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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.

To The Mountain

Part 3

By Heather O’Malley

assisted by the rest of the Whatley Gang

Whatley Academy Universe

The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil. The Master doesn’t take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners. - Tao Te Ching, Chapter 5

Saturday, 25 November 2006

All of those members of Team Kimba still there rushed over to the medical wing after they got the call. Apparently Jade’s boy bits had regrown and the BIT slicing wasn’t really taking. Jade, little Jade, everyone’s beloved little sister had used her power to get a set of surgical tools to try and cut out the problem. She had cut out her hated penis and left a gaping bloody hole in its place. It almost made Chou vomit whenever she thought about it.

Now the girl was in the medical wing and no one knew what was going to happen. The Doctors and Nurses weren’t telling them anything and all of them were nervous, worried and desperately wanting answers. Tennyo looked ready to explode and of the group of them only Ayla was able to resist pacing, but the tension of the moment was clearly on her face. People were crying off and on, sometimes leaning against each other and sometimes leaning against Hank. There was nothing else for them to do.

Chou just sat there numb, unable to grasp why Jade would mutilate herself like that. She knew that the girl hated being male but was that reason enough to hack herself to pieces? If only she had been more patient with what Chou had been doing. The girls meridians were so jumbled inside that it would take time to get her straightened up. Maybe the BIT transfer thing made her a bit crazy? Maybe.

She looked over at the other Kimbettes. Everyone was doing what they could to keep from going crazy with worry. Toni was trying to cheer everybody up by moving around, saying her usual silly things but things were still tense. The mood had lightened some but it had a long way to go. Thankfully the nurses were staying out of the way so they didn’t have anyone to accost with endless questions about how Jade was. Chou got up and got a drink of water. She was thirsty and the tension of just sitting there was making her crazy. She headed over to Chaka and said, “I’m going to get some air. This is making me crazy.”

Chaka only nodded. Chou headed for the door.

Chou remembered talking with Jade as she tried to correct the abnormalities in Jades Meridians. The Acupressure should have worked. Jade had been so shy in taking off her clothes and exposing that which she was most afraid of. Chou had followed Destiny’s Wave’s directions to the letter and yet nothing had happened. It was like Jade’s energy was changing under her hands. Her failure brought them to this moment. She had failed Jade and Jade turned to more extreme measures. She had some of the responsibility for the bloody mess. She was sure of it.

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On a different part of campus Rev. Englund and Charlie Lodgeman discussed the entity they had felt other day, the thing that had appeared in the forest surrounding the school and had neared the campus. The sensors had gone a bit wonky just before that so they were in the dark as to what the creature really was. They only knew that Chou Lee had been in that section of the woods before it all went crazy.

Charlie Lodgeman had tried to commune with the Spirit of the Forest but things were apparently jumbled, several holes had opened up recently. He had even talked to the Pack that lived in the woods as well and everyone had the same information. Nothing. “It was not natural and that is bothersome. Earth Mother told me that it felt somehow corrupted.”

Englund looked concerned, both for the girl he was courting into the Goobers and for the school itself. Demonic forces or those of the Old Ones really got under his skin and he was determined to cleanse the planet of their taint. “Was it…one of those things?”

Lodgeman shrugged, he was in the dark as much as anyone and he understood Englund’s worry. “Who can really tell? Earth Mother said that she didn’t think it was something of that nature, that it was different somehow. What are we going to do?”

Englund shrugged, at a complete loss. “We stay ready and try to take action is that thing shows up again. We can’t do anything otherwise, except do what we can to keep the kids safe. Perhaps we should pass this along to Miss Lee’s Mentor?”

Lodgeman nodded. “I’ll take care of that before we head back to New York.”

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Chou walked slowly away from the Doyle Clinic as the smell of the disinfectant and the color were starting to get to her. She had seen this place too many times already in her short time here, having helped to move a lot of the injured students there after Halloween. She needed to clear her head and to get out of that place that only brought bad memories.

She was lost in thought as she wandered about the school grounds. She stopped when a voice from behind intruded into her thoughts. “Well looky here. Seems like Chaka’s slope friend is all alone. Aw…poor little yellow girl gonna cry?”

Chou stopped, turned slowly and saw two of the Tigers standing there. She sighed, it looked like things were just getting worse. At least it wasn’t the idiot after her sword. “Could you guys leave me alone? Today has sucked so far and I don’t need it to get worse.”

Sledge chuckled deep in his chest, rumbling like a storm. N’Dizi stepped forward and smirked. “Oh no little girl. Chaka needs to learn a lesson and we figure that you just might be the one to give it to her. We know you have lots of training but no powers. Too bad we happen to have the training and the powers, slut. So we are just going to hurt you a little, to show Chaka how things really are around here.”

Chou sighed, too tired to care about the posturing and posing that the Tigers were famous for. She closed her eyes for focus and turned to face them. Her eyes were blazing with her anger. “You want to hurt me…fine. Bring it tough guy. Two on one is really brave.”

Sledge lunged forward, stopping in front of Chou, who didn’t move. If he struck her he would make her point, and every one would hear about it. “Don’t you be dissing my boy N’Dizi bitch!”

“Then go ahead and punch me. I am sure everyone will want to know what men you both are, going after a lone girl. I heard Peeper and Greasy like to talk about such brave men. Real fucking brave you two.” Part of Chou wanted the fight, wanted the pain, wanted the chance to vent everything that was building up within her. There was so much building that she wanted to explode. She stood her ground and waited for Sledge to attack. She wanted to be hit.

N’Dizi looked at Chou standing there calmly, scoffed at her and said, “Come on Sledge. Bitch ain’t worth it.”

Chou watched them leave and then shook. She didn’t want to get into another fight but she did. School was supposed to be a safe place…right? But she also had wanted to beat both of them into the ground, hard and fast and with no mercy. She wanted to hear the pain and see the blood. What was going on with her? What could she do?

She walked slowly back to the dorms and began working on some of the homework she had fallen behind on. Getting lost in math, English and powers theory was better than having to think about what was going on. She really wanted to avoid things as much as possible. Thinking only made her feel worse about everything that was going on. It was like her life had spun completely out of control.

By 4pm that evening Jade was better, at least physically. Apparently the biggest thing to last beyond the failure of the BIT transfer was the Regeneration that she had developed. That didn’t keep Tennyo from being pissed off and hurt. Jade was properly abashed and contrite.

Chou sat on a bench outside of Poe and looked up at the stars. Those always made her feel better and helped to try and keep things in perspective. Her breathing kept her warm. She sat there and thought over everything. Jade was heavy on her mind and she thought things over.

Jade was trapped in a male body which she utterly hated, to the point of doing stupid and reckless things in order to get rid of her masculinity. She mauled herself in order to get rid of that part of her. Chou was stuck in a female body that was nice but not what she wanted. She wanted to get back to being Alex, to being male. She missed being able to stand up to pee. He missed being in his own body, not this magical construct. She wanted to go back to herself. But why had she hesitated when the Demon Lord had offered her everything back? Something in her resisted the urge to be rid of the sword. Part f her wanted to keep fighting when all she wanted to do was fall down and cry.

If she kept freaking out over her gender, of refusing to accept fully that she was female now, right down to her DNA, would she end up like Jade? Would she hurt herself in order to feel better? Would she start hurting her body to try and free the soul inside? She knew she should talk to Dr. Bellows, but she didn’t want to. He was all helpful, all full of good advice that sometimes fit but mostly didn’t. He was trying to get her to accept things when all she really wanted was to refuse the change. This was her life and she would sort it out all on her own. Besides, all she wanted was to go back to being herself, to being Alex. Was that so bad?

She turned this all over in her mind, over and over, trying to come to some sort of resolution, trying to get to a place where all the hidden things that she had buried within would get back into the box she had shut them in. She had tried to bury all of these worries about her gender, her father and being a normal around all of these powerful mutants. Her power, the Tao, only showed up occasionally. Other times she had to rely utterly on the training that Destiny’s Wave gave her and what she had picked up here at the school. Why the hell was she even here? The tao said she needed to be here but what the hell was it thinking? She was overwhelmed by to many thoughts, too many enemies, too many subtle reminders of her father and her fate.

She wanted to cry, to howl in pain but she didn’t. She kept it inside, struggling to get those thoughts and feelings under control. She closed her eyes and curled up; wanting to die so all of these worries would fade away. When it was getting close to lights out, Mrs. Horton called her inside. Chou nodded and walked in, trudging up the stairs. What could she do? How could she get past this? How could she deal with what she knew?

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The blood was everywhere, staining the world black and red, an almost rust brown as bits of it dried and peeled off the ceiling. It dripped from the walls and oozed from the trees that were hung with gore like festive ribbons. Chou stood there taking this in, shaking like a rabbit as she turned in place, watching the little island of non-tainted land shrinking around her as the tide of blood rose. Her blade was in hand but there was nothing to do, nothing she could cut, nothing she could do to defend herself from the rising waves lapping wetly at the shore. All there was were death and blood and the faces of her friends floating in the gore, twisted into a mask of death.

Chou spun around desperately; looking for whatever it was that was hunting her, killing her friends, filling the world with blood and gore. She scanned the horizon, looking for something to hit. She needed to win this battle, for her dead friends. She was crying in frustration and fear as she turned in place. The last little island was almost gone. The tide of death was ready to consume it all.

Suddenly, from the red gobby mass that lapped the shore in obscene waves, rose Jade, her groin dark with fresh blood and torn flesh gazing up at Chou. The little girl’s eyes were white and emotionless and the girl’s voice wavered with barely controlled rage. She had a cold grin stretching her face in madness. Jade stretched out one hand towards her, with her hollow voice. “Chou…make me a girl. Give me your girl parts.”

Chou flinched back. To her left Jinn rose from the ocean of mangled flesh, the metal skeleton clear, no illusion of chalky flesh to hide the truth. Blood dripped from the metal, the few bits of gore and entrails hanging limply from the frame. She spoke as well as her blades whirled. “Chou…give us your flesh.”

Chou readied her blade, tightening her grip. The light made the jade blade shine oddly. She only hoped that she could stop Jade before the girl killed everyone in her quest. She was not sure what to do against Jinn. Chou didn’t know how many people remained alive or if she was all that was left. Jinn floated closer, scalpels whirling where her hands should be, occasionally scraping against each other. Chou shook and began to cry as she spotted Molly’s body, her groin defiled, intestines draped across her arms, binding her, so that Jinn could do her work. She had to end this.

She swallowed dryly and stepped forward.

“Alex…” croaked a voice behind her.

Chou spun as she recognized the voice. Before her stood the rent flesh of her father, ribbons of flesh curled towards the hip, the ends of ribs protruding. The air was thick with the charnel house scent and the foul smell of burnt flesh. Chou screamed as her father reached for her and held her in his unnaturally strong arms. Then the whirling blades of Jinn’s hands burst through her abdomen, pulling intestines away from her prize. With a slight cackle Jinn pulled free her uterus. “You won’t be needing this…”

Chou screamed.

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The chanting continued, the air thrumming unnaturally. Deep within a cave in China, the members of the Tong of the Black Madonna continued their spell, trying to sever the Handmaid of the Tao from Meng, the God of Dreams. They had offered up the blood of thirty-three virgins for this task, for who really cared about worthless daughters?

The offering had been accepted, the blood had flowed and the barrier of Dreams had filled with the red lines of the sacrifice. The chanting wove the blood into the weave of dreams; trying to break the Handmaid before she came for them, before the Tao lead her to them. The blood seeped in and the leader of the Tong smiled. They would succeed where all the others failed. They, the Tong of the Black Madonna, would be the ones to destroy the Handmaid of the Tao and shift the balance towards the dark and the True Gods from the before time.

He sniffed derisively at the bodies. Those would be fed to the underlings, those who craved desperately to belong to the Tong and to fight for the Black Madonna. Some would be chosen to serve her and others would die in the slave pits. That was the way it always was and would always remain. They would feed on that which they would rule.

The Tong had fought against the Handmaid many times and they had rejoiced when they had managed to kill the last one, five hundred years ago. That death had been sweet, but the accursed blade had escaped them. They would get that sage-blade and they would plunge it again and again into the demoniac fires under their care. They would make that sword pay for all of the harm it had caused their sacred order. One did not disobey the Dark Mother.

Soon agents would draw near the School. It was the American’s attempt at recreating the Yama Dojo, or the People’s School for the Betterment of the State, and that would not offer protection from the Tong. The Tong had been around, worshiping the Black Madonna since before Fu Xi brought civilization to China. They had moved mostly hidden through the ages, sowing chaos and disorder, with only the Handmaid as a True Enemy. Other deaths were easy; killing the Handmaid was work worth doing.

And still the Tong grew in secret, the communist Masters of the land knew nothing and saw nothing of their actions for the true power in the nation was in the Tongs, even the lesser Tongs and Triads. They had endured the Huns, the Han, the hated British and they would endure the communists, for like China itself, they were forever.

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All of the members of the Dream Team were scrambling to figure out where the breach was and to shut it down. It was clear that it was from some sort of external force and it was very focused, to somewhere around Poe Hall, maybe. Both the Astral and parts of the Ethereal were all tangled with the Chaos of the whatever it was. It didn’t feel like some of the normal nightmares some of the students had, it felt like an attack, like someone was trying to circumvent the other defenses and infiltrate a dream. The energy felt tainted with blood and it was disgusting to try and work with. Death ran along this line and the area around it felt of pain and severing. They couldn’t narrow their focus anymore and so was left with only the building narrowed down before the power pulled away slightly.

It was probably directed against Nikki Riley, who was a powerful Magician and Psychic. She was an Elven Queen and had many enemies. Hopefully that girl had shields strong enough to resist whatever the attack was trying to accomplish. Or it could have been several other people in the dorms. There were too many potential targets to narrow it down any.

Everyone on duty was working as hard as they could to break the spell that was entering the protected grounds of Whateley and trying to lock onto its target. They cast themselves deep into the Astral to try and get a better handle on what this force could be. Nothing they knew seemed to have an effect on it. So they did the only thing that they could think of.

They called Fubar for help.

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Sunday, 26 November 2006

Chou rushed to the bathroom and barely managed to make it to a stall before all of her breakfast came back up. She was hunched over the toilet for a while vomiting. After a while even the dry heaving stopped. Chou wiped the line of spittle from her mouth and stumbled to the sink after she flushed the toilet. Her face was pale and she had dark circles under her eyes. She looked horrible. She washed her face with cold water and that didn't help much. She needed to go to the Nurse.

Chou left the building and trudged across the melting ice. Was sleep really too much to ask? Was relaxing really that difficult? She wasn't sure. She just knew that she didn't feel good and that she just wanted to sleep and pretend that all of this never happened. Maybe he would wake up as Alex again and vow not to eat Pizza before bed? Chou teared up at the realization that her hopes were never going to come to pass. She was stuck here, trapped in this flesh.

The Demon Lord had her father, had her means of escape, and there was nothing she could do about it. If the thing had been telling the truth, that is. She wasn’t sure of anything. He could have made a similar box to taunt her and he could be lying about her father. She just didn’t know.

The broth and toast were all Chou had for lunch, washing it down with mint tea meant to sooth her stomach. The Nurse had simply sent her on her way with a pamphlet on Better Sleep. She just wanted to rest, was that too much to ask? She had listened to other people talk about all sorts of things but she remained aloof. She didn’t want to burden everyone with her problems. They all had enough to deal with.

She really couldn’t focus. She wanted to go for a walk to clear her head, but the Demon might return. She was bound onto campus by her fear of an enemy too powerful for her to defeat. It shamed her and so she simply pulled into herself more and more. She wanted to hide. Chou was sitting quietly in the library when Becca found her, working on a paper for Powers Theory.

Becca bowed before her and then asked, “Hello Chou, could you come with me? It is time for me to tell you more.”

That was all that Chou needed to motivate her. She might feel like ass, but the prospect of having some of her questions answered urged her on. They walked in silence to Poe, so Chou could pick up Destiny’s Wave, which was apparently a part of this whole thing. The tension between them was growing, like a thunderstorm. Miss Stone stood in the clear space in front of the cottage and whistled. A bit of cloud separated itself and headed towards them. The cloud came at her Mentor’s call, like some sort of fluffy puppy. It came to rest and hovered just above the ground, waiting for them to climb on. Chou looked at it skeptically.

“Are you sure this thing can take us? That last trip was less than fun.”

“Yes, Chou, it’s perfectly safe. Let’s go.” They climbed on to the cloud and flew off, heading north.

Chou leaned into Becca body, trying to hold on, and asked, “Where are we going?”

“Mount Washington. There on the peak, where the cloud dragon dances, is where I am to tell you everything.” Her voice was oddly formal, which confused Chou a little. Becca had never come across as a formal sort of person.

In a flight that seemed to be close to the one to Boston, they sped towards Mount Washington, with Chou struggling to keep her balance on the cloud. All Chou could see as they neared the peak was a swirling mass of clouds. When they entered the clouds and kept speeding on, Chou grew a bit panicked, as it was hard enough to balance on a soft surface when you could see. Soon enough they stopped and stepped down onto the rock and snow covered surface of the mountain. Chou was a bit shaky after the ride, her nerves jangled. How did Monkey do that all the time?

It was cold, a lot colder than Chou had been expecting. She shifted her breathing and her Chi began to warm her, as it circulated through her body. After a few breaths she was moderately comfortable in this chill. The wind howled about them, swirling the clouds.

It was difficult to make out Becca, even though she was only a few feet away. The clouds created a sort of veil between them, where everything was faded, dreamlike. There was also something about the way her Mentor stood that seemed different, it seemed more formal and out of place. “Becca?”

With a bow she began, “Handmaid of the Tao, one of the reasons I was chosen for this task and denied entry to Penglai Shan is that I was the closest to you in terms of language and culture. I have come to you; to help you do something that no other Handmaid has ever done, that is simply to finish your training and come into your true power. The Oracles that have been consulted have stated time and time again that the Handmaid was needed here, in the United States, at Whateley. There are no clear guides as part of the future is becoming occluded. From the Fall Semester next year on things are utterly unclear. No one, not even Lao Tzu, knows what is going to happen. So, you must be trained, ready for whatever will happen. It will be big and it will be at the school. For that we must push you hard.”

Chou stood there, stunned; her mind racing to follow what was going on. She was trying to find the words to say something to respond, but nothing happened. She was at a complete loss.

Becca continued in her formal voice. “It will not be easy and you will be hard pressed. You must strive to support the Balance, to support the proper flow of the Tao. This means that you must deal with both the good and the bad, with the wise and the stupid, with out making any judgments between them. You must follow the course the Tao sets before you with no fear, free of all doubts. As such I was told by the Oracles to speak to you now and to help you on your way.”

Chou swallowed heavily. The pit of her stomach fell and ached. What the hell did that mean and why did that scare the hell out of her? She was shaking and not from the cold.

“Your first step beyond your other Sisters of the Blade is to take a certain action, bring it to culmination and remove the block to the flow of the Tao. To truly follow the will of the Tao necessitates such action.” Becca stood there, unmoving, her face smooth lacking the animation that usually filled it.

Chou swallowed hard. This conversation was going like nothing she had prepared for. Between the howling cold wind, the dense clouds she had to peer through and the way Becca was talking she was getting scared and worried. She took a deep breath, blew it out slowly and then asked. “What must I do?”

“What you must do to start the path to protecting the flow from a massive divergence is to accomplish this act. There is a man, Andrew McWilliams, who is a tax accountant with a love of crime drama. He will buy a lottery ticket on Thursday at 6:47am at a small gas station. This must be allowed to happen. Your task however is to make sure that he dies on Thursday evening with no trace, it must look like an accident.”

Chou stared at Becca, sure she heard wrong. Surely she wasn’t asking her to… “You want me to kill a man?”

“In order to prevent a massive cataclysm you must kill this man and walk the path that will bring you to fullness of your power.” stated Becca. “It is not me who wishes this but rather it is what the Tao needs.”

“No. Just no. I can’t kill a man!” protested Chou. So much within her rebelled at the thought of murder. She just couldn’t do it.

“I am afraid you are wrong. If you cannot kill this man then all visions fall into darkness. Shall I explain the chain of events that will occur should he not be killed?” Becca’s voice was kind but her words kept shaking Chou.

“What the hell could be so important that I have to kill a man?” Chou was getting angry. She couldn’t do this. She knew she had to kill in battles, but this was murder. There was no way that such an act would be justified.

“He will win the Lotto on Saturday, winning a fairly sizable jackpot. At first things will go well but he will get an urge, to live out his beloved films. So he finds a drug network and slowly builds it up. Five years from now, on an April day, some of his lackeys will be battling against your friends in Team Kimba. When they open fire at Chaka the bullets will miss her and leave the battle field. This is what has to be stopped. Those bullets will kill a boy and a girl who are playing at a playground. Those two, when they grow up, will discover their mutant abilities and help to bring about a new golden age for man. If McWilliams dies, this possible future becomes more possible. If his death occurs any time after he wins the money, this death will become inevitable.” finished Becca sadly.

Chou stood there stunned. It was either kill this man and save the world or save the man and kill the world. She shook, not from the cold. She had to kill a man? In cold blood? The Lord said Thou Shalt not Kill and she was being asked to do just that. She knew she had to decide but the whole situation seemed so surreal.

She bowed her head, ashamed of what she was going to say. “I can’t do it.”

“Chou…this man winning the money will start a chain of events that will lead to thousands of deaths, women, children, innocents. It is not the way the Tao wishes to flow.” replied Becca emphatically.

“I can’t just kill someone who hasn’t done anything. That’s wrong. It’s evil!” Chou was getting worked up about this. The wind howled between them.

“Good and evil are meaningless; they are terms that define choice and not states of being. The Balance is what matters. You are the Handmaid of the Tao; your job is to serve the Balance, the Tao. Good and evil are not part of that. To some this act would look evil, to others good. All you can decide is which choice to make and to live with the consequences. This one death will prevent many, many more.” explained her Mentor.

“That’s wrong. That isn’t the Christian way!” protested Chou.

Becca look a bit saddened at that point. “Chou…you aren’t really Christian anymore. Think about it.”

Chou paused and thought about what she believed in. Her views on free will, nature ad life itself were more Taoist than they were Christian. Becca was right; she had drifted away from the faith of her father. Becca continued, “What you will be doing is taking care of a problem when it is small and has no chance to influence anyone else. If he dies before he gets the money, things won’t be set in motion. Keeping the kids alive after that will not help as they will still be exposed to the things he has in his mind. This man needs to be removed before things change or it is too late.”

“But I don’t want to kill an innocent. He hasn’t done anything.” Chou was very determined to avoid this. This would be a step she could never return from. Once she killed it would never end. She would have to deal with that act forever.

What Becca said next surprised her. “I am sorry. This isn’t easy and to you life isn’t something to easily decide. You come from a time where life is soft and you are removed from the casual everyday deaths that clothe you and feed you. You don’t have to kill the animals that become your food. To you life is something precious and those life and death decisions never enter your mind. To you the Commandment is more than it needs be.”

“But killing someone is bad.” Chou’s protests were getting weaker.

“What about in war?” countered Becca. “What about to protect your family? Are those bad?”

“Uhm…”

“What about in retaliation for killing someone else?”

Chou was at a loss for words. She really couldn’t argue with Becca on this. Her Mentor spoke on. “By killing Andrew McWilliams you will be protecting thousands of people. Isn’t that worth the action?”

Chou bowed her head. She couldn’t fight Becca, couldn’t fight the Tao. She didn’t have enough energy left to fight. She whispered in the howling wind, “Yes.”

Becca hugged her and whispered into her ear, “I’m sorry.”

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The Cottage was quiet. Poe had no sound, no of the occasional groans and moans of a building settling in. Chou nervously walked to the bathroom, looking around to see what the problem was. Nothing moved and not even the floors creaked. Maybe she should have brought her sword with her to pee.

When she entered the bathroom she heard one of the showers running while the fluorescent light flickered. She was confused as it should have been clear from outside the door. She shrugged and went into a stall. As she went about her business she heard an odd gurgurling sound coming from the shower area.

She finished quickly and moved slowly from the stall, not flushing for greater stealth. The gurgurling was coming from the shower that was running. She looked around nervously, but not a shadow seemed out of place. Step by step she neared the shower stall, ready to explode into violence in a moment. She reached the shower and yanked open the curtain.

She vomited at the sight that greeted her.

Nikki was hanging by the showerhead, her neck bound by nylons, holding her almost by the chin. Her throat had been cut, the air moving in and out causing the gurgurling. Her breasts had been sawed of as best as she could tell, rent flesh dangling down. Down between her legs was simply torn and destroyed flesh, a mass of raw meat. Nailed to the elf Queen’s stomach was a sign. She couldn’t quite make out the letters, as the blood had trickled over it.

Nikki twitched and her gurgle sounded like her mangled friend was trying to talk. Maybe she was still alive? Maybe Chou could save her? Chou grabbed the carved up body, smearing her body with elf blood in the process, holding her up so that she could undo the noose with her other hand. After she got it undone she lowered Nikki to the floor as gently as she could. Nikki pawed at her desperately. Chou noticed that the girls beautiful eyes had been plucked out, the empty, hollow sockets gaping at the world.

“Wait here. I’ll go get help.” Chou started to panic as she ran to the room Nikki shared. At her pound the door swung inward, silently. She ran to the phone. The line was dead.

Chou shook, trying to think of what else she could do. Maybe Mrs. Horton could get help. Maybe that was what she should do. She turned and saw what was on the bed.

Toni was lying there, bound to the bed, mangled just as her roommate had been. The mattress was soaked in blood, with a small pool flowing out from under it. Her tongue was missing as well. Chou heaved, but nothing came out and she screamed.

She ran down the stairs towards Mrs. Horton’s room. The House Mother would certainly be able to help them. As she rounded the turn on the stairs and started the last flight to the bottom floor she skidded to a stop as she spotted Jade staggering about. Was she hurt as well? “Jade!”

The little Asian girl turned as smiled up evilly at Chou. Onto her naked flesh was stapled Nikki’s breasts and Toni’s vaginal area. She opened her eyes wide and looked at Chou with Beltane’s eyes. She was a freakish self-created Frankenstein reaching out towards her. “Chou…help me become a real girl.”

Jinn appeared out of nowhere, blades whirling, chuckling in an older version of Jade’s voice. Chou could feel the scalpels cut into her flesh, mangling her terribly. She was frozen in place, unable to move and when her eyes were plucked out she screamed and screamed.

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The Dream Team was doing its version of rushing about. They were working to find out who was the target of the spell attack through dreamtime as well as keeping the thing from spilling over into other dreams. Chaosdancer was pushing herself hard to find the source, but it seemed masked. Weaver was trying to bind the spell but it resisted any attempts to stop it. They could feel things but they weren’t sure who it was. If only they could figure out who the target was, then they could get some hair, blood, something that would let them tune in more accurately.

Heyoka came on shift and tried to find the target as well. There was something familiar about the energy that was being messed with, something that was familiar to her. Heyoka really wanted to figure this one out. Thunderbird decided to assist in the hunt and gave Heyoka the energy to fully connect with the dream. She was immersed in blood and gore and pain. What she saw made her break contact with the vision, as it seemed so personal and made getting spotted even more likely. Her stomach churned but needed to focus enough to pass on the information.

She had succeeded in entering the blood soaked dream just slightly before she backed out. But it was enough for her to figure out who the target was. Heyoka turned and faced the other on duty members. “Chou Lee. The target is not Chou Lee.”

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The leader of the Tong smiled, happy at the bloodshed that was staining the Dream Veil. The deaths of those worthless females were serving a more noble purpose. The defeat of the Handmaid would allow free will to triumph, instead of the Tao reaching in and meddling with the currents of Life. The Tong had always opposed the Handmaid and always would, so long as the sword was free.

That cursed blade, Destiny’s Wave, that accursed Artificer forged blade would always jump in where it did not belong. When it had vanished the Tong had rejoiced and worked on making the Greatest Nation the world had ever known weaker, more vulnerable and ripe for the Sacrifice.

Oh, how those British fools had played into their hands, killing so many in their quest for opium and tea. The blood-seeped earth had sped their spells and drew them closer to their Black Mother weakening the barrier that kept them apart. There were several blessed with the touch of the Lady and they were protected until the time that they would destroy those foolish Communists.

This new bearer was different. He knew that she was one of those round-faced idiot Americans, who blundered their way around the world. That meant she was weak, that she didn’t know what an honor she had and more importantly, the knowledge of whom her true foes were. Let her play in America, at that school. The Tong would bide their time. The Tong was forever and they would tear the Handmaid limb from limb and feed her to the Black Mother piece by piece. The sword would be a nice meal after such an appetizer.

The chanters continued, the very words of the spell thrumming the air, making it more solid, more tangible. This batch of deaths fueled the spell quite well. She would shatter. That fool girl would break under the destructive force of her dreams, of what lurked in her own darkness. After all, Americans were weak.

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Monday, 27 November 2006

The oddest thing that morning had been Thuban coming to apologize to Jade. The whole floor had been buzzing about that and Chou was actually glad for Jade. Thuban may be a freak's freak and have a lousy personality, but it was clear that he felt something for Jade. However even that bit of happiness didn't help her mood.

Chou was twitchy. Not only was she supposed to kill some guy, deal with the Demon Lord who had killed her father, and cope with this whole gender bullshit but she was also supposed to meet the MCO in a little over a half-hour. Would they know what she was going to do? Just what went on in these things? And her period had just started to add insult to injury. She was cramping hard and she made sure to swallow some Midol, even though her stomach churned. Anything to ease the discomfort.

Her appointment was one of the first that day and she was too nervous to even eat breakfast. She was barely able to drink some tea with out her stomach clenching. Chou pulled on her uniform jacket and headed over to the testing facility to get her new set of biometrics done. She had been told to leave her sword in her room in a note attached to her interview letter by a post-it. Chou wasn't sure what that was all about, but she followed through with what she had been told.

The medical techs were waiting there for her when she arrived. They smiled at her and seemed all bright and cheery. "Bladedancer? Come with us please."

Chou followed them downstairs and went through a range of the tests she had gone through when she got to the school. She went through test after test and in some she felt like she wasn't doing as well as she had when she had arrived at the school. The Techs looked confused and called Dr. Hawley over. He went over the readings and shrugged. “Young lady, it seems as if you have lost all the power you had when you arrived. You are still in excellent shape, but nothing that compels us to give you even an exemplar rating. You seem to read as nothing but an amazingly in shape fourteen year old girl.”

Chou nodded. She had been sure that the power levels that they had accorded her when she had arrived at the school had been wrong. She really wasn’t anything special. “And all the other stuff I can do?”

“It has been explained to us that it is merely a matter of martial training. Your Mentor and Sensei Ito explained it all to us last week. That information will certainly help us figure out what things are from training and what are powers. And it might help us in figuring out Miss Chandler. So, thank you for this. I may want to test you again, probably after Christmas Break, to make sure. But your records will be updated immediately, including a note about the discrepancies. The tech will finish everything up. Take care, Miss Lee.”

Once she was finished with all of the tests and getting ready to head off to her interview she was handed a sealed letter by the Tech. "Don't open this and hand it to the MCO officer interviewing you."

She nodded and walked out. She noticed that the letter had an odd seal on it. She wasn’t sure what it was but she was fairly sure she wouldn’t be able to reproduce it.

The interviews were being held in the MacFarlane Stadium. Temporary cubicles had been set up for the interviews. She remembered the last time she had been there, the blood, the fights, and the destruction. Halloween had forever tainted this place for her. Chou signed in with one of the supervising teachers and waited for her name to be called. She slowed her breathing down to keep from vomiting. She was nervous and out of sorts as her nerves got all jangled up from her worry. She had almost calmed down and had reached a balance with the Tao when her name was called out.

The officer who had called her name was big, muscular big and seemed to be very solid. No one she had seen on campus was that big, which was a bit of a surprise. His skin was very dark and his hair was close cropped in an almost military fashion. Chou raised her hand and got up and walked towards him. He looked down at her and turned away, expecting her to follow him, which she did docilely. He walked into a cubicle and Chou felt a tingling on her skin as she followed after him. She shivered involuntarily.

"Have a seat Miss Lee. That was a silence generator. The information that you give us today will be protected under international law and under the privacy act of 1974. Do you understand?" The voice was deep, rumbling in the man's chest.

"I understand." Her voice shook a little. She extended the envelope. "I was told to give you this?"

The agent smiled at her. "Thank you."

He opened the letter and scanned its contents. His eyebrows seemed to rise in surprise. He went over the letter a few more times before he looked at her curiously. "So let me get this straight, Miss Lee, you have no special powers and yet you are here?"

Chou was about to answer when she felt the presence of the Tao settle on her. It was like cool water settling about her body, relaxing her utterly. She felt it guiding her words, for whatever reason it might have, just like when she had spoken to Thuban. "I was told that I am at the upper edges of physical development and I have a strong background in Martial Arts. Mostly I am here to train with Sensei Ito. Because of my martial skills I was allowed entry to the school."

The agent nodded, making notes on his laptop. "Well, if that is the case we will need to verify it ourselves. Follow me."

Chou followed him to a device that looked like a large square. It made her nervous looking at it. The man mountain walked up to a digital panel and said, "Step into the device, please."

Chou did so, a bit worried about what it might do. She stood there wondering what was going to happen when the officer said, "Alright, you can come out now."

They returned to the cubicle. Chou was confused as to what had just happened. What was that machine for? "So, Bladedancer, why do they call you that?"

"Uhm…because I am really skilled with the jian, or Chinese scholar's sword." She could feel the Tao moving through her and prompting her responses.

"I see. And that weapon lets you hold your own versus these supers?" The officer raised an eyebrow at that, as if doubting her.

"Well, officer, not all of them are truly skilled in Martial Arts and that does make a difference." She smiled a little at that. “I have learned a number of complex sword moves that have allowed me to balance things out more.”

"Okay, and what are the names of your parents?" asked the officer, after looking at his clipboard with the questions typed on it.

"I'm an orphan." Chou sniffled a little when she said that. She really was. With her mother dead from an accident and her father killed by a demon, Chou really was alone.

The MCO officer looked a little uncomfortable as he typed her answers into a laptop. He turned to her, extending a box of the thin government Kleenex. "I am sorry to hear that. Do you have a guardian?"

"I suppose so. But my father died over the summer and I ended up here. I think my Mentor here is my guardian." She was surprised at some of the things that were coming out of her mouth. Were these things really true? Was all she was saying lies…the truth…what?

"So, I take it that you have no permanent address?" he asked.

"Not that I know of. I have been here and not back anywhere else." replied Chou. “As of right now this is my permanent home.”

"Alright. Do you have any particular team affiliation?" He was moving down the list, jumping whole sections, which was nice.

"No, not really. I hang out with some friends in Team Kimba here but I'm not formally on any team."

"Okay. We're done. See, that was painless. We have all the data we need. I took the liberty of giving you a few moves in the computer based off of the data in the letter. Now do you have any questions for me on the MCO or the use of the ID you'll be getting?" He sat back in the chair and smiled.

"Uh…yes. What is the deal with the ID's?" She was curious after all and when was she going to get another chance like this.

"People can get very nervous around supers and people who are nervous or scared can do some pretty dumb things. The ID is something that tells law enforcement, security personal and agents who you are and the rough designations you have. They are on an encrypted RFID chip embedded into the card that various portable readers can read and view the data. It isn't a tool for oppression or anything, just simply a way to keep track of supers and to keep track of designations. If you become a U.S. Marshall for instance, that data gets added to your card and comes up on the scanner. It's not a bad thing to have." He went through the spiel easily, as if he had said it a hundred times before.

"Okay. I think I understand that. Thank you." replied Chou.

"You're welcome. Here, let me give you my card. We are always interested in skilled normals who might be interested in helping all people, both regular and mutants alike, to live better lives." Chou took the card, as if unsure what to do. The man’s name was apparently Roger Johnson. She smiled nervously up at Agent Johnson. "Well, come on. Your card should be ready."

Chou followed him to the front of the room where a machine was dispensing the card. It was a blue card with the letters MID on it in black. One corner of the card was raised. He handed it to Chou and then picked up a device from the table. He scanned the card and checked the data. "Okay Bladedancer, the card reads well. Have a nice day."

Chou walked out confused by the way she had been treated. Wasn't the MCO supposed to be filled with anti-mutant zealots? She looked at the ID card and the business card, but the high impact plastic offered no answers and the paper was quiet on the subject.

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“Here is the blood sample you wanted Foob. I guess I don’t really want to know what you want it for.” The Dr. handed over the vial to A.D., who was the head of the Dream Team. Anno Domani had been called out of class for this particular task, which he didn’t mind.

Fubar smiled back at the Dr. “Nothing bad I assure you. I need it to take care of something, that’s it.”

“Is this one of those psychic things?”

“Yes…yes it is.” Both Fubar and A.D. smiled the same smile.

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Lunch was a bit tense for her, as she still was unsure what had just happened with the MCO. Had she really managed to get a MID that said she was normal? If she did, why would she need a MID in the first place? She knew she got it because she wanted to stay here; she needed to stay here but didn’t really know why. Whateley felt safe and like it was the right place for her.

Her stomach churned on her way to classes and she rushed to the bathroom. She was almost tripped by Bombshell, but Chou just dodged the leg and continued on her way. She girl glared at her and Sweetheart simply chuckled.

Her lunch came up when she was almost there. She kept her mouth closed tight and made it the rest of the way. She burst into the stall and her lunch came up in big heaves. She knelt down next to the toilet and hurled up the entire contents of her stomach.

When she got down to dry heaves she rested a bit and then stood and walked to the sink. She rinsed her mouth out and splashed water over her blotchy face. When she looked at least a bit better she headed to class.

She bowed in apology to Sensei Ito, who had been in the middle of an explanation of what would be occurring in the combat finals. She blushed and scampered into her place. They weren’t for a few weeks, but they were prepping for what the process was.

Her mind kept wandering over killing a man, of Jade, of her father, of Destiny’s Wave, of all that her life had become. She was barely aware of what Sensei’s Ito and Tolman were talking about. She knew it was important, but too many other things had higher priority. It even distracted her in sparring, and she kept losing to her opponents. When Sensei Ito wanted to know what was wrong, she didn’t tell him anything. She didn’t want to burden one of her favorite teachers with her problems.

After classes she headed to the Library. She had to do some research for a paper in her powers class and she was also going to meet Molly there. She hadn’t seen Molly earlier and she was a bit worried about things. Molly had said she was going to tell her parents about the both of them. Molly had bared her feelings and made it clear how she felt about Chou before she had left. That had eased some of her stress about what their relationship actually was.

But Chou hated being referred to as a friend. Molly had made it clear how she felt but that didn’t make Chou feel any more secure in their relationship. It was difficult for her to relax and just be the girl she was and that made things difficult. She shook her head to clear things. She had things to attend to and no time to brood over something.

She wandered through the stacks until she found the couple of books she was looking for. These would help her complete her project for class. The change in the pace and load of the school work was really rough. The fact that classes like English, History and the “normal” classes were more like add on classes to Powers training, Martial Arts classes and the like. Having to have this overload of classes was exhausting. She wasn’t a fricking exemplar.

She sat down in one of the reading corners she and Molly frequented. The chairs were comfy and there was plenty of space for her to work. Work kept her mind off of things, like life, gender, and her father. Too many things were filling her head, she couldn’t eat and she couldn’t sleep, she needed rest. However, with the end of semester class work coming due there was no rest.

She was buried in a book when Molly bounded over. Her hand brushed the spot on the wall where she hid the privacy spell and she activated it. Chou felt the energy roll over and through her and she shuddered. Molly came up and hugged her, breaking Chou’s concentration on her book. “Guess what…I can summon more things. It’s amazing.”

Chou closed her eyes and counted down from ten. She opened her eyes, still irritated at being interrupted. And she had lost her place. “Molly, I’m studying. Can’t you see that!”

Molly rocked back as if slapped. Her lip began to quiver and her eyes got wet with tears. It was clear that she didn’t understand what was going on. “But…I was just excited about being able to summon more things and I wanted to share it with you.”

Chou sighed and closed her eyes again. Her rage was building and she wanted to strike out. She was getting tired of not being able to have the time to let her do her work, to think, to do anything except schoolwork and deal with other people. Her voice was harsher than she intended but it didn’t matter to her anymore. “Molly, there is a time and place for that. I’m fucking exhausted and I just want to sleep but I have all this work to do and I don’t need you bothering me all the time. I just want to work so I can get done and sleep! So, please leave me alone.”

Molly started to cry. Part of Chou wanted to hold her and comfort her, say she was sorry and another part just said fuck it. The two sides battled back and forth in her, dredging up all her other problems. She exhaled under a great deal of control, struggling to remain focused. “When I am done with my work I would love to spend time with you, but right now I can’t. I…I’m sorry but I’m just too busy with all this class work. Molly, I’m just stressed out. I need some alone time.”

A nod was the only response that Chou got. Molly murmured a quiet ‘I’m sorry” and left, bringing down the barrier. Chou turned her head and screamed into the cushion in frustration, pounding it with her fist. Chou looked at her books, looked down the hallway created by the books and began to cry.

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“I’m sorry Chou, but I got it all arranged with Mrs. Horton and everyone. I don’t want to put you at risk anymore, so I am moving rooms over the winter break.” Ayla shrugged and looked worried. “I just don’t want to accidentally hurt you. You’re my friend and I don’t want to lose you because my power goes all wonky.”

“I’m not worried about that. How our beds are arranged should work well enough.” countered Chou. “Or we could separate them?”

“Chou, I’m sorry. I…I don’t want to have that risk at all. What if I rise when I am desolid? What if I reform within you? And if we separate the beds we will have even less room. This is safer for everyone.” Ayla didn’t look happy about this at all. Chou was just stressed about the loss of stability in her life.

It had been all so easy before. Everything was almost predictable. But now, now things were falling apart. Change was everywhere in her life and she didn’t like it. What the hell else would come apart in her life? She was so exhausted and so tired of all this bullshit. All she wanted was for it to stop, whatever it took.

She changed into her nightgown and climbed into bed for another futile attempt to rest. She cried herself quietly to sleep.

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Valkyrie sniffed the blood again. “So I find this person and follow the attack back to the source?”

Fubar nodded. “The blood should give you the key. And then at the other side do what ever you can to stop this. The little bit I looked into her surface thoughts shows her to be really troubled and disturbed. She is close to breaking and we don’t want that to happen.”

Valkyrie grinned widely. “Should be loads of fun. And for support?”

Fubar smiled at her as she climbed into her bed to start her hunt. “We’ll all be behind you. Just figure out what this is and stop it. One break in protection can lead to more.”

Valkyrie nodded and took another sniff of the blood to familiarize herself with the scent. “I can do this. See you on the other side!”

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Chou walked through her house, through longer than remembered hallways, and extra rooms. Everything was bathed in a wet, red light that seemed to wash back and forth over the walls. She walked down the hall, towards where she could see the stairs.

She moved nervously, unsure of where she was. It looked like home, her home, Alex’s home but things weren’t quite the same. The stairway was long and seemed to descend for a quite a while. The walls looked funny, as if they were oozing. She cautiously wiped her hand down the wall. The surface of the wall was wet and slightly sticky. Her hand came away red. Chou began to shake nervously. She didn’t have her sword, a gun, anything to defend herself with and she felt terribly alone.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity coming down the stairs and dodging drops of blood falling from the ceiling, she reached the bottom. She looked back and forth and headed towards the living room. When she got there she froze, there was her father sitting on the couch watching the game. Chou wanted to run to him, to hug him, to apologize for everything she had done, but she couldn’t move and she couldn’t speak. She really was frozen. She started to panic.

Her father just sat there, watching the game, drinking a beer as if Chou weren’t in the room. Chou could see out the window and this burning flickering glow was coming closer to the door. The Demon Lord of Fiery Immersion!

Chou started trying to scream, trying to move to get her father out of the way, anything. She remained frozen in place, held there by some invisible force. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. The doorbell rang and she watched in horror as her dad got up and headed for the door. Chou was crying in frustration as she struggled to break free.

The Demon Lord burst through the door in slow motion, the wooden shards flying through the air. Some pierced her father and others pierced her. She wanted to dodge but was still held tight. Her father screamed, a long slow sound of surprise and fear. The Demon Lord reached for him and Chou kept trying to yell “Run!”

The burning hand grabbed him and they lifted him up. The smell of burning flesh filled the air. When both of the Demon’s hands held him, her father’s body was snapped, each bone popping loudly in the slowed scene. Blood arced through the air and she wanted to vomit, her stomach rising into her throat. Then the demon dropped her father’s ruined body to the ground, where it flopped limp as a bloody dishtowel.

Slowly the demon neared her, reaching out with a burning hand chuckling. “You are…”

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Valkyrie reached the source of the spell. She could barely make things out of the veil that they had created. She could spot several forms in the Shadow Layer as well as some figures that lay between the Deep Layer of dreaming and Terra Firma. Outside of these she could tell that there was a mound of dead, bloody women lying in front of the veil and a large group of guys chanting. She didn’t know what they were saying, but she was fairly sure that whatever it was it wasn’t good. She extended her power and called on the rest of the group. They struck.

There were shouts and yells in Chinese or Japanese or one of those sing-song Asian languages that she didn’t understand. The team separated and attacked on the layers that they were most accustomed to. Weavers spiders attacked several figures while Arte-fact’s devices rained havoc on others. Valkyrie was enjoying letting loose on these whoever they were. Heyoka attacked those creatures in the Deeper Layers with Thunderbird’s help. Lightning flashed and destroyed various figures. A.D. was working on taking down the magical access to dreaming that was their conduit to Chou Lee. He destroyed the veil they had constructed in order to access Dream and smiled, their work happily done. They returned to Whateley, carnage left in their wake.

The Leader of Tong of the Black Madonna was angered at the destruction of things and people. They hadn’t yet finished the slaughter of the thirty-three women for this cycle. The chanters had fallen as if their strings had been cut and their Ladies servants had vanished like candle flames in a storm. He had no idea what had happened. Something had to have attacked them, but what?

The spell had been working and the leader still held out hope that it would throw the cursed Handmaid into the world of Nightmares forever. If it did, they would win again. And the disruption of the Handmaid would again fade into history.

To be continued…