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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 Water

Monday, 15 January 2007

The chaos that was Crystal Hall during breakfast slightly froze and settled into quiet murmuring as Saladin stood on the bench of the table he was sitting at with a few other members of the Cape Squad. He scanned the room with his eyes and then yelled, “Quiet!”

Everybody stopped what they were doing, as his voice elicited instant compliance from others. He smiled to himself, pleased by that effect. It was a good voice for a battlefield, he figured, but it also cut across fights with supers nicely. It was a good voice for a team leader. All eyes had turned to him and he smiled slightly, confident. Here went, well, everything. “Most of you know me and who I hang out with and what we stand for. This fact has apparently gone over the head of one of you, as someone in this school is trying to blackmail me.”

A slight buzz filled the room as people began to talk some, speculating on what could be going on. He waited for that pronouncement to sink in before he continued. He didn’t want anyone distracted for this next part as he only wanted to have to say it once. Prayer had settled his soul and he felt the strength of Allah fill him. He reminded himself that this was for Richard and him.

“Blackmail is a despicable practice and its weak spot is that it only works if you are embarrassed and ashamed by what they threaten you with. The problem that my blackmailer has made is that I am not embarrassed nor ashamed by what they chose to threaten me with exposing.” Saladin took a breath, said a quick prayer to Allah for understanding and strength, and announced loudly and clearly. “You see, I am gay and they wanted to show pictures of me and my boyfriend to everyone.”

The buzz of dialogue filled the hall from everywhere at once, as this was clearly more than they had expected it to be. The only silence that Saladin noted was from the table he was standing by, the members of the Future Superheroes of America. He rolled his eyes, irritated by them and their narrow-mindedness. He continued on, ignoring everything else for the moment as he needed to finish this. “I will not be blackmailed because of the truth. En’shah Allah that will be all that needs to be said on the matter.”

He sat back down on the bench again and picked up his cup of coffee. He took a drink and looked at the others at his table. The other’s looks of shock and surprise on everyone’s faces at the table were annoying and in some cases there were looks of revulsion. He looked at them and asked a bit angrily, “What?”

The Team Kimba table froze when Saladin had started and now several of them were gaping at the Exemplar in shock. Toni was the first to break out of her stupor to comment on the declaration, “A Gay Cape?”

“A Gay Muslim Cape,” added Ayla, his mind running through as many implications that this announcement could have for them.

“Saladin’s gay?” Chou was astounded. Of all the people who she had thought might be gay who weren’t in Poe, Saladin was nowhere on her list. This was completely a surprise and threw her for a loop. Weren’t gay guys usually a bit… well, gay? It collapsed several of her beliefs on the subject that still remained from growing up in Knoxville. Poe had taken care of most of those but several still lingered.

“Now that was unexpected,” stated Hank.

No one seemed to want to disagree with that statement. It was a little bit over the top, coming out publicly like that and they were wondering what the administration was going to do to deal with this. Ayla looked thoughtful and then stated, “It is a shame that no one else can really come out like that and survive.”

Jade looked over at him and asked rather surprised, “What do you mean?”

“Saladin is one of the toughest individuals on campus. He has fought and won against entire teams in the sims through both power and skill. What’s someone going to do to him because of this, attack him? That would basically be suicide. How many others can say that?” Ayla did not look pleased by what he had said.

Chou frowned. Unless the power of the Tao backed her, she was a lone baseline surrounded by people who had many, many times the power she had. Her fight against Counterpoint in the sim disaster showed that she was not completely able to fight off anyone who had some sort of mutant ability. She wasn’t anything like Sensei Ito. If she and Molly got caught making out, they wouldn’t have Saladin’s strength to frighten off attackers.

Fey pursed her lips in thought, rolling what Ayla said over in her mind, “I wonder what this means in terms of Poe’s secret?”

Several heads nodded at that as it had been going through their minds as well. She clearly had a point that deserved consideration. Toni replied, “Well, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

Chou responded to that brusquely, “Yeah, that’s helpful.”

Toni looked thoughtful for a split second and then jumped ahead. “I suppose I could try to use my ki to look into the future and see how it will all work out.”

Chou rolled her eyes and said, “And let you break the Time-Chi continuum?”

Jade looked up, having not really been paying attention as she had been worrying about Tennyo, who had been unusually quiet, “Wait, the Time-Cheese what?”

Everyone laughed and Jade just looked at them all confused, trying to figure out what was going on. “No really… the Time-Cheese what?”

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It was the first team Tactics class back after the failed attempt to kill Team Kimba, and the team was sitting close together as usual, only they were a bit more wary, keeping an eye on the other teams more closely. The event over the weekend had a definite effect in the way they were viewing the class as well as other teams. The Outcast Corner crew noticed this, and recognized by the somewhat harder look on their faces that the Kimba crew would not be pulling their punches anymore.

As the rest of the teams came in and took their seats, the two instructors came in and stood in front of the assembled groups. They looked grim, but then again they always looked grim when they came into the classroom. It had to be a military thing, Chou thought. Gunny Bardue was the first to speak, “By now I figure all of you have heard about what occurred Saturday during Team Kimba’s sim walkthrough.”

Heads nodded and the team in question sighed. So much for secrets.

“What we are going to do today is to talk about that event and what they did right and what they did wrong during their misshap. We will talk about what they did in terms of communication and in terms of command, as that is an area where all of you are weak. I suggest you all take notes as this information will be on the test.”

Several people scrambled for their laptops, mostly the people who didn’t have the Exemplar memory package. Chou had already gotten hers ready so she just sat there calmly. This was going to be oh so fun, she thought sarcastically.

“First we are going to talk about where they screwed up,” stated Sam. “What do you guys think you did wrong?”

Hank looked serious when he answered. “We were all too focused on individual issues to really adapt quickly. That, and when I was taken out we really had no decent command structure.”

“Okay. Those are both valid points, but let’s start at the beginning. When the shift happened from the Quad to the Galleria, you all stood there and looked around, even after you realized it was a trap. You made yourselves remarkably easy targets for the Opfor,” stated Gunny Bardue.

The team nodded in agreement. They had indeed all stood there like idiots when the trap first started. It had really not helped them in any way. Lancer responded, “Yes Gunny, but we were still trying to get our bearings.”

“But Phase had told you roughly where you were after brief descriptions of your locale. You just stood there, trying to figure out what to do next instead of moving and making yourselves harder targets to hit. You need to react when things seem off, not just stand there. Next issue, when the combat started you all shut up for a while. You took a while to pass on information that might have enabled you put your plan into action,” stated Sam, staring at all of them in turn.

“But we were in the middle of being attacked,” protested Jade, looking a bit indignant at the statement.

“Soldiers and sailors do it all the time. It is how you develop intel and get a better picture of the battlefield. That picture, when finally assembled, allowed the plan you all used to come to be. Communications are a vital tool in combat, and you underused it,” pointed out Bardue. “You also were at a loss, command wise, without Lancer to guide you. You do not have a back up structure in place in case something like Lancer being taken out happens again. When you all finally did communicate with each other, you wasted valuable time chatting. And if Bladedancer hadn’t made the connections she did, would any of you started talking?”

The teammates all looked at each other and realized that was another excellent point. Again, Lancer replied, “No sir.”

“Phase took command and there were a few issues there. Generator, why did you question her orders?” asked Sam, staring directly at the young girl.

“Uhm… because I needed to go help Onee-san.” Jade said it as if it was the most obvious point in the whole world. Why wouldn’t she just race over and help Tennyo?

“Shroud, you left Bladedancer to fend for herself against Judicator to help Tennyo. Why did you leave a teammate?”

“Because Tennyo needed help.” defended Shroud.

“And that made it okay to leave a teammate who is a baseline without her weapon of choice or any of her tricks to deal with Judicator?”

Shroud’s voice was just above a whisper when she replied, “I thought she could take care of herself.”

“Besides those things, the excess chatter on the line was a problem as well, as some of it had little to do with getting out of your situation. You lacked focus and discipline during this combat.” Bardue ended things with that brief summation.

Sam smiled, “Now, while you are all feeling awful by our pointing out where you all screwed up, let us talk about what you did right. Once things started, you were all able to evade attack, or apply stalling tactics until a better plan was formed.  You were also able to adapt and change the terms of the fight when opportunity presented itself. That allowed you to change opponents and win. That was good thinking, as you would have lost otherwise.”

Bardue jumped in, “When you did plan, your plans were easy to implement and effective. There were some good tactical choices made out there by a number of you, including Bladedancer, Phase, and Lancer. You three made it possible for your team to survive that trap.”

It was clear that Gunny’s statement had a powerful impact on the teens. They looked fairly proud of themselves, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing but they were all still thinking about their failures.

“You were all lucky that the fight was against sims, as the real New Olympians would have taken you out easily, as they utilize excellent team tactics. The computer program wasn’t adaptive enough, and ran each of the Opfor as individuals focused on their primary targets. That helped you a lot in the long run. Learn from this and start working on a Command and Control plan for your team. This will help when things get ugly,” finished Sam. “Now let’s talk about the importance of Command structure.”

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After the team class was over, Chou changed and raced over to where Molly was just getting out of her combat class. When she reached there, her girlfriends face seemed to glow from what was no doubt exercise. She looked a bit tired but happy. “Molly?”

The brown haired girl smiled at Chou, happy to see her. “Hey there Chou. How was class?”

“As crazy as normal. More theory followed by another practice run, which was somewhat rough. It is a pretty challenging course overall but fun. Look, I wanted to talk to you before lunch.” Chou was really worried about Molly and about the way that things were going lately between the two of them.

“Okay.” The girl did not sound all that enthusiastic.

The two girls left the building and were heading to Crystal Hall for lunch along with hordes of other students. As the crowd thinned and they were pretty isolated, Chou said quietly, “I am sorry for upsetting you Molly. I’ve been overly emotional lately and I am sorry about blowing up on you.”

“Look Chou, you just keep talking about the same thing over and over and it is making me crazy. Could you just lay off with the whole Dorjee thing for a while?” Molly got a little heated over that but was trying to keep her voice even.

“I am sorry. I am just trying to explain things to you and make sure everything is alright with us. Maybe I am getting a bit overboard with things, but you are important to me and I can’t stand hurting you.”

Molly’s face softened at that. “Same here. But you have to relax and stop pushing so hard.”

Chou nodded, following what she was saying. “I will try. Like I said I am just  worried.”

“I’m sorry for blowing up on you. Can we just let it go for right now? Maybe some more time will help.” asked Molly plaintively.

A soft smile danced over Chou’s lips. That didn’t sound too unreasonable. “I think I might be able to manage that.”

They couldn’t hold hands or hug out in the open, given that they were not anywhere safe and Chou really was annoyed with that. If she had still been Alex there wouldn’t have been an issue. What was so wrong about the fact that she loved a girl? It seriously bugged her.

They got into Crystal Hall and headed towards the lunch line talking about movies they wanted to see. Once they had grabbed their food, they sat down at the Kimba table and joined in the conversation that was already in full swing. It was the usual chaotic blend of gossip, information, plans on how to deal with others, Ayla’s discourse on her meal, and teasing. It was comforting in its own way and Chou appreciated it, to a degree. It was starting to feel like home.

After they were done and had dropped off their trays, Chou noticed that Saladin was gesturing to her, apparently wanting something. Chou had no idea what it could be, but she was curious enough to check. “Molly, I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Sure. Want me to meet you at Poe?” asked Molly, enjoying the time spent in the dorm where she could kiss Chou to her heart’s content.

“No. I will see you at dinner, as I have some other things to take care of after class.” Chou was not particularly happy to have admitted that as in a way she didn’t particularly have to do them.

“Okay. Take care.” Both Molly and Chou wished it were okay for them to hug and kiss, but neither of them wanted to incur the wrath of some of the other students, particularly the idiots.

Chou walked over to the PK Superman, a bit nervous and unsure about what was up. There was no reason she could think of forhte Arabic hero to talk to her. As she neared he smiled at her, “Hey Chou, I jut wanted to talk with you a minute. Look, are you okay with things?”

“Yes… why wouldn’t I be?” Maybe Chou had been in Poe too long but the idea of a man loving another man didn’t bother her all that much anymore. Seeing two guys kiss, cuddle, and such was a daily sight. There wa still some lingering issues from being raised Southern Baptist but those were fading quickly.

“You’d be surprised. I am thankful that you are not bothered by it.” Saladin sighed, as if letting go some tension.

“Why would you worry about me?” asked Chou, a bit surprised by his concern. Why would a freshman like her be of consequence to a upperclassman?

“Well, as I am the one interested in getting you to join the Future Superheroes group I wanted to make sure that there was no issue you had with me. That might make the whole thing a bit wakward.”

“Me? Become a Cape?” blurted Chou, stunned by the offer.

“Well, yes. You seem to have the right attitude for it.” Saladin shrugged his shoulders as if this were a non-issue.

“But Saladin, I… I don’t know if I fit that. I…” Chou was getting frustrated and tongue tied, her emotions ramping up. What the hell was she going to say? “I don’t really think I am FSA material.”

He chuckled, clearly amused by her stressing out over this. “Well, you certainly do not come across as a villain.”

“Uhm…” She was unsure what to say as she had never told Saladin about what her full role as the Handmaid of the Tao entailed and now was not the time for it. It was far too public a forum for that. “Could we talk about this later? I could explain things better elsewhere.”

Saladin glanced around and noted the various curious glances and the several disapproving looks that were coming their way. He realized that her caution was a wise choice. “Ah… very well. Come find me and we will talk. Masalaama.”

Chou blinked and quickly said to the retreating form, “Uh… bye.”

Her a Cape? That was one of the most insane things she had ever heard of. If she was a Cape she wouldn’t be able to fulfill her role correctly. What the hell was she going to do about this?

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Chou was feeling a bit out of sorts, all achy and bloated and when she changed for class, she discovered that she had started her period. Chou groaned unhappily at that visceral revelation of her girlhood. That was all she needed at this point. She got out a tampon, inserting it with a slight shudder as the cotton wad went inside her. She had gotten used to those and that had some disturbing implications for her as well. This was completely not what she wanted or needed at this point of her life, as there was way too much going on in her life for her to have to deal with this crap.

She pulled up her panties after sticking a liner in and finished getting dressed. Once she was ready for class, she got out some Midol for the cramps and swallowed them down. It helped or rather would help when it finally kicked in, but right now she would far prefer to be back in the room, hiding from the world, curled up to a heating pad. Each period she had gone through since this had started had depressed her as if it were a bloody slap in the face. She was a boy… well, okay, given the evidence, maybe not so much but she remembered being a boy and this just seemed wrong somehow. Her whole life had done nothing to prepare her for this sort of thing. From what she had gathered girls had at least gotten the talk from their mothers or someone to make them aware of what was to come, not jut thrust blindly into the world of cramps, clots, and feminine hygiene products.

A familiar voice broke into her thoughts, adding commentary to her life, “So Midol?”

“That’s what I was thinking.” stated Chou.

“It’s always something with you,” quipped Toni.

“At least I don’t cause thunderstorms,” retorted Chou, getting slightly upset.

“Hey, it was just the one time!” Nikki tried to defend her honor, but it was the simple truth that she had caused a thunderstorm inside the dorm during her first period.

“Hello… roomie… thunderstorm,” drawled Toni, adding Nikki to her list of people to torment today.

“Shouldn’t we be heading to class?” asked Tennyo, looking as if she would rather be in her room, hiding from the world than here with her friends. Unlike Chou she just wanted to be away from anyone and allowed to wallow in her misery. And sadly, this was better than right after things.

The others stopped their playful bickering and nodded. Chou, being the main student in this particular instance said, “Come on.”

This time when they came in, Dyffud was doing some yoga, standing in Tree pose quite calmly, his eyes lidded and mostly closed. When he saw them, he lowered his bent leg and smiled, “Nice to see you all. I take it you are Toni and Tennyo.”

The girls made noises that sounded like confirmation. He stretched out a hand for shaking.

Dyffud looked at Tennyo for a second and then grinned, “You know, you look just like Ryoko from Tenchi. Kind of cool.”

Tennyo shook her head, having heard all this before. Why had she been so anime obsessed?

“Well, I hope Chou and Nikki have warned you about me?” asked Dyffud almost teasingly.

At the slight nods he smiled some more and said, “Great. Well, first things first, I need to get a feel for you two. To save time why don’t both of you come at me.”

“Excuse me?” asked Toni, rather surprised at the instructors request.

“Both you and Tennyo come at me. I need to get to know who you are and this will help me to do that. I’m ready whenever you are.” Dyffud stood there, arms at his side, calmly.

“You’re serious?” goggled Toni.

“Yes. Begin!”

Tennyo held back, while Toni launched right in. Dyffud flowed around her attacks, then reached out with one hand and flipped her with a wrist flick. Tennyo rushed as he moved into Toni.

Dyffud moved around Tennyo's kick and sent Toni right into her chest. Surprised, they fell backwards. Instantly they were back on the attack. Toni moved fast as Tennyo attacked from the air. He flowed around the attacks. Dyffud slid back and smiled, "Now let's see your defense."

Chou watched that weird flip in his chi and tried to figure it out. Dyffud flashed over to Toni and attacked with a series of punches and kicks that drove her back. Tennyo came from behind with a kick. He leapt up, over the kick, and with a twist launched punches at Tennyo's head. A few got through and drove Tennyo to a knee.

Toni moved around Tennyo with a swing. Dyffud moved inside her punch and nailed Toni in the chest and stomach with attacks. Again, Toni was
tangled up with Tennyo due to a throw. Dyffud slid back and stood there in the same position that the sparring match had started in, looking peaceful and unruffled after that flurry of motion. “Very good. You are both very skilled and Toni, I am impressed with the way you used your chi to augment your speed. Nicely done.”

“Uh… okay?” responded Toni, who wasn’t sure what was going on. Chou and Nikki said that he was good, but she hadn’t expected someone that large to be faster than her.

“Grab some water and cool down. Grab a seat when you are ready and we can get to the other portion of this class.”

Chou and Toni went over and grabbed some water for the four of them and the other two claimed pillows. Chou was wondering what strange topic they were in store for today. Part of her was sure it would be strange, esoteric and something she had never heard of before. She was not disappointed.

“Besides Chou, who else knows the Chinese Five Elemental system?” Dyffud was standing as he asked this.

There were a number of blank looks from the others as Dyffud got seated in full lotus. Fey tentatively raised her hand, clearly unsure. He nodded his head for her to continue. “Uhm… well, I don’t know that one but I do know a Five Element system.”

“Oh? From her Highness?” asked Dyffud, curious as to the answer.

Nikki nodded. “Yeah. Back before the Sundering there were Five Courts, they were all elementally based, with Earth in the center. The other elements were Air, Wood, Fire and Water.”

“That is pretty close, and there are some similarities. The Chinese Five Elements are Earth, Water, Metal, Fire and Wood. Now, these things have various mystical meanings and such that I am sure Chou here could expound on at far greater length than I could but that isn’t important for this discussion. The thing to know about these elements is that within each of them is a fighting manual.”

There were several surprised soft gasps, primarily from Chou and Toni. Sure, Chou knew the elements, as that had been part of the initial download, but this part had never been covered. Even Nikki looked hooked by this revelation. Tennyo was still a bit withdrawn but she had perked up slightly.

“Musashi Miyamoto wrote the Go Rin No Sho which also deals with five elements but yet another system. He used Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, No-thing or Void. Now, he was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, which has its roots in a merging of Buddhism and Taoism, hence the chapter on No-thing. Now what is important about these elements is that each element corresponds to a different aspect of force dynamics.” Dyffud smiled as he said that, enjoying the looks on the students faces.

Nikki cocked her head. “Force Dynamics?”

“Yep. It covers the different ways that you can deal with force coming towards you. In a fight, or any other type of conflict for that matter there are five different ways for you to respond. The first is Force on Force. That is the one most people go to as their first choice and the one most used by people in their combat finals. It corresponds to fire as it is as if you’re attacking like a rush of flame.”

Chou nodded, thinking about that and trying to see how it applied to her. Did she often just rush into battle without taking the time to truly grasp things? She wasn’t sure and she would certainly have to think about that.

“Then there is Force Absorbtion. Bricks and other people who are ‘invulnerable’ tend to go with this one to one degree or another. The idea is that by your opponent trying to hurt you and letting the blows come and fall harmlessly it wears out your opponent. That dynamic corresponds to Metal. Most hard arts use combinations of these two things to achieve everything within them. Then we come to the dynamic that bridges both the hard and soft arts, Force Avoidance. The simple idea behind that one is that if you don’t get hit then all is good. Everyone uses this to some extent or other and it is naturally hard wired into the human body. The human body is wired in such a way as to avoid conflict and to avoid getting hit, hence why you flinch and your body naturally tries to block things. It corresponds to Wood, like the bending of reeds and trees in the wind.”

The teens looked very thoughtful as they pondered this information. It was putting an interesting spin on what they were learning in the Team Tactics course.

Dyffud continued, “Then we come to the soft arts portion of these dynamics. First of all, you have Force Redirection. This is where certain types of blocks come in, brush blocks where the opponent’s momentum is not stopped but allowed to continue on, in order to throw them off balance. This corresponds to Earth, the way that the earth does not yield but channels things where it wants them, such as with canyons and ravines. The last one is Force Harmonization. This is the most difficult of the Force Dynamics to master as it requires a number of differing factors coming together. What you do is to join in with your opponents force and make it yours. It corresponds to Water, such as how trying to punch a cork underwater never works, because the water accepts the force and turns it to it’s use. Are there any questions so far?”

“How… how do you know so much about this?” asked Nikki, trying to figure out how any one could come up with something like this. Even the Queen was a bit impressed by this simple yet complex explanation of this issue.

Dyffud smirked and let a smile dance over his lips. “Let’s just say it is connected to my power.”

That answered nothing for anyone as they were still at a bit of a loss as to what exactly his powers were. Chou looked pensive for a moment while things cascaded down into her thoughts, and then she asked, “Is that why your Chi changes oddly, because you are changing parts of your power to match a new dynamic?”

Dyffud’s grin was huge and it made Chou feel proud, like she had figured out something important. “Score one for the faux Asian. Nicely deduced. That energy shift does indeed have something to do with my power and force dynamics. Now enough about me, we are here to talk about Force Dynamics and Elements.”

Something apparently clicked in Toni’s mind and she was literally bouncing on her cushion, one arm flailing in the air, going, “Ooh, ooh, ooh…”

“Yes Horshack?” Dyffud chuckled.

“Does this mean that the Force Dynamic of one element can counter the Dynamic of another, like using water against fire?” Toni looked excited, as if she had gotten a brand new toy for Christmas.

“Yes it does mean that,” commented Dyffud.

“Really?” She nearly squeaked in excitement. She couldn’t wait to try this out on people in class.

“Water and Fire are opposed and so the harmonization of Water against Fire’s direct movements means that you can control that force and use it against the person, by say, accelerating them into another opponent.” He grinned at them mischievously, quirking an eyebrow at them as if making a point.

All four teens suddenly got the lesson of the sparring match they had seen earlier. Dyffud had used Water to counter Toni’s Fire, by redirecting her force into Tennyo over and over again. Tennyo had tried to counter things, by not attacking as aggressively, but the use of Water had won.

“You see this philosophy of combat has been around pretty much forever but very few people actually use all of it in their own style because it requires you to master a number of differing styles of fighting and to learn how to analyze things swiftly. Just knowing about this can allow you to predict attacks and figure out the cycle that has effective counters for them.”

“So what are these cycles you are talking about? I don’t get that.” asked Tennyo, getting drawn into the conversation.

“As I said, Water destroys Fire which in turn destroys Metal which destroys Wood which destroys Earth which takes us back to Water. That is the destructive cycle.”

“Uhm… is there only a destructive cycle?” asked Chou, trying to find ways to tie this into how she fought. There had to be differing levels as just destruction didn’t seem to fit with the entirety of that system.

“Nope, there are five different alchemical patterns that can be formed through elemental interaction. There is the producing cycle, the exhausting cycle, the injuring cycle and the sibling cycle. In terms of force dynamics, this can show you the options that you have available in solving most any particular issue. In physical fights, the destructive cycle is often the best choice thought by no means the only one. When the fights are not as physical, then some of the other options might be better, in order to avoid making more enemies than you have to. As I said, it is a fairly complex system.” Dyffud shrugged, as if that explained anything.

There was more thinking and Dyffud allowed them the time to do just that. You could almost hear the wheels turning away in their heads as this was processed. Finally, after several minutes of silence, Toni spoke up, “Okay, I think I have a handle on this but how do we do this? I mean, how exactly do we go about using this Force Dynamics?”

“Well, on Thursday we meet again and I talk to you about how one moves within the elements. That starts you off on the ability to use this. Sensei Ito told me that he thought you might benefit from thinking outside the specific box you have been in so I can help you with that. Don’t worry Toni… you’ll get it, as will the rest of you before we are through. Now that’s it for today as I can smell the burning of your brains from here. I want you all to work through this and think about how you react to differing situations, from fights to arguments to simple disagreements. That will help you see how the Dynamics can be applied to you. I will see most of you Thursday. Tennyo, can you stay after for a few minutes?”

The other three left, watching the two who remained oddly as they left, trying to figure out what was going on between them. Chou figured that it might be something along the lines of Combat Therapy or some such, but had no idea one way or the other. If anything could help Tennyo, it would probably help. Another idea flittered across her mind and she asked, “Do you think Hank or Ayla know any of this?”

The roommates shook their heads. Toni quipped, “I barely think Dyffud knows any of this. It is so strange when you think about it. I mean to be able to break up the movements of fights into five simple things. Part of me thinks it can’t be right and another part is amazingly impressed.”

Fey looked thoughtful. “Hey could you guys go on ahead back to the dorm. I need to ask something of my advisor about this and see if this makes sense on a magical level as well.”

“Sure Nikki. See you when you get back.”

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When Molly walked into the room Lindsay was sitting on her bed, wrapped in a My Little Pony fleece blanket with Pern wrapped around her shoulders protectively, staring at a letter that was sitting on the bed as well. Molly cocked her head in question and asked, “Linds? Are you okay?”

“My… my dad sent me a letter.” Lindsay’s voice trembled some. She was obviously really nervous about it, as if the paper alone were dangerous.

“What’s it say?” asked Molly curiously, wondering if something in the content was what was bothering her friend. Surely, it wasn’t just the letter itself.

“I don’t know. I haven’t opened it yet. Nacht was teasing me about it earlier. I’m afraid to open it.” Lindsay buried her face in her blanket to hide.

Molly cocked her head. She needed to do something to help here, as a freaked out roommate was never a good thing. “Did you want me to open it?”

Lindsay nodded her head and Molly took the letter, opening it up with her finger, half expecting something to bite her finger, but nothing did. Lindsay handed the letter from her father over to her roommate and then sat down at her desk chair to wait and see what was needed. Molly looked at it, swallowed heavily, and then opened the envelope. Nothing happened. Inside was a several page letter with a red wax seal embossed with some sort of seal. This got the girl’s nervous as maybe the wax had been charmed to hold a spell or beastie or what have you. Swallowing heavily, Molly broke the wax seal holding the pages of the letter together. Both she and Lindsay flinched, as if something was going to explode out of the letter and eat them. When nothing evil crawled out, Molly handed over the still folded pages over.

Lindsay read the letter and sighed, relaxing more as she read it. The girl sighed and Molly relaxed, her fight or flight reflex calming down. Maybe this was just a false alarm. Once she finished reading it, Lindsay looked up at Molly, worry clear in her eyes. Pern rubbed his head against her comfortingly but it didn’t seem to help. “Molly?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry my father, Devilmaster. I know he is a major villain and a Summoner like you. If you want, we could change rooms. I would be okay with that.” Her lower lip quivered and tears filled her eyes. It was obvious tat Lindsay did not want what she was offering.

Molly looked confused. “Linds, why would I want to change rooms? You’re a great roommate and I am far happier with you in here than who I had before. And if I trade now, I might get someone terrible like Tansy or someone, which would suck. You are not your father Lindsay and just because he is evil is no reason for you to be following the same path. Like you really have a clue what you want to do anyway.”

Lindsay scampered over and hugged Molly tightly, pulling her into the warm fleecy embrace. “Thank you. I was afraid that you knowing about my dad would make you not like me.”

“It’s okay. You told me before and I was fine. Nothing about that has changed now that I am your roommate. You’re my friend, Lindsay and that’s what’s important. Why don’t we relax and watch something. We can watch Flight of the Dragons, since it’s your favorite,” offered Molly, wanting to comfort her worried roommate.

They sat as the film started, sitting quietly next to each other sharing the same bowl of popcorn. Since her friend was still a bit tense, Molly quietly asked, “Do you want me to call Jadis for you?”

Lindsay shook her head. “Thanks, but I’m not that upset anymore. I just want to watch Peter beat Omadon. That’ll make me feel better. It has every time I’ve seen it.”

“No problem. Hey do you think you could get Pern to act out Peter’s part?”

The dragon looked at them indignantly.

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“So together again for the first time,” said Toni, as she and Chou headed towards the doors of the building.

“This is not the first time,” commented Chou, trying to keep things remotely factual.

“I know that. It’s a saying. Sheesh!” Toni rolled her eyes in an exaggerated fashion.

The two walked out of Eastman and both paused when they felt a presence nearby. They turned as one to face the girl who was standing there smiling at them. She was shorter than both of them by a good bit and had long blue-black hair with eyes that seemed to kaleidoscope. The petite girl looked ‘elfin’ was the best way to put it, but both recognized that she was moving from her center. She was a trained fighter. Chou vaguely recognized her as one of the members of the Dragons she had seen before and around Poe as well. The new girl bowed to them and smiled even broader, “Chaka, Bladedancer, I am Cascade and I have been sent to check with you on your acceptance or not of the membership offers from the Dragons.”

The two girls sighed having wondered when this to was going to hit the fan. Chaka replied, as if she were explaining that water was wet. “You know that if I join you guys, the Tigers will be all over you. It won’t be pretty.”

“We are aware of that,” the girl replied calmly. “The tension between the Dragons and Tigers has been building this year from stuff that happened last year and it really has little to do with the two of you. You two just sort of stumbled into a Hatfield and McCoy sort of deal.”

“Really?” asked Toni skeptically.

“Really. Things will probably explode into actual combat in a little while, but that is just the way things are between our groups. We’ll fight and then we’ll get over it,” Cascade shrugged, clearly not worried about that possibility.

Chou frowned. That really didn’t sound right to her. Something about that made her Tao sense twinge which bugged her some. “Doesn’t that sound bad to you?”

Cascade looked unfazed by that statement. “Nope. Combat is part of the path of a martial artist, and once you accept that, things like this don’t bother you so much anymore. While they aren’t the best challenge around, they are not too bad to practice against. The fights are never allowed to go to blood and bones, so it’s okay. So, about your memberships?”

Toni smiled, stalling in the hopes of buying them more time. “I still haven’t figured it out yet. Can we have some more time?”

“That can be done. You?” Cascade turned her attention to Chou.

“The same.” Chou was fairly certain that she wasn’t going to join the Dragons but until she was positive she was going to hold off answering. The time didn’t feel quite right for her to state that. It sounded like the Tao was meddling again.

The girl nodded and walked away from the two martial artists. She turned back after she had walked a short bit away from them, waved, and said, “You guys take care.”

“Thanks.” Toni looked at Chou and said, “Okay, that was weird.”

“Definitely.” Chou thought the whole encounter had been odd and was made a bit nervous about it.

“I wonder what her shoulder angels would have said,” pondered Toni.

“Don’t start that again,” grumbled Chou, clearly wanting to escape from the damn puppets.

“It was just a question.”

“Yeah, but knowing you, you would have turned it into something.”

“Is it my fault that people say stupid things?” protested Toni.

“Yes. It is entirely your fault. Now what are we going to do?”

“What we are you talking about white girl?”

“Who’s the white girl?” countered Chou, well aware of her current skin tone.

“Okay. You’re right. My bad. You are more of a Twinkie, yellow on the outside and white on the inside,” teased Toni.

“I should beat you down for something like that,” growled Chou, trying to ignore the cramping she was feeling that wasn’t helping her mood any. This was keeping her from other things and she didn’t need that.

“I take it back, you aren’t a snack cake.”

Chou shook her head. There were days when it was not a good thing to know the hyperactive ki master. “Look, can we just leave?”

Toni grinned broadly, “Yes. Let’s.”

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Chou pulled on her sim suit, glad that Ayla had spent the extra money to get the good suits as opposed to what the normal student suits were like. They were heavier and felt somewhat rough on the inside. While some people may have had an issue with Ayla spending her money on things like high-end Sim suits for all of them and all the magic that was now the bathrooms, she was completely okay with it. If Ayla felt better spending her money in this fashion who was she to say no.

Caitlin was already dressed and ready to go. Her swimsuit hugged her body tightly and fit like many of the other high-end ones, like a second skin. The girl looked over at Chou as she hustled out and chuckled, “You know I am missing a jam session because of this so let’s get a move on.”

“Keep your panties on,” grumbled Chou, as she quickly caught up with her. Between Team Tactics and this, she was going to be really good at getting into this thing quick. It might make the next three years less irritating if she knew how.

“Hustle up!” The former Range Hand turned and headed for her Sim room.

Chou grabbed Destiny’s Wave and jogged after Eldritch. She got into the chair in her room and made sure everything was set correctly. Things clicked on and soon she was standing at the range with Caitlin. The girl was wearing BDU pants, field boots, and a black tank top. “Ready?”

Chou nodded. In a lot of ways she really needed this, “Yep. I’ve had a crap day and I want to shoot something.”

“Well… you can shoot all you want. Load up some magazines and we’ll get started.”

Chou went over and grabbed three of the magazines for her pistol and two boxes of ammo. She opened the box and slid out the rounds, spilling them on the virtual bench. It was a bit clumsy as she was not used to loading these things but she quickly filled the three magazines and then set them next to the pistol in her lane. She turned to look at Caitlin, waiting to be called up to the line so she could get started.

Once the formalities had been followed, Chou slid a magazine into the pistol and began firing, concentrating on her form for the moment, trying to use the concepts of Tai Chi to better hold her arms and center herself more. As it was getting easier, she relaxed and began growling a little, imagining several peoples faces on the targets as she fired. She was getting a visceral satisfaction with killing paper versions of her irritants.

“Cease Fire! Weapons down! Back away from the line!” yelled out Caitlin.

Chou sighed and put her pistol down, following the orders quickly. Of course, right when she was getting into it things would be stopped.  Sometimes she really had o luck at all. Caitlin waved her over, gesturing for her to sit down with her on a bench. When Chou complied, Caitlin turned to her and asked, “What is going on?”

“What do you mean?” Chou was somewhat confused, as she had thought she had been doing what she had been told to do.

“You are more than just working out frustrations, you honestly seem pissed. What’s up?”

“Class with Dyffud is making my head hurt, Toni is a head case, I am still worried about the whole Molly/Dorjee thing, the Tao is bugging me again, take your pick.”

“Look you need to relax when you are shooting. Being this riled up causes you to make mistakes, which can hurt you and innocent bystanders by introducing flaws in your shooting. The tension causes the small muscles of the arm and hand to tighten, pulling your shot off. Just relax. None of these problems can be solved by shooting things, especially not your gripe with the Tao.” Caitlin tried reason, which often worked better with teenagers than violence. Violence worked better with Marines but there were none here.

“Says you. I’m just so frustrated over pretty much everything and meditation isn’t helping as much lately. It’s like something is getting in the way and makin’ me feel really out of sorts,” complained Chou, getting more and more riled up.

“Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do, because I don’t even want any virtual accidents, we are going to talk about opponents instead,” stated Caitlin, letting her friend know what was up next for her.

Chou rolled her eyes. That was all she needed, more theory. “What about them?”

“Do you know the breakdown?”

“The what?” asked Chou, unsure what Caitlin was asking, as this was entirely new.

“The breakdown. In a fight, most opponents can be reduced to one of four core types: there are sheep, talented fighters, skilled fighters and experienced fighters. And among individual fighters you can have anywhere from one to three of those. You following me?” explained Caitlin.

Chou nodded her head. At least this wasn’t as esoteric as what Dyffud was teaching. This seemed utterly straight forward comparatively.

“Tell me about some of your opponents and how they break down?”

“Well, there is the Demon Lord of the Hell of Fiery Immersion; he seems to be all three. I hate fighting him as he always seems to be a few steps ahead of me in any battle and he leads me into things. Last time we tussled, I barely got away. Then there is Necromancer’s crew. We fought them twice. That guy who can move through shadows… he seems like maybe experienced only as he really had no technique to speak of. He ran from fighting me, completely unwilling to engage and basically all he did was come out and whack people from behind,” replied Chou, ticking them off with their fingers, to make sure that she accounted for them all.

“The Young Turks, who have the whole talented thing going on and some who are kind of skilled, but they make the same sort of mistakes that Kimba does. First time we fought, it was totally according to their plans and we lost, second time on our terms thins changed. Bombshell is talented but cocky and gets too mad to fight smartly. The people who attacked Dorjee and me, they were definitely all three, and we got lucky that they hadn’t factored me and my skills into their plan or we would have lost.”

“Don’t underestimate Luck. It is a useful thing when you have it, as it can help you survive nearly unsurvivable situations,” commented Caitlin. “Go on.”

“The fricking Tong members that have been jumping me all the fracking time are simply idiots. I figure they must be skilled and experienced but they aren’t really much of a danger.”

“Don’t be so sure Chou. Maybe they were losing on purpose? Sure your sword is powerful, but you can be beaten.” Caitlin wanted to make sure that point was very clear to the freshman.

Chou nodded. She didn’t want to become overconfident as that was usually followed by a really ugly fall. “Yeah, I know. I guess it’s possible. Then there are the Knights of Purity, who were also skilled and experienced. Surprise certainly worked in our favor there.”

“Again, surprise, like luck is a great equalizer. That alone can win you battles and was recognized as far back as Sun Tzu and Tacitus. Anything else?” asked Caitlin, putting together a better image of her friends combat skills. It seemed to her that she was talented and skilled, for her age and just needed some decent seasoning to become truly great.

“Nex, who seems like he is all three, but not so much on the experience I guess, as he is so cocky that he can’t believe that he can fail. Then there are the zombie minions, which were, you know, zombies. Not much of a fight at all, as all they did was come at us in never ending waves. Oh, and the Vodoo Wolves, who strike me as more talented and a bit experienced rather than skilled.”

“Trust me Chou, they are skilled, but not in fighting people like you and your friends. Again, luck and surprise has turned the tide. Is that everything?” asked Caitlin.

“Some assorted robbers, who had maybe a little skill. I think that covers everything… no wait, Halloween.” Chou shuddered thinking about that night.

Chou was so in focused after she had said that, that she missed the look of pain that flashed across Caitlin’s face. “The Chessmen. Skilled and whoever was running things was experienced. And virtual baddies in the Sims. That pretty much covers it.”

“Okay. So you are developing some actual tactical experience rather nicely, but that’s the thing to remember: that all of Team Kimba may be Talented and somewhat Skilled but none of you are really experienced. Regardless of whatever training you have done so far, only time, training and combat can provide you with the experience you will need to survive the modern super filled battlefield. A truly experienced fighter can take you out fairly easily if they are focused. Remember that Age and Trickery can beat Youth and Speed any day,” stated Caitlin, passing on a valuable maxim.

Chou took the age thing to mean experience and found herself nodding. That would mean Sun Wu Kong would probably be able to defeat anyone, having been around for ever. She shuddered slightly. “I follow.”

“Good. I mean, think of your opponents. Necromancer wasn’t expecting you guys the two times you tangled, and you got lucky as your talent and skill was enough to ruin his plans. But remember no one, and I do mean no one, has ever tangoed with the Necromancer a third time and not gotten seriously fucked up. You’re lucky you weren’t killed, as he really has little to no mercy.” Caitlin really wanted to make sure that Chou got the point and that she might be able to get that point across to her friends. “You need the experience that will tell you what you can do in fights, as opposed to going in swinging blindly. Remember that normal ‘fresh out of basic’ soldier you lost to in the Sims?”

Chou nodded again. That had been embarrassing.

“Necromancer is far more experienced and dangerous than that. You need to learn, young grasshopper, before you get smushed.” Caitlin smiled at that, enjoying teasing the girl.

“Why are you calling me grasshopper?” asked Chou, a bit confused by the Kung Fu reference. She was nothing like David Caradine.

“Because you ugly like bug.”

Chou groaned and smacked Caitlin on the arm. “That was terrible.”

Caitlin was chuckling. “Come on. Let’s work on getting you the experience to survive.”

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It was good to hug Molly. This was something that Chou really didn’t need to have proof of. Just holding her Soulmate close was proof enough of that truth. She sighed into Molly’s hair, content for the moment, forgetting the rest of the world while she could.

“Chou?”

Chou ignored the voice and nuzzled Molly some more. The world could end right now and she wouldn’t care even remotely.

“Chou?” The voice was more forceful this time.

“Mmmmm?” asked Chou without actually saying any words.

“If you are done snuggling, it is time for dinner.” Ayla was chiding her.

The Summoner’s presence at Poe before diner had been a welcome surprise and one the Handmaid of the Tao did not want to pass up.

Molly hugged her one more time. “Come on love. Let’s go eat and then we can come back and snuggle some more.”

With the sigh of long suffering Chou let Molly go. “Okay, just so long as we come right back. Deal?”

“Deal.”

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Chou closed her locker, the two blue pills in her palm. She hated this, but what other option did she have? As far as she knew tearing out her uterus wasn’t an option and she hadn’t found any Taoist herbal remedy that might work better, add to that Destiny’s Wave merely chuckled and mentioned something about women’s need to endure life’s hardships. Even though it had done no good, Chou had smacked the sword with a pillow several times. She had felt a touch better after that. The sword had thankfully remained quiet.

Everybody took their usual positions in class, with Ayla looking a bit apprehensive, Toni looking like she was too excited to be there, and Chou just standing there calmly, waiting for the class to begin. When the instructors entered, there were the formal bows and then people broke off to their little areas for their weapons of choice. The small group dedicated to sword was there, including Ayla, who looked uncomfortable to be using only an ASP Tactical Baton against all the swords: Nightbane, Swordmaiden, Sahar, Redlight, Alakazam, and Tennyo. It was a pretty impressive array of students all things considered. Chou came up to her roommate and grinned evilly, “So ready for sparring?”

Ayla shook his head. “No, not really.”

“It’ll be fine.” Then Chou winced a little, muttering, “Fucking cramps.”

Ayla patted his roommate on the back. “Glad it’s not me.”

Chou flipped her roommate off which got him chuckling, relaxing him more. Sensei Beaumont came up and split people up for sparring. Ayla got Sahar and Chou got Swordmaiden.

Sahar had been told she had to practice without using her database technique, which annoyed the girl to no end. Swordmaiden was one of the Goobers who had never warmed to Chou and seemed to view her as a threat for some reason. Chou was not looking forward to facing her, as the girl seriously seemed irritated with her. Add to that the fact that she was extremely skilled with her sword and Chou was both dreading and looking forward to the match. They squared off, weapons already drawn, and Sensei called out, “Hajime!”

Chou was happy to be sparring against a different style than Chinese or Japanese, as it helped her learn how to deal with differing forms better. Their match was going well, as they both seemed able to counter each other fairly well, slashes and thrusts being parried in differing fashions but both effectively. Chou had better footwork but Swordmaiden’s style was tighter and used less excess motion. Then the girl did something unexpected the next time they locked up. She punched Chou right in the lower abdomen, making Chou’s already cramping muscles protest violently, exploding into pain.

Chou almost dropped Destiny’s Wave as she bent over groaning, tears forming in the corner of her eyes. The pain was so intense that it was worse than getting kicked in the balls when she had been Alex. Her stomach couldn’t decide if it wanted to vomit or not. Swordmaiden bent down and said, with the smirk clear in her voice, “Welcome to womanhood, sweetie.”

Chou growled, the pain blazing through her, making her ignore the implications of the older girl’s words. They did register; however, the white hot pain was making her see red. She tightened her hand around her sword and stood upright, wincing slightly from the way the muscles moved, her eyes blazing in anger. Her opponent smirked at the girl, completely unafraid. “Come on freshthing, bring it.”

It was obvious to observers that something had changed in the dynamic of the two swordswomen, something strong and primal. Chou seemed to sink into herself, becoming if anything more solid, as if her power was pulling together. The corner of her lip twitched and her eyes narrowed, focusing on her target.

Ayla, watching all of this, recognized what was going on and what was going to happen and yelled out, “Oh Crap! Tennyo!”

Chou exploded into movement, her sword a virtual blur, a flip of her wrist disarmed the upperclassman deftly, and she began slicing the gi jacket of Swordmaiden, the fabric of the arms already falling off. Swordmaiden tried to back off to open some distance to give herself room to work, but Chou bent the girl over with a vicious snap kick to her abdomen. Destiny’s Wave deftly sliced the fabric back open, shredding the gi in the process. As she was preparing to move again to cut something else apart, she was tackled by Tennyo, the two of them tumbling on the mat away from Swordmaiden.

The class stopped and watched, surprised, as the Poe girl completely lost her normally impenetrable calm. The various Kimba members in the room raced over, surrounding Tennyo and Chou, ready to do whatever they had to in order to stop her. Both Ayla and Toni, not wanting a weapon-related incident similar to the Sharisha incident, were saying over and over, “Calm down.”

Chou struggled against Tennyo a little, and because she couldn’t move, slowly calmed down and smiled weakly at her friends as she regained control. She sighed heavily, depressed. “I did it again?”

They all nodded. Chou sighed sadly. This really was the last thing she needed. Then what the girl had said right after the hit registered and Chou blanched. How the fuck had the woman figured out that she had transformed? What the hell could have given her away? She whispered, “Oh shit.”

The Kimba crew looked at her intently, Ayla leaned in and whispered, “What?”

“I… I think she knows I am a changeling.” Chou’s voice trembled.

Ayla looked over at the older girl and then back, “There is no way. Calm down, here comes Sensei Beaumont.”

As she sat up, Chou saw that Swordmaiden was kneeling on the floor, holding her uniform top together with her hands, glaring at the Poe girl. Sensei Beaumont stalked over, her eyes blazing angrily, her accent growing thicker, “What ‘appened?”

Chou blushed and said, “We tangled blades, she punched me in my low abdomen which really hurt because of… well… my…”

Beaumont nodded, understanding what the girl was talking about instantly. “Go on.”

Chou swallowed hard, “She then said ‘Welcome to womanhood sweetie.’”

Beaumont turned and glared at the upperclassman. “Ees that true?”

The other girl bowed her head and replied, ‘Yes, it is Sensei.”

“Go to my office. I will deal with you both shortly.”

Chou and Swordmaiden both bowed and secured their weapons. They walked from the classroom as the teachers brought everything back to order and got the groups back to training. They reached the French martial arts master’s office and stood there, on either side of the door, not even looking at each other. Chou was still upset and it seemed clear that the other girl did not want to say anything. They both stood fairly still awaiting whatever punishment their instructor had in store for them and both still upset with the other.

Genevive Beaumont stormed to them, muttering to herself in French. She threw her door open and barked, “Entrer!”

The two girls stood in front of the woman’s desk and the blonde instructor looked up at them, clearly irritated with them. “Did you know zat Mademoiselle Lee was ‘aving ‘er time?”

Swordmaiden was looking straight ahead at the wall and nodded, “Yes Sensei.”

“’ow?”

“I saw her taking some Midol earlier and she complained about cramps to Phase.”

“So you purposely ‘it ‘er zere, knowing ze outcome and zen taunted ‘er? Is zat correct?” The glare made the upperclassman wilt and turn her gaze to the floor.

“Yes Sensei.”

“Why did you say zat?” demanded Beaumont, her eyes threatening to bore holes through the girl.

The other girl looked uncomfortable and shifted her feet, “I… I was basically calling her a little girl. I just wanted to taunt her, to get under her skin and make her fight worse.”

“I see it backfired.” Swordmaiden nodded and looked at the floor again.

“And you Miss Lee, do you ‘ave an excuse for attacking ‘er in zat manner?”

“No sensei. I was just angry after she hurt me.”

“I ‘ave ‘eard of you angry. It is a problem, oui?”

“Yes sensei,” replied Chou.

“You need to get your emotions under control. Now apologize to each other.”

Chou turned and bowed, figuring that she honestly did owe the girl an apology. “I am sorry for cutting up your gi.”

Swordmaiden bowed as well, “I am sorry for punching you there and taunting you.”

“Now if zis ‘appens again you will both get detention. Go.”

The two girls left the office and headed off to get changed. They could barely make out the sound of someone cursing in French as they walked away.

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Chou flumped down on the cushion and sighed. She was glad that she had calmed down some more, as the tiff in weapons class had been rather irritating. Becca poured her some tea and handed the cup over. Chou took in and sipped, letting the warmth and the soothing herbs calm her even further. “Bad day?”

Chou just chuckled mirthlessly. “You could say that.”

“Well, we are not doing anything physical today, so do not worry. We are just going to be talking philosophy and I am going to teach you a meditation technique. That is all, with the exception of having tea.” Becca smiled and then took a sip of her tea.

“Am I going to need this technique for something?” groused Chou. It always seemed as if she were learning one technique or another for some sort of particular mission.

“Well, it can help with your health and such, but it isn’t a technique you would ever use in combat.” replied Becca.

“Okay.” Chou had some more of the tea and it did help her calm down more. It also helped that her abdomen was no longer hurting from the blow she took earlier. “So what are we going to talk about?”

“I figured we could talk about the Tao itself, since you still seem to have problems with it.”

“Of course I am going to have issues with something that wanted me to kill an innocent guy!” Chou’s voice rose as she went along, her free hand clenching and unclenching.

“As I said Chou, I was told to pass that along.” stated Becca calmly.

“And you do everything that they tell you?” asked Chou angrily, still upset over that betrayal a little over a month ago. He had been a nice guy.

“Yes. I do. Look Chou, that task was given to you in the attempt to help you get past your issue with killing. It was not my task for you as I was only the messenger.”

“Whatever happened to Thou shalt not kill?!” protested Chou.

Becca sighed, took another sip of her tea and looked at Chou with weary eyes, eyes that spoke of her real age and not her apparent one. “The truths of the Bible are not really connected to the truths of the Tao. You have to realize that sometimes it is a valid choice to kill someone. Sometimes people die. Sometimes you have to kill in order to survive. And look at the Bible itself, Moses brought down the Commandments and what do we see, people breaking all of them, including some of the Prophets. God has the Israelites kill plenty of people.”

“But that doesn’t make it right!” Chou was growing more and more upset.

“So if the Divine Power that you follow whole heartedly tells you to kill someone, you would disobey? If the Tao could tell that someone, say Molly, was going to go down a path that would lead to her becoming as great an evil as say Devilmaster or Cataclysm, and that in order to stop her from hurting thousands or even tens of thousands you would have to kill her, are you saying that you wouldn’t?” Becca’s voice was so calm and even that it grated on Chou’s nerves.

“Are you saying that I’ll have to kill Molly?” Chou leaned forward aggressively and growled that out, her eyes focused on her mentor. She was ready to draw Destiny’s Wave right then and to kill Becca if it would keep Molly safe.

“No. I am offering up an ethical situation and that is all. If the Tao said to kill her, in order to save millions, could you?”

“What about that butterfly/ tornado thing? What if there was something that could be done in order to prevent it?” countered Chou, not really wanting to answer the question.

“That is occasionally an option. The cascade of thoughts that make a person who they are is tricky to manipulate in that way. Short term shifting is easy but long term… in order to correct this sort of deep issue within someone… not so easy and takes more than one corrected event to fix things. You have to think about the motivations of people to do evil in order to change things. You have to know their why.” explained Becca carefully. “Stopping a single action isn’t the same as turning someone away from a path they have already started along.”

“Surely the Tao knows how to fix that.”

“The Tao does, but while we are limited to a small part of the tapestry, the Tao sees all of it. Maybe a death over here fixes an issue somewhere else, where we have no direct perception. You, as the Handmaid, have a greater perception of the tapestry but even you are limited unless the Tao fills you completely, and then you can see and understand all things, see why a death here can cause a rebirth over there. We are not the Tao though the Tao I us.” Becca explained calmly.

“I am not going to kill Molly!” adamantly stated Chou. “I refuse.”

“Chou, I am not saying you need to do anything to Molly. It was a hypothetical situation and that was all. Besides, you have already made it clear that you are not taking any more missions from anyone but the Tao, which is a good call, and one I agree with. Relax. I was just talking about understanding the greater tapestry. I can only follow the path of the Tao forward a little bit, my teacher farther still, the Immortals farther still, and then there is you. Your sight along the Tao is greater than any of ours. Your ears are attuned to the Tao more than ours, so you can better hear the whispers. If you just relax into the Tao and trust it, you will be able to see what has to be seen and learn what has to be known.”

Chou slowly relaxed as she registered fully that no actual threat was being made against her Soulmate. “So I just need to relax?”

“Yes. Into the Tao and into yourself. I believe Dyffud talked to you about that?” asked Becca.

“He did,” admitted Chou, as a feeling of relief rolled over her. The thought that her love could be in danger made her quite tense.

“The nature of the self is very important. Who you are is not just your physical body but it is also other levels of energy that enwrap you. Then there is the subtle nature of the shen, your internal Spirit. When you relax into yourself, your whole self expands and you grow more powerful. Part of what makes someone like Dyffud or the Headmistress so powerful is the fact that they know who they are and are sure of their place in the world. That is something you need to work on, because that sense of self will make you a strong Handmaid.” Becca smiled and had some of her tea.

“So how exactly am I supposed to do that? I mean, I am stuck in a body that isn’t mine, well not officially, and I want to defeat the Demon Lord in order to get the box so I can return to being Alex. I really don’t want to do this. It is too confusing.” Chou seemed to be near tears. “I just want to be myself again.”

Becca did look a bit sad when she said, “I am sorry for your pain Chou, but the truth is that you did choose this path. Now we have to help you accept that choice and help you get to where you need to be.”

“You mean, helping me get the box back?” asked Chou somewhat hopefully.

“Helping you to be able to get the box back and helping to support you when you go, as well as supporting you in your mission as the Handmaid.”

“So I’m stuck like this for now?”

“Didn’t you say that you liked part of your new life? That there were benefits? That you had come to a degree of acceptance?” asked Becca pointedly.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I like it and what if I start to like it, what if I want to stay a girl?” The fear was clear in her voice.

“Chou, listen to me, your body is just your body. Your true spirit lies within you and is neither male nor female. So one body is just like any other, different challenges to be sure, but the form exists only to provide the emptiness that can hold the spirit.”

“So I am just supposed to accept this?” asked Chou, a bit incredulous.

“Yes, because that is your only option until you get the box back, so why fight and make yourself miserable? It is okay to accept it until then. All the other questions and problems can wait until you actually have the means to return to your old body. At that time, you should worry. Don’t waste your time on impossibilities until then.” Becca leaned over and rested a hand comfortingly on Chou’s knee.

Chou thought about it and nodded. Between Dyffud and Becca and to a degree Caitlin, maybe she just needed to get over herself and accept things, fully and completely. It might even lower her stress levels back to merely inhuman levels. Besides, she was just digging herself into the ground with this, so perhaps it was okay to accept. “Okay. I will really work at it.”

“Good. Now what about the idea of sinking into yourself to gain more power?”

Chou nodded. That did seem like a good idea to her. “How does that work again?”

“When you got mad earlier, did you feel everything center within you and kind of settle in your dan tien, just before you exploded?” Becca was smiling as if she were well aware of what the answer would be.

Chou blushed and answered. “Yes.”

“Now imagine being that way all the time, having all of your power concentrated. If you are centered and settled into yourself at all times, you can connect to the Tao easier, and you are actually more powerful normally.”

“So how can I do that?” asked Chou, interested in anything that might give her an advantage.

“By connecting fully with your body and from there onto your spirit. So are you ready for the first technique you need to try in order to forge this connection?” asked Becca.

“Sure. What is it?”

“The Inner Smile meditation.” Becca replied with a small smirk.

“The what?” snickered Chou, amused by the name of the technique.

“Inner Smile. The technique is actually really simple, almost comically so. What you do is imagine your organs smiling at you. That’s it. You picture your heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, stomach smiling at first and then move on to your bones, blood, nervous system, everything, until every part of you is smiling in response. That is a great first step. Once you get good at this, we can move onto something else. So what do you think?”

“I imagine all of those things smiling at me? That’s all I do? Really?” Chou was a bit incredulous. There was no way that something this crazy was a real meditation technique. It sounded totally stupid.

“Yes. It will seem weird at first but as you continue to practice, you will learn to diagnose issues within your body based off how each organ smiles or not. It works quite well as a method of self-diagnosis and as a method for connecting to your self more completely. So ready to practice?”

Chou nodded. She might as well get this over with.

“Okay, get comfortable, relax, and then start with your heart.”

Chou breathed deeply, letting the air out slowly, dropping into a good breathing rhythm of slow, deep breaths. As she felt herself lower into her meditative state, she then pictured her heart smiling at her. It looked a bit silly in her mind’s eye, almost comical and she began to snicker.

“Come on. You can do this. I know it is a bit silly but try it seriously.” chided Becca.

Chou took another deep breath and centered herself again. She would try to do it seriously this time. “Okay. Here I go.”

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Chou rolled her shoulders, to loosen the tension she was feeling. It had been a bit of a hard day and she still had to deal with the Goobers before she could go back to her room. Molly had told her about the use of a heating pad to relieve some of the discomfort a while ago, and she just wanted to go back to her room and curl up around one. It sounded like a plan to her if only things would allow her.  In addition, Ayla had a really nice one as well, that was larger than the usual ones.

As she trudged towards the library, where they held their meetings in an open study room in the back, behind the stacks, she saw Saladin heading towards her, waving a greeting. Chou smiled and waved back. She liked him and was actually glad to see him, at least to take her mind off of Muffy the Vampire Slayer and her cohorts.

“Good Afternoon Chou. How are you?” Saladin smiled politely, but it really didn’t touch his eyes.

“Lousy. Yours?” She asked, honestly curious with how he was doing after outing himself so publicly.

“En’shah Allah it will get better.” Saladin looked fairly down and that was unusual.

“So, where are you going?” Chou was a bit curious about that one.

“Emergency FSA meeting. It’s probably to freak out over me or some such nonsense. Not that I’m too surprised by that, but it will certainly be annoying.” Saladin didn’t sound all that upset but Chou could hear the tension in his voice. Regardless of everything else, he was actually stressed.

“Is there anything I can do?” Chou asked a bit worried for her friend.

“Not unless you can travel back in time and convince the Prophet not to condemn homosexuality. Or maybe you could convince some mullahs to write some fatwas allowing it,” grumbled the upperclassman.

“That bad?”

Saladin nodded. “The Holy Qur’ran condemns homosexual behavior in several different places and even though there are a number of groups trying to get people to change their minds about homosexuality in the Arabic culture, the default is the Most Holy Qur’ran and the Hadith. These are both fairly clear on the issue. There are a number of instances where the people of Lut are condemned for their ungodly behavior, specifically sex between men more so than sex between women. Therefore, I have to live with the certain knowledge that Allah the Most Compassionate and Merciful condemns me for the way he made me. It is one of those ironies about my faith that bothers me. So I try to live a good life, to follow the five pillars and to work for my faith, but in the end I will be condemned simply for who I love.”

Chou rested a hand on his arm, concerned for him. “I am sorry.”

Saladin chuckled mirthlessly, “For what? You didn’t do any of this. I am weak for not being able to stop myself and for falling in love. I support the Al-Fatiha group who is trying to help change the perception and legality of homosexuality in the Middle East but what can you do. So now I also have to deal with other heroes, who somehow see this as a failing as well, as if I am a bit of a villain because of who I want to date and love. En’shah Allah, those idiots will leave me alone as I have enough stuff to worry about.”

“So why come out if you knew that there would be all of these issues?” asked Chou, honestly confused by the act, given all this other stuff that he was mentioning.

“Because the truth is important and the truth is that I am gay and that I am in love. I am not ashamed of this. It does hurt that my life and love condemns me to hell, but I shall live the best life a sinner like me can. Allowing blackmail to work, I would have lost that. Coming out was a better choice in the long run than giving in. Talk to you later Chou. Masaalama.”

Chou watched Saladin leave, wondering if she could ever be so brave.

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There were many things that Hippolyta was not used to and thinking even semi-positively about an Arab Man was well beyond the pale of even that. What Saladin had done, by coming out publicly, was a death sentence in the Arab world. He had damned himself as surely as anything had with his announcement. Sure, there were groups in the Middle East that fought for rights for any GLBT individuals, but that didn’t stop the killings or harassment. So what was the Arabic poster boy doing coming out publicly? Surely he knew this as well as she did?

It made her want to reconsider the man, even though she had despised him since they had met. The devout Muslim had made her gnash her teeth too many times over the last few years, but was this a sign that he wasn’t all that much of a poster boy, or at least not one for Arabic Male Dominance? And her usually accurate gaydar had failed her in this instance. When this had happened, she had gaped in surprise like all of the others. In fact, one of the only other Arabic students she could barely stand, Sahar, had also seemed shocked by the pronouncement. Hippolyta needed something or someone to punch to help relive this stress, but unfortunately for her, the usual idiots who asked for it constantly were nowhere she could find. She was left with this tension.

She was on her way to Sara’s room, as she was confident that her lover would have some advice that would help Hippolyta with this particular problem. However, was it really a problem? Would she need to change the way she thought about Saladin? She grumbled over this. Rethinking her view of a man was kind of wrong in her opinion as to her men never deserved that kind of favor. This was really upsetting her and giving her a bit of a tension headache.

She entered the magical room and smiled, her heart warmed by the sight of Sara busy snuggling with Paige. This was her family and that was good enough for her. The view of her family and the feelings of love that were brought out by that helped with her tension somewhat. Sara sat up and looked over at the young woman, asking with some concern, “What is it?”

“I have a problem.”

Sara opened her arms and beckoned Hippolyta over. When the smaller woman was holding the larger woman comfortingly, the demon princess of lust asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I feel conflicted over the whole Saladin thing.” admitted the girl, embarrassed by what she saw as a weakness.

“That he’s gay?” clarified Paige.

Hippy nodded. “I don’t know how to feel about him. By outing himself, he managed to put himself in the only position worse than women in the Arab world. So do I act nice to him or what? I don’t know.”

“How do you want to act?” asked Sara.

“I don’t know. This whole thing is making me crazy. Why couldn’t he have just stayed in the closet and made my life easier?” It was clear that this issue was distressing the woman profoundly. “I mean, if I was wrong about him, does that mean that I have been wrong about other men? It is shaking me to the core and I don’t know what to do. Help?” The pleading eyes that Hippolyta turned on Sara showed a weakness that she would never dare show anywhere except in the safety of this room and in the arms of her lover.

“It’ll be okay, love.” Sara kissed the girl on the forehead and the brick could feel warmth and love through her mark and that helped to soothe her soul. “Maybe you should just give him a chance and let other men worry about themselves at the moment.”

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“Okay everyone… today we are going to talk about fighting ghosts.” said Ecto-tek. “We are going to cover how to find them, how to fight them and how to end the haunting. I know we have covered this before, but in order to fight against these supernatural creatures you need to know this information backwards and forwards to survive.”

Chou groaned from where she was standing against the back wall. She knew how to fight ghosts. Her sword would go right through them, cutting their essence with no problem, so why was this information useful? Why would she need any of this stuff?

“Ghosts are the spirits of the deceased that have decided not to move on to a higher plane. Most ghosts are simply confused spirits who are haunting a place because they are not even aware that they are actually dead, and so you might be able to help them move on with a simple conversation. You may even have to do a small task or something to help them move on but it is rarely anything too difficult. There are also angry spirits of the dead out there, such as poltergeists, which can interact with the material plane and are more of a problem. They are the ones you have to worry about, as they hate all living things. Anger drives them, and they will punish you and everyone about to work out their pain. The longer a poltergeist is around, the more vicious it becomes, escalating the degree of violence against the living.”

“Now finding them is pretty easy. There is often the expected severe temperature drop, and the electro-magnetic meter will usually go off the chart, as their etheric energy bleeds heavily into the material plane. Poltergeists read much higher than regular ghosts so be prepared for that as well. Other evidence is clear, as they can hurl objects, manipulate the physical environment directly, and occasionally manifest something audible or even tactile. They are often connected with the sites of their death, their tombs, or some place that has strong emotional resonance for them. If you encounter them anywhere, that is where it would be.”

Chou wanted to smack herself in the head repeatedly for suggesting that she infiltrate the Goobers. This crap was driving her nuts and the information was mostly useless to her, almost as if it had come out of a Time Life series book or something. She had a very different approach to the supernatural, having prayer sheets that could seal and entrap spirits, and there was always the sword. Demonic forces were also easy to deal with, though a good bit tougher than regular spirits. This information was remarkably not useful to her. She could almost learn as much by watching Ghostbusters or Supernatural instead.

“One effective method of dealing with a manifestation is rock salt with cold iron shavings added fired from a shotgun. This can buy you the time to find the body, salt it and burn it before it comes back. Destroying the corpse can destroy the bodily link that a being has to this world, sending it to the beyond. If there is not a physical link to be destroyed, then you need to find a way to trap the spirit and exorcise it.”

Sarah sidled up to Chou, and whispered, “Boring isn’t it.”

Chou nodded. It was certainly that. “All we do is talk about this stuff. When do we get some action, to put this stuff into use?”

“Well, it is possible that we just might be able to get some real action in fighting the forces of darkness sometime soon. We aren’t simply about the theory you know,” Sarah smirked. “We are also involved in the practice.”

“So we really can get into some action, fighting demonic forces and the like?” asked Chou excitedly. Action would be appreciated, as waiting for them to bring her in was taking forever.

“Yes. We can. We have people looking into sites that need cleaning, as well as looking for signs of demonic forces threatening the surrounding towns.” Sarah seemed excited about this.

“Really? So you actually go out and face these things?” Leading Sarah the way Chou wanted her to go wasn’t all that difficult because the girl was a loon. Chou could probably get the girl interested in hunting for Atlantis with a little bit of effort.

“You bet. Interested?”

Chou smiled broadly and nodded. “It would be nice to go after them rather than to have them come after me when I’m walking in the woods. Just let me know when.”

Jackpot.

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Chou was wandering around a touch aimlessly, trying to get the bad taste that the Goobers had left in her mouth out. The cold air was purifying and it rushed through her, whisking things away. Part of her itched, wanting to smite them for having attacked her friend and setting loose that chain of events on Halloween but she still needed a bit more information to go on before action was taken. If they knew that the Goobers had another attack planned on Sara, then they could be dealt with swiftly and the Reverend thrown off campus. They just made her so crazy.

She let herself slowly relax, trying to connect to the flow of the Tao, letting that calm her down and make her feel better. As she joined with it, something didn’t feel quite right. Chou suddenly felt dirty, like there was some sort of thin oil that was covering everything and was seeping into her flesh. She shuddered, repulsed by the feel. This was familiar though, this feeling. It was something that she had felt since she had gotten here but had been lost in the background noise of the whole campus. Now that she could sense it and how it was tainting things, it was impossible not to feel it.

She wandered about the open areas of the campus, trying to see if she could narrow down the source of this energy to some smaller area. It surprised her that no one else seemed to feel it, when it was so blatantly clear to her. Maybe it had to do with the nature of the energy, something that was different from other energies or magics in the area? That would make sense. If the type of magic used was different than what others used it would possibly have a means to mask itself. That made her think of Nikki and Jade’s story about their Christmas break and the way that the blood magic Hekate used seemed invisible. However, if that was the case, what was it doing? Was this a spell? Was this some sort of… seepage? That energy had to have a purpose.

She wandered around a bit more, trying to get a better fix on the energy signature. However, it was no use. It was almost as if she didn’t have the right tools to find the source of this miasma that seemed to be drowning the school. Maybe she needed to get some help on this, someone to help her track the thing to its source and help shut it down. It was appealing, and she was sure that she would need that help before the work was done.

It really irritated her that there was this unknown type of energy out there, covering and penetrating everything. It probably was something one of the damn mages screwed up casting and now it was affecting the whole campus. They were all just too fucking lazy to clean up after themselves. Sometimes those magic types and their carelessness really just pissed her off. It just made her want to smack them.

That thought brought Chou up short and she looked at what she was thinking and feeling closer. Was this energy causing situations to get out of control, aggravating anger and distrust, setting people on edge just a bit more? Maybe. This was something she didn’t have a hell of a lot of skill in and this was all conjecture. She needed to get some help in dealing with this problem and maybe seeing if it were possible to cleanse the area of it’s taint. She needed something or someone that could move energy, to help channel this all away, so it no longer stagnated over the school, festering. Maybe Fey would know someone if she couldn’t do it herself.

Chou stared off towards the woods, ready to hunt whatever the hell this was down right now. Out there, away from everyone else was probably where the source was located, somewhere near enough to affect the school but far enough away to avoid easy detection. It made sense. She certainly needed to take care of this issue, especially since it seemed that she was the only one who sensed it. Besides who could she go to for help? The mystical school hadn’t sensed this at all and no one else had taken any action that she was aware of to deal with this situation. She felt a bit cut off and alone.

Pivoting on her foot, Chou changed direction and headed back towards campus. The cold was seeping in slowly, as her focus on the warming breathing that she used was slipping because too many things were going on all at once in her head for her to sort out her thoughts. Between Dyffud, Becca, Team Tactics, Caitlin, life, Molly and Dorjee, the fucking Dragons and Tigers, and weapons class she was about ready to pop. All she wanted was a nice calm life and this was nothing like one. She just wanted to go home and hide under her covers until spring. That might help make her feel better about life.

As she continued on, heading towards Poe, she spotted some of her least favorite students heading her way. Several of the Tigers apparently wanted to play with her now for who knew what reason. Chou sent up a prayer but as the ground did not open up and swallow either her or the Tigers, it was clearly not answered. She sighed and continued on her way, just planning on ignoring them.

“Yo, Bladedancer!” called out N’Dizi loudly, as if volume would command her. “Hold up.”

Chou stopped and looked at the group, keeping her body ready to react at a moments notice. N’Dizi had Alakazam and Mace as backup, which amused her. Three upperclassmen versus little ole’ her. What were they… scared? “What?”

“Is it true that your slope friends invited you and my girl Chaka to the Dragons?” The tone was very accusatory, like this had been her fault from the beginning.

“If you came to ask me about it you apparently know.” Chou was not pleased, as the other two were moving to flank her while she was dealing with Dizzy. Great.

“Just answer the question.” growled Mace.

“Fine. Yes.”

N’Dizi seemed to grow larger as he loomed in front of her. “You tell those damn pansies to leave the sister alone. They can have your fucking slope ass all they want but not my girl. Got it?!”

Chou stared at him as if she were bored. She had slid a hand into her purse and now held one of her prayer sheets and the explosion that it would cause on Dizzy’s head would certainly end the fight. “I have nothing to do with who gets invited to what by who, and who accepts, Cucumber Boy.”

N’Dizi got even closer, his face in hers. “Listen you little bitch. I will take you out.”

“On a date? No thank you. I have standards,” Chou smirked at the boy.

N’Dizi pulled his arm back in a fist, clearly wanting to make a move. Chou was glad he had moved closer because he was now close enough for her to use nerve strikes on and she was wanting to try the paralysis strike she had learned. “Well…?”

Mace was also focused on her, quite willing to throw down with her as well. Chou figured that they were going to come at her with Fire, so maybe she could use a Water approach. Alakazam suddenly cleared her throat, and the other two stood and backed off. N’Dizi growled out, “Next time bitch, we’re gonna dance.”

As the trio stormed off, Chou saw the reason for their departure, Stonebear of the Betas was heading their way but not moving towards them with a purpose. The large kid would have jumped right on in if a fight had started up in front of him. Chou thanked him as she walked by, confusing the sophomore.

Chou grumbled, her irritation grown larger thanks to the last five minutes. This day sucked majorly and she just wanted it to end. Was that so wrong? She didn’t need all of this crap and was tired of it all being dumped on her. Was being left alone too much to ask of these people? Apparently it was. She stalked back to Poe thinking about a wonderful stress relief method that Caitlin told her about, her thoughts filled with vivid images of her holding N’Dizi underwater until the bubbles stopped.

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After dinner, something weird happened even by Kimba standards, which had them all staring at each other as if Counterpoint had just come up and declared that starting tomorrow the official school uniforms would be Hello Kitty themed and her was going to wear a tutu and a tiara. That, of course, wasn’t what he had said, but the effect on the group was fairly similar. The one who seemed to be the focus for this strange occurrence just sat there looking at them all innocently and asked, “What?”

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Zhong Lau looked out across the assembled members if the Dragons. It was an impressive display of power gathered together in one place, a power that almost crackled in the air and that made him smile. This group was filled with the potential for great things if they were merely focused and channeled in an appropriate direction, his direction. “So we are all in accord?”

The group of martial artists were all standing in a line like one would at the start or end of a martial arts class and they all called out, their voices together, “Yes sir!”

“Very well. We will find a good place and time to show those Tiger bastards why one does not mess with the might of the Dragons. Thursday, we will teach them the error of their ways and punish them for daring to challenge us.” Zhong Lau smiled coldly, a reptilian gleam dancing in his eyes. Oh yes, this was a potent force indeed.

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Chou went to the basement of Poe Hall and waited. Supposedly, the door to Sara’s room was going to appear there at any moment so she could go in and chat. The ability to get to talk to the demon princess secretly was nice, especially with what they were doing with Chou spying. She finally had gotten something that had justified having put up with the Goobers for all this time. This was something that might just make all this worth it.

Blinking her eyes, she started as the door was suddenly there in between the blink of her eyes. Chou wasted no time but knocked on it. A voice called out, “Come in!”

The door opened easily and then Chou was in Sara’s room, which was technically in another building entirely. A few others were there as well, members of the Pack, the girl’s group of ‘family’ here at the school. The demon smiled when she saw the Asian girl. “Hello Chou, thanks for dropping by.”

“No problem. I knew you would want to hear this,” Chou grinned and it wasn’t a friendly grin.

“What’cha got?”

“Today, Nightbane invited me to join with their special monster hunting group.”

Sara nodded. “Took them long enough. I had figured they would have just welcomed you in with open arms far earlier than this. So when do you join up officially?”

Chou shrugged. “I have no idea. I suppose that I am going to be contacted and told what to do and where to go.”

“Makes sense. So we are closer but not close enough,” stated Sara, frowning a little in consternation.

Her eyes closed as Chou groaned. “Gah! I just want this done. I can’t stand those idiots and I really just want to slap Nightbane down. And the crap they talk about… ugh. If any of them saw a real ghost I am sure they would wet themselves and run.”

Several members of the Pack giggled at this. Sara shook her head sadly. “But you volunteered for this, Chou.”

“I know, I know. Reminding me doesn’t help me feel better about it. The Tao wants me to keep you safe and this is a good route for that. Fucking Tao,” grumbled Chou, tired of the things she had to do in the name of a force that she believed in only because it had forced itself on her.

Sara chuckled, her eyes twinkling mischievously. “You want something that may really make you enjoy your role more?”

Chou looked over at her worriedly. Something told her that she was going to regret asking this. “What?”

“Well if the primal forces of Creation, Preservation and Destruction are manifest within the Great Old Ones, then maybe the Tao is something like them but a Greater Older One.”

Chou groaned, “Please tell me you’re joking. I may never sleep again.”

Sara smirked at the Handmaid of the Tao. “Well, it could be a joke. Who knows? Those three aren’t really talking, now are they.”

Chou whimpered as part of her flailed against the idea, “You aren’t nice.”

“Hello, Demon Princess here.”

With a sigh of long suffering, Chou shook her head asking hopefully. “So this is a guess?”

“Of course. The Tao is a force that must be reckoned with but no one knows its origin. So for all we know it is some sort of entity or it is a primordial force that might be sentient. Nothing says one way or the other. You could ask one of the Great Old Ones, but I don’t recommend it. Hmmmm…?” Sara looked quickly thoughtful as something else clicked into place.

“Oh God, what now?” Chou groaned, lowering her face into her hands.

“If the Tao is the root of the Great Old Ones, that would explain why you seem to be immune to their touch.”

“Sara! Stop it! Crap, now I am never going t get to sleep. You are so fucking evil!” Chou shivered and hugged herself. This was not funny and sent a chill up he spine.

“Okay. I’ll stop. For now. Thank you for your help so far in this Chou. I hope we catch them sooner rather than later so you can get out of there.” Sara sounded sincere.

Chou smiled, “No problem. Forewarned is forearmed.”

With that, the Asian girl left, hustling upstairs to make herself a pot of the soothing tea. If she was going to have any chance of sleep tonight, she was going to need it.

Wednesday 17 January 2007

Molly’s breath was heaving and her everything ached. They had been doing wall runs, trying to reach the top of a building under their own power. She had been busy trying to make it up a one story wall and the falls hurt. Maybe that was part of the training as well, learning to fall from various heights. She wiped the sweat from her eyes and took another run at the wall, leaping up before hand to get one foot on the wall for a push and her second foot push got her to the point where her finger tops cleared the wall, but she wasn’t able to hold on and she fell again, collapsing onto her butt. “Gah!”

Earlier, as a sort of warm up, they had run around, leaping over, under, around and through various obstacles. She felt like Grover was in charge of her training, with that damn song from Sesame Street going through her head. She could tell she was starting to get better but it was way too slow, as some of the others, who had powers to give them a bit of a boost, were already moving onto different things. Some were even moving onto two story wall sections. Groaning, Molly sat up and looked at the wall angrily, her hands propping her up from behind.

Thoughts of her Combat Final ran through her head and she frowned, dragging herself to her feet. She couldn’t quit or stop. If she was going to be of any help to Chou then she had to get better at this sort of thing, at being able to survive combat. Christmas break had been embarrassing as she had been of very little help not just once but twice. If she gave up now that would like her admitting that Dorjee would be better for Chou and there was no way in hell that was ever going to happen. She would charge these walls on bloody stumps rather than admit that to anyone. No, she just had to learn how to get better at this.

She was on her feet, looking at the wall, and trying to make sense with what she had learned about going up a wall. The two pushes should be enough as her fingertips were brushing the top. Maybe her technique wasn’t quite right? But what could she do different? If she shoved too hard with her second foot, wouldn’t that push her away from the wall? She tried to work it out in her head, trying to figure out how the force of her running towards the wall effected the force of her pushing upwards. Maybe it wouldn’t have as much impact as she had thought?

Grinning wildly, Molly took a few breaths and raced towards the wall, trying to run up it as they had been shown. She grunted with her second push off and her feet made it over the edge of the wall. Holding on to the top she tried to pull upwards with her arms and almost nothing happened. She moved upwards briefly, but her arms just didn’t have the oomph needed. As her weight dropped back down she struggled to keep hold, but the weight was pulling her off the wall. Her hands slipped and she just barely managed to land on her feet, scrabbling to keep from falling.

She was panting again, her heart racing, and tears of frustration filling her eyes. She was going t get this if it was the last thing she ever did. She just had to get stronger, just had to. There really was no other option in her mind at all.

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“No Tennyo?” asked Fey as she changed for class.

“Nope. Apparently she is scheduled at a different time,” Chou shrugged. “Looks like it’s just the three of us.”

Fey laughed. “Well, we can pass this stuff along to her if she doesn’t get it.”

“Easy enough.” They walked into the classroom and there was Dyffud, walking through a set series of foot patterns. It looked convoluted and tough to follow. Chou tried to work it out but her mind was simply not following the movements clearly. Some of the steps didn’t look possible.

“Afternoon girls.” He came to a stop, exhaled and ended his form, and turned to face them. “So are you ready?”

The three girls nodded. They were as ready as they could be for whatever new strangeness this class had for them today.

“Okay, do you all remember the five elements and the force applied to them that we talked about earlier?” asked Dyffud, making sure that his students were on the same page.

The three girls nodded.

“And did you do the homework I assigned you?”

At their nod he smiled, “Good. I hope it helped you all make more sense of the Force Dynamics and how they relate to everyday things. We are going to cover the elements today and the way things move. That can give you a range of options in dealing with various conflicts. First one we are going to look at is Force Absorption or Metal. It’s easy enough as that one doesn’t move. Stationary and somewhat inflexible, it does have a degree of movement however, a downward movement as the force of the impact is driven down into the ground, negating its power. That is why, when you are hit, you often rock backwards, unless you have sunk your energy, directing any other force downwards as well. Your body wants to channel energy that way and if you have the correct form you would be able to do that.”

The three girls blinked at him, as if trying to follow whatever he had just said. They almost had it, as some of it seemed to make perfect sense.  Toni spoke for the group of them when she said, “Hunh?”

Dyffud rolled his eyes, amused with the girls. “Too complex?”

The three girls nodded.

He sighed. Maybe what he needed in this case was some sort of demonstration to make it all clear? “Fine. Chou, Toni, stand up.”

They complied, just standing there, unsure if they needed to be in a stance or something. “Now, Toni hit Chou. Chou, use an absorption type block on it. Pay attention to what your body and chi does when the hit occurs. Ready? Go.”

They did as asked and Chou did note that she was grounding Toni’s force through her body and out her heels. Chou looked somewhat surprised at that and looked over at Dyffud questioningly. “Now you hit her.”

Toni blocked the punch in the same manner and paid attention to what her body and ki did, following what the man had said then as the example had clarified a great deal. “Ooh… I get it.”

Fey, after having watched the demonstration twice, nodded in understanding as well. “Okay. I get it. That makes sense now.”

“Good. Let’s practice this one a bit first.” They partnered up and worked on feeling the sensation of the energy of the force rolling through their bodies and out. They even blocked a couple of kicks in the same manner. Dyffud grinned, glad to see the girls getting what he had been talking about, “Now shall we move to the next one?”

When the girls nodded eagerly, he continued. “Next we come to Fire, or Force against Force. That one moves forward only, driving into its target. Sure, the individual attacks might be curved, but the overall direction of the Force being applied is forward, into the target. Does that one need any clarification?”

It seemed as if the girls were clear on that one as well, after all they had all been attacked more than once.

“Okay. Now we get to Force Avoidance or Wood. This is one of the more complex movement patterns as it moves in ten possible directions: forward, back, left, right, the diagonals, up and down. This Force reaction tends to avoid moving straight backwards, as Fire will pursue Wood straight back, but it is an available option. The reed bends under the wind and that allows the force coming in to be avoided, much like a reed will survive a storm that uproots trees. The weakness here is that there are no attacks with Force Avoidance. It is an excellent Dynamic to use for escape but not so good for much else. Questions?”

Again, they seemed clear on the idea. They practices a few times though, simply getting out of the way of attacks coming at them. It was pretty easy though so they didn’t work on that for long.

“Force Redirection or Earth moves in wavy lines. Like the banks of a river that turn the force of water or air into a different route, redirection makes the force move away from the person. This can be done with just arms, just leg movements, or the whole body. There are a number of differing options. Questions?”

“So this is brush blocks and push blocks?” asked Chou, trying to make sure she had this down before they moved on.

“Yes. This is the type of blocking where the force coming in doesn’t have it’s direction changed so much as nudged. Here, come at me with a punch.”

Chou complied, throwing a straight punch and Dyffud swept one leg around and used her punch’s force to throw her toward the far wall. Chou stumbled to regain her balance and then nodded. “Go it.”

“Good. Now you guys practice this for a while.” They did this, taking punches and kicks other directions and often times dumping the other person on their butt. It was certainly good for a few laughs.

Dyffud smiled happily, pleased with how well they were doing and he finished up. “The last one, Water or Force Harmonization moves in spirals, moving until it envelops the force coming towards it and moves it as it will. Most Aikido throws use this technique, where all of a sudden the attacker is heading right back towards where they were coming from, or on the ground facing a completely different direction. Since you all take Aikido, I take it you are familiar with this?”

Toni and Chou nodded and Fey bit her lip, making she was sure before she nodded. “Good. Now, most types of martial arts make extensive use of combinations of these things, trying to switch from one element to another quickly, which can cause a lot of trouble with the flow of battle, as some transitions are not as easily made as others. Fire transitions easily into Metal, a little less easy into Wood and poorly into Earth or especially Water, as the force requirements are so dramatically different. It can be done but it isn’t that easy. So are we ready for some practice using all of these?”

“Practice? What do you want us to do?” said Chou, as all of the girls faced each other.

“Well, we are going to practice each of the different styles of movement a few times, so you can have a better feel for them individually and maybe then we’ll work on trying to sense the differing energies associated with them. Sound like a plan?”

The girls nodded.

“So which do you want to do first, movement or do you want to see the energies?”

The three girls said at the same time, “Energy.”

Dyffud waited for the giggling to stop and then grinned; they really were a bright group of kids. “Okay, energy it is. Now pay attention. I will shift energy styles so you can see the different ways that energy manifests within a person. Ready?”

He stood there and slowly shifted his internal energies through the five elements, allowing time to register the change. He did this three times. “Alright, did you get it?”

The girls nodded. The transition from one force type to another had been quite visible and easy to follow once they had a better idea of what they were supposed to be looking for. This could really be useful if they got it down correctly.

“Okay.” Dyffud grinned wickedly, “Now we get you to move and let you react to this however you want.”

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Chou walked up to the room in Melville cottage that her feet had led her to unerringly after her class with Dyffud, unsure why she was here and what the hell she was going to say to whoever was here. She was still sore and really hoped that it didn’t involve a fight as she so totally didn’t need that right now. However, she was sure that when the Tao wanted her to do something that she just needed to do it, regardless of how uncomfortable it made her or how uncomfortable she already was. She wished she knew just who she was coming to see but this felt like the time with Thuban down in the tunnels and that brought little comfort. Chou reached out and knocked on the door, wishing she knew what the hell she was doing here. Sometimes being the Handmaid sucked. Actually, more times than not being the Handmaid sucked, she thought as another cramp hit her. Case in point.

A voice that she was not familiar with at all called out from within in a friendly sounding greeting. “Who is it?”

Chou took a deep breath and answered in Chinese, letting the Tao speak through her as it had done before. “<Hua Chu Lan, I am compelled to speak with you.>”

There was a pause, silence filling the hallway uncomfortably. The door opened slowly and there was Silver Serpent looking at her wide-eyed and with a touch of fear. Chou looked at her calmly and asked, “<Do you know who I am, daughter of the Dragon of Iron?>”

Lindsey Hua, daughter of the Iron Dragon, looked honestly scared for a moment, as her worst fear became a reality standing before her. She swallowed hard and managed to say without her voice trembling, “<I am honored to be visited by the Handmaid of the Tao. Please enter my humble room.>”

Chou bowed politely. “<Thank you.>”

Chu Lan stepped out of the way and let the young woman into her room. When she had heard that voice, identifying it immediately, it had sent a chill down her body. Now the one thing in the world her father feared was standing in her room talking to her. Up until the moment she had addressed her, Chu Lan had discounted the rumor that this American girl could actually be the Handmaid. Now… now the rumor was a truth standing before her. She tried to maintain her calm, “<Would you like some tea?>”

“<Thank you. I would love some tea.>”  Chou sat there watching the girl go about preparing the tea, taking the leaves out of a ceramic jar and putting them into a pot. The electric kettle began steaming very quickly and Chu Lan poured the water. They waited the brief time while the tea was steeping in companionable silence. Chu Lan poured and waited for the Handmaid to drink first.

The tea was wonderful. Not as good as the tea Chou had gotten from the Immortals, but excellent none the less. After bowing her head in acceptance, they finished their first cup in silence and it was clear that the other girl was near panic from her mere presence. Chou realized that her Chi was shining out brightly, amped up with the power of the Handmaid. She exhaled and lowered the power output, opting to relax the tension of the situation. This was going to be strange enough without freaking the girl out.

“<What can I do for the Daughter of the Tao?>” asked Silver Serpent.

“<I know you have been inquiring into my identity. I wish that to stop. That you know who I am should be sufficient at this time.>” Chou’s voice was utterly calm.

Chu Lan’s face paled. Her searches into the girl’s history hadn’t really gotten anything yet and now they had to be shut down completely. “<I understand and shall obey.>”

Chou sighed. “<I am also aware of your father, Dragon’s Child. You need to let him know that I am aware of what he is currently planning and it must stop. The movement of the current is the way it is for a reason, to force it to move contrary to that is to invite danger. He will know of what you speak.>”

The girl looked up at the Handmaid, tears in her eyes, her voice thick with worry. “<You will not kill my father… will you?>”

“<The current decides where the blade falls. For now, should he stop he will not be harmed, this I promise you.>”

The girl dropped to her knees and bowed her head to the floor. “<Thank you Handmaid.>”

“<It is nothing to be worried over. I mean you and your father no harm. I do task you with something however.>” replied Chou, wishing she knew what the hell she was talking about.

“<Anything Handmaid.>”

“<Your father has a book in his Libraries, The Cold Mountain Forms. I wish that book.>”

Hua Chu Lan nodded, eager to please. “<Certainly Handmaid. I will ensure that you receive the book as soon as I or my father can it can get here.>”

Chou nodded to herself, taking a sip from her second cup of tea. It really did have a lovely flavor. “<You have my thanks, Serpent of Silver. You are not my enemy.>”

“<I am not your enemy either Handmaid, nor is my father. You wield the Sacred Blade and we both are aware of what that means for her to be abroad in the world. We will never stand in your way and if we become targets, we shall yield.>”

Chou stood and bowed to Chu Lan. “<Very well. Thank you for the tea Hua Chu Lan. You are a worthy person and while I understand your father’s goals, they will never come to fruition in the way he suspects. You need not tell him that, as he goes after his dream with everything inside him. You should do that as well, Daughter of the Dragon. That will take you along the path you wish to travel. The road to the summit can take many detours and hold many dangers, but that choice is up to the Traveler. Good bye.>”

Chou left the room, pulling the door closed behind her. What the hell had she just done?

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The path to Dickinson was pretty clear at that time of day. There were not that many students about and the sidewalk was cleared of snow. She neared Dickinson and noticed that the energy around the dorm felt more… ordered somehow. It was different from the rest of the school, except for over by the mystical arts building, which had it’s own pattern. This felt more natural. Was it something Molly or one of the other girls had done?

There were a few girls in the lobby when she entered. She smiled politely at them and headed for Molly and Lindsay’s room. Chou had to agree that her new roommate was a step in the right direction, and much nicer than the other girl, who had made a mess all the time and sort of insisted that Molly clean it. Chou liked Lindsay, and Molly had nothing but positive things to say about the girl. Apparently, the whole Bad Seed thing was more myth than reality, at least in this case and in the case of Silver Serpent.

Chou knocked on the door and waited. There was some sort of music coming from inside and Chou tried to figure it out as it was familiar. Lindsay opened the door and Chou spotted Molly playing some sort of videogame. When she got inside, she spotted Katamari Damacy. Molly was busy rolling around and collecting crabs, biting her lips in concentration. Chou sat down and watched as her girlfriend ran amuck trying to collect every crab available in and around the house.

The time ran out and she was excited by the fact that she had collected 72% of all the crabs. “Yes!”

“Well done.” said Chou. Molly had done really well in her opinion and apparently in the games opinion as well, as the King of All the Cosmos was gushing about the tasty but strange looking katamari.

“Thanks. What’s up?” replied Molly, handing the controller to Lindsay, who decided to do Gemini.

“Well, there is something going on and I need your help in dealing with it.”

“What is it?” Molly sat forward, focusing her attention away from the game and onto Chou, her brown eyes piercing into Chou’s darker brown.

Chou glanced nervously at Lindsay, unsure what she could say around the girl. “Uhm…”

“What is it? Come on. You can trust Lindsay.”

“Okay. I noticed when I opened myself up to the Tao that there was this sort of oily energy that was seeped through the whole school. From what I can tell, it is inflaming any interpersonal issues that deal with differences in groups. It made me get irritated with mages and it was almost something I couldn’t stop. The source is off campus but nearby. I just have no idea how to find it.” explained Chou.

“I haven’t sensed anything.” argued Molly.

“I know. Neither has Fey or anyone else, nor any of the Mystic Arts instructors.. I am thinking this might be at a level that isn’t as obvious to other people. That is the best I got.” Chou was unsure of things, but it was something that worried her.

“So you need to find the energy in order to kill it?” clarified Molly, trying to work through the problem.

Chou nodded. “If I can find the spell or whatever, I can destroy it with Destiny’s Wave. I cut a spell with her back in December so I know it can be done. If it is a creature, it can be killed as well. So, I have to find it to kill it.”

Molly nodded and furrowed her brows in thought. Lindsay looked thoughtful as well and then chimed in with, “What about Winnie?”

Molly looked excited at this. She clearly agreed that this was a good idea. “Yes. Winnie would be great at this.”

Chou just looked confused, “Winnie?”

“Yeah, she is one of the Underdogs,” explained Lindsay. “She can apparently find energy lines and stuff, so useful for other mages but not so useful for her.”

Molly added, “She can also apparently move them some, from what I’ve heard.”

Chou blinked in surprise at that revelation. “Is she the one responsible for the orderly energy around the dorm?”

Lindsay and Molly both nodded, grinning. Winnie had made the dorm feel better slowly but surely ever since she had moved there at the beginning of the year.

Chou felt a slight energetic nudge move her body some. That decided it for her. If the Tao gave her a nudge who was she to argue? “Fine. Let’s go meet Winnie.”

Molly hopped off the bed and headed out, Chou following behind her. Chou noticed something as Molly moved past her. It was a familiar smell. “Molly, are you okay? I can smell the muscle oil on you.”

“Yeah, it was just a rough day in Combat Movement. I thought I might be good with just some Advil, but I began to stiffen up some after lunch. I feel much better now.” admitted Molly.

“Well, as long as you are okay.”

“I’m fine Chou. Relax.”

They walked to the other side of the building and knocked on the door. The girl who answered the door was a bit pear shaped, as tall as Chou and Molly, and had her straw colored hair done up in braids with ribbon bows at the ends. The ribbons matched the modest jumper and cardigan set she was wearing. The girl blinked her amber-colored eyes at them in surprise, clearly not expecting anyone to come by her room. “He… he… hello? Vera isn’t h… h… here. Sh… sh… she is with her Be… beret Mafia friends.”

It was clear that the girl either stuttered or was painfully shy, and there was no clue which it was at the moment. Molly smiled at her and said, “Actually Winnie, we aren’t here to see Charmer, we’re here to see you.”

“Me?” squeaked the girl, pulling her cardigan protectively around her and taking a nervous step back into the room. “I… I… I didn’t do an… an… anything, I swear!”

Chou smiled encouragingly, trying to calm the girl down. “We aren’t accusing you of anything Winnie. Can we come in?”

Winnie nodded and shuffled quickly backwards, the long skirt of her jumper swirling around her legs. She did not look happy and she was biting her lower lip nervously.

The room was clearly divided, with half fairly reeking of French everything and the other half pretty Spartan, with a lot of fantasy and romance novels lying about and a few posters of famous paintings on the wall, such as Starry Night and Waterlillies. The girl had a set of Thinker bookends keeping her books organized. Winnie sat back on her bed that had a Sweedish looking quilt on it, eyes a bit wide.

Chou was a bit worried about how nervous this girl was and she asked a bit nervously, “Are you okay?”

“Y… y… you’re one of the c… c… crazy Kimba girls… right?” Winnie squeaked the last part, as if Chou was going to smite her.

Chou groaned and nodded. “I don’t think we’re all that crazy but whatever.”

Molly jumped in again, figuring she was less scary than her girlfriend was. “Winnie, would you be able to track a specific energy source down?”

“M… m… maybe?” cautiously answered the girl.

Chou leaned forward a little on the chair she was sitting on. “There is an odd energy source permeating campus and I just want to find it and stop it as it seems to be causing some problems. Molly and Lindsay both said you would be able to track it.”

The girl nodded, her braids bouncing a little. “I… I can p… p… probably do that. My comp… pass can f… find anything.”

“Really?”

The girl nodded, blushing brightly, looking at the floor.

Molly asked, “Do you think you can find it for us?”

Winnie nodded again, and went over to her closet and pulled out this large strange looking compass that was somewhat familiar to Chou for some reason. It looked like a tool that Becca had shown her last year. The girl opened it up, so that it resembled a gyroscope. “W… w… what sort of energy is it?”

“It’s a really subtle, oily sort of energy that permeates everything. Does that help?”

Winnie fiddled with the compass some and frowned. “I… I need more.”

The girl tentatively reached out and rested one hand on Chou’s arm, as if afraid that Chou was going to bite her. Chou could feel a probing of her mind, very feather-light touches that seemed to be searching for sensations rather than data. It was amazingly unobtrusive. The needle of the compass began to spin, going through a whole circle before settling off in the direction that Chou had figured. “It… it’s that way, I’m not s… sure how far. It’s unc… clear, as the needle does not want to lock.”

Chou raised her eyebrows in surprise. This was impressive. Really impressive especially as her mind filled in the details of the compass that had not been there before. It was an extremely rare type of Lo-Pan that was used in Feng Shui. That certainly explained a few things. “Thanks Winnie. That helps.”

Winnie looked down but Chou and Molly could see the tips of the girl’s ears turning pink. “You… you’re welcome.”

“Take care Winnie,” said Chou as she stood.

“See you later, Winnie.” Molly waved, and the two headed back towards the waiting game of Katamari. As they walked down the hall, Molly turned to face Chou, “So, did that help?”

Chou nodded. It did indeed help.

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The crunch of snow alerted him and Saladin spun on his feet, to face whoever was rushing him. It was a group of people, all known trouble makers on campus: Truck, Nitro, Tee-Kay, Maggot and Killstench. The two Ultraviolents would be a problem and the other three were mere annoyances but combined, this could be a problem. Truck was barreling in, with the UV’s flanking him on either side. This was not going to be pretty. Truck screamed, “Hey fagboy! Time to pay for buttfucking!”

Saladin moved to intercept Truck, overpowering the younger student and bowling him over. Maggot got to him at that point and tackled him at the knees, with Killstench tackling higher. Tee-Kay added some oomph and the three of them managed to topple Saladin to the ground as the snow wasn’t great for traction. Truck came back and tried to jump on Saladin but caught a boot to the face for his troubles.

The Two Ultraviolents were struggling to keep him from getting the leverage he would need to get to his feet again. Saladin’s skin around his hands burned from where Maggot was using his flesh eating power on it. Nitro rushed up and started waling on him, punching him in the face repeatedly, but the blows were not getting through the PK barrier he had. The boy got madder and madder, finally blasting Saladin in the face with plasma. The burning plasma washed over Saladin’s face and he flinched away from it, his skin tightening under the heat, the snow melting instantly. Seeing this, Nitro smiled evilly and redoubled his effort when a bench slammed into his chest, driving him backwards and away from Saladin.

As Truck came back into the fray, Saladin saw a familiar fist slam into the boy. Hippolyta pulled Maggot off, throwing him back and freeing Saladin’s arm. Saladin quickly rolled onto his side and began punching Killstench in the face repeatedly, beating the UV off him to free his other hand. Once the boy let go, Saladin scrambled to his feet as the group stared at them.

Maggot and Killstench rushed back in, their rage kicking over some. The two powerhouses fought hard against the Ultraviolents, pushing through Tee-Kay’s attempts to slow down their punches and kicks. Hippolyta and Saladin were both far too strong for that to seriously affect their fighting ability to any large degree.

Nitro rushed up and let free his power again, nailing Saladin with a blast in the chest. Saladin remained standing, turning away from the stream, looking even more pissed than he had already been. Saladin growled out angrily, “You want a gay bashing…fine!”

With that, Saladin grabbed Truck up by his feet and used him as a club against his friends. He would have continued, but Killstench slammed into him again, making him drop the boy from the surprise impact.

A voice cut through the air, with an even more commanding presence than Saladin himself, stopping the combat instantly. “Freeze! That is enough!”

Chief Delarose, two Security teams, and the Wild Pack were sprinting up to surround the group, and had weapons trained on them. Everyone looked ready to take the brawlers out if any of them so much as twitched. “Stand down!”

The combatants froze in place, and all stared at each other, not breaking eye contact. Nitro froze even more when he realized that a sniper’s laser scope was dancing across his face.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” yelled the visibly pissed-off head of Security.

Several people tried to talk all at once, running right over each other. “Quiet!! You will follow me to Security and we will get this worked out, is that clear?!”

Everyone nodded slightly, still ready to resume the conflict if given cause, but not putting up a fight against Security. They were herded to the Security office and the questioning began.

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Chou marked on the board that she was going to be meditating, but she wasn’t too worried about being interupted, as Ayla was busy doing something or other somewhere else. She should have some peace for a while.

She had already changed into her pajamas and was as comfortable as she could be. She stretched a little, making sure that her body was loose and limber, so it would not stiffen up on her during deep meditation. With a bit of a shift, she settled into her meditative position, her hands resting one within the other. A deep inhalation was followed by a long, slow exhalation and she let her thoughts go.

Measured breathing took her deeper and deeper into meditation. She concentrated on reaching for the flow of the Tao, sliding into the movement of everything. Chou could feel her connection to all of her friends, her father, and the world around her. She could even feel her connection to the void that was Caitlin, as she was conspicuous by her absence. It was nice, relaxing, and she could feel her link to the Tao deepen and solidify.

Then she noticed something else, something intruding into her thoughts, oozing over her and trying to break her connection to herself and to the Tao. The sensation seemed determined to keep her from such deep centering and peace. It roiled with discord and sought purchase on her very soul. It moved on her, slithered over her flesh, around her breasts, and tried to move inside her, wriggling up her nostrils, her lips. Her body began to shake violently.

With a gasp, Chou broke out of her meditation and shivered. That damn sensation was intruding on her deep meditation, almost as if it were sentient, alive with some malevolent force that only seemed to be growing. She rubbed her arms and face, as if that would remove that taint that she still felt on her. She grabbed her shower kit and her towel, needing to try to scrub this from her. She had to get clean but she felt like she might not ever be clean ever again.