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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 Whateley Gang

Whateley 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 Fire
Tuesday 23 January 2007

Chou awoke warm under her comforter with Molly in her arms, and this made her smile. She snuggled next to the girl and sighed happily, content with the way her life had played out. To her, from where she was in her life, this situation with Molly was a good thing. In some ways, she liked this over having sex, but that was only getting better. She figured that it had something to do with her maturing and becoming more open to new things. If so, she was looking forward to how things would develop between them given the fact that it looked like they would be together a long, long time. Time was most definitely on their side.

She nuzzled Molly’s head lovingly, breathing in the soft scent of the girl’s shampoo and the girl’s own natural scent. After last night and the madness that exploded, this had been a need rather than a desire. The comfort she had gotten from sleeping with her love was what she had needed, as had her beloved. With Molly’s family targeted, what else was there to do? They had both woken up several times from nightmares and the comforting presence had been a blessing. It had chased most of the nightmares away.

That damned note, that cursed thing written in blood, had simply appeared in her room and she didn’t know how. Security had descended upon their room like a wave and scoured her room for everything that could quite possibly be regarded as a clue. If there were any forensic clues to be had in the room, they had surely gathered them. Being told to stay out of this situation and to not fly off the handle had been hard to take, but who would argue with Lady Astarte when she was clearly irritated over this. Everyone in Team Kimba wanted in on this, wanted in on some retribution against the Tong of the Black Madonna, and they had been told, in no uncertain terms, that they would not get involved or there would be hell to pay. Ayla had made a call, which helped calm Molly down, but Toni was clearly wanting to go deliver a severe smackdown on the Tong, for good measure of course.

Chou untangled herself from the still sleeping girl and kissed Molly on the forehead. Molly snuggled under the blankets, grabbing Chou’s pillow in place of her, sighing contentedly. Chou smiled and quickly dressed. Tai Chi would help calm her down and get her centered enough to deal with this screwed up situation without panic. She just couldn’t let the Harringtons die, since they had been so nice and had accepted her so readily that she almost felt a part of their family. She just couldn’t let anything bad happen to them, not if she could save them like she hadn’t been able to do with her father.

After she finished in the bathroom, taking care of her bladder’s insistence, she ran into Nikki on the redhead’s way to the toilets. Nikki took one look at her friend and stopped, “Chou, are you alright?”

The Asian girl thought about the question and about how she felt before she answered honestly, “Not really, but I will be.”

Nikki nodded in understanding and said, “See you outside.”

Chou walked down the stairs, sighing to herself as she headed outside. Her life was getting too crazy and after getting beaten severely going after that magic circle, she really wanted to avoid fights for a while, and yet here she was, being dragged into yet another one. One in which she would probably have to kill a number of people, something that really didn’t appeal to her in the least. Nevertheless, what were her options, honestly? The Tong would kill her without hesitation, so shouldn’t she have the same attitude?

She stepped out into the cold, shifting her breathing to stoke the fires of her chi and warm her up. In moments, the feel of cold faded dramatically, and she moved out into the snow to begin her forms. As she loosened her back some, twisting at her hips, Boudicea and Fey walked out. Chou smiled at what amounted to her students and soon the three of them began the form.

Lost in the movements of the Wudang form, Chou tried to let all of her tension go, to flow smoothly from one move to the next, without pause or hesitation. It helped calm her down some, but once the form was complete she was back to where she started, tense and nervous about the Tong and that fucking note. The sword sparring the three of them did, did not help all that much either and Chou was distracted enough that even Fey was able to score a point against her. She shook her head to clear it, trying to get her head back from the endless ruminations.

Once the Tai Chi was finished, the shower helped to relax her, to loosen her tightened muscles, but Chou was still in her own world of worry over things. She got dressed, barely noticing the fact that Molly was smiling appreciatively when she lowered the towel, as the Summoner had gotten dressed while Chou had been in the shower. Molly moved from the bed and slid in front of Chou, kissing the girl passionately. That helped more than anything else did to calm Chou’s troubled thoughts and to settle her mind. How Molly always managed to slip around her to kiss her amazed Chou. How would one go about figuring out the ranking for ninja kissing anyway? Was there even a scale? And did it need to be reported on an MID?

“Let’s go eat something baby,” said Molly, running her hand down her girlfriend’s face. “We have a long day ahead of us. We have to talk to Chief Delarose and get that going and still deal with classes.”

Chou frowned at this and then nodded. “Let me grab my stuff and we can head out.”

The two girls headed off towards the dining hall, both wishing that Crystal Hall would reopen soon because the food was better and it was a nicer place that didn’t have all the downfalls of practically every school cafeteria in America. That, and Ayla would moan less about the food. At least, some members of Team Kimba were hoping that, as Ayla’s food rants were slowly growing more bitter and cutting than before.

They walked slowly towards the replacement dining hall with both girls wishing they could hold each other’s hand.

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Breakfast had not really helped Chou to calm down, and the bitter tang of the black tea that she had drunk wasn’t really helping her mood or helping her wake up more. Everyone had been a bit tense because of last night’s fun and games with Security, and it showed in the somewhat stilted conversation that they were having.

“I told you Toni, I have your family covered. Relax. There’s no need to race down to Baltimore to save them,” said Ayla for the third time that morning, clearly getting tired of reminding the martial artist of that fact.

“Those bastards are threatening my family. I want to go beat some heads,” growled Toni, clearly riled as she was vibrating in her seat, wanting to explode into action.

Nikki sighed and remarked calmly, “Look, I know you’re worried about your folks, but Mrs. Carson was quite clear about our needing to stay out of this situation. She told us that it was going to be taken care of, and that we should just trust in the adults to be able to handle this. She also made it clear that if we do anything, detention will not be the worse thing that happens to us.”

Toni huffed, as if defeated, and then whined, “I just want to beat those jackasses down.”

Chou sighed, weary over this whole situation, “I am so sorry that I got you guys involved in this.”

Toni turned to face her, “Chou, this isn’t your fault.”

“But they are coming after me,” countered Chou.

“But you’re our friend. Our teammate,” insisted Toni.

“But I put your family in danger.”

“But it isn’t your fault that happened.”

“But I…”

“Shush!” demanded Jade forcefully. “You’re our friend, and we share our pain when we have to. So shut up and accept it! Honestly, Chou!”

Both Chou and Toni looked suitably chastised at the outburst and both looked down at their food. The others at the table were now looking at the young girl who had stopped their discussion in surprise. Jade rarely if ever snapped like that. The girl continued as if unaware of all of the attention she was getting from her teammates. “Now stop worrying and eat.”

Tennyo blinked at her roommate. “Uhm… Jade?”

“Yes onee-san?” Jade smiled beatifically up at her roommate.

“What was that about?”

“Well, they were being silly and I wanted some quiet. Besides, I am sure one of them is the culprit.”

“What culprit?” asked Hank, almost certain that he didn’t want to know.

“The Panty Thief.” Jade sat there looking indignant.

Chou got a chill up her spine when she heard that, and she shook her head hoping that it wasn’t true. There was no way that this was happening again. Surely, that would not happen yet again and only add to her stress. There had to be another explanation, any explanation for their disappearance.

“Panty Thief?” asked Bunny, worried about her own unmentionables.

“Yep. Some of my favorite Hello Kitty panties are missing.”

Chou’s fear came out as she began muttering, “No, no, no, no not again.”

Nikki turned to look at the girl and asked, “Not again? Not again what?”

“Who was the last Panty Thief we know about?” asked Chou, with a sense of impending doom in her voice.

“Oh crap!” said several others, realizing who Chou was talking about and grabbing their butts unconsciously as if trying to protect the underwear they had on.

“He’s not here is he?” asked Hank, a bit worried.

“Who the hell knows!” grumbled Chou. “That bastard comes and goes as he pleases, and there isn’t really anything anybody can do to him to stop him.”

Molly looked at her watch and then eeped in surprise. “We gotta go. We’re gonna be late to see Chief Delarose.”

Toni and Chou leapt to their feet and grabbed their stuff. Chou called out, “See you in class!”

Toni hefted Molly, being better able to do that and run, and the two martial artists raced away, using their Chi to make them move faster. In a very short period of time the three of them reached the Security office. Toni smirked as she set down Molly, “See, we made it on time.”

Molly just rolled her eyes in response.

The three teens entered the building and did not have to wait very long at all. They were ushered quickly into Chief Delarose’s office by the desk sergeant. The three then sat nervously as Chief Delarose went through some more paperwork, sipping his coffee. He looked pretty rough, like he hadn’t slept at all. He looked up at them and smiled ever so slightly. “It will be okay, girls. There are a few supers watching both of your families, and the Headmistress is in the process of getting the alumni involved in going after these idiots. This situation will be dealt with swiftly and decisively. Never fear.”

Molly said shyly, “Thank you Chief Delarose.”

“It’s not a problem, Miss Harrington. Now, I was going to brief you on what we are going to do tomorrow so you are aware of what is planned. Chou, you are going to deliver the sword to them.”

“What?!” objected Chou. “You’re kidding… right?”

“Nope. Remember that we are going to have Caitlin Bardue, who I am aware you are friends with, build a replica of the sword. That replica is what you will give away to the Tong. There will be a tracer built into it, which will lead us to their local base. Then a team of instructors will hit the site and take it out. Your families are currently being watched by people we can trust, so they are safe for now and we have teleporters ready to go in and get them out should a fight start. They will be kept safe. Any questions?”

“No sir,” replied the three girls.

“Miss Chandler, Miss Harrington, we have secure phones in another room so you can call your families in order to make sure they are safe. Go ahead and call them,” softly ordered Chief Delarose.

When the others were gone, Delarose turned to Chou and said, “Tomorrow all you have to do is walk to where the drop is and hand off the sword. Can you handle that?”

Chou nodded. “What if they attack me?”

“Drop them. Hard. Don’t give them a chance for a second shot. And if you don’t drop them, Ms. Everheart will do it for you,” he replied, his voice somewhat cold. “Now go to class. We will talk more about what is going on tomorrow before the drop. It will be okay, Chou. Have a little faith in us.”

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Chou blinked as she looked up at Samantha in confusion and a little fear, “You… you want me to do what?”

“You’re one of the red teams today. So, think about what sort of villain lair you want and everything. You have a few minutes while the first team runs through their sim, and then it’s your turn.” Sam walked off to go get things ready for the first run-through as her favorite misfits, Outcast Corner, were going up against Generator and Shroud. Jade had been really looking forward to it.

Chou sat there staring blankly forward, feeling kind of stunned. She was going to be a red team? There was no way she could really do this, especially not today. Toni leaned forward and whispered, “That’s my girl… kick their ass!”

“I’m not sure I can,” stated Chou, clearly stressing over the matter.

Hank leaned forward and said, “Chou, you can do this. You’re smart, you’re quick, you can fight at Toni’s level, and you can move through shadows easily thanks to your Robe. You can handle this.”

The Asian girl clearly did not look impressed with those points. She wrung her hands a bit as she tried to think of anything she could have in her lair and couldn’t come up with anything. Her roommate noticed this and said, “Look Chou, Hank is right. You can do this and do it well. What you need to do is set the stage so that everything in there is to your advantage. With the Robe, I would say it should be dark. And if you can manage to get them paranoid then that will make them do most of the work.”

“But me versus a team?” worried Chou.

“Will you have Destiny’s Wave, that Robe of Midnight, your bag of holding?” countered Ayla. “You have a lot of options and should use those. You need to fight smart not hard, just like they have been telling us since this class started. Traps… traps would be good. Take them out one at a time, so you only have to stress over one target at a time. Freak them out, so they don’t think straight. Things like that. Use their psychology against them. That will help you win this with no problem.”

Hank looked thoughtful, as if something had just occurred to him. “Subsonics. Those should work well.”

“Subsonics?” Chou was clearly a bit confused by that, as she wasn’t all that familiar with the word.

“You know when you are around machinery and you start to feel a little paranoid?” replied Hank, happily taking the time to explain what he was talking about.

She nodded, following him. She had experienced that, back when she had been Alex when she had been lost at a gun show and ended up in the machine room. It had been really creepy, and she had been so happy to see the Security Guard.

“Those are subsonics. It’s a sound that you can’t hear that gets you all nervous. That should creep them out enough to make them easy targets.”

Ayla grinned at Chou, knowing that he could build on that. “If you freak them out and go after them full on, there is nothing and no one that can stop you.”

“Hey!” protested Tennyo, clearly affronted.

“Ginsu Two goes right through a tomato and can still cut this can,” quipped Toni.

Tennyo blushed and then mumbled, “I’m not a tomato.”

“Sorry. That should have been cheesecake,” teased Toni.

Tennyo took the responsible and mature response, and stuck her tongue out at Fey’s roommate.

Several people laughed, and that helped Chou calm down a little bit more. Maybe she could actually do this. Since her transformation, she had fought several supervillains, numerous very powerful beings, and guys in power armor… and she was still here. Maybe Caitlin was right and a highly trained baseline was a danger to mutants. She had lots of training in lots of different areas, and if she went after her opponents with all of her skills then she could really do a number on them.

Just as she was starting to feel a little more confident about her chances of succeeding in this task, Samantha came back into the room. “Bladedancer, you’re up. Let’s head on down to the sim rooms and get ready. I’ll be down there to help you plan, in a little bit. You’ll do just fine.”

Chou swallowed heavily and stood, her nervousness rushing right back. Toni cheered her on, “Kick their ass!”

Sam stopped and glared at Toni. “Miss Chandler, language of that kind is not appropriate in the classroom.”

“Yes, Miss Everheart.”

Chou smiled slightly when she saw Toni looking a bit abashed. It was fun when Toni was caught when doing something simple, as the girl seemed to get away with almost everything. They headed down the hall and Sam said, “Okay, get changed into your sim suit and meet me in the hall. I’ll take you to get your lair planned and we can get started.”

<Gah!>

<Calm down Chou. It won’t be as bad as you think.> replied Ayla, trying to make sure that her roommate was calm enough to succeed at this. <You have this if you calm down.>

<I’m just really nervous and a bit scared.> admitted Chou.

<Can anyone here be any more frightening than our favorite villain and his cohorts? The Omegas are nothing to sweat over. Remember the kinds of things that they are told at the debriefs and you should be able to tear them apart.> Ayla did have a point there. But then again, he usually had a point, especially early in the morning, not that Chou missed that. <This is just for training and will be a piece of cake. Just kick their asses and it will all be good.>

Chou chuckled. Once again, her roommate helped her deal with something that was bothering her. She had no idea where she would be without Ayla. He was her best friend and she liked that. He had helped her more than Dr. Bellows ever had in coping with her new life and its challenges. <Okay… thanks everyone. I’m gonna take this off so I don’t get distracted during the sim.>

<Good idea.> said Hank. <Good luck.>

The line went dead. Chou got to the locker room to get dressed for this run. She was really worried, as when she was in the sims she had none of the extra bonuses that the Tao gave her, just what her training had granted her. How was she going to take out a team of super powered teens alone, without any powers or bonuses of her own?

Chou almost smacked herself for being an idiot. What was it that Caitlin had been trying to beat into her head, as well as Dyffud? It wasn’t powers that made the difference in these sorts of situations but rather training and tactics? That green grunt from basic had kicked her ass several times before she had been able to get him. Training was of far greater importance than power, especially if she was able to choose her battlefield. She smiled and relaxed. Maybe she could do this and win? Her friends believed in her, so maybe it would be okay?

She folded up her clothes and put them in the locker. She began to put on the skin tight Sim Suit that Ayla had bought for her. It was a weird feeling and left her painfully aware of her body, as it clung to her like a second skin. She sighed and tried to clear her thoughts, as there was no real need to dwell on the fact that she had transformed all those months ago. It still depressed her to think about it, and besides it wasn’t like there was anything she could do about it right now anyway. No box, no changing. Once fully in her Sim Suit she grabbed Destiny’s Wave and her bag, heading out towards the room where she would be briefed and plan out her Sim run.

What should she do? Ayla got all tricky with hers, laying clues here and there, but Chou was quite aware that in a lot of ways she wasn’t as smart, or at the very least as educated as her roommate. She would need something that would work to her advantage and would unnerve her opponents. The creepy subsonics was a great idea as well, if for no other reason but to make people jumpy. The dark would work nicely, since she had the Robe of Midnight and could move between the shadows. That might work. Maybe in something like tunnels, with pipes and steam and subsonics? But what else? She really needed to unnerve them.

Chou tried to figure out what she might do if she were an Agent of Evil instead of an Agent for Balance. Going after them mercilessly would be a start, attacking them as hard and as fast as Caitlin was teaching her, taking them out before they had a chance to hurt her. So go for blood? Kill them? That didn’t sound good to her, but she was supposed to be the villain in this scenario, so maybe it would be okay. Zombies? There were a number of nasty Chinese Undead things she could have brought forth if needed, according to what Becca was telling her. Maybe that would be good for this? At the very least she did have one reanimation spell that could at least get a body up and moving in the direction she sent it.

When she got into the room, Sam was waiting for her. Sam noted how nervous the girl looked and smiled reassuringly. “Sit down, Chou. Now do you have any ideas for your lair?”

“Well, I was thinking of something underground, like in tunnels filled with steam, like the reactor complex in Aliens. Also having it mostly dark would be good as well, since the Robe lets me see in darkness fairly easily, with flickering lights. And maybe, the subsonics that machines make? That would be nice as well. But here is what I was thinking for at the end…”

Sam listened to Chou’s ideas, smiling a few times, adding a few ideas of her own in order to achieve what the girl seemed to have in mind. She shook her head a few times at some of the ideas Chou had, as they were a bit over the top. This would be fun to program and would be a good lesson for everyone. She passed the information off to the tech, and told Chou to head to the Sim Chamber. “Get ready Chou and let’s see how you do.”

Chou nodded and smiled to herself. This was going to be fun; at least she hoped it would be. She was a bit skittish about going after those students like Caitlin told her to, with no mercy and no restraint. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, repeating to herself over and over, “They will not die. This is just a sim. They will not die. This is just a sim. They will not die.”

She could do this. The tone sounded and she dropped into the scenario. She had a short amount of time before the other team got there and she slipped into the shadows near the entry point to be prepared for the first strike. She had to do this, full out, no mercy, and she had to remember that they would not die when she killed them.

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The Omega Squad appeared in some dark area, looking around quickly. There were pipes everywhere and the steam only added to the gloom caused by the flickering lights. There was a strange skin-crawling sensation they all felt and it made them turn their heads back and forth, straining their eyes to see through the near dark, searching for something that lurked just out of sight. Grapple asked, “Where the hell are we?”

Before anyone could answer, there was a massive bang and a flash. They quickly grouped together, facing out and trying to get the ringing out of their ears, rubbing the spots that were floating in front of them out. Eruption yelled out, “Is everyone okay?”

Confundus answered, her voice shaking a little, trying to see past the spots in her eyes, “Yes. I’m good.”

“I’m fine,” grumbled Grapple, shaking his head to clear out the ringing.

Crimson said in her soprano voice, “What happened?”

“I think it was something like a flashbang grenade,” commented Eruption, looking around more closely as the spots before his eyes faded. “Blacklight, are you okay?”

There was no answer.

The Omega Squad turned to face their team member who was standing there, in the spot he was supposed to be. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with him except for the fact that he wasn’t moving or talking. Grapple came over and nudged the boy who was all dressed in all black. Blacklight fell over, still in the same position he had been in. There was a moment of silence and surprise before Confundus snerked happily, “He’s out first. Hah! That's fifty bucks you owe me.”

“Crap! I was sure he wouldn't be the first one down!” It was clear that Eruption was irritated by that. Fifty bucks was a good chunk of change for anybody to lose.

Grapple snapped at them, “There’s no time for this crap. We have to make it through this first. So just shut up and let’s go.”

Crimson replied, “Calm down Grapple! Christ, can’t you just give it a rest already. You weren’t elected leader for this Sim Run.”

Grapple sneered at the girl, “I know, but Blackie there went and got himself paralyzed right out the gate. So since our fearless leader has been taken out, what do you suggest we do?”

Eruption stepped forward with a purpose, “I can take over.”

Confundus shook her head, waving a hand dismissively, “You’ve lost every engagement you lead us through. No way. I say Crimson should have her chance to lead.”

The two boys grumbled about that choice but yielded. Eruption snickered and asked, “So what now, Boss?”

Crimson looked out at the steam and darkness as if trying to figure out what they needed to do. “Let’s go forward. According to the briefing we got, the main part of the lair is this way.”

The group walked down the corridor, their skins crawling. They began to expect something exploding out of the darkness after them. The distant light source flickered, making the shadows dance even more, giving the illusion of shadows moving in the steam. They reached an intersection and stopped. Crimson bit her lip and then face palmed. With a sigh at her own folly she said, “Confundus, could you scan for whoever is down here? I should have asked you earlier for that. I guess my head is still ringing from the flashbang.”

Confundus shrugged, “No problem. Let me find them and we can get this over with.”

The PDP stretched out her power, to scan for the mind of whoever was facing them. She had her eyes closed for even greater concentration. She felt the mind and realized just how close they were. She blurted out, “Oh crap!!”

A shadow separated from the wall and drove a sword right through Confundus’s chest, tearing apart her heart and lung as the slash was yanked out the side. Blood filled the air along one side of the body, the scream fading as the air from her lungs sprayed the blood everywhere.

Crimson’s eyes nearly bulged in surprise and she screamed, “NO!!”

The shadow dodged the red energy blasts that flared in the near dark. The two boys stood there in shock, gaping at the slashed-open body of their teammate. This mission was not going anything like they had expected. Still, when Eruption found his voice he said, “That’s fifteen you owe me, Grapple.”

“Fuck you, jackass. Didn’t you see what they did to Confundus?”

“Yep. I guess we have to be a bit more proactive here.”

Crimson growled at the two boys, “Let’s find and kill that fucker!”

The trio continued down the corridor, a bit slower now and a lot more wary than they were earlier. The light source flickered more, going out for a few seconds at a time, plunging them into complete darkness. They began to look around them a bit faster, sure that whoever they were facing would come out of the darkness and kill them just like they had Confundus. They turned as one when they heard a sound coming down one corridor. Crimson let loose with several shots, the red energy providing light in the gloom. Eruption blasted several things as well, the two of them firing in an overlapping pattern that should remove the problem, destroying whatever lay ahead.

The Sim didn’t end.

They heard a low moan from behind them and they turned as one. In the flickering light, the trio could see a figure moving towards them slowly. The light seemed brighter now and they could see that it was Confundus, moving at a slow shuffling gait, a narrow strip of paper stuck to her forehead. The girl slowly raised her arms and moaned again.

“What the fuck? Kill it!” Eruption and Crimson both blasted their teammate apart, before the zombie reached them. They looked around worriedly, wondering if there were more zombies about waiting to attack them. Crimson looked pensive, as she though about her fate if she were killed and turned into a zombie. She shivered.

Eruption interrupted her musing, “You know, with this Chinese stuff I think we may be facing Bladedancer.”

Grapple chuckled, “That should be easy since she is a norm.”

“She’s the norm who took out two of our teammates with ease, so stuff it,” snapped Crimson. She hated this Sim, as she just felt so jumpy and on edge. A shiver ran up her spine and she struggled not to shake.

Grapple was irritated because the two blasters were getting all the fun. He was a close in fighter and there wasn’t anything to fight yet. This was really beginning to piss him off.

Something flickered through the mist off to one side. Grapple pointed and yelled, “There!”

The two blasters again let loose, raining energetic death down the corridor. Nothing.

The Sim continued.

They continued down the corridor, ready to blast anything that moved, when they heard this strange sound. A kind of haunting flute sound playing discordantly somewhere in the distance. Crimson screamed, “Gah! I hate this!”

Eruption stumbled over something on the floor and a warm iron-smelling liquid poured down on them, with a few solid objects hitting them, some tangling in their hair. They sputtered and tried to wipe the stuff off. That was when they noticed that the solid things were bits and pieces of human bodies, some of which looked gnawed upon. Crimson screamed in fear, staring at the blood that covered her from head to toe. A shadow detached itself from the wall as the three teammates were shaking in disgust and a bit of fear.

Eruption heard a noise and looked up, seeing a shadowy figure in front of him. “Behind us!”

As he brought his armored gauntlet up, to fire his energy blast, the figure crouched down under the path of fire and slashed out, going right through the armor that protected his midsection, digging through flesh, and tearing the stomach open. The shadowy figure spun away and fled from Crimson’s blasts as Eruption’s guts spilled out onto the floor.

Eruption began gibbering as he dropped onto his knees, scrambling to put his ropy, slick intestines back into his ruined flesh. “My guts… my guts…”

Crimson screamed again, her throat growing raw. Grapple rushed over to his friend and tried to help him gather his intestines which slid through his calloused hands. He held Eruption as his friend’s body shuddered and then breathed his last. Grapple growled angrily, lowered his friend to the ground and yelled out, “Bladedancer, I am going to kill you!!”

Crimson shuddered some, as she tried to get the blood off her. She eeped in fear when she pulled a finger from her long hair, throwing it onto the ground. “This isn’t right… this isn’t right.”

“Shut up Crimson. Let’s get this bitch.”

As the duo rushed down the tunnels, the light grew brighter and the steam cleared away, revealing a gate. There were flaming cauldrons next to it and torches burning on it. The entire gate looked like it was made with a combination of wood, bones, and flesh, and it oozed wetly. They could see a figure in Chinese robes standing there, in front of the door, smirking at them. As Crimson took some wild shots at the figure she laughed, a cold hollow laugh and moved through the swirling energy within the portal.

The two teammates looked at each other, unsure what they should do. Crimson asked nervously, “Want to go through?”

Grapple nodded brusquely, still determined to kill their opponent. “She’s our objective, let’s go.”

The two of them walked through the energy field, which felt warm and runny, like the blood had, making Crimson shiver in disgust. What they walked into from the gate was something that could have been plucked from their nightmares. Bodies hung upside down, some people still alive, wrapped in chains, screaming in pain as cuts slowly covered their bodies, one at a time, trickles of blood and gobbets of flesh dripped from the hanging figures onto the ground below them. Crimson danced about, trying to avoid getting dripped on by the thick fluid that fell like rain.

Grapple saw a figure move up ahead, so he shouted, “This way!”

He rushed forward, hoping to get his hands on Bladedancer and beat her into submission or maybe even beyond. Crimson was still shaking, distracted and afraid, and so she didn’t see Grapple move away. When the figure appeared out of the dark and struck her several times in certain pressure points, her body was paralyzed with a rictus of fear and surprise on her face.

Grapple turned, realizing that his were the only footsteps he was hearing. “Crimson? Crimson?!”

He rushed back the way he had come, back to Crimson, who was lying on the ground while small misshapen demonic-looking beings were slowly wrapping her in chains that led up to the ceiling. With a kick and several punches, he drove them off. He tossed the chains that around her legs into the darkness. “Crimson?!”

“Unh…” moaned the girl, eyes wide in fright. She was struggling to communicate with him and she could not.

He picked her up, and turned, planning to flee back through the portal. When he turned to go, the portal they had come to this place through was gone. He snapped out, “Fuck!”

A cold voice called out mockingly, “Come. Come and face me, if you dare.”

Grapple rushed forward, leaving Crimson who tried to shriek in fear as she fell to the floor. He ran through the dripping blood, out of the hanging bodies, and into an open arena of blood red sand, built in a circle. At one end stood the Chinese garbed figure, smirking at him, as she was perfectly clean and his body was covered in blood and bits of flesh, obscuring his uniform. She held her sword at the ready, a cruel smile on her face.

“Using a crutch like that? Fight me hand to hand if you dare!” challenged Grapple angrily, almost shaking in his rage.

Bladedancer snickered and replied, “Very well. I shall face you as you wish, boy.”

She unbound the sheath and slid the jade green sword back in. She then carefully laid her sword to the side, never taking her eyes off him. She made a fist with her right hand, placed it against the open palm of her left, and bowed slightly. She ran through a somewhat complex hand and arm display ending with one hand out front in a knife hand. She turned her hand, palm facing her and gestured for him to advance upon her with her fingers. “Shall we?”

Grapple rushed forward, his arms widening, looking to grapple with her. She giggled, spun behind him, and playfully swatted him on the back of his head with an open palm. He turned quickly, closing with a series of punches, kicks, knees, and elbows. Bladedancer batted each attack away, turning most of them back onto him, making him stumble a few times. She was just accepting his attacks, just managing to stand outside of his reach, often by just a millimeter or so. His anger grew as he tried to set his hands on her, that anger fanned higher by her giggling.

He finally connected with her solidly and he felt the power of his electricity attack fire off, but she seemed to take it better than he was expecting. She slid back out of his reach, did something with her hands, as if stirring or turning some invisible thing. She then launched forwards and slipped through his guard, driving a series of punches into him. Grapple collapsed, feeling drained. It hurt to breathe. Bladedancer stood there impassively as everything in the Sim faded to black.

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Chou disengaged herself from the system, trembling, saying to herself, “They weren’t killed. They weren’t killed. It was just a Sim. They weren’t killed.”

She stood shakily as a voice came over the intercom and said, “Red Team, please report to Briefing Room 2.”

Chou picked up her stuff, shivering as if she were cold. She had done as Caitlin had told her, going for their weaknesses and showing no mercy. She had fought that battle as hard and as strong as she could, so why did she feel so dirty? Why did she feel so unclean, as if she had just done something terrible?

The Asian girl walked through the hall and reached the Briefing room in question. When she entered all eyes turned to face her and almost none of them were friendly. Grapple glared at her, as did the rest of them, clearly shaken, especially Crimson. Gunny Bardue smiled at her and said, “Omega Squad, here is your Red Team. Bladedancer, why don’t you tell them what your battle plan was?”

Chou nodded, wanting nothing more than to get this over with and to get out of there. “Since you guys seem to have some command issues I decided to divide and conquer. Because of my ability to blend into shadows, I went after Blacklight first, as he was arguably the biggest threat. I just paralyzed him, as there really was no reason to do anything else. I had also set subsonic noise generators in the area, as well as made sure that the steam and the flickering light was distracting, magnified shadows and worked to make you paranoid.”

“What about the blood?” demanded Eruption.

Chou shrugged, “Being drenched in blood would be disconcerting enough that you would stop for a moment and I could get one of you. It would also serve to unnerve you. Keeping you on edge would make sure you couldn’t effectively use your powers against me.”

“Which it did,” stated Bardue. “You let a number of small external factors distract you all from your goal, and your lack of teamwork allowed Bladedancer to cut you all to pieces. I noticed two things about your approach. One, you moved and approached this scenario a lot like Eldritch, and two, you stayed non-lethal more often than not, choosing attacks and traps that wouldn’t kill.”

Chou bit her lip and said, “”Well, Caitlin fights hard and fast, taking whatever advantage she can from a situation. I realized that if they knew how to work together they'd be dangerous, so I did what I could to disrupt that and keep them off guard. And I really didn’t want to kill any of them.”

“So why did you kill Confundus and Eruption?” asked Bardue, watching Chou carefully.

“Well, Confundus rushed me, since she was spotting me just before I struck. And I had to cut Eruption because of his armor. I couldn’t use nerve strikes through armor so it was the most effective way I had to neutralize him.” Chou shuddered slightly as she remembered the sight of Eruption on his knees in the pool of blood and flesh, clutching at his tumbled guts. Her bile rose up her gorge and she worked to swallow it back down.

“Good work Bladedancer. Omega Squad, tomorrow we will go over your failure in class, to demonstrate some of your mistakes. Make sure to do your own write-ups tonight and are ready to explain things. Dismissed.”

Chou was first out the door and she raced down the hall, to avoid the two girls in the Omegas as best she could. Her stomach was jumping and she closed her eyes to try to swallow her bile at what she had done. She was shaking as she took off her Sim suit and hung it up in her closet. The two girls entered the locker room as Chou slipped inside the shower, still avoiding looking at them. Other voices entered the locker room as well, but she ignored them.

The cold water hit her body, shocking Chou into more coherence, and she recalled the looks of fear and pain on the Omega Squad faces. She had torn into them with just a little mercy, but her scenario had been designed to unnerve and shake up her opponents, which had succeeded in spades. Is that the kind of fighter she was going to become? Someone willing to kill with such ease, brutally fucking with other people’s minds? Her body shook and a wave of weakness rolled over her, dropping her to her knees, trying to hold back the heaves, and she failed. Chou vomited onto the tiles of the shower, shaking and crying.

She rocked back and forth, images from the Sim rushing through her head, images of death and blood and gore and bodies dripping with fluids and gobbets and the screams of those who died and my guts, my guts… and the smiling face of Andy McWilliams, unaware that he was smiling into the face of his killer, a girl who was going to murder him in cold blood on the word of her Mentor. She hurled again, her sobs growing louder between the heaves.

Confundus called out when she saw the girl, “Gross!”

Crimson stood there in the doorway of the shower area, shocked by what she was seeing, of the girl who had so brutally cut through her teammates like they had been wheat, of the girl who had built a scenario that still had her shaking and afraid and was probably going to give her nightmares.

She was shoved aside as Tennyo rushed through. Billie dropped to her knees and held Chou tightly as the girl sobbed heavily, occasionally dry heaving. Tennyo turned to face the girls jammed up in the doorway and yelled, “Get help!!”

Confundus rushed off, as Crimson stood there shocked into immobility. A few other girls stood there as well, watching, trying to figure out what could have happened to have gotten the girl so upset.

The PDP girl rushed up to where Gunny Bardue was talking to the Outcast Corner people, towel clutched tightly about herself. “Gunny Bardue, Bladedancer is freaking out in the bathroom, crying and vomiting.”

Gunny turned to face Caitlin and growled out quietly, “You're teaching her to do this; you help her get through the emotional consequences.”

The Artificer glared at Bardue for a moment, rolled her eyes and then muttered, “I so need a raise for this shit.”

Caitlin rushed towards the girl’s locker room, passing Confundus and seeing the whispering mob of girls at the entrance of the shower. This irritated Caitlin to no end, to see those carrion crows circling around just bugged the crap out of her. She barked out at near Drill Sergeant volume and tone, “All of you out!  NOW!”

As the mob scattered, she saw Tennyo looking up hesitantly at Caitlin as she protectively held the still shaking and sobbing Chou. The former Marine firmed her expression and said, “Tennyo, you can stay.”

The Artificer came over and crouched down next to the nearly naked girl. Tennyo had turned off the water and had covered the Asian girl with her towel, turning her away from the vomit. Caitlin’s voice was soft, a softness she would deny having if ever asked, “Chou… are you okay?”

Through the sniffles, Caitlin made out a faint no. She continued, “Is this about what you did in the Sim?”

Chou just nodded, trying to shut out the images that still ran through her head.

“About the killing?”

Again, just a nod.

Caitlin sighed. She had figured that the situation would be something along those lines. “Chou, you need to realize that feeling guilty over killing someone in a Sim means you doesn't have to worry that you might become like the sick assholes who think killing people is a thrill.”

“So... so… this is normal?” Chou looked up at her with red, puffy eyes and tear stained cheeks, clearly hoping for any sort of absolution.

“What, the guilt?” asked Caitlin, wanting to make sure that Chou was on the right track.

“Yeah,” muttered Chou, leaning against Tennyo, who was now holding her comfortingly and listening to Caitlin herself.

Caitlin looked down at her student and shook her head a little. “I'm going to share with you a little secret, and if you tell anyone I said this I'll kick you through Poe. This is not a joke. Do you understand? Both of you?”

The two girls nodded their heads, trying to figure out what she had to say that was so important that she had to threaten them.

“The first time I shot someone, I had nightmares about it for months; I had trouble eating, and couldn't stop seeing their face anywhere I looked. Yeah, guilt is normal in cases like this, but it’s not good if you let it paralyze you. This was a simulation. You fought the way you were trained, and when reason fails, training takes over.” Caitlin rested a hand on Chou in comfort.

Chou bit her bottom lip in thought over what she had done, reframed by what Caitlin had said. “So... this death and… you know… the other?”

“You're alive at the end to feel guilt.  That's the important part, Chou.” commented Caitlin. “So, what exactly did you do to get yourself in this state?”

Chou recounted the story in a flat voice, a voice she hadn’t used since the end of November. Both Tennyo and Caitlin were surprised with how vicious Chou had been in the sim, though Caitlin was more impressed with how her lessons had been taken to heart. Chou finished with, “And I can’t believe that I did that to anybody. It was horrible.”

Caitlin shook her softly to get her attention fully, “Look Chou, you need to realize that you are still alive to regret it afterwards. That's the hardest part to accept, but the bottom line.  There's a reason I don't like getting dragged into fights. The important thing to realize is that you can choose not to kill. Hell, you took the hard road in that Sim and incapacitated the enemies non-lethally when you could. You got caught and didn't have time to consider, so you had to take the most direct route to neutralizing a threat. It's how it always happens Chou, so don’t beat yourself over this.”

Chou sniffled, looked up, and said, “Okay...”

Caitlin smiled and said to her student, “You did good. Honestly, both of you two are better people than I am.  I hope you are allowed by life to remain so.”

Tennyo started in surprise at being included in that statement, “How do you know?”

“It's amazing what you learn about people just by paying attention, don't you think?” Caitlin smirked at the anime girl. “You are both good people who are not letting your powers run away with you. Now, how about you shower, get dressed, and go to lunch as well as kiss your girlfriend.”

Chou blushed at the mention of kissing Molly. That would certainly help her right now. She could use the TLC.

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Elizabeth Carson entered her office already irritated, despite how early in the day it was. Chief Delarose had already given her what updates he had from the notification process of various alumni but she had to call the people with the real power. There were a number of people she could get to help with this issue, but as Asia was outside of her usual sphere of influence, she needed to talk to a local player or players as well. Amelia could handle the other calls that needed to be made for the most part, or at least do the initial contact but this was a call she had to make herself.

With a flip through her filofax, she sighed and dialed the number she had been given. She really did not enjoy talking to Iron Dragon as he was so very, very anti-anyone not Asian that it could get in the way of things. At least the violation of the neutrality pact should be enough to get him involved in this particular incident. The phone rang a few times and then answered. “Hello?”

“Yes, this is Headmistress Carson calling.”

“One moment.” The line was quiet and Elizabeth was sure that someone was going to get Iron Dragon. She hoped that she would not have to wait long.

A deep voice that was somewhat accented answered a touch angrily, “What?”

Elizabeth frowned. The calls never went well when they started out that way. “I just wanted to inform you that the Neutrality Pact has been violated by somebody in your neck of the woods.”

“Who?”

“The Tong of the Black Madonna.”

“And this involves me how exactly. You know I will not move on my Brothers in Arms against the corrupt West.”

“They are targeting a student I believe that you have some interest in.” Elizabeth was so glad that Amelia had been able to find where that particular hacker had been from. That made this particular conversation so much easier on her.

“And who might that be? If it were my daughter you would have already said.”

“It is Bladedancer.”

The line went quiet. She could hear breathing and could imagine the evil genius of Asian crime standing there, stroking his Fu Manchu in thought. When he spoke, his voice was calm. “I cannot move against them directly but I will not interfere in any action you might take against them. My daughter might be a source of information for you on their organization. That is all that I can do for you in this matter. To take arms against them would show to others that I am helping the West. That I will not do. However, I will not aid them. Many of their ideals and actions stem from an older era and are a touch filled with madness. That is all I can say.”

“Thank you. I understand.” Carson sighed as she hung up. It was a bit much, asking the Iron Dragon to compromise his position in the East Asian underworld by acting on behalf of a de facto Western organization like Whateley, whether his daughter was a student there or not. Still, his promise of staying his hand against any force that Whateley might send, as well as the implicit promise that the Silver Serpent might have valuable information regarding the Tong of the Black Madonna, was more than she could have realistically asked. Normally, they would use the Whateley Alumni Association for something like this, but the WAA was sadly rather light in East Asia, though it was getting a little better year by year. Moreover, East Asia really did not like outsiders poking their noses into their affairs. She hit the intercom. “Amelia, any word yet from Dr. Diabolik?”

“No, but you do have an important call that’s been waiting. I think that you should take it.”

Carson checked the Caller ID. “Oh, CRAP, not him…” With an annoyed grunt, she ground out, “Okay, patch him over.”

The screen on Carson’s desktop PC flickered on, displaying the visage of a man, fingers steepled before him, seated in front of the sinister logo of the Syndicate. It appeared that he was backlit, making him merely a silhouette, yet the whites of his eyes were clearly visible. Carson knew that this was this man’s (current) chief affectation, and his distinctive look. “Okay, Dominus, what do you want?”

 “Please, Elizabeth,” the man’s silky monotone chided, “you know that I’ve never answered to the name ‘Dominus’. Call me Thomas.”

“Very well, Thomas, what do you want? I’m busy at the moment, and the Syndicate doesn’t have a lot of credit with us right now.”

“Yes, you’re busy. You’re trying to arrange a suitable response to the Tong of the Dark Madonna’s targeting of the families of two of your student’s families, in an attempt to coerce a third student.”

Carson didn’t ask how ‘Thomas’ knew that. Besides being the (current) head of the Syndicate, ‘Dominus’ was an A-list supervillain without the use of any (known) super powers. He styled himself the mysterious master of a vast international conspiracy that manipulated, where it didn’t totally control, practically every aspect of political, economic, military and criminal affairs. His ‘Shadow Men’ were renowned as one of the most effective covert operations organs in the world. ‘Dominus’ and his shadow teams appeared out of nowhere, did vague mysterious things that often included massive property damage and civilian casualties, and then disappeared.

“And this involves you HOW?”

“You’re having difficulties locating agents or a force that can project force into the East Asian sphere, as to remind the Tong that Whateley students and their families are off-limits. I’d like to offer the Syndicate’s Rapid Strike force to take out the Tong’s River Temple outside Sawankhalok, Thailand, and destroy the Tong’s opium fields and yaba factory there as well. The River Temple is one of the Tong’s premier holy sites, and the opium and yaba refinery counts for 43% of their income. I’ve already contacted five outlaw mystics who are interested, provided that we insure their anonymity and provide protection. This strike is a good fifteen points beneath the Syndicate’s minimum profit rating for a move of this scale, given the deadly potential ramifications. However, if the Syndicate does this on behalf of your Academy, well then, the profit/risk ratio skews decidedly towards the profit end.”

“You’re asking this, after what you did on Halloween?”

“Elizabeth, I’m offering this, because of what happened on Halloween. As I told you on November First, what I signed off on was a simple request for Security assistance from your Reverend Englund. He said that his trainee monster hunters had identified an unacceptable risk level entity that had taken up residence on Academy grounds, and they couldn’t risk running the beast to ground due to the risk of the students getting involved. The Sabertooths were to support Englund’s monster hunters in a brute force manhunt, using the annual Halloween celebrations as cover, while the Tiger Guard quarantined the area. There was NO suggestion that the actual target was a student, let alone the Kellith. And there was absolutely NOTHING in the request that even suggested attacking other students, or the implied looting of the school.”

“You should have known that it would have gone off the rails, the second that Deathlist got involved.”

“Deathlist wasn’t supposed to be involved. Elizabeth, do you honestly think that I’d send Deathlist anywhere in a thousand MILES of you?”

“Then how did he get involved?”

“Deathlist was the commander of the Sabertooths. He trained them, and we’ve been worried that they’re more loyal to him than they are to us. He was ordered to remove himself from the operation, but he ignored the order. He gave the commander of the Tiger Guard contingent written orders taking control of the operation away from Nimbus, and giving it to the Chessmaster. The Tiger Guard commander didn’t feel that he had the authority to override Deathlist.”

“Nimbus? Who’s this?”

“He’s a new player in the Syndicate. He only surfaced a few years ago, but he’s made some serious power moves, while managing to stay very much under the radar. He’s not on the Executive Committee. Yet.”

“Okay, and why do YOU want to take out the Tong?”

“Well, first of all, to make up for the Chessmaster’s attack on the school. Also, Whateley is an important lynchpin of the current… civility… between different factions of the Paranormal Covert Operations community. Besides not having to worry that some bloody-minded fool is going to take out his aggravations on our families, the Whateley Alumni Association allows for a level of civilized discourse between the white hats and the black hats. The Tong’s activities endanger not only your school, but set a dangerous precedent. Sending Syndicate troops to punish the Tong of the Black Madonna would send the message that the Syndicate is willing to support Whateley neutrality, AND serve as an apology. Also, we need an opportunity to field-test the vehicles and weaponry that we acquired to replace what was lost during the Halloween raid. And we need to blood the Sabertooths that replaced those who are still loyal to Deathlist. Oh, and by the way- the Syndicate is offering a $10 million bounty on the Chessmaster, and $25 million on Deathlist.”

Carson gave a sere smile. “How nice. AND it would send the message to the various Asian crime organizations that the Syndicate can project extreme force deep into Asia.”

“Actually, that’s one of the real complications. The Tongs, Triads, Yakuza, Secret Societies and so forth all hate each other with a passion, but they get very nervous when outsiders act against one of them. We have plans to take out all four of the Tong’s major sites, but we think that taking out all of them would provoke retaliation from the other factions in the area. Destroying the River temple is necessary, but ‘counting coup’ on the other three sites would send the right message while respecting the, ah, ‘delicate feelings’ of the other factions. I have plans for destroying the pirate docks at the Sea Temple near Kampot, flooding the Iron Temple in Mandalay with raw sewage, and a missile strike that would cover the Mountain Temple near Muong Sing with red paint. I think that that would send the right message, without causing the other factions to feel that saving face required retaliation.”

“And it would leave the Tong vulnerable, so the Triads could busy themselves with gobbling up their holdings,” Carson said wryly. “AND, come to think of it, maybe this would help shore up the Syndicate’s bottom line? Maybe by picking up the slack in moving opium out of the Golden Triangle?”

“The Syndicate does not plan to start moving into the Golden Triangle,” ‘Thomas’ said stiffly.

Carson smiled. She noticed that he said ‘start moving’; that said nothing about operations already in place. Every time she spoke with ‘Thomas’, that old sense of familiarity came back. “Very well, Thomas. Go ahead. We have other parties that may be interested in putting in their two cents. What can you tell me about your intended actions, to keep you from tripping over each other?”

“Tell them not to move before 10 AM GMT, three days from now. Our operations should be over by 2 PM GMT. And please inform the Iron Dragon that we’ll be acting on the Academy’s behalf.”

“Will do.” Carson cut the link and snarled. She’d been pretty sure before, but that last remark convinced her. She didn’t know how, but somehow, ‘Thomas’ was her old enemy Mephisto the Mentalist. She’d first crossed swords with him back when she was a girl sidekick with the original Champion, back just before WWII. He had a fetish for adopting new names and guises for new scams, but always, somewhere, there was that sense that she was dealing with an overgrown smartass punk who was getting his jollies in putting one over on the world. No matter what stage dressing he put on it, he was always the cheap vaudeville magician. There was always that touch of the theatrical, that slightly overdone bit of melodrama.

She didn’t know how he was still alive - the man had to be a hundred, if he was a day - but somehow Mephisto had managed to sleaze his way up into the big leagues. On one hand, there was a certain advantage in knowing how the man thought. On the other hand, there was that nagging annoyance of dealing with a cockroach that keeps coming back, no matter how many times you step on it.

She sighed and reached for the phone. She still had calls to make and didn’t have the time to deal with insects who didn’t have the sense to stay dead. She needed to talk to someone who didn’t give her grief, was pleasant on the phone, and more importantly, wouldn’t fight with her or make her want to tear her hair out. She found the number and dialed. It rang twice and then was picked up by a very cultured voice, “Hello?”

“Dr. Diabolik? This is Elizabeth Carson.”

“Nice to hear from you. What has my son done this time?” The voice was cultured and somewhat playful. He really was a charming conversationalist.

“Actually we had an incident with a group violating the Neutrality Pact and threatening a student and two different families,” explained Elizabeth.

The phone was quiet for a moment. Dr. Diabolik then said, in measured tones, “I think a measured response is in order, wouldn’t you say? Say something on the order of Orbital Bombardment?”

“Once we find where they are holed up I think that may be justified. The group calls themselves the Tong of the Black Madonna…”

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Chou was still a bit shaky after her Sim Run, and the hug by Molly helped a great deal to calm her down and relax her. That Run had taken a lot out of her, especially as she had gotten into the act, losing herself a bit in her role to a degree. She shivered and it certainly wasn’t from the cold. Molly hugged her again with one arm and Chou calmed down a little more. That Sim had been more than she could deal with in several different ways. She had done everything right in her portrayal of a villain, but she had overdone it. She had really done far, far too well in that role and that fact alone scared her. It would have helped if she had failed, but she hadn’t.

She went through the line, getting a small bowl of the vegetable soup, a salad, and the vegetarian wrapped sandwich. She just wasn’t as able to tolerate meat as she had been when this whole thing had first started. In fact, some of the regular vegetarian food choices were not doing it for her either, making her feel sick to her stomach as well or just off. Maybe she needed to talk to the chefs personally and see if she could set up some special cooking just for her like Ayla had? Becca should be able to help with this as her medical training should be able to let Chou know what she could still eat, right?

The table was already full and a number of worried glances turned her way. It was clear that all of them were aware of what had happened to her. She smiled at them weakly, waiting until she touched the crystal to start talking. “I’m fine everyone. I just freaked out over the things I did to the Omegas in the Sim.”

A number of the girls leaned over and gave her a hug. Chou felt a little better for that touch. Conversation seemed to flow well, talking about what had happened was helpful, and she was able to eat most of her meal with a rapidly calming stomach. Then she heard a voice which made her drop her spoon in frustration. “Ni Hau Meimei!”

Chou shoved her tray forward, giving her room to bang her head on the table a few times, the thumping sound loud. Molly just rolled her eyes at the sight of the girl and groaned. The rest of the table turned and saw this cute girl, in a Whateley school uniform with a monkey tail coming out from underneath with a key attached. Her smile was friendly and mischievous. Toni’s smile was a bit forced at her recognition. She then said, “Hello, Sun.”

Hank turned to face the Ki Master, clearly trying to figure out who the girl was. “Sun? You know her?”

Toni nodded and sighed the sigh of long suffering. “Yep. Team Kimba, Sun Wu Kong. Sun Wu Kong, Team Kimba.”

“Hello.” The smile was bright and the slight wave looked cute.

Chou beat her head into the table a few more times, muttering loudly, “I don’t need this shit.”

“But Meimei… I missed you.” Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King currently in female form, hugged the Handmaid of the Tao from behind. She then looked up and smiled at the girl across from Chou. “Oh… Molly, did that advice I gave you help?”

Molly blushed brightly at that, remembering clearly the advice she had gotten. She meekly nodded and replied, “Yes.”

“What advice?” asked Jade, clearly wondering what advice the Monkey King would have given Molly that would have caused the girl to blush.

“I told her a great picnic idea.” This got Molly to blush an even darker red and Chou to join in.

Nikki looked back and forth between the two girls then back to Sun, looking curious. “Oh? What kind of picnic?”

Chou sat up and clamped a hand over Sun’s mouth, saying quickly. “The picnic kind.”

Toni snickered and asked, “Don’t you mean the frolicking kind?”

That got the other girls laughing, remembering Toni’s story at the beginning of the term about Chou’s word choice in evading Toni’s question. Chou looked down at the table, as did Molly, blushing hotly. Sun just looked happy at everything that was going on. “Oh… I must say that you did well against the monsters guarding that circle. That was impressive work.”

“You saw that?” Chou looked surprised.

“Oh yes. I like watching you and your adventures. The world turns around you sometimes and that is always a fun viewing experience.”

Chou’s blush hadn’t faded any.

“So what are you doing here?” asked Molly, trying to turn things away from her love.

“I heard about what happened and came to see if you were okay.”

“What in particular?” asked Chou, looking carefully at the Monkey King, as if there were some sort of plot in the works.

“Why, the Tong of the Black Madonna, of course. They are a bunch of idiots who worship something completely evil and not of this world. It is a terrible creature that drives people mad at the mere sight of it. That is their Black Mother who they worship and they try to reshape the entire world into what would work best for her. They care only for chaos and discord. They want Destiny’s Wave to feed to their Black Mother, as the power of the sword would make her far stronger than she already is and possibly strong enough to turn the tide in her dark war,” stated Sun.

“They threatened Molly’s parents’ lives, and Toni’s,” stated Chou.

“They care little for lives, least of all their own. They believe that dying for their Mother’s cause will allow them to be reborn in a form closer to her and thus more worthy of her attention. They are insane zealots, nothing more.”

“Isn’t that redundant?” tossed off Toni, trying to lighten the mood that was developing at the table.

“Not always. Sometimes it is the truth,” replied Sun without a smile.

“So they are after Destiny’s Wave and will stop at nothing to get her?” asked Chou, wanting to clarify things, more for herself than anyone else.

“Yes. However, the world is not what it once was and they are not particularly adept at moving forward with the times. Most zealots aren’t. They may not be fully aware of the current rules of the world, much to their detriment.”

Chou sighed. “I hope that’s true.”

“It is. Relax Meimei, I will not let anything happen to your Airen’s family or Leopard Girl’s.” Sun smiled and stole a bite of salad from the Handmaid.

“Hey, stop stealing,” chided Chou, trying in vain to protect her food.

“What? Why? I’ll have you know that research has shown that stolen food tastes better, has fewer calories, and is good for the environment,” retorted Sun with a big grin.

Nikki glared at the Monkey King and said, “And what are you going to do about stealing our panties?”

Sun looked confused. “Wait… you didn’t get them back?”

“What do you mean?” growled Nikki, some of her power beginning to show around her.

“I thought for sure that the Demon Princess would have given them back to everyone.”

“WHAT!!!” screeched Nikki, turning and scanning the room for Sara.

“I mean… I gave them to her,” stated Sun Wu Kong apparently confused with the way this conversation was going.

Nikki growled, “I will see about that.”

Chou sighed, lowered her head to the table again, and pounded it a few times. Why her?

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Chou was absolutely certain that at any moment Sun Wu Kong was going to show up in her class and ruin everything. It would be just like the Monkey King to do something like that and turn the blame on her rather than have to deal with it himself. She wasn’t really paying attention to other things as she was worried about him showing up and screwing things up, like he always did. Sensei Beaumont noticed her inattention and called out, “Miss Lee, are we boring you?”

“Uhm… uh… no Sensei,” stammered Chou, who was busy trying to figure out what she could have missed.

“You and Miss Gardner will spar for us now, oui?” The look was filled with some disdain.

“Yes Sensei.” Chou was grumbling to herself. She did not need this because she just knew that the Monkey King was going to screw up the class and make her life miserable.

Chou got into her ready stance across from Sarah, who was smiling happily, holding her blade diagonally across her body. It seemed as if the Pseudo Buffy really wanted to spar with her. Chou sighed, more worried about Sun Wu Kong than her opponent, knowing that Sun was far more dangerous in many, many more ways.

Chou was still woolgathering when Sensei Beaumont called out, “Hajime!”

Nightbane leapt into action, driving Bladedancer back onto the defensive immediately. Bladedancer focused and moved to counterattack, but she caught some movement out of the corner of her eye that distracted her and this allowed Nightbane to score a hit on her. She growled and noticed that the movement was not from the Monkey King but rather Chaka. Chou growled and tried to clear her head of all the worries she had and especially the huge worry that was the Monkey King.

The two closed again. Bladedancer jumped over a swipe at the legs and countered with a slash to the head that led into a thrust to the body as she turned her arm in a small circle. Nightbane ducked and then closed with her, moving alongside the blade. Bladedancer turned her wrist in and slammed her fist into Nightbane’s head as she pivoted her body away.

Nightbane rolled with the attack and came up slashing. Bladedancer moved back and thrust at an opportune moment. There was another movement in the corner of her eye and she paused, wondering if it was the Monkey King, letting Nightbane capitalize on the mistake to score her second and winning hit.

Chou bowed and stepped back, sighing in frustration. Today officially sucked.

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Molly was excited about having another lab. It would certainly take her mind off the danger her family was in as she got to work on her summoning and get better and better with it. She wanted to summon something strong, something that could hurt those bastards that would dare threaten her family, something that could make her as strong as them. She flipped through her textbook, looking at different possible entities and frowned, not seeing anything that really struck her fancy. What could she call up? Maybe a redcap? They were fierce fighters and their caps were red from being bathed in the blood of their enemies. Maybe not, but keep that one in reserve.

An ogre? She was fairly certain that she could call up an ogre, but could she call up one as strong as the Marhault Ogre? Molly frowned. That might be outside of the range of her ability at the moment. Maybe something strong but not too over the top? She flipped through the book, looking at different entries until she came to a perfect one. This would help her. A couple of the Exemplars really pissed her off and hurt people she cared about, like Winnie and the other Underdogs, and they needed to be brought down a peg or three. She would summon this creature for Justice!

She looked through the entry on the creature again, saw what it could and couldn’t do and smiled. Yes… she knew just the person at the front of the line of those who had to pay. Buster. Buster who had given Anna and Winnie grief. Yes, Buster had to pay and she could now make that happen. She chuckled maniacally and nodded her head… this would teach him a lesson.

Mr. Langford was on the other side of the classroom, helping Jadis with summoning a simple elemental, something that had been remarkably easy for her. This was a perfect chance as she was basically unsupervised. She calmed and centered herself, exhaling slowly as Chou had taught her. Molly glanced over to the other side of the room and noted that Jadis had Mr. Langford’s full attention. She saw in her mind what she wanted to call, reached out, and found it.

The protective circle filled with a small flash of light and a small dog/ raccoon creature that was standing on its back paws, looking at her curiously. “Greetings, Child of the Tanuki.”

The creature bowed to her and said, “Greetings to the Summoner. How may I serve?”

“I have a task for you.” Molly glanced over at Mr. Langford again, making sure she was in the clear. He was still talking with Jadis, who seemed to be growing frustrated with what she was hearing.

“What is this task?” asked the Tanuki.

“There is a person here at this school whose name is Buster. I would like you to torment him, without serious damage to him, for a period of three days. You may do anything you wish to him except cause him serious damage, such as broken limbs, anything leading to bleeding, head trauma, and the like. Embarrassing him is far preferred to hurting him, especially if it is public.”

The raccoon-dog tilted its head a moment in thought and then nodded. “This I can do, Summoner.”

Molly smiled evilly. “Now go.”

When the Tanuki disappeared, Molly turned to look for Mr. Langford. He was heading her way, looking contemplative. Molly needed to cover herself so she reached out quickly and summoned Igniarli. The little salamander came out of the gate and danced a spiral within the protective circle, flame trails following it. The salamander called out happily, “Summoner!”

“Greetings Igniarli. How are you?” Molly asked, growing even more attached to the little creature.

“I am well. Happy fire dances.” The creature spun in the air, seeming to grin.

Molly smiled at the creature and was about to say something when Mr. Langford cleared his throat. Both the salamander and Summoner turned to face him. “Miss Harrington, I have been wondering something after watching you work, as the way you go about summoning is not the same as others since you get that gate. Can you just summon the gate that you have everything come through?”

Molly blinked at the teacher in surprise and a touch of confusion. Summon just the gate? Could she really do that? She took a deep breath and then looked at the salamander. “Behave.”

Igniarli nodded, giggling, and was allowed outside of the protective circle. He drifted closer to her but did little else. Molly concentrated and focused on just the gateway, the thing that formed before every summoned creature came through. She reached out with her power and felt the gate form, though there was this weird feeling, a sort of incompleteness to it that was strange. She frowned at the feeling. Nevertheless, there was the gate, hovering in the air about six inches off the ground like it always did, only this time nothing was coming out of it. There was an air of potentiality hovering around the gate, drawing her in.

Mr. Langford looked at the gate and said excitedly, “I had thought this could be it, but I hadn’t believed it possible. Do you know what you have there Miss Harrington?”

Molly shook her head, watching the salamander in case he decided to dance things into flame. She was trying to be careful with the fire elemental as it could be very destructive.

“I think this is something I have only read about in some of my research. There are legends that speak of a Gate that one could summon that allowed traveling over a distance and if used for regular summoning, could make the process easier, allowing the caster to summon stronger things with less power and having a better chance to control them. I think this just might be one of them.”

Molly heart began to race and she squeaked in surprise, “Travel? You mean teleport?”

He nodded his head, confirming what she had asked. “As far as I can remember, it was a thing used for travel. All you do, I suppose, is think of your destination and simply walk through the gate and you should come out on the other side where you wanted. Do you want to try?”

Molly nodded excitedly. This would be a great help to her and would let her travel all over the place, which was a far cooler power that Summoning in her opinion. She reached out and set as the endpoint the other side of the classroom door, or at least what she hoped was that door. She bit her lip, closed her eyes, and stepped through.

Her body shook a little at the strange sensations that rolled through her and then, suddenly, it was over. She opened her eyes and gasped, looking around in surprise. She was out in the hallway, right in front of the door to the lab room where they were practicing. She spun around and saw that the classroom number was the same as her class. “Oh My God!!”

She had teleported!

She had teleported!

She had teleported!

She opened the door and bounced into the classroom squeeing! She had teleported! She could do more than just call creatures to her, she could do something important. As she neared her workspace, several people were looking at her speculatively, especially Jadis. It was clear that something had changed with the girl but no one knew exactly what had just happened. The salamander was dancing happily within the protective circle, eyes bright as flames.

Molly hugged Mr. Langford. “Thank you! I would never have figured that out. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

The teacher disengaged himself, being careful to only touch her arms so there could be no hint of impropriety. “You are most welcome, Miss Harrington. Now why don’t you try summoning something a little tougher than a salamander, eh?”

Molly smiled. This day was awesome. It was almost as good as the day when she met Rythax. Almost. Now what should she summon?

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While rubbing her sore shoulder, Chou entered the classroom that Becca used, looking forward to talking to her Mentor about the fight in the woods and the time when she lost control and the Tao took her over. That had been bothering her worse the more she thought about it, even though that particular thing had gotten the Dragons and Tigers off her back and off each others throats. What was going on?

She got in there and found Sun was sitting there, talking to Becca, the two of them sipping tea. Chou groaned. She really did not need this crap, not when she had questions that needed answering. There was no way the Monkey King was going to behave and she did not want to deal with that. “Why are you here?”

Sun turned to face Chou and smiled happily, “I missed you Meimei, and I can help. I know you think I am simply a pain in the ass and good for only making other people miserable, but I am more than that. Honest. If you need help I can do that for you. Remember Meimei, I am a part of the Tao’s plan as well.”

The sigh Chou released was filled with sadness. “I guess, for all the good that does me.”

Becca shook her head. “Chou what is bothering you? You seem conflicted over something.”

“Well, let’s see, besides Sun Wu Kong here screwing with my life, I have the Tong threatening to kill Molly’s family as well as Toni’s and then there is the fact that the Tao did not come to my aid when I really needed it in a fight. Add to that the fact that my diet is changing and I am not sure why or into what and there are relationship issues that need sorting out, so you can see that I am just a bit stressed.” She dropped heavily onto a pillow that was waiting for her. Sun passed her a cup of tea, as if that were the great cure-all.

As Chou sipped her tea, Sun replied, “Well, I for one will happily keep your friends’ families safe, if that is what you want. I can manage that quite easily. And as for the Tong… do not worry about them. The Handmaid has a number of enemies, and they are nowhere near the most dangerous foes you could face. They are silly little human beings who have sold their souls for some modicum of earthly power without spending the time needed to have earned such strength. They are not truly strong and are honestly more annoying than anything else.”

“That doesn’t help me now,” grumbled Chou. “I still have to deal with them.”

“Of course, you are the Handmaid, but you are also not alone. You are here in a place where powerful forces are helping you, both in keeping you safe and in doing what must be done. That is something none of the others ever really had,” stated Sun, looking her directly in her eyes.

“That doesn’t help with the fact that I am the one stressed in the here and now. I honestly have no clue what the Tao wants of me or even what the hell the Tao even is. I am just some kid from Knoxville, Tennessee who wanted to just collect my swords and get through high school in one piece, not to become some sort of magical girl fighting against forces beyond my comprehension,” ranted Chou.

“And I am just a monkey from Stone Mountain who was never content. Becca here is just a nurse who wanted to know more about healing her patients. Knowing who you are and where you come from is always important, but you need to look forward as well. Meimei, you chose the sword, you chose to keep it when you had an out, and you chose this life each and every time. Sure, you had no idea what those choices would lead to, but who ever does? Not even I am privy to the future. The Tao knows, but it generally lets us follow our own fate. You want to know why the Tao didn’t back you? Perhaps because it knew it did not have to.” Sun sipped at her tea and smiled at Chou. “You are very skilled, Chou. You are taking the knowledge that Destiny’s Wave gave you months ago and you have been building on it. Most Handmaids have accepted the information and gone with it, growing no more than was necessary to accomplish their task. You are pursuing knowledge, technique, and power, and that is a great thing.”

“I still got my ass handed to me!” blurted Chou, irate over the fact that it almost seemed that the Monkey King was not listening to her. Didn’t he understand the betrayal she had endured?

“You won. Accept that. Winning does not mean achieving a flawless victory. Winning just means winning, ugly or otherwise. Just do your best and it will all work out.”

“Well, what about when the Tao took me over, taking over my body. I had no control. In fact I dropped back into control later in the middle of a fight.”

Sun sat there thoughtful. “Chou, the Tao could have needed to achieve a certain aim and needed you to let the Tao have its say without you getting in the way. I know that the Tao does that to me every once in a rare while so I am sure that it occurs to you as well. Yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then maybe all that occurred was that the Tao needed a specific result and you helped the Tao achieve that. I do not think it is anything insidious,” replied Sun.

“Well, fine, I can’t really argue with that but what the hell is the Tao? And don’t give me any crap about the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” Chou’s voice was louder, she was glaring at the female form of the Monkey King, her eyes practically smoking in anger.

The Monkey King paused as she tried to figure a way to say it correctly. “The Tao is several things and nothing. It is not the interplay of forces but their source. It is the ultimate Source for everything; in fact the world rests upon it and is enveloped by it.”

“Sounds like the fucking Matrix,” grumbled Chou.

“Kind of,” admitted Sun Wu Kong. “It is the Matrix and the Force and other things, all combined into one. It is something that you can only really understand by experiencing it directly, despite the fact that we experience it every day of our lives. Because of this, the Tao has power and depth. I have always believed that it is a flaw in the mind, not being able to truly understand the Tao, as it is like trying to stand outside of yourself and your world. If all you know is the Tao then how can you be outside of it enough to define it?”

“How is that supposed to help?” complained Chou, clearly irritated by this issue. “I am working double time for something I don’t even remotely begin to understand.”

Sun laughed. “Welcome to the club, Chou. Everybody is in the same place. No teacher of the Tao has been able to define the Tao in such a way that it satisfies the listener. Therefore, you can let it cause you problems or you can accept it and move on. Keep looking for an answer of course, but do not stress if the answer remains elusive. That is just the nature of the search.”

“But I have to trust in it in order to let it fully take me over. How do I know it will treat me well?”

Sun sat there, sipping her tea. The silence stretched between them until she finally answered Chou. “You honestly cannot, however you can know it by what you have experienced and seen. If the Tao has done things to put you at risk, there is no knowing what it will do, but the Tao has saved you several times, given you power to survive some pretty dangerous situations. Isn’t that a sign of trust? Only you as the Handmaid can determine the role of the Tao in your life. You can walk away if you want. It won’t be the first time a Handmaid has done that.”

“That doesn’t help.”

“Well, how about we go talk to Miss Carson and see if she will enroll me in your school. I will be a great classmate and I could help you keep your mind off things why you try to figure out an answer. What do you say?”

“Hell no!” countered Chou.

“Great. I can go and talk to Miss Carson now. I am sure I can get her to agree to let me in. What do you think?”

“You have got to be shitting me,” groaned Chou.

“No. It will be awesome. In fact, I am going to go over there right now and see if I can get my application accepted, so I can start classes with you. I mean, I look cute in the outfit and I can wear either the male or female one depending on how I feel.”

Sun Wu Kong hopped to her feet and headed out of the classroom. Chou moaned unhappily.

Becca smiled softly at her. “Have some tea. He is probably only messing with you, because you take things far, far too seriously. Remember in the Inner Chapters of the Chuang Tzu the story of the Taoist Master who put firecrackers in his dress robes, just before he died, so when he was cremated there was one last joke? Part of what I think Sun Wu Kong is doing is to get you to relax. If you are too serious, you will never really be able to merge fully with the Tao. And the more you struggle against the Monkey King the more you will find he messes with you.”

Chou kept groaning, clearly distressed.

“You are a child Chou. True, you have a massive responsibility as the Handmaid of the Tao, but you are still a child. Goofing off and having fun is part of that. Don’t let this role steal away your childhood.” Becca rested a hand on her student’s knee.

“I lost my childhood when my father died.”

“But there is more to you than just that. Yes, your father died and yes it is tragic and yes it is a pain that will remain forever, but you are alive and to not live that life means your father’s sacrifice of his life to save you is all in vain. It is clear that you take after him a lot. You throw yourself into harm’s way to protect your friends and loved ones without a thought for yourself. That is something to celebrate. Be happy or else the guilt of living will crush you, so that no one needs to fight you, as you will just give up. Don’t let that happen to you.”

Chou nodded. Maybe she should just relax. Her life had gotten better since the end of November, when all of that stress from not sleeping, the terrible dreams, the task of ending another human being’s life, and her father’s death had all crashed down on her like a ton of bricks. She had somehow survived all of that and was still moving. “I will do my best Becca. I really will.”

“That is all anyone could ask of you Chou. Now… let’s talk about your diet.”

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N’Dizi was not happy, not even in the slightest. That Chinese bitch and her whatever she had, cost him Chaka and had sort of forced him into working with the Dragons. Zhong Lau was trying to keep the spirit of cooperation going, apparently thinking that the Tigers were just going to roll over and take it. The problem that N’Dizi was faced with was that several of the other Tigers were kind of okay with working with the Dragons instead of keeping up their pride. That bitch was seriously undermining his authority and was trying to dismantle all he had built up.

Sending Counterpoint against Chaka hadn’t quite worked. True the girl had gotten a beatdown, but the idiot had tried to copy her power and got screwed over for his trouble. However, if Bladedancer was just a baseline, like her MID said, then she had no specific power that he could steal from her and thus get screwed up. That might let the fight end the right way, with the damn chink lying on the floor broken and hopefully bleeding. In addition, if CP accidentally killed her, it wasn’t like he was going to cry over the situation.

He had to play this right, to spin it just his way. He could set CP against the Chinese bitch and be rid of one of his problems. N’Dizi wanted this to work. He needed this to work. His control of the Tigers pretty much hinged on it.

Counterpoint was walking alone, other students getting out of his way, not wanting to confront the near Ultraviolent. N’Dizi smirked at people’s reactions. This could be just the chance he needed to make this happen. “Hey, Counterpoint, can we talk?”

Stopping and turning on a heel, Counterpoint faced N’Dizi and lifted an eyebrow. “What?”

“I just wanted to let you know something I just heard. I’ve been hearing that Bladedancer has been talking smack about you, telling people that she beat the big bad Counterpoint in the Sims.”

“Feh. So? She beat an electronic DOLL that was made to look like me. So what?” grumbled the powerfully built young man who was looking at him disdainfully.

“Well, from what I heard, she did beat YOUR doll... pretty badly,” stated N’Dizi. He needed Counterpoint to get mad, just not at him but at the target.

“Let the little China girl play with her dolls and brag about her false victories. Real Men don't fight with toys.” The sneer of derision was plain on his face. It was clear that this wasn’t going quite the way N’Dizi had imagined.

N’Dizi held his hands up, realizing that this particular ploy didn’t seem to be working. Well, maybe he’d go for one last shot. “Hey, I know, I was just saying. Okay... I’ll go. I just heard that she bragged about taking you down by being the superior fighter and I just wanted to let you know.”

“She did what?” Counterpoint’s voice turned cold, and N’Dizi smiled on the inside. Got him.

“I heard she said that taking you down was pretty easy because she was so superior to you in terms of combat.” Time to twist the knife and see what happens.

“Did she now?” His voice was cold, measured, and precise. “Well… that’s different. Bragging about beating me isn’t the same as beating me. Thanks for telling me.”

N’Dizi managed to keep his smile appropriate to the situation. “No problem, man.”

As Counterpoint walked off, N’Dizi allowed himself a smile. Now people would see what happened when they fucked with him.

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Dyffud was called to Schuster Hall and he headed there, trying to figure out what exactly this whole thing was about as he hadn’t been told anything. Why had he been called up to the office? He hadn’t done anything wrong, this time, had he? When he got there, the secretary directed him to one of the conference rooms, which increased his suspicion. Something had to be going on for this to happen. Dyffud opened the door and all but sighed when he saw who was in there.

The two MCO agents stood. “Good afternoon Mr. Harraz. I am Agent Martin and this is Agent Williamson. We are with the Mutant Commission Office. Please have a seat.”

“Are you here to pitch to me now?” grumbled Dyffud, not wanting to deal with any of this nonsense yet again.

“Mr. Harraz, we believe that you have a lot to offer the Mutant Commission Office and that you could be doing a lot of good for everyone.”

“Thanks but no thanks. I am certain that my skills will be of little use to the MCO.”

“On the contrary,” said Agent Williamson. “Your Martial Arts prowess could do a lot of good for a lot of people. You could save lives.”

“Look, thank you for the offer. This is what, something like the seventeenth job offer the MCO has pitched to me since I got out of school. I am not interested in a job with you guys. I know how you work and I know what you do. You would basically get me killed on some stupid mission or other,” stated Dyffud, still standing.

“Mr. Harraz, that is not the case.”

“Oh, but it is. You would send me out against all of these villains, who would know where I am and thus have the time to be prepared for me. I would walk into a situation where a possibly highly trained Mutant was waiting for me. Facing someone with professional training and mutant powers is tantamount to suicide even for someone like me. They would have all the advantages.”

“But Mr. Harraz, I don’t think you understand…”

“Oh, I do Agent Martin, I do. You act as if I haven’t seen this before, haven’t heard this pitch before, which I have. You lot are often so worried about mutants that you throw away resources in an attempt to stop the menace instead of choosing your place and time. That is not how you win in something like this. That is how you lose. And besides, I would hate to stay in one place, and all of your so called ‘roving agents’ are generally there because of discipline issues. No thank you gentlemen, but I will not be taking advantage of your offer.” Dyffud turned and started to walk out of the conference room.

“Mr. Harraz, please,” protested Agent Williamson.

“Yes?”

“In order for us to fulfill our mandate, we need talented individuals such as yourself, and possibly Miss Lee, when she graduates. You both have trained with mutants, know their strengths and weaknesses, and are able to fight them on equal terms. That would make you a valuable asset and because of that you could write your own ticket.”

“I am sorry, but I doubt either myself or Miss Lee have any interest in working for the MCO as an occupation. Thank you and good day.” Dyffud left and quickly entered Mrs. Carson’s office to escape them.

Elizabeth looked up from her computer monitor, with a look of confusion on her face. She lifted an eyebrow in question and asked, “Can I help you Dyffud?”

“Did you let them do this?” asked Dyffud, trying to hold back from outright accusation.

“The MCO? I don’t let them do anything. I believe that Amelia was the one who scheduled them to meet with you,” Elizabeth smiled at the martial artist.

“Remind me to thank her for that later,” growled Dyffud. He then shook his head sadly. “They just bug me anytime they can manage that. When will they register that I am not interested in their little Brown Shirt organization.”

“They’re not Nazis, Dyffud. They are just scared people who are doing what they can to deal with a situation they don’t understand and can’t control. People often react out of fear when faced with the unknown, and to many people mutants are the unknown.”

“I know, I know. I remember the History and Moral Philosophy course we all had to take. Senior Ethics/ Government requirement I believe the course was. Had to be taken in order to graduate. How could I forget?” Dyffud chuckled.

“I am glad you remember that,” she stated dryly.

“Well, you did manage to drill those concepts into our heads often enough. Do you still teach that course?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Not anymore. I haven’t for about five years now. The administration side of things eats up almost all of my time, and it gets worse every year. And that’s simply the normal admin stuff, not even counting the various misadventures that occur here.”

“Like this Tong issue?” asked Dyffud.

She nodded. “Like this Tong issue. Do you think I could send you to the Harrington’s house, to watch over the family? I want to make sure they are okay, and I figure you would be perfect for the job. I will have other people on overwatch, but you would be in the house.”

Dyffud thought about it briefly and then replied, “I can do that.”

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Buster walked down the hall of his dorm, tired from enduring another day of classes. There were other boys in the hall with him, all thinking the same thing, wanting to get out of the monkey suits that passed for the school uniform and get into something comfortable. He really wanted a cold Coke and maybe something to eat, and he definitely wanted to get online to check his GEO account. He was so close to becoming a Revenant that he could almost taste it. There were a few more challenges he had to finish, and he really hoped the encounter with the Arch-Lich would give him what he needed to transform. It had taken a few weeks of work, and he was still not there, and it was really frustrating. How many people did he have to kill anyway in order to do this?

Maybe if he joined forces with the Succubus that was in charge of that one area. She had power, and could probably manage to help him transform with ease. It was something to think about.

Suddenly Buster tripped and slammed face first into the floor. He groaned and rolled over onto his back, noticing that his shoelaces had somehow gotten tied together while he had been walking.

The other boys in the hall laughed at him, enjoying the sight of someone tripping. Buster growled and glared at the other boys. He couldn’t see anyone who had the magic skill or the telekinetic power to make this happen, but he knew that someone had to have done this. “Stop fucking laughing!”

Naturally, that did nothing to stop the more powerful people on his floor from mocking him. The knot was a tangled mess and there was no way he could easily untie it. He tore off his shoes and threw them angrily to the floor. Someone was going to pay for this.

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Chou was a bit nervous to be working with Caitlin again, especially after the Sim run she had made. She wasn’t sure she could handle some of the issues that would arise in working with the Artificer. They were supposed to talk more about grenades and flashbangs and all sorts of other things that went boom, to make sure she had the uses of each weapon down and had an idea of the variety of uses she had available. Chou was quite sure that she couldn’t handle that discussion right now. She went down to the Sim center and spotted Caitlin. “Caitlin, can I talk to you?”

The tattooed girl nodded to her. “What is it?”

“I’m not feeling well and I’m not sure I can handle this training sim,” admitted Chou sheepishly.

Caitlin nodded, understanding where the girl was coming from. “Is this about today?”

Chou nodded.

“Okay. Don’t worry about it Chou. Would you rather talk?”

Chou nodded and smiled weakly, “That would be fine.”

Caitlin led her over to one of the Sim rooms that was not being used, and they entered. The girl who was former Range Master Eric Mahren sat down and looked at the Asian girl. “So what’s bothering you?”

“I… I was just so brutal. I mean I know that I pretty much fight well outside of my weight class all the time, but to go after them so viciously… I didn’t like that,” said Chou as she sat there looking at the floor.

Caitlin nodded, seeing where this was going. “You do know that I'm not teaching you to be a killer, Chou. I'm teaching you to live longer than the other guy. Surviving on the battlefield is about striking hard and fast and not giving quarter until it is through.”

“I… it’s just so difficult. I mean, any of them could have smeared me into paste.”

“But they didn’t, and do you know why?” asked Caitlin.

Chou shook her head.

“It’s really simple Chou. On the battlefield, you need to remember that survival is important, but if you are so worried about surviving that you fight poorly, then you will fail, time and time again. You fought smart, they didn’t. Fighting smart isn’t about killing your opponents, it deals with the correct application of force,” clarified Caitlin, hoping to lead her student into a better understanding of the perils of fighting. “If you keep your head about you when you fight and you fight smart, you can take out opponents without casualties. But this is the real world and there is rarely an issue that does not hold the potential for violence to break out. Fighting people more powerful than yourself is all about moving fast and furious, and throwing your body in harm’s way, time and time again, and doing everything you can to ensure that the person losing this particular match isn’t you, because in the real world there is no restart.”

“I just don’t want to kill people,” said Chou quietly.

“Chou, sometimes killing people is unavoidable. Sometimes they rush you. Sometimes they come after you with intent. The thing is that if you are ready, then you can stop people before it gets to the point where you have to kill them. Subduing your enemy is great and is far better in the long run, but just know that in any combat, any at all, death is hanging around,” said Caitlin.

Chou nodded. “Yeah… I think I get that. It’s just that today I was so harsh and cold.”

Caitlin shrugged, “You were playing a villain. Relax. You did a great job of playing that.”

Chou sighed, still worked up over that morning. She grumbled, “Maybe too good a job.”

Caitlin rubbed her eyes, knowing that this had to be handled carefully, as it was clear that the girl was having trouble with this. “Look Chou, you were the OPFOR in this scenario and you did everything right from what I could tell. So just be happy about that. That doesn’t mean that the way you fought today is the way you are always going to fight, or even the way you should fight. It is what it is. Nothing more, nothing less.”

She followed what the girl was saying and it made sense. Chou smiled weakly and said, “Thanks. I think I needed that.”

“Any time.”

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From what Saladin had been told, Hippolyta was not in her room at Poe but rather she was at the Demon girl’s room over at Hawthorne. He frowned a little at that, as Saladin had very little to do with most of the Thornies, in fact he tried to avoid most of the really severe GSD cases as if they were unclean, tainted somehow. Now that he had rethought his position on his own unclean state, perhaps he should revisit his beliefs about the Thornies. If he could be wrong about something as simple as his own nature, as what Allah the Merciful had in store for him, then perhaps he was not correct in his appraisal of those for whom the GSD was strong. Perhaps he had more errors in judgment than he had thought.

He took a breath to settle himself, said a quick prayer to Allah for help in dealing with this situation, and opened the door to the dorm. All activity in the common room stopped. All conversation as well. Saladin looked over the faces of the residents, doing his best to see the humanity in them, to have the compassion that Allah taught. This did not look like it was going to be an easy task. “I am looking for Sara and I was told her room was here now instead of at Poe?”

“What do you want to see her for?” asked Slab, getting to his feet from the table he had been sitting at.

“I wish to speak with her and Hippolyta.” said Saladin calmly.

The black and white mountain thought for a moment and then said, “Fine. She’s downstairs.”

“Thank you.” Saladin followed the directions and soon stood in front of the Lovecraft room, with its weird door that gave off very strange vibes. He cautiously reached out and knocked on the door, almost afraid that it was going to bite him. He did not have to wait long.

Hippolyta answered the door, her gaze shifting to anger when she saw who it was. She was glaring at him when she growled out, “What do you want?”

“I wanted to apologize to you. I am sorry and I have reconsidered what you had to say. You were right and I was wrong.” It was hard for him to admit this failure on his part, but he managed it.

“So does this mean that you aren’t going to be an idiot anymore?” asked Hippy, still standing in the doorway.

“I am not sure I can manage that particular feat, however I will attempt it,” he replied with a faint smile.

“Hippy, let the poor boy in,” purred Sara from the bed.

The tall exemplar opened the door all the way and stood off to the side. Saladin entered the room and smiled politely at Sara. Her grin was mischievous and full of something, something like a promise of pleasure. Saladin felt like it was raw sexual power coming off her and he could feel his body reacting in ways it had never before when faced with a woman. Sara seemed to realize this and pulled back her power, letting it move away from this boy.

Saladin happily took the seat that was offered and Hippolyta took a seat on the bed. “I thank you, and Richard thanks you for all the help you have given me in this situation, especially the part where I stopped doubting Allah and believing that I was doomed to perdition for my love.”

The Amazon raised an eyebrow questioningly at him, as if trying to get a better read off the young man. “Now that is a change.”

“You made me think about things in a new way and I thank you for that. I feel better about myself and my life thanks to you.” Saladin bowed his head.

Hippy nodded and looked about to say something when a hand rested on her arm, stilling her. Hippolyta looked back at Sara as the girl said, “Thank you for coming by, Saladin. It is not often that an Arabic man admits to his failings.”

“A true servant of Allah is willing to admit to those failings, as humility and the knowledge that only Allah is right in all things should give you the strength to state where you have erred. That is what I have been taught,” replied Saladin, turning slightly to face the Demon Princess.

She grinned at the young man. “Gods are really good about some things, Saladin, picky about others.”

“That is of course Allah’s choice,” he replied. “Thank you again, Hippolyta. I am in your debt.”

She stood there next to Sara, watching the Arabic man who she was finding harder and harder to hate. Sara turned to face Hippolyta after the door closed and said, “That was interesting.”

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Ayla frowned when she saw Sun Wu Kong sitting there at the Team Kimba table. A number of people did not look happy with this development, though clearly the most unhappy of all of Team Kimba was Chou, who looked as if she could barely eat, as she was busy trying to stop Sun from doing things with little success.

Conversation seemed a bit stilted, as no one seemed to have an idea what to say with the Monkey King at their table. Jade seemed fine, but very little ever really threw her. Jade looked over at Sun and asked, “So what is your favorite food?”

“Peaches.” Sun grinned happily, eyes sparkling in memory. “Especially the ones from the Jade Emperor’s Orchard. So very, very good.”

“Didn’t that get the Imperial Army sent after you?” asked Ayla dryly.

Sun bit her bottom lip in thought. “Why, yes it did! I had almost forgotten that. I have been attacked by them so many times that I can easily lose track of which time is which.”

“And you don’t even see this as a problem, do you?” Ayla asked rather pointedly.

“No… why should I? I had a lot of fun and the peaches were so worth it,” replied Sun.

Chou groaned.

“What’s wrong Meimei?”

“Can you just be good, please, for just a little bit?” muttered Chou.

Sun whined. “But Meimei…”

Then Ayla began to notice that some of her food was vanishing and she growled at Sun, but didn’t seem to know what else to do, as Sun had taken on all the girls of Poe Hall and had won. Ayla still had to play ‘lord of all she surveys’ before regally drifting out of the room.

Chou sighed, “Please… for me?”

“Very well Meimei.” Sun sat up and looked all prim and proper, which only got several people’s eyes rolling. She then looked at her plate and then said, “Oh… I’ll be right back. I need more bananas.”

When Sun walked off, all of Team Kimba and their friends leaned in. Fey hissed out, “What the hell can we do to get rid of her?”

Chou replied quickly, “I have no idea. Sun Wu Kong does what Sun Wu Kong wants. I don’t think there is anything short of the Tao wanting me to kick her ass that would do it.”

“Crap,” muttered Hank. “This is like hanging out with a time bomb. I am on pins and needles just waiting for her to go off and do something.”

Dread filled them when they heard a raised voice say, “Get out of the way Monkey Girl!”

As one, Team Kimba turned to look at the chaos that was about to happen. Sun was standing there with a small bunch of bananas in her hand and in front of her were Buster and his cronies. Sun smiled at them and asked politely, “What was that you said?”

“I said, get the fuck out of my way Monkey Girl,” Buster growled.

“Oh. I wasn’t sure, all I could hear was you braying.” This got a number of people laughing, and Sun smiled innocently.

Buster reached out to grab her shoulder and Sun rolled in close. She tapped his nose with one of the bananas in her hand. He tried to grab her, but she ducked and spun away, flourishing his belt over her head. “Ole!”

Buster stumbled on his falling pants as he went for Sun. The Monkey King slid in again, dropping a banana peel directly in front of one of his feet before it was set down on the ground. The bully slipped on the banana peel and fell hard to the ground. Sun giggled and said, “Why don’t you have a bit of rest before we dance again?”

With that, she skipped back to the Team Kimba table with a huge grin on her face. Everyone there groaned. Tennyo said, “And we wonder how we end up with so many enemies?”

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The phone that rang startled Laurel as it was the secure phone that her father used to contact her on the rare times he needed to. She quickly pulled it out of its storage space and answered, “<Hello?>”

“<Honorable Hua Chu Lan, please hold for your father.>” replied the voice on the other end.

Hua Chu Lan was sweating a little. What had she done now? Their monthly chat was not for another week or so. Surely, she had not done anything to warrant such a call.

“<Greetings daughter.>” The voice was strong and calm, like it always was, which was a comfort to her.

“<Greetings Honored Father. How may I be of assistance?>” Chu Lan bowed slightly when she said that, unconsciously offering a proper bow to her father.

“<I have been informed that the Handmaid of the Tao is being threatened by the Tong of the Black Madonna. That is of little consequence in terms of what I am tasking you with but it is something you must know. The power of Whateley will be brought down on them like a hammer. However, your task is to befriend the Handmaid.>”

Chu Lan almost stopped breathing at that point, as she was so shocked that she could scarce believe her ears. Befriend the Handmaid? Her mouth gaped open a few times like a fish. There was no way she could do that. Befriend someone able and willing to kill her should the Tao command? Had her father gone completely insane? “<Befriend her?>”

“<Yes. It is not a difficult task.>” stated her father.

“<Father, things are not always that simple here in the West. Rank and Station mean little here. I cannot use that to grow close to her.>” stated Chu Lan. “<Add to that the fact that she is surrounded with some of the most powerful freshmen at this school and this is not an easy task you have given me, Father.>”

“<And? This is something you need to do daughter. I suggest you get to that.>”

“<Yes Father. It shall be as you command.>” She gave up, knowing that there was no dealing with her father when he was in this state. He would hold to his position, regardless of the difficulties to her.

The line went dead in her hand and she sighed. This was all she needed, to make friends with the thrice bedamned Handmaid. She had to try to do this or else who knew exactly what her father would have in store for her should she fail. She shuddered in thought. Why did the damned Handmaid of the Tao have to show up here and now? It was inconvenient to say the least.

Maybe there was something coming up for the New Year? If there was, that might be a great opportunity to get this started. It was about the only thing she had in mind for an approach, as everything else would seem far, far too obvious to even the biggest idiot at this school. She needed a plan and she needed to make this work. Her honor and her father demanded it of her and Hua Chu Lan did not fail.

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It was quiet in the Library, which really wasn’t much of a surprise, given how the crazy Librarian acted and then also having Tennyo as an assistant tended to dissuade people from raising their voices. There were a few people who used this quiet and faint air of oppression in order to have their meetings. Chou, Molly, and Dorjee were sitting in their safe corner with the barrier up, just sitting together and talking. “It really was the most amazing thing. I teleported!”

Molly was bouncy, giggly, and still going with the high she had gotten that afternoon. Dorjee smiled. Despite things, this girl was cute when she wasn’t frowning at him or looking at him disapprovingly. He shook his head in amusement. “If only you had discovered that before we got beat up. Then we could have gone right to the hospital instead of trudging through the snow.”

“Sorry Dorjee. But now I can get us back to safety much faster.” Molly beamed at him and looked so happy she just might burst. Molly then noticed how all of Chou’s reactions were a bit forced. Her giddiness switched instantly to concern, “Chou, are you okay?”

“Hunh? What? I’m fine.” protested Chou, struggling to put a smile back on her face.

Molly looked at her, “Are you still stressed over the Sim this morning?”

Dorjee looked at her all concerned now, remembering how a sim had injured his girlfriend. “What happened in the Sim?”

Molly faced him and said, “She had to be the red team and she took out the Omegas. She did it really hardcore apparently, screwing with them and killing several.”

Dorjee faced Chou and asked, sounding a bit impressed, “Really?”

Chou nodded weakly. “Yeah. I did what I was supposed to, but I freaked out afterwards. I don’t want to be evil.”

Molly and Dorjee hugged her at the same time, managing to complete the hug without getting in the others way. Dorjee whispered, “You aren’t evil Chou. You work from a place of Balance, which is not easy. So you may have to do both of what is called Good and Evil. That doesn’t make you Evil though.”

Molly nodded, “What he said.”

Chou relaxed in their arms, feeling safe and loved in a way she hadn’t since her mother had died. They would always be there for her, she realized. Molly was never going anywhere, and in a way, neither was Dorjee. She sighed happily, letting the moment last as long as it could. When she felt the shifting she pulled her head back, she kissed first Molly and then Dorjee, saying, “Thank you.”

“No problem sweetie. It’s what we’re here for.” Molly shared a smile at the Tibetan boy who smiled back. The Summoner then got a determined look on her face and leaned forward, kissing Dorjee lightly on the lips.

Both Dorjee and Chou were clearly surprised by the act. Molly looked over at them and said, “What? If we are going to do the Poly thing, we really need to deal with these things.”

Dorjee still looked stunned. Chou turned to him and said, “Apparently, she has been reading up on things.”

“Oh.”

Molly rolled her eyes. “So I read up on things… is that a crime? It’s not like any of us have an idea how this should work, so I was looking out for us.”

Chou looked at her carefully, worried that what she had heard was too good to be true. “Us. You really mean us?”

Molly nodded. “Yes, us. Look I am greedy and I do want you all for myself but I think I can give some on Dorjee, but if you try to drag anyone else into this I will have Rythax sit on you.”

Dorjee chuckled, “You two are weird.”

Molly gave a very indelicate snort. “Pot. Kettle. You’re in this as well, Sparky.”

“Sparky?” asked Dorjee, confused as to why she had called him that.

“Yes, Sparky. You juggle lightning, so it is very clearly Sparky,” stated Molly.

Chou snickered, “Sparky. I like it.”

Dorjee groaned, knowing he was going to be stuck with that name for a while. “I don’t need this.”

Molly fixed him with a stare. “No, but you asked for it.”

“Merciful Buddha…”

“Look, one of the things the books talked about was the fact that communication was necessary. I think one website even said that Communication was Sexy. It said that the stress of a regular relationship is magnified by going Poly and that if we don’t talk things through it will end ugly. I will not allow my relationship to end ugly, so if you want to do this Sparky, then hop on and play along,” stated Molly, pontificating from her chair as she sat back.

Chou smiled at her Soulmate, loving all of the girl’s quirks. “Any thing else, O great font of Poly Wisdom?”

Molly stuck her tongue out and then said, “Yes. Jealousy is also a big issue so we need to watch out for that as well. Everything said that communication was the biggest key in fixing that or keeping it from being a problem so we need to make sure to talk to each other.”

“I think I can handle that,” said Dorjee, looking between the two girls.

Chou smiled, glad that things seemed to be falling into place just the way she wanted them. “Good. I really don’t want to have to deal with jealousy. If WE are a couple or rather trio, then WE are a trio. If we have a united front, then who can stop us?”

Molly bit her bottom lip nervously, as something registered. “You know, if we ever go public we are going to get a lot of grief.”

Chou shrugged. “Yeah, but if just you and I ever went public then we would be in the same place. Didn’t Geometry say something about Triangles being one of the stronger forms?”

Dorjee nodded. “Yeah, it does.”

“Then there you go. Together we can face all of that grief if it falls on us,” stated Chou.

“I wonder if the Administration is going to be upset with us?” pondered Molly, trying to think through the student Handbook to see if there was any rule that might prohibit any relationships of this nature.

“Who knows? I am just content to be with you two. Screw the Administration.” Chou kissed the two of them again and this time Dorjee was the one to kiss Molly. Chou smiled happily. She had to admit to herself that she was quite greedy as well.

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The hot water felt good against his head and Buster rinsed out the shampoo from his short hair. Things had not been going well for him lately, and he didn’t need the added stress. Right now, all he wanted to do was get done with his shower and get some sleep. Maybe things would be better in the morning. He could at least hope.

He turned off the water and dried off, wrapping his towel around his waist. He headed into the hall and several people began whistling and laughing at him. Buster frowned, unsure what was so damn funny. Why were they laughing at him?

Once he was in the safety of his room, he found out when he noticed that his towel had been replaced with a pink Barbie towel. He shivered and flung the accursed thing away from him, his stomach lurching in disgust. A goddamn Barbie towel? When he found the bastard who had played that prank on him they were a dead man. Dead.

He grumbled as he threw the thing into his trashcan. This was not right. A shiver of disgust ran through his as he pulled on some boxers and a t-shirt, getting dressed for bed. He turned off the lights, since his roommate was still out, supposedly studying. When he climbed into bed, he noticed something was wrong immediately. The bed was scratchy and smelled really strong, like that pine scented cleaner that they had to use to keep the bathroom clean. He sat up and turned on the light.

His bed had been filled with pine needles; some of them were stuck to his clothes and his skin with the pine tar. Buster screamed in frustration and took his sheets off his bed. There was no way he would be able to sleep in that bed after that. As he plucked the pine needles off himself, he realized that he was going to need another shower to get this stuff off his skin, as the resin was sticking to him, clumping his arm and leg hair together. He looked over to his trashcan, growling angrily. There was no way he was going to use that damn sissy towel again.

A quick search of his drawers and closet showed that there really was no other choice available. Cursing the whole time, Buster stomped back to the shower to get the pine tar off his skin, throwing his Barbie towel against the bench angrily, trying to ignore the laughter that had followed him.

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Chou moaned, as the stream of water was hitting her in just the right place and at just the right speed and pulse. She could feel herself building up, past the plateau, and towards the peak. She screamed several times, needing several orgasms to take the stress off, glad of the noise dampening system that came with the showers. She reached out, turned off that special function, and slumped limply against the wall. That was good.

She finished rinsing off and used the air-dry function to speed things up. Chou used her towel to get her hair and then wrapped it around her. She headed out and went back to her room, knowing what it was that awaited her, thanks to Ayla. When she opened the door, a voice called out, “Meimei!”

Chou sighed as Sun glomped her, hugging the towel-clad girl tightly. “Sun, let me get my pajamas on.”

“Sorry Meimei.” Sun let go and Chou went over to her drawers and pulled out a pair of panties that she put on under her towel. Ayla was doing his best not to look, but Chou had grown used to the looks her roommate gave her. It was flattering in a way and Chou was somewhat okay with that. At least Ayla found her attractive. She pulled on her pajamas and then turned to face the Monkey King.

“Why are you here?”

“I wanted to stay the night with my little sister, is that really so wrong?” Sun tried to look innocent and sweet. The look failed. “Besides, I can make sure you are calm and can rest well before tomorrow.”

Chou nodded. She could not really argue with that. “Fine, but no groping!”

Sun looked hurt at that rule but agreed.

Chou turned to face her roommate, “Hey, any more ideas for the Chinese New Year Party?”

Ayla nodded. “I do have a few ideas. The invitations are almost ready to be sent out, and I secured us the same room that the Golden Kids use for their receptions. I think it will be a lot of fun.”

“Cool. Thanks for doing that.”

“No problem. Besides I could use the opportunity to make some more contacts with more of the Pan Asian kids.”

Chou rolled her eyes. Of course, Ayla found a way to turn it to a business-related venture. “Good luck with that. ‘Night, Ayla.”

“Good night, Chou.”

“Good night, Ayla.”

Ayla sighed heavily at the sound of that voice. “Good night, Sun.”

Chou climbed into bed and Sun Wu Kong followed her in, cuddling with the Handmaid of the Tao, staying close to her until she fell asleep.

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Wednesday 24 January 2007

Sun was still in the bed when Chou woke up, still curled around her. Chou sighed and extracted herself, knowing that she was really going to need her Tai Chi practice if she intended to make it through the day. She dressed and headed downstairs, looking forward to centering herself before her day went completely insane. If she could lose herself in the movements, for even a little while she would feel better about life over all.

The movements did help some and she was able to lose herself for a little while but the tension came back when she got upstairs and Sun was still there. Part of her wanted to scream but Chou knew that it wouldn’t help matters any. She got cleaned up, dressed and then took off for breakfast, with one of the greatest troublemakers ever trailing along with her.

Molly met Chou near the entrance of the cafeteria. Chou was walking up with Sun and Toni, trying to ignore the both of them. Molly called out, “Good Morning, Chou.”

“Morning, Molly.”

“So I was thinking Tao Force.”

“What? No one would ever take us seriously. They would be too busy giggling to fight us,” countered Chou.

“What about The Handmaid’s Cohort?”

“Molly… please, no more bad names. We will figure out something to call ourselves but those two are terrible. Maybe we should let the other two have a say in things?” asked Chou, hoping her near-pleading tone would move the girl to comply.

“Fine. I see how you are. So, nervous?”

Chou nodded. “I am kind of freaking out here if you must know.”

“Don’t worry Chou, you know you’ll have Sam and her BFG 9000 watching you from the tower. That should make anyone feel safe,” quipped Toni.

“I shall watch over you as well, Meimei. I can’t let you get hurt now… can I?” replied Sun.

Chou smiled weakly at that and they got into the line for breakfast. She grabbed an egg and cheese sandwich on an English muffin, and some fruit, as the pancakes didn’t sound good to her right then, figuring they would sit heavier in her stomach. They were also a bit too sweet. Sun took a bunch of Bananas and some of the oatmeal. Molly grabbed scrambled eggs, bacon, and two pancakes. Several of the others were already at the table chatting away about various things and were laughing at something Jade had said when they sat down and touched the crystal.

Jade looked at the others a bit confused and said, “I don’t get it.”

A few others snickered. Tennyo put her arm over the slight girl’s shoulder and said, “I’ll explain it later.”

Before anyone could say anything, Buster had just gotten his tray of food and was heading to his table. He tripped and splatted face first into his pancakes. The smaller cafeteria erupted into laughter at the bully’s expense as bits of syrup and pancake dripped off his face.  The boy growled and stormed out of the cafeteria, hurling his tray against the wall. Chou turned to Sun and hissed, “Stop it!”

“I didn’t do anything, Meimei. Believe it or not, I am actually innocent… this time,” protested Sun. “I do think it was funny, but I had nothing to do with it.”

Chou glared at the innocent-looking monkey girl and sighed in frustration. It was a lot harder to be mad at this form, as opposed to her real form, as the girl was so amazingly cute.

“Relax Meimei, everything is going to be okay. There is no need to stress over this one little incident. You’ll be fine.”

Chou’s stomach turned and she swallowed heavily, her stomach feeling off. She put the sandwich down, having eaten only half, and pushed it away, not even wanting to smell it anymore. “Ugh… I can’t eat that.”

Molly looked up from her plate, worried about her love. Chou smiled at her weakly. She stood and looked at everyone, “I guess I am too nervous to eat. I’m going to go to the Security office to get ready for the drop. See you all later.”

The others said their goodbyes. Molly watched as her Soulmate left, looking for all the world like her dog had been kicked. Sun came over and hugged the girl. “Don’t worry Molly, Chou will be all right. The plan they came up with is solid and they do know what they are doing. Relax. She will be fine. I promise.”

Molly turned her head to look into Sun Wu Kong’s eyes. “You do know I am going to hold you to that?”

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Dyffud checked his weapons, making sure the back-of-the-hand dart shooters were on securely and loaded. Ever since he had read the ‘Man Who Never Missed’ back in the eighties, he had fallen in love with the idea of the weapons and he had managed to bug a devisor he knew who was interested in weapon design to make several of them for him. He had his very own spetsdots and that made him nearly giddy. He had even taken one of the extra pairs of the guns he had gotten and presented them to the author, Steve Perry, at his house in Oregon. It had been a nice, fun moment as the author had been very surprised to get them.

The spetsdot was a weapon that looked a little like a diamond with a barrel coming out over his middle finger. The weapon attached to the back of his hand with a flesh colored adhesive and thus moved exactly with his hands. The weapon had an electric trigger that was fired with the tip of his fingernail. It fired very small darts and each carried a different load in the warhead. Some were blunts, which simply hurt similar to a bee sting, some were electrostaticly charged and zapped the target with the equivalent of a taser charge, others had a neurotoxin that paralyzed the target for a few hours, and then there were the knockout loads. These weapons made him happy. They were the best weapon for the way he fought that he had ever found, at least in that category.

He zipped up his tactical vest and checked his load one more time, making sure all of his usual gear was in there along with the gear he figured he would have brought along for an op like this if he were an actual bad guy. Dyffud was looking forward to making this run against a senior team. It would be nice to win, but it was often a greater pleasure to be surprised by the team and lose. He always managed to learn something from runs like this though, win or lose.

He moved to his start position in the building and prepared for his run. This would be fun, as he hadn’t done anything like this in a while. He just hoped that they would be ready for him.

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“The task is simple. There is a thief who has stolen some valuable data from a governmental think tank. If they are able to escape with that data, you will fail this exercise. Is that clear?” said Gunny Bardue, briefing the team for the run.

“Just one thief?” asked Iron Star, a bit confused, wondering why they would have been called out for a simple job like this.

“Yes. Just one thief. That is all the data you have to go on at the start of this.”

“Do we know if they are a mutant or not?” asked Pendragon, looking at the map that had been provided of both the building and the city streets that the sim was to take place in.

“We don’t know. Any more questions?” At the shake of the heads of the six members of the FSHA team, Bardue said simply, “Then get going. The sim starts when you all enter the room.”

They changed into their uniforms and entered Arena ‘99. Pendragon led the way, moving quickly through the stalled traffic, followed by Saladin and Hippolyta, with Mr. Mystic hitching a ride with a flying Iron Star, and Gloriana flying higher still, scouting. She called out over their headsets, “Building up ahead.”

Suddenly, as they neared, the building’s fire alarm sounded. People began to leave the building quickly, and Pendragon called out, “Spread out and cover the exits. Scan for our thief!”

As the heroes spread out, Mr. Mystic cast out his power to cover a wider area. It didn’t take long for the PDP to call out, “Found him. Whoever the thief is, he’s already gone out the back.”

Saladin and Hippolyta raced towards the back of the building, while Iron Star, who was covering that area called out, “I see him. One man, early to mid thirties, wearing black BDUs and a tac vest. P90 and some sort of weird diamond shaped things on back of hands. Grenade!”

The sound of the flashbang rattled some of the glass and light flared around the corner. Iron Star called back, “Lost him. He has to be close though.”

Hippolyta and Saladin reached where Iron Star was and they scanned the area, still moving in the direction he had been going. Gloriana was flying above the area, looking for the figure described. She spotted him and moved ahead of him, using a flash of her own to try and slow him down and maybe blind him. “Spotted him. One block over, left.”

When the light cleared she said, “He entered that building.”

The team quickly assembled at the building the thief had entered. Iron Star and Gloriana were outside to cover windows while the other four entered the building. As they walked into the fairly deserted lobby, Pendragon asked, “Mystic, where?”

“Sixth, no seventh floor. Right stairwell.” Pendragon led the way to the stairs and then up. He noted that the stairwell was filling with more and more smoke the higher they went. Tightening his grip on his sword and shield, he continued to lead the way, coughing some and feeling a slight burn to his eyes. “CS gas!”

The three Exemplars were only moderately affected by this attack, with watery eyes, some tearing, and a slight burning in their nostrils and lungs. Mr. Mystic however was not so lucky. He was coughing, tears and snot were running down his face, and he began making some vomiting noises. Pendragon called out, “Saladin, get him out of here!”

Saladin grabbed the PDP Merlin-wannabe and bounded down the stairs away from the gas.

Pendragon and Hippolyta burst onto the seventh floor, slamming the door backwards. A burst of submachine gunfire drove them back briefly. Hippolyta then roared, rounding the corner, the rounds not damaging her body. The figure moved into the hallway and stood there calmly waiting for the Amazon, the P90 hanging in front of his body as it was attached to his tac vest. As Hippolyta reached him and swung, he redirected her blow into an office, making her stumble through a doorway to crash into a desk. The man in black then moved to close with Pendragon.

Pendragon held his sword and shield at the ready, poised to engage the man when Hippolyta bracketed him from behind, trapping the man between the two of them. Pendragon called out, “Surrender, there is no way out!”

“Really now?” The man suddenly turned and ran at a window, firing the P90 into the glass to break open the safety glass. He burst through, and turned in the air to face Gloriana, who was speeding towards him. He raised his hands and moved his fingers. Gloriana slapped her arm as something stung her there. Suddenly things started to get blurry for her and she began to lose focus, her eyes blurring and her head spinning, falling out of control. The man continued on his falling arc and hit the building opposite feet first.

He then bounced in a different direction, back towards the alleyway between buildings. Saladin raced that way, only a short distance behind when the man hit the ground running. As he moved to engage, the man turned to face him and smiled. “Hi.”

Saladin began his attack, and the man used brush blocks to keep him slightly off balance, none of the attacks getting even close to connecting. Saladin then heard in his earpiece, “Coming in hot.”

Saladin spun to the side and Iron Star zoomed past, trying to tackle the thief. However, the man spun to the opposite side of Saladin, avoiding the well-practiced maneuver that had nailed a number of other teams time and time again. Saladin closed again with the thief and their fight resumed, with the thief fighting defensively. Suddenly something shifted and the man evaded the next attack and rushed away, towards where Iron Star had flown.

The armored teammate came into view and readied himself to engage the thief, but the man used the P90 to shoot at his face and was able to make it past as the armored man had flinched from the bullets. “Dammit, he got by me and is heading down 15th street North.”

The rest of the team followed, with Pendragon and Hippolyta catching up with them. Gloriana and Mr. Mystic were not with them, both still suffering from the effects of the thief’s attacks. As they chased him, the thief dodged through traffic as if it weren’t there. Iron Star flew ahead and began throwing things at the thief, making him zigzag even more, slowing him down. Pendragon shouted as he neared and swung his blade.

The man spun under the attack, sweeping Pendragon’s feet out from under him, dropping him to the ground and then leaping away from Hippolyta’s attack. Saladin closed as well, trying to grab the man, but he managed to twist away from that as well, shooting two darts from the back of the wrist guns that the PK shield stopped. The three close-in fighters began to work in concert, timing their attacks to preset patterns they had practiced and honed. Somehow, the man kept evading the attacks, almost bending around some as if he were smoke. However, it looked as if another sword strike might connect.

The man brought an arm up and blocked the blade with his forearm, which surprised the three of them. The man capitalized on that hesitation by slapping a pair of cuffs on Hippolyta and hitting Pendragon with a taser. The high-grade Exemplar cuffs were frustrating the girl but she didn’t stop her attacks. Pendragon shook violently, as the man had gotten the taser into the unarmored armpit of his sword arm. As he shook, a redirected two-fisted strike from the Amazon missed the thief and drove Pendragon across the street to crash through a display window.

Saladin grabbed a street sign and began to use that as a weapon. Iron Star called out, “Incoming!”

A large metal dumpster came flying their way and the man barely managed to avoid it, chunks of concrete flying up from the street at its impact. Another smoke bomb went off and Saladin and Hippolyta were coughing harder now to a second exposure of the modified CS gas. Iron Star flew after him, staying high enough up to avoid easy counterattacking. As the chase turned into an alleyway, Iron Star used his telekinetic abilities to throw things into the man. He dodged into a building, and by the time Iron Star was able to enter the building to continue the chase, there was no longer a trace of the man. The Sim ended and he began cursing in frustration.

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Dyffud smiled as he talked to Gunny Bardue, drinking from a bottle of cold water. “They’re pretty good. Those coordinated attacks of theirs were pretty brutal, and if I hadn’t rabbited when I did they may have gotten me. Color me impressed, Gunny.”

“Thanks Dyffud. They put in the hours though. Let’s get to that debrief.” Gunny Bardue led Dyffud to the debriefing room where the team was gathered. The faces of the Future Superheroes of America Senior team turned to face them. “Let me introduce your Red Team, Dyffud Harraz, codenamed Journeyman.”

Several eyebrows rose at the name and it was clear that they had heard of him, or at least a few of them had, which was a nice surprise. Gunny continued, “Now let’s talk about what you did right and what you did wrong.”

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Chou nervously walked toward the boundary of the school, with both the letter she had written and the mock Destiny’s Wave in her hands. The real weapon was on her back, protected under the Monkey King’s invisibility charm. This delivery had her very nervous, regardless of the fact that Samantha was covering her with her very scary sniper rifle and Wilson was behind her as back up. In her mind, too many things could go wrong here and that was a bit distressing.

The snow crunched under her feet and she could see the man that she was heading toward, standing there confidently, as if he had nothing in the world to fear. This was it. This was the moment where this whole crazy plan went down and she would be able to get back to her normal life. Mrs. Carson had told her everything was all right and that the Neutrality Pact would be enforced all over them with a great deal of pain and suffering awaiting them. That pleased her, but in the here and now, when she was walking toward the man she was supposed to turn her weapon over to, she was a bit scared, worried that something was going to go wrong.

From what they had said, the Tong had been simply toying with her, testing her. This implied that they had more power available to them to bring to bear against her, and Chou was quite sure that this would not be the end of the Tong. That they would come back against her at some point. Or maybe it was simply paranoia spurred on by a blood magic fueled ritual that teleported someone into her room? She wasn’t sure. Regardless of whichever choice it was, she just wanted this to be over. When she was a few paces away from the man, he began to speak.

“<Greetings Handmaid from the Preceptor. I believe that you have something to give to me?>” The man was lanky and looked a bit thicker than he should be in the torso, based off the size of his limbs. He was probably wearing some sort of armor under his clothes, which wouldn’t help him against the Sniper Rifle of Doom but she was fairly certain that he didn’t know that.

“<I do. I give you Destiny’s Wave and you leave those families alone?>” asked Chou, her voice quavering a little all on its own with no need for her to act.

“<You have our word on it Handmaid. May I examine the blade?>” He stretched out both hands, waiting for her to move to him.

Chou stood there a moment, bringing the blade against her body. She then handed it over. The man took it, bowed to her and half drew the blade. The man scanned over it, as if trying to determine if the sword was real or not, but there was no way that Caitlin had not been able to make a perfect likeness once she had gotten into her Artificer groove.

The man smiled at her coldly, apparently satisfied with the weapon. “<Thank you, Handmaid. You have made the correct choice in this situation.>”

Once he bowed, the man turned and walked off, never looking back as he moved away from her and toward the forest. She heard Wilson move past her, whispering, “Good job. Now it’s time to follow him to where they’re holed up.”

Chou shivered some, and turned back to the school, walking back into the protective field and heading back to where the others were waiting for her. This part was done. Now it was time for the Whateley Alumni to take care of the issue in their own way. She felt bad that she wasn’t going to be helping them, but it had been made clear that the students’ safety was paramount. Chou just wished she didn’t feel like that was a weak answer.

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Chou walked into the classroom, not really sure what to expect anymore from her classes with Dyffud, as each one seemed stranger than the last. Every class seemed to be filled with more ideas than anything else, ideas that sometimes made her head hurt. Once inside the room, she saw him moving through a Tai Chi form, sliding from one move to another smoothly. She smiled when she saw that at least this was familiar as opposed to many of the other things she had seen him do.

He came to the end of the form and then looked over at her. “Ah, Chou. Good. Are you ready?”

“Sure. What are we doing today?” answered Chou.

“We are going to talk about allowing movement and working on flow,” stated Dyffud.

“Allowing movement?” asked Chou, clearly confused by what she had heard.

“Yep. Most people do have some inborn skills that can fall under combat. Like blocking, for example. Most people, if you punch toward their face, they’ll bring an arm up to block you. It’s sort of an inborn reflex, and something that really needs little training, if they allow their bodies to react. What’s interesting about Martial Arts, is that sometimes we have to stop our innate movement to complete a given move or sequence, or even to fight. What that can do is to make things a touch difficult to move correctly. There’s a lot in training that’s at a halfway point between being a trained move and being a learned move. A learned move flows out like an innate move. A trained move has to be thought about to a degree and thinking in a fight often gets you killed as it slows you down incredibly. So what we are going to do is work on things so that you sort of allow your body to move in a way that feels natural but is tied to your learned moves and responses.”

Chou blinked a few times as she worked to process all of that, being that it was pretty dense with information. “So you are saying that we sort of get in our own way and slow ourselves down?”

“Yep, and that’s why we are going to work on you just moving and reacting. It should be fairly easy.”

He picked up a bo staff and twirled it a little in his hands. “Ready?”

“Wait! What am I supposed to do?”

“Just do what your body says and let’s see what happens.” With that, Dyffud thrust forward with the staff.

Chou rolled around the outside, and then leapt up over the swing at her feet. She began to lose herself in the actions of dodging and flipping around, avoiding getting hit. This went on and on for a while, and Chou felt her body shift from avoiding to attack. She hesitated briefly and then got smacked with the bo staff on her thigh. Dyffud grinned at her. “Not too bad. We’ll work on this some more. What made you pause like that?”

“I wanted to attack and I wasn’t sure that it was allowed,” replied Chou, rubbing the spot where she had been hit.

“Feel free to attack, Chou. That is completely allowed in this exercise, as you are supposed to go with your instincts. This is all about moving and not resisting. If your body prompts you to attack, go with it. Let’s go again.”

Again, Chou dodged the attacks by the bo staff. It did not take her too long to get back into the flow of the movement and feel what her body was telling her. It was getting easier to do, the more she practiced. It was similar to how she moved when the Tao filled her, and she could only assume that was a good thing. When she felt the urge to attack, she went with it and the rhythm changed, becoming ever more turbulent. It was like dancing through a raging river. Finally, the staff caught her behind the knees and before she could react, she was dumped onto her butt again.

Dyffud looked really pleased with her performance. “Excellent! You’re really getting the hang of this. Nicely done. Now I know you pull things from your bag during fights, so next we’ll do this again and you can add pulling something from your bag. Okay?”

Chou nodded and the exercise began again. She got hit the first few times she tried to pull some of her prayer sheets free, one blow even hitting the same spot on her thigh where she had been smacked earlier. Finally she was able to get the hang of it and was able to move and draw out items without getting smacked. When Dyffud stopped he chuckled, “That bag of yours is great. What I wouldn’t give to have something like that.”

“My roommate has something like that,” replied Chou.

“Really? Do you think there is any way that I can get one from her?” asked Dyffud, a bit excitedly.

Chou smirked, “Yeah, I think that he can make that happen. He has lots of business connections around here.”

“He?” Dyffud looked confused.

“Uhm… yeah… he,” replied Chou, blushing a little and she wasn’t even all that sure why.

“Okay. So do you think you can get me in contact with him?” Dyffud asked, nonplussed by the rooming in Poe.

“Sure. Do you want his number?” asked Chou.

“Yes, please.” He happily remembered the number that Chou rattled off and made plans to call soon. “Now, let’s get back to training. You are starting to get the flow, but let’s step things up by making you attack, defend, and need to pull things from your bag all at the same time. Ready?”

Chou groaned and got into her ready stance. Dyffud was sometimes quite evil. The attacks began again.

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Buster walked into the locker room, looking forward to pounding someone, anyone, just to be able to get out his stress over all of the pranking he had been enduring. Whoever was doing this was going to pay, and pay in a lot of hurt, something he was looking forward to.

He reached his locker and opened it up. He undressed and tossed his clothes onto the floor of the locker, tossing his shoes on top. He then put on his costume and noticed that something was wrong. There was a draft where there shouldn’t be one. Laughter began to fill the locker room as people began to notice that the crotch of Buster’s costume was missing, and they started laughing and pointing.

With a growl, he tore the costume off and threw it to the floor. He put his clothes back on and headed out to the dojo floor, dressed in his school uniform and fuming. Oh yeah… when he caught whoever was doing this to him, they would pay.

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Wilson was amused by the cocky surety that the carrier of the mock sword had. The guy didn’t try to hide his trail or do anything to cover himself. He just moved from point A to point B like a complete novice. Surely, these Tong guys were not this stupid? Were they? There was no way that a group that had survived for over several hundred years was this sloppy. But apparently they were, or at least this idiot was.

The warehouse was only a few miles from the school, on the outer edges of Dunwich. The person he had been following went in and never came out. Wilson got on the radio and called back, “Red Leader, this is Red 3. Target inside warehouse at my position. Advise.”

“Red 3, any sign of other targets?”

“Negative. Will move closer to get visual of interior.”

“Roger. Back up is in route. ETA five mikes.”

“Roger that. Five Mikes. Red 3 out.” Wilson moved carefully to the side of the building and tried to find a quiet way up to the windows. He got up there after a minute or so of looking for a safe route, and looked in. He saw six other people there and they were currently testing the sword somehow, if all the mystical bullshit was to be believed. Hopefully the decoy would withstand examination.  He checked for more targets.

“Red Leader this is Red 3.”

“Go ahead Red 3.”

“Estimate a total of nine targets. They are currently examining the sword.”

“Support is under a minute out. Engage.”

Wilson smiled and headed for the front door. This was going to be fun. Just about when backup had arrived, he tore open the door and looked around in surprise, “HEY! They said there were hookers here!”

The Tong members wasted no time and attacked, swords and other weapons springing out and ready. Wilson grinned as he dodged and then he informed them, “Oh, by the way… I’m the distraction.”

Flashbangs went off and the rest of the Whateley range crew burst into the room, dropping targets with controlled weapon fire. One of the Tong members grabbed the sword and fled, using the chaos as cover for his escape. Once all shooters called out clear, Wilson looked over at Smythe and chuckled as he asked, “Do you think he’s aware that we let him go?”

Smythe grinned back and shook his head, “No, I do believe he’s too busy running for the hills to think about that.”

The others laughed and began the process of cleaning up after themselves.

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Chou sighed as she blew the heat off the surface of her mug of hot chocolate. Her breath moved the little marshmallows just a little. She was stressed and wrung out from the day’s activities, and fundamentally it had been an easy day. What had she ever done in a past life that had earned her such a terrible time in this life? Surely she had been good… right? She had no idea and it worried her. What if all of this was some screwed up punishment for a really bad past life?

Suddenly her cellphone chirped. She was surprised, as she so rarely got any calls on it. She answered it curiously, “Hello?”

The call wasn’t very good, and she had trouble making out the voice through all the static. It really sounded like Molly, and that worried her. “Chou? Please help me. I am trapped in Arena ‘77.”

“I’ll be right there.” Chou hung up and had another swig of her hot chocolate before she stood up and headed for the Arena in question.

What was Molly doing in one of the Arenas anyway? Was this something for her Summoning class? Some sort of homework or something? Something for her Combat Movement class? Chou had no idea and honestly she didn’t care. If Molly needed her help then Molly would get it.

She took the most direct route to the Arena, hoping to avoid getting lost in the maze of tunnels that ran underneath the school for several levels. This place was actually pretty easy to get lost in, as the tunnels ran most everywhere and had all sorts of little side passages, some of which were not on any of the maps that were available. It was frustrating.

Chou reached the Arena and saw what seemed to be the problem. A mop of some sort had fallen across the door and would block the door mechanism from opening, or at least that is how it looked to her. Chou sighed when she saw this and chuckled to herself. Only Molly could get herself into this sort of situation. Chou moved the mop and opened the door, stepping in, “Molly? I opened the door for you.”

The door slammed shut behind her, making Chou spin in surprise, hand going for her sword. She turned and looked around the room, trying to figure out just what the hell was going on. There was no one in the arena with her, but who knew who would come through the door opposite her. She then looked up, and saw some faces looking down from the observation level, faces that she was quite familiar with due to the mishap in the Sim. Faces of the New Olympians. And they looked upset.

Chou swallowed heavily. Crap.

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Buster was getting a bit stressed over this whole pranking thing, especially since he couldn’t find the culprit. He had been keeping his eyes out for whoever it could be, and nothing. There hadn’t been any sign of anybody doing anything, and no one who looked in his direction long enough for some sort of psychic thing to be going on. There didn’t seem to be a technical reason for things, so that left magic, and he really had no way to deal with that unless he could find the caster and beat them down. The problem was, he would get in trouble for beating up random Wiz talented kids, and there were some of them that were a little intimidating and would most certainly fight back. His paranoia was increasing with each little prank, and he still had no idea who was doing this to him.

He opened the little mini fridge in his room and pulled out a Coke, desperately needing real refreshment. He unscrewed the cap and took a big swig out of it, enjoying the slight burn the beverage seemed to have. He sighed happily and put down his drink. The only problem was that the drink wouldn’t let go of him. His eyes widened in shock and he stumbled back into the bed. As he staggered forward, he was aware that the sheet had stuck to him as well and he was pulling it off the bed. He spun around and was looking around the room frantically, as if there was a clue what was happening to him in there. What the Hell!!

As he moved and bumped into things, he began to collect more and more things that were stuck to him, like the desk chair and the dirty laundry scattered about. He began to scream when he fell over, tripped by the mess in his room that was now attaching itself to him. He flailed about, trying to find a way to get to his feet, but he couldn’t as he already had so many things stuck to him that he couldn’t manage to get his feet under himself. He screamed some more, trying to keep some of the dirty clothes from his mouth, especially the dirty socks.

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Chou looked over the faces of the New Olympians worriedly. As far as she knew, they might all be there, in the viewing box above the arena, gazing down at her disapprovingly. Imperious glared down at her, clearly angry with her over something or other, but for the life of her Chou could think of nothing she had done that could have angered him. She swallowed heavily, wishing she had backup at this moment. Why had she forgotten to put the Spot back on after the sword exchange? It had completely slipped her mind and she began chiding herself for that mistake. Things were looking more and more insane with each moment, and she was getting a bit scared.

“Bladedancer, you have been rising above your station and claiming privileges and power that isn’t yours. This is not for mere mortals such as yourself. For this bout of Hubris, you are going to be made a lesson of, for your baseless lies about Counterpoint for one but also your daring to get between me and my Galatea. She was important to me and I would have been able to utilize her power as it was intended for her kind to enhance my own. Then there is also your claiming to be some sort of divine force. Bah! What are you? You are nothing. Nothing! Simply a poor pitiful mortal thrashing against forces far more powerful that yourself and you have crossed the wrong people girl. For that impudence mortal, you shall pay.” Imperious growled down at her, almost wanting to smite the little wretch himself. However, that particular pleasure was not for him.

The air shimmered and the room filled with a holographic projection of a set of cliff walls with a thin gap in them. The mountainous ridges looked imposing and impassable. Out of that gap strode Counterpoint, standing straight and proud, wearing full Hoplite armor, with the large round shield, long spear clutched in one hand, and a sword sitting at his hip. The helmet rode high on his head, leaving his face clear. He sneered at the Asian girl who dared to think she was better than he was, who dared brag about besting him. He was a God… and what was she?

Chou stood there stunned, looking at a very pissed off Counterpoint who was fully armed and armored, looking like something out of a History channel special of Ancient Greece. From what she had just seen and heard, Ayla’s theory about them began to make more and more sense. What the hell was she going to do? There was no way that she would be able to fight and beat Counterpoint. Toni had been clear about how out-matched she had been and she was a slightly better fighter than Chou was. There was just no way she could do this, as he was just too strong. She had gotten her ass kicked in the Sim, just barely managing to stay alive, and now she had to face the real one who would fight stronger, harder, and faster. She was totally screwed if this went down. “I don’t have a quarrel with you, with any of you!”

“Well, you have one with me bitch. I have heard what you have said about me and I will prove that wrong on your body.” With that, Counterpoint rushed up using his enhanced speed and slammed Chou backwards with his shield. The blow was also fueled with his enhanced strength, and if it weren’t for her practice absorbing blows and rolling with the hit she would have been seriously injured.

Chou slid down the wall slightly after impact, her body protesting movement in general. What the fuck was Counterpoint’s beef with her? To the best of her knowledge, she hadn’t done anything having to do with him except the fight in the sim. She rose shakily to her feet, drew Destiny’s Wave, and set herself, “Fine. You want to do this. I’m ready for you, you jackass.”

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Dyffud appeared in the Harrington’s house, fully loaded for a fight. His transportation let him go, and he saw the two adults looking worriedly over at him. He smiled and headed over, extending a hand in greeting. “Good afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Harrington, my name is Dyffud Harraz. Chou Lee is one of my students and I believe she and your daughter are acquainted.”

Molly’s mother was the first to recover from the surprise of seeing two people appear in her living room. “You could say that.”

“Well, I just wanted to let you know that Blink here will get you both to safety, and I will protect your house in case the Tong members decide to come after you. This should be over with today, although there will be further protections given to you until we are absolutely sure this problem is past,” explained Dyffud. “I am sure that Ms. Carson explained that in her phone call?”

The Harringtons nodded and went over to the blue clad supervillain who was smiling at them in a friendly manner. He took them in his arms and they vanished instantly. Looking around the room, Dyffud spotted an interesting picture on the mantle that he moved closer to investigate. In the picture, Chou and this other girl that he assumed to be Molly Harrington were lying together on the couch, cuddled closely, Chou draping an arm over Molly protectively. He smiled at the cute image. It was clear to him that the two girls had feelings for each other, and the few other pictures of the two girls in a few other frames seemed to prove his point. That she had found someone was a good thing in his opinion, however he was wondering at the sanity of it. Chou had so much on her plate. How could she add the stress of a relationship on top of that? He shook his head. It was her choice after all.

The house had a fairly simple design to it, and one that he felt confident he could defend after he had done two walk-throughs. It looked like he could find a good central position to work off of when the Tong came in. Since he was not currently in combat and he felt like he had some time to spare, Dyffud decided to make a business call. He settled his headset and dialed the number he had gotten from Chou. The phone rang a few times and then was answered, “Hello?”

“Hello, is this Ayla Goodkind?”

“Yes. Who is this?” asked Ayla cautiously, unsure how someone he didn’t know had gotten this number.

“This is Dyffud Harraz.  I am teaching your roommate various things,” He answered.

“Yes. I am familiar with who you are. How can I help you?” Ayla was now trying to figure out what Dyffud could possibly want with him.

“I was told by Chou that you have a utility belt that can hold quite a lot of gear. This interested me, as I have been looking for such a tool for a while now. Is this so?” Dyffud cocked his head as he noticed that there was a sound, faint, a sound that was coming from the back of the house. Given that in his walkthrough he hadn’t noticed the house making any noise, this was probably an intruder. He snapped both hands up, pointing at about 45 degrees from his body in order to cover as much area as possible and turned his head back and forth to try and catch everything going on around him.

After a moment’s consideration Ayla responded, “One of my clients does make several belts like that. Why do you ask?”

Dyffud moved into the back by the kitchen, and saw two people dressed in black rushing him with swords. Specifically, each had a dao and were holding it confidently. Without a moment’s hesitation, he shot them both with his spetsdots, watching their muscles contort as the neurotoxin quickly took effect. “Well, I am interested in picking up something like that, if it was available on the market, and I was hoping to find a supplier, if one was available.”

“Well, I can certainly arrange, but you would have to sign an agreement not to allow anyone else to examine it. Trade secrets you know.”

With another shot of his spetsdots, he dropped a third attacker who came rushing in through the kitchen. The neurotoxin load made the man fall twitching and frothing on the linoleum, his two axes clattering loudly onto the floor. “I completely understand. I would be happy to sign such a document if that would give me access to a utility belt of that nature. Is there a way to get the pockets to customizable sizes?”

“I believe so,” said Ayla, making a mental note. “My client makes belt pockets in a variety of sizes, from a pocket outwardly the size of a matchbook that would hold an average man’s fist, all the way up to a bulky pocket about three inches by four inches, about two inches deep, which would hold an assortment of objects that together would fill a camper’s backpack. Umm… what was that noise?”

“Nothing. I’m doing some other work at the same time.” Dyffud ducked under the slash aimed at his neck and darted the assailant in the abdomen. “Sorry if it distracts you. You were saying?”

“Umm… okay… I will ask and see what my client says. Do you have any price limitations?” Ayla was a bit suspicious, as he tried to figure out what was going on in the background. It sounded like combat.

“Not really.” Dyffud turned slowly in a circle, checking for other targets. Surely, they were going to send more than four goons after the Harringtons… right? Granted, they were both untrained baselines, but only four? He kept his weapons pointed out, ready for further attack. “As long as the price isn’t in the millions I should be fine.”

“Good. I believe we can deal. Text me the desired interior sizes of the custom pockets and their locations on the belt, and I’ll get back to you within twenty-four hours with a price and a delivery date,” stated Ayla.

“Great. Thank you, Ayla. That will be very useful.” The call ended, and Dyffud decided to move through the house, looking for any possible hidden attackers, just in case. There had to be more to this. This was way, way too easy. Wait, was that a sound upstairs?

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Bladedancer moved to intercept Counterpoint’s advance, her sword at the ready, sliding into attack. They neared and she swung, intending to cut the shield to shreds. Counterpoint grinned and cocked his shield so that he could punch block the sword away from her body, hitting only the flat of the blade with the face of the shield. The butt of the long spear then slammed into her abdomen, folding her over with a flash of white hot pain and nausea. Then the shield smacked into her back hard, driving Chou into the floor painfully.

It took all of her concentration to roll away and kip up to her feet, while still trying to avoid the beating, as she avoided another butt strike. Bladedancer held Destiny’s Wave across her body, in more of a defensive position, hoping to minimize the damage she was taking. Counterpoint grinned at her, a partially vicious grin but also a feral grin of enjoyment, and then thrust his spear towards her. She swiftly cut the metal tip off the weapon and then she pivoted, to swing at his head, snapping the blade out. The sword took a chunk of shield but nothing else. She was moving as fast as she could but the spear shaft that Counterpoint still held snapped around and slammed into the backs of her knees.

Bladedancer collapsed onto floor of the sim room hard, driving knee first into the metal that formed the arena. Her legs resisted her coming back up, but she made it to her feet with a minor struggle, managing to stop a few strikes at her. This fight was not going well, and she had no idea what she could do in order to stop this. Bladedancer was losing ugly, as Counterpoint was simply the better fighter between the two of them. She had to switch things up, to fight her battle not his.

As Bladedancer was trying to keep him back with the sword, she reached in and grabbed one of her ofuda, or prayer sheets, launching it at Counterpoint. The sheet contacted his shield and the blast threw him backwards, but he rolled out of that and got back to his feet in a fairly smooth move. Counterpoint chuckled and grinned evilly at her. “Nice one little girl, but not nearly good enough to fight with me.”

He rushed her again but this time he slid under her counterattack as she tried to take him out again with a head shot. He drove his shield into her hip, which flung her across the Arena causing her to tumbling some. When she landed, Bladedancer continued to slide across the floor until she came to rest against the wall. Counterpoint stood there, rising to his feet, the light glinting off his armor, his voice deep and strong, “You, you had the gall to claim that you defeated me? You had the nerve to imply that you were the superior warrior? You are nothing, you are less than nothing and I will beat you back into the nowhere place you crawled from.”

Imperious looked down on the beaten girl and smiled to himself. Teaching mortals not to interfere in the affairs of Gods was always the wiser plan in these sorts of situations. They only got what they deserved. He did wish that he held the power he used to, as he would have transformed this meddlesome fly into exactly that. Now though he had to make sure that the girl knew her mistake. “Now you see where you erred when you dared to involve yourself into the affairs of your betters, Bladedancer.”

Bladedancer climbed to her feet slowly, angry and wanting to do nothing more but to smash the New Olympian idiots into paste. Her scowl turned into an amused grin as she felt the familiar sensation of the power of the Tao filling her, until it felt like her skin was near bursting with power. This certainly changed things. She wasn’t sure why she was getting the power now, but she wasn’t going to complain. Hopefully she would be able to figure out why later. Now she had other business. She lifted her blade, pointing it straight at Counterpoint, the blade unwavering. “You lot think you are my betters? Hah! You are nothing but puffed up little kids trying to hang on to past glory.”

Imperious sneered at the girl who was still struggling against the inevitable. “Counterpoint, dispose of this trash.”

Imperious turned away from the beating, dismissing the Asian girl completely… however, there was something in the air, something that screamed power, something that made his hindbrain worried and fearful. He turned back to the scene, feeling the power roll off her, and stammered, “Wh-what?”

Bladedancer was living up to her name at the moment, moving smoothly around attacks like silk over glass, whittling away at the shield Counterpoint was holding as if it were a game. Imperious gaped at the sight of a mere girl devastating Counterpoint. There was no way that this girl could beat Ares, not his Ares. The God of War had access to a vast array of memories of combat and was a truly formidable warrior even without power. However, what he was witnessing seemed utterly impossible to him. This couldn’t be real. At this point in the fight, the spear shaft was completely destroyed and Counterpoint was using his sword without the benefit of the shield’s protection. With a wrist flick, she disarmed him, his sword spinning through the air and clattering on the ground, and she moved in closer. He used his powers then, using the speed he had captured to re-arm himself and move to a better position, one with more room to maneuver. Bladedancer stood there calmly near the center of the room, as if waiting for him.

Counterpoint growled, clearly not used to this sort of problem when fighting, but growing angry as this was the second Team Kimba girl to turn all of his plans on end in a fight. So much for simply using his fighting skills alone, now it was time for the powers to come out. He chose speed, strength and a PK shield. This way he would be protected from her weapon and would be able to turn things around in this fight. He launched himself at the girl, moving at the top speed his stolen power would allow.

Bladedancer parried his attack, catching the edge of his weapon on the flat of the jade sword. She had a faint smile on her lips and she matched him speed for speed. He tried to batter his way through her defense with his surely greater strength, but she blocked him at every turn, her arm holding firm, the blade unmoving under the massive force that was being applied. His sword was not holding up well under the strain, and was warping some under the impacts. It was clearly not made for the amount of force that it was being exposed to with each strike.

Imperious shook his head to clear the shock of what he was witnessing. They had to do something. They couldn’t just let this event stand. “We must jump in there and help him.”

“What?!” yelped the others, clearly surprised by this outburst and not expecting the request.

“We need to show this mortal where she has erred. She is getting lucky with Counterpoint, but she will not fare as well against us all,” Imperious commanded.

“Don’t you think we shouldn’t get involved? Counterpoint will not appreciate us jumping in like this to save him. He will be pissed,” countered the grey eyed Judicator, hands open, pleading with Imperious.

Imperious turned to face Judicator, anger clear on his reddening face. “I don’t care. Let’s go. All of us.”

“Not me,” blurted Cytherea, clearly worried about getting injured somehow in that tussle. “My powers won’t do anything to her and I’ll just get in the way.”

“Fine,” hissed Imperious. “Now, let’s go.”

Counterpoint was knocked across the arena with a powerful side kick that connected with his chest, just as several of the New Olympians jumped into the Arena to deal with this pest. They landed in a loose formation and stared at the small girl standing there, holding her sword comfortably alongside her leg, and cocking one eyebrow up at them. She raised an eyebrow and then asked calmly, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

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The Chandlers looked in surprise at the slight girl who had been there for Christmas. Toni’s mother hesitantly asked, “And you are here to do what?”

“I am here to protect you. I found out that you are in some danger, and I am going to protect you. The school has some other people watching, but I wanted to do this because I like you.” Sun giggled lightly. “It’ll be easy.”

It looked like there might be some more arguments, especially from Uncle Carl, but Grammy spoke up, clearly irritated. “Hush up. If this girl says she’s going to protect us we should just accept her help and be done with it. Now what should we do?”

Sun’s smile grew larger. “All you need to do is go upstairs, and I will come get you when this is over. I have sealed off your upstairs so no one can get in that way. They will have to make it through me to get to you.”

Uncle Carl scoffed, “As if that’d be tough.”

Sun smirked, “Both Toni and Chou working together have little chance to defeat me, so these thugs… no worries. You just go upstairs and let me do my work.”

Grammy ushered them upstairs and Sun could hear the door to one of the rooms close. Sun Wu Kong let go of his female form and returned to his natural male form, stretching a little and adjusting the crown on his head. He then pulled his staff from his hair, extended it to its normal size, and waited, yawning some, growing bored. He was there for a while, and he began to do things like balancing his staff on his nose to amuse himself. This was getting annoying. How much longer did he have to wait?

When the back door crashed open, he called out happily, “Yes!”

Twelve members of the Tong rushed into the house and sort of skidded to a stop when they saw who was waiting for them. The Monkey King gave them a rather lopsided grin and said, “<So… just so you know… you attacking these people annoys me and you should know how much I dislike being annoyed.>”

One of the men took one good look at the Monkey King and fled. The remaining eleven swallowed hard and moved closer, two of them beginning to chant the words to various spells. They launched into an attack, coordinating their movements to try to trap Sun Wu Kong. It didn’t work.

The mages found their own members flung into them from staff strikes, and they collapsed in a heap. Sun dodged, blocked, and threw them into each other. Several of the Tong members began to bitch and moan about the fight, and Sun Wu Kong replied, “<I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear your whining over how awesome I am.>”

He was rushed again as the Tong members grew more desperate. The Monkey King strung the fight along for a while but it never really got interesting, as he was used to dealing with a far, far higher caliber of combatant, so he flicked his staff out, knocked them out and had clones of himself carry them off to the waiting arms of the awaiting supers. Another yawn broke through. Where was the fun in this? Honestly. Just what sort of thugs were they making these days?

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Majestic immediately called up a protective sphere about herself and rose above the floor to about eight feet, so she had a clear line of sight on Bladedancer. Imperious moved straight forward, flanked on the left by a glowering Counterpoint. A worried Knick-Knack was guarding the right with a few of his weapons at the ready. Judicator was standing in the back yelling, “Don’t do this. Don’t be a fool Imperious, this is madness.”

Counterpoint fired a heat ray at Bladedancer and Knick-Knack fired a neuron disrupter, hoping to catch her in the crossfire. The Handmaid moved forward just as Imperious began swinging, using his Exemplar strength and speed to best advantage, a corona of electricity swirling around his hands. Bladedancer seemed to simply reach out slowly and brush Imperious towards Knick-Knack. The two men stumbled some as they tried to avoid running into each other. She then spun and countered Counterpoint’s sword strike, grinning at the God of War.

Red spheres of energy raced towards her, weaving in a pattern to make it harder to track and defend against. The Handmaid of the Tao tumbled through the air, avoiding all of the attacks and spinning to her feet just in time to brush-block Imperious with one hand. As Imperious kept driving forward, his fists sparking with power, the Handmaid continued to brush block the forearm rather than the hand, keeping the Exemplar off balance and stumbling slightly. The large man also was working to provide some degree of cover for the ranged attacks. Chou then launched herself backwards in a back handspring, causing Imperious to stumble into the trap that Majestic had set. The focused explosion drove Imperious into the ceiling and he fell back to the ground, stunned.

The Handmaid blocked a few energy blasts from both Counterpoint and Knick-Knack with tremendous ease, slowly moving closer to the deviser. Judicator was still screaming, “Stop this, you fools!”

Majestic launched a few Levin bolts at the Handmaid, but she just weaved through them, blocking one with her jade sword, the power making the stone glow. The New Olympians were using their teamwork and their power, for all the good it was doing. Another round of Levin bolts that Majestic launched at the Asian girl were deflected into Knick-Knack, flinging him back and dropping him hard. He hit his head hard on the metal floor of the room.

Counterpoint screamed in frustration and went in fast, pushing his stolen speed, attacking with both sword and heat ray in combined movements, and trusting to his PK shield for safety. The Handmaid flicked her right wrist and Counterpoint’s sword was abruptly cut off at the hilt, the heat ray passing through the spot she had been just a moment before. The girl he was fighting now was so different that Counterpoint was sure he was fighting someone else. One punch was intercepted and the wrist flip flung him through the air toward Majestic.

As Counterpoint sparked off Majestic’s protective sphere, Imperious growled angrily, his fury at this mere mortal besting the Gods who had ruled Greece in the Golden Age burning nearly incandescent. The corona of power around him expanded and then expanded again. The air smelled heavily of ozone as flashes of electricity began to dance around his body. As spheres of fire erupted around the Handmaid from another of Majestic’s failed attacks, Imperious yelled out in a voice to command the heavens themselves, “Now whore, you shall learn the true might of the Olympians!”

The crackling bolt of lightning was flung with one hand, and the Handmaid turned to face it head on. The thunderclap at impact was tremendous, pushing Majestic and Judicator back, and causing Cytheria to scream some as her ears forcibly popped. As the flash and smoke cleared, there stood the Handmaid of the Tao, looking at Imperious with a slight smile on her face, almost as if she was restraining a chuckle. A second and then a third hit bolt her before she moved.

Imperious blinked. The warm trickle of blood along his cheek was the only clue to what had happened. She now stood behind him, the edge of her sword resting against the back of his neck, cold and sharp. “You were saying something about your true might?”

Imperious swallowed, hard. He hadn’t even seen the girl move, and he could tell that she had cut his face, given that he could feel the warm wetness trickling down. Something wasn’t right here and he wasn’t sure what exactly it was but this was not the simple baseline that he had supposed her to be.

Judicator stepped forward, opening her mouth to speak when the girl turned her head and stared directly at her. Seeing the look in the Asian girl’s eyes, she wisely remained silent. Majestic was still hovering in her sphere, but what she had just witnessed had stunned her into silence. Knick-Knack and Counterpoint groaned as they lifted themselves from the ground. The Handmaid of the Tao moved around the older boy, sword still against his neck, a very faint line of blood showing its passage. She stopped before him and stared directly at Imperious as she spoke. “Former glories mean nothing, Zeus. That you escaped total destruction at the hand of the Foreigner should have been enough for you, but no. You come to a new time and a new place, conscript bodies, and strut about as if you are still the Lord of Mount Olympus. The world has moved on, and you are no longer the Divine beings you once were.”

“Fuck you bitch! What do you know?” yelled Ares, wanting to resume the fight, wanting the chance to prove that he was the superior fighter.

“I know a great many things Ares, and I do know that you have all been throwing your weight around in this world as if that alone would return you to your Godhood,” said the Handmaid of the Tao, her body relaxed and calm, the sword down along her side.

Athena stepped forward, wanting to try to mitigate the fallout from this disaster, “Please, we wish no conflict with you. I have heard who you are and we want no trouble with you.”

Several of the others turned to look at Athena as if she were insane, trying to figure out what she was saying. The Handmaid just smiled at the grey-eyed girl in the school uniform. “The wise Athena speaks. Perhaps you can convince your idiot father here why his current course of action is ill advised and doomed to failure.”

“What?” demanded Zeus. “Our actions are ours and ours alone, you have no vote here, nor any power!”

“I am the Handmaid of the Tao, foolish Godling. I serve something far older and far more powerful than you and yours, so the threats you yap at me are nothing to me.” The Handmaid stepped away from him slowly, still speaking, an aura of menace around her. “You and yours have been causing problems right and left, disrupting the flow of things and making a nuisance of yourselves. This will stop. Or I will remove the problem you represent… permanently.”

Zeus flinched some when he felt the power rolling off the slight Asian girl in waves. She gestured with a sweep of her arm and all the New Olympians stumbled backwards and fell, shoved by some invisible force. She gazed at them, one at a time, letting them measure their steel against the adamantine of the Tao. None could not meet the dark eyes of the girl for long, as the power was too great. “This is your one chance. Should we have this conversation again, your voices will be stilled forever.”

The Handmaid of the Tao turned and calmly walked from the room, not even bothering to look behind her at the stunned New Olympians as she sheathed her sword. They stayed there, gaping as the door closed, watching to see if she would return. Athena sighed and shook her head, muttering to herself, “I knew this was a bad idea.”

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Molly was sitting in her room, going over class notes from Summoning, in order to come up with new things she could do and new things she could summon. This was going to get really cool and it looked like she would have to use the Library for something other than making out. There were supposedly books in the Magical section that had information on even more creatures and even some data on specific beings that she could summon by their name. Rythax looked over her shoulder at what she was doing and asked, “You aren’t going to let this get to your head… are you?”

Molly turned to face the panther somewhat confused by the question, “What do you mean?”

Rythax looked at her with his cobalt eyes and she squirmed under the intensity of the gaze as that look gave her an idea what was being talked about. “You called up something in order to torment someone. Isn’t that wrong?”

“I was just paying him back for all that he has done to Anna, to Winnie and to almost everyone in the Underdogs. I was using my power to punish the wicked,” protested Molly.

“You attacked someone without provocation. Molly, your power is very strong and can do many things. If you don’t think about the consequences for your actions, things can turn against you.” Rythax’s voice was calm and unruffled as he tried to explain this to Molly.

“I…” Molly stopped what she was about to say and thought about what Rythax had just told her, specifically contrasted with what she knew about Devilmaster. Was she starting to act like Lindsay’s dad? Had she thought about things before she had summoned the Tanuki? She couldn’t remember, which seemed to lend more credence to what the Shadowcat was saying. That really bothered her. “I… crap.”

“It’s okay Molly. People make mistakes. What determines the course of your fate is what you do after the mistake.”

“I’ll stop the Tanuki, honest, but tomorrow. Buster’s still been a bully and a jerk, and he’s hurt people I care about. I am not just going to take this.”

Rythax nodded his head, somewhat content with the answer. “At least you set limits unto the summoning before you set the Tanuki loose. That is at least something. But you need to be careful, as this morally gray area you are moving in is a slippery slope. You can turn around some day and realize quite suddenly that you have become evil.”

Molly was about to retort when there was a knock at the door. She turned to look at it and wondered if Chou had come over, but it didn’t sound like Chou’s knock nor did it feel like her love were here. She got up and answered the door. Out in the hall stood Jadis, who was there without her usual sidekick Nacht, looking at her, and smiling. “Hello Molly.”

“Hi Jadis. Lindsay isn’t here. I’m not sure where she is right now,” replied Molly, wanting to make sure Jadis knew what she wanted to know so that she could leave and Molly could get back to arguing with the Shadowcat.

“That’s okay as I’m not here to see her.” said Jadis.

“Oh?” Molly looked a bit surprised to hear that. Why would Jadis want to talk to her?

“Can I come in?” asked Jadis, amused that Molly was just standing there seeming to struggle with figuring this out.

“Sure. So what do you want?” Molly stepped to the side and let Jadis into the room.

Once the door was closed, Jadis answered, “Can I get your help with Summoning? There are parts of the class that I’m having trouble with, and since you’re clearly the best in the class, I wanted to get your help. I didn’t want to ask you in class, as it’s a bit embarrassing. And I could really use your help. After all, I did keep our teacher occupied when you summoned that raccoon-looking thing.”

Molly blushed and thought about protesting, but realized that it wasn’t going to be helpful in this case. Jadis was certain of what she had seen, and denying it would do no good. “Thank you for that. I can help you with class work if you want. So, where is it exactly that you are having trouble?”

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Chou trembled as she walked away from the Arena. The power that had filled her had been incredible, but to fight a good chunk of the New Olympians and win? This was not a good thing. She had to tell the rest of Team Kimba as she could only imagine the repercussions that this fight would cause. Ayla, for one, would certainly want to know, and Chou was worried how badly this might screw up things for everyone. Without a doubt, she had made a lot of very powerful enemies just minutes ago. They didn’t seem like people to let bygones be bygones. She was so screwed.

The cold outside air was bracing as she stepped from Eastman, having chosen to exit through there. As she was walking back towards Poe, she spotted Saladin heading her way, and she groaned unhappily. Was there a conspiracy against her? Did she have a ‘kick me’ sign on her anywhere? She plastered a smile on her face and she waved at the Arabic boy. She just wanted to go back to the room, take a shower, and relax. Was that really too much to ask?

“Chou, it is good to see you. I wanted to talk to you about the Capes. I got enough people to back your entrance to the group, and so if you want in I can do that.” Saladin smiled, hoping that the promising freshman would join.

“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think I am really superhero material,” stated Chou.

“What do you mean?” He asked, looking at her a bit confused. This was not what he had expected.

After a moment’s pause, she asked, “What do you know about Taoism?”

“Nothing. I take it that Taoism is central to this issue?”

Chou nodded. “Taoism is a Chinese philosophy, a ‘way of life’ kind of thing that is all about maintaining Balance, trying to keep someone from going too far one way or another. If I was going to be a hero, I would have to go too far one way, and that would put me out of Balance.”

“Are you saying you can’t be good?” It seemed incredulous to him that someone like her could not be good, but that seemed to be what she was saying and it was distressing him.

“I can be good, but usually I try to maintain neutrality in how I view things that being either a hero or a villain would not allow me to have. That neutrality and Balance are very important to me,” explained Chou, hoping it made it through.

Saladin seemed to ponder this for a short while and then nodded. “I can’t understand, as I don’t see the world working like that, but I am willing to accept what you believe to be true. Allah knows that I am not the brightest bulb, but I try.”

Chou snickered at that. She then looked up at him, her nervousness clear in her eyes. There was something she could ask him, now that he was here. “Uhm… Saladin?”

“Yes?”

“Now that you have come out, how do you feel?”

He looked at her quietly for a moment, gathering his thoughts and then replied, “Honestly, I feel as if a huge weight has been lifted off of me. I was not aware of how much of a burden that was to me until I had gotten rid of it. Hell, things are even getting better in the Capes as well, since that Caitlin Bardue yanked the pole out of Iron Star’s rear. He even apologized to me over that. So, en’shah Allah, that will continue to work out. I mean, he even admitted he was doing it as a poorly thought out political maneuver in order to ensure he was the head of the Capes next year. He is certainly a lot better in a fight than in thinking, so I had to give that to him.”

The two of them laughed at that. Saladin continued, “I feel better, happier than I have in years. I do not regret my choice. Why do you ask?”

Chou blushed, unsure what she should say to him, especially since she had not cleared things with her loves. “It has been on my mind lately.”

“Well, I think it has been worth it, but from what I have gathered, that determination is really up to each person.”

Chou nodded. “Thanks. I’ll talk to you later.”

Saladin watched her leave, shaking his head slightly as he chuckled. It looked like someone else wanted to come out of the closet. He wished her luck and knew he would be there to back her up if needed. In this school, she could probably use it.

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“What the fuck was that?” demanded Imperious, clearly flustered by the encounter.

Judicator shook her head. “I had heard some stuff about the girl who was a baseline but supposedly survived against Counterpoint in that Sim mishap. From what I have gathered, she is some sort of… I don’t know… a true Avatar I guess, maybe, of some sort of primal life force that is older than the Titans.”

Counterpoint jumped in, not wanting Judicator to take all the glory. “All I know is that I was kicking her ass but good, and then something changed and there was nothing I could do to stop here. She is no Baseline. There is no way.”

Majestic shared a look with Cytherea and then sighed, knowing that it was time to pass on some of the information they had found out before Christmas break. “She is a Baseline, but she is also far more than she appears. The best way to explain this is that the girl is a vessel for this force, and it can fill her with as much power as it wants. Perhaps too much might cause problems for her body, but I don’t know that.”

Imperious glared at Majestic, a slight feeling of betrayal making him angrier, “And how is it that you ladies seem to know so much about her?”

Majestic snorted in a very unladylike fashion, “Because our heads are not controlled by baser desires, idiot. You have been so busy chasing your own wants and desires that things like her have gone unnoticed.”

“So what are we going to do about her? This assault cannot go unpunished,” grumbled Imperious, stung by the chastisement.

“We should jump her and beat her before she has time to summon her power,” said Counterpoint. “Maybe even kill her.”

Cytherea laughed and tossed back her hair, clearly amused by the macho posturing. “Boys, boys, boys… you just saw how well that will work. Also based off what she said, any attempt to do this again will have dire consequences. No… if you want to defeat this little baseline, you need to fight smarter and not harder.”

Knick-Knack looked over at the beautiful girl that he cared about and asked, “So… what do you suggest?”

The smile that turned up the corners of her lips was not kind. “Leave it to us girls to deal with this. Let us do what we do best.”

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Chou made it up to her room after trudging up the stairs, and she collapsed onto her bed, lying face down into the pillow. She was exhausted. Her body hurt everywhere. She did not want to deal with the things she had to. She groaned and wished lightning would come down and smite her. She groaned again, when she realized that lightning had tried to do that and failed. There really was no hope for her. Her roommate entered the room and after one appraising look asked, “Are you all right?”

Chou answered into the pillow and only a faint, muffled noise was discernable.

Ayla sat down on Chou’s bed and put a hand on the girl’s back comfortingly. He asked, “What’s wrong?”

Chou lifted her head from her pillow and looked at her roommate. “I should probably tell everyone at the same time.”

“Oh God… what now?” whined Ayla, sure this was going to fuck up everything, including his birthday.

“Just get everyone else.” grumbled Chou, sitting up, clutching a pillow to herself. She needed to get this done quickly, then she could relax.

The room filled fairly quickly. Once Jade came in from the bathroom, the door was closed and everyone was looking at Chou worriedly. She tried to smile, but just couldn’t manage it. Too much had happened to her recently and it was leaving her a bit emotionally burned out. “So… I am afraid something stupid has happened yet again and this is probably going to screw us over.”

“What happened?” asked Nikki in a very worried and concerned voice.

Chou took the time to explain everything that had happened to her that day, including how the fight had ended and what she had said, or rather the Tao had said through her. Several people looked stunned at what she had said. Before anything else could be added, Toni chimed in with, “You took several lightning bolts? Damn girl, that’s awesome.”

“Toni, I just pissed off the New Olympians. Who cares about withstanding the lightning?” snapped Chou, irritated that Toni had missed the point.

Hank sat there pondering. “I don’t think that this is too bad. We can deal with this. Not sure how just yet, but I’m sure we can.”

Ayla chimed in, “I know several of them. I can talk to them and see if I can run damage control, if you want.”

Chou nodded, relieved that her roommate was willing to do this for her. “That would be great. I mean with the Tong and now this, I don’t think I can take much more right now.”

Ayla smirked and said, “How about a nice cup of tea? That should relax you.”

Several others groaned at that, shaking their heads in disgust. Chou just smiled and said, “Thank you. That would be lovely.”

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Molly was growling angrily, pacing back and forth murmuring rants against the New Olympians, wanting to rend them limb from limb. Dorjee sat there calmly and watched the girl move and curse, smiling to himself. Chou was sitting there shaking her head, trying to calm the Summoner down. “I am fine Molly. I am just a bit sore and I shouldn’t have to worry about them.”

“I don’t care. We should rend them limb from limb. We should torture them for so long that it becomes a career. We should…”

“Molly! Calm down. There really isn’t anything we can do at the moment and besides, I am fairly certain, based off of what I said after defeating them, the Tao will help me fight any of them,” chided Chou, getting up to forcibly stop the pacing girl.

“Molly, relax. She is fine. There is nothing we can do at the moment, so breathe.” said Dorjee, rising to his feet and getting to the other side of the girl.

Molly sighed, pushed her glasses back up and into place, and tried to relax. “Okay. It just that I hate it when anything bad happens to you.”

Chou hugged her and kissed her on the forehead. “I know love, but I am okay, just bruised a little from where Counterpoint hit me before the Tao filled me with power. I lived to fight another day.”

Molly hung her head and rested it against Chou’s shoulder. “I just worry about you.”

Chou hugged the girl and Dorjee nervously followed suit. Following the orders of the Dalai Lama were sometimes more difficult and uncomfortable than other times. He would endure this as it was not all that bad really, just different. The three of them stayed there for a few minutes, sighing against each other. Chou whispered to the brown-haired girl and then kissed her on the cheek, “Everything will work out Molly, you’ll see.”

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Thursday 25 January 2007

Buster’s head hurt. Waking up with a headache just fucking sucked and he knew it was probably due to whoever was pranking him. Things had just kept getting worse, and it was making it hard to sleep. Things sticking to him had really been embarrassing and annoying, but thankfully someone from the magic school had been able to cancel whatever had been cast on him. He was hungry as well, because it was difficult to eat when things kept sticking to you and no one had wanted to feed him, probably because he had been so pissed off that he had been cursing a lot.

He got out of bed and was thankful that nothing seemed destroyed or messed up. The sigh of relief was strong and he sagged a little when he did it. Whoever was doing this to him would die, slowly and painfully when he managed to catch them. He would kill them bit by bit, relishing his revenge. With a smile at his imagined victory, he opened his underwear drawer and looked down. He froze in terror.

There, filling his drawer was a vast collection of Hello Kitty underwear in many pastel colors, all folded neatly and looking like they belonged there. There were also a few matching bras off to one side of the drawer as well. He just gaped at it, his mind struggling to accept what he was seeing. There was just no way that this was really happening to him, no way. He wasn’t a sissy, a fag, or anything like that. He closed the drawer and checked other drawers, frantically searching them, making sure they were all right. They weren’t and in his closet hung a girl’s uniform.

Buster sat there on the floor of his room, glad that his roommate had decided to avoid him once the pranks really started going. All of his clothes were either Hello Kitty or Barbie. He even looked for his roommate’s clothes, but they were all gone and nowhere to be found. This was all he had to wear. Even his shoes had been changed into cute Mary Janes. He slumped onto the floor of his room in defeat. There was no way in hell that he was going to get dressed in that crap and leave the room. No way in hell. Maybe he should call the Housefather and tell him what was going on and see if there was something he could do?

Buster sat there, stunned at what he was seeing and reached for the phone. Maybe he could call in dead and skip classes entirely?

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Breakfast was about as rowdy as normal, and even a bit more so since Sun was sitting there with them, having a bowl of corn flakes with three bananas cut up into it. She was eating it without milk, which struck people as a bit odd. But given who it was, the meal passed without comment… and only three or four sickened looks from Ayla. When it was time to take off for different classes, Molly managed to catch the Monkey King’s eye to let her know that she wanted to talk. When the table had cleared, and everyone else was heading for classes, Sun came over next to her. “Yes Molly?”

“I need to get stronger. What can I do?”

Sun looked contemplative, with her lips pursed in thought. “Well… there are several different ways you can do that. I suppose I could give you some magical potions and objects that might help, but those tend to fail when you really need them. The only surefire way to get stronger is to train. I mean, look at me. I was born a stone monkey, who became a real monkey, and through training and determination became the most amazingly awesome person that I am today. If you want to be strong then you need to go after it with determination.”

Molly looked thoughtful, trying to make sense of that. “Thing is, I am not sure what to do. I want to be able to help Chou when she faces things like those monsters from the circle, but right now I am more of a liability than a support because I have no clue what the hell I am doing in combat. I am too weak at the moment to be anything but a target and a hindrance.”

“So, you what… need a mentor? Someone to train you?” asked Sun.

Molly nodded. “Yeah. I need someone who can help me be able to survive long enough to be effective in a fight. I don’t want to be like lots of the other magic-using kids here and be all squishy.”

Sun smiled, “Well, isn’t Chou getting more training?”

Molly nodded.

“Maybe you could train with her Sifu. What you should really focus on is being able to move and survive long enough to make a difference. That is how I fight and look at how successful I am!” The confident smirk was almost irritating. Almost.

“Well, I am taking the Combat Movement class and that is helping. But I need more. I talked to my friend Anna about a group called the Hooligans who do Parkour. I thought that might help. What do you think?” Molly asked, a bit worried that she had done something stupid.

Monkey smiled, “It sounds to me that you are going on the right track to make this happen. It will take time, but anything worthwhile takes time to achieve. You are an excellent partner to the Handmaid, and that you are trying to eliminate a weakness on your own speaks well of you.”

Molly shrugged, blushing slightly under the praise. “I just don’t want to be a burden to her.”

“How could you ever be a burden to the one you love?” asked Monkey somewhat seriously.

 “I just don’t want her to have to stop what she is doing to rescue me. I want to be her partner, not just a sidekick who can summon things.” Molly moped a little when she said that, clearly worried about the possibility of that happening. After all of her injuries from Combat Movement, it was easy for her to believe that she was just a sidekick.

Sun chuckled some, spun in a circle and did a back flip. She landed on her feet, grinning widely at the girl, “You are on the right path Molly. After all… you are the Summoner.”

Molly growled out a little when she heard that. “What the hell does that even mean? Igniarli and others call me that, and I don’t get it.”

Sun giggled, putting a hand in front of her mouth and said, “What? And ruin the surprise?”

“What surprise?” Molly’s growl got deeper and her eyes narrowed menacingly at the Monkey King.

“Think about it Molly, what does it usually mean when you call someone something like that? Something in capital letters?” Sun led her on, staying out of arms’ reach just in case.

“I don’t know. I know it’s important, and that it must mean something, but I have no idea what.” Molly raised her voice in frustration. “And the worst thing is that I have no answers. All I keep getting are more and more questions.”

Sun smiled beatifically. “You will come to that understanding in your own time. If I tell you now, the truth of it won’t mean nearly as much as when you get there on your own.”

“Fine. Be that way!” Molly crossed her arms in a huff. “So what should I do about the fighting thing though?”

Sun shrugged, “Talk to the Hooligans. If you can move well then you can find your place to act from easier. Parkour is about movement. It seems like the best place to start, to me. That would be a good start for that. And maybe ask Chou’s Sifu if you can learn other skills as well that would aid you in combat.”

Molly sighed, glad to have gotten the advice she was worried about from someone who should have a better clue than anybody at the school. “Thank you. That has sort of helped.”

“Anytime, Summoner.” Sun turned and skipped away while Molly growled in frustration.

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Just outside of the door to the Team Tactics, Crimson stepped in front of Chou and asked, “Can I talk to you?”

Chou looked at her a bit worriedly, wondering if the girl wanted some sort of vengeance for the sim, but was fairly certain no one was stupid enough to start a fight in front of this class. “Sure.” Just in case, she alerted all the Kimbas using her Spot.

Crimson led her around a corner and into another hallway, so there was at least a little bit of privacy for their conversation. Confundus was standing there, leaning up against a wall and looking at her a bit nervously, a faint smile on her lips. Chou instantly grew wary, her right hand drifting towards her sword. “So, what can I do for you two?”

Crimson frowned a little at the tone and then said, “Well, after seeing you break down after that sim, we wanted to know what happened.”

Confundus added, “We wanted to know if you were doing okay. We were both kind of worried about… what happened to you.”

Crimson gave Confundus a quick glance and said, “I wanted to know if that could happen to me the next time I was in the sims.”

Chou smiled slightly at the admission. “Yeah, I am doing better. Playing an effective villain is really hard, and I felt a lot out of character doing that. Sorry about how I did treated you guys in there, but I was told to go after you hard so you would have a chance to learn. Afterward, it just caught up with me.”

Confundus nodded. “We get the part about doing what you have to do, to take out the opponents. It’s just that ever since your team’s… uhm… incident in the sim room, some of us have been a bit worried every time we take damage in the sim…”

Crimson cut in, “We want to know if that’s going to happen to us. I don’t want to get cut up for real. And then you broke down, and we were worrying that could happen to us too.”

The two Omegas looked at each other knowingly. Confundus smirked, “Not that any big, strong men would ever admit they were nervous about going into a holo sim.”

Crimson grinned, “Yeah. Grapple’d still like to wring your neck. But Eruption doesn’t want to have to face you again.”

Chou replied to the earlier remark. “I can understand that as well. I still get twitchy getting into the sims after what occurred. If it happened once, then surely it can happen again. Although Phase is pretty sure Hartford and Everheart have it safeguarded.”

The two girls smiled at her, then Confundus sighed and said, “Well, we just wanted to let you know that the guys may be like that, but we don’t have any hard feelings. You were just doing your job in there.”

Crimson nodded, “Yeah. So if I get to play the bad guy and blast the snot out of you and your whole team, it’s nothing personal. Strictly classwork.”

“Okay,” Chou managed. The two girls headed to the classroom ahead of her. Chou watched them go, narrowing her eyes in thought and introspection. Now wasn’t that interesting?

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Molly waved to Chou when she entered the dining hall, seeing the girl sitting at the Team Kimba table. But she had something else to do right then before she lost her courage. She made a beeline toward the Outcast Corner table, where some of the scariest people on campus were seated. Most notably ‘the fashion disaster that walked like a man’, Jericho, whose outfits could make people’s eyes bleed. As she neared, it looked like conversation was stopping at the table and people were turning to look her way questioningly. She smiled weakly and reached the table, standing next to the seated Fury twins, who were perched at one end. “Uhm… Caitlin? Can I talk to you?”

Caitlin looked up from her tray of food and raised an eyebrow at the girl. “Go ahead. What do you need?”

Molly bit her lip in nervousness and smiled shyly at the table full of people. Maybe she should have brought Anna with her in order to make the introductions? That might have been easier. “Well, Anna told me that if I wanted to join the Hooligans that I needed to talk to you.”

Caitlin blinked a few times in surprise, clearly not expecting that. “You want to join the Hooligans? Really?”

Molly nodded, sure that she needed to do this. “Well, I need to get better at moving in general and in combat specifically, and the Parkour I have been learning in class has been fun and certainly lets me move about better, so I might actually survive longer in a combat environment.”

Caitlin pursed her lips in thought, clearly measuring the girl who she knew to be Chou’s girlfriend, seeing how she measured up in her mind. She had the same look of worry and desire that a lot of first time recruits had and that softened her heart. “You know it won’t be easy for you as the majority of the Hooligans have some Exemplar or other traits that makes it easier for them to do this.”

“I don’t care. I just want to get better, and this seems like the best way for me to do it. Besides, Anna says it is great fun and I do trust her.” Molly held her ground, wanting to ensure that she was able to get in. If Sun Wu Kong thought it was a good idea then it probably was a great idea.

Caitlin again looked her over appraisingly. She then nodded and smiled at the girl in an encouraging manner. “Sure, I can show you the basics, and some tricks so you don't kill yourself. If you can pick some of it up, and you show me you're willing to stick with it and push yourself, then we'll talk to Breaker and Zenith about joining the Hooligans. I ain't going to lie to you, it's going to hurt a lot at first. The fun comes when you get the basics down and start moving on to more complex running."

Molly smiled happily at that answer. This was great. She looked at the two Fury twins and smiled at them, her happiness clearly coming through. “Thank you Caitlin. Thank you very much. I won’t let you down. Well, I’m going to go get something to eat. Talk to you later.”

Molly ran off to the food line and got herself some lunch. She was almost bouncing in excitement by the time she reached the Kimba table. Meanwhile, back at the Outcast Corner table a number of slightly confused looks were being passed around. The most confused or intrigued looks at the whole table, as they switched, belonged to the Fury twins. Deimos blinked a few times in confusion as she was trying to process what had just happened and then asked, “Was it just me or did our fear aura have no effect on her?”

Phobos shook her head in wonder. “I don’t think it was just you. I noticed that as well. Since she doesn’t even know us it should have affected her. She should have shifted more or moved away from us.”

Sandra shook her head in surprise as well. “No, I noticed it also. She wasn’t even remotely fazed by either of you and just seemed to be normally nervous.”

Jericho shrugged, not worried about the whole conversation. “Who knows? I want to get back to my very important eating.”

Sandra snickered in response, “Why? Afraid a few leaves of lettuce are going to make a run for the border?”

Razorback laughed and then signed furiously. Jericho growled at his friend, “Fuck you.”

Caitlin dove in with, “Wow… you must really be desperate for a date.”

As the table erupted into laughter, Caitlin was busy thinking about the girl who had just left. This was getting more and more interesting. Maybe Molly would do well at Parkour… and she would certainly help keep Anna motivated.

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Chou finished eating her lunch and lingered at the table, not wanting to have to rush off to weapon class. The thought of smacking someone around held very little appeal to her right now, as visions of the sim were still troubling her. That had been more than enough combat to last her for a while in her opinion, especially when coupled with the fucked-up fight with the New Olympians the day before. She could feel their stares, and it bugged her. She had not talked smack about Counterpoint. There was no way in hell she would have done that, so that meant that she had been set up by someone. That worried her and several others in the group, but there wasn’t anything they could do about it right now.

Molly had raced off in order to make it to her Summoning class, and the rest of Team Kimba filtered off, to take care of whatever they needed to get done before the afternoon classes, leaving her alone and kind of at a loss for what to do at the moment. As she sat there, Chou realized that she had something she could do so she headed over to the Underdog table.

She could feel it when they began noticing her moving towards them, as their gazes played along her aura, making the interest and worry almost palpable because of the intensity of their gazes and how they pressed against her chi. Chou made sure to smile at them in a friendly manner, as she headed over to them in order not to spook some of them. Molly had warned her that some of them were a bit scared of Team Kimba in general and she was one of the specific ones mentioned. When she got to the table she said, “Winnie? Molly said that you needed some guidance in Feng Shui. So I can help you some with that, and my mentor is willing to work with you on it as well. Is that okay?”

Winnie blushed and nodded, “Th-th-thank you.”

“No problem. Anything for a teammate,” replied Chou, wondering what effect that comment would have.

That statement exploded on the table getting various heads to snap back and forth between Winnie and her so rapidly that Chou was worried that it was going to start affecting the local weather. Some one finally gasped out, “Teammate?”

Winnie blushed and looked down at her empty tray, unable to meet anyone’s eyes. “W-w-well, Ch-chou a-and W-w-winnie th-thought th-th-th-that w-we m-might m-make a g-g-good t-team, s-s-so I-I h-have b-been th-thinking ab-bout it.”

Several eyes grew wide at the mere idea that Winnie, the most pacifist member of the Underdogs, could possibly be in a team with one of the most badass fighters on campus, the girl who had beaten Nex down. A few heads turned the Asian girl’s way and Nate asked in a voice a bit filled with awe, “Really?”

Chou chuckled, amused by their reactions. “Of course really. Winnie has a great power that is really useful. Who wouldn’t want her on their team? I am just glad that Molly realized it first before anyone else did. I would hate to have to fight over her.”

Winnie’s face was bright red. She tried to say something, but her embarrassment had apparently robbed her of the gift of speech. Her mouth was moving, but nothing was coming out. Anna leaned over and hugged the shy girl, saying excitedly, “I knew you could do it!”

Other members of the Underdogs went from incredulity to excitement for their friend, as it was practically unheard of for any member of the Underdogs to even be offered a slot on any real team, let alone have someone say that their power was useful. Chou smiled and then told Winnie, “I’ll email you the information.”

As she walked away, the table burst into rapid-fire conversation, as the Underdogs were all vying to talk to her at once while Winnie practically glowed red from the attention, even if she was still unable to speak.

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Once the lab portion of class had started, Molly called to the Tanuki that had been tormenting Buster so successfully. The Gate appeared and the Tanuki came out. Molly said, “Greetings Child of the Tanuki.”

“Greetings to the Summoner. How may I serve?” was the immediate reply.

Molly smiled at the raccoon/dog looking creature, glad to have at least made the creature’s acquaintance. “You have done me a service and I wish to thank you. It was quite appreciated.”

“It was fun. You gave me a pleasurable task. That boy child deserved his teasing and I did him no lasting harm.”

“Then I thank you and you are free to go.” She released her hold on the creature, and it bowed and vanished.

Once the circle was empty, she thought for a moment and tried to figure out what she wanted to summon next. She could get any elemental she wanted, well not any of the Greater Elementals just yet, as even she didn’t want to push her luck, but she could already summon lesser elementals. Despite how excited she was that she was able to do more than fail at some spells and not be able to do much of anything with the magical power she had, Molly was glad that Chou was keeping her focused on the here and now as well as keeping her from going completely over the top with some of her use of her summoning power. She just knew that she would have gone off on some people if her girlfriend had not helped her get over what some of those jackasses had done to her. Before she really got dragged into the whole Team Kimba hordette by Chou, she had been picked on several times and had been seriously considering joining the Underdogs for the little bit of protection that would have provided. However, after meeting Chou and falling hopelessly in love… now she had protection against such things… for the most part. There were still a few people who took shots at her, but those were all verbal.

She was getting better at her distinct form of magic and she was trying to act better at times. At times. She was still struggling with the possible problem that summoning the Tanuki could have caused. If Rythax had not pointed it out than she would never have registered it. Right now though, she just wanted to summon something interesting and helpful, well at least to her. What would work…?

The reference book for the class had some ideas, but she wasn’t exactly sure what would be fun to summon. It was like a huge menu of all sorts of exciting new things to see and interact with, and only enough information to build the interest. The prospect of new creatures or forces that she could have do things for her was very appealing, and she just wanted to do more and more. She could use creatures she summoned to do all sorts of things, and it would be great. Just the act of Summoning and seeing and hearing the creature was a total rush for her, and she enjoyed it almost as much as she did sex. Now… what should she summon? Maybe she could do a dragon? That would be awesome!

Molly looked at her little circle and realized that the protective circle would not nearly be large enough for a dragon except for one about Pern’s size, and she had seen one of those. With a frown, she went back to the book, flipping through in an attempt to find something that she would be allowed to call. Maybe a Unicorn? They were cute and nice and it would be neat to see one, however given the things she had done with and to Chou, did she still qualify as a virgin? Maybe she should try something else then? What else was she allowed to call up? Why was this so difficult?

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Dyffud was simply lounging on some of the pillows when Chou came into the room. She blinked in surprise a few times, as he was almost always moving or doing something when she entered the classroom. Seeing him inactive threw her for a loop. He waved to her, “Ready for class?”

“Yes. Are you?”

Dyffud laughed. “Yeah, I am ready. This should be fun today, at least it’s fun for me. We’re going to talk about honoring your truth.”

“Hunh?” Chou was confused by that, and it was clear. This seemed to be the normal state of affairs in this class however.

“Remember back when we started I talked to you about moving from your truth and how that makes you faster and such?” asked Dyffud, checking to make sure that his student was following what he was saying.

“Yes.” Chou did vaguely remember that.

“Well, this is about more than accepting and not fighting the things that are true now for you by honoring them for what they can teach you and the opportunities you have gained thanks to them. This is about seeing the good in your situation,” stated Dyffud.

“Uhm… how is that supposed to help me in fighting?” This conversation was getting stranger to Chou, who was fairly lost. What good had come from her transformation?

“Chou, there is more to life than fighting. This is about living, which you still need to do on the rare times you are not fighting,” replied Dyffud gently. “You torment yourself for things outside of your control and hold yourself back in a lot of different areas. I’ve seen it, and some of your other teachers have seen it as well. Actually living your life would be better than enduring it.”

Chou stiffened when she heard that. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“What? The gender change? You’re right, I don’t understand that bit but there is support here with friends and counselors in dealing with that. Losing your father? Same thing, as you have a lot of support around you. The massive responsibility that has been thrust on you that you feel like you have no control over? Same thing. This situation you are in isn’t easy and I am not about to say that it is, but you clearly have a girl that loves you and cares about you.”

Chou looked stunned by the last thing Dyffud had said as she had thought she had been so careful in hiding her relationship with the girl as she was sure most people would disapprove of it. She knew that such things were supposed to be not allowed in the student handbook and if Dyffud knew, who else did?

“Relax Chou, I am not going to tell anyone. I just saw the pictures of you and Miss Harrington at her parent’s house when I did security for them the day of the drop. The one with the two of you curled up together on the couch is really cute, by the way. You both look really good together. Relax and don’t worry. I am not on staff and even if I were, anything that makes you feel better about life that isn’t harming you or others is fine by me. I just want you to be happy, so why should I?” Dyffud smiled.

“I… I… uh…” Chou stammered, unable to say anything to defend or protest. She was feeling kind of what Winnie had been feeling earlier, and it made her feel a little bit helpless.

“It’s okay Chou. Now, the thing you need to realize is that these differences are a source of strength and a source of stability if you honor them. If you read stories about people who have come out you hear all the time about their feeling as if a weight was lifted off them when they even just came out to themselves. That is true with anyone accepting who they are and living that. Honoring those things can only add to that sensation,” explained Dyffud.

“But… this school is pretty rough on kids who are different,” stated Chou, her worry trembling her voice a little.

“Yeah, it can be. That’s what you get when you take the normal trauma of High School, Puberty, Sexuality, and first relationships, and add in super powers. All the bad gets magnified and only some of the good does. It makes High School harder than normal. The thing is, you have a huge group of friends from what I have heard, and a really nice girlfriend who loves you. This can only make things easier, as you can all support each other through whatever you all face. Your similarity in various ways that got you all put into Poe can turn into a great bond between you all, and from what I have heard your friends are very tight though no one knew anyone before they got here.”

Chou blushed at that and stammered, “Y… yeah, we have gotten really close.”

“Isn’t that something right there worth honoring and celebrating, something that your transformation allowed to happen, allowed you to experience?” asked Dyffud.

“Yeah. It is really nice. My roommate is the best friend I have ever had and the rest of Team Kimba is awesome,” replied Chou, smiling a little.

“Would that have happened without your transformation?”

“No.”

“Would you have gotten to Whateley and met your girlfriend without your transformation?”

“No.”

“Then, isn’t that something worth celebrating and honoring?”

Chou nodded, following what Dyffud was saying. She could understand this now, this looking for the good, and not the bad. “Yes.”

“Then maybe you can figure out what I am talking about with this ‘Honoring Your Truth’ stuff. Acknowledging the good things makes you better able to accept more good things in your life. You are only fifteen years old, Chou. Your life has just started. Wait until you are older to wallow in regrets as it is much more effective,” Dyffud grinned at her broadly.

“Okay. I think I can try that,” said Chou, starting to really feel some hope about her future, some hope that was not tied directly to her being able to turn back into Alex. Maybe she would be able to live through this after all, instead of suffer at least on the inside.

“Good. Knowing who you are will let you know what you should do, but honoring who you are can allow you the strength to achieve that.”

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The Trio was in the Library again, tucked away in their corner, just sitting together talking about their day. Chou sat up and forward on her seat and looked at her two loves very seriously. The other two stopped talking and looked at her questioningly, as it was very clear that the Asian girl had something on her mind. Chou sighed and smiled at them gently, but her serious air remained. “So, I just need to ask, are we all okay being a trio?”

Molly nodded and Dorjee replied, “Yes. I have no problems with how things stand.”

“And you know that Molly is my Soulmate and that unquestioningly that she is my first concern?” asked Chou, the air still intense about her, her hands clasped in front of her.

Dorjee smiled and shook his head, chuckling softly, “Seeing the two of you together, there is little doubt of that. I am content just being with you, with the both of you.”

Chou relaxed some. Now was the far more difficult issue that needed to be dealt with, the issue that had even bigger repercussions. “I… I just wanted to let the two of you know that I am not comfortable having to hide our relationship. I hate having to pretend to something that isn’t true and the feeling has been getting worse the longer it has been going on.”

“What are you saying? You want to stop hiding?” asked Molly a bit nervously, looking at her love in surprise.

Chou nodded her head. “I am uncomfortable with effectively lying to other people. I mean, I was lying to Dorjee here about us and that created tension between us which I didn’t like. I don’t want that. I want to be able to hug you without worrying about if people will think we’re a couple and create trouble for us. I want to kiss you when I want to. I don’t want to be worried about not being able to do these things until we are hidden from view. It bugs me and I am tired of this. I am proud of our relationship and want to be able to show that.”

Molly sat there and reached out her hand, taking one of Chou’s in her own. “Chou, you know that I love you and I trust you. If this is what you want to do than I am okay with it. I am sure that we can deal with whatever falls out because of this. Dorjee?”

The Tibetan boy ran a hand over his short hair and rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “You know we are going to get comments that make the ones your friend Toni gets look tame? We are going to be teased, called various names, and maybe even worse. You know this… right?”

Chou bit her bottom lip and looked up at him a bit nervously. “Yeah, I know, but I don’t want to have to restrain myself around you two. I want to show you both how I care about you, openly. I want everyone to see how much I care about you.”

“If you want to do this I can deal with it. Besides, I can always use this as Metta practice.” Dorjee and Chou snickered.

Molly looked confused, not sure what the term meant. “Metta?”

Chou smiled, “It means Lovingkindness. The term refers to a form of Buddhist meditation that helps you accept people and yourself for who they are by wishing them happiness. It is a practice meant to help you gain compassion.”

“Oh.” Molly looked thoughtful for a moment after her question was answered. “You know, we could always use that as a name for our group.”

Dorjee snickered, “That would be amusing… Now it is time for Metta to come and kick your ass.”

Molly and Chou laughed at that. Chou sighed again, but this time it was nowhere near as heavy as before. “So… are we going to do this?”

Molly and Dorjee looked at each other, and Dorjee shrugged. Molly smiled at him then over at Chou, “Of course we are. Does this mean I can grab your ass in public?”

“Molly!” Chou was shocked at what her girlfriend had just said even though she should have known by now that something like that was coming.

“What? It’s a nice ass. Can I help it if it makes me grabby?”

Chou blushed and shook her head while Dorjee laughed. He gathered the two girls into his arms and hugged them both. He chuckled out, “I should have known that the Daughter of the Tao would make my life far more interesting than I would have expected.”

Chou relaxed into the strong embrace, happy and content with the world. She pulled back slightly and reached for Molly’s neck. “I want what we feel to be clear to everyone.”

“Are you serious?” asked Molly, quite surprised as this was taking being open a bit farther.

“Yes. I am happy and I don’t mind other people seeing that. I am not ashamed of what I feel for either of you and I don’t mind other people seeing that. I want to do this. I want to be happy.”

Molly nodded and smiled at her girlfriend. “Okay. Come what may, I will be by your side.”

Chou snickered when Molly said that. “I loved that scene.”

“Yeah… it was pretty awesome.”

“What scene?” asked Dorjee, clearly not following the two girls and what they were talking about.

“From Moulin Rouge. The secret song.” replied Molly, smiling happily, pleased that she could now use that with Chou whenever she wanted.

“I guess I’ll have to see that.”

“Absolutely,” Chou gushed, having enjoyed the film far more than she had expected. “It is awesome and parts of it are really funny.”

“All right.”

Molly reached out and took hold of the chain around Chou’s neck that held the talisman that was suppressing their auras, especially with the way the rings had made clear their relationship by filling their aura with love. She lifted it off Chou and kissed her, saying softly, “Come what may.”

They kissed lightly again. Chou took hold of Molly’s talisman and pulled it free, repeating the kiss. “Come what may.”

Chou kissed Molly and then turned and kissed Dorjee. Molly did the same, which made the Tibetan boy blush a little. He hugged the two of them, kissing them both lightly, and whispered, “Come what may.”

(Fin)