats.
Leveling her left bracer, she cast herself into the claw, and then shot it out. The claw flew unerringly across two hundred feet of floor space. “Propelled” by the flame of a small rocket motor, it didn’t lose height as it sped across the open chamber. Then, it closed, clicking closed on the shoulder of a dead enforcer. A moment later the cord went tight and Jade braced herself, as it reeled in. Jade/Jinn had learned from the earlier battle, though. The wire reeled in, but the true pull was provided by Jinn, cast into the claw, pulling the dead body across the floor toward Jade.
Who then reached down and touched him.
“Sadirrene ug àm meabi níziál!”
Jinn, out of the claw and into the body, picked up her rifle and leveled it.
“Wow, this zombie spell is really useful! Shame there aren’t more dead guys around.”
The zombie raised a hand and pointed.
“Oh, I see him! Thanks!”
“Status?” Randall snapped.
The other two men surveyed the monitors. Pierce started with, “Spider-rats everywhere. I know, I know, I’ve seen all the movies. I know how those things move. They’re all through level five, and a few early scouts have made it up to level three. Nothing on two yet, and we’re still safe up here. Pixies – no kidding, that’s what they seem to be – they’re faster but hang together more. They’re causing havoc in levels four and five, but mostly with the heavy weapons squad, which is just moving into the hangar now.”
Randall nodded grimly. “They’ve got .50 calibers, RPGs, and flamethrowers. I suppose it’s too much to hope they’ll take out three high-schoolers and some God-damned grade school toddler!”
“Hey,” Wallace corrected, “that’s a vampire toddler. And she’s making more zombies.”
Mitch Randall rested his elbows on the console and let his head drop into the cradle of his hands. “Of course. I’m sorry,” he said wearily. “A vampire toddler. I’ve got an entire Syndicate base at my command. Our weaponry – well, Afghan rebels used it to defeat the might of the Soviet Fucking Union. My men, similarly armed, are having a tough time stopping toddlers.”
“Vampire toddlers,” Wallace reminded. “And to be fair, she’s really a high school freshman. Just, you know, unnaturally young. Vampires don’t age, you know. And don’t forget the zombie part.”
“Of course,” Randall moaned. “That makes all the difference, doesn’t it? At least tell me that you’ve got some good news, Wallace.”
“Sure do. Limo #5 is fueled and ready as our escape car. It has the built-in data storage, so I’m transferring the camera and data feeds directly over. I’ve already hauled the main disks. The engine is running, idling smoothly. It’s just a quick sprint to the garage, and the three of us are out of here.”
“Along with my career,” Randall muttered.
“What was that, Captain?”
“Nothing. Any other good news?”
“Payday was going to be tomorrow. We had the cash on hand, but not distributed yet. I hauled that over to the trunk, so we’ll take all that with us. I cleaned out petty cash, too. Oh, and all the supers are still busy down in level five. None of them are even looking like they’re headed in this direction.
Randall sighed again. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a special key, which he removed from his key ring. Using that, he unlocked and opened a hatch in the control panel, then pressed a sequence of buttons inside.
“Isn’t that—” Wallace gulped. “—the self-destruct system? For the entire base?”
“It’s set for five minutes,” Randall explained. “If we keep pressing this button, the count will keep resetting back to five minutes. If it slips down to two minutes, we get an alarm inside this room only, and then we’d better press this button. At 90 seconds, it locks in and can’t be stopped or reset, and at 60 seconds the alarms go off inside the complex to warn our people.”
Pierce glared. “That doesn’t give the men much time to escape.”
Randall snapped back, “Depends on how fast they are, doesn’t it? It gives us plenty of time. And with luck, it might end up taking out those stupid mutants that decided to trash our base.”
Wallace shrugged in an easygoing way. “I’m good with it.”
Randall flicked the final switch, and watched the counter come to life: 5:00… 4:59… 4:58…
Nikki trusted Jade to cover her. She’d closed her eyes and concentrated, remembering recent magic lessons, and mixing in older lore where she could recall it. She felt for those crucial particles under her fingernails, isolating the important cells of both skin and blood.
The cells, along with their chemical composition, genetic map, and mystic essence, constituted a specification of the target. They enabled powerful magics to be aimed with certainty. During the casting, a resonance built up allowing Nikki to see and sense her targets in every way – the look of their faces and bodies, the aroma of their auras, the feel of their souls.
Fortunately, Hekate had been thoughtful enough to stock an entire setup for spell casting. She even had the coals in the brazier glowing at the perfect temperature!
Nikki prepared ingredients and gathered her intentions, wrapping it around the Rule of Three. It was a modern magical convention (to her mind) stretching back a scant four thousand years. Still, it fit this need perfectly: Whatever energy a person puts into the world, be it positive or negative, will be returned to that person three times.
Nikki gathered the threads to her fingertips, bits of errant fate, strands of energy floating through the room, bits of her own power, ties to the lifelines of the participants involved. As she wove the knots of the spell, she spoke aloud to add further control and intension, to tighten the focus to a razor’s edge.
She prepared small glass saucers with her ingredients. Blood from the victims, there, there, and there. She included a few drops of her own blood in the center of that cluster. Blood from the villains, Hekate and Solicitor, went on the opposite side..
“However distant in time or space, similarity magic can still make a connection,” she recited to herself.
She fitted the pieces together, thinking aloud but not yet casting. “Joined by deeds, joined by … uh… greed. And now joined by blood. I need the triple link to strengthen it.”
She lacked a circle but that was solved in a moment. With a thought and a need, and access to her magic once more, Malachim’s Feather appeared in her hand. It would serve in place of an athamé. With a graceful economy of motion, she walked a circle, chanting softly, while the ancient scimitar scratched a silvery gouge in the metal floor.
The circle flared to life around her, a blue glow that shot up to the ceiling, reaching toward the heavens. Inside, Nikki now scribed three smaller circles, with the last one composed of a dashed line, admitting forces from the world beyond.
In the first two, Nikki quickly scooped coals into clay bowls, setting them in their respective circles. She poured vital essences – salt, herbs, and metaphysical powders. Into the first circle and bowl, she poured the carefully isolated blood and skin fragments she had gouged from Solicitor and Hekate, when they had captured her and her fury had driven her mad. She named each, “Solicitor” and “Kallysta Thessellarean, who calls herself Hekate.” As each sample fell into the coals, they seemed to erupt in a small puff of smoke. Composed of flame, steam, air, and ash, the eruptions spread the information to each element.
Finishing that, Nikki poured essence and blood into the second bowl and second circle, naming herself, Jade, Cavalier, and Skybolt. Again, whether blood or simply aural essence was added, each entry was matched with an answering puff of smoke.
Over the third circle, Nikki simply poured power and a desire to connect with those great forces that managed the world, and the universe.
Then she took up Malachim’s Feather once more and drew a line. It began on the floor and tangentially touched the first circle holding her foes’ essence. It began to scribe toward the second circle, holding her own essence. As the line moved, she spoke. Her voice was quiet, but it resonated beyond the edge of the world.
As she chanted, in one unbroken line she scribed a tangential line across the first circle, then joining across to the second circle, turning, joining to the third circle, turning again and returning to the start. As the last syllable was spoken, the lines completed. Three circles, nestled inside an equilateral triangle. With the final syllable, the triangle closed, and the contents were obliterated in a burst of white light. Thunder boomed and rolled through the entire complex, powerful enough to shake the structure even five floors above.
This wouldn’t be a fast doom, it would work slowly, steadily increasing in power. As such, there would be time to fight it, if there were any flaws in the conception or construction or accusations of the spell. And if there were no flaws – then like a glacier sliding downhill, it would be vast, relentless, and utterly unstoppable.
Now in the center of the triangle, the light faded. It faded and turned black as shadow. Two hands formed, no more than shadows in the air. The hands rose, then launched forward toward their prey. Seeking, seeking, and delivering doom.
Hekate was pinned between Cavalier and Skybolt. The Syndicate forces that promised to be the ultimate backup were being outmaneuvered by a pathetic low-level spell. Somehow, the tables had been turned. She and the enforcers were outnumbered. She still wasn’t sure quite how that had happened, but it didn’t really matter. This had turned into a survival test.
It was time to dump any plans of keeping control of the situation. She needed to forget re-enthralling Cavalier and Skybitch. She needed to abandon that and move to her A-game. Perhaps her foes had forgotten that she was Hekate, queen of magic! She was the mage so tough that they’d been forced to use Dragonslayers against her in the combat finals, and she had survived! A pair of angry servants would not be her undoing! Compared to the Dragonslayers, this pair was nothing!
She quickly located the main threat, the sidhe bitch. Who was busy with some sort of ritualistic magic. That was sure to hurt. Just to crap on a sitting-duck target, Hekate energized a quick lightning bolt and sent it at her rival.
Unfortunately, a dead enforcer moved into the way. Another one of those damn zombies, and the lightning didn’t seem to harm it at all! She glared at the small girl guarding Fey. The girl she had killed.
Number 263 my ass! Someone’s going to pay for that misinformation!
Another lightning bolt nearly hit her, forcing her to return her attentions to tactical matters.
She snapped her head around to the enforcers. “Shoot them!” She pointed at Cavalier and Skybolt. “They’re controlling the rats! Kill them and the rats will die!”
It was a complete lie, of course. Cav and Sky had nothing to do with the rats. Those were simple hobgoblins, given a rather nasty aspect, whipped up by Fey. Hekate kept them away with a low-level screen. Once the men abandoned their own defenses to attack Cav and Sky, they would probably be swarmed, and if she didn’t miss her guess, eaten alive. Which wasn’t an issue, provided those idiots managed to do something useful as they went down.
The gunfire diverted her pair of attackers, long enough for Hekate to begin her defense. She’d been off balance since this operation had begun, and it was time to take control once more.
The setting was too rushed and too chaotic for true invisibility. Instead, she used illusion. To anyone without a psi-shield, it looked like she sprinted over to the enforcers, placing herself in the center, guarded by the mass of men. Meanwhile, one of the enforcers sprinted to her position to fire at Cav and Sky. She carefully exempted the other enforcers from the Seeming Switch, so that they wouldn’t ask their buddy why he suddenly looked like Hekate.
Step one completed successfully, she ducked behind cover.
What are my goals here? she wondered. Escape with my life, of course. I need to take out Cav and Sky, so they don’t use any evidence against me. They know far too much. And the elf and her friend – taking them out would be a sweet bonus.
She sifted through a half-dozen plans, then nodded sharply.
Step two: Cavalier.
Skybolt was attacking “Hekate” in the center of the enforcer cluster. The men were firing back at her, even as the rats swarmed them, biting them to death. Their rifles were useless against Skybolt’s forcefield, but so long as the two groups kept each other busy, that was enough for Hekate.
Cavalier, on the other hand, was a psi himself. Hekate’s mental jabs and illusion bounced right off him. He was good enough to dodge her lightning and bolt lobbing, and he was coming toward her fast!
“Okay,” she muttered, “you want hobgoblins? Try this!”
It was normally a fairly stupid use of magic. Hobgoblins could be counted on for nothing but chaos. But under the right conditions, that served very well. Hekate didn’t share Nikki’s skill, but she had learned to craft ectoplasmic servants. She shoved her power liberally through a mixture of desire and well-known image. In front of her, an even half dozen winged monkeys appeared in the air.
“Kill him!” she shouted, stabbing a finger in Cavalier’s direction.
The monkeys flapped forward, the two stupidest moving for direct attack, while others gathered debris and flapped higher to drop it on him.
With that respite, she quickly cast other spells in quick succession. The first was a standard hinder – forces to entangle and trip, to make the footing uncertain and trigger random moments of hesitation. This spell worked by issuing subliminal psychic miscues, so anyone psychic, like Cavalier, would be even more vulnerable unless he figured it out and shielded his unconscious perceptions.
Then she lashed out with a lightning bolt, trying to fry Cavalier. He dodged, of course, even with his monkey harassers.
Good. Now, step three.
Hekate crafted another illusion, a full simulacrum. This one was light-based, more intelligent and complex, and would fool even a psi like Cavalier. It contained a spark of mental essence to give it intelligence, as well as a psychic signature. And so long as she continued to push power into it, it could cast spells as well as she could.
At the same time, she ducked behind cover, hiding herself from his sight. It had to be timed to match his swing at a monkey, so his eyes were away from her.
Simulacrum-Hekate moved to take position near Skybolt. “Skyslut, have you forgotten me?”
The flying energizer looked back and forth between two images of her target. “Tricked! Good! This way I can kill all of you!”
Crouched and hiding, Hekate improved her image manipulation on the vulnerable energizer. Skybolt shot a tremendous barrage of energy straight down, where the source of her rage cowered below. To Skybolt, it seemed that each blast weakened the figure and produced a cry of pain.
But everyone else saw simulacrum Hekate using complex gestures, reflecting the lightning like a beam of light and bouncing it toward Cavalier. Each charge from Skybolt was another attack on Cavalier, powered by his supposed ally!
Moving farther away from the mess, the true Hekate nodded at a job well done. And now, step four: the elf.
Hanging in her necklace were three small glass rods. They held power gathered at great cost, hoarded against the ultimate emergency. Which was now. Hekate hadn’t wasted these on any final, but she took hold of them now. One by one, she snapped them. Each contained more power than she could contain, even when fresh. Hekate took that power and blasted it toward where she had chalked the runes, minutes earlier.
It was a summoning spell. She called not one, but three iron elementals. Unfortunately they took bodies of steel, since that was in abundance in the hangar. Her promised payment was extreme, given the circumstances and the need to overcome the elf’s influence. But she mystically bound herself to the contract, calling for the death of the elf and her friend, and then the destruction of everything else that lived in the hangar. That was the sort of open-ended contract an elemental could wax poetic about, had they the mental capacity.
Nearly exhausted by the sheer power she’d pumped out, Hekate spared another glance at the elf.
Invisible to unenlightened eyes, the black hands forming within the focus of the elf’s casting meant only one thing: a curse. A powerful black curse. And Hekate had no doubt that she was the target. Strengthening her shields, she rushed to cast her escape spell.
In the back of the hangar stood a disassembled jet, an electric jeep, and a small mountain of parts and tools. Mystic energy wrapped around them. A relation to the earth elemental, this spell was focused on metal. Originally it had brought life to creatures composed of cold iron, creating a magical construct that was nearly immune to opposing magic. That was useful for fighting the rare but powerful sidhe that survived their ancient race’s destruction. The metal golems were useful for combating many other mystic creatures, as well. It was so useful because it is very difficult to enchant something that inherently resists magic. Which is why Hekate had needed immense energy and the promise of dozens of sacrifices.
In this case, Hekate had powered it through future sacrifice – sworn but not yet delivered. And she had animated something other than iron: steel and alloy, plastic and electronics. The machines came alive like transformer robots, shifting and rising, taking humanoid shape from what was once junk and car and plane. The elementals looked at each other in surprise. Then, with a hydraulic whir, the unstoppable behemoths staggered forward, their steps surprisingly quiet despite their size.
Jinn was having a pretty good time. She was a zombie. It was creepy at first, getting used to the whole idea. But her role was simple. She just had to be clever enough to be a good zombie. That meant doing things like staggering forward and shooting her rifle. Her aim wasn’t that good, but it turns out it didn’t matter much. She hit a couple of guys, but she served better as a psychological threat. And they shot at her, a lot. Every shot she took was one less shot aimed at her real body, or at Nikki.
And occasionally, there’d be a huge burst of crimson-red magic. She blocked those with her body. So far it hadn’t been anything dangerous, like a mind zap or a soul-stealing spell. Just simple stuff like fire and lightning – stuff she couldn’t really feel.
She reloaded her rifle and shot some more, advancing on the rapidly-dwindling group of enforcers.
A double-sized team quick-marched into the hangar and spread wide, automatic rifles moving to track each threat. Slightly behind the forward crew, a trio of heavy weapons specialists trotted out and moved into position. Their oversized weapons were obviously flamethrowers of an ultra-modern design.
The spider-rats weren’t idle. They gathered together in an unstoppable wave, then swept toward the new foes…
And the flamethrowers were unleashed upon them. Searing cones of blistering fire burst out, engulfing the tide of rat-creatures. Ectoplasmic knots of spellwork struggled against withering flame, and the ectoplasm gave way. Rats were killed in the hundreds, as the very substance of their bodies was blasted into loose vapor.
Pixies moved in to harass – to pull hair, snag at clothes. But the cones of flame turned toward them, and they too vanished in the roiling flames.
With rising confidence, the flamethrower crew adopted a firmer stance. They pivoted toward Nikki.
Nikki couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it. The rats had been a weak defense, but to see them obliterated so easily… And now those frightful nozzles were lining up on her! Her human mind cringed in terror… but an older part of her laughed in delight.
“Calm yourself child.” Aunghadhail reassured Nikki then let out a gleeful laugh. Aloud, Nikki’s voice spoke with Aunghadhail’s tones, in delighted disbelief. “They’re attacking me with fire?”
Fey began to dance.
Human mystics generally acknowledge four elements – earth, air, fire, and water. These don’t reflect atomic composition so much at metaphysical intent. If quarks and atoms are the result of the creator’s will, the elemental forms are a step closer to the philosophy behind the act of creation. It is a viewpoint that exposes relationships and meanings that lie deeper than mere science.
The elements are balanced and opposing. Water opposes fire; they are eternal, philosophical enemies. Likewise air and earth are at odds – opposite ends of the spectrum.
The ancient elven mystics had seen deeper. As reflected in the five-fold court, the elves saw five elements. To earth, air, fire, and water, they added one more in the center of it all: wood. And unlike the balanced and opposing elements human mystics used, wood was friends with everything. It gave fuel to fire, it drank up but then returned water, purifying it in the process. It breathed air, cleansing it of poisons and dust, enriching it with oxygen and vital mystical essence. And most of all, wood was the lover of soil, building it, nurturing it, caressing it finer than any lover, and protecting that precious soil against the ravages of wind and water. Wood was the central element, tying all others together.
Or so the elves saw it, and they found ways to make nature bow to their viewpoint.
An elven mage didn’t so much force or compel the elements. A human elementalist would combat fire with water, setting opposites to fight. An elven mage, however, made love, not war. The mage essentially seduced the element, which then followed in blissful devotion.
And the strongest of all the elven mages had been the nine queens, one of whom was Aunghadhail, Paramount among the Nine, Daughter of The Burning Oak, Hidden Blossom of the Spring. The last title was one of her lesser-used ones (it caused her some embarrassment), but it perfectly named that part of herself exposed in the dance.
Aunghadhail had been a master (perhaps mistress would be more appropriate) of the grand dance known as “The Offering.” In it, the mage represents him or herself as a tree, as the living embodiment of the forest. And they dance to give themselves, as a confidant, admirer, seductress, and as a lover, to the elements. It was more seductive than a belly dance, hotter than the most suggestive salsa, and more gymnastic than either swing or break dancing.
Nikki had not previously been aware of these talents, but she felt a fire entering into her as she danced to seduce the flame.
As she danced, the flamethrower crew continued to hold down their triggers, but they did little else. Their eyes, and the eyes of every man there, were owned completely by the mesmerizing dance of the last living sidhe queen.
And when she was finished, every human watching was slack-jawed in amazement, every technological recording device had inexplicably but understandably melted, and every flame within sight was utterly enchanted and in love with her.
And so the Heavy Weapons Team fired its flamethrowers at Fey, and moments before she was incinerated, she began to move and dance. The flame roared out, wrapping around her, licking over her skin while she moved within. Far too soon for the mortal audience, the dance was over, and Fey stood there caressing her elemental love, as it flowed and licked over her limbs and hair. The flamethrowers had long since run out of fuel, but the flames remained.
“Be a dear, won’t you and take care of those pesky men?”
And the inferno, like an eager puppy, bounded after the Heavy Weapons Team. They screamed and ran for all they were worth, despite the sudden encumbrance they felt at the front of their trousers. The double-sized crew didn’t even get a chance to fire their RPG-7s, which was a shame for them, because that might have worked.
“Well, that was – interesting.” Jade managed keeping well away from a still flame-wreathed Nikki. “I know you’ve been told this before, but you’re really, really scary at times, you know?”
“The fire won’t harm you, or even singe you.” Nikki assured her friend with a laugh that held the pent up joys of millennia she felt being released as the flames danced around, with and for her. “I won’t let it.”
“I’ll take your word for it, if that’s okay.” Jade answered quietly and noticed that the hangar was silent except for the hiss and crackle of flame and her own breathing. “I already died once today and it was no fun. I just don’t want to tempt fate any more than I have, for the rest of the day, at least.”
“Beautiful.” Nikki crooned as she held out an arm clothed in flame that didn’t consume her and watched it play along her body. With a nod and smile to Jade she finished. “I understand, but I really won’t let the fire hurt you, or anyone else I care for.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.” Jade managed a little grin. “And it’s not that I don’t believe you, but I’d just as soon wait for some other day to test it, you know?”
“No problem, little sister.” Nikki gave her friend a beatific smile. “In time you’ll see. I would never hurt anyone I cared for deliberately, or allow anything I control to do so either. You take your time, just remember this when you think about the things I do.”
The flames reached out and licked at Jade for a brief moment, causing the much younger girl to scream in fear then gasp in wonder. For that brief instant she was clothed in fire, just like Nikki, and instead of the terrible burning she expected, there was only comfortable warmth and a feeling of being loved for her friend’s sake.
“Maybe I should work on that,” Nikki mused, dreamily. “It takes some work, but I could make any of you into friends of the flame – untouchable, invulnerable, able to dance and play with the fire.”
Jade was doing her best not to freak out. It had been a long day, even by Whateley standards. “Uh… that’s great Nikki, but remember to focus! We’re still trapped at the bottom of a Syndicate base, remember?”
Nikki’s eyes lost their dreamy look and she nodded. But her smile never faded. “The fire comes first, and I needed you to know you can trust me on this.”
“The base, Nikki…”
“It has already begun,” the sidhe answered back. “While you were distracted.”
Jade noticed that the hangar was brighter and warmer than it had been a few seconds before. A look around the area showed her over a dozen coherent fires just standing in place. It was as still as fire can manage, dancing and flickering even as it held to one location. The bonfire shapes gave the impression of waiting attentively. In Jade’s mind, clues from video games, animé, and other unlikely sources came together with a snap.
“Are those fire elementals?”
“Yup.” Nikki affirmed then turned her attention to the swaying, immobile pillars of fire. “Thank you for answering my call brothers and sisters of the flame.”
The pillars of flame seemed to bow in a surreal parody of people greeting a friend they both honored, and loved. Not to mention obeyed.
Jade watched, through Jann’s senses as well. The blinding color of magical red washed out any more delicate emotions she might have seen. But with human vision and perhaps other senses, the bonfire pillars conveyed both curiosity and adoration toward Nikki. Toward Jade they seemed to offer little more than warm regards, but at least it was a friendly feeling.
“This place.” Nikki waved to the hangar and beyond. “Is an abomination. It must be cleansed. Please do that for me, but do NOT venture above ground, even in pursuit of the minions fleeing from this place.”
One of the coherent pillars of fire, Jade could figure out no other way to describe it, moved forward and sent out a tendril of flame hotter than anything Jade had ever experienced or imagined to lightly caress her red headed friend.
“It is a joy to feel the presence of the sidhe again, dear one.” A hollow, crackling, but distinctly feminine voice filled Jade’s mind, but made no sound other than the roar of flame. “We will do as you ask. I beg that you don’t remain so distant as your kind have for longer than I care to remember.”
“We have been – in a hiatus.” Nikki answered with a smile as she reached forward to lightly caress a fire that would melt titanium, without flinching or showing the least sign of harm. “But we have returned at last. I won’t forget my loves in the fire, I never did. Now I can reach you again, and that gives me more joy than I can convey. Ceud Failte! (A hundred welcomes – Hail! In old Gaelic. Pronounced Ked Falty Tayha.)
“Ceud failte in return, O Great Queen.” The elemental answered. “We will do as you ask. This place will not survive the day.”
“Thank you.” Nikki stroked the thing again and Jade swore she could hear it purr. “Please leave two of your number to protect my friend here while we eradicate this cancer from Mother Gaia.”
“It is done, love.” The elemental answered simply as a pair of flames big enough to fill a small room moved to flank Jade. “Again, it is good to see the Sidhe walking Gaia’s skin once more.”
“It is good to know the old bonds still exist.” Nikki answered formally in a voice that Jade instantly recognized as her friend’s alter ego/companion/whatever? But the love in that answer destroyed any fear Jade may have felt. The confusion, it didn’t help, but who was complaining just now? Jade sure wasn’t.
All but the pair of flaming pillars designated as her protectors moved out of the hangar. If there wasn’t a convenient opening, they simply burned their way through the hardest armor Jade had ever seen. Without seeming effort.
“Wow.” Jade couldn’t come up with anything else to say, she was actually without words or a response to something for maybe the second time in her life. The first time had been when she discovered Jinn.
“Come, little love.” A soft, feminine and motherly voice entered her mind as a thin tendril of flame reached out to stroke her cheek. “We have work to do.”
At that stage, Jade didn’t even flinch as a flame hotter than anything Earth knew above the seething magma the crust floated on tickled her cheek. All she could do in response to that was giggle and choke out. “Stop that!”
“We love you, too.” The elemental flame answered with amusement clear in the tone of the response.
Captain Randall looked on in disbelief. “Please tell me we’re recording this! Please!”
Pierce seemed as stunned. “You mean the winged monkeys? The last one just dropped. Or do you mean the zombies? Or the fire elementals? Or maybe those transformers, sneaking up behind?” He checked his readouts. “We have a recording on the elf-dance. That is… we should have a recording. I’ve lost the cameras, and I’m showing a disk fault.”
Wilson couldn’t let himself blink. “You know, much as I’d like to stay and watch the end, I think it’s time to run for it.”
“And the men?” Pierce wondered.
“Fuck them. Let’s go!”
Randall didn’t reply.
“Captain?” Pierce asked. “There are pillars of fire melting through everything. They’re already up to level four. We’re going. Unless you plan to go down with the ship or something…”
Randall snapped out of his daze. “Run for it,” he ordered.
On the console, the count-down timer read: 2:17.
“Oops,” the captain said. “Almost forgot.”
He gave the security key another half turn, then removed it. The console now read, “Destruct sequence, locked in.”
“Okay, now we can go.”
“So long, fools!” Hekate paused to give the finger (two-handed style) to everyone left in the hangar. Behind her, a vortex formed and grew. It was like the drain swirl at the bottom of the bathtub, painted in nauseating phosphorescent colors of purple, green, and black. She paused to stare at the back of the hangar. “Kill them all!” Then she leapt into the vortex.
Just behind her, a pair of shadowy black hands stretched forward. They also raced into the dark vortex, grasping malignantly like some sort of metaphysical tumor.
Skybolt, hovering in mid-air, screamed. “I almost had her!”
At that moment, a figure loomed behind her, twenty feet tall. A hand formed of wings and ailerons slapped forward, slamming the girl like a basketball into the floor below.
“Elaine!” Cavalier rushed forward.
She lay in the bottom of a perfectly spherical crater, formed when her force-field impacted the ground. Inside she seemed unconscious, but unhurt.
“No!” Cavalier shouted. “No one else will hurt her! This I swear!”
Nikki boggled. “Where the hell does Hekate get that kind of power?”
Jade shrugged. “I thought it was impossible to get robots that size to be strong enough to walk.”
“They aren’t robots,” Nikki corrected. “They’re golems. They’re animated by magic, not physics.” Her eyes widened. “And they’re heading for us!”
Forming her first two fingers into a sign of calling, Nikki inserted those fingers in her mouth and blew a piercing whistle. Then she waved to the pair of guardian fire elementals.
“Hey guys!” Nikki called, waving an arm high. “Look!” She gestured at the approaching death machines.
The pillars of fire went utterly still for a moment. Then, with the speed of a flame leaping through the treetops, the fires skipped forward and collided with the gigantic metallic constructs.
Below, Jade turned to her friend. “Why didn’t you just, I don’t know, dispel them or something?”
Nikki shook her head. “They’re iron golems – resistant to magic. And the trees have no connection to metal. But like many elemental combinations, iron and fire will battle. Come on, this buys us time, but that’s all.” She turned and sprinted for Cavalier and Skybolt.
Jade scratched her head, wondering what trees had to do with anything. Then she turned to the three zombies she’d had time to create. “Uh… buy us some time?”
Beyond, the standing car and plane were both slapping at the flames. A moment later, their fuel tanks erupted, coating them and the deck around them with raging flames. They didn’t seem to notice. Meanwhile, the walking junkpile looked toward the girl and elf, then turned to the trio of zombies. It paused, turning first one way, then another. Finally it stomped forward… toward the zombies.
The zombies raised their rifles, firing everything they had.
A giant metal foot came down, crushing them into the floor.
“Ooooh.” Skybolt rubbed her head. “I must have overstrained my force field again. I’ll be useless for the rest of the day.”
“At least you’re still alive,” Cavalier said gently. “When that… thing struck you down – I feared you were dead!”
“Not dead, but powerless for a while.”
Nikki and Jade arrived in time to hear the last of that.
Behind them, two of the metal monstrosities were still wreathed in flame and beginning to glow and melt, but now they began to stagger toward the quartet.
“Well, there’s one good thing at least,” Jade commented.
Nikki raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?”
“At least things can’t get any worse.”
At that moment, loudspeakers crackled to life all over the base. “SELF-DESTRUCT SEQUENCE INITIATED. BASE DESTRUCTION IN 60 SECONDS! 60… 59…”
Nikki glared at the smaller girl.
“You had to say it, didn’t you?”
The remains of the heavy weapons team was not doing well. The pixies had been eliminated and only a handful of spider-rats remained, but there were still four extremely pissed super-heroes, molten metal monstrosities, and an animated junkheap playing “monster mash” with gun-toting zombies.
It was enough to make you question the direction of your entire career.
That was when the speakers came on with that alarming message: “BASE DESTRUCTION IN 60 SECONDS!”
The enforcers broke. They didn’t look at each other, or carefully gauge the reactions of their fellows. Each and every one of them simply dropped their weapons and fled in a mad scramble for the exit. The completely forgot what discipline they knew and sprinted like broken men desperate for a way out of this deathtrap.
Nikki wasn’t watching the approaching elementals, she was staring at the panicked enforcers.
“I’m thinking that isn’t a good sign.”
Overhead, the speakers were still blaring out the self-destruct countdown: “58… 57…”
“What is it Jade?”
“Shouldn’t you be preparing to teleport us out or something?”
“Where did you ever get the idea that I could teleport people?”
The airplane golem was beginning to gather speed.
“Well… Dr. Strange can do it!”
“I am not Dr. Stephen Fucking Strange!” The gravity of the situation was bearing down on her like so many tons of animated jet aircraft. “Run!”
Cavalier helped Skybolt to her feet, Nikki and Jade helped both of them, and all four of them began to sprint.
“Damn!” Jade panted. “I really wish I had invented a jetpack!”
Something about that bothered Nikki. It bothered her a lot.
“We could follow the enforcers,” Cavalier suggested.
“NO,” Skybolt insisted. “There is no time. We are five levels down – they’ll jam the stairways. If I had my powers, I could fly some of us out.”
“That’s it!” Nikki yelled. “This is a hangar! That’s a jet! There’s got to be a runway to the surface!”
“There,” Cavalier realized. “In the center of the back wall! But how do we open it? Can one of you blast it open?”
“I’m not sure,” Nikki said. “I’m pretty low on power…”
“Don’t look at me,” Jade panted. “I’m not some bolt-lobbing powerhouse.”
Skybolt just wept. “Oh! If only…”
The metal monstrosity was gaining on them.
“There!” Jade shouted.
She ran off to the side, gathering a dozen dropped RPG-7s. “Look what they dropped! We can shoot the robots!”
“I told you,” Nikki huffed through her sprint, “they’re not robots! Those won’t do any good!”
“Ooookay.” Jade frowned, then snagged up a piece of tarp that had covered a rack of maintenance equipment.
“Nikki, cast your magic carpet spell!”
“Just cast the damn spell!”
Nikki waggled her fingers and Jade threw the tarp into the air ahead of them. Miraculously, it settled into a flat shape. It seemed that an invisible disk, six feet in diameter, rode underneath the tarp and held it up, like a levitating hockey puck on an air hockey table.
“Jump on,” Jade shouted, leaping onto the levitating tarp-disk.
Nikki recognized it and jumped on. Immediately, her hair began to whip around in a powerful wind that only she could feel.
“It’s not fast enough!” Cavalier yelled. “Hold on!”
First he threw Skybolt on board, then he moved to the rear and began pushing. He glowed briefly and his legs accelerated, until he was running as fast as a car on the highway, pushing them ahead of him.
Nikki finished her conjurations. “Jump aboard!”
“No, you need more speed!”
“That’s what the cyclone is for!”
But as the wind rose, Cavalier yelped and jumped aboard the levitating disk.
Around them, the air began to spin like a horizontal tornado, with the levitating disk carried faster and faster in the eye of the vortex. It was like a ducted turbine, with them in the calm middle of the highly visibly vortex of gray wind and dust. Far behind, sensing another elemental foe, the jet and car figures began to pound forward at ever-increasing speeds.
“Grab hold,” Nikki advised. “I’ve never actually tried to steer one of these things!”
At first, they were easily outdistancing the heavy golems, as they circled around the perimeter of the hangar. Then speed began to drop.
“I got the pixies back!” Jade announced, incongruously. She slammed her hand down into the tarp, and they seemed to accelerate slightly. “So tired. I just want to hold on and watch.”
“This is the tricky part,” Nikki warned them.
Skybolt began to laugh at that, though it had more than a touch of hysteria.
They were accelerating in a straight line run toward the closed hangar door. Nikki, the vortex, and the entire “magic carpet” were a bare six feet ahead of the entire trio of golems. Two of them were now molten golems.
“Nikki…” Jade spoke with more than a tinge of nervousness. “The hatch is closed, you know. And it looks like it’s as thick as that blast door back there…”
“NOW!” the sidhe queen shouted.
Instantly, the vortex pivoted with the agility of a hummingbird. It was still horizontal, but now it pressed from the side (and slightly from in front). They approached the hangar door only to slow… and rocket off to the left!
The massive golems were not so agile. They tried to turn… and failed. As one, the three giant metal constructions smashed face first into the huge hatchway.
There was a tremendous boom, loud enough to carry through the entire base and beyond – and the hangar door flew open.
“Now, GO!” Nikki yelled. “FULL SPEED!”
Pivoting again, the vortex swung around and rocketed them forward through the new opening. The previously slow speed was revealed as a ruse, to keep the metal golems close behind. With the vortex unleashed, they rocketed forward.
Seeming to pace them, the voice from the speakers continued the countdown, booming through the jetway. And the tunnel seemed to stretch on forever! Nikki was concentrating as Jade had never seen from her before, and the walls seemed to blur past them. Suddenly, another hatch loomed, painted in yellow-and-black diagonal stripes. The vortex reversed, pulling them to a whiplash stop.
“Don’t look at me,” Jade said. “I’m wiped.”
Cavalier hopped off. First he approached a control panel, but spotting a side access door, he summoned his glowing sword and slashed through the deadbolt, then kicked it open.
“It’s tight, but…”
The fling carpet pivoted and stretched, tipping up on one side but miraculously shifting in contour to hold everyone in place. On the far side, it leveled out once more, and they resumed their vortex-driven rocket ride.
The far side revealed a freeway underpass, closed off with orange warning signs. It appeared to be an abandoned construction project.
“More speed!” Nikki urged.
As they exited into the open city air, the disk veered to the side.
Distantly, far behind them, a voice could be heard: “2… 1… ZERO!”
At that moment, the entire freeway underpass erupted in a monumental explosion. Flame erupted forward, like a rocket exhaust, shooting through the space they had occupied, moments before.
Two seconds later, they were nearly deafened by a tremendous boom. To the north, a gray cloud rose in the air.
“The Heklin Insurance building,” Cavalier said quietly. “May God have mercy on their souls, for I would certainly not.”
Jade was happily devouring her French fries as the Reilly family gathered close around the table at a local Dairy Queen. When no one else was looking, she showed her purse to Nikki. Inside were more than a dozen RPG-7s.
“I kept ‘em! They’re for Stephen!” Jade confided gleefully. “A present he’s bound to like! As a thank you for the purse, you know?”
Nikki blanched and was about to reply, when her mother turned her attention toward them.
“So…” Mrs. Reilly began, “did your ‘Christmas Elf’ project go well?”
“Uh…” Nikki tried desperately to figure out how to explain this one. While sitting in a Dairy Queen. Covered in soot, battered and bruised. Their table was isolated, but still…
“Well…” she finally began “I wouldn’t say it went well, exactly. I doubt I’ll be going back to that agent. At least, not of my own free will.” The last part was muttered under her breath.
“I couldn’t help noticing the soot and burn marks around you,” her mother mentioned casually. “Or the smell of strange chemicals. Or your two new ‘friends’, whom you immediately hustled into the arms of a waiting super-hero group. Is there perhaps something you’d like to tell me?”
“I… that is… well…”
Jade pulled open her vest, showing her sliced, blood-spattered shirt. “I got killed! They shoved the sword right in here! Wham! And then I had to lay there and I thought my eyes were going to dry out or something!”
Mother and brother blinked at that.
“You got killed?” Troy asked in disbelief.
“Uh huh. Well, I got better.”
“And now you’re sitting here eating French fries.”
“You bet! Nothing takes it out of you like dying. I’d tell you about the zombies, but it’s mealtime, you know? Hey, I really want to thank you guys. These milkshakes are great!”
Mrs. Reilly turned to her beautiful daughter. “And you, honey? If your friend had to die, what did they do to you?”
Nikki decided that the best policy was simply to admit the truth. She took a deep breath and tried to get through it as fast as possible. “Well, I was captured by an evil witch who hates me for my beauty. She trapped me in a magic circle and was going to cast a spell on me, to make me her thrall. But Jade came back to life after being killed and created… zombies, I guess you’d call them, and freed me. The witch called on her back-up, which was a bunch of enforcer guys from The Syndicate, with flame throwers and guns and rockets (actually RPG-7s). We had a big magical battle and escaped on a flying carpet. Right after that their base self-destructed – it was hidden under some insurance building.”
“What about your psycho friends?” Troy asked. “And the super-heroes?”
“Oh. That was Cavalier and Skybolt. They’re from Whateley, and I met them once or twice, but can’t say I really know them. It was all a bit much for them. I’m guessing they’ll go back to Whateley, but I’m not really sure.”
Nikki’s mother leaned in toward her daughter. “Honey, you’re a beautiful, popular girl. That’s going to put you in a position that few other people will experience. These agents and directors may try to force you to do too much in a single day of shooting. You have to know your own limits! Just say no! Tell them that you know your limits. Even if you’re trying to cram in some TV show or music video or whatever today’s shoot was, don’t be afraid to stretch things out to the next day. Put your foot down!”
Nikki stared back at her mother, not quite understanding.
Jade was the first to snicker. “Yeah, Nikki. You’re really going to have to learn to be a little more forceful!”
“And besides that,” Lucy Reilly announced, dropping her napkin into her lap, “I’m not at all sure that I approve what they put on TV these days. Christmas used to be about peace, love, and giving, not about,” she shot a glance at Jade, and hissed the word, “zombies!”
All Nikki could think about was the thrall spell, and how close she’d come to losing her freedom and will entirely. And after the entire event, her mother thought she was talking about a TV show? She began to laugh. At first it was just a giggle, but it turned into a full blown howling laugh, and she cried through every bit of it.
Mrs. Reilly was dumbfounded. “Was it something I said?”
Hekate was in tears, shaking in terror.
“You didn’t see! It got him, and less than a minute later the front of his face just turned to rot! Right there on the plane! People with cell phones must have alerted the press, because we were practically mobbed by cameras as he tried to get off the plane. He used to be handsome, a good looking guy. Now his face looks like a skull! And the way his hair is falling out – even his eyebrows! What in God’s name makes your eyebrows fall out?”
The old man leaned forward. “And this frightens you because…?”
“He did nothing! He lied about a contract. That’s all. That’s nothing compared to what I’ve done! What I have yet to do. I promised lives to the elementals – I swore oaths! But she invoked the rule of three… If Solicitor is paying that much, what will happen to me?”
“You actually saw the black hand take Solicitor?”
“Yes!” she shouted back, nearly insane with worry. “How else could I have raised my own shield in time? But it’s still there, tapping, rapping, knocking at my shield, waiting to get in. Waiting to do even worse to me!”
The elderly man reached down to something at his belt, and fiddled or manipulated something for a brief period.
“There,” he soothed. “That should provide you some relief. So long as you’re here with me, you will be free of the attentions of the black hand. So long as you do exactly as I say…”
And Charles Picton Darrow smiled.
Nikki was resting in her bed, Jade was chattering happily on the phone to a friend. Lucy Reilly sat down to relax and enjoy the evening news. She always enjoyed the light-hearted banter of channel seven’s two anchors.
“…formerly one of the hottest agents in Hollywood. But look at this shot of him leaving the plane!”
“Holy nose-job, Batman! Wow, what do you think, a little too much blow, maybe?”
“He must have put his entire salary up his nose! Kids, let this be a lesson: don’t do drugs!”
“Given the extreme suspicion of excessive cocaine usage—“
“With evidence, I’d say!”
“—Solicitor’s clients are deserting him in droves. From a spot as one of Hollywood’s top agents, plummeting down to the trash heap, all in less than six hours.”
“That’s gotta hurt.”
“In local news, the Heklin Insurance building was blown up today.”
“You heard me, blown up. Sky high. There’s nothing left but a giant hole in the ground. Apparently there were a lot more basements than what was recorded on city plans, and someone was mixing some very dangerous chemicals down there.”
“You are putting me on.”
“It’s true! Look at the pictures from our Roving Seven sky-cam!”
“Wow! What does Heklin’s parent company say?”
“It doesn’t! Turns out it doesn’t even exist!”
“You don’t say.”
“And the police have gone strangely silent. Our Unexploited Mysteries camera crew has scoured our usual hidden sources as well as word on the street, to bring you these unsubstantiated rumors!”
“—so it was, like, an alien base—”
“—fireball a hundred feet high! I could see it from my porch!”
“—zombies, I tell ya! And those spider-rat things, running everywhere. That’s what my sources told me.”
“—natural settling of the earth’s crust, not an earthquake but a settling—”
“—witches and giants, metal giants, burning metal giants with fire everywhere!”
“—and then these kids come zooming out on a magic carpet!”
Not at all calmed, Lucy Reilly found herself on her feet. “Nikkiiiii! Nichole Susanne Reilly!”