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Disclaimer

This is a work of fiction. There should be no way that these characters are like anyone else, but if that isn’t the case, it has definitely been unintentional. The pictures used are those of Ziyi Zhang, used without express permission. Quotes from the Tao Te Ching are from the Stephen Mitchell translation. Also, if you happen to find that your life is represented in these pages, I’ll be impressed.

Five Elements Dancing

By Heather O’Malley

assisted by the rest of the Whatley Gang

Whatley Academy Universe

All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. When male and female combine, all things achieve harmony. - Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42

Book of the Earth
Monday, 8 January 2007

The boots clicked on the tile floor loudly, drawing attention to the incongruous figure walking towards Administration, which was certainly something for this school. He was tall, at least over six feet with short cropped brown hair, wearing tight fitting jeans and a white t-shirt despite the weather, a shirt that seemed to be cloth poured over his muscular body. The red mala of bumpy red seeds was a bit strange but it made him look even more impressive if that were even possible. His eyes seemed iridescent and he smiled with half his mouth. He spoke with a bit of an accent which she couldn’t place but sounded kind of sexy, kind of Texas, kind of British. “Mornin’ darlin’, I need to see the Principal.”

The secretary nodded, as words initially failed her and she picked up her phone and called Ms. Carson. The man just stood there calmly, waiting, as if nothing in the world bothered him while the secretary spoke briefly with the Headmistress. Nothing probably did bother him as he had exemplar stamped all over him. “Uhm…sir? Ms. Carson will see you now.”

He smiled at her again and headed back, as if he knew the way to the office by heart. His gait was strong but also graceful, made the secretary think of some sort of primal cat or something. The man was hot and the way the jeans cupped his... A call pulled her back to her work and away from her fantasies. She would be dreaming of him tonight to be sure and probably for several nights to come.

As he passed through the cubicle jungle towards the Headmistress’ office, a voice called out to him in surprise, “Dyffud? What are you doing here?”

The man stopped and turned, looking down at the speaker, his smile spreading to his whole face, which made him look younger. “Amelia? Wow, I had wondered what had happened to you after that Palm thing. So you work here now?”

The man hefted Ms. Hartford in the air easily and gave her a big hug. Other staff members were trying to figure things out as she hugged him back. Was this really Hardass smiling and looking happy? Once she was set back down on the ground she asked, “What are you doing here? I thought you were doing your thing in Australia?”

Dyffud chuckled warmly, “I haven’t been Down Under in seven years Melli. I was working in Africa for a bit recently before I got a call to come back here. So here I am.”

“Africa?” The surprise was clear.

“Yep. I love the people and I picked up a few more languages. Let me tell you, sunrise over Kilimanjaro is stunning. Too bad there isn’t a live web feed.”

Amelia playfully punched him in the arm. He didn’t feel the blow but pretended to feel it to be playful. He looked pained while Hartford said, “Jerk.”

“Yeah, yeah… love you too Melli.” teased Dyffud. “Is Carson in?”

“Yes. Go on in. How about afterwards we catch up?” Ms. Hartford smiled softly. “I mean, I haven’t actually seen you in what, a decade?”

“About. I think it was at your graduation for your Ph.D.. We should get together. I think that whould be fun. Take care Melli.” With one more hug for the road, he turned and knocked on the door of the Headmistress’ office. He gave Amelia one last smile before he entered the office.

Ms. Hartford smiled and went back to her desk and her work. James was a bit surprised as he had never seen that expression on her face before. She looked truly happy and it had transformed her face. She actually looked attractive and that creeped him out. He managed to look away before she caught his mouth-agape stare. It wouldn’t exactly be a good thing getting her angry with him again. She really could make his life hell.

Ms. Carson looked up from her never-ending pile of paperwork as the man entered her office. She looked up and then blinked a few times in surprise. The shock she was feeling at seeing him was evident and he smirked at her response. He was clearly enjoying this and it bugged her a little. It wasn’t often that people really were able to surprise her, but he was one of the few ones who could on a regular basis. Of course, now she had a team that did that to her, but it didn’t matter at the moment. “Dyffud? Dyffud Harraz? What the…?”

“Hey there Ms. C. I got a few phone calls from some of your staff to get here and so here I am. Ito Sensei called and so did this Delarose guy who said he was in charge of Security. So, I decided to drop by the old alma mater and see what was up. Since I was here, I of course came by to say Hi. Hi.” Dyffud took a seat across from her, smiling broadly.

“You’ve been asked to come here by both Ito and Delarose? Okay. I’ll have to have a talk to those two for not informing me on such things but it’s good to see you again Dyffud. So, how have you been?” Ms. Carson regained her composure quickly, since she had faced worse surprises in her life, especially this year.

“Not too bad over all. I’ve been busy studying and the like. You know, the usual. I have now traveled on every continent, so that was cool. I almost have all the countries as well, just missing a double handful.” He shrugged. “I heard through the grapevine that there has been some crazy things happening here this year, so I wanted to lend a hand for a bit, if you think it is necessary. You know that this school is my only home and I would do anything to protect it.” He shrugged again, as if slightly embarrassed to be admitting that.

“Thank you Dyffud, that would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. Between monsters and invasions and over the top students and black magic, this has been a really horrible school year and it isn’t even halfway done. I’m just hoping that the second half of the year goes better than the first but I’m not holding my breath.”

“You know Ms. C, I will have no problem staying a while and lending a hand. It would be my pleasure. You guys helped me and now it seems that I can return the favor. Oh, can I get a room to stay in while I’m here? This isn’t really camping weather.” Dyffud seemed pleased to be back.

“Not a problem. Amelia can get you settled. Drop by at any time. It is great to see you again Dyffud.” Ms. Carson’s voice was warm, as Dyffud had been one of her favorite students.

“You too Ms. C, you too.”

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Chou was relaxing on her bed, staring at the ceiling after Ayla and Vox had gotten up. The Christmas break had been insane. Fighting the Knights of Purity? That had been a bit of a nightmare. True she did have the skill to fight them, especially when backed by Toni, but weren’t the Knights of Purity supposed to be the good guys? She had idolized them when she was growing up in Knoxville and then she fought them? Told Toni to break someone’s leg? What the hell was wrong with her? It was a bit confusing but at least they had managed to save that kid. That made it all worth it… right?

She blushed when she thought about how she had spent her New Year. Molly and she had told Molly’s parents that they were dating. They had taken it far better than Chou would have ever imagined, especially when they saw the ring that Chou had gotten her. The two parents could see that Molly and she were serious and cautioned them, for Molly’s safety. But the upside of that meant that Molly had been her New Years kiss and more. She had liked that and was looking forward to many more kisses from her.

The down side to things was that Molly wasn’t yet sure what she thought about Chou liking Dorjee. The Tibetan boy had gotten under her skin in a good way and all it served to do was complicate something already complicated. All Chou really knew is that when in meditation, she felt a bit better when either of them came up in the random thoughts, Molly more so than Dorjee.

She knew that Molly was her soulmate and that this thing with Dorjee made little sense in the grand scheme but she had no idea what to do. Nothing in her life so far had prepared her for something like this and she didn’t know who to turn to for advice on this. Her friends would only encourage things and that wouldn’t be a help. Becca wasn’t quite into anything like that, so what good would she be? Chou felt alone on this and it worried her.

Then there was the fun with trying to deal with all the insane crap that was going on around her: Jade and her adventures in babysitting, Ayla had been fighting something from the great beyond, Hekate trying to enslave Fey and kill Jade, Tennyo trying to save her family from a bunch of lunatic. It seemed as if everyone had a completely screwed up holiday and that didn’t help either. Life was back to normal she figured, and was depressed because this actually was what normal consisted of at this point in her life.

She got her school stuff ready and headed off to the shower once Ayla was done. No need to get ogled too much, though it was actually becoming background noise. It amazed her that being stared at by a boy would become something that was a non-issue to her. Had she accepted this body that much?

She had her form for winter semester classes and one good sized block was already filled in. That was a bit intimidating and opened up all sorts of questions about what that block would entail. That left some time in the morning and some time in the afternoon for other classes. She looked over things. If she took team combat with the others that left space for one course, the weapons course she had been told would be good for her. Between the course everyone on TK had agreed to take, combined with the special tutor, she really didn’t have much in the way of options. There was even a notation saying something to the effect that she might be pulled from her other classes for her tutor. Oh joy. Why was she even bothering to fill the stupid thing out?

Breakfast was its usual fun, especially with Ayla going all freaky and obsessive compulsive with the schedule. She confessed about her tutor and then just focused on what was going to happen next. She was getting better at letting go of things that she couldn’t change. She wanted to head over to the Library after this to have some alone time with Molly but then she might need to talk to Dorjee as well. She had a sinking feeling that she might need to introduce Dorjee to Molly and that really didn’t appeal to her in the least. That fight would be ugly.

Everyone at the table stared at Jade when she gave her supervillain laugh. It was unnerving and scared everyone there. It had come out of nowhere, and Jade’s eyes gleamed with an evil light. What was the psychotic munchkin up to now?

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“Can we go to the Library now?” asked Molly, as they exited Crystal Hall.

“I suppose,” replied Chou a bit disheartened. There was something they needed to talk about and Molly was doing her best to avoid it.

Molly looked at her funny. “You suppose? You don’t like studying with me?”

“That’s not what I said and you know it. Gah!” Chou shook her head. “How about your room? Ayla may have someone over and I need to talk to you and not just Talk to you.”

“Is this about that Dragon boy?” There was a slight edge to Molly’s voice and Chou could see the small signs of tension within Molly, the slight narrowing of the eyes, the change in the way she stood.

Chou nodded. This topic really had waited long enough, and the two of them really had to come to some sort of conclusion on the issue. She had hoped that they could have had this settled before they got here, but apparently that was not going to be the case. She said plaintively, “Molly, we need to talk about this.”

“And we didn’t talk enough over the break?” Molly tensed even more and it was obvious to Chou through her girlfriend’s body language and the tone of her voice that she was getting pissed. Her hands were clenched slightly and she stood much more stiffly than she normally did.

Chou shrugged. They hadn’t really talked about him at all. Molly seemed like she wanted to believe that the whole situation with Dorjee didn’t exist.

Molly sighed, trying to release the tension she was feeling. “What do you want me to say? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with things as they are.”

Chou nodded sadly. That much she had already gathered. It was kind of surprising how possessive Molly was of her. “I know Molly. Do you honestly think I am comfortable with all of this? You know everything there is to know about me, so why would I like this?”

Molly stood there, clearly thinking things over. “Fine. We’ll go to my room. Hopefully my new roommate isn’t there and we can talk.”

They walked towards Dickinson, keeping out of the way of a few other students who were headed who knows where. The two of them covered the distance in silence, feeling awkward and unsure what to do or say at the moment. This one topic loomed like a wave, poised to crash over them and to tear them apart.

It was clear to any outside observer, that there was something upsetting both of the girls but no one would be able to figure out what it was. That was the only comforting thing about this whole mess. Somehow, they had managed to hide things from a lot of people.

Once they entered the building, they headed towards her room, with Molly saying hello to several other girls along the way. As they neared Molly’s room, Molly could spot that the door was open. She growled, pissed off by this as it meant that someone had broken into her room. As Molly stormed towards the room with Chou in her wake, Jadis and a few other female Bad Seeds walked out of the room and spotted them. Both groups stopped suddenly, and Chou’s hand moved towards the invisible handle of Destiny’s Wave on her back. Molly stalked closer to the Bad Seeds, her irritation coming off her in waves. Right now, it didn’t matter that She-Beast would be able to stomp all over her. “What the hell are you doing in my room?”

Jadis smiled, the same kind of knowing smile that Ayla got whenever he knew something everyone else didn’t. “Relax, Gateway. We’re not trying to steal your stuff or place any traps in there. All we’re doing is helping your new roommate move in.”

Molly narrowed her eyes, her fists tightening, and her irritation with the whole Dorjee thing adding fuel to this fire. She asked suspiciously, “What new roommate?”

Jadis chuckled, amused at the little girl who was acting so ferociously. Granted her backup was lethal enough to take out Nex himself, but the girl herself was not. So long as Bladedancer stayed out of it, it would be no contest. However, she was not here to start a fight but to help a friend. “Why not go in and find out yourself?”

Molly stormed into her room to find this girl looking around the room worriedly, as if unsure where to put anything. She had a small dragon over her shoulders and seemed to be at a loss for words. Her long hair seemed to be mostly over one shoulder. Molly stopped in her tracks and her anger vanished utterly in her surprise. “Lindsey?”

The girl jumped some and turned, spotting her new roommate standing there. The relieved smile Lindsey gave her was quite evident. “Hi Molly. I’ve been assigned as your new roommate.”

Pern the dragon lifted his head and looked over at the girl with the mousy brown hair in a somewhat interested manner. His master’s last roommate had not been kind to him and he had taken steps to correct that. That was the big reason for Lindsey needing a new roommate now. Pern knew when and how to strike to cause the most terror, but perhaps his leaping out at her from her underwear drawer might have been too much.

Molly was now fighting two powerful but competing urges inside herself. One was to remain pissed off over some new girl in her room even though she knew her and liked her. The other was to be entranced by the tiny dragon in front of her that she never got to see enough of. It was so adorable and made the cutest sounds when scratched on the head. Her anger towards the other girl’s presence melted away as the power of cute compelled her to blurt out, “He’s so cute.”

Chou rolled her eyes as Molly squealed excitedly. Sometimes it was hard to remember why she loved this girl. It was getting far, far too girly for her right now. Jade would love it.

Lindsey seemed pleased by the response. “Thank you. Hey…does this mean I get to see your panther with wings?”

Molly nodded. “Yeah. His name is Rythax, remember?”

“Can I see him soon?”

“Sure. You’re my roommate after all.”

“Yeah. Oh…where should I put my stuff? I didn’t know which things were yours so I didn’t mess with anything else. I didn’t want us to start off on the wrong foot.”

Molly began to get busy with helping Lindsey put things away, the two of them chattering incessantly. “Oh those fairy posters are so cute. We need to get them up.”

“Do you have any idea where I can put my stuffed animals?”

Molly nodded and showed her roommate a perfect spot for them.

Chou helped some but avoided being dragged into the conversation on decoration by a lot of non-answers to questions meant to drag her in. Chou was more of a fan of swords and stuff, some of the Chinese brush paintings and such were really cool as well. She wasn’t all that sure on decorating almost exclusively with dragons, unicorns, faeries, rainbows and the like. Something about that seemed wrong, as if someone had decided to let Jade loose on a cute spree. Alex might have been turned into a girl but she wasn’t that girly. That was one of the few truths keeping her sane throughout this whole insane mess.

“Oh I really like that rainbow transparency with the Pegasus on it. We should put it on the window.”

“That would be great. Oh do you like my sheets?”

“They are really nice. I didn’t know you could get sheets like that.”

Chou left after a little while, since Molly was busy bonding with her new roommate and not at all focused on their previous conversation. She went back to her room and did some reading before dinner, flipping through the Tao Te Ching. She needed to talk to Molly more about this whole Dorjee thing but Molly kept avoiding the topic and it was making her crazy. That wasn’t helping her stress levels any. She just wanted the two of them to come to a resolution. Was that really such a bad thing?

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As Chou got up to get seconds from dinner, Dorjee came up next to her in the line, smiling happily. “Hello Chou. How was your holiday?”

The girl groaned internally, aware that this conversation was going to cost her extra grief. She thought back over the events of the past couple of weeks. It certainly had been pretty crazy. Granted it was not like Ayla’s or Fey’s or even Tennyo’s, but it was still over the top, at least for her. “Well, I guess it was eventful.”

“That sounds nice. Well, I wanted to see if we could hang out some pretty soon. I did miss you over the break.” His smile was nice and lit up his face.

Chou blushed and looked down at her tray. Why did everything have to be so hard? “I… I missed you too.”

“Maybe we can talk some more a little later?” he asked hopefully.

“I’d like that,” replied Chou, her eyes looking down. She was worried about what she would do if she looked into his eyes.

He wandered away with his own food and Chou got a refill of the vegetarian spaghetti that was available. She came back to the table and noticed that Molly was sort of glaring at her, irritated. This made Chou blush again, this time it was tinged with a little shame. She sat down and apologized to her girlfriend immediately. Molly just turned away.

Chou wasn’t really hungry any more, her stomach getting all tangled in knots, even though the spaghetti with peppers and mushrooms in brown butter was great. She sipped some of her water and sighed unhappily. She needed to find some sort of way to fix this mess and she had no ideas and no clues for what to do.

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The various instructors took their seats and sipped their tea. The break had been healing for many, allowing them to forget their idiotic and bothersome students, at least for a little while. It worried several of them that their stress levels were so high when the school year was not even halfway done. Since Halloween, a lot of people were still dealing with being shell-shocked by the attack, and that effected how the kids fought, which led to an increase of injuries.

They were again at Sensei Ito’s house, sitting in their usual seats. The only new face at the meeting was Dyffud Harraz, still in his jeans and a t-shirt. He was happily sipping rooibos, a tea blend he had picked up in Africa that was slowly spreading to the States.

Sensei Ito cleared his voice and began, “I wanted to start with the weapons class. It seems as if a nice chunk of our favorite freshmen have signed up along with our usual students.”

“Do you have them broken down by instructor yet?” asked Wong Ah Lam.

“Not yet. The first problem child I want to talk about is Chou Lee. Her participation in the class will be sketchy, as she will be working with Dyffud a great deal.”

Fitzgibbon frowned at the name. Ito smiled slightly and said, “Chet, you are not going to have to deal with her at all. I figured Genevive would be the best at the moment, despite the differences in weapon style.”

“She is the one we talked about before? Oui?” asked the thin French woman.

Wong Ah Lam answered. “Yes. That she is the Handmaid of the Tao cannot really be contested at this point. With the arrival of Miss Stone and visits by some of the Immortals, I think it is painfully clear.”

Beaumont nodded, “You are probably correct and her form is a big jump forward from when we first saw her. She is amazing. Almost one of the best swordswomen at the school.”

“Genevive, if you can take her and work with her on more than forms, more combat practice, that would be good.” asked Ito. “There are several people that it would be good for her to fight, such as Nightbane and Swordmaiden. It would be good for them as well.”

“Y’all want an idea?” added Dyffud.

All eyes turned to him. “From what I got from Ito Sensei and Delarose what Miss Lee needs is to get centered into herself first. The videos you showed me really speak of a person fighting against themselves. Having her spar a lot and doing different things that she can’t make sense of, combined with what I have in store for her should accomplish what you were looking for.”

“Oh, what’s that?” asked Gunny Bardue.

“A centered person who wields immense power as opposed to someone is a bit off. Think of it as combat psychotherapy.” Dyffud grinned wickedly at the assorted combat instructors and they all began chuckling.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Chou was having trouble keeping from giggling. The Shoulder Angels that Jade had made that were tormenting Ayla were absolutely hysterical. Between Jade’s comments and then, when Ayla took out the speaking discs, those moments were priceless.

Afterwards, all of Team Kimba was heading over to the Team Combat class. Chou had put on the Robe of Midnight, so everybody would be ready in their costumes. Destiny’s Wave was slung across her back and invisible and she had her bag as well. She was worried about the class and was afraid that her nervousness would show. Sure they had fought as a team before, on several occasions but she felt like this would be different.

Lancer was again in leader mode, doing a check to ensure that everyone had their Spots and they were on, as communication was an important thing. They got to the class and were redirected to a Briefing Room. Chou just wanted her stomach to stop from churning nervously. Getting there and seeing S.T.A.R. League Junior was a nice thing. Chou for one was at least glad to see some friendly faces.

Jade was excited to see the Power Cats, but then again the small Japanese girl was a bit excitable normally. The team took up seats behind Wallflower and her crew, staying together as a team, since that was the general idea of the course. The chatter was light and speculative. The team mostly stared when the team of Juniors came into the room.

Chou was wondering if they would have to fight these other teams as part of their training, and that did make her a bit more nervous. She centered her breathing and was calm when the Drill Sergeant and Sam came into the room. The Drill Sergeant began talking and Chou was amazed to discover that Gunny Bardue had the same last name as Eldritch. That was really interesting as they looked nothing alike, but then again who the hell knew what she looked like before things changed. This mutant thing was kind of scary when you really sat down to think about it.

Ayla did not look very pleased when the Vindicators came into the briefing room. From there things got even more screwed up when Bardue and Sam started talking about the recent class additions. Chou rolled her eyes. This sort of crap was just irritating. It seemed more like those adds were in response to their signing up rather than anything else. That was just what Team Kimba needed, two other teams at least looking for a chance to challenge them.

Thankfully, Lancer had been working out the basics of tactics for TK, and that was going to help in the long run. The Spots were also going to be a godsend in this, as maybe they would work in such a way to keep their communication safe. Chou thought, ‘Maybe we aren’t as screwed as I had thought. We seem to at least have done some basic prep work. Does that put us a step ahead?’

At that point, things went south again. The shoulder puppets on Ayla attracted unwanted attention. Suddenly, Admiral Everheart loomed over Ayla and growled out, “Phase?”

“Yes ma’am?” Ayla sounded calm but Chou had to wonder how much of that was an act.

“Would you care to explain why you’re sitting there with a pair of goddamn SHOULDER PUPPETS?!?!”

“What? Oh crap!” Phase swiped at them andnothing happened to them. Chou’s roomie looked a touch disconcerted and said by way of explanation, “Sorry, but I’m being pranked.”

The shoulder angel piped up, “No, she’s not! She needs us to correct her moral compass!”

The shoulder devil sort-of-agreed, “Yeah, she’s such a goody-goody she needs me around to keep her off the straight and narrow.”

“You just stop right there, I’m here to keep you from leading her astray!”

“Shuddup, pigeon-wings.”

“That’s not nice!”

“And what did you expect from me, halo-head? A freakin’ Catholic mass?”

Ayla muttered, “Sorry, Admiral. If you can get rid of them, I’d appreciate it.”

The shoulder devil said, “Atta girl, get some Exemplar to do your dirty work. Good thinking.”

Everheart glared ferociously at that and it made other people shrink back.

Ayla muttered unhappily, “Jade, you’re so gonna pay for this.”

Bardue growled, “Well, since Phase knows so much about this material that she can play with puppets, we’ll just give Team Kimba the last position in today’s little exercise.”

Chou hung her head. They were screwed.

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“Welcome to Combat Movement. This class deals with moving safely in a combat environment. If you are not a fighter type, this class will be of great assistance to your survival. You will learn several things, such as reading the flow of combat, reading structural integrity of buildings and other structures by sight and other senses, understanding the effects of weather and the movement skills of Parkour. Are there any questions as to what we are going to be covering?” asked Mister Anderson, standing up by the whiteboard.

The class of eight just sat there, interested in what was going to be said. Molly had her laptop ready to take down notes. This and the class on Summoning were the only things on her schedule for Winter Semester and both of them were things she needed, based off of her combat final. She needed to move better and she needed to have better control of her power.

“Very well. The first thing we are going to cover is the nature of movement in combat. Does any one have an idea of what that is?”

Molly recalled several things she had heard the various Kimba girls mention, as well as comments Mr. Anderson had mentioned in class. She raised her hand tentatively and answered when he indicated her. “Movement equals survival?”

“Very good, Gateway. Movement equals survival. If you sit still, you will be targeted and hit. Movement will make you harder to hit and keep you out of harm’s way. I have some footage for you all to watch, to give you an idea of what movement alone can do for you in a combat setting. Now I want you all to figure out what the runner’s enhancements are. Those of you who have seen this before, please remain quiet. Let me start the film.”

Molly almost winced when she saw the film start. She remembered this film, as she had been paying pretty close attention to it when it had played in her survival class the first time and the end had almost caused her to loose her lunch.

The video showed a man running from someone obviously superpowered. The man was kicking off walls, spinning in the air, and moving like he was on wires. He bounded over a car, his fingers helping his vault. The flyer was seriously after him. The man actually used the super as a place to vault upwards.

The chase went on for a while, with the man using anything and everything as a way to get away and try to strike back. The chase length went longer and longer, which was impressive. The end however was fairly brutal and Molly knew when to close her eyes and plug her ears.

Mister Anderson looked out at the class, his face calm after that display of gruesome brutality. “Now what are your guesses?”

One of the Underdogs that Molly didn’t know said, “My guess is Exemplar 3 or 4. Probably some limited TK?”

Mr. Anderson didn’t answer and looked around, “Any other guesses?”

Everyone in the class either seemed to be in agreement with the first guess or else had seen that before and knew the truth that their teacher shared with them.

“That was a Baseline against an Exemplar Six. Nothing he did in those fifteen minutes of pursuit required any sort of power, but it did require the ability to move and read the terrain. It is a factor of training, that’s all. Too many people discount the ability of Baselines and get surprised when one does something like that. That is where this ability to move will save you.”

“Even those of you who have not taken any combat classes will no doubt have watched the Combat Finals. I have footage on each of you and have analyzed how you moved during your tests. I also have footage on people who used their movement well, to give you several examples of what you need to be able to do to survive on the battle field as a non-combatant. Now, let us look at how Movement equals Survival, shall we? We will start with you, Gateway.”

The lights dimmed in the room and the front of the room lit up with the projection of her combat final. Molly blushed but didn’t look away as it showed the whole thing from different angles. Once it was finished, the lights came back up. “Okay, so we have two questions we need to discuss… what did she do wrong and what did she do right. Let’s begin.”

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Chou was sort of looking forward to this class, as it promised to be fun and to show her different options of what she could do with her sword. The class was going to be focused on weapons, and a bunch of the Kimbettes were in there with her. It was good to see Ayla getting involved in some weapons work, since it would increase her roommate’s options in a crisis. Maybe her Christmas adventure affected her more than Chou had thought.

Chou knew all about the toys in the belt her roommate had gotten from Möbius and was glad that her friend was thinking like that. While Ayla did have a cool power, it wasn’t as combat oriented as others and the weapons were a great equalizer. Chou had taken that lesson to heart as well and her new bag was filled with a variety additional weapons, tools, spell sheets and herbal mixtures, so she would have the widest array of options. If only Toni would stop calling it a Nine Demon Bag and occasionally calling her Egg Shen.

Ayla’s idea was a pretty good one, and having the tools she might need on hand was rather clever and something she wished she had thought of. Chou was still considering the use of grenades, and maybe a pistol to kind of shift the odds. That was certainly something no one would expect from her, as she was supposedly focused on ancient weapons technology. She knew exactly who she would want to go to in order to find out if that would be the best plan.

She was called out by Sensei Ito to do something to demonstrate her weapons skill. Chou had bowed and then simply opened herself to the Tao. She flowed through a minor variation of the Wudan Eight Immortals Sword form. She stopped and then bowed again once she had finished.

Chou had smiled when she had noticed Ayla watching. It was good to know her sword work had that sort of effect on people, as Destiny’s Wave told her time and again that sword work was an art. The testing was fairly easy and Chou was nicely surprised to find that she would be sparring against Sensei Beaumont. The woman was really, really good and it was a pleasure to stretch herself against the teacher.

“Are you ready Miss Lee?” She had a delicate French accent to go along with her willowy body. Her blonde hair was up and she stood before Chou with her hand on her Katana, ready to draw.

“Yes Sifu.”

Chou held her sword at the ready and waited for Beaumont to make the first move. After a moment, the tiny French woman exploded into action. In a blur, the katana had been drawn and heading right for Chou’s throat. She danced to the side, using her jian to try to get the teacher off balance by making the woman overextend. Beaumont swept her back foot as she shifted positions and Chou dodged to avoid the punch to the face.

Chou spun down for a sweep, Destiny’s Wave moving to block the downward slash from connecting. Somehow Beaumont managed to keep the force on her sword as she jumped over the leg. She then slid the bottom hand holding the hilt to the back and used that to try and knock the jian away.

With a one-arm push, Chou moved with the attack and retained her hold on her sword. She launched a slash to give herself the space to get to her feet. That move halted Beaumont’s approach and made the woman stutter-step. This allowed Chou to easily counter the move.

Suddenly, Beaumont exploded into a cuisinart of death, her blade moving rapidly from cut to cut. Chou gave ground, blocking the attacks and trying to find an opening to counter attack in. There was none. She gritted her teeth and refocused, trying to push Beaumont back. The match was called before she could.

After that match, there was no question about her getting into the sword-focused class, which mostly worked on getting better with chosen weapons as opposed to picking up new ones. Thankfully, she was also able to work with the throwing knives she had picked up. She had gotten several regular steel ones but had used them in Baltimore. She had a few extra but she needed some replacements.

Maybe she should ask Ayla for a contact to get some stronger knives, as she had an idea about using knives to help her get better footholds on walls, to be able to get even higher using her Lightfoot Kung Fu since she would have steps.

The teacher she had been assigned to was more worried about effectiveness in combat with her chosen weapon rather than any particular style. That was certainly nice and a change from Sifu Fitzgibbon and his inflexibility. It looked like this would actually be a good class for her to be in, as she would be able to spar against more people and gain more personal experience. The experience the sword had given her had only taken her so far and she did want to go much farther.

The various people working on sword with Sensei Beaumont had their own practice area, where they could work on individual forms as well as some sparing. It was nice being able to train in an area specifically set up for it. The instructor was setting them up with training partners and Nightbane went up to Sensei Beaumont and talked to her briefly. The French woman nodded and came over.

“Bladedancer, I would like you to work with Nightbane. You might also benefit from working with a secondary weapon and she might benefit from your technique. Why don’t we try things out and see, oui?”

Chou bowed. “Shi Sensei.”

Beaumont paused and actually winced some before she shook her head. “Miss Lee, could you not mix languages like that. It makes my head hurt.”

“Hai Sensei.” Chou had a huge grin on her face at that and even Nightbane giggled at that.

Sarah grinned at the Asian girl broadly. “I just had to get you as my partner. Sorry. Sword hasn’t been overly helpful for me lately and I figured that you could help me more right now.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Chou, actually kind of irritated but doing her best to hide it. Sarah had attacked and tried to kill a friend of hers on more than one occasion last semester and Chou had to pretend to be her friend in order to get a lead on the Goobers.

“You know, you are like totally the best sword fighter I know. Can you help me get better? I really want to have an edge against whatever evil I face so I can cut it down to size.” Nightbane gave her this really cute look and Chou sighed.

“No problem. I will help you get better. But I don’t know any western sword styles that might work with your sword better.”

“That’s okay, I have another class for that. What I need now is more experience just using it. I figure lots of sparring would be in order.”

Chou chuckled to herself. She might be able to get closer to the woman who tried to kill Sara and get to hit her a few times as well, all for free. That was very appealing. “Okay. Let’s go.”

“Just to let you know, our meetings start next week. Usual place, usual time,” commented Sarah, as she got into ready position.

“Thanks. I’ll make sure to be there,” replied Chou, wanting to do anything but that.

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Molly knew that she could find the girl she needed after the research she had done, and she headed that way fairly quickly, jogging almost as fast as she could, which compared to most of the kids here wasn’t very fast at all. If she was going to make this happen, she couldn’t really waste any of her time. It took a short while but she finally found Silver between classes and headed up to her nervously. “Can… can I talk to you?”

“Who are you?” Silver seemed a bit skittish when Molly came up to her so quickly, afraid it might be an attack or something else. So many people came up and bugged her about her power and wanting ‘just a sample’ that she was developing a somewhat healthy paranoia. Add to that the events that had occurred in Boston and it was clear that a healthy distrust of other people was developing in the young woman.

“My name is Molly and I know Chou Lee. She… she gave me this ring that you made with her.” Molly raised her hand to show the mithril ring.

Silver relaxed, recognizing the work and the name. Maybe she didn’t have to be that worried about this girl after all. “Okay. What can I do for you?”

“Uhm… I… I… want to know if you can make another one of these. Chou gave me this ring and I want to return the favor. I… I… can pay.” Molly knew the cost of Mithril and she was aware that if she had to pay, she would be doing it for ever. However, it was going to be totally worth it.

Sakti chuckled. There were some debts between people that never really could be repaid. “Don’t worry about it. I owe the Kimbettes a lot more than I can ever repay them in this lifetime. This is nothing.”

Molly bounced happily. She was going to be able to do this. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“I suppose you want to do this the same way?” asked Silver, smiling.

Molly nodded. “When can we do it?”

Silver glanced at one of the wall clocks and furrowed her brow in thought briefly. Since the whole process had been so easy it shouldn’t make her late to her next class. “We can do it now if you want. I still have some time until my next class.”

The two girls headed into the bathroom and worked a little magic.

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“Let’s work on some new spell sheets, shall we?” asked Becca happily, as Chou entered the room.

Chou groaned and pulled out the sheets of rice paper, which would be where the spells were written. Becca had shifted gears on her again and had started showing Chou how to do magic; specifically these spell sheets that were triggered by her own Chi. It was something she had barely gotten the hang of just before Combat Finals but it was a skill that had proven itself useful when fighting against Nex. Knowing more of this would be a good thing, and the fact that she could prepare them before hand was even better. It would provide greater flexibility in her ability to respond to issues.

The two of them worked on the smooth strokes of the calligraphy and making the energy mix with the ink that had to be brushed onto the sheets in order to make them. The calligraphy was a bit tricky especially when Becca was making her do it standing, with a brush on a long stick, the paper on the floor. The intricate characters were tough to shape that way, since they needed to be in a format that would accept the energy to activate them and that also required the use of special ink. It was not an easy task.

Becca was showing her how to form the characters and how to let the Chi enter them, to bring their power to life. Given what she was studying, it made Chou wonder something. “Should I take some of the magic classes?”

“I do not see a reason to do that. They don’t really work magic the way we do. Ours is fueled by Chi, the Universe’s and our own. We pull a different sort of energy from what they use. It’s one of the reasons that Western and Eastern Mages make each other crazy. They just can’t seem to get what we do and a lot of what they do seems strange to us. Talk magic with the Fae and find out. They have a great number of laws and such that make this sound like a science whereas our style is far more an art.”

“What about Summoners like Molly?” asked Chou, somewhat confused.

“They are yet another type of magic. They open doors between worlds and let things out. Doing so gives the Summoner control of what comes forth, if their will is strong enough. There are only a few true Summoners and most of them are villains at the moment. It is apparently a very rare talent,” replied Becca.

Chou cocked her head, a bit confused. For someone who was highly versed in Taoist lore she seemed awfully informed about Western style magic. “How do you know?”

Becca chuckled at that. “I have a lot of time to read. The world has changed since I went up the Mountain and some of these changes are fascinating. Now let’s get back to work.”

Chou nodded and went back to working on her calligraphy. Becca had said it would help her sword work become more precise, but more to the point, she wanted her brushwork to look more like Li Bai’s and less like childish squiggles. The down side was the fact that her calligraphy skills were basic at best and she would have to learn them the old fashioned way, lots and lots of practice. That didn’t sound fun to her.

“Come now Chou, concentrate.,” chided Becca, watching her student’s focus waver.

“I’m working on it. Some of these characters just don’t look right to my mind.”

“I understand. Some of them are words that have been created since Destiny’s Wave vanished from the world. Therefore, you are fighting against your own knowledge given to you by the sword. That is one of the reasons I have given you these particular characters to work on. You are learning them and not the swords knowledge working on you. You need to get beyond the information she gave you and develop some experience of your own.” Becca patted Chou on the shoulder with some sympathy.

“I am doing that.”

“I know, but being able to do that is important. What is interesting is the fact that you, as the Handmaid, weren’t tossed immediately into the thick of things this time around. The vast majority of Handmaids were called to solve, at the most, a few very specific issues. You on the other hand seem to have an open-ended call with no clearly defined mission in place. That is out of the ordinary and shows that you really need to learn anything and everything you can in order to be prepared. Because when you get to the exact purpose of your call, it is going to be overwhelming and perhaps quite terrifying,” clarified Becca.

“So you have no idea what I am getting into? Lovely.” Chou looked thoughtful for a moment and then smiled. “I think adding skills that are unexpected would be a good thing. That way I will be able to respond to almost anything with a crazy mix of skills.”

“Good plan. Don’t even tell me what you are training in, as the fewer people that know the better your secret will be kept. Train in anything that comes to mind, as that just might be a clue that guides you.”

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Molly raced over to Eastman after she got out of class. She was panting heavily and had a stitch in her side when she stumbled up to the double doors that her girlfriend often exited from. A few of the Exemplars were chuckling at her and how she was gasping for air, the cold burning her lungs. Molly wished she could wipe that smug look off their faces but that would end poorly for her. It just galled her how so many of the Exemplars acted like they were the God’s own gift to humanity. They all acted so superior, even the nice ones did, that she just wanted to punch some of them. She was trying to avoid violence but was figuring that some day push would come to shove.

As she was glowering at the boys who had laughed at her, Chou came out of the building, rubbing her eyes. While she looked rather glum when she came out, she brightened up quickly when she saw Molly and smiled. “Hey there Cuddlebug.”

“Chou!” hissed Molly, looking around to see if anyone had overheard. “Don’t call me that! Not here.”

Chou looked around and snickered some, “There is nobody here, Molly. We’re alone, Cuddlebug.”

The girl was blushing, embarrassed by the nickname her parents had given her that Chou had started using ever since she had heard it. “O… okay.”

With a deep breath, Molly relaxed and became more confident about what she was doing. She loved Chou and was happy just being around her. She began fiddling with something in the pocket of her coat and smiling. “Chou, I got you something to show you how I feel. After what we heard from Rythax I knew what the perfect thing would be.”

Chou gasped when she saw the ring. It had been fashioned to look like the perfect match to the ring she had given Molly and she could feel the energy emanating from it, energy that felt very familiar. She took off her gloves and let Molly slip the ring onto her hand. She felt a rush of energy and a warmth in her heart that sent shivers up and down her spine. It felt right, it felt like she was complete, like a hole she didn’t know she had was filled. A few tears trickled down her face and she smiled at her girlfriend.

Molly smiled mischievously, pleased that Chou so obviously approved of the gift. “So, want to go to the library with me? There are a few things I want to… you know… study.”

Chou started laughing as the two girls headed to their usual make out spot, fighting the urge to hold hands, which was nearly overpowering. Once safely ensconced in their corner of the library, the protective spell put in place, and everything looked clear, Molly all but attacked Chou, shoving her down into one of the chairs. The look in her eyes was predatory. “You are mine, love.”

There was no talking as the two girls made out for nearly an hour, kissing, groping, and using fingers slipped into panties to good effect. They lay there in the afterglow of their orgasms, cuddled up and sighing. Chou kissed her girlfriend on her forehead and said, “I love you Molly.”

“I love you too. I hope you like your ring,” replied Molly.

Chou smiled happily. “It is beautiful and it gives me this warm fuzzy inside. I love it so much.”

Molly kissed Chou on the lips. “You are the most important thing in my life Chou. I would do anything for you.”

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Nikki was bothered by something all day today and had been for part of yesterday, ever since Chou had returned from her break. There was something different about Chou and Molly, and she couldn’t figure out what it was and it was making her crazy. It was as if she knew what was going on but it was on the tip of her tongue and refused to become any clearer. She cornered her roommate, as Chou had spent time with her. “Toni, what is up with Chou?”

Toni looked confused at the question. There were just too many excellent ways in which to answer that. “In what way?”

“There is something different about her and Molly and I want to know what it is. Do you know?” stated Nikki.

“Look, why not just ask her? If she’s not in her room or the dayroom then we’ll see her at dinner. Will that work?” Toni was trying to be reasonable as an experiment.

Nikki nodded. She hated things like this just sort of hovering around her and her not able to figure them out. She wanted to figure this out before it made her even crazier than she already was. She went to Chou and Ayla’s room and knocked on the door. Ayla opened it, “Yes?”

“Do you know where Chou is?”

“She hasn’t come back yet. I figure that she is probably doing ‘research’ with Molly in the Library. More than likely she’s just in there frolicking,” Ayla shrugged.

“Do you know what’s going on with her and Molly?” asked Nikki.

Ayla looked confused for a moment and replied, “Uhm… all of us know what is going on with them Nikki. It’s not a big secret.”

“Gah! Ayla, I meant now, what is going on with them right now? Something has changed and I can feel it, and it’s making me crazy not knowing,” grumbled Nikki.

“So I am currently dealing with a crazy elf?” Ayla asked, smirking.

“Ayla…” growled Nikki threateningly.

Ayla laughed and shook her head. “That’s just priceless. Nikki the hot, crazy elf.”

Nikki was beginning to glow with power, and her glamour shifted to something more commanding and menacing. She could see Ayla start to get affected by it and that brought her back to reality, snapping off her glamour. The girl slumped and said, “Sorry Ayla.”

Chou came up the stairs at that point, Molly following along behind her, and they were chatting about some movie about penguins they had apparently seen and laughing about it. Nikki turned to face them and her eyes widened in shock and she began to tremble slightly. Ayla, who was right there, could feel Fey’s glamour fade utterly at that point, which was unusual. The voice that spoke next was not Nikki but Aungdhadhail. “I… I thought that those were lost.”

Ayla, Chou and Molly were now all thoroughly confused, not really following what the Elf Queen was saying. Ayla gathered it had something to do with Chou and Molly, as that had been what Fey had gotten agitated over earlier. Toni came out of her room as well looking over at her roommate. “Nikki?”

Aungdhadhail took a deep breath and stood straight up, the glamour slipping back into place. “Chou… where did you get Moonsilver Hearts?”

“Uhm… we had them made,” replied the girl, looking at Fey as if she were a bit confused. “I told you about it, remember? You saw the ring before I left for break.”

“I… so I did. However, it had not truly been activated at that point and so I don’t think it registered. You made them?” Aungdhadhail’s voice was almost filled with wonder. “I had thought the skill at making them had been lost, that only the Artificer retained such knowledge.”

“Uh…” Chou looked over at Molly as if asking for some help. Ayla and Toni were watching this conversation like a tennis match.

“Chou figured it out and I just did what she did. It wasn’t all that hard,” commented Molly.

“Guys, care to clue a sister in on what is going on?” asked Toni from the doorway.

Chou shrugged, as did Molly. Ayla said, “You got me. Something about the rings they are wearing, I guess?”

Chou blinked a few times as things finally came together. “Oh… yeah. Rythax told us about the rings. I had made the first one by accident, simply following the Tao’s advice and Molly followed suit today, doing pretty much what I had done. He said that they were an expression of love.”

Aungdhadhail chuckled at how poor a description that really was. Surely, Rythax knew better than that. “Oh, it is so much more that that. Not just love Chou, true love, unending love, soulmate love. You brought something beautiful back into the world.’’

Molly’s eyes widened in surprise and with a little fear. She eeped slightly and asked, “It shows?”

Fey nodded her head. “It does indeed.”

“Oh crap!” half yelled Molly, which caught everyone’s attention. They had never heard her cuss before and it was surprising. “That means anyone who can see auras can see us and what we feel for each other?”

Aungdhadhail nodded. “It is one of the easiest things to see about your auras at the moment. I assume the Handmaid could mask her aura if she tried but you don’t have any way to do that… do you?”

Nikki got control again. The change in the way she stood and spoke was immediate. “I can try to teach you something that might help, but it isn’t an easy trick.”

“Uhm… any idea what we should do?” asked Chou.

Ayla piped up at this point. “I think you need to get more information and options than we have. I’m sorry to say, but I think Mrs. Horton might be your best bet, as this might become a threat to Poe.”

Chou and Molly nodded and turned back down the stairs, looking a bit glum. Toni turned and looked at Fey, shaking her head, “Well, you got your answers. Happy now?”

Fey shook her head no. She had wanted to know but this was far larger than she had ever imagined.

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Chou and Molly nervously knocked on Mrs. Horton’s door. Of all the various things to have become fallout from Christmas break, this had to be, by far the most embarrassing. The fact that their love was now visible to anyone who had auratic sight was a bit disturbing and certainly created a threat to the security of Poe Hall. Neither of them wanted to hide but then again neither felt like they could be out either.

The door opened and the Housemother looked down at the two girls, smiling. “Yes girls, how can I help you?”

“Uhm… Mrs. Horton, we have a bit of a problem?” Chou said nervously.

“What is it?” The woman’s tone grew more serious.

“Apparently, something we did made how we feel about each other visible in our Auras.”

“You mean someone would be able to see that you are girlfriends?” clarified Mrs. Horton.

Chou and Molly nodded.

“And you just found this out?”

Again they nodded.

Mrs. Horton sighed. Some days these girls just made her a bit crazy. “Come in. I’ll call Chief Delarose and you can explain things to him.”

Chou and Molly groaned.

The Housemother dialed the phone quickly and waited. “Yes, this is Mrs. Horton at Poe, I need to talk to Chief Delarose. Yes I can wait.” There was a short pause. “Yes Chief, I have a bit of a problem with one of my resident troublemakers. It seems as if she and her girlfriend have done something that made their relationship visible to anyone with Auratic sight. Yes, I’ll put her on.”

Chou swallowed heavily and took the phone. This was not going to be pretty. “Uhm… Chief Delarose?”

Upon hearing Chou’s voice, Delarose busted out laughing. Chou held the phone away from her ear and everyone could hear the laughter. Molly blushed and reached out to take her girlfriend’s hand. Chou felt like she was near tears at this point and her face burned with the blush.

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Chou came back upstairs with Molly a short while later, looking grim. They both went to the dayroom and dropped onto a couch there, clearly upset. By now, all of Team Kimba and friends had heard about what was going on and were equally worried for them. Toni, knowing a little fear and worry could be good for you, came forward and started the questioning, “So, that was exciting.”

“Not so much,” replied Chou blandly.

“Anything interesting?”

“Oh… the usual. We’re now waiting for someone from the staff to get over here.”

“In trouble?”

“Not so much. Delarose laughed at me again.”

“How many times did he laugh at you over the break?” asked Jade.

“More than I care to dwell on.

“Thankfully, only the one chewing out by Carson,” commented Toni.

“Did you have to remind me?”

“Hey, I was traumatized by that as well, remember?”

“How could I forget?”

“Good point. So… you know your Ki is burning brightly and it is obvious what you feel for Molly… right?” pointed out Toni, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“I have been made aware of it,” replied Chou, drolly.

“It’s going to be fixed?”

“That’s the plan,” replied Chou.

Fae joined in, “That’s not going to be easy. It burns through your auras clearly like a beacon. Aungdhadhail says that it will wind through your aura and is easily identifiable to anyone who knows what they’re looking at.”

Chou sighed heavily. Molly patted her girlfriend’s arm. “Well, great… I don’t want to take the ring off, it means too much to me.”

Both girls smiled lovingly at each other. Chou continued, “However, I don’t want other people to know. That might make things difficult for the two of us.”

Ayla nodded. “It will. There is just this feeling of… don’t know, oppression I guess, all over here, and there are a lot of people going after any differences. It is almost like Japan where they talk about the nail sticking up is hammered down.”

Everyone nodded. That had been fairly easy to notice while they had been here and they had experienced some of that first hand. Tennyo asked, “So if the whatever doesn’t work and these two get jumped, how are we going to respond?”

Hank snorted like the question was silly. “We stomp on them, no question. We stomp on them, and then stomp on them again. We protect each other and our friends. That is just being smart at this point. We already have targets on us, so what does it matter if there is another?”

All the rest of Team Kimba looked around at each other and it was clear they agreed. Toni jumped in at that point. “Okay, I am down with ass kicking if necessary. We got each other’s backs.”

“I just wish there was someone out there that had the strength to shut everyone else up, letting us just be ourselves without having to stress over what other people might say. It’s just really irritating,” complained Chou.

Shortly someone dropped off two necklaces for the girls. They put them on and turned to look at Fey, and it was clear they were worried if they were working or not. She looked at their auras and nodded. “Things seem nicely masked. Your aura just seems rather blah to look at, which might be a problem but it’s not worth worrying over right now.”

Molly and Chou both sighed. One less worry gone. They hugged and everyone made Awww noises in response, which made both girls go red in the face in embarrassment. Thankfully, things were back to normal.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Chou was getting dressed in clothes that she knew she could move in easily, so it was her yoga pants and mandarin tops. It wasn’t like she didn’t have any other clothing she could wear, but since she was pretty much on the move all day from one combat class to another it didn’t make any sense to wear anything that she couldn’t fight in.

Ayla walked into the room and just sort of hung back, in her bathrobe while Chou finished dressing.Her roommate looked a bit hesitant about coming in the room and this got Chou’s attention. She looked over and asked, “What is the matter?”

Her eyes flickered over her roommate, and then jumped down to the lump thrusting out Ayla’s bathrobe. Chou blushed and turned way, really embarrassed. “Oh, thank you. I do not know why it bothers me so much. It is not as if I didn’t see this a lot in the locker room at school, back when…”

“Yeah. I know,” Ayla replied. “I am sorry. I know it’s a constant reminder of what you have lost.”

Chou felt down because of the very turgid reminder of her life as Alex. Thanks to Destiny’s Wave and the Demon Lord of the Hell of Fiery Immersion, he had been irrevocably turned into a girl. It bugged her and between periods and mood swings and everything, all she really wanted to do was go back to being Alex. That thought brought up more mental questions and Chou really wasn’t ready for that. She took a deep breath and decided that what she really needed to do was change the topic of conversation to something less likely to make her feel bad. “The bathroom was very warm this morning. I assume the gift of the new heaters was from you?”

Ayla shrugged as if it were no big deal, “Yeah. My bathroom in L.A. was nice and warm every morning, and I didn’t see why I couldn’t have the same thing around here. Besides, you know me. I’ll do anything to keep naked hotties hanging around in the bathroom longer.”

Chou just stared at Ayla, not really buying the statement for a moment. Her roommate might still be a guy in her mind but Ayla was definitely not that kind of jerk. If he were, he wouldn’t have given her privacy when she changed. “Yes. I’m completely sure that was your main motivation. So, what is next? The water heaters are much better since they fixed the building after Halloween. Do you have something else planned?”

“I have some new bathroom hardware coming in around the end of the month. Hydroflux is going to install it and show everyone how to use it,” admitted Ayla, looking a bit smug at the admission.

“Hydroflux? I don’t know her.” Chou had never really heard that name and she had no idea who she might be. But with a school this big and with as many cliques it wasn’t a terrible surprise.

“She’s a deviser over in Melville,” explained Ayla. “You’ve heard of ‘Bed Bath and Beyond’? Well, Hydro specializes in the ‘Bath and Beyond’ part.”

“And these things are going to be good?” Chou was a bit confused about what could be so important and awesome about a shower, unless it was a removable showerhead that could be put to good use every once in a while. That had been a nice discovery and Chou had to admit that it felt great.

The grin Ayla gave her was filled with mischievous glee. “Let me put it this way. Unicorn and Automa-tech nearly got in a fight over one.”

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Tactics class had NOT been fun with the grief to Tennyo about her powers and the state of affairs the Outcast corner kids were in. Chou had talked briefly with her Artificer friend, had gotten a quick sketch of things, and had promised to talk to her later. They were having a bad time apparently and Chou knew Caitlin just needed a friendly ear to listen to her bitch for hours. Besides, Chou had a question she needed to ask the girl privately.

Lunch was almost fun, even though Billie was completely down and wanting to quit the team and some such nonsense because of the team Tactics fallout. Ayla started the ball rolling in getting her over it before she headed off to get her own food. She came back with some sort of salad and made happy foodgasm faces as she ate. Since Billie was feeling better enough to eat, Toni just had to jump in and throw her two cents in on the food issue. “Hey Ayles, that foodgasm must mean that’s a pretty good salad, huh? Wanna share?”

Ayla smiled slightly as she put a forkful of the salad on Toni’s plate and said, “Sure, but the endive is bitt-”

“Blagh!” The Ki Mistress practically spat it out. “Hey! No poisoning the teammates! Remember?”

“I did tell you the endive was going to taste bitter. It’s… For some people it’s an acquired taste.”

“Ugh. Next time I’ll settle for acquiring a taste for lemon meringue pie or somethin’,” she complained.

Chou pondered this for a moment. It did sound tasty. She smiled at her roommate and then cautiously asked, “Could I try a bite?”

“Sure,” Ayla replied. “But remember what happened to Chaka.”

She smiled, “I doubt that the problem is Chi. And I am used to more complex tastes, you know.”

Ayla put a forkful on her plate, and the Asian girl slowly chewed it up. The table sort of stopped everything they were doing to watch, eager to see the normally composed girl spit it out. It would certainly be a highlight of the meal.

Chou smiled after she had swallowed and said, “That’s really good! Do you think your chef has any more?”

Toni groaned, wondering how a southern girl could like something a big city girl like her couldn’t stand. “How can you eat that?”

Ayla remarked, “I bet Tennyo would like it.”

“Tennyo eats demons. Her tastebuds don’t count,” Toni insisted. Billie stuck her tongue out at Toni, which everyone took as a good sign.

Ayla and Chou headed over to the salad bar area and Ayla asked one of the staff if Chef Peter could step out for a moment. Chou was in luck as the chef still had half a bowl of the apple and endive salad. Chou thanked him repeatedly while it seemed as if Ayla was trying to get a word in edgewise.

“So, were those apples Braeburns?”

“Nope,” The chef smiled at that guess. “Fujis. I tried Honeycrisps too, but they were just a hair too sweet for the endive.”

“Well, at least two people thought you really put together a great salad.”

He gave me a quirky smile, “I’m glad. Several of the staff thought it was far too bitter.”

Chou and I looked at each other and smiled. Since they were facing away from the table Chou said, “Maybe we shouldn’t pass that little bit of information on?”

“An excellent idea,” commented Ayla. “No need to make anyone think that anybody anywhere agrees with Toni.”

As the two girls returned to their table, Chou noted the vast number of shoulder angels in evidence throughout all of Crystal Hall. This little and scary fad was catching on. Part of her thought it might be fun, but the potential downsides were too great. Besides, she had no way to make them herself and had no urge to allow Jade in on this particular act. Just thinking about what sorts of screwy things the girl might just say was enough to make her shiver.

Chou walked Molly to her class, not really wanting to go to whatever the special class she had been scheduled for. She didn’t know anything about what it was and that wasn’t comforting. The trip was over far too quickly and Molly headed into the Mystic Arts building with a final look back at her girlfriend. Chou turned and headed towards Eastman, trudging to whatever new torture the teachers had invented for her, unaware that a pair of eyes were watching her every move intently.

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Molly had really been working on her summoning spells. She really had no interest in bringing up demons and devils or anything like that, but there were a large number of entities she should be able to call when she got more practice. And the better she got at Summoning the better she would able to get at other spell work. It was supposedly based on the Law of Similarity or something. All Molly knew was that she really wanted to be able to cast more spells.

There were a few other people in the class, and Molly sat in the back, sort of hiding, but she liked what she was learning. It was fun and it made her feel like she just might be able to do something in combat finally. Those pixies had been helpful during the fight in the Chinese Restaurant and there were many other things she might be able to summon to fight for her and do things for her. The book she had been given for the class listed a huge number of things and had the necessary spell work listed. The Marhault Ogre sounded kind of awesome and would certainly make fights a lot different. Watching something like that smash an enemy might be really amazing.

She was working on getting things a bit larger than the pixies and had been really working on getting something larger and stronger. From what she could tell, it looked like Red Caps might be a good choice for combat, but they were not good creatures and that sometimes caused problems. They were likely to turn on their Summoner and that wasn’t a good thing either. There were a lot of powerful beings she could call, but a lot of them had a cruel streak that sometimes carried over to the one calling them.

That idea scared her and Molly wanted to avoid ending up like Devilmaster, Lindsey’s father. When she thought that, she realized that maybe her teacher was going to be Lindsey’s father. He was a Summoner and this was Whateley. Her eyes grew wide and she eeped a little in fear. That was all she needed.

After everyone had found their seats, the instructor came into the room. Molly sighed heavily in relief to see that it wasn’t Devilmaster at all but someone else. That would be very awkward. The man looked like a bit of a hippy, with long hair, a brown leather vest over a tie dyed t-shirt and jeans. “Afternoon everyone. I’m Mr. Langford. I came to Whateley from California where I teach at Berkley at the Bonewitz Center for Magical Studies. I am a graduate of this fine school but I never went into the hero biz as it was far too dangerous. So, enough about me. I am sure you have seen the textbook for this class. We will not be working on summoning anything demonic, as they are far too dangerous to hold in thrall for long. What we are going to work with are various nature spirits instead. They are one of the least malevolent types of spirits out there, which is why you should start with those until you have truly mastered your skill.”

He paused and took a swig from a hip flask that seemed to have various mystic runes all over it. “So, first things first. Who knows how Summoning works? Yes, you.”

Jadis stood and answered. “It is a spiritual bargain where you in effect contract for the creature for a limited period of time.”

Mr. Langford smiled. “Well, that is essentially correct Miss Diabolik. What you do is hold an energetic conversation, where your power and its power intermingle and you see if you can come to an arrangement. Protective circles and the like are useful in the beginning and when we go to the lab, you will l work in the school circles until you get the hang of this. However, once you do get that, there really is no need for the circles, unless you are trying to summon something really strong that could overwhelm your own strength. And when you have the hang of it, summoning is fast and easy.”

The air shimmered by his head and a small bright red faerie came out, wings fluttering quickly, like a hummingbird. “This is a Fire Faerie. She and I have worked together before and that helps as well. If you want to use the business metaphor, it is like having a near permanent contractor on call. Now, let’s begin with the basics of circle construction so we can get on to the fun stuff of actually summoning something.”

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“That bitch… I’m just going to kill that baseline whore,” growled Nex, clenching and unclenching his fists tightly, his nails digging into his palms. “Her mangled body splayed out before me.”

He was pacing back and forth in his room, still frustrated over the Combat Final he had participated in for that damn freshman. No one remembered that he had handily won his match in his own Combat Final. No, all they seemed able to recall was that the little baseline slope had beaten him completely, had even had the temerity to mock him.

Nex wanted to kill her. He wanted her dead. Not just a little dead but a lot dead. He wanted her bloody, mangled corpse to be found in the middle of the quad as a sign that baselines should stay where they belong and not mingle with their betters. He screamed and drove his fist through his closet door, again. It didn’t really help.

He paused in his pacing. Winter semester was a good time to take out a miserable little worm like Bladedancer. The teachers and students were busy with several different classes and not as focused on the important things, like some student being tracked by a killer. There would be an opening for sure that he could exploit. He could be patient. That was a necessary skill for an assassin, and he was a good one. He just needed to calm down.

He would watch, gather information, and wait for his moment, when he could kill that bitch and end his humiliation. This was what he was good at and without the warning that the finals gave the bitch would have no clue what hit her, until the light faded from her eyes forever. That thought made him smile. This idea made him feel better about life and even put a smile on his face. It was a cold, emotionless smile, like that of a serpent smiling down at a mouse.

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Chou entered the room she had been told to go to in Eastman. It was currently empty except for a couple of mats on the floor. She walked in and stared about, a bit confused. Wasn’t she supposed to have a class here? “Hello?”

There was naturally no answer.

She shrugged and took a seat on one of the mats and got into full lotus, closing her eyes as she slipped into a light meditation. Time sort of drifted until she heard the distinctive sound of heels on the floor, pitched lower than high heels. The stride was strong and controlled, the sound of someone moving from their center. She opened her eyes and looked over at the door to the room.

The door opened and some man entered the room purposefully. He was dressed in jeans, a white t-shirt and cowboy boots. He had short cropped brown hair and was fairly tall, all things considered. What was discordant with the cowboy image her gave was the red seed mala that he wore on his right wrist. He looked over at her and smiled. “Miss Chou Lee?”

“Yes,” replied Chou. This was her special instructor?

“Sorry I am late. My name is Dyffud Harraz. My MID calls me Journeyman and I’ll be your instructor for this class. Sensei Ito and Chief Delarose both called me about you somewhat concerned. So here I am.”

Chou wasn’t sure what to say in response to that. This guy had been called in for her especially for this class. What the hell? “Called in from where?”

“I was in Africa at the time, specifically Kenya. I had just finished up some work in the Darfur region for the UN. I was taking a break when the calls came in. So… did anyone tell you what this class was going to be about?”

Chou shook her head no.

Dyffud pursed her lips and nodded. “Figures. I heard that you have been having some issues related to your transition as well as your role as the Handmaid of the Tao. Do I have that right?”

Chou blinked in surprise. Was this guy supposed to know about the secret of Poe Hall? Perhaps it would be better if she played dumb for now. “Transition?”

The man chuckled and the sound was warm. “Yes. You are one of the changelings from Team Kimba from what I was briefed on and probably the Handmaid of the Tao according to a few others. Am I on target here?”

This surprised her a great deal, as so far as she knew both pieces of information were highly classified here on campus. The information wasn’t even in her files here at school, so how the hell did this guy know about it? “Uhm…”

“<Relax, I have known about various aspects of this school for a while now, and as for you being the Handmaid… whatever. It does not matter to me.>” His Chinese was very good, with no trace of an accent, except for maybe a trace of Cantonese.

“<Uhm…>” Chou had no idea what to say to the man. This was getting stranger by the second.

He laughed and continued in English. “Okay, just to let you know, what we are going to work on in here is you.”

“Me?”

“Do you have any multi-word responses?” His grin was almost infectious.

“Uhm… maybe?” replied Chou, almost as confused as she would be after a conversation with Jade and her pronoun issues.

Dyffud shook his head. “We are going to work on you, to get you past several issues. Are you okay with that?”

“Yes?”

“That was a question?”

“No. I meant yes,” said Chou.

“Okay. First off you and I are going to spar, all out. You give me everything you got and I’ll be able to figure out what we are going to work on from there. Just you and I. No weapons.”

Chou stood and slipped into her starting stance. From everything she could tell about this man, he was highly trained and his chi was very strong. He stood there waiting for her, his hands at his sides. “Ready?”

Once she nodded, he smiled at her. “Begin.”

Chou slide-stepped and threw a series of punches. The man moved and shifted his stance, causing all of the strikes to miss by just a hair. He snatched a wrist and with a slight movement of his wrist, flipped her to the floor. She leapt with the throw and managed to land on her feet where she snatched her hand back from the grip and launched a sweep. Her foot caught him in the back of his knee, bending it slightly. The man dropped to one knee, launching several punches at Chou’s midsection as she tried to move clear. One caught the girl and flung her back with the force of the blow far enough to evade the other strikes.

Chou calmed her breathing and moved in for another pass. She started with a kick feint leading into another leg sweep. He just lifted his leg out of the way and snap kicked with it. Chou rolled along the inside of the kick and went for an elbow strike. It was blocked with an open palm that turned into a throw. She flew through the air, tumbling out of control until just before impact. He was right on her, giving her no break in action. It turned into an all out defensive battle, with Dyffud running Chou around the room.

She bent over gasping for air when he stopped, barely breathing hard. “Not too bad, all things considered. But listen kid, you are throwing yourself completely out of whack all the time. You repeatedly loose your balance at the strangest of times. Your focus flickers in and out. Your use of chi is not very good compared to your skills and you are fighting yourself far more than you were fighting me. Look, fighting is something special… it is a time when the entirety of who you are snaps into focus and your body is your ultimate expression of self. I learn more about a person in a fight than I can talking to them. A fight lets you know who they really are, down in their soul. I can see your soul now. Maybe it’s time for you to be able to do that.”

“What?”

“Was I talking too fast?”

“No, it’s just that… soul?”

“Miss Lee, do you know the history of the Martial Arts, specifically Asian arts developed in China?” asked Dyffud calmly.

“No.”

“They were designed as a tool to help unify the body, mind and spirit in order to make deep meditation easier. Bodhihirma came over from India to the Shaolin Temple and taught the monks there several exercises that were a combination of yoga, something similar to Mallayuddha, which is an Indian wrestling art and Kalarippayattu, which is a striking art. He merged them into what became Shaolin Kung Fu.

“Tai Chi was taken from a number of shamanic power stances strung together and merged into movement. It was initially a variant of moving Chi Gung that showed promise as a fighting art. That, added with the Taoist array of medical knowledge, turned Tai Chi into a dangerous art. The interaction of these two styles and their internal growth helped create what we have today. All of these combat arts are at their root all about spiritual growth and development. They are not pathways to violence but rather are pathways to the soul.”

Chou cocked her head at the man. “You know, you don’t talk like a lot of the fighter types I’ve met.”

Dyffud grinned at that, clearly pleased by that. “I get that a lot. I was never really like a lot of the students here. I have always been a lot more focused on the more spiritual elements of life. When my power manifested it seemed to be shaped by my spiritual focus, so I kept following it. That’s been keeping me traveling, helping people, studying different arts and following the path my spirit set out for me. I am also supposed to help a couple of your friends with this as well so, they’ll be here every once in a while. But remember, the focus of this will be getting your body, mind and spirit to move as one. So you think we might be able to help you get there?”

Chou smiled and nodded. This class might just turn out to be really cool after all. It sounded as if this teacher could really give her the help she needed.

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Thunderdrake was waiting for her when she left the building. She rolled her eyes in annoyance. This guy bugged the crap out of her. “What?”

The boy shrugged. “The Dragon wants to see you.”

“What, am I at his beck and call?” replied Chou, rather indignant.

“If the Dragon wants to see you…” started Thunderdrake.

“He can ask nicely like anyone else. Fuck off, Colin.” She pushed past him, intending to head back to the dorms to do some reading for tactics class before dinner. She did not need this shit.

Colin reached out and grabbed her shoulder in order to stop her.

Chou spun and suddenly Destiny’s Wave was in her hand, the blade at the boy’s throat. Her eyes were narrowed in anger and she hissed out. “Do not touch me ever again, are we clear Colin?”

The boy carefully nodded in a way to avoid getting cut, his eyes wide. He had heard what Chou had done to that girl in Poe and that was without a weapon. This was not a good place to be.

“Tell the Dragon that if he wants to see me, send an email or something, not some idiot errand boy who has given me nothing but grief. I don’t want to see you again Colin. Are we clear?” Chou pulled the blade back a little from the boy’s neck, her body tensed for combat still. “Now get the hell out of here.”

As the boy took off for who knew where, Chou sheathed her sword and headed back towards home. She was looking forward to a nice cup of tea and not having to think about that idiot any more. Thunderdrake had made some of her first few months here more than a little annoying with his frequent assaults. And now this whole being called as if she were some lackey? Maybe she shouldn’t consider the Dragon’s invitation.

Some of the aspects of this school really bugged the hell out of her, such as allowing so many assholes near-free range in their activities. If it weren’t for the fact that she was supposed to keep her work for Security quiet, she would wield it like her sword, smacking as many people down as she could for being assholes. Then again… maybe it was a good thing that she couldn’t do that. Chief Delarose would stomp all over her for doing that and it would make her no better than those jerks anyway.

Chou sighed and made it back to Poe Hall, trudging upstairs, barely noticing that Sharisha had gone quiet when the Asian girl had entered. It made her stomach turn a little, thinking about fall, and what she had done to the girl. She swallowed and made it back to her room, dropping down onto her bed with a sigh, feeling drained.

She noted that Ayla wasn’t there and she sighed again, tired from everything that had occurred that day. Maybe she had overreacted to Colin? Maybe, but then again maybe not. The idiot just got on her last nerve. She needed to calm down, and so she started heating some of the distilled water for tea.

She pulled out one of her containers of tea and smelled the wonderful aroma of the leaves. She reached into the bag and took a pinch out, putting some of the loose tea she had gotten for Christmas in her pot. It should calm her down, but she wasn’t sure why she was so stressed today. Granted all of her classes looked like they would be… interesting but a few looked to be stressful.

Then there were those damn shoulder angels that Jade had come up with. Sure, they were kind of funny in a way, but only kind of. More than anything else, they were weird. Granted Jade was having a lot of fun with them, but Chou really wasn’t interested. And if the munchkin was involved it couldn’t help but get over the top really quickly. That ability to make thing get over the top was more her power than her casting of self into things.

She poured the water into the pot and breathed in the aroma. It was a nice earthy smell and helped her to calm down. This was something she would need to keep on hand to assist with stress relief. The last thing she wanted was a repeat of November. She poured a cup after it had steeped and enjoyed the feel of the warm cup and the luscious taste of the tea. This should help.

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There were even more of those damnable shoulder angels at dinner and Chou just rolled her eyes. She really didn’t need anything like that to add to her already colorful life. Conversation was light and a good chunk of it dealt with either the shoulder angels or the Team Tactics class.

Once dinner was done, she went back to Poe for some studying and relaxing with Molly. While Ayla was out hunting for waitresses for her party, the two made out a little in the room, but mostly just held each other, happy to be together.

Chou was wondering if the class with Dyffud would really be able to help her. She knew she was having issues with things, especially being in this body that really wasn’t her own, despite how comfortable she was getting. Molly’s advice over break had helped, a lot, but it still felt weird to derive pleasure from something that wasn’t really hers. Molly still didn’t want to talk about Dorjee and left a bit huffy over the issue when it came up again. Chou sighed and changed into her pajamas. She just wanted to crash and not have to deal with anything.

She marked the board to let Ayla know she was asleep and turned off the lights. After tossing and turning some, trying to get her monkey brain to shut up enough so that she could sleep, Chou drifted off to sleep and dreamed.

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The screaming was so loud and filled with terror that it shook the soul. The rattle of chains was almost as loud and almost as chilling. Chou knew she had to save them, had to save them all. It was the only real option available to her.

Somehow, she would have to go and fight that army in order to save her friends. It had all been done for this, everything was connected, and unless she wanted her friends to die, Chou had to move and act with purpose. With a breath, she calmed herself and exploded out her temporary refuge into a flurry of motion.

She hacked through bodies, not caring about the blood. The mask she was wearing kept the viscous red fluid from getting into her eyes and possibly hampering her eyesight. She went at them with no mercy, calling out words she couldn’t hear, couldn’t even think. Her body was a maelstrom of destruction and blood rained down from the slaughter. For despite their guns and superior numbers nothing could stop Chou and Destiny’s Wave, they slid through anything that moved in front of them as if it were nothing, less than nothing. They had become one and the dance of death wove through the enemy.

The smile that played across her face was cold and feral, as if a wild spirit of vengeance and death stalked the land through her body. All she did was cut the wheat and chaff from around her, constantly moving forwards, towards him, towards the dark man, towards the source of all this pain. She howled as the tide of bodies grew thicker and he moved farther away. Chou would drink his very soul for this, this desecration, this act of unforgivable pain. The Dark Man would die. This the Handmaid of the Tao vowed.